House of Commons
Wednesday 14 October 2009
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before questions
City of Westminster Bill [Lords]
That so much of the Lords Message [12 October] as relates to the City of Westminster Bill [Lords] be now considered.
That this House concurs with the Lords in their Resolution.—(The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)
To be considered on Tuesday 20 October.
Oral Answers to Questions
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.
Afghanistan and Pakistan
May I ask Members who are leaving the Chamber please to do so quickly and quietly so that we can hear the Prime Minister’s statement and Members may have the chance to question him on it?
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on Afghanistan and Pakistan: first, on our work with the Government of Pakistan to counter the terrorist threat from al-Qaeda and the Taliban; secondly, on our priorities for Afghanistan in the next stage of the work our armed forces and civilians are undertaking there; and thirdly, on the conditions we are setting down for the next stage, including for the best possible protection of our troops, especially against—as I mentioned earlier—the growing threat of improvised explosive devices.
Earlier this afternoon we honoured those who have died serving our country in Afghanistan. Today, I also want to honour and thank all those who serve and have served there. Each time I visit them, as I did a few weeks ago, I find myself in awe of the immense skill, courage and sacrifice of our forces. It is right that we put on record in this House, and for times to come, our gratitude for the immeasurable contribution by all our armed forces to our security.
We should also pay tribute to the service and sacrifice of our allies in the 42-country coalition, including that of the 873 American soldiers who have been killed in the last few months, and of two of our closest partners in central Helmand—the Danes and Estonians—who have disproportionately suffered among the largest losses of all.
Every time I read to this House the names of those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan, every time I write a letter of condolence to their families and every time I meet the wounded at Selly Oak, I ask myself the question that has been asked already today—whether we can justify sending our young men and women to join our allies to fight on the other side of the world. I have to conclude that, when the safety of our country is at stake, we cannot and will not walk away; that three-quarters of the most serious terror plots against the UK have roots in the border and mountain areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan; that, as our security services report directly to me, while the sustained pressure on al-Qaeda in Pakistan combined with military action in Afghanistan is having a suppressive effect on al-Qaeda, the main element of the threat to Britain still emanates from al-Qaeda and Pakistan; and that a peaceful and stable Afghanistan would be a strategic failure for al-Qaeda.
Our objective is clear and focused—to prevent al-Qaeda launching attacks on our streets and threatening legitimate government in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But if we limit ourselves simply to targeting al-Qaeda, without building the capacity of Afghanistan and Pakistan to deal with terrorism and violent extremism, the security gains will not endure. So over the last two years we have sought to build and support the Afghan army and police and to work with the Pakistan security forces. Our strategy is dedicated to counter-insurgency and what we have called “Afghanisation”. This guiding purpose, reinforced in our strategy and in the NATO strategy in April, is at the heart of the announcements I am making today.
First, there is our work with Pakistan against terrorism and extremism. As a result of the meeting of the Friends of Democratic Pakistan, which I chaired in New York on 24 September together with President Obama and President Zardari, there is now a clear plan for stabilisation and a policy that will assist the reconstruction of those areas of Pakistan where there has been military action recently. We welcomed the recent success of the Pakistan Government who decided to take action against the Pakistan Taliban in Swat, Dir and Buner. The support of the opposition demonstrates that a wide cross- section of Pakistan society now accepts that terrorism poses a threat as serious to Pakistan as to the rest of the world. It is vital that basic services and economic assistance be provided in the liberated areas of Pakistan as soon as security conditions allow. The Secretary of State for International Development is therefore today announcing a further British contribution of £10 million, in addition to the £22 million that we have already provided for humanitarian assistance in those areas.
Secondly, in Afghanistan we will now move further and faster to implement our strategy, which starts with training, mentoring and partnering the Afghan army and police. The more that the Afghans can take responsibility for security, the less our coalition forces will be needed in the long term—and the sooner our troops will come home.
In recent weeks, I have discussed this approach with President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, NATO Secretary-General Rasmussen, and I have met Admiral Mullen, the US chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and Generals Petraeus and McChrystal, as well as our own military commanders here and on the ground. Britain supports General McChrystal’s ambition to accelerate the growth of the Afghan security forces—an ambition that lies at the heart of his report—with the Afghan army building to 134,000 within a year; that is, by next October.
The Afghans are committed to the recruitment of 5,000 soldiers a month from next spring; the new NATO training mission, established at Strasbourg, expects to help train 40,000 Afghan soldiers in 2010. Britain is setting up a new training centre that will train about 900 junior officers and non-commissioned officers each month. In Helmand, last year there were only 4,200 Afghan soldiers; this year there are an extra 50 per cent.—more than 6,000—and at our request the Afghan Government undertook to send more units to support Operation Panther’s Claw. Although those units arrived, they were below strength and not yet fully ready for the task. In a province that faces 30 per cent. of the violence in the country, we need more and better Afghan participation—and we need it from now.
That is why I can announce that the Afghans will set up a corps headquarters in Helmand and that British forces will be ready to partner 5,000 of the 10,000 Afghan troops whom the coalition will be training in Helmand over the next few months, not just embedding mentors with Afghan units, as we have done in the past, but working integrally right up to the top of the command chain. In future operations, the protection of populated areas must be the shared responsibility of Afghan and coalition forces. This will be central to the new benchmarks and timelines that we, and General McChrystal, will set out as part of a new framework for the transition to Afghan authority. That will involve Afghan forces taking responsibility for the security of the Afghan people, and doing so area by area.
As 19 Light Brigade completes its tour of duty, I know that the whole House will join me in thanking Brigadier Tim Radford, and the men and women whom he leads, for their service throughout this hard-fought summer, and in sending our best wishes to 11 Light Brigade, which is replacing them. That brigade will deploy with further enhancements to deal with the deadly threat from explosive devices—including more specialist troops and more equipment—to protect our forces, to find and defuse the improvised explosive devices and to identify and target the networks that build and set them.
It should be noted that 19 Light Brigade was able to prevent 1,200 explosive devices from being detonated. It will pass on that experience of success to its successors, together with the equipment enhancements that I announced on my recent visit, and which will come on stream later this month and next to help them. That includes increased flying hours for unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance—a 33 per cent. increase for Hermes, 50 per cent. for Desert Hawk and next year 80 per cent. for Reaper. It also includes an extra £20 million committed to a fourfold increase in the total number of Mastiff and Ridgback mine-protected vehicles since April, and the first Merlin helicopters to be deployed in Helmand in two weeks.
That is highly specialised equipment that must be manufactured, delivered and adapted, and personnel must be trained to operate it before it can be put into action. However, no one should doubt our commitment to responding as fast as we possibly can to this new and deadly threat from the Taliban, and nor should they doubt the scale of our financial commitment to our soldiers and to this campaign. Since 2006-07, we have increased annual military spending on the Afghan operation—spending from the Treasury reserve, in addition to the defence budget—from £700 million to £1.5 billion to £2.6 billion, and now to more than £3.5 billion this year. We are determined to provide our forces with the resources that they need to keep them safe, and to make the right decisions about equipment and troop deployments as part of our wider strategy.
To meet the changing demands of the campaign, which require greater concentration of our forces in central Helmand, we have confirmed the decision that we made in the National Security Committee in the summer: that one of the British units—the regional battle group for southern Afghanistan—will be redeployed to Helmand with immediate effect. To support our plan and to train more Afghan soldiers and police, while maintaining the security of our forces, I have agreed in principle a new force level subject to the following conditions.
The first is that a new Afghan Government demonstrate their commitment to bring forward the Afghan troops to be trained and to fight alongside our forces. I talked yesterday to President Karzai and Dr. Abdullah and received assurances that it is their determination that this will happen. The second condition is that, as before, every soldier and unit deployed to Afghanistan is and must be fully equipped for the operations that they are asked to undertake. The third condition is that our commitment be part of an agreed approach across the international coalition, with all countries bearing their fair share.
The combination of force levels, equipment levels and tasks that I am setting out today follows the clear military advice from our chiefs of staff and our commanders on the ground on implementing our strategy and reducing the risk to our forces. It is on that basis that I have agreed in principle to a new British force level of 9,500, which will be put into effect once those conditions are met.
As I have said, we do not yet know the results of the first round of the Afghan elections. But although they were the first ever elections run by the Afghans themselves and took place against the backdrop of a serious insurgency, we cannot be anything other than dissatisfied with the intimidation and corruption that has been exposed by Afghan and international observers. The Electoral Complaints Commission has set out a process of investigation, including the disqualification of fraudulent votes, and this process must be allowed to run its course.
When I spoke to President Obama last week, we agreed that when a new Government are formed, the international community, including Afghanistan’s neighbours, must develop a contract with the new Government that includes the commitment to growing the Afghan army; tough action on corruption; a more inclusive political process, including reaching out to the reconcilable elements of the insurgency; and stronger Afghan control of local affairs. Those are the necessary changes that I discussed with President Karzai and Dr. Abdullah yesterday, for without those changes the efforts of our military will be hampered and the new Afghan Government will not gain the trust of the Afghan people.
A better future for Afghanistan, with its village and rural population, can only be forged if there is stronger governance right down to district level. Last year we doubled the number of advisers we put in for civilian help, and now our joint civilian-military teams—the first in Afghanistan—are supporting not just Governor Mangal, but district governors and village shuras. During the past year, four new district governors have been appointed in Helmand. The Afghan Government are now functioning in nine out of their 13 districts, compared with five last year, and we are supporting community councils to consult thousands of local people.
To ensure that this work has immediate backing, we have announced an extra £20 million for the stabilisation work in Helmand—money that is already being disbursed—to increase the number of Afghan national police in Helmand by 1,000 a year for each of the next three years and to build a new police training academy and new facilities for district governors. We are also working with coalition partners to extend such support to the 34 provincial governors and 400 district governors right across Afghanistan.
British aid will therefore continue to help to pay the salaries of teachers and doctors, but we are also ready to fund and partner the first Afghan teams sent for stability purposes from Kabul to work alongside us in Helmand. We want to reinforce the hard-won gains of our forces in this hardest of summers while fostering greater Afghan responsibility for their own affairs.
We will have prevailed in Afghanistan when our troops come home because the Afghans have not only the will to fight, but the ability to take control of their own affairs. The right strategy is one that finishes the job, giving Afghans the tools to take over themselves. A safer Afghanistan is a safer Britain. A stronger Pakistan is also a safer Britain. We must never again let the territory of this region or any region become a base for terror on the underground or in the streets, cities and airports of Britain. We must not permit it and we will not permit it. We have the right strategy and we will see it through. I commend this strategy to the House.
We have long called for regular reports to Parliament on Afghanistan and Pakistan, so we very much welcome this statement. I would like to ask the Prime Minister about three areas: first, Britain’s input into the US strategic review; secondly, the equipment for our troops; and thirdly, the military’s request for extra troops.
On our overall strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and President Obama’s review, the Prime Minister said that he supports General McChrystal’s ambition, but can he tell us whether he basically agrees with General McChrystal that we need a proper, fully fledged counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan? The Prime Minister rightly says that our military effort should increasingly be geared to training the Afghan national army. We agree with that and support it, and we welcome the extra Afghan troops who will be in Helmand, but does he agree that in order for this to work, the Afghan national army needs to be more representative of the country as a whole? Can he tell us what progress is being made on that vital front?
As the Prime Minister said, the recent elections were widely seen as flawed and corrupt. If reruns of contests are not possible, does he agree that the clearest possible message should be sent to President Karzai that when British soldiers are fighting and dying for his country, the corruption and ineffectiveness of his Government are completely unacceptable?
On the Taliban, do we not need to get much smarter at distinguishing between individuals who pose a real long-term threat to the security of the UK and its allies, and those who do not? Does the Prime Minister agree that, while we should not be negotiating with the leadership of the Taliban, we should be breaking up the movement, separating out those who are more motivated by money or other factors rather than by ideological commitment? Can he tell us a bit more about what progress is being made on this front?
As the Prime Minister has rightly said, security in Pakistan has a direct link to security here in the UK. While the success in the Swat valley of which he spoke is welcome, the recent siege at the army HQ in Rawalpindi—just a few miles from the Pakistan capital—was deeply disturbing. Will he tell us what the British Government are doing to increase the Pakistan Government’s ability and capacity to deal with the rise of extremism? Will he address specifically the question of what he thinks is now being done, if anything, to shut down the Quetta shura?
The Prime Minister has said that the deployment of extra troops is conditional on the military assuring him that they have the necessary equipment and training, but will not people think that it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that they have the necessary equipment? Will people not also ask why, after eight years, we are still playing catch-up on equipment? As we have said repeatedly, helicopters are crucial. Will he tell us what progress has been made on getting more Chinooks to theatre? He said in his statement that the “first Merlin helicopters” will be deployed in the next two weeks. Can he assure the House that all six Merlins from Iraq will be in Afghanistan by the end of the year, as he promised? We welcome the delivery of the new Ridgback and Mastiff armoured vehicles, but, according to yesterday’s Public Accounts Committee report, only one in five of the Mastiff fleet were classified as fit in June 2008. Will he tell us whether that completely unacceptable position has now improved?
The Prime Minister tells us that the troops going to Afghanistan will be properly trained and equipped, yet today we see that training for the Territorial Army, including some who are going to Afghanistan, has been cut. Will people not conclude from that that he is not fully on top of what is happening in his own Government? On the additional 500 troops that he has announced, can he confirm that that is what the military have actually asked for? Vitally, will he also make it clear that the troops announced today are new, additional soldiers, not troops who are already there and who have had their stay extended?
I want to return, if I may, to what the Prime Minister said to me when I asked about the military’s request for extra troops in the summer. On 13 July, in the House, I asked him specifically whether commanders had asked for more troops to do more things and whether he had been asked for 2,000 more troops. He replied:
“I have been reassured by commanders on the ground and at the top of the armed services that we have the manpower that we need for the current operations.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 26.]
Yet we now know that the military did ask for 2,000 more troops in March this year. Will he tell us why that option was rejected? Will he also explain why he gave such an evasive answer on such an important issue as troop numbers? Does he not understand that we are only going to carry the public’s confidence if we are straight with them about the choices that we face?
Finally, let me ask about what is being done to put our entire effort in Afghanistan on to a proper war footing in Whitehall. We need a clear sense of direction from Ministers, a clear sense of who is in day-to-day charge, and a Government machine that responds quickly and decisively. Will the Prime Minister tell us today what he is doing to make that happen? Let me be clear: we support the mission in Afghanistan, provided that we are realistic about what we are aiming to achieve. To us, the overriding aim must be to train the Afghan forces so that they can take responsibility for their own security and our soldiers can come back home.
I will answer every specific point that the right hon. Gentleman has raised, but I want to stress that the decisions that we are announcing today have been made after the fullest possible consultation with our American allies, with the Secretary-General of NATO, with our own military commanders on the ground and with the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Chief of the General Staff. I have regularly met them over the past few weeks to deal with these issues.
The right hon. Gentleman should also be aware that the National Security Committee has been meeting every week throughout the summer to review events and dispensations. That committee has the advantage of being a committee not simply of Ministers such as the Foreign Secretary, the International Development Secretary, the Defence Secretary, myself and others; its membership also includes the commanders themselves, our security services and those people who can advise us on the issues on the ground. On some occasions, we have had a regular input from our ambassador in Kabul. It is completely not the case that these matters are not being properly co-ordinated at the centre of Government by a National Security Committee with the advice of our commanders at all times and with regular meetings and discussions with our allies.
Let me deal first with the right hon. Gentleman’s question about Pakistan. He is absolutely right to say that there are risks in Pakistan, as the Pakistan Taliban in particular are engaged in activities against the Pakistan Government. He should also note, however, that in the past few months in Pakistan we have seen the most encouraging coalition of forces: the Opposition parties as well as the Government, and the security services as well as the army, are determined to take on the Pakistan Taliban in those areas where they have a foothold. They are taking the fight to them, removing them from the territory and doing an incredible amount of work to ensure that displaced people can get back into their own areas.
This was reflected in the Friends of Democratic Pakistan meeting that we held at the United Nations. That meeting involved not just ourselves and America; there was representation from all the major countries in Europe and elsewhere wanting to support the efforts of the Pakistan Government to deal with the problem that they face. I have had assurance from President Zardari—we know that there have been discussions because the Defence Secretary and the Home Secretary were in Pakistan very recently; the Foreign Secretary is also in direct touch—that the Pakistan Government plan to take their campaign from the Swat valley into Waziristan at some point. They are planning how to deal with not only the Pakistan Taliban but the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda itself. It was encouraging, having defined the problem as one that covers the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, that while we had hoped for years that the Pakistan authorities would take action, they are now doing so. As the Leader of the Opposition said, they recognise that the terror threat is very close to home for them.
On Afghanistan, I was asked about General McChrystal’s report and about a number of issues relating to equipment. I want to ensure that people understand the process of consultation that we have gone through, and the logic of the decisions that we have made. The basic elements of General McChrystal’s report relating to the principles of future operations involve a move from counter-terrorism to counter-insurgency, and a move from an emphasis on holding areas to being with the largest areas of population and winning hearts and minds. The aim is therefore not simply to eliminate the Taliban but to win the support of the Afghan people. It is for that reason that the general is proposing—rightly so; we ourselves proposed this some months ago—that the partnering and mentoring of the Afghan forces to build up the Afghan army and security forces are absolutely central to everything we do.
When we went in on Operation Panther’s Claw, we wanted the Afghan forces to hold the ground. They came, but they were not strong enough or well equipped enough to do so. We need an Afghan army that is properly strengthened and properly equipped. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, that means getting a balanced army across the country as well as getting troops to come from other parts of the country to Helmand, where 30 per cent. of the violence takes place. Our aim is to move from an Afghan army of 90,000 to one of 134,000, and to train the troops but also to have them in action with our own troops right up to headquarters level. We believe that, in the next year, that extra 50,000 or so troops can be achieved through a recruitment rate of 5,000 a month and through those troops being sent into Helmand.
The integration of people who are part of the Taliban or the insurgency and who could be persuaded to come over is a central element of the work that we are doing. The Foreign Secretary emphasised that in a speech only a few weeks ago. The importance of it has led General Lamb, who acted with great distinction in Iraq, to go to work with General McChrystal on the very process of reintegration and splitting the Taliban.
There are Pashtun nationalists, people hired for a dollar or two a day, young people who want to assert their independence, and Taliban and al-Qaeda ideologues. We have got to separate the people who worry that they are hit with an occupying army from those who simply want al-Qaeda or the Taliban to regain control of Afghanistan and practise terrorism from that country. I believe that all parties share our determination on political reconciliation, but it is important to note it.
Let me answer the questions on equipment. There will be two Merlin helicopters there very soon and our plan is get six there as soon as possible. The problem has been that we have to re-blade the helicopters from their work in Iraq; then the pilots have to be trained for the difficult and different terrain of Afghanistan. That work is going on; I have seen it at first hand when I have visited the RAF base in which it is being done. I was also asked whether we would have other helicopters. Chinooks will be going there next year; Lynx has been remodelled for high intensity and very hot atmospheres, and they are going there from next summer. With Mastiff and Ridgback, I think I am right in saying that 500 vehicles have been sent to Afghanistan in the last period of time. The equipment for Mastiff and Ridgback is now second to none. Of course we want to get more there as soon as possible, and we are making that happen.
I have already said that I will investigate what the Leader of the Opposition said about the Territorial Army, but I emphasise to him that the Territorial Army is part of our mission in Afghanistan. Anybody who goes to Afghanistan has the assurance that we will do everything in our power to make sure that they are fully equipped for the tasks that they undertake.
I was asked about the numbers of troops in Afghanistan and the issues that arose. A number of options were before us earlier this year for different kinds of operations that we might mount in Afghanistan. We took the necessary decision to send more engineers to Afghanistan to protect ourselves against the IED threat. A range of options were discussed and we decided to raise the number of troops from 8,100 to 9,000 until we could see what was happening with the American review of strategy and also what happened during the election campaign. We raised the number from 8,100 to 9,000, and we are now making a decision to raise the number again from 9,000 to 9,500. We are redeploying the regional battle group to central Helmand, because that is the best use of it as we try to undertake the task of protecting our forces while at the same time conducting our Afghan support exercise for Afghan troops. The decisions taken have been agreed by all our military advisers as the right decisions to take for the future.
The reason for imposing conditions is obvious. We cannot train the Afghan forces without the Afghan Government making those forces available to be trained. We want to go in harmony with the American decisions that General McChrystal and the President are discussing. I believe that what we are saying today is consistent with what the Americans will decide.
Of course, we want to be absolutely sure that the troops we send are properly and fully equipped for the future. In other words, whenever there has been a need for us to protect our troops and to move forward the campaign, which is now about Afghans taking more responsibility, we have been prepared to send the troops, to make the investment, to provide the finance and to support the troops on the ground. I hope that the Conservative party will be able to maintain what has been a consistent bipartisan approach to a necessary exercise in Afghanistan, and that we can proceed on the basis that there is support in all quarters of the House for the activities that we are undertaking.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement, quite a lot of which I welcome. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches have argued that we cannot fight and succeed in this war on half horsepower, with half measures, with half-baked thinking. Time is running out for the mission in Afghanistan and we need a radical change in direction.
The Prime Minister set out today a number of conditions on which the deployment of extra British troops will depend, but does he agree that, ultimately, the key condition is that they should have a realistic chance of success, which requires above all a credible new strategy? The public are rightly cautious about a drip, drip accumulation of British forces in Afghanistan without any overarching strategy to work from or realistic goals to work towards. More troops may be necessary, but they will not be sufficient to guarantee success.
I welcome what the Prime Minister said today about new Merlin helicopters and more Mastiff and Ridgback vehicles, although we need more detail on when they will be available on the ground and on whether the poorly armed Snatch Land Rovers have now been withdrawn from service as the Government promised in the past. Does the Prime Minister not agree with General McChrystal’s conclusion that focusing just on force or resource requirements misses the point entirely and that there is more to this than just boots and equipment on the ground? Does he not agree that the key and central failure in Afghanistan is the lack, still today, of a co-ordinated international plan? What is the Prime Minister doing to advance a political surge to run alongside any new military surge?
As Secretary of State Clinton said this week, not everyone who calls himself a Taliban is necessarily a threat to the United Kingdom or the United States. I welcome what the Prime Minister said a few minutes ago on that issue, but can he be more precise? I see the Prime Minister is smiling, but can he address the point? What programmes, what budgets and what staff have been allocated to the fairly serious job of reconciliation and grass-roots diplomacy in Afghanistan? Beyond the borders of Afghanistan, what progress has been made to bring other countries in the region together, to share intelligence on the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and to tackle the opium trade?
On military strategy, General McChrystal has highlighted the need to defend urban centres. Does the Prime Minister concede that it is now better to focus our forces on defending the more populated areas rather than operating from remote outposts in a Taliban-dominated countryside in Helmand?
Finally, the Karzai Government have spectacularly failed to win the trust of the Afghan people. They are beset by corruption, crime and the influence of warlords. The Prime Minister talked in his statement about the need for a more inclusive political process, but let me press him again on the issue that I raised with him earlier. Does he agree that, regardless of electoral outcomes, only a full Government of national unity can now deliver a platform for progress in Afghanistan?
The right hon. Gentleman’s first remarks were that we did not have a strategy for Afghanistan and that we needed to think it through. His second set of remarks, however, revealed that he has not understood that our strategy is to give Afghans more responsibility for their own affairs, to train up the Afghan army and military, to train up the security forces and police, and to make sure that civilian government in Afghanistan is more effectively done. That is why I will have to correct the right hon. Gentleman when it comes to some of his proposals.
Yes, General Lamb is working on how he can help to reintegrate into civilian society people who desert the Taliban, but in the end it has to be a process of the Afghans themselves coming together and working together for the future. Equally, as far as a Government of national unity is concerned, it is not for us to prescribe what the Government should be. That is for the electorate, and for their verdict to be taken into account by President Karzai, Dr. Abdullah and all the other people involved. If a re-run or second round of the election is necessary, that may have to happen. We have to accept that that is in the hands of the electoral commission, which will make recommendations after it has looked at spoiled and fraudulent ballots.
Our strategy in Afghanistan is to build up the army from 90,000 to 134,000 as quickly as possible; to build up the police from about 98,000 to about 150,000; to build up the civilian shuras and the district and provincial government in Afghanistan to make it more effective; and to be in a position to hand control of Afghanistan, area by area, back to the Afghan people. That seems to me to be the most sensible policy.
As far as vehicles are concerned, there has been a sea change in the way we have brought in Mastiffs and Ridgbacks. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there is an issue about small vehicles, and we are looking at that at the moment. I suspect that he will hear from the troops on the ground that, although the IED threat is real, the vehicles brought in during recent months are by far the best they have ever had and the best in the world. We will do everything that we can to ensure that there are better vehicles in the future.
As for President Karzai and governance, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. We cannot tolerate a situation in which we have British forces, indeed allied forces, in Afghanistan, and a Government who are tolerating corruption. That is why President Obama, I and others will propose to whoever takes over the government of Afghanistan that there must be a contract that is monitored to deal specifically with corruption, to deal with the appointment of governors in a fair way so that we can deal with corruption in the provinces, to deal with the training of Afghan forces for the future, and to deal with something which, although I was not able to talk about it today, is absolutely important to the Afghan people: to create a climate for economic activity which involves wheat rather than heroin, and in which small businesses can develop and Afghan people can have a stake in the future of their country. That is the way forward, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will find a way in which to support it.
Order. I want to accommodate as many as possible of the more than 30 Members who are seeking to catch my eye, so I am looking for single, short supplementary questions and, of course, economical replies.
On Saturday 24 October, thousands of people will march through London calling for British troops to come out of Afghanistan, and they will represent the views of millions of people in this country. Does the Prime Minister not realise that this is a war that does not enjoy popular support? It has gone on for eight years, it has cost too many lives, and it has no end in sight. Can the Prime Minister produce a strategy to end it, and not to continue the occupation?
I must tell my hon. Friend that our strategy is to create a situation in which British troops can start coming home, which means strengthening the Afghan forces to enable them to do this job.
I think that my hon. Friend should remember the circumstances in which we went into Afghanistan in the first place. Forty countries are with us in a 41-nation coalition, and every other country that has been involved in Afghanistan has put troops, equipment or civilian staff into it. It is important to recognise that there is widespread support for this operation across and beyond NATO. I think that before people consider their final view on Afghanistan, they should look at the strategy that we are actually proposing: a strategy that gives Afghans more control of their army and police forces to enable our troops to come home over a period of time.
We have still not been given a proper answer on the request for 2,000 extra troops, so I will not bother to ask about that.
One of the key aspects of bringing security to the Afghan people is the training of police who are free from corruption. In Iraq we found that it was of great assistance if the Iraqi army mentored the Iraqi police. Will a similar approach be adopted in Afghanistan?
That is one of the approaches that we are considering. The European Union responsibility for the training of police forces has been with Germany, and it has done a great deal, but more must be done. It is possible to envisage circumstances in which the army will help with the training of police forces, and it is possible that there will be more civilians training them as well. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we cannot just talk about training the army. As I said, General McChrystal recommended a build-up of the police forces from 98,000 to 150,000. That is a big increase, but those forces must be in the right places, they must of course be paid—that is one of the problems that we have experienced before—and they must be free of corruption. That is an order that the Afghan Government must accept.
The whole House will be greatly reassured by what my right hon. Friend has said about the need to reconcile and reintegrate many of those who are loosely called Taliban, but who are certainly not under the direction of the three main insurgencies. He will be aware that in Iraq, 100,000 Sunnis were signed up, reintegrated and paid by the Americans to join the Iraqi national army in a matter of three weeks. A way ahead like that would be possible, but does my right hon. Friend not see that President Karzai is an obstacle? He is widely implicated in the fraud that took place in the election, and in the corruption that extends throughout the country. Can my right hon. Friend not think of ways of ensuring that Dr. Abdullah is much more closely involved in the execution and administration of politics in the country?
I have talked to both President Karzai and Dr. Abdullah about how, whatever happens about the election, they can work more closely together and ensure that there is some common purpose, but that is a decision for them to make after they have seen the findings of the independent electoral commission.
I agree with my hon. Friend that unless corruption is dealt with, the reputation of Afghanistan and the trust that people will have in its Government will be severely limited. I also agree with him that reintegration must be a central element of what we do. A large number of people would be prepared to leave the province of the Taliban. We must have a strategy for that, not just at national level but at local level, and that is exactly what we are working on now.
While it is unlikely that the Taliban can be eliminated, even with increased NATO troops, is it not equally true that it is impossible for the Taliban to conquer Afghanistan relying, as they do, on roadside bombs and suicide bombers? Does that not point to the need to convince the Taliban that NATO will stay there for as long as necessary? That means that even if we are able gradually to withdraw our ground forces, we must give a commitment to long-term NATO air support working with the enlarged Afghan Government.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has made an important point. In hand-to-hand, one-to-one fighting, the Taliban have lost. That is why they have changed their tactics, and why their tactics are now essentially those of guerrilla warfare. That is why they are laying devices to kill or maim our soldiers, and why 80 per cent. of deaths—not just British fatalities, but fatalities across Afghanistan—arise from the use of IEDs.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right to suggest that the Taliban cannot win a conventional war, but can only disrupt our attempt to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. He is also absolutely right to say that we must think ahead. We must send a message to the Taliban that we are not going to walk away, and that—as he rightly suggests—NATO will stay the course. At the same time, however, we must be prepared to integrate those elements of the insurgency who are not among the Taliban ideologues into the framework of a civilian society that can develop in the future.
In July, when I last visited Afghanistan, I saw for myself not only the tremendous job that our armed forces are doing there, but the growing use of the Afghan national army in front-line operations. However, I am less clear about how the Afghan Government are being encouraged to take responsibility for the overall security situation. Will the Prime Minister say something more about what action he is taking in that regard?
The Afghan security services have already taken responsibility in some areas of Afghanistan, but it has become absolutely clear that they must be better trained, better equipped, and better able to deal with both military and civilian tasks. That will involve not just the army but the police. Training and partnering must develop apace. Training and mentoring will mean, in some cases, embedding British forces with the Afghan forces, but what is currently being proposed is that similar units of Afghan and British forces should work together with a joint command. That would make the training of Afghan forces more rapid, and give them experience of what is happening on the ground more quickly.
As I have said, it is incredibly important that if we take and hold ground, that is done not only by British forces but by Afghan forces, so that Afghanistan’s own forces are holding ground against the Taliban for the future. That is why the strategy of partnering is so important to the next stage.
After eight years, what confidence can we have that the strategy announced by the Prime Minister today has a better chance of success than the strategies previously announced by this Government?
We have been proposing something similar for the last 18 months. I think people have recognised that unless there is a strategy allowing Afghan people to take more responsibility for their own affairs, we cannot see a way through this that does not involve British or other troops being there for many, many years. The importance of what we are saying today lies in the fact that it is supported by NATO itself, and is very much in tune with what General McChrystal is saying. He has reconsidered the American strategy. As he says, he is moving from counter-terrorism to counter-insurgency: he is concentrating on people and winning their support, rather than concentrating on areas and eliminating Taliban military. At the same time, he is completely signed up to the idea that we must train and partner the Afghan forces.
I believe that that is the right strategy, because it gives us a way forward. It moves from the status quo in a way that shows that if the Afghans can take responsibility for their own affairs more quickly, we can bring our troops home more quickly.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the threat posed by al-Qaeda applies to all NATO member countries? Will he join me in urging some of our more reticent European allies to contribute on the same brave and dangerous level as the British armed forces?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there must be burden-sharing. Before the elections, I and others persuaded some other European countries to contribute more, and there was a greater contribution from other countries in the run-up to the elections. It is now for all of us—once the strategy is set out by President Obama and then by NATO itself; and there is a meeting taking place in the next few days to do that—to persuade other countries that this is the right way forward for them. Some countries will find it better that they are training Afghan forces and not engaged in military action on the ground; some will be prepared to contribute more money rather than more helicopters; some may be prepared to contribute equipment rather than staff on the ground—but everyone must accept that if they are part of the coalition they have got to share the burden.
As I am a member of the Territorial Army who has served in Afghanistan, the Prime Minister will understand my particular interest, and it is worth remembering that a large percentage of our forces in Afghanistan are members of the reserve. Indeed, as one of the EOD—explosive ordnance disposal—trained engineers to which the Prime Minister referred, it is likely that I may have to go there again, perhaps even sooner than I think after this question. This week, however, I was told that I may not be able to train again until next April. How can that be right and, more importantly, what sort of message does that send to the members of the reserve forces whom the Prime Minister claims to value so much?
I will look in detail at the individual cases that are raised but, as I have said, our focus is on Afghanistan at present, and those people who are likely to go to Afghanistan will get the training that is necessary.
I am interested in the new timelines that the Prime Minister mentioned in his statement. What will happen in 2011 when Canada withdraws its combat forces from Kandahar, which is next door to Helmand province? Will we be expected to move in there, or will the Afghan army be expected to step up to the plate? What is going to happen in 2011?
It is not the assumption that we will move in. Yes, there will be greater presence from the Afghan army, because its numbers will have grown by about 50,000 over the next period of time. We are also awaiting an announcement from the Americans on what they will be doing. Some of their troops who they announced in the previous round are yet to arrive in Afghanistan. Therefore, I think that quite a few changes will be taking place as a result of announcements from different countries.
The Prime Minister is right to emphasise the role of the Afghan security services, but Afghanistan is bigger, more complex and presents a more difficult problem than Iraq, and as Iraq’s indigenous security forces number 600,000, how does the Prime Minister imagine we can succeed in Afghanistan with less than half that number?
First, Afghanistan is very different from Iraq. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman should accept that the figures I have given for the army are the increase in numbers over the next year—from 90,000 to 134,000. That is not necessarily the limit on the numbers that will be placed in the Afghan army or the limit of our ability to train members of the Afghan army. I have already given a figure on the rising numbers of police who will be trained for the future. As we know, in the end, Afghan civil society at the local level must operate as well, and where it does operate successfully—perhaps through tribal chiefs, the shuras that have been developed, or the community councils that have been created—that can make a huge difference. We are dealing with a different country and different conditions, but the limits I have referred to on the training of the army for the next year are not the limits on the army for the future.
I ask the Prime Minister to maintain a close interest in the poppy cultivation problem. Such cultivation funds the insurgency, and the heroin produced wreaks havoc on the streets of our country. What progress is being made in reducing the amount of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan?
The International Development Secretary will be able to write to my hon. Friend in detail about the success of Governor Mangal’s programme in Helmand, where in order to replace poppy cultivation we encouraged the growing of wheat. Partly because the wheat price has been high over the past few months, that has been very successful in moving thousands of farmers from poppy cultivation to wheat farming. We will be extending the programme over the course of the next year. That is one way in which we are reducing the dependence on poppy cultivation in Helmand. We realise that that is a continuing challenge, however.
I should also say that there is considerable evidence the people who are involved in the industry of growing heroin are also those involved in placing IEDs, which have caused so much havoc among our troops, and a lot of our surveillance work is now related to tracking those people. One of my announcements today was the increased surveillance that will take place in Afghanistan of those who are trying mainly by night but also by day to plant IEDs.
Even allowing for the considerable and remarkable expertise of British troops in training the Afghans, at which they have been very successful, the timelines outlined in the Prime Minister’s statement will be extremely tight. Given the further advice that he received earlier in the year from the chiefs, is he satisfied that there are within 11 Light Brigade enough British soldiers to hold, clear and build on that ground until there are sufficient Afghan soldiers to take the strain?
I agree that one of the big questions is how we can train Afghan forces at a far more rapid rate than before. At present, we are seeing recruitment of Afghan forces at a rate of 2,000 a month. That will rise to about 5,000 a month. Of course, not every one of them will go on to get full training or even turn up, so we are talking about an estimated increase of 4,000 a month over the next year. I have talked to General McChrystal about this, and we have talked to the American authorities as well as to NATO, and it seems to be a practical proposition. Steps are being put in place for it to happen. Karzai is sure that he can provide the numbers of those who will be prepared to be recruited to the armed forces. That is the first stage; if we are to go in to train, we must have the Afghan forces with whom to do so.
On numbers, I want to make sure that the House understands what I said earlier. I said that we discussed a number of options earlier this year. None of them included raising the number of forces by 2,000. We discussed several options. We decided to raise the numbers to 9,000. We decided we would review that after the elections had taken place because a lot rested on security related to the conduct of the elections. We have now conducted that review, and we have been in touch with the Americans, and by agreement with our commanders on the ground and the Chief of the Defence Staff, the Chief of the General Staff and others who have been involved—I met all the chiefs yesterday for breakfast—we have decided on the increase to 9,500 subject to the conditions I set out. I hope people will understand that at all times we have acted in good faith.
First, may I associate myself with the respect paid by the Prime Minister to all those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan and all who have loved them?
The Prime Minister’s statement puts considerable emphasis on growing the capacity of the Afghan army. Does he recognise some future danger in building an ever stronger army if at the same time we indulge a systemically weak and corrupt Government? Does the history of Pakistan not point out the danger of such an equation, and what is being done to mitigate these risks?
The hon. Gentleman makes the very important point that if we are to have Afghan responsibility for Afghan affairs, we need both local and national Government who work effectively. I would perhaps put more emphasis than the hon. Gentleman on local government being effective. For most people in Afghanistan the hold of central Government is very weak indeed. However, I agree that President Karzai and those who will hold authority in Afghanistan after the elections—whoever they are—must take responsibility for making sure that we have corrupt-free government across the country. A lot is related to the heroin trade, as has been said, but there is a responsibility on those who rule Afghanistan to make sure that the confidence we have placed in them by sending troops to deal with the problems is repaid by their cleansing the Government of corrupt activities. That will be part of the contract with any future Government in Afghanistan.
The Prime Minister’s statement was silent on the continued abject failure of the major European NATO countries to provide troops on the ground in Helmand province. In respect of his comments on hearts and minds, may I suggest that his Government take some leadership? Over the summer his Ministers have told me:
“No steps have…been taken by UK Trade and Investment to encourage the export of goods from Afghanistan”
“No locally produced food has been procured for British troops in Helmand Province by the MOD Food Supply Contractor.”—[Official Report, 14 September 2009; Vol. 496, c. 2188W and 2122W.]
Is there not a case for the British Government to boost the economy of Afghanistan, and in that connection may I urge his Ministers to discuss matters with UK-based charity POM354, which is doing that on the ground in Afghanistan as we speak?
There is, of course, a case for that and we would want to see it happen in the future. The hon. Gentleman has been to Camp Bastion and knows the arrangements that have to be made in an area that is otherwise barren to ensure that our troops are properly fed and equipped. He knows the airlifts that take place to make that possible. We should be proud that we have been able to supply equipment, food and everything that is necessary for our troops by ensuring that these airlifts take place. He is right that, over time, we must be able to encourage local Afghan industry too.
The Prime Minister mentioned in his statement welcome investment to ensure that the kit and the equipment to back up our brave armed forces in theatre is available. On the question of Army vehicles, he mentioned the Ridgback and the Mastiff—of course, the very successful Jackal vehicle has also been used. Can he assure me that the MOD is looking at a replacement for the Snatch vehicle that combines protection and a lower profile, so that as we move into stabilisation that kind of vehicle is available for our armed forces?
I think that my hon. Friend is talking about a vehicle that is made near or in her constituency. She is right to say that the Jackal is a very important vehicle. It is very popular with our troops and we depend upon it greatly.
May I put it to the Prime Minister that anyone who thinks that a NATO-trained Afghan army recruited from 67 mutually hostile tribes will defeat the Taliban is living in a political cloud cuckoo land?
There is a 41-nation coalition that sees its responsibility as making sure that we can deal with the terror threat of al-Qaeda and that the Afghan Taliban do not return to power in the way that they did before. I must say to the hon. Gentleman that 6 million children are at school in Afghanistan—1 million girls, who would never be at school if we left Afghanistan to the Taliban, are at school. More importantly, people in Britain are safer. Three quarters of the plots that we have discovered in Britain come from the Pakistan border area. If the Taliban and al-Qaeda are allowed to roam free there, we are at risk. Whatever difficulties he diagnoses from the history of Afghanistan—many conclusions can be drawn from its vexed history—we have a duty to protect our citizens and to ensure that we do everything in our power to build the capacity of the Afghan people to run their own affairs.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the reason for the growing opposition in Britain to the military position in Afghanistan is that people simply cannot see victory occurring, even if we were to stay there for another eight years? I, for one, am totally opposed to increasing the number of troops, and if there is an opportunity to do so, I will certainly vote against this.
I have to say to my hon. Friend that we have laid out a strategy that does not leave things as they are. It is a strategy that says that we have to train Afghan forces and that they must be in a position to take responsibility where British troops, and American and other troops, are taking responsibility now. That seems to me to be the best way forward. That training function will require us to make a contribution to it. We are prepared to make our contribution, and I believe that there will be wider support, both in this House and among the general public, than he suggests.
The Prime Minister admits that 80 per cent. of our casualties have been caused by roadside bombs. What proportion of the convoys attacked by those bombs were resupply convoys, which could and should have been transported by air but which were not because of the disgraceful shortage of air transport capacity?
I just do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s conclusion. A lot of the casualties have, unfortunately, been those people who have been on foot patrol, trying to build relationships with the Afghan people, so that we are seen not as an occupying army, but as an army that works with them. Where vehicles have been blown up we investigate what has happened, and I am happy to give him the details.
How dare we ask more British soldiers to risk their lives for a corrupt President, his depraved police and the barbaric warlords, when we have already lost more British lives than have been lost by all our European allies? Every surge of British troops in the past has resulted in a surge of targets for Taliban bombs and British deaths. Do we not need new thinking, rather than more troops putting their lives at risk in an impossible war?
We have been setting out the new thinking about Afghanisation over the past few months. I hope that my hon. Friend understands that we are doing everything in our power to counter the IED threat; we have taken very big steps to increase the surveillance and the detection, and we have had a great deal of success. As I have said, 1,500 instruments have been dismantled or discovered as a result of the work of our security services and our forces. He should understand that a great deal of progress has been made. On the regime, he is right to say that we must continue the battle against corruption, but I say to him that we are part of a 41-nation coalition. We are working with other countries, and they are suffering casualties, too. We must understand that the high rate of casualties this summer has been the result of the change in tactics by the Taliban, and that America and other countries have been as affected as we have been.
Yesterday, my son was deployed to Afghanistan for the third time. I wish to take this opportunity to say how proud I am of him and his colleagues, and of the outstanding service that they give to our country. Will the Prime Minister tell us whether he has any plans to extend the Chinook fleet, because in Afghanistan flying is safer than driving?
There are more Chinooks going to Afghanistan next year.
At a meeting of the Pakistan-India friendship forum last weekend, I was struck by the number of people whose families live in the region who expressed their concern that the Government might pull out prematurely. Will the Prime Minister give an assurance that notwithstanding the process of Afghanisation, which many people who spoke to me support, he will maintain the support for the change in governance that those families so clearly want?
We want to see that change in governance. We want to strengthen, first of all, the Pakistan Government, as they take on not only the Pakistan Taliban, but al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban in Quetta. We also, of course, want to strengthen the Government of Afghanistan to make them free of corruption. At the same time, we want them to have a security force that is equal to dealing with the problems of creating order in their own country. I assure people that that is our purpose.
Public opinion on Afghanistan is, at best, hanging by a thread, because of the anxiety about corruption, because of the ongoing concerns about the loss of military and civilian life and because the public do not know what success in Afghanistan will look like. Will the Prime Minister tell us today not a time scale, but how he will define what success in Afghanistan will look like, so that the public can measure against that and know when the troops can come home?
We can immediately measure our success in dealing with IEDs and preventing the deaths that they have been causing. We can immediately measure the number of Afghan forces that are being recruited, so that we can pursue our policy of Afghanisation. In the longer term, we want to see the Afghan forces be able to take responsibility, with the police in Afghanistan, for areas of the country, so that our troops are able, as a result, to come home.
Following that point, this year this war has cost not only 200 British lives but 1,000 Afghan lives. It has also destabilised whole areas of Pakistan, all to install a Government who are a byword for corruption. Now we are sending a further 500 British troops and putting their lives at risk. What are the specific criteria for the success of the investment of those 500 troops, because many of us fear that we will back in a few months’ time for another 500 lives to put at risk?
I have just said—I hope that I am able to emphasise this—that the reason why those troops are being put into Afghanistan, which is being done on the conditions that I have set out, is to achieve not only security for our existing forces, but the training of Afghan forces. That is why we are doing this, and that is why the policy has moved from where it was a year or two ago to emphasising the build-up of Afghan forces and of Afghan police, so that Afghans themselves are able to take responsibility for their own affairs. If we do not build up the capacity of Afghanistan to deal with its own problems, at some point either the Taliban or al-Qaeda, influencing the Taliban, will have a bigger say in the running of that country. That is something that we need to avoid.
The recruitment, training and retention of an additional 52,000 police are a challenge and will take time, but the real challenge is the creation of a genuinely national police force in Afghanistan. When we were there in July, we were told that there were problems in persuading some people to serve in different parts of the country, which led to corruption and intimidation. What moves are therefore being made to ensure that the police force in Afghanistan becomes a genuinely national one?
I have just said that there is going to be a new training academy for police. That is one of the ways in which we can improve the quality of the police. I have also been in Helmand and watched how the Afghan police have worked side by side with the Afghan army and with the British civilian and military efforts. That has been a successful operation, and by building out of these successful operations, we will get the progress that we need for the future. Yes, national police training is essential. Quality is necessary, as is a corruption-free police force, and people will have to move around the country, because the recruits come from areas that are not necessarily the areas where we need people to be placed. However, the measures that we are putting in place—including the national police training academy—are designed to achieve that.
The role of non-governmental organisations and skilled civilians from across Government Departments, working alongside the Army, is critical to a comprehensive approach to supporting and building civilian capacity. Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether UN resolution 1325, which builds on the important role of women in working to build civil capacity and towards peace, is part of our overall approach in Afghanistan?
It must be and will be. I would be happy to talk to my hon. Friend about how we want to move this forward after the end of questions.
Following that question, will the Prime Minister acknowledge that President Karzai is excluding women from his Government? In his discussions with President Karzai and Dr. Abdullah yesterday, what steps did he take to ensure that women will have a significant presence in any new Government, however it is formed, at both a national and a local level and that they will have access to secular courts of justice rather than having to rely on sharia?
I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that I have regularly spoken to President Karzai about the need to respect the rights of women in the laws that are being enunciated in Afghanistan. I have sought from him regular assurances that there will be no changes in his position. The laws that are passed in Afghanistan must avoid discrimination against women and discrimination against the human rights of girls as well as those of women.
The right hon. Gentleman has said that the additional deployment is dependent on coalition countries taking a fair share. Will he tell us what he means by that? What assurances has he received, and will he give an undertaking that we will not see an additional deployment of British troops until other coalition partners have made their intentions wholly plain?
First, what I meant was that there has been no announcement yet from America about what its future disposition will be. We want to work with the Americans as well as with other allies to find the best way forward for our work in Helmand as well as in the rest of the country. I also meant that consultation between our country, other NATO countries and partners external to NATO will take place very soon. I believe that we will have announcements from America, in particular, in the next few weeks.
Frankly, I am staggered at the Prime Minister’s characterisation of the deaths from IEDs as being caused by foot patrols and not by the lack of helicopters. Commanders regularly complain of unnecessary logistical road moves. Will he not admit that many of these people are dying for lack of helicopters—yes or no?
The hon. Gentleman will have seen that Tim Radford, who commanded Operation Panther’s Claw, said that the operation was not hampered by the absence of helicopters. The hon. Gentleman must recognise that the deaths that have occurred from IEDs have occurred in different ways—some have been from vehicles that have been blown up and some from foot patrols—and he must look at the evidence.
From the long IRA campaign in Northern Ireland, we recognise the value to terrorists of being able to set up training bases in the haven of a safe foreign country. For that reason, we believe that the troops in Afghanistan are doing a sterling service for all people in the UK. I also welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement that we are now spending £3.5 billion on supplying troops, but given the reports about the unreliable equipment, the underestimation of the reserves that are required and creaky procurement in the MOD, what efforts are being made to ensure that the money is being spent on the right equipment and on an effective supply chain?
We are giving more money to the Afghan effort, not less. The money has gone up substantially over the past few years and for one reason—we want our troops to be properly equipped. Let me make it absolutely clear that the people who are in Afghanistan are in the numbers required for, and are equipped for, the operations that we agreed. If different operations were agreed, there would have been different numbers, but the numbers were there for the operations that were agreed and to meet the requirements of those operations. There should be at least some understanding of that. Of course, there could have been different operations and different numbers, but for the operations that were carried out, the forces that were required were there.
Was the Prime Minister asked for a further 2,000 troops or not? It is a straightforward question, and a straightforward yes or no will do.
It is a straightforward question and I have answered it on many occasions, including before the Select Committee on Defence. A number of options were put to us, but not one of them included 2,000 extra troops.
Returning to the vexed problem of backsliding by certain of our NATO colleagues, which makes it difficult for those of us who strongly support the mission to persuade our sceptical constituents, what more is the Prime Minister going to do to name and shame those colleagues and make it clear to them that the NATO alliance will crack without their full participation?
I think that I should tell the right hon. Gentleman—although he might not accept it—that over the past few months, in the run up to the election, additional troops were put in by some countries. That was a result of the meeting of NATO that took place on the borders of Germany and France earlier this year, where a number of countries committed to extra troops. We said—this was controversial, because some Members of the House did not agree with it—that we would review the position after the Afghan elections and in the light of General McChrystal’s review. That is what we have done, and it is what we will ask other countries to do, too.
Equalisation of Tariffs for Gas and Electricity Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
John Austin, supported by Dr. Alan Whitehead, Dr. Vincent Cable, Mr. Andrew Dismore, Miss Anne Begg, Susan Kramer, Dr. Brian Iddon, Peter Bottomley, Mr. David Drew, Mr. Martin Caton, John McDonnell and Mr. Don Foster, presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to make regulations for the purpose of equalising certain tariffs for gas and electricity; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 October, and to be printed (Bill 150).
Cervical Cancer (Minimum Age for Screening)
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 require NHS bodies in England to provide cervical screening for women aged 20 and over.
The Bill would bring England in line with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which all begin screening at the age of 20. Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women under 35 in the UK. Every year, more than 2,800 women in Britain are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and every year 1,000 women die from the disease. Thankfully, regular cervical screening can detect and treat early the abnormalities that, if left untreated, could lead to cervical cancer. Since the launch of the NHS cervical screening programme in 1988, early detection and treatment has had an excellent success rate. More than 90 per cent. of screening results come back normal, but for the few whose results do not, the test can, quite simply, make the difference between life and death.
The new human papillomavirus vaccination programme—HPV—was also introduced last year for girls aged between 12 and 15, and this autumn it will be extended up to the age of 18. So, we have a vaccination programme that ends at the age of 18 and a screening programme that begins at the age of 25. That leaves young women between the ages of 18 and 25 caught in a medical limbo, eligible for neither vaccination nor screening.
My Bill seeks to narrow that gap. By making cervical screening available to any woman aged 20 and above, an extra 1.3 million women would have the choice of cervical screening. The support for lowering the screening age to 20 comes from organisations that range from Marie Stopes International and Jo’s Trust to The Sun newspaper, which ran a petition with over 108,000 signatures. In addition, recent polling by Harris for the Metro newspaper showed that 82 per cent. of 16 to 24-year olds in England agree with lowering the screening age.
In 2004, the Government raised the age from which cervical screening can begin from 20 to 25. Their justifications were that cervical cancer is rare in women under 25, that the anxiety and stress of unnecessary investigation and the treatment for abnormal cells is proportionally excessive, and that the age limit is now in line with World Health Organisation recommendations.
Cervical cancer may be rare in women under 25, but it is inexcusable to dismiss the cases that occur as negligible statistics. Unnecessary investigation and treatment when an abnormal test is proved wrong may be stressful, but it is not for the Government to presume to know best what young women want. If a young woman knows the risks associated with treatment, the decision about whether to proceed with screening and any further treatment should, by rights, be hers alone.
Although the Government claim that raising the screening age to 25 brings it into line with World Health Organisation recommendations, the age at which screening can begin varies across the world. Oddly, England has chosen to raise its screening age and be out of step with even its closest neighbours. When England raised its screening age in 2004, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales all kept screening from the age of 20. In America, screening also begins at 20, or within three years of first sexual contact, whichever is earlier. In Australia, screening begins even earlier, at the age of 18. England’s screening age of 25 looks out of step by comparison.
So why do our Government have a blind spot when it comes to this critical health issue? I fear that it may be down to Budget restrictions: this Government’s mismanagement of the country’s finances over the past 12 years has forced them to cut critical health care services—an observation clearly supported by many 16 to 24-year olds in England, according to a recent poll by Harris.
The Government are concerned about funding, yet the numbers attending for cervical screening are actually falling. In 2007-08, a quarter of those invited did not attend. Alarmingly, the biggest drop was in the 25 to 29 age bracket, with attendance numbers falling from 79 per cent. in 1998 to 66 per cent. in 2008. Although I understand that demand for screening may have increased in 2009 due to the Jade Goody effect, we cannot rely on those numbers being sustained.
The Government’s health policy needs to move with the times and be realistic about changing lifestyles. Young women are now more at risk from cervical cancer than ever before, as the contributory causes of unprotected sex and smoking are on the rise. At some point in their lifetimes, 75 per cent. of sexually active men and women come into contact with the HPV virus that causes cervical cancer. With British teenagers now becoming sexually active earlier, the chance of a young woman developing serious cell changes and early-stage cancer before the age of 25 is increasing.
As I mentioned earlier, there is another weapon in the fight against cervical cancer—vaccination. It is not my intention in this speech to examine the rights or wrongs of that vaccination, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) has already highlighted that in a previous Adjournment debate. However, the vaccination programme has implications for the Bill that I am proposing today.
I am concerned that some young women could see vaccination as a “silver bullet” solution, leading them to assume that it has protected them from all risk and that there is now no need for them to attend their screening appointment. Screening and vaccination share a common purpose, yet Government policy seems contradictory. Even by their own admission, the Government do not yet know the full risks of the HPV vaccine Cervarix, but nevertheless they are pressing ahead with the programme. Yet the same lack of certainty exists in the risks outlined in the Government’s argument against reducing the screening age to 20. That just does not stack up. One cannot use the same rationale in support of one cervical cancer prevention scheme and in denial of another. What is so frustrating is that there was, until 2004, a good, sound policy in place. The Government requested a further review earlier this year but, unfortunately, they have decided to stick with the latest guidelines.
I hope that the argument that I have presented today will convince the Minister that there is still a strong case to be made for lowering the age of cervical screening back down to 20. With this Bill, we have the opportunity to try and beat one of the deadliest cancers in this country; we must take it. I commend the Bill to the House.
I rise briefly to oppose this Bill. I do not do so out of any personal animosity towards the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark), whom I know well from our work on the Health Committee, but because I think that the premise on which it is based is entirely flawed. I was not sure what the hon. Gentleman was going to say, but what he said made me more convinced of the need to put on record the scientific evidence for the approach taken by the Government.
I do not lightly defend what the Government are doing, but I think that they have been absolutely right about both the screening programme and the introduction of a vaccination programme. I want the House to consider the nature of a screening programme, and to show hon. Members that the way in which it is being done in England is appropriate. In addition, I want to show that the reference that the hon. Member for Braintree made to the vaccination programme was flawed.
A good screening test must be both sensitive and specific—“sensitive” in the sense that it must pick up as many as possible of the things that is designed to find, and “specific” in the sense that it should not pick up what it is not supposed to find. The problem of false positives leading to treatment is a real one, and there are two difficulties with screening at a young age. First, the condition being sought is rarer in the young, and there is good evidence that the lesions that are suffered do not progress as quickly as is the case when the person is older. Secondly, early screening can lead to over-treatment, the risks of which—especially given the possible impact on fertility—are greater among younger women.
When talking about the use of public money, it is not good enough to say that a non-evidence-based screening programme that is neither sensitive enough nor specific enough will be introduced, and then to leave it to people to make the choice. The funding spent on such a programme could be spent on other interventions to treat established disease or to screen in other areas of ill health where the evidence is better. It is not good enough to say that the matter can be left to individuals to make the choice, because the spending decisions involved have to be made responsibly.
It is certainly not logical—I am afraid that it is totally illogical—to talk about the existence of a gap between the ages of 18 and 25. The hon. Member for Braintree said that the catch-up programme ended at 18 and that the screening programme started at 25, but it is not an either/or matter. People who are vaccinated will go on to get screened. The fact that the catch-up programme ends at 18 makes it an independent variable, and there will be no more catch-up after the programme has taken place. The gap will widen as more people are vaccinated, but the hon. Gentleman’s statement was both meaningless and misleading.
When we look at whom to trust on these matters, it is important not to listen to politicians or even—dare I say it?—to journalists. The hon. Member for Braintree cited evidence from The Sun, so I want to refer to a recent edition of the British Medical Journal, which I mentioned to him earlier in the summer.
In the BMJ edition of 8 August 2009, a study by Sasieni and colleagues asked:
“Does the association between cervical screening and a subsequent decrease in the incidence of cervical cancer vary with age?”
The summary answer was:
“Cervical screening at ages 35-64 is effective at preventing cervical cancer. It is less effective at ages 25-34 and has no effect at ages 20-24.”
That is a pretty clear judgment, so it is not as if there is a benefit to be set against the risks; on the basis of the study, there does not appear to be a benefit.
I always caution hon. Members against listening to the results of one study, because one study may not be representative of the field. Usefully for us, the BMJ commissioned an editorial commenting on that study and a number of others. The editorial, by Guglielmo Ronco of Turin, summarised the study and said that, according to the study, screening is effective only from the age of 35. It said that
“effectiveness in preventing cancers in the five years after screening is limited below age 25”.
“The large sample size allowed analysis of the cancers by stage”,
and there was no finding, when the cancers were stratified by stage, that undermined the conclusions made. The editorial went on to say:
“The question is whether to screen younger women, and if so, how? In many developed countries the low incidence of invasive cervical cancer and the lack of effectiveness of screening in young women indicate that screening should not start before the age of 25. For women aged 25-34, screening with HPV testing alone is much more sensitive than screening with cytology, but it is also less specific.”
That is a reference to another technique that could be used for screening, which it would be useful to debate. We might debate whether we should test for the presence of the human papillomavirus, because that test has greater sensitivity. However, one would find people with the virus who did not have any lesions and were therefore clearly not likely to develop cancer at that point. There is an argument that we should look into that, and I hope that the Government will continue to examine that area.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the cervical cancer or HPV vaccination programme, and it is important to say a word in defence of it. There is very good evidence that it will save lives, because of the very high effectiveness of the vaccine at preventing infection with HPV, which has been demonstrated to be the cause of many cervical cancers. There is clear evidence of benefit, and I urge parents—as do the Government and, more importantly, medical experts—to ensure that their children are vaccinated.
Of course, it is impossible to say that any vaccine is entirely safe. That is not something that should be said, or that can be said. However, it is a matter of balancing benefits against risks. There is great known benefit to the programme, and if there is a risk, it is known to be small. I very much regret, as I hope that the hon. Gentleman does, the coverage of the issue in The Sunday Times two weeks ago. In an article asking, “What has cervical cancer drug done to our girls?” it cited the case of Natalie Mort, who died after having the vaccine, but who, post mortem, was found to have a tumour in her chest. The pathologist said that it was
“so severe that death could have arisen at any point”.
It is extremely disappointing that the article went on to quote a parent—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying from the proposed Bill. Perhaps he could return to it.
I take your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Clearly, the issues are interlinked, but I think that I have made the point about coverage. I urge the House to consider, when thinking about the Bill, the role of evidence-based policy making. Given that there are different screening ages across the world, it may well be, certainly on the basis of the reviews that I have read of the evidence, that this country has got it correct, not only with regard to cost-effectiveness, which is always controversial, but with regard to actual effectiveness. That is not to understate the upset that can be caused when young women develop cancer prior to screening. Such cases occur, rarely; we know of such cases, including one that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Braintree. I recognise his commitment to the important and devastating condition that we are discussing, where it occurs, but such feelings are not a substitute for proper, evidence-based policy making, and I urge the House not to support the legislation.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr. Brooks Newmark, Mr. Fraser Kemp, Angela Watkinson, Mr. John Baron, Simon Hughes, Ms Sally Keeble, Susan Kramer, Mrs. Eleanor Laing, John McFall, Mrs. Ann Cryer and Mr. Nick Hurd present the Bill.
Mr. Brooks Newmark accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 October and to be printed (Bill 149).
[17th Allotted Day]
I must tell the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
I beg to move,
That this House congratulates those who have secured a higher education place for 2009-10 and wishes them well in their studies; regrets the increase in the number of applicants unable to secure a place this year; further regrets the financial difficulties faced by up to 175,000 students who started term without the loans and grants to which they are entitled; believes it is unacceptable that three-quarters of a million telephone calls to the Student Loans Company went unanswered in three months and that an avoidable contact policy was adopted; notes with regret that warnings about the problems in Student Finance England appear to have been ignored; asks the Government to clarify the treatment of emergency loans made by higher education institutions; regrets the problems faced by international students as a result of the poor implementation of the new visa system; notes the need for additional, fully-funded, higher education places in 2010-11; calls on the Government to consider new ways to improve access to university for 2010-11; further calls on the Government to provide more information on its planned sale of the student loan book; and welcomes the idea of a cross-party student finance review to look at the long-term sustainability of the higher education sector, a fairer deal for part-time students and links with further education.
We called for this debate at the very first opportunity since the House came back from recess because of the widespread and deep concern felt, I am sure, in all parts of the House about the financial uncertainties facing students who are starting university this year. Students, especially those starting university, should not have to face the financial distress, uncertainty and anxiety that many of them are, sadly, now confronting because of problems with the delivery of their student loans. I am sure that all of us will have received e-mails, letters and messages from students who are constituents of ours. I think of a student at Liverpool John Moores university who e-mailed me only yesterday. She said:
“I find it diabolical that my loan is this late, that the Student Finance company are aware of the fact that I have a three year old, that I’ve got no money, I can’t afford to pay nursery fees and frankly, I find it absolutely shocking and downright unacceptable to be ignored in this manner. I have NO money at the moment—I NEED my loan in order to live.”
That is the type of e-mail that we are receiving.
We are also receiving messages from the National Union of Students and student unions across the country, which are aware of the problems. I should particularly mention the university of Wolverhampton student union, which has been exceptionally active on the problem. We are also hearing about it from universities and vice-chancellors. I shall quote a message that I received from the vice-chancellor of my local university, Portsmouth university, yesterday. He said that he has already had to give emergency loans and grants to 217 students, and said:
“We anticipate that this will grow rapidly because students arrive with some money, which is now running out. Later this week we shall need to defer the first accommodation payment for those whose funding has not arrived, which is a significant cash flow issue. If one third of our students cannot pay their first instalment, we shall be short of £1 million until the payments are received.”
He goes on to make a point that many people are making to us:
“Students are becoming very frustrated with lost applications, lost or not received duplicate applications, failure to alert the student of insufficient documentation until the student rings them and then being put to the back of the system on receipt of these.”
The situation is a shambles, and it is causing enormous distress to many students. Ministers have been trying to avoid responsibility for that by hiding behind the Student Loans Company. I very much hope that when we hear from the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property in a moment, he will give a frank account of what has gone wrong and what he will do about it. Ministers cannot escape responsibility for what has happened. For a start, the system is one that they introduced; it is a consequence of a report that they commissioned, entitled, rather ironically, “Improving the Student Finance Service”. In a written statement on 3 July 2006, the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), announced the new system. Previously, assessments were made via local authorities. In that statement he said:
“The student finance service needs to be as simple and accessible as possible to students, parents and graduates.
As well as clearer information, faster decisions, timely payments and accurate repayments, the transformed service intends to provide taxpayers with better value for money”.
That was the promise three years ago. The reality, of course, is shockingly different. We are talking about a system that Ministers themselves designed. It is also a system whose complexity goes back to policy mistakes made in the late and not really lamented Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills—an extraordinary system in which three separate years of students each has a different regime for maintenance loans and maintenance grants, because the system has been changed year after year, creating extraordinary levels of complexity.
When we look into the detail of what happened, we find that the papers that students send in are sent to Darlington. From Darlington they are taken by truck to Glasgow, where they are supposed to be electronically scanned in. We are told that the electronic scanners in Glasgow do not work properly, so the papers are put back on a truck and taken back down to Darlington, where much of the data is apparently being manually input because the electronic scanning procedures do not work. There is a helpline where the phone is rarely answered. E-mails go unanswered and the website is often inactive.
I have to say to the Minister that the ghosts of standard assessment tests, education maintenance allowances and tax credits are hanging over this debate. He must take some responsibility for tackling the problem, especially as these difficulties were predicted months, if not years, in advance at meetings attended by senior officials of his own Department. The company forecast—we have this from the minutes of a meeting on 15 July 2008 attended by one of his senior officials—that 40 per cent. of all calls would be abandoned because customers would find the line engaged. The company forecast that it would be receiving three times as many e-mails a day as it was possible to process.
The Department’s response to these looming problems was a policy whose official name was—anyone would think I was making this up—minimising “avoidable contact” with students and their parents who were trying to get the loans and grants to which they were entitled. That is the story of incompetence, made worse by the complacency of some of the assurances that we were getting regularly that the situation was all about to get better. It did not particularly inspire confidence when the deputy chief executive of the Student Loans Company, challenged on the fact that documents appeared to be going astray and that the caseload was not being tackled, said that we should not worry because the documents were like lost car keys:
“It’s a bit like losing your car keys—you think you have lost them, but they are in the house somewhere”—
which is not quite good enough for students and their parents.
I wrote to the great panjandrum himself, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and just about everything else, on 11 September. His reply, as one would expect from Lord Mandelson, was prompt and courteous, but the distancing from the Student Loans Company made me think of a man carrying a noxious substance at arm’s length while holding his nose. I could not have envisaged a Minister distancing himself more skilfully.
The Secretary of State begins by saying:
“I am told that this year the SLC has received a record number of applications”.
“I am told”—was he perhaps at a cocktail party where this was mentioned? Did he read it on flicking through his press cuttings and say, “Oh dear, look what’s happening to student loans”? “I am told”—did a minion perhaps bring this information in on a silver platter for the Secretary of State to consider? He should have been told because he is the Minister responsible for an organisation that belongs to his Department and also to the Scottish Executive.
The Secretary of State says:
“I am told that this year the SLC has received a record number of applications”.
This year is the first year that the system has been operating. It did not operate in the same way in any previous years. This year is the first year when the problem has arisen because this year is the first year when Ministers’ policy has been in operation.
“I am told that this year”—
I admire the skill. One can already sense the Secretary of State shimmying round a problem for which he ought to be held accountable. He goes on to say:
“I understand the Company has told all students who applied before the relevant deadline that they will receive confirmation”.
We would love to hear from the Minister what this deadline is. There are various deadlines at the end of the application form. They are not on display on the website, and some of them are very early indeed. We would like to know what the deadline is.
Lord Mandelson goes on to say:
“As you know”—
that is very encouraging; the Secretary of State knows that he and I share this understanding—
“demand for university is up this year and this has put some pressure on the SLC’s helplines.”
That means that people cannot get through. The response from the Secretary of State is exquisite in its ability to distance him from any practical responsibilities for which he and the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property ought to take some responsibility.
We would like to hear from the Minister a response to the following practical questions. First, how many students are still affected by the problem? There was a figure of 50,000 at one point. We have seen from a freedom of information request that there seems to be a gap between the 1,092,000 applications for student support across all three years and the 916,000 that have been processed. That would suggest a far larger gap of 175,000, so will the Minister please give us, first of all, an accurate up-to-date account of how many students are affected?
Secondly, the Secretary of State says that everybody who applied before the deadline is okay, but what was the deadline? Was it last June, long before students had their A-level results and long before clearing had started? What was the deadline? Thirdly, when will the problem be tackled? When will it be sorted? Can the Minister give a guarantee and a date by which time students who are still facing uncertainty will get the information that they need about their grants and loans? In particular, can he guarantee that the problem will be solved before the process of applications in January starts? Some students start at university in January or February; they do not all start in September.
Fourthly, what about the costs being incurred by universities? There is the access to learning fund, which many universities are having to use to help their students in financial distress, but the access to learning fund—whose size, incidentally, has already been reduced—was intended to help students who are under financial pressure through the year as part of the regular process of assisting students with modest incomes. It is not supposed to be spent in the first few months tackling a financial crisis not of universities’ or students’ own making. What financial support will the Minister offer to universities in these difficult situations?
Fifthly—this is an area where the Department is adding insult to injury—will the Minister confirm that the main helpline number being used by students and their parents to get information is an 0845 number? Will he confirm that there are no numbers other than the 0845 number, and will he confirm that this is contrary to Ofcom guidance, which recommends that public bodies should not use such numbers exclusively? Will he tell us how much money is being made by the Student Loans Company obliging people to use an 0845 number and then leaving them hanging on, sometimes for a very long time?
Sixthly, will the Minister undertake regular reports to Parliament, now that Parliament is back? Instead of FOI requests and suchlike, will we now have a regular update on what is happening?
Those are some crucial practical concerns. So far the response of universities, students and the National Union of Students has been far more imaginative than anything we have heard from Ministers. Universities UK talks about universities delaying payment for university accommodation, which we know is going on. We know that universities and the NUS are prepared to write to private landlords to ask them to be sympathetic to students who cannot pay their rent, and that they are trying to help students with child care payments. The initiatives are all coming from universities and students. From Ministers we have heard nothing, and we now need to know what they are going to do.
While the Minister is present, and as the motion ranges beyond the subject of the Student Loans Company, important though that is, will he also clarify the Government’s position in two other areas that are of great public interest? The first is the sale of the student loan book, on which we had a statement in answer to an urgent question earlier this week. We believe that the Government had £6 billion of proceeds from the student loan book marked down for the future. It looks as if they now propose to increase that figure, so it would be very interesting if the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property could tell us the new figure, because the sale of the student loan book was specifically identified as one item on which the Government would draw to meet their new target of an extra £3 billion in receipts. Does he still stand by the statement that he made on 14 July? He said:
“The Government still intend to make sales from the student loan book, but it is clear that this should only be done at a time when we can get a good return for the taxpayer. For the time being, the market conditions do not allow this.”—[Official Report, 14 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 373-74W.]
Is that still his view of market conditions? If so, where does he expect the extra proceeds from the sale of the student loan book to come from? Any further light that he can cast on that would be helpful.
The other area that is causing universities a lot of concern is the visa regime, which we refer to in our motion. We understand the need for tough and effective visa controls, but there are concerns from some universities about the scale of the delays that foreign students experience. Those people are incredibly important sources of revenue for British universities, but the registrar of the university of Warwick said:
“UK visa officials appear to have replaced red tape with red barbed wire”.
Universities UK says that we are now
“in serious danger of sending out a message that the UK does not welcome international students”.
The Minister will be aware of concerns about access to visas in places such as China, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore. What measures are the Government taking to ensure that the necessary visa controls are implemented briskly and effectively and do not damage British higher education’s reputation in the wider world?
I sense that the hon. Gentleman is moving towards a conclusion by his eyes flicking upward towards the clock, so I shall be brief. The Opposition’s motion refers also to their belief that the Government should provide more places at university this year. Will he enlighten the House about how he plans to pay for the extra 10,000 places that he pledges?
I certainly will enlighten the Minister on that point, because we think that Ministers are in an odd position. In their amendment to our motion, they claim credit for the large number of students going to university this year, but of course some of that is down to the demographic bulge that was caused by the higher birth rate in the early 1990s. Some of it, sadly, is also down to the fact that young people cannot find jobs, so, when they receive the qualifications at A-level, they apply for university. I accept absolutely the argument that when the economy is in such a mess, if young people with A-levels that qualify them for university wish to go, it is for them a far better option than their simply going on the dole.
At our party conference, we proposed an imaginative way of offering 10,000 extra, fully funded places for university students next year, when the demographic bulge will be at least as big and, sadly, unemployment will still be growing. For the summer of 2010, we propose a discount for early repayment of student loans, which would bring into the Exchequer extra cash that could be used to pay for extra student places. Our belief is that the extra student places—[Interruption.] The Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs mutters under his breath, “For those who are well off.” The policy’s crucial point is that the 10,000 extra student places will go to students from all backgrounds, and, in particular, we know that the best way to help students from modest backgrounds to get to university is to provide more places in total. That is the policy’s crucial feature: it offers extra places at university with a clear, cash-flow benefit going to the Government in order to pay for it as a one-off measure in the likely student places crisis of 2010, which could, unless we take imaginative action, be at least as bad as that of 2009.
The Minister wants to intervene again.