House of Commons
Monday 2 November 2009
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Before I answer that question, I am sure the whole House will want to join with me in paying tribute to Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, of 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, who died over the weekend in Afghanistan. He was a man of great courage and dedication, and the thoughts and prayers of the whole House will be with his family and friends.
The Territorial Army has made a vital contribution to operations in Afghanistan since 2001. It has worked with, and supported, our regular forces in a wide variety of roles, such as acting as medics and trainers, and providing force protection and combat support.
May I join the Secretary of State in paying my respects, and will he join me in paying tribute to the London Regiment, which has served with great distinction in Afghanistan in 2007, and is due to go out again next year? Does he agree that the TA has come into its own in recent years because of the knowledge, experience and maturity that it brings to sensitive operations? Did he take that into account in reaching his sensible decision last week to continue full-scale training of the TA?
I agree with my hon. Friend about the contribution that has been made by the TA over time, and about the skills—niche skills—and maturity that members of the TA can bring to our operational theatres. As he says, the London brigade is the lead cohort for infantry for Herrick 12 next year. Altogether, 130 men will be mobilised on 16 November. I thank that brigade for the part it will play in organising that deployment.
Now that the “one Army” concept has been, at the very least, severely damaged by the decisions of the regular generals last week, how does the Secretary of State believe it will feed through to retention rates within the TA? Has he considered another blow to morale—to all those small employers who have supported so generously their personnel going off on active duty?
I hear what the hon. Lady says about the attitude of the regulars towards the reserves, but I do not think that it is fair at all. There were tough choices to be made, and in-year savings had to be found. They were not in any way easy to find, and they certainly were not easy to find among the regulars. It would be wrong for us to attempt to increase any feelings that there might be between the territorials and the regulars.
In considering the role of the TA as well as the regular Army in Afghanistan, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that armies understand—they do not necessarily have to agree—precisely what their role is? Does he also agree that there is now considerable ambiguity in Afghanistan, especially following the withdrawal of Abdullah Abdullah from the presidential election, and that there is a need for the international community to build a new consensus on the way forward, which should include all the regional power groups in Afghanistan?
I agree that the politics need to advance a long way in Afghanistan. Abdullah Abdullah’s decision to withdraw, and the decision taken this morning by the electoral commission to accept that there is therefore no need for a second round, point up the difficulties we have in this area, but they are also welcome, because there was no point in a second round when the decision had effectively been taken.
I must say to my hon. Friend that I have talked to troops in theatre, and they know that they are not the answer in Afghanistan—there has to be a political answer—but they clearly know what their role is. They know that they are a force for good, and they know the work they are doing, and they do not allow themselves to be distracted from it by the political problems that they see and understand.
The overall strategic direction of the reserve forces was set by the strategic review of the reserves, a copy of which was placed in the Library of the House on 28 April 2009. This overall direction, and the Government’s commitment to the reserve forces, including the TA, remains unchanged.
I cannot recall to what degree the hon. Gentleman engaged with the discussions that we had at the time that we published that review, but it was a strategic review that laid a framework for the future of our reserve forces. It acknowledged the funding issues that would have to be dealt with separately. Just because there were and are resource constraints, it does not mean that we should stop people doing the necessary thinking that needs to take place about the strategic direction of the reserve. Yes, some of the implementation will have to wait until resources are available and will have to stand in line for resources, along with the Department’s other priorities.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the common-sense decision to reverse the cut. Can we now look to the future, and will he use his good offices to rebuild the trust between the TA and Land Forces, and ensure that we never see any future cuts of that sort?
I will seek to do what my hon. Friend says, but I have to say that Defence faces tough choices. As I said the other week and repeat again today, in the present circumstances I am unashamed about the fact that Afghanistan is my top priority. If that means that we have to push more resources in that direction, we will seek to do so. Inevitably, that means that other things will have to be brought forward to pay for that increased priority.
Last week’s U-turn leaves unfinished business, which the Secretary of State ducked during Wednesday’s debate about the TA. His silence on in-year cuts to the Army cadets and the Officer Training Corps, leaked in his Department’s 12 October memo, was deafening. Does he not recognise that penny-pinching in relation to the cadets puts high-quality TA and regular recruitment at risk? What effect does he think that that will have downstream on our ability to support current and future operations?
Where is the clarity about the decisions that would have to be taken by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues? They criticise everything that is done, but are not prepared or able to say what they would do. Tough choices need to be taken, and if people are trying to present themselves as capable of governing, they have to be prepared—as the shadow Chancellor knows—to take those choices. It is clear that the shadow Defence team are not.
We have adequate training facilities for the reserve forces, but they are not organised in the most efficient way. That is why, as part of ongoing efficiency work, we are seeking to identify several rationalisation measures.
When I asked a written question last week about the future of the Browndown training facility in my constituency, I was told that there was a review of operations and several rationalisation measures had been identified. If rationalisation means the closure or restricted use of training facilities, it would have a devastating effect on cadet and reserve activity. What future can we look to for cadets in particular, as they are so important for future recruitment?
I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a real interest in this issue within his constituency. I do not believe that his statement that the rationalisation measures will have a devastating effect will be borne out by the evidence. It is a reality that as a part of ongoing efficiency work and a Department-wide exercise to deliver savings, we have conducted a review of operations and identified several rationalisation measures. Browndown camp has been included in that review, and while at this stage no firm decision on the future of the facility has yet been taken, I can give him the reassurance that whatever our eventual decision is, it is anticipated that parts of Browndown, in particular the dry training area, will continue to be used.
RAF Search and Rescue
The Government remain committed to 24/7 search and rescue cover across the UK. I have recently instructed planned crew reductions to be reversed to ensure that the first-class service that the RAF provides can continue to be sustained. We are aiming for the changes to be in place by early summer 2010. In the meantime, to avoid excessive strain on the force and to manage resources better, a programme of planned, rotating and temporary night closures will be necessary while we train the additional crews. The harmonised search and rescue helicopter service will continue to be provided from 12 UK bases.
I welcome the Minister’s decision to reverse a mistaken earlier decision to cut the number of crews. Given the number of occasions on which RAF Boulmer’s search and rescue has been put out of action, because of either 12-hour operation or failures, will he give considerable attention to the need to maintain full 24-hour cover wherever possible, and can he tell us what implications that has for the privatisation contract?
We intend to continue with the PFI project for search and rescue, which will provide an effective way forward. A decision was taken last year that we could operate on the basis of 24 crews. As soon as it became clear to me that that was not possible, I immediately instructed that we move back up to 28 crews, which I know the right hon. Gentleman welcomed. I also know that he and a number of other Members have particular concerns about the issue. It is extremely complicated, but as I said to him when we spoke on Friday, I shall be more than happy in the next week to arrange a meeting to discuss it.
I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with the exact figure immediately following questions. The original decision was to move from 28 crews down to 24. We are at 26 crews today, but I have reversed that decision and we will go back up to 28. However, even where there is an ad hoc closure at one of the bases, we meet our response times by providing search and rescue from a neighbouring base.
I welcome what the Minister said about the short-term measures that he is taking, but will he clarify the situation post-2012? Is it still his intention that three of the 12 bases will run on a 12-hour basis, not on a 24-hour basis? There is grave concern in the south-west, where people simply cannot understand why, if three bases are to run on a 12-hour basis, two of them—Portland and Chivenor—should run contiguously, leaving Culdrose to cover the Atlantic, the English channel, the Bristol channel, the south-west peninsula and Wales.
The answer is yes. We still intend to operate three of the bases on a 12-hour basis post-2012. We have been able to reach that conclusion because since we started the process, the industry solutions available have meant faster helicopters and faster response times. However, as I said earlier, I recognise the detailed concern about the issue, and I will include the hon. Gentleman in the meeting that I shall organise very shortly.
In Afghanistan, the threat is from the Taliban-led insurgency, which continues to rely on the use of improvised explosive devices against our forces. That is why this year we have deployed 200 specialist counter-IED troops, together with new equipment, including vehicles, and increased flying hours for unmanned aerial vehicles, to find and defuse mines, and IEDs and to identify and target the networks that produce them. Regionally, the activity of violent extremists in Pakistan is a threat to both wider security and Afghanistan itself. More widely, the international community has trained more than 90,000 Afghan troops. The new Afghan national army will establish its headquarters in Helmand next year to take part in operations in partnership with units from the international security assistance force. Finally, the commander of ISAF, General McChrystal, has said that the military security situation in Afghanistan is serious, but that we can succeed.
The Secretary of State will have seen from press reports at the weekend that the most senior British Army officer killed in Afghanistan, Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, wrote to his superiors just before he died warning that the shortage of helicopters would cost lives, as more journeys would have to be taken by road. He said that the system for managing helicopter movements was
“very clearly not fit for purpose”.
Why is that?
The hon. Gentleman will have seen and heard, I hope, the Chief of the Defence Staff on the television at the weekend explaining the helicopter situation and saying what I have said in the House repeatedly, which is that helicopters are not a panacea. Yes, any commander would like more helicopters, but people plan operations on the basis of the equipment that they have. I also have to tell the hon. Gentleman that I spent the weekend listening to one of his hon. Friends telling the world about how we could have more helicopters in theatre by Christmas, as provided by one of his mates. He cannot be a very close mate, because I do not think that he gave him the detail.
Given that our troops in theatre clearly find it difficult to work with the Afghan national police, because of issues of corruption and the ANP’s close links with the Taliban, and given that our NATO allies the Germans are meant to be sorting out the ANP, does the Secretary of State think that the Germans are going far enough or fast enough to address the problem?
The development of the Afghan national police is a serious long-term issue that has to be addressed. Yes, the Germans are the lead nation in that regard, but we all need to make a contribution. The progress that has been made with regard to the Afghan national army needs to be speeded up. We can do that through partnering and we can get to a position where the Afghan national army is increasingly able to look after security in its country. But the population will depend on a non-corrupt police force, so effort has to be put in that direction, and it has to be led by the Afghan Government themselves. Those are the things that we need to be saying to the new Afghan Administration.
Now that we at last have an end to this election period, we need to prevail on the Afghan Government to be inclusive, to build good governance in the various different parts of the country—we have seen the benefit of that in Helmand province, where we have had a good governor for some time—and to tackle the very deep levels of corruption in Afghanistan. Unless the Afghan people can see a Government who are of benefit to them, all the efforts of our brave forces will not get us very far. That has to be the main focus of our effort and that of our allies.
Like many other Members, I have been travelling here through the day, so I was slightly taken by surprise when the Secretary of State referred to the election period as being over. Perhaps I have missed the lunch time news. [Hon. Members: “Yes, you have.”] Mr. Speaker, we will all be very relieved that British troops’ lives are not being risked to enable us to go through the absurdity of a Soviet-style election with one candidate.
Last week’s Nimrod report is of significance in Afghanistan because we have been using Nimrod assets there a great deal for the security of our services. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that the lessons will be learned from the last strategic defence review, and that the Nimrod system will not be in the turmoil that it was found to have been in previously?
The hon. Gentleman has missed the news that the electoral commission has announced that in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, with Abdullah Abdullah having withdrawn from the race, there is no need for a second round. That in itself will be good news to our forces in Afghanistan.
With regard to the Nimrod, the fault was found with our airworthiness systems in the MOD, and we will have to look at the detail of the report. I gave the House a commitment that I would come back to it before the Christmas recess with the lessons that we have learned, and with our plans for how to deal with the recommendations of the report.
The whole House, including the Liberal Democrats, will be glad that the farce of a run-off election in Afghanistan with a single candidate has been averted, because to have put our troops at risk to secure an election process with only one possible outcome would have been an obscenity.
The Prime Minister said on 13 July that the extra British troop deployment was until the end of the Afghan election period. When he phoned President Karzai today to congratulate him, did they discuss troop numbers? When will we get a clear statement of the Government’s intentions?
The Prime Minister has already announced, a week or two ago, that we would extend the additional troops that we put in for the election period and make them permanent. We have also announced, as I think the hon. Gentleman knows, that, if certain conditions are met, we will agree to a further troop uplift of another 500 troops, taking us to 9,500.
I hoped that we might get some clarity here. The Government recently stated that a further potential troop uplift would be to augment the mission, improve the protection for our armed forces and speed up the training of the Afghan national army. The Government then applied conditions, including an increased commitment from European NATO members. As the Bratislava meeting last week made it clear that they will not make that commitment, how long will the Government allow that issue to be a smokescreen for inaction? If their reasons—the safety of our forces and the success of the mission—are so compelling, why the delay?
It is not a smokescreen at all. The hon. Gentleman ought to welcome the fact that we are not prepared to put in the further troops until we can satisfy ourselves that the equipment levels are adequate for the increased force, or until we have had an opportunity to talk in detail to all our allies, including the United States of America, about what contribution they are making. Heaven knows there are people on the hon. Gentleman’s side—including the hon. Gentleman himself—who complain all the time about burden sharing. Now, here we are, trying to talk to people about their own burden and their preparedness to put forces into Afghanistan, yet he wants us to say, “Let’s forget about that and put the extra troops in now.” That really is nonsense.
The lack of clarity in the Government’s position will be extremely worrying for our forces. Let me try another angle. It is becoming increasingly clear that a major threat to our security comes from Pakistan. Given the apparent discovery in Waziristan last week of passports and documents relating to the Madrid train bombers and the 9/11 hijackers, will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to remind the House and the country that our military mission in Afghanistan and the actions being taken in Pakistan are primarily about national security, and that reconstruction and development, while complementary, are not the reason why our troops are in Afghanistan?
I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman: I have never tried to suggest otherwise. The reason why we keep our troops in Afghanistan is directly and primarily associated with our national security and our national interests. What the Pakistanis are doing on their side of the border is obviously complementary to that. We should help them where they are prepared to accept assistance, and congratulate them on the headway that they have made and their greater preparedness to take on terrorists in their own country.
At the recent informal NATO meeting, I discussed Afghanistan with my Canadian counterpart and the Dutch Defence Minister. As my hon. Friend knows, they both have plans to reduce their commitment: the Dutch in 2010 and the Canadians in 2011. I am hopeful that they will continue to do the maximum that they feel able to do, but I have to say to my hon. Friend that I did not get the level of comfort that I would have liked from either of those two colleagues at that meeting.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out in his oral statement to the House of 19 October a number of steps that we will take, in the light of the Gray report, to build on earlier and current reforms and to deliver a radical improvement in performance. Building on this, we intend to publish a wider, more detailed strategy for acquisition reform in the new year.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he not accept that the Gray report shows the need for an immediate strategic defence review? Will that be enshrined in law, and will we now get the 10-year and 20-year rolling equipment budgets that the report recommends?
We were already committed, before the publication of the Gray review, to a strategic defence review, which will start next year. We are undertaking quite a lot of preparatory work for that now.
The Minister will have seen reports about the joint strike fighter and the aircraft carriers. Can he confirm whether those reports are accurate, and whether they will result in a reduction in aircraft, a reduction in the specification for the aircraft carriers, or both? In the context of the Gray report, does the Minister think that any such changes would represent value for money?
I am delighted to have the opportunity to say quite clearly on the record that the reports to which the hon. Gentleman refers are complete rubbish. There is no suggestion—it has never been in our minds at all—to re-specify either of the two aircraft carriers. There has been no change in that programme, and neither has there been any change in our joint strike fighter programme. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are already committed to purchasing the first three aircraft.
As the Gray report refers to major procurement activities, will the Minister tell me, and the House, what recent discussions he has had with commanders on the ground about the effectiveness of personal protection equipment for our troops in theatre—such as the Stourbridge war hero, 19-year-old Michelle Norris, who risked her life and was the first woman to gain the military cross for her work?
She was a particularly gallant lady, providing a wonderful and inspiring example to us all. The answer to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right to raise this matter, is that we attempt to achieve the very best in personal protection, the very best in the latest techniques to counter improvised explosive devices, the very best armoured and protected vehicles for our troops, the very best in communications equipment and the very best in personal equipment. So far as personal equipment is concerned, I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that we now have the new Osprey assault armour—the latest version of it. The Osprey was brought in only two or three years ago—it was then the best of its time—and now we have the Osprey assault and the new mark 7 helmet. The latest roulement of troops out to Afghanistan a month ago were carrying that new armour, in respect of which they had undertaken pre-deployment training. Our principle in supplying Afghanistan with kit is a continuous pipeline of improvement, and the best available that money can buy at any point.
Of course I noticed that rather startling figure when I read the Gray report myself. The right hon. Gentleman, who has obviously read the report, will also have noticed that there is no evidential basis for that statement anywhere in it, nor is there an evidential basis for it anywhere else that I have ever come across. The very fact that the figure ranges between £1 billion and more than £2 billion shows, I think, how imprecise that statement inevitably is.
We continue to keep our equipment programme under constant review. The whole purpose of having an equipment programme—this is my job—is to ensure that it is managed on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis so that it is coherent, and so that we can make such changes as are required as a result of changing operational or other priorities. At any one time, of course, it must also be affordable. We can spend only the money we have in any one year, and we always meet our contractual liabilities. This programme is constantly under review and constantly under management. There is no question of suddenly taking one decision and viewing it as valid for all time.
The Government’s stewardship of the defence of the realm has suffered two damning indictments in two weeks—the Gray report and also the Haddon-Cave report on the Nimrod. In considering how to respond to the devastating criticism contained in the Bernard Gray report, will the Government ensure that the lessons in the Haddon-Cave report on the Nimrod are also fully learned so that the welfare of our armed forces is given priority over cost-cutting in the Ministry of Defence?
In the light of the hon. Gentleman’s concern—he is trying to make a party political point—I think he has fundamentally misunderstood something important: the Haddon-Cave report, although it produced some very serious and worrying conclusions, is focused on the issue of airworthiness, whereas the Gray report is entirely about procurement. Clearly, we take into account in our procurement reforms—about which I have already made a statement—any relevant conclusions from the Haddon-Cave report, but the prime issue in that report is the procedures for delivering airworthiness certificates for our aircraft.
In April this year, after considering options in consultation with the service chiefs, we announced an uplift in force levels to 9,000 for the period of the election in Afghanistan. The Prime Minister confirmed on 14 October that we had agreed to maintain UK troops at that level beyond the election period.
We have also agreed in principle a new force level of 9,500, which will be put into effect subject to the following conditions: first, that the new Afghan Government bring forward the Afghan troops to be trained and to fight alongside our forces; secondly, that our commitment is part of an agreed approach and burden sharing across the international coalition; and thirdly, that military commanders are satisfied that the extra troops are properly equipped for what they are being asked to do.
In all, that means that, in principle, we have increased our troop numbers by about 1,500 in just over six months.
That is what was said on the television by the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway), who is now remonstrating with me from a sedentary position. We do have, and we will assess, offers of helicopters for logistics and supplies. If any Member wants to encourage someone to put in a bid for a new contract in that regard, we shall be happy to evaluate it, but the idea that we can secure additional lift for our troops in the way that our nation was told we could at the weekend is total, complete and utter nonsense.
Will my right hon. Friend add a fourth condition to the three that he listed—that there should be substantial progress in the elimination of corruption at the centre in Afghanistan and in Kandahar province? Will he bear in mind that any further measures relating to presidential elections will be a pointless and dangerous exercise until that progress is made?
We continue to work with the Afghan national security forces and ISAF partners to bring security to the Afghan people. In Helmand, the Afghan Government and security forces now have an increasingly permanent presence in the population centres where it matters most, and progress in military operations ultimately contributes to the international civilian reconstruction and development effort.
I think we all need to share responsibility for that, and to help in any way we can. As I have said—and I do not think that any member of any of the three parties, including Back Benchers, disagrees with me—our presence in Afghanistan can be justified only by a threat to our national security, and the overwhelming importance that the region has for our national interests here in the United Kingdom.
Given my right hon. Friend’s acknowledgement of the importance of building civilian and military capacity across Pakistan, will he assure me that he is satisfied that the large and increasing number of civilians working in Afghanistan are provided with the appropriate level of security by private security companies and the Afghan army, and that it is of a standard with which our military commanders are also satisfied?
The level of threat in Afghanistan is a very real problem for civilians trying to operate in that country. There are, of course, circumstances in which private military companies can and do provide the necessary level of security, and our forces are more than happy not to have that burden themselves.
I refer the hon. Lady to the answer that I gave earlier to the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne).
The balance of equipment between operational theatres and training is kept under constant review. The training requirement is dynamic, as new pieces of equipment are brought into service and as changes are made to the size and composition of deployed forces. In general, the quantity of equipment available for pre-deployment training is increasing.
Where pre-deployment training is inadequate due to a lack of equipment, what extra training takes place in the field of operations before our troops are put into harm’s way, particularly in the use of vehicles and electronic counter-measure devices on vehicles?
Let me be very clear: we do not deploy troops where there is an unacceptable balance of risk. Rightly, our priority—I think that Members throughout the House will agree with this—is to get the best possible equipment into theatre, but we are certainly increasing the availability of equipment for training. For example, between July and October we achieved a 50 per cent. increase in the number of Ridgback and Jackal vehicles available for pre-deployment training. However, wherever there is a gap, that is addressed so that we do not deploy troops in circumstances where there is an unacceptable balance of risk.
Is the Minister not aware of the National Audit Office report earlier this year that said that there is
“a shortage of appropriate theatre-specific equipment to train on”?
I can confirm from my knowledge of the Welsh Guards, who have just returned from theatre to Aldershot, that they did not have sufficient quantities of Mastiff equipment to train on here, with the result that they had to train in-theatre, did not understand the maintenance of the equipment and as a consequence suffered more maintenance problems. Will the Minister address the issue more urgently, and provide more equipment if it is required so that the guys who are going out on operations are properly trained before they get there?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, in the past three years we have spent an additional £10 billion on new equipment. He also knows that he and his colleagues are not proposing one penny more in additional defence expenditure than this Government are. In the current circumstances, the priority has to be the delivery of equipment to theatre. That is what we are doing, but we do not do that, and we do not deploy troops, where there is an unacceptable balance of risk.
The concept phase for the future deterrent programme is making good progress. The defence board will consider that work later this year.
I am pleased to hear that it is making good progress, but the Secretary of State will know that both the Government and the Conservative party are committed to a nuclear deterrent, and yet this one is beginning to wear out. When will we have an announcement on when there will be a replacement?
Since Britain launched its first nuclear-powered submarine, HMS Dreadnought, in 1960, 15 vessels have been taken out of service and defuelled, and 12 more are due for that before 2040. Will the Secretary of State say what the plans are for the dumping of dangerous radioactive waste? In this weekend’s newspapers we saw details of 12 alleged sites from a Ministry of Defence “secret list”.
The UK’s nuclear deterrence policy remains as that set out in the 2006 White Paper and, as is clear in that paper, is kept under continuous review. The Prime Minister recently announced in New York that, subject to continued progress in multilateral negotiations and a report on technical feasibility, he would wish with the next class of deterrent submarines to deliver a posture of one on patrol at all times and a fleet of three, rather than four, submarines. He has directed the National Security Committee to report by the end of the year on those two issues, and the MOD is closely involved in this work.
The Secretary of State talks entirely about a traditional submarine-based deterrent. Given that the future nuclear threat may well come not from established states but from irregular groups and organisations, will he consider other, more flexible deterrents that use new technologies, rather than big submarines that have big missiles on them?
It is the Government’s policy to maintain a minimum strategic nuclear deterrent; it is not our policy to develop a range of tactical nuclear weapons that can be used in the kind of circumstances that the right hon. Gentleman mentions. I do not believe that that is the policy of his party, which appears to be a bit flaky on the maintenance of the strategic deterrent.
As I have said to the House before, Afghanistan is the main effort of my Department for the near future, along with the preparation of a Green Paper that will lead up to a strategic defence review the other side of an election.
On service mental health, what steps has the Secretary of State taken to address the problem, highlighted by the Royal British Legion, that up to 85 per cent. of GPs across England and Wales have no awareness of his Department’s medical assessment programme or the reservists’ mental health programme?
The Department has a good record on veterans’ mental health: we have six veterans’ health pilot schemes, as well as the medical assessment programme, to which the hon. Gentleman refers, at the hospital across the river. I shall also make an announcement later this year on how we can track veterans through the NHS system—that work will be done with the Department of Health.
The commitment to priority access for veterans was part of last year’s Command Paper. We have made great strides and will be producing the annual report shortly. I will also be announcing on Wednesday that the welfare pathway pilot will be conducted first in Kent, to ensure not only that local government takes the case of veteran servicemen and women as a top priority but that local NHS service providers do so too.
The annual report will be produced shortly but, as I have said, that is a first step. Building on that, I want to ensure that the service Command Paper is embedded at a local level so that local councils, the NHS and other providers think of veterans when they are formulating policy, and the commitments that we gave in the Command Paper are carried out in practice. Clearly, in some areas that is not happening.
As I have said, the Pakistanis should be congratulated on the efforts that they are making, but we should not underestimate the degree to which they have a problem. We have seen a concerted attack by terrorist organisations on the population centres in Pakistan over the past few months, so although the Pakistani military has made considerable progress, the terrorists are far from prepared to give in to the kind of assault to which they are being subjected.
Is it not necessary, after eight years, to consider what precisely can be achieved by the British troops in Afghanistan? I am against further troops being sent and I believe that a reappraisal of our entire position there is necessary and what the public want.
Although we have been in Afghanistan for eight years, we have only been there in any numbers in the south of the country for the past three years. There has already been a very substantial troop uplift, largely as a result of American troop uplifts in the south in the past year or so. To retreat from a counter-insurgency operation at this point would, I think, be a big mistake.
The hon. Gentleman talks about equipment and does so within the frame of eight years. Enemy tactics change—they have changed considerably and massively in the past year—[Interruption.] Yes, ours must change too. To suggest that the equipment that we had eight years ago is applicable to the campaign as it is run today is nonsense.
The Government’s hope is that the endemically corrupt Karzai regime, which has already stolen $20 billion of international aid, will now eliminate corruption among the depraved, drug-addicted thieves of the Afghan police. How will it do that?
My hon. Friend preaches a notion of despair as regards anything that can be done in Afghanistan. We need to accept, first—I am not sure that my hon. Friend does—that Afghanistan poses a direct threat to us in the United Kingdom and that something therefore needs to be done, and, secondly, that the entire region, and Pakistan in particular, is massively important to our security in the United Kingdom. I resile from the despair that he preaches.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the money that was restored to the Territorial Army training budget last week will be committed beyond April next year into the following financial year? When he is looking forward to training budgets, will he bear in mind that units that are based in island communities have needs that relate to recruitment and retention because of geography?
I certainly would, and I should like to draw the House’s and public’s attention not only to the poppy appeal, but to the work that the Royal British Legion and other service charities do throughout the year. I should also like to put on record and thank the army of volunteers who work for the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association and for the Royal British Legion who—week in, week out, without pay—assist and help service veterans.
I announced in a written answer earlier this year that we would set up a study of the health effects and health needs of nuclear test veterans. The British Nuclear Test Veterans Association has been meeting my officials to scope the study. We are now putting it out to tender, to ensure that we get a competent organisation to undertake it, and I will keep the House informed as that work goes on.
I had the privilege of being in the Gulf with the Royal Navy during the summer recess. The temperature was about 90 to 100°, yet on level 2, naval personnel still have to wear heavy-duty gear all through the summer. Can we not talk to the Australians, Japanese or someone else to consider fireproof, lightweight uniforms, so that naval personnel can be not just comfortable but more effective?
We look at all those issues to ensure that we can do things most effectively, but there is no substitute, and we will not take shortcuts on the safety of our personnel in operation. We will keep looking, but we will not come up with a quick-fix solution that would put people at risk.
Representations have been made and discussions have been held across the piece, not only in NATO but in other ISAF-supporting nations. Some commitments have been made, although they are small at the moment. We await the outcome of President Obama’s deliberations on the McChrystal review.
The right hon. Gentleman should have watched the weekend television with a bit more care—my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces answered questions in this regard as well—and it is clear that we have offers of helicopters for supplies and logistics. What we do not have, and have not had, is an offer of helicopters of the kind of capability and with the defensive aids that would be necessary to ferry our troops around in a very dangerous theatre. That is the point, and the claims made over the weekend are not true.
The Secretary of State has repeatedly and rightly said that many things have changed in Afghanistan since our original intervention in 2001. May I put it to him that one of the things that have changed is that Afghanistan is no longer a threat to this country? Al-Qaeda has moved elsewhere; it does not need caves in the Tora Bora mountains now, because it is able to operate from safe homes in four or five different countries, probably including Britain.
But the only reason that they are not in Afghanistan is because our troops are there. If they were not there, the Afghan Government would not be capable of standing up on their own. They would fall. There is a high risk that the Taliban Government would be back, and those camps would therefore be welcomed back in Afghanistan and would resume the position of threat that they once held.
The statement on helicopters last week suggested to the House that we are seriously looking at cutting expenditure—those were the reports in the press over the weekend—and that the MOD staff are not on top of the issue. I would like reassurances that those reports are nonsensical.
The position on helicopters is clear. Let me say solemnly to the House, because this is an important matter, that no commander, no senior officer, has ever said to me in Afghanistan or here—that includes Sir Richard Dannatt, who I think has a certain credibility with those on the Opposition Benches—that there are insufficient helicopters in theatre to enable our troops to fulfil their mission, but all the commanders would like to have more. That is why we are supplying more. The House has already heard the figures for the past three years—an increase of 60 per cent. in helicopters and of more than 80 per cent. in helicopter hours available. On top of that, in the past year or so, we have refitted the Lynx helicopters with new engines—22 of those, which will be available next year—
In October 2007 the Government ranked the Ministry of Defence as the sixth most important Department. Last week it was revealed that it is now the 21st most important Department. Why on earth have the Government taken this action?
Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs
There is no question but that, since its establishment in 1971, the independent and expert advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has been invaluable to the successive Governments whom it has served. Later today the House will consider imposing greater controls on the party drug GBL, BZP and synthetic cannabinoids, all in accordance with advice from the council.
Of the 21 recommendations that the council made in its report “Cannabis: Classification and Public Health”, published in April 2008, the Home Office accepted 20 and rejected one, on classification. Of the 13 recommendations made in its report on ecstasy in February 2009, the Home Office accepted 11 and rejected two—one on classification and the other on the recommendation to explore a national scheme to enable drug testing of ecstasy tablets and powders for people’s personal use.
I asked Professor Nutt to resign as my principal drugs adviser, not because of the work of the council but because of his failure to recognise that, as chair of ACMD, his role is to advise rather than to criticise Government policy on drugs. In February, while awaiting publication of the Government’s position on the classification of ecstasy, of which he was already aware, Professor Nutt published an article and addressed the media on the appropriateness or otherwise of the Government’s policy framework, expressing a view that horse riding was more dangerous than ecstasy.
On Thursday 29 October Professor Nutt chose, without prior notification to my Department, to initiate a debate on drugs policy in the national media, returning to the February decisions and accusing my predecessor of distorting and devaluing scientific research. As a result, I have lost confidence in Professor Nutt’s ability to be my principal adviser on drugs. I stress again that his dismissal is not a reflection on the work of the committee. I have since been in contact with the ACMD and have agreed to meet them shortly.
There is no doubt in my mind that the advice of independent scientific advisers is essential to substantial aspects of the Government’s work. I had the privilege of working with Professor Sir Liam Donaldson and Professor John Beddington during my time as Secretary of State for Health, and with Professor Sir David King when I was at the Department of Trade and Industry. The role of such advisers is to provide independent advice to Government based on the advisers’ professional, scientific expertise. The role of Government is to consider that advice carefully, along with all other relevant factors, and for this House to endorse or reject those decisions where appropriate.
Let me start by reiterating my view that the Home Secretary’s decision on Friday regarding Professor Nutt’s future was the right one. Independent scientific advice is important, but those who take on formal roles with the Government have to be extremely cautious about the things that they say. Professor Nutt’s comments earlier this year, comparing the risks of ecstasy with those of horse riding, were particularly ill judged. The issues that the council deals with are highly sensitive, and there are very divergent opinions out there, so there is a clear responsibility to act cautiously, and be mindful of the fact that messages given by official advisers can and will influence the behaviour of the public.
However, I find it very surprising that, after the issue arose for the first time, last February, inadequate efforts appear to have been made to sort out how to deal with the sensitivities surrounding the council’s work. There also appears to have been a complete breakdown of confidence between the Home Secretary and his advisers.
How on earth has the Home Secretary managed to get himself into a position where he is having such an unseemly row with several leading scientists? Surely the Home Office did not do enough on the issues that emerged last February, after Professor Nutt’s controversial comments, to ensure that the situation could not arise again. Did the Home Secretary personally meet Professor Nutt to try to ensure that the problems were not repeated? If so, what went wrong?
The Home Secretary today mentioned an inquiry that was set up three weeks ago into the transparency and communication of the council’s advice. Why did the Home Office wait nine months to set up such an inquiry after the issue first arose, and will the remit of that inquiry now change after what has happened? Finally, has he received from other members of the council any indications that they too intend to resign?
I think I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support—although actually, I am not sure whether to or not. He asked a number of questions. First, in February, my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), wrote to Professor Nutt and made clear her dissatisfaction. Indeed, she expressed it to this House in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, who is not in his place at the moment. She made it clear that she found Professor Nutt’s behaviour unacceptable and did not expect it to happen again. In relation to the latest event, that behaviour has happened again. Professor Nutt is a man whom I respect, and he is very learned in his field, but, much to my regret, he published a paper without any notification to my Department, contrary to the code of practice under which he was appointed.
Yes, it is true, and the hon. Gentleman should wait his turn before interfering.
The situation to which I just referred was a re-run of February, and I lost confidence. I did not have a meeting with Professor Nutt. I have had meetings with him, but on that occasion, what needed to be done—my conveying my loss of confidence in him—needed to be done very quickly.
There is no inquiry into the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs; there is a Cabinet Office review of all non-departmental Government bodies. It used to be called the quinquennial review, and the current inquiry is happening just as a matter of course. It is not at all associated with these developments.
Both the Home Secretary and the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) have missed the point. The hon. Gentleman is at risk, indeed, of becoming the Home Secretary’s Mini-Me, because today he again insisted that the only difference between them was that he thought Professor Nutt should have been sacked sooner. The Government do not want evidence, and the official Opposition want even less evidence even more quickly.
The Government rely on objective, impartial and unpaid advice from leading experts on everything from nuclear safety to mad cow disease, and the comments to which the right hon. Gentleman and hon. Gentleman object were in no way contrary to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs code of practice or the general code of practice for advisory committees. The Home Secretary signally failed to give us chapter and verse on that or to mention it in the letter that he sent to Professor Nutt.
Professor Nutt’s specialism is the relative harm of drugs, and his so-called campaigning vehicles were the peer-reviewed Journal of Psychopharmacology and a lecture at King’s college London. If scientists advising the Government are not allowed to write in learned journals and lecture at universities, does the Home Secretary agree that very few will be prepared to accept such absurd restrictions?
Why did the Home Secretary fail to consult the Minister for Science and Innovation, Lord Drayson, before blundering into this area and imperilling independent scientific advice across the Government? Will he apologise to Professor Nutt and set up the advisory council on a clearly independent basis to ensure that he does not recruit an army of nodding yes-men? Will Ministers now agree to a code of practice to stop themselves being ludicrously thin-skinned if they foolishly choose policy options that are not supported by the scientific evidence?
Piety and pomposity in equal measure. The Government, and I in particular, have listened to scientific advice. We took through the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, and there was an awful lot of science in that. We respect the views of scientists, and we have respected the views of scientists in every aspect of Government policy. Our principal advisers—whether Sir David King, John Beddington, Sir Liam Donaldson or Professor Nutt—have to be clear that when they are appointed to such a crucial and privileged job—[Interruption.]
Order. I apologise for interrupting the Home Secretary. I must say to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) that he is unduly overexcited this afternoon—uncharacteristically so. He has had his say—[Interruption.] Order. I do not need any help from hon. Members on the Government Back Benches. The hon. Gentleman has had his say with force, and he now needs to listen to the response from the Home Secretary.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
When such esteemed professionals take on such a job, they have the Government’s ear. They have a very important role in influencing the Government, and they must exercise it with care and caution. It would be quite wrong for advisers to undermine the Government as well as advise them.
There is absolutely no question about Professor Nutt’s right to express his views. He has a view on relative harms, which I do not share; he has a view on ecstasy, which I do not share; he has a view on cannabis, which I and the majority of the House do not share. We are not talking about his right to express those views—he can do that. What he cannot do is confuse his role as a Government adviser, and confuse it in the public mind by continually criticising the Government’s framework, agreed by this Parliament, on tackling drugs. That is quite wrong. Sir David King did not do that when he recommended nuclear new build and the Government at that time did not agree to it. Sir Liam Donaldson has not done it on numerous occasions, including most recently when he proposed the introduction of unit pricing for alcohol; his proposal was produced, and it was public knowledge and transparent, but he did not go out and campaign against the Government for having refused to accept his policy.
My final point is about what Professor Nutt did last week at King’s college; incidentally, he was opposed by Professor Robin Murray, the head of psychiatric research, who takes a completely different view. What Professor Nutt did there was to criticise my predecessor, criticise the Prime Minister, criticise the Government and undermine the whole framework of Government policy. That was wrong, and as a result I have lost confidence in his ability to advise me.
If my right hon. Friend had taken Professor Nutt’s advice and lowered the categorisation of cannabis, and if as a result more young people had started to use it, would not that have been irresponsible?
Yes, of course. I just quoted Professor Robin Murray, who believes—I think it is absolutely irrefutable—that the incidence of schizophrenia among the cannabis-smoking population is much higher than among the rest of the population. The causal link is increasingly clear and will, I am sure, become well established in a very short time.
May I give unequivocal support not only to the Home Secretary’s decision but to the reasoning behind it? He is obviously familiar with Professor Robin Murray’s comments, which imply that the ACMD did not do a very good job in surveying the evidence previously. I know that the Home Secretary will want to be diplomatic to the council now, but will he please ensure that he also takes evidence from others when he makes his decisions in future?
As a Member with a scientific background, I would be the first to say that science must inform the decisions that it can inform. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that many parts of complex decisions cannot be measured or tested scientifically and may require a more subjective judgment that Ministers have to apply? Will he write to other scientific advisers in the Department to make them aware of that distinction?
I will reflect very carefully on the points that my hon. Friend has made. It is important to recognise, however, that we have an issue with one particular scientific adviser, and that in no way reflects on any of the other many advisers that we have from the scientific community. I would not like this to be classified as a more general problem than it actually is.
I sincerely hope that it does not, once it has been explained exactly why this episode has occurred and a contrast is drawn with all the reams of other scientific information that we receive. We must be very clear that this is not about the advice that was given by Professor Nutt or anybody else; it is about the way in which Professor Nutt conducted himself in his very important position as the chief Government adviser on drugs.
Recently I went with the police in Sheffield to observe a raid on a property where cannabis was being grown. The local people were relieved that that had happened and that that activity was to be stopped. Is it not important, in formulating policy, that the Government take account of the wider implications of drugs?
The simple answer is yes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why we cannot possibly be expected to accept every single recommendation from every advisory body. The important point is that we treat those recommendations seriously, and respect that advice, not whether we reject them.
No, it was not. He is entitled to speak on these issues in the public domain provided he is very clear that when he is speaking personally he is not speaking for the advisory council—that was certainly a pertinent point in his actions last week—and that if he is publishing any documents that in any way relate to the Government framework we get first sight of them, and that did not happen. There are a number of measures; one cannot lay out every single dot and comma of how a relationship should work. All I would say is that since 1971 this particular council, and its chairs, has worked very well for successive Governments, but the situation broke down on this occasion.
Does this saga not indicate that what we need in this country is a straightforward and honest debate about whether the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, now almost 40 years old, and the A, B and C classification that is wrapped up in it are fit for purpose in this century? Please can we have a debate on drugs policy? It is a long time since we did so in the House.
I disagree with my hon. Friend in that I do not believe this episode suggests that there should be a review of the 1971 Act. There may or may not be other reasons why an Act that is almost 40 years old needs review, but this episode should be seen in its context of one individual Government adviser acting in a way that I believe undermined the Government rather than supported them in their work.
I did not say that, but I can say what Government advisers should not do. Once a decision has been made on their recommendations, that is it; they should get on with being the Government’s adviser, not continually return to that decision and seek to undermine the Government’s framework. That is quite wrong, and Sir David King, who was an eminent chief scientific adviser to the Government, said as much on Friday evening in reference to this case. A calmer, more rational view, which may be impossible from the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), will suggest that we are in no way attacking science or scientists. We are dealing with one particular case.
It seems to me that Professor Nutt has been campaigning for the normalisation or deregulation of recreational drugs. Does the Home Secretary agree that membership of the advisory council should be subject to a strict register of members’ interests and a strict ethical code on conflicts of interest, particularly financial links to the pharmaceutical industry, so that scientific independence is demonstrated?
We have a code and it has stood the test of time. Perhaps we should look at it again because it is getting frayed at the edges after so long, but it has stood us in good stead and I would interfere with it reluctantly. I really do not think this incident suggests that the code of practice, how the advisory council does its work or how the Government receive scientific advice are wrong. It is about how one particular individual takes on their responsibilities and, in this case, has failed to keep the confidence of the Minister involved.
The Government’s chief scientific adviser is Professor John Beddington, who in February criticised the former Home Secretary for the way in which she treated Professor Nutt. Did the Home Secretary discuss the sacking of Professor Nutt with John Beddington before carrying out that act this weekend?
I did not discuss it with anybody. It was my decision; he was my adviser and I decided that he had lost my confidence by his actions. It is my confidence that he has to keep, and nobody else’s, so I took the action that I am perfectly entitled to take as Home Secretary. I have huge respect for John Beddington, who I believe is abroad at the moment on his work, and I will obviously talk to him on this and other occasions.
Does the Home Secretary agree that although he is entirely entitled to have any adviser whom he chooses and has confidence in, the problem is that the wider public do not get a great deal of independent scientific advice? This kind of incident can weaken the credibility of independent bodies.
I do not agree with my hon. Friend. The public get a lot of views and comments from all over the place. One can think of various debates, most recently those on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. There is no absence of views from scientists. It is important to be clear that when someone is the chair of an advisory committee to the Government, their views must not be confused with those of the Government and the public must be clear about their role in that advisory capacity. That is the problem, not a lack of information on the various views in the scientific community.
Can the Secretary of State tell me what I am supposed to say to my constituents following this unedifying spat? He will know that young people in particular are very sensitive to mixed and inconsistent messages on drugs issues. God knows what they are thinking of this chaos. When will the schoolboy squabbling end and the proper adult debate on drugs begin?
I would tell them what the leading Scottish drugs expert said this morning. Professor McKeganey, director of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research at Glasgow university, who is the adviser on drugs to the Scottish National party Government in Scotland, said that while it is Professor Nutt’s right as an academic to state his views on drug risks,
“it is not his right to publicly undermine the decisions taken in relation to those drugs by ministers”.
Tell them that—it is perfect!
First of all, I am sure the whole House will want to join me in sending our condolences to the family and friends of Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, of 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, who died in Afghanistan on Saturday afternoon. As we come closer to Remembrance Sunday, we recognise that we owe him and all who have given their lives in the service of our country, and indeed everyone who has served in our armed forces, an immeasurable debt of gratitude.
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the European Council held in Brussels last Thursday and Friday. The Copenhagen climate change conference, for which the European Council was preparing, is now less than 40 days away. If carbon emissions are to be reduced and dangerous climate change averted, it is essential that we achieve an ambitious, comprehensive and binding agreement. Concluding a climate change deal will also drive investment in the low-carbon economy and speed up world economic recovery. It will demonstrate that, as at the G20, the world can come together to address the great global challenges that we face together.
In all of this, European Union leadership is fundamental, and now, as we approach Copenhagen, we need to drive forward the negotiations. Let me explain the urgency: to achieve the ambitious, effective and fair deal we need, it is not only developed countries which must act; developing countries too must cut their emissions, reduce deforestation and be able to adapt to climate change. However, to enable them to make an offer by December, we as a European Union and as developed countries need to make a credible offer of financial assistance to them now. That is why earlier this year I proposed a long-term financial agreement between developed and developing countries. On Friday last week the European Council agreed to put on the table for Copenhagen three conditional offers. First, we agreed that Europe will contribute its fair share of the costs of mitigation and adaptation in developing countries, and we endorsed the European Commission view that these are expected to require—including the developing countries’ own contributions—around £100 billion of private and public finance annually by 2020.
Secondly, we set out our offer of public finance, agreeing that the overall level of the international public support required to make sure that a Copenhagen deal would benefit developing countries is estimated to lie in the range of €22 billion to €50 billion per year by 2020.
Thirdly, we agreed that we should start support immediately to help developing countries cut carbon emissions and adapt to climate change, contributing over the next three years, as a European Union, our fair share of a global fast-track initiative of €5 billion to €7 billion per year.
These offers are rightly conditional on
“other key players making comparable efforts”,
and on developing countries coming forward with substantial commitments on emissions reductions. Importantly, the Council also agreed that climate financing should
“not undermine or jeopardize the fight against poverty and continued progress towards the Millennium Development Goals”,
and as the United Kingdom has proposed, the Council supported the establishment of a high-level body under the United Nations to provide an overview of international sources of climate financing.
The European Union has already committed to cut our emissions by 30 per cent. on 1990 levels by 2020 as part of the right international agreement. Now these financial offers yet again show the determination of the whole European Union to ensure an ambitious climate change deal in Copenhagen.
I can also report that the Council agreed that at the time of the next accession treaty, the protocol on the charter of fundamental rights will be applied to the Czech Republic. The next step is for the Czech constitutional court to make its ruling, which is rightly a matter for that court. I believe that we have made real progress, but it is only after we are sure that the treaty will come into force that a new European Commission will be appointed and the Council will be able to appoint its new president.
Investment across Europe is forecast to contract by 10 per cent. this year with an expected loss of 8.5 million jobs. So at the European Council we had to decide first whether we should withdraw the fiscal stimulus now or maintain it until recovery was secured. We agreed unanimously—with no country dissenting—that
“the supporting policies should not be withdrawn until the recovery is fully secured.”
Secondly, we had to decide whether to support public investment to maintain jobs in our economy or simply to let the recession take its course. The Council agreed unanimously to draw up a
“European strategy for jobs and growth”
“continued political commitment to active labour market policies”.
We also agreed to take all necessary measures to
“prevent high unemployment levels from becoming persistent.”
Thirdly, within our commitment to action for fiscal sustainability once the recovery is assured, we also agreed on the need for active industrial strategies to ensure
“investment in the industries and jobs of the future”,
including low-carbon technologies, advanced manufacturing and the digital economy.
We stressed the importance of new measures that would
“strengthen the internal market”
and help growth in our services as well as our industries, and we affirmed the need to
“promote increased trade”.
In addition to the completion of the Doha trade round next year, progress on bilateral trade deals and the recent trade agreement with Korea will create up to €20 billion in new export opportunities for firms across the European Union.
We also agreed on reform of our banking systems, which includes putting in place new rules on capital and liquidity and bonuses. We also agreed to the continuation of work to strengthen the supervisory framework in the European Union, following the decisions taken at the Council in June.
The Council also expressed its deep condolences to the families of those killed in last week’s Taliban attack in Kabul. We reaffirmed our determination to fight terrorism in every part of the world and our resolve to see our commitments through in Afghanistan. And we emphasised our
“confidence in the United Nations’ leadership in coordinating the international community’s efforts”.
We welcomed plans to
“strengthen the civilian capacity of the state institutions in Afghanistan and Pakistan”—
something that has been at the heart of British efforts in recent years. And the European Council expressed its concern about the security situation in Pakistan and reiterated Europe’s readiness to assist further the displaced members of the Pakistan population.
This afternoon, I have spoken to President Karzai and discussed the importance of moving quickly to set out a unity programme for the future governance of Afghanistan. Afghanistan now needs new and urgent measures for tackling corruption, strengthening local government and reaching out to all parts of Afghan society, and to give the Afghan people a real stake in their future. President Karzai agreed with me that Afghanistan now needs to strengthen its army and police numbers so that over time we can reduce the number of British troops.
Finally on Iran, the Council expressed its
“continuing concern about the situation of staff members of European Union missions and European citizens in Iran who recently have been on trial”
and called, in support of our efforts, for
“their prompt and unconditional release”.
We reaffirmed our
“grave concern over the development of Iran’s nuclear programme”
and over Iran’s
“persistent failure to meet its international obligations.”
Once again, we have shown that by acting not alone but together, by working not against our mainstream European partners, but with them, and by putting Britain not on the fringes of Europe, but at the heart of Europe, Britain will be stronger, and Europe and Britain will be better off for that.
May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, killed in Afghanistan at the weekend? We owe a debt of gratitude to him and his family that we must never forget.
In Afghanistan, now that Hamid Karzai has been confirmed as President, will the Prime Minister ensure that our support for the Karzai Government is not a blank cheque, but is contingent on serious progress being made on tackling corruption and upholding the rule of law? I want to ask the Prime Minister about the three main issues that were raised at the summit, climate change, the economy and the Lisbon treaty, and of course the two words that did not pass his lips—Tony Blair—because I cannot believe that the Prime Minister did not mention the one issue that seemed to be discussed wherever the leaders met: who should be the president of Europe. When considering his efforts to get Tony Blair the job, will most people in Britain not feel that it is completely unacceptable to see an unelected Prime Minister pushing for an unelected president, under a treaty that no one was allowed to vote for?
Climate change is an area where the EU has a vital role to play. Will the Prime Minister confirm that it already has the powers that it needs to do so? There is nothing in the Lisbon treaty that adds anything to the EU’s ability in this area. We welcome the commitments on carbon reductions, which were repeated at the summit, and the agreement on the €100 billion climate change fund. However, is it not the case that, despite that headline figure, there was no agreement on which European countries should pay what or by when, and that there was no firm commitment on the financial help to be given in the vital first three years after an agreement at Copenhagen is signed? The Swedish Prime Minister seemed to say that the European contributions would only be voluntary. Can the Prime Minister explain what that meant?
Next, on the economy, the Prime Minister said at his press conference that there was a target of 10 million new jobs in Europe by 2014. Yet is it not the case that unemployment in the UK is now higher than it was in 1997, that 5 million people are on out-of-work benefits and that we have practically the highest youth unemployment in Europe? When he looked across the table at other EU leaders, did he recall that Belgium, the Czech Republic, Greece, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, France and Germany have already come out of recession, while Britain is still stuck in recession?
Last Wednesday the Prime Minister said in this House:
“We always said that we would come out of recession by the end of this year.”—[Official Report, 28 October 2009; Vol. 498, c. 278.]
That simply is not right. The forecast last autumn was for recovery in July. This June he said that Britain was
“leading the rest of the world…out of recession.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 268.]
Will he now confirm that he got it completely wrong? While we are still in recession and other countries in the EU grow, will he also confirm that we are forecast to have practically the highest budget deficit in the whole of Europe next year?
The summit conclusions endorse the ECOFIN statement that some countries should start to rebuild their public finances before 2011. As we are forecast to have the largest deficit in the whole of the OECD next year, should that not include us? Is it not the height of irresponsibility to sit there, as the leader of a lame duck Government with deteriorating public finances, making pledge after pledge of further public spending and never saying anything about how he would deal with the crisis that he has created?
The third issue is Lisbon and whether Europe needs a president. Does this debate not tell people all that they need to know about this Government? On the one hand, the Government went round saying that the treaty was just a tidying-up exercise, that there was no threat to national sovereignty and that the constitutional principle had been abandoned. But on the other, now we see the Prime Minister using all his offices to try to foist on Europe an executive president, with every intention of maximising the power of this new office. Is it not the case that the Government have not been straight on the treaty from start to finish?
The only silver lining is that the bid to make Tony Blair president seems to have got into a bit of difficulty. Just a few days ago it was all going so well—
Who is my candidate? Perhaps the hon. Gentleman—never someone to go naked into the conference chamber.
It was all going so well. As the Prime Minister left for Brussels, one British official was quoted as saying:
“Tony Blair is the ideal candidate and he has a lot of support from all quarters…It is hard to see how he can be stopped.”
Shortly afterwards, the Prime Minister gave Tony Blair his personal backing. He threw the weight of the Government spin machine behind the Blair campaign. He broke into his schedule to appear before the Party of European Socialists. He told them all to “get real” and back Tony Blair. Ever since then, Tony Blair’s campaign has been in free fall. Does that not demonstrate an eternal truth in British politics: that no cause is truly hopeless until it is endorsed by this Prime Minister?
Once again, not one policy from the Opposition—it is all about personalities, never anything about policy. Let us first turn to Afghanistan. I did say earlier that I had talked to President Karzai and I did say to him that it was absolutely essential that he brought forward a unity programme that would include tackling corruption, strengthening the anti-corruption commission and taking action in individual areas, as well as bringing forward measures to strengthen local government. Of course, it is also important to us to build up the army from 90,000 now to 135,000 and to build up the police force, which is under 100,000 at the moment but is not sufficiently effective. So we have made the offer of further troops in Afghanistan conditional on Afghanistan showing that it can deal with its problems by making available new forces to be trained. At the same time, we await the decisions that will be made in other capitals about their contribution to the next stage of Afghanisation, which is increasing the number of Afghan troops but allowing them to be trained by forces from Britain and other countries.
I am also grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman said about climate change. It is absolutely essential that we come together to make sure that we have a deal at Copenhagen, but European leadership and European unity in this are absolutely crucial. The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the 2020 deal was a voluntary one. No, it is not. What is voluntary is the fast-track offer, which is the offer for the first three years according to which different European countries will choose to make their own contributions. But, again, a deal at Copenhagen is possible on finance only because Europe, as a European Union, has led the way in making that finance available.
When it comes to the economy, I just have to say that the Government support fiscal action continuing. The right hon. Gentleman’s party wants to withdraw the fiscal stimulus; I found no support in any country in Europe for withdrawing the fiscal stimulus now. His party has refused to back direct action using Government funds against unemployment; I found no party in Europe supporting that action either. His party, of course, has rejected many of the proposals that we have brought forward to deal with the recession; I find support for what we are doing in Europe, not support for the Conservative position.
The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Lisbon treaty and its ratification. We know the position of the Conservative party. Its leader said:
“I will give this cast-iron guarantee: If I become PM a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from these negotiations.”
That is the position of the Conservative party—[Interruption.]
Whenever the word “Europe” is mentioned, the Opposition seem to become both extreme and wild in the actions that they take.
The right hon. Gentleman is demanding a referendum on Lisbon. He is also—I see Back Benchers nodding, but not the Leader of the Opposition—demanding withdrawal from the social chapter and from European Union employment legislation, for which he would need the agreement of every one of the 26 other countries in the European Union. When the challenge is actually to secure growth, a climate change agreement and greater security from the European Union, is it going to be the best use of British influence to fight yesterday’s battles the minute that the European Union has moved on from them when there is so much that we have to do to promote jobs, growth and trade? Is it really in the British national interest for the Conservative party to leave aside the alliances that it has had for years with the Christian Democrats in Germany and with President Sarkozy’s party in France and to go into an alliance with a small group on the far right of Europe? The only reason the Conservatives are doing that is not in the national interest; they are putting their own party interests first and letting Euroscepticism take over their party. If they had really changed, they would have changed on Europe, and just as they are wrong on the recession, they are wrong on Europe as well.
I should like to thank the Prime Minister for his statement and, of course, join him in sending expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, who tragically lost his life in Afghanistan this week.
On Afghanistan, I note that the Prime Minister has already called President Karzai to congratulate him today on his unopposed continuation as president of that country, but surely the Prime Minister must recognise that Karzai simply cannot lead the dramatic change in direction that Afghanistan needs unless he commits now to work with his opponents, including Dr. Abdullah, to reach across ethnic and tribal divisions, stamp out corruption and start to build the legitimate institutions of central Government that Afghanistan so desperately lacks. The only way to do that is to commit now to a Government of national unity, and not the vaguer “unity programme” to which the Prime Minister just referred. What pressure are the Government bringing to bear on the Karzai Administration to make that happen? Or is the Prime Minister going to ignore the lack of legitimacy of the Karzai presidency and so risk failure for our brave troops as they try to prop up a Government in whom no one believes?
Turning to the rest of the weekend’s summit, the event was remarkable for two reasons: first, the discussion of the historic negotiations to be held in Copenhagen; secondly, the Government’s misguided attempt to install Tony Blair as president of Europe. On Copenhagen, I welcome in principle the agreement on a funding package to help developing countries to fight climate change, but does the Prime Minister not see that the European Union’s leadership in this area is in jeopardy while he and other leaders remain silent on how the cost of those proposals for adaptation and mitigation will be met in practice? What consideration has he given, for instance, to funding these commitments, in whole or in part, through a tradeable levy on maritime and aviation fuels? Is it not time we asked the aviation and shipping industries, which currently remain outside any international carbon fuel levy system, to pay for the damage that they cause to our environment by asking them to help to fund the fight against climate change in the developing world?
On the second issue, I congratulate the Prime Minister on what turns out to have been a very cunning plan indeed to block the career aspirations of his predecessor. Does he agree, however, that the outcome of the discussions on Tony Blair has been to strengthen Britain’s hand in arguing for the position that we should have been lobbying for in the first place—that of the High Representative? The president will be a glorified chairman, without his own resources, like an admiral without a navy, but the High Representative will have real powers—a general with troops, by comparison. So will the Prime Minister confirm that that is the job that we are now aiming for? Will he also give us an indication of who he would like to see in the role? We all know that he is pushing the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband), but will he also look beyond his party ranks for other candidates—[Hon. Members: “Hurrah!”] No, no, no—that is for another day. I meant other candidates such as Lord Patten, who I am sure would be welcome on these Benches, or indeed Lord Ashdown.
The Prime Minister referred to the summit’s deliberations on banking. When I asked him a couple of weeks ago, he refused even to contemplate splitting up the banks, yet it is now clear that the European Commission is driving forward a process to break them up. Will he explain why, if he is willing to hive off huge divisions of the banks at the behest of Europe, he will not go the whole way and separate retail and investment banking completely? Why will he not split up the banks in the only way that would protect the public interest for good?
I do not think that there has ever been a more public application for a European job than what we have heard this afternoon. I could see the sense of opportunity in the eyes of the right hon. Gentleman’s colleagues as they thought about his future prospects.
On climate change, we have done more than any continent in the world to put forward proposals to sort out a major problem that has to be addressed—the financing gap. If developing countries are to be persuaded to make their use of energy more efficient, and if they are to be given help to deal with adaptation, it is essential that we put an offer on the table. So Europe has done three things: it has put an offer on the table relating to the overall funding required; it has now said what the public amount of that money would be; and it has said that it will be engaged in giving fast-track financing. So the process would start even before the new treaty would come in. We have also made it clear that Europe would pay its fair share of that money. We are therefore further on in pushing this forward than any other continent. We need other continents to respond to this but, most of all, we put this offer last week because we want the developing countries to consider what offers they can make to reduce their carbon emissions by the time they get to Copenhagen. Europe has taken the lead on this matter, and while the right hon. Gentleman wishes us to do more, he would be right if he said that Europe had taken the first steps towards the necessary financial agreement.
On Afghanistan, I made it clear while talking to President Karzai twice this weekend that we are expecting him to take strong action on tackling corruption in his own country. This is what Afghanistan is about: it is not simply a country that requires national Government; it requires good effective local government and good provincial and district governors, and we expect the appointments of those people to be in line with the needs of the country. That includes tackling corruption and getting the economy and social facilities moving. For us, it is also crucial that the Afghan Government agree to train more troops and more police. The way that we will be able to deliver greater security to the Afghan people, to prevent a Taliban Government from returning to power and to prevent al-Qaeda from having a greater foothold in the country is by building up the strength of the Afghan forces.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that these messages to President Karzai are very clear. He will, of course, make a speech tomorrow and then there will be his inauguration address. I hope that what we have asked him to do and what he has agreed to do—it is also what he wants to do—will be included in that address.
As far as the European Council is concerned, let me be absolutely clear. The Lisbon treaty is not yet ratified. When it is ratified there will have to be a meeting of the European Council, and only at that stage will decisions be made about either the presidency of the Council or the future of the Commission. Unlike some Conservative Members, I hope that the Czech Government will be able to ratify the treaty very soon. I hope that we can see a decision from the Czech constitutional court tomorrow, and were that to be the case, I would expect ratification to proceed very soon afterwards. We will then be able to make decisions on these important positions in the European Union as soon as possible. It is not in anybody’s interest to have no Commission re-nominated for the future; we will be electing a president of the Council for the first time.
May I congratulate the Prime Minister on a generally very satisfactory outcome to the European Council’s meetings, and may I press him on Afghanistan? How are we going to eliminate corruption there as long as the President—and particularly his brother in Kandahar—remain in office? It is difficult, I know, but this has to be confronted one way or another.
I agree with my hon. Friend, who has taken a big interest in this matter. It is very important to appoint district and provincial governors who will take action to build up facilities in health, education and schools in the areas for which they are responsible, but it is also important to prevent drug barons and those who would practise corrupt activities from either seizing power or influencing those who have power. Therefore, part of the programme for Afghanistan must be to match anti-corruption activity at the centre with ensuring that local government is in the hands of those who are responsible to the people and not connected to the country’s drug overlords.
The right hon. Gentleman knows the G20 decision on this matter, which is that bonuses can be earned, but only over a three-year period and subject to clawback and to being paid not in cash, but in shares. Those are the issues that we are now debating with the banks in Britain.
Is the Prime Minister aware that many of us who are in favour of a referendum on the Lisbon treaty before it is signed intend to remain in favour of a referendum on it even if it is signed? Does he agree that those who capitulate and decide to change their position simply because the treaty has been signed are, in fact, betraying not only their own principles but the policies of the British people?
Does the Prime Minister recall that at the start of the reform process European leaders were instructed to create a Europe closer to its citizens. Does he think that the spectacle of EU Heads of Government engaging in private bargaining sessions to hand out between themselves the unelected jobs in Europe is more likely to increase or to diminish the public’s respect for the European Union? Which is it?
We know where the right hon. Gentleman comes from; he is against the European Union altogether. I have to tell him that at the formal sessions, which lasted many hours, we discussed jobs, we discussed growth, we discussed climate change and we discussed foreign policy issues. What the right hon. Gentleman suggests was being discussed in the corridors was not discussed in the Council. We discussed the issues that matter to the people of Europe.
I warmly welcome the outcome of the Council’s discussions on climate change, and the clear lead that it has given. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s contribution. The funds will constitute an essential part of any agreements resulting from Copenhagen, but there is also real potential for a low-carbon economy in this country and in my region. My right hon. Friend mentioned the trade talks. Has any thought been given to such issues as reducing VAT in the eurozone and reducing tariffs for low-carbon products for the benefit of our country, Europe and developing countries?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Huge progress can be made towards a low-carbon economy. In particular, as countries emerge from recession, they can invest in the low-carbon technologies of the future. Europe has agreed to sponsor and help to finance carbon capture and storage. It is important that we have some of the demonstration plants, and we are trying hard to ensure that Britain has a number of them for future years. He is also right to suggest that we should consider how we can do more to promote low-carbon goods and services, and that is certainly one of the items that will be discussed at Copenhagen.
We made it clear that the existing level of support for environmental projects in the overseas development aid budget was about 10 per cent., and that we would not go beyond that. The money that we are putting towards climate change is therefore additional. I hope that all parties will feel able to agree to that, because otherwise poor countries will find that what they are doing for development has been cut so that they can finance new investments in the environment. I do not think that all parties have yet reached that view, but I hope that they will reach the same view as us.
The Prime Minister said that the protocol relating to the charter of fundamental rights for the Czech Republic would be attached to the next accession treaty. Would he like to hazard a guess as to which country will be next to accede, and when that might take place?
An accession treaty for Croatia is currently the subject of negotiations. Perhaps the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) will reflect on the fact that he would want that to be put to a referendum as well, because it will include aspects related to the protocol. I understand that he would have to advocate a yes vote, because he is in favour of Croatia’s joining the European Union.
Does the Prime Minister accept that what he is proposing is effectively to bring the treaty into force on the basis of an unenforceable political deal? Does he accept that that simply adds to the cynicism that people should feel about this entire process, and that we therefore need not only to eradicate the false promises but to have a referendum in any event?
The hon. Gentleman is now in the mainstream of the Conservative party. His policies in favour of withdrawing and relegating the European Union’s relationship with Britain are well known. I must say to him, however, that when the new treaty was drawn up and agreed, the first words of the communiqué were that the constitutional concept had been abandoned. He should recognise that the Lisbon treaty met all our negotiating requirements, and that that is why we were able to recommend it to the House of Commons.
The Prime Minister is right to emphasise the leadership given by the European Union over many years in confronting global warming and reducing emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases. May I plead with him to continue his unremitting efforts to ensure that, after the Copenhagen conference on climate change, there will indeed be another protocol to follow the one from Kyoto?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been one of the leaders in strengthening our relationships with the European Union. During the coming week I shall be meeting Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and then Mr. Rasmussen, the Prime Minister of Denmark, so that we can move forward our negotiations for a climate change deal in Copenhagen.
Britain is determined to do everything that we can to make a deal in Copenhagen possible, and it was our original proposal on finance that has commended itself to the European Union. We will continue to press forward to ensure that we make the maximum possible progress to secure a deal at Copenhagen.
One of the reasons why we are in Afghanistan is, I think, to help to slow down and preferably stop the flow of heroin on to our streets, which causes so much misery and crime, but I believe that that flow is still very fast indeed. Can the Prime Minister give us some sort of progress report, and hopefully some optimism?
The number of poppy-free provinces in Afghanistan is, I think, now 20. The hon. Gentleman may have looked at the initiative we undertook in Helmand this year. Under the Department for International Development, we persuaded large numbers—30,000, I think—of farmers to switch from poppy production to wheat, and they have, of course, benefited from the high price of wheat during the course of the year. We are proposing to do even more next year in persuading more farmers to resist the temptations of growing poppies and at the same time getting them support so that they can grow grain. This is one of the best ways to advance our policy to rid the parts of Afghanistan for which we have some responsibility of as much of the heroin trade as possible.
May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the issue of the use of hydrofluorocarbons? It is essential that we deal with them alongside dealing with CO2 as part of a Europe-wide agreement. I urge my right hon. Friend to discuss this matter with the Secretaries of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and for Energy and Climate Change to ensure that we get Europe-wide agreement on a reduction. I do not expect my right hon. Friend to give a detailed answer on that now, but I do want to draw it to his attention and urge him to discuss it.