House of Commons
Wednesday 28 October 2009
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
RAF Nimrod MR2 Aircraft XV230
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of the Report, dated 28 October 2009, of the Independent Review into the broader issues surrounding the loss of the RAF Nimrod MR2 Aircraft XV230 in Afghanistan in 2006.—(Mr. Blizzard.)
Oral Answers to Questions
The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
I welcome Ian Johnston’s report and the wider report published on the same day by Chief Inspector Dennis O’Connor. We have looked very carefully at both reports, and my Department will shortly send new guidance on managing information to Departments and adopt the chief inspector’s protocol for future consideration of police involvement in leak investigations, which recognises the high threshold required for police involvement.
The police inspectorate’s report has savaged the role of the Cabinet Office in calling the Metropolitan police to arrest my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green). Will the Minister place the current guidelines and protocol in the Library so that we can review the failings of the existing rules?
Both reports reflect very fairly the state of events that led to the police involvement—a series of leaks, some of which gave rise to concern about national security. I would say to the hon. Gentleman that it is very easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to reach a different judgment. I have made it clear in my answer that the lessons of the O’Connor and Johnston reports will be applied in full, and I will certainly consult the Cabinet Secretary about the release of the information that the hon. Gentleman seeks.
The Minister says that there was some concern about national security, but Sir Ian Johnston’s report makes it absolutely clear that these leaks were only matters of “embarrassment” that were
“not…likely to undermine government’s effectiveness.”
So why did a Cabinet Office director write to counter-terrorism asserting that there was
“considerable damage to national security”
from these stories and that
“the potential for future damage is significant”?
Did the Cabinet Secretary, the Prime Minister or Ministers know about this letter before it was sent, and was there any political pressure on civil servants to shut down those embarrassing stories?
Neither report from Chief Inspector O’Connor nor from Sir Ian Johnston makes any claim that the Cabinet Office exaggerated national security claims; the right hon. Gentleman should be absolutely clear about that. He will also know that there was no ministerial involvement in the decision to involve the police.
But the report says explicitly that these were only matters of embarrassment that were not likely to undermine Government effectiveness. On 31 October, the Cabinet Office demanded a scoping exercise that then went into detail about the involvement of “members of the Conservative party”. Does the Minister think it right that counter-terrorism officers were misled and used, in effect, to try to intimidate and suppress parliamentary opposition? Given that the Prime Minister himself made his political career as a conduit for a flood of civil service leaks, should he have been arrested when he was a shadow Minister?
Let me deal with the substantive point that the right hon. Gentleman makes. I reiterate that neither report drew the conclusion that the Cabinet Office had over-reacted. His judgment is made with the benefit of retrospection and of the two reports having been carried out, as well as with the benefit of hindsight. The important step now is that the recommendations of the report are implemented, as they will be.
Third Sector (Recession)
We recognise that this is a very difficult time for the sector, with some parts experiencing increased demand for their services at the same time as having concerns about their financial situation. That is why the Government have provided a comprehensive package of support for the third sector worth up to £42.5 million. The money is getting out there right now to groups who need it. Thousands of grants have been made, and that is supporting the communities that need it most and providing jobs.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s answer; that will be very welcome news to the voluntary sector. However, many funders of not-for-profit voluntary organisations do not recognise the need to cover their core funding in order to make them sustainable for the future. Those organisations want to create income that provides for that. I come across this problem frequently in organisations that I work with in my constituency. Will she encourage funders to bear this in mind in future?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend has a reputation in his constituency for his involvement in the third sector, and the points that he makes are entirely valid. Let me mention some of the things that the Government are doing; I hope that other funders will consider them. Grass-root grants are going directly to smaller organisations—an initiative that has never been taken before, coupled with an endowment process—and that is providing £130 million. That can address the issue of core funding. We also have the community assets programme, providing £30 million across the country for projects involving buildings that are sustainable for the long term. May I direct him also to Communitybuilders, a £70 million programme that was recently opened for applications and has received 1,500 already? That is the kind of programme that the organisations he mentions will benefit from.
We should be concerned that more than 10,000 charities have ceased operating in the past six months, according to the Charity Commission. After two years of consultation, we are still no clearer about Government plans to make gift aid easier and more effective for charities. Instead, we are now getting signals from private meetings that the Treasury actually wants to scrap tax reliefs for higher rate payers who give to charity. This must be the wrong time to be hiding things from the sector. When will the Government come clean on their plans for the reform of gift aid?
The number of charities has reduced, but from talking to the Charity Commission we find that that is about the cleaning up of the charities list. There are charities that have been on the list for some time but have not been functional, or there may have been mergers.
This Government have a proud record on gift aid, and several changes have been brought in.
The hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but it is absolutely true. A number of changes have been brought in to simplify and improve the system and get more money out to charities. I understand the frustration of some charities that want to see change more quickly, particularly on the issue of higher rates, but the problem is that there is not agreement among the charities themselves about the best way forward. We are in talks with the Treasury about how best to address the matter, but the improvements that this Government have made have increased the amount of gift aid going to charities. The number of donations has more than doubled since 2001, when we first started making changes. I understand the frustrations, but we are working with the Treasury to ensure that there are improvements.
Can my right hon. Friend give us any indication of whether voluntary organisations are responding to the Government’s initiatives to get more people into work by increasing the work that they do, so as to benefit from the programmes that have recently been put in place?
The response to the Government programmes put in place during the recession has been remarkable. I am pleased to say that the anecdotal response that we are getting, particularly on grass-roots grants, is that the forms and application process are easier and simpler than they have ever been before. There is an increased number of volunteers, and we are supporting them through a variety of programmes. The evidence is clear that people who volunteer often find a route into work by gaining skills, confidence and connections with employers.
Charities (Regulatory Burden)
The changes that we have made to charity law and to accounting and reporting thresholds have resulted in savings of thousands of pounds for charities. Departments are cutting red tape for third sector organisations, and further progress will be reported before the end of the year. The Government and the National Audit Office have produced guidance to reduce red tape associated with the £12 billion a year that the sector gets from the Government.
Does the Minister understand that in my constituency, charities are worried about the detailed applications for gift aid, which she has just discussed, the ending of the ring-fencing of Supporting People and particularly the vagueness of the extension of Criminal Records Bureau checks, especially for volunteers dealing with children. The problem is not that the regulations are wrong, it is the application of them that is causing concern.
We have to get the balance right between protection of the public and the regulatory burden that we place on charities. I am very conscious of that, and I have outlined some of the measures that we are undertaking to address the matter. Sir Roger Singleton is currently examining the new vetting and barring system for criminal records checks to ensure that we get the right balance between protection and regulatory burden. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it will be better for charities and volunteers, and that checks for volunteers will be free. I hope that that reassures him that we are getting the balance right and addressing the concerns that he has raised.
I welcome the news that CRB checks will be free for volunteers, but I recognise the importance of removing regulation. Any money that is donated that actually goes to charities rather than being spent on costs is welcome. Can my right hon. Friend give us some suggestion of what the savings to charities will be?
It is difficult to ascertain the exact amount that we are saving for charities, because to do so we would have to examine every single volunteer. One problem has been that some charities have paid for the same volunteer to be checked twice. We will examine the matter, but it is difficult to give my hon. Friend an exact figure.
But can the Minister be very clear on what particular steps the Government are taking to allow charities that receive from generous donors financial aid at this time of recession to use it on good causes, rather than spend the money on the increasing burden of fulfilling administrative and compliance demands?
We are very conscious of the administrative burden on charities. One thing that we have been doing is supplying grants through the modernisation programme so that charities can look at working with other charities and organisations, perhaps by sharing back-room functions, collaborating or merging. That frees up more money to be spent on the objectives of the charity itself. That is one way that we are able to help. I will be happy to give the hon. Gentleman further information and to look at the particular charities in which he is interested.
Bogus Charitable Collections
I am absolutely appalled that any organisation would try and con people into thinking that it is a charity in order to collect goods from the public that are intended to be sold to raise funds for a charity’s important work. I can tell my hon. Friend that in 2007, the Government, through the Office of the Third Sector, co-ordinated a Give with Care campaign to increase awareness of bogus clothing collections, and we are planning further such public campaigns in the coming months. We will also continue to encourage enforcement of the legislation.
I thank the Minister for her reply, but two of my constituents, Mr. Dale Rutter and Mr. Mike Hyde, from Sprotbrough in Doncaster my constituency, who do charity collections on behalf of Cancer Research UK, informed me at a recent surgery that the number of bogus charity clothes collection operators working in south Yorkshire is very much on the increase because of the credit crunch. Will the Minister agree to meet me and my constituents to discuss this very important issue in greater detail?
Of course I am happy to meet my hon. Friend, who has a record of campaigning on this issue. I would direct his constituents to look at the campaign that we have been running and the small print on the sacks that are delivered to people’s homes to encourage them to donate, because sometimes there is more helpful information there. I would also suggest that if people want to donate, they might want to go to the charity shop directly. That may be a better way of ensuring that bogus collectors do not get the gifts that are intended for charities.
Would the Minister like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Salvation Army, which is one of the leading clothes collectors and recyclers in the country, and whose depot in Kettering is one of the largest clothes recycling depots in the United Kingdom?
I am always pleased to congratulate a charity that is doing good work. The public can be assured that if a sack comes through their door to collect clothes for the Salvation Army, it is totally genuine.
I think I am right in saying that a case of that sort was taken to court by the local authority in Cardiff recently, resulting in a fine of £750. Perhaps that ought to have been higher, but will my right hon. Friend encourage local authorities and magistrates to use their existing powers to the full to drive these cancerous companies out of business, and to allow the public confidence that what they give goes where it is intended?
My right hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. I congratulate Cardiff council on taking that prosecution. A £750 fine is significant for those who are involved in such illegal activities, and I will certainly talk to my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to see how we can work together to encourage local authorities to enforce their current powers.
List of Ministerial Responsibilities
The list of ministerial responsibilities is produced in-house in the Cabinet Office, the costs of which are met from within the existing Cabinet Office budget. They are not, I am afraid, separately identifiable.
The Cabinet Office booklet helpfully ranks Cabinet Ministers in order of importance—No. 1 being the Prime Minister, No. 2 being the Leader—[Interruption.]
Order. One would have thought that the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues would want to listen to his question and that it would be courteous to do so.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Back to the ranking of the Cabinet: No. 1 is the Prime Minister, No. 2 is the Leader of the Commons and No. 3 is the Lord Mandelson, who is more important than the Chancellor, the Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary, the Justice Secretary and the Defence Secretary. In fact, the Defence Secretary is listed as the third least important—[Interruption.]
Order. I am waiting for the question mark and I have not heard it.
I was waiting for the punch line. The ranking of ministerial offices reflects the significance and importance of the responsibilities carried by the post-holders within the Government. No one is in doubt about the significance of the contribution made, and the responsibility carried, by Lord Mandelson.
Ministerial lists have to be reprinted frequently because of the Government’s obsession with changing the machinery of government. Since 2005, the Department for Trade and Industry has had four incarnations, the Department for Education and Skills and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have been split up and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills abolished—the list goes on. Does the Minister agree that those reorganisations are unnecessary and expensive, and staff time would be better spent working on policy and problems than on changing the headed paper?
If it were only as trivial as changing the headed paper, yes, but modern government has to be flexible, with the capacity to respond to new and changing demands. That is what the machinery of government changes are designed to do.
I am very pleased to answer this question in the run-up to social enterprise day on 19 November, which is a celebration of the 62,000 social enterprises in the UK. Last week, I met 13 social enterprise ambassadors at the restaurant Fifteen, itself a thriving social enterprise, and they are some of the most inspiring social entrepreneurs in the country, together employing more than 1,400 people. Social enterprises contribute about £24 billion to the economy each year and employ 800,000 people. It is clear that at their best social enterprises contribute to a stronger economy and a fairer society.
Would the Government consider introducing a community reinvestment Bill to further support social enterprise?
One of things that the Government need to look at—and are doing so—is how to get more capital investment into social enterprises. My hon. Friend may be aware that we have recently concluded our consultation on the creation of a social investment wholesale bank. Consultation closed on 7 October and we are looking at the responses to see how we can best ensure that we get more capital investment into social enterprise, to the benefit of the economy and the community as a whole.
Will the Minister do her best to encourage Departments, and especially the Government offices for the regions, to participate in social enterprise organisations locally, some of which are working very hard to find practical answers to problems such as transport in rural areas? Will they also work with organisations such as Policy Connect, which is based in this House?
It is very good when the Government offices for the regions can co-operate with social enterprises. Indeed, I recently visited Hackney transport social enterprise, which is doing tremendous work for the local community. The public are now looking for something different from their business enterprises—social and environmental concern instead of just the financial bottom line. It is important for government at all levels to co-operate and work with social enterprise—[Interruption.]
Order. The hon. Members for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) have been conducting an animated conversation for several minutes. I feel sure that that conversation has now been concluded.
My hon. Friend will know that Community Ventures is a social enterprise that serves my constituency very well. Is her Department considering advising social enterprises to put social clauses into public contracting, so that training opportunities and employment regeneration are added to social contracts?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is similar to the point that I made a moment ago about there being more to a social enterprise than the financial bottom line. There is a social return on the investment. I can tell her that yesterday the second phase of the Government’s national programme for third sector commissioners began, and it is specifically looking at how to address social issues and how to provide benefit to the public through public service procurement. The short answer is yes.
I call Mr. Alistair Carmichael to ask Question 7.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to my answer a moment ago, but I can also assure him that the Government—
I thought that the Minister was seeking a grouping.
I am, indeed, Mr. Speaker, and I am grateful for your reminder.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we recognise the difficulties facing the sector. As I mentioned to my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), an increased amount of services are being provided, but at the same time there are concerns about financial support for the sector. The Government’s package of support during the recession of up to £42 million will help to address that.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Many charities in my constituency are already facing difficulties as a result of the economic climate and are now facing a further threat as a consequence of the dispute between the Lloyds TSB Foundation and the Lloyds TSB banking group. Will the Minister do what she can to intervene in that dispute and to broker some sort of settlement, so that the contribution that the foundation makes to many charities in Scotland can continue?
I would love to be able to do so, but I think that it might be beyond my powers. Obviously, if the Government can give any support or advice, we will be happy to do so. I understand that the Scottish Executive have looked at this matter as well. It is time to place on the record—perhaps this message can go back—how much we greatly value the foundation and the support given by such organisations. We hope that efforts can be made to ensure that it continues.
Is the Minister aware that the number of main reporting charities registered with the Charity Commission has fallen by more than 12,000 over the past year? Although some of that can be attributed to administrative changes in the commission, is it not really a sign that the Government’s third sector recession action plan is not working? How can she make it more effective?
I have to challenge the hon. Lady when she says that the £42.5 million put into the third sector is not working. Charitable organisations on the ground will tell us the difference that it makes. I can also say that she needs to talk to the Charity Commission about the reasons for the figure. Plucking out headline figures does not tell the true picture. More than 1,000 charities have chosen to merge, and the commission has said that it had to clear up the list. A number of those charities have been active for some years. Obviously, we want the number of third sector organisations to increase and those organisations to develop. That is why the Government have a plan to do that.
Has the Minister been able to form any assessment of how banks are treating charities in the current context, in terms of loans, operating charges and other pressures, including on the assets that charities hold?
There is no formal assessment, but anecdotally there is a mixed picture. Some report favourable responses and support from their banks, but in other areas we are finding that banks are perhaps not as sympathetic as they could be. That is one of the reasons that the Government have a programme in place to help charities, and that includes loans being made available.
Charities have suffered as a result of the recession. Charities such as Age Concern and the hospice movement make a huge contribution to the well-being of certain groups of people in this country because of the large number of volunteers who give their services free. Can the Government not do more at this time to help charities that are so well regarded in this country?
It is a pleasure—albeit an unusual one—to agree with the hon. Gentleman. I, too, recognise the value of volunteers, and I can assure him that a number of programmes are in place to train volunteers, to help them to broker the arrangements for volunteers that enable them to volunteer in the right way and to use the right skills of volunteers. Not only do charities benefit; the economy as a whole benefits. It is often a route into work. I entirely agree, therefore, with his proposition that volunteers are essential to civic society.
Contingency Planning (Floods)
I know that the hon. Lady has a great interest in this matter and is concerned, as we all are, that the recommendations of the Pitt review that followed the 2007 floods be implemented swiftly. To this end, the natural hazards team in the Cabinet Office has been established and is developing a programme to reduce the disruption to critical infrastructure and essential services that caused so much suffering during those floods. A statement of policy is being developed with local authorities, regulators and the relevant industries. A wider consultation on this will follow in November and no doubt Members on both sides of the House will wish to engage in this. The—
Order. We have got the drift. Let us have the supplementary question. I call Miss Anne McIntosh.
The Government promised to have undertaken a national assessment of all the critical infrastructure at risk by the beginning of this year. Why have they failed to do so and why have they let down those households that were flooded in 2007?
The hon. Lady is not correct; a lot of work has already been undertaken in establishing the basis for the wider consultation, including discussions with the regulators, local authorities and other relevant industries. Wider consultation with the public will take place in November, after which the policy statement setting out how such humanitarian crises will be avoided in the future will be published.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Before listing my engagements, I know that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to the members of our armed forces who have given their lives on behalf of our country in Afghanistan. Today we mourn the loss of Corporal Thomas Mason from the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland and Corporal James Oakland from the Royal Military Police. I know that the thoughts of the whole House are with the families and friends of those brave men. They will not be forgotten for the service that they gave. On behalf of the British people, this morning I have also sent a message to the UN Secretary-General offering our condolences and support, following the Taliban attack on the United Nations in Kabul this morning.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
First, may I join the Prime Minister in expressing my condolences to the families and friends of the people he mentioned?
Will the Prime Minister ensure that any announcement by the Justice Secretary on pleural plaques will ensure a commitment to compensating pleural plaques victims from the past, the present and the future?
I know the anxieties that people who are diagnosed with pleural plaques have. I know also that there have been a huge amount of medical inquiries into this big issue. I know too that those who end up suffering from asbestosis suffer from one of the worst and most painful diseases imaginable, and it is right that we have the proper compensation in place for them. I am looking forward to meeting my hon. Friend and a group of MPs tomorrow to discuss this very issue with the Justice Secretary. It is important, after the legislation that has come before the House, that we get a resolution soon.
May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal James Oakland and Corporal Thomas Mason? They died serving our country and our thoughts should be with their families and friends. As the Prime Minister said, we should also think of those six UN aid workers who were killed in that dreadful attack in Kabul.
Before I get on to other questions, may I welcome the Government’s complete U-turn on cutting £20 million from training in the Territorial Army? That was brought about after questions by Conservative MPs and Labour MPs, and from this Dispatch Box. Can the Prime Minister tell us what on earth he was thinking of when he was thinking of cutting Army training at a time when the country is at war?
First of all, let me repeat my condolences, as the right hon. Gentleman has, to those people who have died, one of whom was injured in the summer and subsequently died in Birmingham. Our thoughts must also be with the United Nations and the relatives of those staff today. I will be speaking to the UN Secretary-General to tell him that no terrorism should deter us from our actions in Afghanistan.
As far as the training for Afghanistan is concerned, there are three stages to it and all are important. First, we have to ensure that our regular Army has the numbers that are necessary. That is why an additional 9,300 people have been recruited to the Army over the past year. That means that Army numbers are now at 101,000, which of course means more money. The second thing was to ensure that the Territorial Army, which was sending people to Afghanistan, had them going to Afghanistan properly trained and equipped. I was sure when I reported to the House two weeks ago that that is what we would do.
The third thing is that, having spent an additional £1 billion on Afghanistan this year and spending £1 billion extra on defence for costs associated with Afghanistan and other things, we could or would be able to spend on the Territorial Army. Having looked at all the issues, including the extra £1 billion that we are spending on Afghanistan, and having talked to the Chief of the Defence Staff, I decided that that was the right thing to do. However, I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that we are spending £1 billion more on Afghanistan and £1 billion more on defence. It is wrong for him to say that we are not spending sufficiently on defence; we are.
Honestly, this Prime Minister cannot even be straight and straightforward when he is performing a U-turn. He cannot get away from the fact that he was proposing cuts in basic training that would have meant cuts in the TA, and if you cut by that amount, you cannot fight a war. He says that there were three stages to this, and there were: the wrong policy, informed by the wrong values, followed by weeks of dithering in Downing street and, finally, the Government forced by the Opposition to do the right thing in a humiliating climbdown. And it all ends, once again, with a complete loss of the Prime Minister’s authority. Why does this Prime Minister keep getting it wrong?
What is wrong are the Opposition’s policies on the economy. What is wrong are the Opposition’s policies on the health service. What is wrong are the Opposition’s policies on education. Right throughout the recession, we have got things right, and the right hon. Gentleman has got it wrong.
The Prime Minister turns to the economy, so let us turn to the economy. We learned last Friday that Britain is in the longest and deepest recession since records began. Presumably, one very simple thing has to follow from that: this Prime Minister has got to say something that, up to now, he has completely refused to say. Will he finally admit that he did not end boom and bust?
We always said that we would come out of recession by the end of this year. That has been the position that the Chancellor took in his Budget, and the position that we consistently took. It would have been wrong, and made things a lot worse, if we had taken the advice of the right hon. Gentleman, the Leader of the Opposition. Today, in Brussels, we have got permission to enable Northern Rock to be sustained as a company. We agreed to nationalise it, and we saved 3,000 jobs in Northern Rock. If we had taken his advice, there would be no Northern Rock and 3,000 jobs would have been lost.
The Prime Minister tells us that he has been consistent in saying that we would be out of recession by the end of the year. I am not going to let him get away with that. In September, he said:
“We are now coming out of a recession, as a result of the actions we have taken”.
He also said in September:
“I think you will see figures pretty soon that show the action that Britain is taking yielding effect”.
In June, he claimed that Britain was
“leading the rest of the world…out of recession”.—[Official Report, 3 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 268.]
The fact is that France, Germany and Japan have been growing for six months. Does he now accept that he got it comprehensively wrong?
If I have to explain to him, Germany and Japan have had a far deeper recession that we have. Equally, at the same time, unemployment in this country is far lower than it is in America or in the euro area, and that is a result of the actions that we have taken. The right hon. Gentleman can read every statement that he likes, but this is absolutely consistent with my view, and the Chancellor’s view, that we would come out of the recession by the end of the year. The problem is that the right hon. Gentleman has policies that would keep us in recession. His policies would mean more unemployment, because he will not support the new deal, more small businesses going under—we have supported 200,000 small businesses—and more home owners losing their homes. That is the policy of the Conservative party. He cannot deny that he got every aspect of this recession wrong.
Even when you read the Prime Minister one of his own quotes from September about the recession ending, he cannot be straight about it. France, Germany and Japan have all come out of recession. So have Sweden, Brazil, Russia, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand and New Zealand. Does not this list demonstrate something else? When the Prime Minister said, as he did over and over again, that we were the best prepared country in the world for this recession, he was plain wrong.
No, we have been better placed because we have 3 million more people in work than in 1997. We are better placed because we have the new deal in place to help the unemployed, and we have been better placed because we had lower debt starting the recession as a result of the actions that we have taken. The right hon. Gentleman cannot deny the fact that every single country in the International Monetary Fund is against the policies of the Conservative party. Every single country in Europe is against the policies of the Conservative party. The CBI, the chambers of commerce and other institutes in Britain representing business do not like the idea of withdrawing the fiscal stimulus. What sense does it make to withdraw the fiscal stimulus now, which is the policy of the Opposition?
How can this Prime Minister possibly claim that we are the best placed when we have had the longest and deepest recession since records began, when we have 2.5 million people unemployed, when one in five young people cannot find a job and when his recent triumph is that our economy is now smaller than Italy’s? That is what he has given us. Even before this recession, our budget deficit was the biggest in the developed world; we had a regulatory system designed by him that did not work; and we had 5 million people on out-of-work benefits. What he said about the recession was wrong; what he said about the recovery was wrong; what he said about being well prepared was wrong; what he said about boom and bust was wrong. Does he not understand that unless he is straight with people about how we got into this mess, no one will trust him to get us out of it?
Not one policy from the Opposition today; not one idea about growth in the economy. They were wrong on Northern Rock; they were wrong on helping the unemployed; they were wrong on helping home owners; they were wrong on helping small businesses; they were wrong on the restructuring of the banking system; they have been wrong on the new deal; they are wrong on just about every economic policy. No wonder every policy announced by the shadow Chancellor collapses just after the morning headlines. They have got no ideas on how to get us out and into growth. Had we taken their advice, we would be in an even deeper and even longer recession with more unemployment than there is now. They are not fit even to be the Opposition, when it comes to promulgating economic policies.
In view of this week’s state visit by her excellency the President of India, will my right hon. Friend say what more he can do further to strengthen the trading relationship between Britain and India?
I welcome, as I think everybody should, the President of India on her state visit to Britain. This is a sign of the strategic partnership that is growing between India and the United Kingdom, and I would like to thank my right hon. Friend for her chairmanship of the British-India association that brings forward proposals for even stronger relationships in the future. More than a million people travel between the UK and India each year; there are about 1.5 million people of Indian origin in the UK; there are 30,000 Indian students in Britain: relations will grow stronger as we develop closer educational, cultural and economic links between these two great countries.
I would like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Corporal Thomas Mason and Corporal James Oakland, who served so bravely in Afghanistan—and, of course, to the family and friends of the six UN aid workers who were so brutally murdered in Kabul.
The international climate change summit is now only a few weeks away, and what happens in Copenhagen will shape our world for generations to come. I welcome a lot of the Prime Minister’s pre-summit rhetoric; if words could do the trick, we would be halfway to a deal already. When it comes to the environment, however, it is actions that really count, so how would the Prime Minister characterise his Government’s green record over the last decade?
We have met the Kyoto targets. We have got the first climate change Act of any country in the world. We have committed ourselves to very radical cuts in emissions not only in the long term, but in the short term. We are fighting hardest to get an agreement in Copenhagen. I have said that I will go to Copenhagen; I want there to be an agreement in Copenhagen. It is based first on us agreeing a political understanding about how the treaty will be developed. We then need to agree on the intermediate targets. I think all countries will have to accept that they have got to make commitments, and we need to have a financial proposal such as the one that we have put forward. This will be discussed at the European Council this week, and I believe that the European Council will want to make progress. I believe Europe will have a position, which can then be put to Copenhagen.
As far as the Prime Minister’s own record is concerned, the sad truth is that he has done far too little, far too late. Total emissions are up, and air travel is up. The Prime Minister wants a new runway at Heathrow, he wants more dirty coal power stations and more nuclear energy plants, our housing stock is the most poorly insulated in Europe—and last week the Prime Minister got all his MPs to vote against the 10:10 environment campaign. Does he not realise that unless he acts fast to fix things here at home, he will have no chance and no authority to fix things in Copenhagen?
I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman wrote his second question before he had heard my answer to the first. I set out very clearly the actions that we have taken on the environment. I think that the right hon. Gentleman’s party’s position would be a lot better if Liberal councillors across the country did not vote against planning consent, so that we could have renewable energy, and I think that his own position would be a lot stronger if he could say that he would support nuclear energy, which is one of the means by which we can reduce carbon emissions.
We will continue to fight for a deal at Copenhagen. I believe that all parties should be interested in that being achieved, and I think that we should all campaign together to secure that deal at Copenhagen.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that 2,000 grandparents in this country have taken custody of grandchildren, usually following tragic circumstances affecting the children’s natural parents? Is it not time that we gave real financial and practical support to those grandparents and recognised the magnificent work that they do, instead of punishing them as the system does at present?
I thank my hon. Friend for his efforts to raise the profile of how we can do more to help grandparents. He may know—because I think he has been part of this—that we are holding a cross-government summit in November to listen to the experience of grandparents and their organisations. From 2011 grandparents who look after grandchildren will receive national insurance credit, and we will publish a Green Paper on that in the next few months. The role of grandparents is absolutely vital to every family in the country, and we should do everything that we can to strengthen the role that they can play.
First, as the elections take place—and the date has already been set—we must ensure that there are sufficient monitors as well as sufficient security. One of the problems during the last election was that there were insufficient monitors, which allowed corrupt ballots to take place. Secondly, we must work towards a political solution. It is not simply a military solution that we are looking for. We want to strengthen local government so that people in Afghanistan feel that they have a stake in the future of the country, and we want to have a corruption-free central Government. That is one of the problems with which we have been dealing for many years.
We—the Americans, NATO and others—will have to sign a contract with the new President, whoever he is, so that early action can be taken to deal with those abuses. In the longer term, of course, we want to split the Taliban ideologues from the others, and to reconcile where that is possible, so that we can build a stronger democratic centre to ensure the future of Afghanistan. Our role is to be there to build up the Afghan military and police so that they are able to take more responsibility for their own affairs and, as a result, the number of our troops can fall.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that during his period as Chancellor and Prime Minister, British canals have been turned around from being a drain on our nation’s resources to being a national asset. Will he ensure that British Waterways is seen not as an asset to be sold off, but as an asset to be treasured—like our national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty—and used for public benefit as well as local regeneration?
I think my right hon. Friend will agree that new investment in British Waterways has been very important to guaranteeing its future. We must consider how we can get further new investment into British Waterways for the future: that is our principal aim.
We will look at the case the hon. Gentleman has put forward on the Gurkhas, but I have to tell him on this matter that a High Court case has been taking place over the last period of time. On the Royal British Legion, I commend the work that it does. Particularly as we approach Remembrance Sunday, we remember the way in which it represents all the families and all the ex-servicemen and women of our country, and its organisation of the festival of remembrance and so many events around the countries is something of which our nation is very proud. I think the whole House will want to join me in thanking the Royal British Legion for everything it does.
The African Caribbean community has made an immense contribution to this country, particularly in the field of public services. Many in that community are deeply distressed by the increase in air passenger duty, which appears to be arbitrary and illogical. Will the Prime Minister be prepared to meet myself and a few colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler), to see how best we can resolve this problem?
As my hon. Friend knows, the taxation of environmental goods, and particularly air fuel, has been a vexed matter for many years. On air passenger duty, the Chancellor tells me that he will be meeting a group including my hon. Friend to discuss these matters in the next few days.
First of all, let me say to the House that this terrible crime in Lockerbie will never be forgotten and, even many years on, we must remember the hurt that has been caused to the relatives of those people who lost their lives in Lockerbie as a result of what happened over the summer. I want to emphasise that Megrahi is still in the eyes of the law a convicted terrorist for the criminal act he was engaged in. It is for the Scottish authorities to pursue any new leads that exist. They are the authority with whom jurisdiction on this lies, and it is for them to take the action that is necessary.
We live in dangerous times. There are a number of threats and issues of global importance, such as global terrorism, global warming and the unresolved Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Is Britain’s interest best served by a strong European alliance of sensible, mainstream parties, or an alliance of Islamophobes and climate and holocaust deniers like the one that lot over there on the official Opposition Benches have got?
When I go to the European Council tomorrow, I will meet not only leaders of socialist groups in Europe, but leaders of the Christian Democrat groups and centre-right parties in Europe. It is amazing that the Conservative party has broken its links with the centre-right in Europe to join a group that can only be described as extremist. The Conservative party will regret isolating itself from the centre of Europe. It is out on a limb; it is putting British jobs at risk; it is angering British business; and it is out of touch with what people know is necessary for the future.
We have made it very clear that if this position is to be created—the European treaty is not yet through—and if the former Prime Minister Tony Blair comes forward as a candidate, we will be very happy to support him.
Ofcom is looking at this very matter. There is an unfairness to consumers who change company; the cut-off rates are very high indeed. It is right that Ofcom investigates it, and it is right that the consumer gets a better deal.
No, the Government are doing more to promote low-carbon industries in this country. We are investing in the new technologies, and we are supporting a range of small, medium-sized and large businesses. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will meet the hon. Gentleman to talk about these issues, but I am convinced that we are doing as much as we can now—we will do more in the future—to help the development of low-carbon industries in his constituency and throughout the country.
Shipping is a very competitive global industry, but what we did in 1997 so that ships were flagged from the United Kingdom was a very important act of government to help defend, safeguard and expand jobs and opportunities for seafarers. The proposals put forward by unions and the industry together are ones that we are now looking at in order to create more training and employment opportunities in the industry, and I am very happy to discuss them with my hon. Friend.
I will meet delegations to look at this issue of climate change, but I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that what we need is progress from both China and America, so that we can have a climate change deal. The principles that will underlie the deal must include intermediate targets that are agreed by countries around the world. I hope that as part of the decisions that were made by his group last weekend, there was recognition that we will need intermediate as well as long-term targets and we will need to solve the problem of climate financing. That is crucial and our proposal, which is not to affect international development aid, but to raise additional money for tackling climate change for the poorest countries, is one that I hope will commend itself to all parties.
Following the creation of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, and given the fact that Sir Thomas Legg is reviewing five years of our allowances, with the publication next week by Christopher Kelly of the overall review of MPs’ allowances, can the Prime Minister tell the House what the next steps will be?
I think that all Members of Parliament want to bring the old, discredited system of expenses to an end and to bring in as quickly as possible a new system for expenses. Sir Christopher Kelly will report next Wednesday, and that report will form the basis of a statement to the House. I then expect that IPSA will be given the power to implement it in detail, but that is a matter for the House and there will be a report to the House next Wednesday.
We are investing more in transport than we have ever done. We have not only increased investment in rail transport and moved to the electrification of some lines, but we are investing in bus transport, particularly with the help we are giving to pensioners on concessionary fares. I have not seen the Bristol proposal for an integrated transport system, but obviously I shall examine what the hon. Gentleman says.
Order. I think we have the gist of it.
The Opposition get very anxious. They have come out against wind turbines and wind renewables; the shadow Business Secretary said that Britain should not be used for that. They are against nuclear power, which is one of the keys to our having lower carbon in this country. The Conservatives should think again. If they want a consensus on climate change, they will have to change their policy.
I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was going to complain about European regulations, because that is normally what he does. All of us have a responsibility to save electricity and all Government Departments and all parts of government should be involved in doing so.
I am today publishing the report of the independent review that the then Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), announced on 4 December 2007 following the loss of Nimrod aircraft XV230 over Afghanistan on 2 September 2006. Fourteen members of the armed forces tragically lost their lives on that day.
The Ministry of Defence must take responsibility for many of the failings identified in the board of inquiry. My predecessor said as much at the Dispatch Box in December 2007, when he announced that we were setting up an independent review under a senior Queen’s counsel, Mr. Charles Haddon-Cave, to look into the events that led to the loss. I am grateful to Mr. Haddon-Cave, who has provided a rigorous and powerful report. It will be very distressing reading for many, and particularly for those families who lost their loved ones three years ago.
On behalf of the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Air Force, I would like again to say sorry to all the families who lost loved ones. I am sorry for the mistakes that have been made and that lives have been lost as a result of our failure. Nothing I can say or do will bring these men back, but for their sake, and for the sake of those families, friends and former colleagues who grieve, we can provide clarity about what actually happened, where failings occurred and what must be done to ensure that, as far as possible, this never happens again.
Flying, especially in a military context, is never without risk. We have an obligation to our people to understand and manage those risks and to ensure they are as low as reasonably practicable. The safety of our personnel is of paramount importance and that is why the report is so significant. Mr. Haddon-Cave was asked to review the arrangements for assuring the airworthiness and safe operation of the Nimrod aircraft over its service life, to assess where responsibility lies for any failures, to assess more broadly the process for compiling safety cases, taking into account best practice in the civilian and military world, and to make recommendations. In his report, Mr. Haddon-Cave has been critical of both the MOD and our industrial partners, at both organisational and individual levels. He has stated clearly that the loss of XV230 was preventable.
As he was asked to do, Mr. Haddon-Cave has also made a number of recommendations in his report about what we must do to learn lessons for the future. He has proposed new key principles around which we should base our airworthiness processes—leadership, independence, people and simplicity.
I met Mr. Haddon-Cave this morning and we discussed his report. It identifies numerous weaknesses in the airworthiness system that we will address thoroughly and urgently, but he has confirmed to me that his report does not raise concerns over the actual airworthiness of individual fleets, and I have been assured by the Chief of the Air Staff and the defence chief airworthiness engineer that our fleets remain safe to fly. I have full confidence in our people carrying out airworthiness duties, but we need to ensure that they are supported by an improved process.
Mr. Haddon-Cave also states that, in our pursuit of financial savings, the MOD and the RAF allowed their focus on safety to suffer. We accept this with regard to the Nimrod XV230. As a Department, we have a duty to continue to seek efficiencies in how we deliver defence, but I am absolutely clear that that must not be done with any detriment to safety.
The two officers still serving in the RAF who are strongly criticised in the report have been moved to staff posts that have no responsibility for safety and airworthiness. The RAF will now consider what further action should be taken in relation to these officers, in light of the evidence uncovered by the report. Mr. Haddon-Cave has, quite rightly, made it abundantly clear that he wants the Department to produce a considered response to his report.
We will now examine all aspects of the report, produce a full response and update the House before the Christmas recess. I have set this challenging timetable because I want to ensure that we can act with confidence that the right decisions will be made and that the necessary work will be seen through.
We have not been idle waiting for the outcome of Mr. Haddon-Cave’s review. Let me set out briefly what the Ministry has already done in the three years since the loss of Nimrod XV230. We have implemented a comprehensive programme of work to ensure that we can have confidence in the safety and airworthiness of the Nimrod aircraft as it is today. This involves implementing the recommendations of the board of inquiry, and includes ceasing the use of the air-to-air refuelling system, as well as of the aircraft’s relevant hot air systems while the aircraft is in flight, and adopting an enhanced aircraft maintenance and systems inspection regime. We do not allow Nimrod aircraft to fly without having had their engine bay hot air ducts replaced, and we have introduced an ageing aircraft systems audit focused on guaranteeing the safety of the Nimrod’s systems for the remainder of its service life. This included a forensic-level inspection of a Nimrod aircraft.
We have applied these lessons to other aircraft as necessary, taking steps to examine, review, strengthen and improve the systems for assuring safety and airworthiness. We are aware that the implications stretch more broadly across defence to other items of equipment, and so we have also scrutinised our safety management processes and organisation with great care.
Safety is now given absolute priority at the highest levels in the MOD. It is the first point on the agenda at every senior management team meeting, and this flows down throughout the organisation as a whole. As a demonstration of our commitment to improved safety and airworthiness, we have also established a new senior post, that of the defence chief airworthiness engineer, to provide improved assurance to me that the whole technical airworthiness process, from end to end—that is, from industry through project teams to the front line—is in accordance with the Department’s regulations. Mr. Haddon-Cave welcomes this in his report as a step in the right direction. We are working hard to ensure that we capture the lessons from incidents and inquiries to improve our safety. As an organisation, the MOD is changing its culture and approach to put safety first.
All these measures ensure that we can continue to fly the Nimrod safely and that it can continue to conduct its essential work in the remaining months of its service life. Mr. Haddon-Cave undertook at the outset of his review to issue an urgent interim report outlining his concerns, if he found evidence that the Nimrod fleet was not safe to fly. As he says in his report, he has not found it necessary to do so. He states in his report
“that appropriate and timely steps have been, and continue to be, taken by the MOD and the RAF to address the immediate airworthiness issues raised by the loss of XV230 and the BOI report and subsequent discoveries about the Nimrod fleet. Indeed, the level of scrutiny now applied to the Nimrod fleet is such that it is probably one of the most closely monitored operational military aircraft fleets in the world.”
The report is a tough read. Its subtitle—“A Failure of Leadership, Culture and Priorities”—is a stark judgment. We are determined to address this and the clear message in the report that we have to do more. I pay tribute, as does Mr. Haddon-Cave in his report, to the Nimrod communities, whom I commend for their skill and professionalism. The Nimrod continues to have an important role in the defence of this country, and the current fleets are, on current plans, very shortly to be replaced by new aircraft.
Our armed forces are truly the best in the world, and we are committed to providing them with all the support that they need, including learning the lessons and making the changes for the better if tragedies occur. Let me say again that the safety of our personnel is of paramount importance. In the case of Nimrod XV230, we failed. We cannot undo this. Nothing will bring back those 14 men, and for their grieving families, the loss will be with them for ever. I will do everything in my power to guard against anything like this happening again. I am today placing a copy of Mr. Haddon-Cave’s report in the Library of the House.
For the families of those whose lives were lost, today will bring back painful memories and reawaken emotions of grief and anger. Our thoughts are with all those families today.
The House owes a great debt to Charles Haddon-Cave for the report. It is a formidable indictment and describes multiple and repeated systemic failures. It is genuinely shocking. Its most damning central conclusion is that there were previous incidents and warning signs that were ignored, and that the loss of the aircraft was avoidable.
The criticism of the Nimrod safety case is excoriating. The report says that it
“was a lamentable job from start to finish. It was riddled with errors. It missed the key dangers. Its production is a story of incompetence, complacency, and cynicism.”
How will oversight of such projects occur in future?
The report is critical of the Nimrod integrated project team, and of QinetiQ and BAE, including specific individuals. How will these be dealt with, and how can we ensure that technical guarantees given to Ministers in the future by these and other companies can be relied upon and independently verified?
The Government as a whole must bear responsibility for the way in which the MOD has been treated under the pressure of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. As the report says:
“Financial pressures and cuts drove a cascade of multifarious organisational changes, which led to a dilution of the airworthiness regime and culture within the MOD, and distraction from safety and airworthiness issues as the top priority.”
Ministers themselves must address their failure of stewardship at the MOD. The report says:
“The shortcomings in the current airworthiness system in the MOD are manifold and include…a failure to adhere to basic Principles…a Military Airworthiness System that is not fit for purpose…a Safety Case regime which is ineffective and wasteful…an inadequate appreciation of the needs of Aged Aircraft…a series of weaknesses in the area of Personnel…an unsatisfactory relationship between the MOD and industry…an unacceptable Procurement process leading to serial delays and cost-overruns; and …a Safety Culture that has allowed ‘business’ to eclipse Airworthiness.”
This report must act as a wake-up call for us all—for politicians, for industry and for the military. Cutting corners costs lives. Wars cannot be fought on a peacetime budget, and there is a moral imperative that those who are willing to risk their lives in the armed service of their country should know at all times that everything is being done to maximise the chance of success of their mission and to minimise their risk in carrying it out. The failure to do this resulted in the death of 14 servicemen—the avoidable and preventable death of 14 servicemen. The report concludes:
“In my view”—
“was lost because of a systemic breach of the Military Covenant brought about by significant failures on the part of all those involved.”
There could not be a more damning charge list.
I do not retreat from many of the comments made by the hon. Gentleman. Mr. Haddon-Cave asks us to implement an entire new airworthiness system and to address further the culture that he sees as the basic problem within the MOD and in parts of the armed forces. The only thing that I can say in mitigation is that that has been recognised, and recognised some time ago, and that a lot of work has been done throughout the time that I have been a Minister at the MOD to try to put those systems in the right place. Having looked at Mr. Haddon-Cave’s report, we have to make absolutely certain that we are going to the lengths that we need to to make certain that we recalibrate that culture within the Department. I am not sure whether we have got there yet, so there is more that we have to do.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is a wake-up call, probably for far wider than just defence. The pursuit of efficiency is something that every organisation must do—public sector, private sector, Government and the rest. But sometimes organisations lose sight of some of the basic fundamentals as they try to drive in those efficiencies. We need to consider matters in detail, and we need to use the report as a tool to get the change that is absolutely necessary within the MOD. There were glaring dangers apparent in the aircraft for decades, and there were opportunities to spot those dangers, which were simply missed. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, apologised to the House for that. We knew that that was so at the time of the board of inquiry, and we need to repeat it and to have some due modesty about the situation that we find.
I thank the Secretary of State for his necessarily very sombre statement to the House this morning. This is a tragic case of an accident that could have been avoided. The 40-year history of Nimrod has, as the Secretary of State just acknowledged, been very difficult. Many critics of procurement in the MOD have their own candidates as to which has been the most bungled procurement. The distinction of Nimrod is that it has culminated in the tragedy of unnecessary deaths, and today’s report will certainly reawaken the sense of grief in the families and communities involved.
I welcome the candour of the Secretary of State’s admission of fault by the Government, and I welcome his saying that the MOD is changing its culture and approach to put safety first, but I regret that he had to acknowledge that that is necessary and was not always the case in the past.
This has not been a good few weeks for the Government, with Bernard Gray’s report last week indicating a culture of poor process, indecision and mismanagement, and we must all hope that lessons are learned. The case under discussion has been one of wake-up calls from previous incidents not being heeded. The report in 1998 gave warnings that were not taken on board by those managing the project, and, as today’s report says, that was the
“best opportunity to prevent the accident”,
and it “was, tragically, lost”.
The report is also damning of industry, which it accuses of “incompetence, complacency and cynicism.” There is always a danger with flying military aircraft, but some of those issues were unnecessary and avoidable, and the lives of personnel have been lost. BAE Systems, as our biggest defence contractor, finds itself on the wrong end of some scathing words. Its involvement in the Nimrod safety case was
“poorly planned, poorly managed and poorly executed, work was rushed and corners were cut.”
In addition to the errors in industry and in the MOD, Mr. Haddon-Cave refers in the report to “organisational trauma” in the MOD between 1998 and 2006 as a result of the 1998 strategic defence review. I hope very much that Ministers will dwell upon that and ensure that the forthcoming strategic defence review avoids any similar aftermath. Where will Nimrod feature in the new review? Can we please be assured that all the lessons of this appalling story will be learned for the future?
I do not disagree, again, with many of the hon. Gentleman’s comments. We are not unaware of the weaknesses in the procurement system. We commissioned Bernard Gray’s report in the first place and we published it last week—I think that it was only last week—to help us to address those issues. Mr. Haddon-Cave, in his report, refers to procurement as part of the cause of the problem, and we need to make absolutely certain that we learn the right lessons, not the wrong lessons.
In the Nimrod saga, there has often been a focus on the safety of the aircraft itself and whether it should be grounded. Charles Haddon-Cave focuses on the systems themselves, and that is where the focus needs to be. There were systems that simply did not fit the purpose for which they were designed, and, instead of being distracted by other issues, that is where we must focus our attention and that is what we must put right. As the hon. Gentleman has said, safety cases have become completely distorted to the point where they simply are not—or were not, in this case—value for money or of any benefit at all. Putting those systems right has to be our overriding priority.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s attitude with regard to the statement. There was humility, and he said, “Sorry, we admit we got it wrong and we are going to put it right.” I await with interest the Government’s response to the report. He said that Nimrod issues were missed over the years, but will he change that to “ignored” over a number of years?
The report makes grim reading. Glaring dangers with the Nimrod aircraft existed for decades and were not recognised for decades. The safety casework was, as Mr. Haddon-Cave says, far and away the best opportunity to identify those dangers that were so clear to see, but it was missed. Despite great expertise and expense, the dangers were simply not identified, proving that the system was totally and utterly inadequate for the job.
As I listened to the Secretary of State’s words and read about the tick-box culture, I thought that he was genuinely sorry. However, I thought that he and, perhaps, all of us have no understanding of the massive job that we face in changing the culture not just of the Ministry of Defence, but of the country. In that respect, I was very pleased to see the Leader of the Opposition in his place, listening to the Secretary of State’s statement. However, if we are to change the culture, let us start here. The strength of this crushing report is that it was rigorously independent. But the Secretary of State has yet to accept the key recommendation of Bernard Gray’s review of acquisition—that the assessment of the equipment programme should be similarly rigorously independent. Why not; and, will the Secretary of State please do so?
I recognise that the lessons that we could learn from this episode are absolutely profound in terms of defence, and we have to try to learn them. However, they go far wider than defence. How do we get right in our modern world the balance between the pursuit of efficiency, which everybody wants us to pursue because nobody wants to pay more than they absolutely have to for equipment or capability, and making certain that we do not compromise safety in any way? We really have got to put in place systems that properly calibrate those priorities.
On Bernard Gray’s report, the one significant recommendation that I do not accept is that we will improve procurement by placing defence equipment and supply with a contractor-run organisation. We can and must do that by other means, and we have to have military knowledge properly plugged into our procurement processes. That recommendation would not be an aid to procurement; it would be a detriment.
I commend my right hon. Friend on the manner in which he registered the Government’s contrition for the events that have taken place, but I refer him to the assurance that he received from the Chief of the Air Staff and the defence chief airworthiness engineer that our fleets remain safe to fly. Had my right hon. Friend asked for such an assurance on 2 September 2006, would he not have received the same assurance? He says that he has full confidence in the people who carry out airworthiness duties, but how confident can the House be? Will he give an assurance now that no incident in the future will occur due to any fiscal shortfall?
If my hon. Friend manages to read the report, which is very lengthy and detailed, he will see that it contains words that could be read as indicating that Mr. Haddon-Cave himself feels that not only the Nimrod fleet, but some of our other aircraft fleets are not safe to fly today. The reason why I met Mr. Haddon-Cave this morning was to make absolutely certain that I understood what he was saying in his report—I thought that I did on my overnight reading of it, and he confirmed that this morning. It is not only the Chief of the Air Staff and the individual in the new position of defence chief airworthiness safety engineer who are telling me that the fleet is safe, but Mr. Haddon-Cave. Mr. Haddon-Cave says that, on Nimrod, he had been invited to make an interim report, if he felt that one was necessary, because of airworthiness considerations. He has not made that report. He assured me this morning that his report should not be read as saying that our current fleet or fleets are not safe as they fly today.
May I say to the Secretary of State that I accept that he is deeply distressed by the report and will do his best to implement the recommendations? May I also say that many of us fear that the long-standing disregard for safety, arising out of a concern for savings, may extend right across the MOD budget—for example, into the military budget, including armoured vehicles and the historical lack of body protection; the Navy, perhaps, with its submarines; and the RAF, with the Nimrod and, I fear, the Puma? Given all that, will he accept that the situation requires a change of culture at the highest level of the services, probably involving direct intervention from Ministers?
Yes, I do. I accept that savings were a part of the problem—I do not demur from that at all—but I do not think that the pursuit of savings alone is the cause of the problem. It is therefore necessary to drive through culture change. We have been trying to do that, as I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will accept. We have learned the lessons not only from Nimrod but from the deaths on the Tireless submarine a couple of years ago. We have tried to learn the lessons of our own boards of inquiry in trying to drive in the management and cultural change that is needed in the armed forces as well as in the MOD.
I welcome this hard-hitting and detailed report, as will my constituents, who wish all the best for everybody at RAF Kinloss and the families of the 14 brave service personnel who died aboard the Nimrod XV230. We have had an independent inquiry and inquests, we have had reviews, we have had numerous reports, and we have had analysis about Nimrod. At every stage, Ministers have given assurances that the right lessons would be learned and acted on. Clearly, they were not—so why should we have confidence in the assurances that we have heard today?
We commissioned the report because we knew that assurances were necessary given the findings of the board of inquiry—not through any fault of its own, but because the terms of reference of boards of inquiry mean that they do not consider the wider background and apportioning blame but the direct causes of the accident. There was an absolute necessity to commission this piece of work because it was obvious that some of the reasons for the crash went beyond the remit of the board of inquiry. I hope that we are able to reassure the hon. Gentleman and his constituents—many of the lost lived in his constituency—that we take this matter very seriously and are determined to drive in the change that is necessary. When I meet the families of service personnel who have lost their lives in very many circumstances, I find that their overriding desire is to know that their loved one did not lose their life in vain and that we genuinely learn the lessons of the loss that they have suffered; and that is what we must try to do.
When will the Nimrods be phased out of service?
The Mk 2 Nimrod is nearing the end of its service life. Indeed, part of the report exposes the fact that we have extended its out-of-service date repeatedly because of delays in the supply of a replacement. On current plans, the MR2 has only a few more months of service life left. However, I remind my hon. Friend that we also have the Nimrod R1, which is conducting vital operations in Afghanistan.
The MOD is very often—continually, it seems—criticised for its inability to provide the right equipment at the right place. Surely we can expect that when equipment is provided it is at least safe and airworthy. There are two stark facts in this report. First, Mr. Haddon-Cave refers again to the pursuit of financial savings and taking eyes off the safety ball; and secondly, he is very critical of our industrial partners. We heard what the Secretary of State said about the internal review that he is going to conduct within the MOD. What ultimate sanctions can be taken as regards our industrial partners, and how can they be called to account?
This is a very detailed report with some pretty far-reaching criticisms, not only of us but of others—individuals and companies, including important British companies. I therefore do not want to leap to conclusions about how we take these matters forward. I have promised to look in detail at every aspect of the report and to come back to the House before Christmas, and I will do that.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s saying that he is going to learn from Army boards of inquiry, because, as he knows, a second Army board of inquiry is due on my late constituent, Captain James Philippson.
I was pleased to hear that the Secretary of State is aware of the financial implications stretching more broadly across other items of defence equipment. Will he take that down to the lowest common denominator—namely, not just equipment that is out there and may not be functioning correctly, but the absence of equipment that should be there?
In the case of the hon. Lady’s constituent, she knows that we are awaiting a second Army board of inquiry. Her constituent was not at all happy with the outcome of the first Army board of inquiry, and I would not like to prejudge any findings that the second board of inquiry comes to.
The parents of one of the dead crew members live in my constituency. They find it almost impossible to get closure on the situation because of the time that it has taken to come up with these reports. Will the Secretary of State build into the MOD ethos the fact that the speed with which people need to know what happened is paramount? These parents and families need to know, as quickly as possible, the reason that their child, or whatever, died. Could we please have some form of timetable after a disaster for when the information comes back to this House?
I accept that the hon. Gentleman is genuine about the point that he makes. This was a big issue with me when I first became Minister for the Armed Forces over two years ago. These things go on for such a length of time that people cannot possibly get closure. However, I have come to accept that one cannot impose arbitrary timetables in such cases. The board of inquiry in this case took more than a year, which was very frustrating. We then had the inquests, and we then commissioned the Haddon-Cave review. We must be mindful, all the time, that there are grieving people suffering as a result of the process. However, when I talk to them they say that their first demand is thoroughness. Yes, they want speed, and yes, they want closure, but they do not want short cuts. We therefore cannot impose an artificial time line on these things.
The Nimrod aircraft was built at BAE Systems at Woodford; part of the site lies in my constituency. I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and his assurance that all the recommendations will be implemented, as the crash was an absolute tragedy. However, will he not stand up for this wonderful aircraft that has done a magnificent job over the years? The R1 is still performing a brilliant role. Will he tell me, and all the work force still at BAE Systems at Woodford, that following this tragic accident, which I deeply regret—my condolences go out to the families of all those who were killed—the Nimrod will not be prejudiced in future purchases by the Ministry of Defence?
Mr. Haddon-Cave pays glowing tributes to all those who were associated with the Nimrod, and rightly so. The overwhelming thrust of his report—I have not managed to read every single page and every detail overnight—is not an attack on the aircraft itself in any way: it is an attack on the systems that have effectively let our people down.
I thank the Secretary of State for the content and tone of his statement. He says that lessons have been learned and that there is still more to be done. As part of that process, will he look at the procurement programmes that he has already announced, such as the Puma extended life programme? That programme was much criticised by the Defence Committee, and there are modern alternatives that may prove to be better value and cheaper in the long run.
We must look at our procurement processes. The purpose of commissioning and delivering the Gray report was, in effect, to force us to do that. We will bring forward proposals for acquisition reform as part of the Green Paper process that the hon. Gentleman’s party and the Conservative party are co-operating with, and I hope that we will bring forward some work early in the new year. However, I do not want to get distracted into individual programmes and decisions that people may or may not agree with. This is a far bigger problem than that, and it needs to be considered at a comprehensive and strategic level.
I join the Secretary of State in expressing the sympathy of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the grieving families of the 14 servicemen who tragically lost their lives. I commend the Secretary of State on the manner in which he made his statement and the humility with which he has accepted the report. Can he guarantee that the failings that have been outlined will be corrected, and that a time scale will be given for when those corrections will be made?
There are many people in the MOD who, over the period I have been there, have been absolutely bent towards trying to ensure that we learn all the lessons that we need to learn to put safety in place. Nimrod has been a big part of that lessons learned process. There is a desire to do that, but are we at the right place? No, we are not. We have not yet achieved the culture change that needs to take place, but there is a huge desire to do so and I want to ensure that I encourage that and drive it through so that we get to where we need to be.
Three companies of my local Royal Anglian Regiment went to Afghanistan last week. They will welcome the Secretary of State’s gracious words, but there are of course implications for them in the report. Will he seek to ensure that the replacement aircraft that comes in soon will be able to operate from a base much nearer its operational zone? That may help to reduce risk.
I am not aware of the basing considerations that the hon. Gentleman raises, but I am more than happy to talk to him and listen to any representations that he has. Ensuring that we have sufficient surveillance for operations in Afghanistan is a vital part of keeping our people safe there. That surveillance is provided not only by Nimrod but by many other platforms, and we must ensure that we do all that we can to maintain the overall capability in the best possible shape that we can.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make clear my displeasure at the fact that a written ministerial statement pertaining to today’s debate has in fact not been released. The Government have announced publication of the responses to the consultation on local spending reports, but I find it curious, to put it generously, that the statement is being published on the day of the debate. I find it incredible that Members were not given the courtesy of seeing the statement, and that it is still not available in the Library of the House as late as 12 minutes past 1. Not only is that a grave discourtesy to Members of all parties, who have worked together in a non-partisan way on the issue of local spending reports, but it makes a mockery of the Chamber being used in any meaningful form.
I believe that there was a similar incident the Thursday before last, Mr. Speaker, when you described it as a grave discourtesy to Members that a statement was made available only one hour before a debate. I should like to know what your view is of the fact that the statement pertaining to today’s debate has not yet been made available.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order and for giving me advance notice of it. My view is straightforward: I regard the situation as extremely unsatisfactory. A statement of that kind ought to be delivered in a timely way. If it has not been, we need to know why and the matter needs to be put right. Above all, I hope that there will not be a repetition. It is a discourtesy to Members of the House.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I address this point to you in your capacity as custodian of the interests of those who work in the Westminster village. You will be aware of the speculation surrounding the leaking of Sir Christopher Kelly’s report and the impact that that is having upon a lot of individuals who work for MPs or are members of MPs’ families. I do not believe that it is tolerable that that speculation should be allowed to continue until next Wednesday.
It is well known that the report has been completed and is at the printers at the moment. I wonder whether it is within your power, Mr. Speaker, to order that the report should be published as soon as possible so that the speculation can be ended and we can answer questions from our staff based upon the facts in the report rather than speculation.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. It is not a parliamentary report that is being produced, and although I note that he either thinks that it is within my power to do as he asks or wishes to extend my power to ensure that it is, the present situation is that it is not. The report is due to be delivered to the Government by 4 November and published on that date.
I have heard the very serious point about the leakage that has taken place, and I say to the hon. Gentleman, who is an immensely experienced and perspicacious parliamentarian, that if he wants to address his concern to representatives of the Government, business questions might be a suitable opportunity for him to do so. I have a hunch that he will probably be there.
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 rentcharge companies to notify annually residents subject to chief rent of their statutory right to redeem their charge under the Rentcharges Act 1977; and for connected purposes.
I am pleased to have been given this opportunity to bring to the attention of the House a specific problem affecting properties in my constituency and a small number of others, and to provide a practical and, for the Government, cost-free method of resolving a long-standing problem. In short, I wish the existing law to be amended to allow for a tightening up of the regulations regarding chief rent charges and to prevent some of the bad practices that rentcharge companies have used on my constituents in recent years.
I first raised the issue of rentcharges in my maiden speech, and since then I have been contacted by a large number of local residents who have been caught up in various chief rent scams and have quite frankly been conned out of money, often hundreds of pounds, by estate management companies. Greater Manchester is one of only a handful of areas in the country where chief rents were legally established. Chief rent is a perpetual charge, a form of ground rent that is charged on freehold properties by a previous landowner. It affects properties only in small parts of the country including parts of Greater Manchester such as Tameside and Stockport in my constituency.
As with any charge, the resident is billed by the property company each year to pay the chief rent. It is often a very small sum of a few pounds a year, and because the charge remains at the level at which it was originally set in the deeds, it is of diminishing value in real terms to the rentcharge companies as time goes by.
Under the provisions of the Rentcharges Act 1977, the freeholder can unburden themselves of any annual rentcharge created before 22 August 1977 by applying to make a lump sum payment through the relevant Government office. In the case of my constituents, that is the Government office for the north-west. The Act provides a formula that enables the Government office to calculate the redemption figure that the rent payer has to pay the rent owner in order to redeem their rentcharge. That figure comes out at roughly 14 times the annual chief rent.
When the transaction has been completed, the Government office, on behalf of the Secretary of State, issues a redemption certificate to the rent payer. That provision was secured by intensive campaigning in the 1970s by a number of MPs, including my predecessor but one Ken Marks, who was the Member for Manchester, Gorton, in the days when much of my constituency was in that one. He also successfully campaigned to ensure that no new chief rents could be created after 1977 and that any rentcharges still in existence by 2037 would be automatically extinguished. However, those laudable changes unfortunately created some new challenges, as I will briefly explain to the House.
For all the time that I have been an elected representative, first as a councillor on Tameside metropolitan borough council and since 2005 as an MP, I have been contacted by many local constituents who have been subject to various underhand tactics by unscrupulous management companies. In the past, I have launched campaigns to warn residents throughout Tameside and Stockport about various chief rent scams. In the most recent scam, letters were sent out by property companies to local residents, offering a “cut-price reduction” for home owners to buy out their chief rent. One area where they targeted householders was the Dane Bank area of Denton, where the chief rents were set in the 1930s, generally at around £2 to £5 a year, depending on the size of the landholding. Had residents been made aware of the 1977 Government scheme, the average cost of buying out the rent would have been between £30 and £60 in total. The property company’s offer was for people to pay around £350 but, in a twist, there was a “special offer” whereby that was reduced to £250 for a limited period. In essence, people were being fleeced for hundreds of pounds by those property companies.
There are other examples of such practices. Companies sent out property surveys to see what improvements residents had made to their homes. When people filled out the details, they were hit with excessive charges for making alterations without having the rentcharge company’s permission to do so, despite being freeholders. Such administration and penalty charges can also run into hundreds of pounds.
It appears that that tactic is being used only on properties on which it is not now economically viable to collect the charge annually, so the companies are looking for other methods for raising income from the rentcharge. For years, rentcharge companies have been trying it on with residents, attempting to fleece them for as much money as they can, especially as the value of the rentcharge is worth less and less as time goes by. Frankly, it is outrageous that the companies can charge people for occupying land that, as freeholders, they own outright anyway. It is nothing short of a throwback to feudal times.
Until the rentcharges are extinguished in 2037, I want to ensure that my constituents are made fully aware of their rights to buy the rent out using the existing Government scheme. I would hate for even more local people, particularly vulnerable groups, to pay over the odds. That is why I am presenting this Bill.
My concern is that some residents who are unaware of the provisions in the 1977 Act will think that the £250 offers and the like are a good deal. I want to make local residents in Denton and Reddish, and elsewhere, aware that they can purchase their chief rent for a lot less money by filling in an application form and sending it to their Government office. That can be achieved very simply and at no cost by legally obliging all property companies to automatically notify residents of their rights under the 1977 Act to buy out their chief rent, in plain English and in a prominent way, when they send out demands for the charge each year.
Back in 1977 when the Rentcharges Act was being debated, probably nobody anticipated how rentcharges would be abused. The small changes proposed in my Bill will ensure that people are correctly notified about their existing statutory right to purchase and buy out chief rents, and most importantly, give them the absolute confidence that they are doing so at the correct price.
Question put and agreed to.
That David Heyes, Ann Coffey, James Purnell, Sir Gerald Kaufman, Tony Lloyd, Graham Stringer, Mr. Graham Brady, Mark Hunter, Andrew Stunell, Mr. John Leech, Jim Dobbin and Andrew Gwynne present the Bill.
Andrew Gwynne accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 30 October and to be printed (Bill 154).
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I came in very slightly too late to hear the gist of an earlier point of order made by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), but I gather that the document the Government have published today, which is referred to in our amendment, is not in the House of Commons Library and that it may not have been provided to the hon. Lady and other Opposition spokespersons. I deeply apologise for that. I personally attach great importance to the matter. I will endeavour to find out what went wrong, but for now, I give my apologies to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the House.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order and I know that what he has said will be appreciated by the House.
[20th Allotted Day]
Local Spending Reports
I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
I beg to move,
That this House welcomes the provisions of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 requiring the publication of local spending reports; believes that people have a right to know how their money is spent by public bodies; especially welcomes the assurances given by the then Minister for Local Government, the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth, that the local spending reports would include all public agencies; further welcomes the Minister’s assurance that the purpose was to achieve a report that identified how much would be spent in each area by the authorities; is therefore very concerned by the limited information available in the local spending reports produced by the Department for Communities and Local Government; believes them to be a contravention of the expressed assurances of the Minister; and calls for proper local spending reports to be published, which will give effect to those assurances.
Obviously, I appreciate the Secretary of State’s apology for the non-availability of the written ministerial statement to hon. Members. However, I am sure that hon. Members share with me just a touch of incredulity that the consultation report is being produced on the very day of the Opposition day debate. That we do not have access to the information will obviously have an impact on the quality of the debate. It is right to record that. We accept the apology, but the impact remains.
I shall proceed by setting out why we feel it is so important to revisit the issue of local spending reports and then spend some time looking at the implications of the Government’s failure to implement local spending reports as they were originally conceived in the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. In conclusion, I will look at how the policy should be implemented and at how, as elected representatives, we should go further and faster in responding to the public appetite for transparency and efficiency.
All hon. Members will be familiar with the history of the 2007 Act as many of us took part in its passage. As a Bill, it enjoyed genuine cross-party support and it would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to colleagues on both sides of the House, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), whose private Member’s Bill was responsible for the 2007 Act and who will wind-up the debate, and the hon. Members for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew), for all their hard work in getting this important piece of legislation on to the statute book.
Of themselves, those tributes emphasise the cross-party nature of the support for local spending reports. It is also fitting to record our thanks to the tireless efforts of Local Works, which has done so much to drive support for the 2007 Act. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will have received letters and e-mails from their constituents expressing strong support for the legislation.
Hon. Members will have noticed that the wording of today’s motion is based on that of early-day motion 1064, tabled by the hon. Member for Stroud. That early-day motion, like the original Bill, drew widespread cross-party support—254 signatures in total. In that spirit of cross-party working, let me say to Liberal Democrat colleagues how helpful it is for the debate that they have become co-signatories of today’s motion. I, for one, hope that that bodes for a constructive and conciliatory debate—an example of the new politics that people want to see.
To my mind, the reason why the Sustainable Communities Bill enjoyed so much support—not just in this House, but among the public—was that it was seen as a way of delivering a clear, tangible change in the balance of power between communities and their elected representatives. It was seen as a way of giving the people the tools with which they can better shape the communities where they live. Measures that could help to reverse the pattern of the development of ghost towns or to reduce local carbon emissions were seen to be strong moves in the right direction, and as a way to empower communities and give people more say over what happened in their locality.
However, arguably, the centrepiece of the 2007 Act is section 6, which is on local spending reports, and I shall focus for a moment on why the spending reports are so significant. On the one hand, it is a matter of transparency and accountability, but on the other, getting a clear understanding about where money is being spent is the key to getting better use of financial resources. If local strategic partnerships, which we all support, are really to deliver, they need the information that would have been provided in the local spending reports and must be able to get their arms around the totality of local spending.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is remarkable that in the case of Cumbria, the Local Government Association—presumably in collaboration with the Department—has managed to publish all of the relevant information, non-departmental public body by non-departmental public body and Department by Department? Does she agree that it is therefore likely that this information might already exist on the COINS—combined online information system—database and other Government databases?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that helpful information. Residents in Cumbria have access to the sort of information that we would all like to have. His intervention shows that providing such information is perfectly possible.
The information is the bedrock for finding out where there is duplication, where spending can be pooled or better aligned to optimise efficiency, and where funds can be reinvested or redirected for a better outcome. These reports are integral to ensuring that we get more for the money spent. In this time of recession, the imperative for that has never been stronger. On that basis, it is no surprise that early-day motion 1064 attracted such support.
Local spending reports are fairly innocuous in name, but hugely significant in nature. As colleagues will know, they were the key to unlocking the level of departmental spending in local areas. The clause provided for all public authorities to insist on local spending being publicised so that people could see where their hard-earned money was going, and if they wished, challenge it. Indeed, this was a clause lauded by Ministers at the time.
The former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Salford (Hazel Blears), said:
“Less of Whitehall calling the shots and more of men and women everywhere working with their council to set the agenda”.
The former Minister, now Minister for Borders and Immigration, said:
“The fundamental point of the reports would obviously be to aid transparency and accountability, but I believe that they would also have the beneficial effect of prompting serious debate in local areas”.––[Official Report, Sustainable Communities Public Bill Committee, 2 May 2007; c. 47.]
Against that backdrop, people rightly had high expectations of the Bill.
Age Concern and Help the Aged have publicly observed:
“A breakdown of all public spending would ultimately be of great benefit to older people, particularly with regards to transparency about spending on things like benefits and public services in local areas.”
The National Federation of Women’s Institutes has said:
“We urge the Government to deliver on their promise to publish the full local spending reports which are so vital to the Sustainable Communities Act. Local communities can only effectively use their right to have a say in their local services if they know how the money which was raised from their taxes is being spent.”
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations said:
“The voluntary sector fully supports the need for local spending reports as a breakdown of all public spending by local authority areas. This information would not only be valuable to voluntary organisations everywhere, it would also encourage more people to get involved in the Sustainable Community Act’s exciting new processes.”
There are other endorsements from third-party organisations of the need for local spending reports.
As a result, it may cause some consternation that colleagues find themselves having to use valuable parliamentary time today debating why the Government have watered down the scope of these vital local spending reports. In the consultation paper on spending reports, Ministers released details of a critical change so that the reports would now apply only to local authority spending and primary care trusts. To a large extent, that information is already available, but more significant than what the 2007 Act covers is what it does not cover. It is worth taking a moment to list those organisations missing from the current proposals for local spending reports. They include the Environment Agency; Natural England; Jobcentre Plus; the Health and Safety Executive; local probation boards; probation trusts; NHS foundation trusts; regional development agencies; the Learning and Skills Council; national health service trusts; Sport England; English Heritage; the Arts Council; the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council; the Highways Agency; and the Homes and Communities Agency.
Would it interest my hon. Friend to know that details for all the bodies that she has just listed are published in the case of Cumbria, making it slightly odd that they will not be published for the rest of the country?
Once again, my right hon. Friend’s observation about Cumbria shows that it is perfectly possible to provide such information for every area. The question is why that is not happening.
This huge chunk of public spending, which is channelled through non-departmental public bodies, including RDAs, has been granted an exemption. So what started out as a means of shining a light on the way that public money is spent seems to have ended up as more of a dull fog concealing the truth. I am sure all hon. Members will share my concern that many supporters of the Bill will see that as a fundamental breach of trust. They will know from their constituencies that when Local Works campaigners held public meetings and signed up supporters, this halfway house is not what they had in mind, and the practical working of this compromised position has set back what pioneers of the Bill sought to achieve. It makes a nonsense of the time spent debating the Bill, with so much work put in by hon. Members, only to end up with such a large proportion of public spending being exempted. In essence, that fatally undermines the power that people have to scrutinise and challenge where their money is being spent.
In my constituency, I am astonished that we are not able to find out where and when public money is being spent by our RDA. What I can ascertain is that significantly less public money is awarded to Advantage West Midlands than to One NorthEast—approximately half, to be precise. The figure is £55 per head in the west midlands, as opposed to £96 per head in the north-east for 2008-11. That will seem very strange to people in my area, which is so badly affected by the recession.
The hon. Lady is obviously not speaking as a constituency MP but as her party’s representative on these matters. May we take what you have just said as a clear indication that you would change the allocation of resources to RDAs on the lines that you have suggested? That would be very important news to many people—
Order. The Secretary of State is very experienced and he knows that he must use the correct parliamentary language.
I am sure that you would not want to have to answer such a disingenuous question, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Given that the Government are already in bad odour in the Chamber for failing to produce a document pertinent to today’s debate, attempting an intervention that is just point-scoring party politics is not a good start by a comparatively new Secretary of State.
The important point is that we want to know where the money is going. I cannot cross-reference how spending in the north-east compares with spending in the west midlands, but our constituents might reasonably expect us to be able to do so. Constituents in Cumbria are fortunate to have the opportunity to do so, but it is not generally available. Does the Secretary of State understand how infuriating it is to be kept in the dark over exactly where the money is going, and in what sort of quantity? It is not only infuriating, but disempowering for elected representatives and the communities that they serve.
The hon. Lady makes several points about the spending of RDAs. Why is her party failing to participate in the Regional Select Committees, which could look in detail at those very issues?
Most hon. Members find it an extraordinary afterthought that, so late in this Parliament, the Government have realised that there might be a problem with lack of accountability in the regional structures that they have tried to create. All of us understand that there is something fundamentally wrong with the regional structures that the Government have set up. My party would seek to solve that by returning powers to local government, where there is democratic accountability.
At a time of recession, when households are having to account for every penny carefully, and our national debt is forecast to grow by £240 billion a year, it is all the more poignant that people cannot see where their money is going. Insulating quangos from public scrutiny will serve only to strengthen people’s suspicion and distrust of quangos. They are seen as mandated by Whitehall to take the decisions that Ministers do not want their fingerprints on, and the bodies which spend taxpayers’ money are free from interrogation.
In recent years, the quango machinery has accelerated. In 2007, spending on non-departmental public bodies rose from £37 billion to £43 billion. That information comes from the Cabinet Office. There are now 1,152 quangos in the UK employing more than 500,000 people. The TaxPayers Alliance estimates that every year £90 billion of taxpayers’ money is spent by unelected quangos—equivalent to more than £3,500 for every household. The fact that the best that we can obtain is an estimate is telling in itself. Surely, we should all be entitled to know exactly how much money is being spent. My sense is that, if anything, £90 billion is probably on the low side.
Under the current regime, the figure will certainly be escalating. Let us take two examples with which the Secretary of State will be dealing. The Infrastructure Planning Commission is forecast to cost £10 million a year and will take the most controversial planning decisions out of the hands of elected representatives, but despite the scale of its finances and the impact of its decision-making power, it is not covered by the 2007 Act.
Just when we thought that public patience with elaborate and unaccountable quangos, which have failed to deliver in important areas such as housing, had run out, the Government have put them on a life support machine in the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill. RDAs will now be spending vast sums of taxpayers’ money on functions that they were never designed to deliver and taking decisions over some of the most controversial aspects of housing and planning. Yet RDAs, along with the rest of the quangos, have been exempted from the 2007 Act.
At a time when every publicly funded organisation is having to demonstrate its value for money, I cannot believe that the RDAs welcome being veiled in secrecy. Ironically, the RDAs might be better placed to advocate their case if they were covered by the 2007 Act. The quango culture is of a piece with public suspicion that politicians seek to abrogate responsibility and spend taxpayers’ money without recourse. That corrosive cynicism is undermining our democracy and we need an antidote to it. People need to know how much is being spent, by whom and on what. Could it be the case that at the back of the Government’s decision to dilute the requirements for publishing spending, there is a genuine concern that people would be horrified at the level of waste? What is incontrovertible, however, is that opening up the books would enable people to see just how their area compares to others in the share of funding that it gets.
Having set out how and why I believe that the Government have got it wrong in compromising the scope of local spending reports, I want to advocate how we might better match the reality of the 2007 Act with the rhetoric of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill. For a start, we should honour the commitment given by Parliament to enact the legislation in full. As legislators, we should aim to meet not just the letter but the spirit of the legislation and really open up spending to local scrutiny and counter-bid.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have sought opportunities to do this, and I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) and for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) recently tabled amendments to the Bill to that effect. Sadly, however, those were to no avail. It is clear, therefore, that if the public’s desire for transparency in local spending is to be realised, it will take bold action. On my part, I believe that we should go further than the terms of the Bill, and that we should be bolder and even more radical in the quest to get transparency and accountability into public spending.
The Conservative party has made it clear that under a Conservative Government councils would have to publish online details of all expenditure over £500—already some Conservative councils, such as Windsor and Maidenhead, do that. That will let people see, at the click of a mouse, how their local authority is using their money. The emphasis will be on making the data easy to access, easy to understand and easy to compare with other councils.
That cannot be said of the current format in which the sustainable communities spending reports are being published. I consider myself to be fairly adept with Excel, and those reports are a cautionary lesson in making information at best opaque, and at worst simply indecipherable. However, the key to making those council spending reports valuable as a means of scrutiny is our pledge to abolish the entire regional tier of government and repatriate power to democratically elected councils. That would solve at a stroke the problem of regional bodies not being covered by the 2007 Act.
Our approach of discharging as much power as possible to elected councils, rather than unelected quangos, will give real force to the power of publishing spending online. We would also go back to the source—the grant formula—and make it more transparent. That, along with the power of local referendums and our commitment to phasing out ring-fencing, would deliver a sea change in the way we do politics. We are intent on devolving real power to councils so that they can deliver on the priorities and needs of their communities.
That approach is best summed up in our policy of giving councils a general power of competence—a power to enshrine the presumption that councils could, and should, be free to act in accordance with the wishes of the communities that they serve. However, in return, the communities deserve to be given the tools to hold those councils to account. They have to have at their disposal the information and the levers of power to challenge spending decisions and get things changed.
Is that not at the heart of the original motivation behind the spending reports that we are debating? It is a silver thread that has been running for some time in various incarnations but with very limited success—from local area agreements, to local strategic partnerships, the 2007 Act and, most recently, the Total Place initiative. Sadly, however, none of those manifestations has delivered what we need, which is why we find ourselves here today. We are in the early days of the Total Place pilots, and Conservative Members are watching with interest to see whether the Government can crack it.
It all goes back to the money, however. Bringing budget holders around the table can yield great results, but it is predicated on knowing what money is spent, by whom and on what.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again, and I am glad to tell her that this intervention relates to Dorset, rather than Cumbria. Does she think it as important as I do that the Secretary of State explains how, in the Total Place pilot in Dorset, all Government agencies have been able to reveal their figures—this time, not published—to the other partnership authorities in Dorset?
When the Secretary of State replies, he will have a golden opportunity to explain those discrepancies.
I shall draw my opening comments to a close, because I am keen that others have an opportunity to speak. It is an important debate because it goes beyond the subject of local spending reports and to the heart of what the public expect of us and how Parliament responds to them. The past year has been a deeply damaging one for this institution. We have been left with a clear, unambiguous instruction from voters that they are sick of public money being spent behind closed doors. They want to see where their money is going and whether it is being used efficiently. Politicians ignore that at their peril. The Government’s desire to keep public spending under wraps is completely at odds with where the public are.
The organisation Unlock Democracy put the matter well when it said:
“With the current acute public disillusionment of politics it could not be more timely for the government to commit to publishing full Local Spending Reports, as already promised by”
a previous Minister. As politicians, we are on notice that we have to live up to the high standards expected of us, which is why backtracking is so dangerous. The tide of public opinion has turned. It is unflinching and there is no going back. People are no longer content to defer to distant individuals or faceless organisations over how their money is spent. They are determined to know.
I firmly believe that Parliament, as with any organisation in receipt of public funds, has a moral and unquestionable duty to make public how it spends our money. To resist that will only foster more of the kind of distrust, cynicism and resentment that we have already seen when taxpayer-funded organisations refuse to come clean on where the money is going. We have to show that we are better than that. Delivering in full on local spending reports would do that. With sadness, however, I say to colleagues that those reports have not been forthcoming in the way that hon. Members on both sides of the House had hoped. In recognition of that, I urge colleagues to support this motion so that we can go some way to restoring the House’s integrity in the eyes of supporters of the 2007 Act.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:
“recognises the role of strong, accountable local government in delivering high quality local services and entitlements to services whilst ensuring value for money; welcomes Government investment, through local councils, in providing real help now to families; reiterates the importance of providing information about local spending and service quality to ensuring effective scrutiny and value for money; further welcomes the passage of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 and the Government’s commitment to work with the Selector on its implementation, and believes that the first local spending reports published in April 2009 marked an important initial step in making local public spending more transparent; further welcomes responses to the consultation confirming the desire to see more data published; welcomes the Government’s intention to extend local spending reports to cover all local public spending which can be readily provided in this format at reasonable cost; further welcomes the Government’s proposals to extend local authorities’ scrutiny of all local public service spending in their area; further welcomes the Total Place pilots mapping in detail all public spending in key services in 13 areas; further welcomes Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s work advising Government on how best to make non-personal public data as widely available as possible; believes that these developments will enhance the Government’s ability to provide local spending information in the most effective manner; and asks Ministers to report back to the House before the end of December 2009 on the next stages in developing local spending reports.”
This is an important debate. I want to go through what has been achieved so far and what the next steps are. I did not think that the speech by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) showed an enormous grasp of the nature of public data and how they are made available or of what has been done so far and what will be done in future. I regret that, because I believe that those public data are important. It is also important that we build on what has been done so far.
There are clearly some conceptual difficulties. Whatever the merits of, for example, the Infrastructure Planning Commission—I think that they are considerable, but that is a debatable point and has been debated in the House—it is a national body, as is the Supreme Court. It had not occurred to me to previously that the Supreme Court should be covered by local spending reports. Presumably the spending should be divided by the number of local authorities and put into a report, but would it really help to subdivide what are essentially national institutions into local reports? The hon. Lady told us that the IPC and similar bodies—presumably including the armed forces and so on—should be included in local spending reports. However, we need a bit of clarity about the purposes behind the legislation, because that will enable us to look at what can reasonably be done in future.
Does the Secretary of State not understand that councils, particularly during this recession, are trying to develop policies to help local people get back into jobs? The absence of figures for regional development agencies and Jobcentre Plus is not only a disincentive in itself, but fundamentally works against the notion of partnership that is needed for such activities.
I agree about the importance of such information. I was merely making the point that suggesting, as the hon. Member for Meriden did, that expenditure in institutions that operate at a national level should be covered in local spending reports is a misunderstanding of what the original 2007 Act was about. It would be better to concentrate on how we make relevant and timely information available on genuinely local public spending.
The ground that we are covering today has been fairly well trodden in recent weeks and months, but is no less important for that. There are two things that we should try to do in this debate. The first is to establish the importance of information on local spending in driving the delivery of effective, personal, high-quality and value-for-money public services. However, we also need to establish the deep divide that now separates the two major parties on the future of local government. Perhaps I could start by setting that scene first.
I recognise that there is a superficial rhetorical similarity between the commitments of the parties to decentralisation, but in practice they are a long way apart. Time and again in yesterday’s Communities and Local Government questions, we saw Opposition Members lining up to remind us that their local government policy is against growth, against jobs, against homes, against sensible transport planning and against the regional development agencies, which have helped to support numerous businesses through the downturn.
Surely the help that local businesses have received via the RDAs is a classic example of regional spending having an impact at a local level, where it would be beneficial for the public to know the quantities of money being spent in their areas.
I will come to that point, although I am glad that the hon. Lady does not seem to share the desire of the Conservative Opposition simply to do away with those structures and pretend that nothing should exist between central Government and local expenditure. That is a huge gulf between us, and it puts the Opposition in a terribly weak position when they try to argue that they have policies that will help us come out of recession and deliver decent public services.
The Secretary of State is right that there is a gulf between the two sides on the future of regional development agencies, but what on earth does that have to do with local spending reports? While he is on his feet, could he address the issue in the Opposition motion? For example, how can we take the experience being developed in Leicestershire through the Total Place initiative, which focuses on drugs and alcohol and which the Government say they support, and use it outside Leicestershire if, say, the youth offending service or the probation service does not publish the information that would allow other local authorities to use that experience?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. He says that the Government say that they support Total Place, but the Government invented it. We are driving Total Place forward, and I am grateful for his support for it.
I will come to Total Place, the lessons that we can learn from it and how it fits into the wider picture in due course. However, it is important in a debate on local government to set the policy scene behind the demand for local information. The hon. Member for Meriden wrote in August urging Conservative-controlled councils to go slow on making land available for housing and jobs. That was an act of gross and irresponsible economic vandalism, but it speaks volumes about the Conservative party’s approach. Any discussion that we have about local spending information needs to set in that context.
Actually, the Secretary of State is going the right way about committing his own economic vandalism, by misrepresenting the policies of the Conservative Opposition and stoking unjustified fears about our clear plans to provide more housing and more jobs, which his Government have failed to provide.
Given the support that the hon. Lady gave to Conservative councils to resist attempts to provide land for housing, she has some difficultly in trying to explain how that would provide the land needed for housing.
The second point about local spending plans is that the Opposition would like there to be a lot less local spending. They are on record as saying that my Department should have its spending cut by £1 billion this year—not next year or when we look at deficit reduction, but this year. That is hugely damaging. I agree that making local spending information available is important, but it is also worth noting that the Conservative party fundamentally believes that there should be far less spending, although it has never been open and straightforward about its plan. The Opposition proposals are wrong, because they would damage recovery and lead to further huge cuts in housing, on top of their desire to block housing.
The background to this debate is that Government Members believe in strong, accountable and effective local government, able to influence the whole of public service spending in its area. We believe in devolution on principle, but we also believe in it for a purpose: to deliver high-quality public services while making each taxpayers’ pound work as hard as it can. We see devolution as a way of entrenching people’s entitlements to public services and ensuring that they are delivered. The proposals that I set out last July to extend the scrutiny power of local government will ensure that councils and councillors have the power to challenge how every pound of local public service money is spent.
The Conservatives couple the localisation of power with the abandonment of any concept of, or commitment to, the standards of service that citizens have a right to enjoy. That is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is a charter to make the postcode lottery the founding principle of conservatism in local government. The Conservatives have given the green light for “Ryanair councils”, where people have to pay twice—once in tax and then in an extra tax—to get a decent service.
I make that point because although the hon. Member for Meriden spoke a great deal about local spending, she said almost nothing about information on the quality of local services. That is not a surprise, because as part of their package, the Conservatives have promised to abolish targets, end standards and stop entitlements. They have also promised to stop inspections: they do not want to check on standards because there will not be any. Government Members support local spending reports, but I am sure that they agree that it is the outcome of the spending—the quality of service that our constituents receive—that matters most.
We can have a debate about local quality reports another day, but could we come to local spending reports—something to which the Secretary of State has so far made only glancing references? That is the subject of the motion on the Order Paper.
The Conservatives are uncomfortable when it is set out in front of them what their policies mean for the quality of local public services, so I am not surprised that I am being urged to move on. I will do so, but it is important to put this on record. There is a great deal of interest in the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill outside this Chamber, and it is important to put on record the fact that there is no cosy consensus between us and the Conservatives on the future of local government and of local government services; there is in fact a big divide.
Before we knew the subject for today’s debate, I had already arranged to speak at the Royal Society of Arts, and I gave a lecture there last Wednesday on the future of local government. If I may, I should like to read from the part of that lecture that is directly relevant to today’s discussion. I said:
“Public data is an essential tool in creating pressure to drive improvements in public services—on the old principle that knowledge is power. It puts all the information, and therefore the power, in the hands of users, service providers and would-be providers—including social enterprises. People should be able to compare the outcomes and the costs for their own local services with the services delivered elsewhere, and suggest means of improving and driving change. An open data policy as part of our broader efforts towards democratic renewal is important for creating a culture in which Government information is accessible and useful to as many people as possible”.
That is a statement of principle that I am happy to restate in this House. It is, of course, exactly what local spending reports are about.
I want to set out what we have done so far, what the next steps will be and, crucially, how the Government’s wider policies for the reform of local government, local public spending and public data openness will continue to transform the availability of public data. As the House knows, we have completed the first stage of local public spending reports. There has been some suggestion in this debate that the Government have in some way significantly deviated from promises made at the time the Sustainable Communities Bill was being discussed, and that we have backtracked on them. In the debate on 2 May 2007, the Minister then responsible, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), rightly said:
“The local spending report would cover all public expenditure in each local authority area in so far as it is possible to define it.”––[Official Report, Sustainable Communities Public Bill Committee, 2 May 2007; c. 46.]
In that same debate, which many hon. Members attended, he also entered a number of caveats—[Interruption.] This is relevant, because the suggestion has been made in this debate that the Government’s response to that legislation was dishonest or disingenuous. It is therefore important to remind the House of the reasonable and practical qualifications that the then Minister made when talking about the public expenditure reports.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
I should like to make a little progress, then I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman.
My hon. Friend went on to say that he was talking about
“expenditure that can be easily identified as relating to a particular area”.
I have previously made the point about the desire of the hon. Member for Meriden to include the Infrastructure Planning Commission in this, but it would be difficult in an annual report to identify how much of that expenditure related to a particular area. My hon. Friend went on to say:
“We do not propose to create a new power to require additional information to be provided”.––[Official Report, Sustainable Communities Public Bill Committee, 2 May 2007; c. 51.]
He also said that the clause that was being discussed specified that the cost of producing the report must be limited.
I do not believe that what we have today represents the end of the process. I am simply making the point that it was clear from everything that my hon. Friend the Minister said at that time that there would be some limits on the data that were initially provided as part of this process. The important thing about today’s discussion is to determine how we move forward from where we are.
It was in response to me that the then Minister made several of those remarks in that debate. The impression that he gave was very clear to all present, and it was confirmed in discussions outside the Committee Room. It was that there would be detailed reports. There are detailed reports produced by others, which are based on Government information. That Government information has not been published. The Secretary of State cannot stand there and say that the Government have done what they committed themselves to do. I regret that, but that is the fact.
The Government made it clear at that stage that there were limits to what would be immediately provided, and that there were some absolute limits on what could be provided. This is an important point, and I will come in a moment to the case of Cumbria and to other examples. It is a completely wrong charge to suggest that what the Government have done so far represents a stepping back from the commitments that we made at that time. What we have now does not represent the complete process, but it does not represent a stepping back.
Does the Secretary of State accept, given the large numbers of individuals and organisations that supported these measures, that this will have undermined their confidence in the process and made them less confident that it will be successful? Is not that the fundamental problem? If we are trying to encourage people to participate, will not this failure to meet their expectations undermine that?
When I was listening to the hon. Member for Meriden earlier, I certainly shared the concern that if that is what has been communicated outside the House about the reasonable expectations and the Government’s attitude, it might well have had that effect. I share that concern, and it is something that I wish to address. It is important for Members of the House to provide information to those outside in a reasonable and balanced way.
I want the Secretary of State to address his mind to a specific question. The list of institutions relating to practical objections to the publication of this information locally includes the probation service. Will he explain what the practical objections are to publishing local information about the cost in each locality of the probation service?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point, and it is one that I wish to pursue in suggesting that the House support my amendment proposing a further report in December. I do not believe that the job is yet done in a number of areas.
Let me refresh the House’s memory on where we had got to. The first stage of local spending reports was published on 29 April. The data that they contained were wider than those originally proposed in the first consultation. Although the House has been told the opposite this afternoon, they include data on spending by the Department for Work and Pensions. That was not on the list, and the House has been told that it is not on the list, but it is on the list. In addition to principal local government spending, the data include police, fire, waste disposal, passenger transport, park authorities, strategic health authorities, ambulance trusts, NHS trusts, primary care trusts and spending by the DWP.
That first stage covered the data that were held in Government at—or primarily at—principal local authority level, and which could be made available without incurring significant additional costs. There is an important point to be made here. It is at that local authority level that the focus of interest lies. The first port of call in the exercise involved the data that were already held in Government systems, aggregated at principal local authority area level, that could be made available.
It is clear to everyone that a great deal of local public spending is not covered by the first stage of the reports. That is why we are having the debate this afternoon. Given my commitment to openness of data—and the statement that I made last week, when I was unaware that this debate was going to take place—I want to share frankly with the House some of the challenges involved in moving to the next stage.
Do Ministers know what these data would reveal? Are they therefore embarrassed for others to know about them? Or do they want to be in ignorance?
If the right hon. Gentleman had waited for just a moment longer, he would have heard me explain that these are serious and practical issues that are worthy of a proper debate. Given the experience of right hon. and hon. Members who will speak later, I hope that they will also address them.
First, there is the question of how we characterise the spending that takes place physically in one area but serves a much wider area. Universities and prisons would be two contrasting examples. In one sense, leaving them out of the picture entirely is unsatisfactory, but pretending that the universities of Southampton and Southampton Solent are properly to be included only in Southampton’s local spending report would be equally unsatisfactory. Some very significant areas of public spending do not fit neatly into local spending reports. It would be useful to hear in our debate—I am genuinely interested in this point—whether the mood of the House is that it would be better for this to appear as expenditure on two major universities in Southampton’s spending report and nowhere else in the country, or whether it should be shared.
The hon. Member for Meriden referred several times to quangos. One quango that has had its expenditure doubled in real terms under this Government is the Higher Education Funding Council; I used to be responsible for it. I was once, for my sins, a member of Hampshire county council’s education committee in the 1980s when the then Portsmouth polytechnic and the Southampton institute of higher education were funded by local government. One of the best things that the previous Conservative Government ever did in education policy was to move those significant higher education institutions out of local government control in order to fund them centrally. We now have two significant additional universities in Hampshire that did not exist then, and they are much more successful because of the autonomy that they have gained.
I make that point because an argument running through this debate is that quango expenditure is by nature illegitimate, funds nothing of any great value and should simply be included in local public spending reports. [Interruption.] That was the gist of what the hon. Member for Meriden had to say. I do not accept that. When people outside hear the Conservative party attacking quangos in this way—[Interruption.] One of the reasons why the amount of money spent has gone up is because the Government have invested a lot extra in areas such as higher education. Of course the expenditure has gone up, but it is not a bad thing; this is what enables our constituents’ children to go to university and benefit from it. I raise this as a serious issue for discussion: why should Winchester prison, or Southampton and Southampton Solent universities, for example, feature in a local spending report? I shall come on to some other examples in a few moments.
I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman so that he can answer my question.
I will, indeed. Let me give the Secretary of State a very comforting answer, which he could take back to the officials who, to our certain knowledge, have resisted this idea for three years. If he makes a judgment and states the assumption, we are happy. We are happy to have a public debate about whether the assumptions on which allocations are made are reasonable. It does not matter what they are to begin with, as long as they are open and public. Will the Secretary of State please just tell all the officials that what the House of Commons, across the parties, would like is the real McCoy on the basis of simplified assumptions, which are stated? The Secretary of State will then not have to worry about any of these questions, as they will be debated in public.
That would be one way of approaching it, although I fear that it might be misleading. The question of Cumbria has come up; indeed, the right hon. Gentleman himself may have raised it. There are two points to be made here—I shall come back to the second—and the one for this afternoon’s debate, in which I have some interest, is that Cumbria’s public spending includes expenditure at Sellafield. Everybody says that Cumbria has £7 billion of public expenditure—a figure that I have used myself in articles and debates. That appears to suggest, at face value, that public expenditure on public services in Cumbria is the same as in the city of Birmingham. I have to say that we must be careful in this process not to produce misleading results.
I think that the right hon. Gentleman accepts the point of principle that I am making, even if he disagrees with the conclusion I have reached.