House of Commons
Monday 30 November 2009
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Children, Schools and Families
The Secretary of State was asked—
The decision to create so-called all-through schools is one for local authorities to take. There are currently 25 such schools, with a further four planned. A majority of them cater for pupils aged three to 18 and they include academies as well as those maintained by local authorities. We are currently examining the benefits of and challenges faced by all-through schools, with the aim of sharing good practice.
I thank the Minister for that answer, and I know that the ministerial team will be keen to visit Serlby Park three-to-18 school, as it has recently knocked back a Tory council attempt to close it down. Is he prepared to consider whether his Department could assist with some specialist advice on how it can free itself from local authority control by becoming an academy?
I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is one of the best campaigners in the business, and certainly in this House, on his campaign to save Serlby Park school. I understand that on 19 November he presented a community award to Brett Lindsay, a sixth-former who campaigned to save the school. My hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners, a near parliamentary neighbour of his, is very keen to visit Serlby Park and offer the special advice that my hon. Friend requires.
The Secretary of State has stressed today that in any school environment, children from the age of three up and young people should be protected from racist views such as those of the organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir, which he rightly describes as abhorrent and which is banned in Germany. However, the schools and nurseries of the Islamic Shakhsiya Foundation have received taxpayers’ money, even though the proprietor, Yusra Hamilton, was a Hizb ut-Tahrir activist, and she is married to its media representative, Taji Mustafa. The head teacher of one of the schools, Farah Ahmed, who has described her past activism with Hizb ut-Tahrir as irrelevant, has designed a curriculum that defines the ruling system of Islam as a khilafah or caliphate, in precise accord with Hizb ut-Tahrir ideology. What guarantees does the Minister have that those schools are absolutely not a front for, or linked in any way with, Hizb ut-Tahrir?
I think the hon. Gentleman and the whole House would agree that racism cannot be justified in any shape or form, in schools or indeed anywhere. His right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition had a go at my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister about this on Wednesday and got it hopelessly incorrect, and he has had another attempt today. Might I suggest to him that he set out his views and concerns in writing so that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be able to respond to him in full?
I am very grateful to the Minister for that very fair reply. I wrote to the Secretary of State last Wednesday, and I am still waiting for a reply to that letter; I look forward to receiving it in due course. After it was written, the BBC reported that the headmistress of the Slough school, Farah Ahmed, had described democracy as a “corrupt tradition”, the national curriculum as a tool of “systemic indoctrination” and western education as a threat to “our beliefs and values”. Will the Minister and the Secretary of State investigate those views, that head teacher and the foundation following that revelation by the BBC?
I will certainly ensure that those claims and allegations made by the hon. Gentleman at the Dispatch Box and by the BBC last week are investigated. I reiterate what I said a moment or two ago—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will respond in full to the concerns that have been raised.
Does my hon. Friend accept that through-schools are an interesting pilot? One in my constituency, Netherhall campus, which since last Thursday has been assured that it will encapsulate a studio school, will be a very important experiment. Will he ensure that it is an experiment in which we can play with the national curriculum to make it a through curriculum, without great disjunctions at seven, 11 and so on?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The Department does not dictate or impose any particular type of school system, such as a two or three-tier system or all-through schools. It is for the local authority to determine what is necessary, based on the local priorities of the area. The minimal disruption that can be caused in all-through schools is certainly a good thing for local authorities to consider. There are only 25 of them, as I said in my original answer, and it is too early to decide whether they can be rolled out across the country, but they certainly have some benefits and challenges and are something that we are considering.
Haywood Engineering Specialist College
This year we have received two letters from Haywood engineering specialist college on this matter and a further two letters from my hon. Friend herself. In addition, I have met her to discuss this matter. As I stated in my last letter to her, I am hopeful that it will be concluded in a positive way. The Stoke-on-Trent schools forum supports the position of the school, but a conclusion cannot be reached until the new chief executive takes up his post in the new year.
I thank my hon. Friend for all the help that he has given us to get Building Schools for the Future funding in Stoke-on-Trent. In respect particularly of the Haywood high school specialist college, will he ensure that Stoke-on-Trent city council provides the resources needed to meet the equal pay claims from support staff, on the basis that the college adopted foundation status notwithstanding Government guidance that, in respect of such claims, foundation schools are to be treated
“on a comparable basis to staff in community schools”?
This has gone on far too long. Will he do everything he can to ensure that Stoke-on-Trent council attends to the matter?
I congratulate my hon. Friend, who has worked tirelessly on the problem affecting Haywood engineering specialist college. I know that it is a source of great concern to her. I reassure her that I intend to come to Stoke in the near future to see her in her constituency, and meet her and my hon. Friends in the rest of the area to talk about several issues. By that time, I hope that the problem, which has gone on for far too long, will be resolved to the satisfaction of the staff at the school. I hope that when the new chief executive comes along, the progress that we all want will be made. I hope that all schools in Stoke benefit from BSF investment.
Free School Meals
May I make it clear that I replied to the letter from the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) this morning? I am only disappointed that he did not ask me those questions because I could have given him detailed answers.
In the past decade, primary and secondary schools that serve the most deprived intakes have achieved the largest increase in key stage 2 and GCSE results. In schools with more than 50 per cent. of pupils eligible for free school meals, the proportion of pupils achieving five good GCSEs, including English and maths, has increased from 24 per cent. in 2005 to 33 per cent. in 2008—double the rate of increase in the least deprived schools.
Is it not unacceptable that under half of white British boys eligible for free school meals achieve the expected standards in English and maths at the end of their primary school stage? Does the Secretary of State agree that part of the answer is more new academies, such as the excellent All Saints academy in Dunstable in my constituency?
Since I became Secretary of State, I have approved 136 new academies, precisely because they show that they can raise standards, including for white boys, in the most disadvantaged areas. Of course, it is disappointing that we have not seen faster progress for white boys, but, as I said, the exam results for pupils from the most deprived backgrounds have increased faster in the past 10 years. That is true for primary and secondary schools and for English and maths. We are narrowing the gaps through investing in good schools, good teachers and the one-to-one tuition that is needed for pupils to make progress.
The facts that the Secretary of State has given the House are interesting, but does he agree that the concept of free school meal status being an adequate measure of social or economic disadvantage has outlived its usefulness? There are better measures and we should start to pursue some improved statistic.
My hon. Friend makes an important and interesting point, which I would be happy to debate with him and the Minister for Schools and Learners in due course. However, the question was about the progress that free school meal pupils had achieved in the past decade, and the answer is that they have made progress faster than the average pupil—and much faster than in the previous decade. The picture is therefore good and improving, but we need to do more to narrow those gaps.
The report on social mobility by the Secretary of State’s old friend the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) earlier this year proposed a Liberal Democrat policy to improve the targeting of young people with educational disadvantages—the pupil premium. When will the Government formally respond to the right hon. Gentleman’s report and when will they get on with introducing a pupil premium?
We have already responded by setting out the way in which we will enhance information, advice and guidance. As the hon. Gentleman knows, a review of the pupil premium is going on at the moment. To be honest, as we have debated previously, a pupil premium could accompany an increase or a reduction in the amount of money that goes to the most disadvantaged. That would depend on whether the budgets were increasing or decreasing, but if we genuinely want to make progress, we have to guarantee that any pupil in years 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 who falls behind will get one-to-one, catch-up tuition to get them back on track. That is in our pupil guarantee and our legislation. Rather than criticising and refusing to back our guarantees, the hon. Gentleman should match and support them. In that way, we can make more progress on closing the gap to which he refers.
On free school meals as in so many other areas of policy, is it not right that Members of Parliament should set an example to young people by doing their homework before making inaccurate and sensational claims at the Dispatch Box?
We all know what my hon. Friend is alluding to, and I will not go over that past territory other than to agree that getting homework right is very important.
May I correct the record again for the House on an error made by my Department at the end of last year? In a parliamentary answer, we made an error when we said that the most disadvantaged pupils had seen their results go up by 13 per cent. over the last 10 years. In fact, the correct figure was 33 per cent. Our statisticians corrected that, we corrected the parliamentary answer and the Minister for Schools and Learning has written twice to correct it, but the shadow Secretary of State repeats that wrong statistic again and again—
I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for correcting his Department’s mistake. I am also grateful to him for writing to me; I have not yet received that letter and I would be grateful for any clarification that he can give at the Dispatch Box.
The Sutton Trust has expressed its deep concern about the continuing under-achievement of children eligible for free school meals. It says that far from acting as a great leveller, the current education system is perpetuating inequalities. Nearly 40 per cent. of pupils eligible for free school meals do not even get a single grade C at GCSE. The 16-year-olds who left school this year had their entire education under Labour. Sir Terry Leahy has expressed his concern that standards are still woefully low and Sir Stuart Rose has said that school leavers cannot do reading, cannot do arithmetic and cannot do writing. Are Sir Terry and Sir Stuart wrong?
I am very concerned that the hon. Gentleman continues on his path of undermining the progress being made by pupils and teachers all over the country. As I said, 33 per cent. of children in schools with more than 50 per cent. entitled to free school meals are getting five good GCSEs with English and maths. The Minister for Schools and Learning has twice written to the hon. Gentleman—in January and again this autumn—but in his speech in November the hon. Gentleman repeated the wrong figure, even though he knows that it is wrong. Undermining confidence by peddling false statistics is the wrong thing to do: it is the hon. Gentleman’s credibility that is now in doubt on this matter.
Sure Start Centres
Local authorities are responsible for managing the performance of their Sure Start children’s centres. Most use a framework devised by my Department in 2007. The Department does not currently receive information on individual centres, but from 2010 Ofsted will have a duty to inspect individual centres and report to the local authority.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the real increases in educational attainment by children from disadvantaged backgrounds owe a lot to the Sure Start centres and what they have done for young people, especially in inner-city areas and the equivalent? Who in their right mind would want to get rid of those centres?
My hon. Friend is right. The national evaluation of 2008 identifies a Sure Start effect: parents have more positive parenting skills, better home learning environments exist and we can see the development of children. The Leader of the Opposition has said that he supports Sure Start, but he has also identified cuts of more than £200 million to its budget. That would hit the very poorest in our community.
The Minister knows that we fully support Sure Start, especially its role in helping children who have the toughest start in life to have better early years education. Can she explain why she takes so little notice of Ofsted’s figures, which show that after years of Sure Start children in the most deprived communities are twice as likely to attend a failing nursery as children in the richest areas, and that this situation is getting worse?
The hon. Lady will know that wishing support for Sure Start without committing resources to, and investment in, children’s centres will never help to tackle the under-achievement that still exists in some parts of the country. She needs to come to the Dispatch Box now and commit her party to match all the spending to which the Government are committed, rather than cutting £200 million from Sure Start. Only then would we see the improvements that she allegedly wants in the performance of the very poorest in our community.
Children’s Centres (Ealing, Southall)
Ealing local authority has a total of 22 designated Sure Start children’s centres, offering services to more than 15,600 under-fives and their families. Of those, 10 are based in the Ealing, Southall constituency.
In the light of the fantastic work done by those children’s centres in my constituency, supporting some of the most vulnerable children and families, does the Minister agree that it would be disastrous if funding cuts closed two of them, as proposed by the Opposition?
Children’s centres offer a full range of services, whether it be integrated early learning and care for children, the support given to families through the health service, the employment and training advice given to parents or the support that is particularly important for fathers. As my hon. Friend says, for his community, if one in five children’s centres were closed, it would devastate the performance and ability of children. That is the policy of the Opposition, and we need to push them on that to deny it.
Excellent recent progress has been made on ContactPoint. On 6 November, we announced that ContactPoint was beginning to be rolled out nationally to local authorities and front-line practitioners. We also published a report on the initial phase of the ContactPoint roll-out entitled “Lessons Learned from the Early Adopter Phase”, which shows how ContactPoint is already making a positive difference daily to the practitioners who use it.
There will be no special treatment for particular groups. Any decisions based on shielding would be based on decisions about the welfare of the individual child. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree that that is absolutely the right basis on which to take any such decisions.
If ContactPoint is going to make such a significant contribution to child protection, can the Minister say why the Government think it necessary that parents attending their children’s school carol concert should be officially vetted, that parents who teach their children at home must undergo criminal record checks and that even teenagers taking part in the Government’s compulsory community service scheme will face criminal checks? Is this not just getting barmy?
Everything that the hon. Gentleman has just said is absolute rubbish. It constitutes the usual scaremongering and hyperbole from the Opposition, in an attempt to get headlines in the tabloid press, and it is not true. If he had bothered to ask a question about ContactPoint, I could have reminded him that it has the support of our national partners—including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnardo’s, Action for Children, Kids, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, and the Children’s Society—and he ought to be supporting it.
The Department has given legal powers to schools staff to regulate the conduct of pupils inside and outside school premises, including by dealing with bullying on school buses or addressing cyberbullying that originates at home. In addition, DCSF has provided schools with guidance on how to prevent and tackle cyberbullying and provided parents with advice, through our sponsored Parentline Plus service, on how to spot all forms of bullying and the steps to take to stop it.
I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. I also congratulate her on the work done so far, but there is so much more that needs to be done. Cyberbullying is on the up. Schools have to be vigilant at all times, as do parents. However, a lot of my constituents feel that parents do not get enough advice to understand exactly what cyberbullying is.
My hon. Friend has raised the issue before and takes a keen interest in it. The Government are committed to ensuring that parents are as fully informed as possible about cyberbullying—and, of course, about all forms of bullying—and what they can do to stop it. Let me refer my hon. Friend to the national anti-bullying week, which took place in November. Thirty-thousand young people signed up to the “Laugh at it, and you’re part of it” campaign, which was designed to draw attention to cyberbullying.
The Minister will know that each school has an acceptable use policy, and one way to help teachers might be to extend those powers beyond the boundaries of the playground. Will the Minister look at this issue and see whether cyberbullies could be dealt with when they return from home to school if there has been cyberbullying between two pupils at the same school?
May I tell my hon. Friend about the good work being done by Childnet in partnership with organisations as far away as Net-Aman in Egypt in bringing children together to discuss among themselves how to create better working practices for children and more children-focused systems on the net? This is the right way to proceed—to engage children in the decision-making process.
I know my hon. Friend has a great deal of experience in this area of information technology. I absolutely agree, and the Government are committed to ensuring that children and young people know and fully understand what they are doing when they go on the internet and how to protect themselves.
Following the report of the expert group on assessment on the future of national curriculum tests, which advised that objective tests at the end of key stage 2 were educationally beneficial and vital for public accountability, I have recently approved the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency’s award of the main contract for delivering the 2010 tests to Edexcel.
As the hon. Gentleman may or may not know, we have established an independent regulator, Ofqual, which oversees and regulates the marking process and also deals with the appeals process. Because of the difficulties of the tests, there were more appeals than in the year before last and last year, but there is no evidence that the quality of the marking has deteriorated. I would be happy to set out more detail for the hon. Gentleman if he would like.
I have the impression that the reason why Slough’s key stage 2 results this year were not as good as they were in other parts of the education system is that we are still a small town that has the 11-plus. Will the Secretary of State please look at areas that retain the 11-plus and see whether the results at key stage 2 are different from those that would normally be expected?
I would be happy to look at that for my hon. Friend. As she will know, the issue of selection is a matter for local authorities to decide, although Labour Members are clear that we do not want to see an increase in the number of grammar schools—a pledge that Conservative Members continually refuse to make. We have looked at the selective authorities of Gloucestershire and Kent to see whether there are particular issues to do with the interaction of selection and the national challenge programme, but on the issue of key stage 2 tests, we need to look more carefully at the details. I cannot give my hon. Friend an answer today, but I can definitely tell her that we will not be having any more grammar schools.
The Secretary of State will be aware that a third of those who fail to achieve the expected level in the three R’s in the key stage 2 tests are children who qualify for free school meals. Does he therefore support a policy of replacing the key stage 1 standard assessment test with a simple screening test at the end of the second year of primary school to ensure that every child knows how to sound out words and is able to read a list of basic words? Is that not the best way of closing the achievement gap between the haves and the have-nots in our schools and in our society?
That question goes to the heart of the debate—and to the heart of the confusion among the Opposition—on education policy. The fact is that there are 100,000 more young people now making the grade at age 11 compared with 10 years ago, but it is not possible consistently to say that every child should do a test in key stage 1 and learn phonics while at the same time having it as a policy that all schools should opt out of the national curriculum by becoming primary school academies. The hon. Gentleman’s desire for phonics teaching is completely undermined by the policy of his hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) to abolish the requirement for phonics in the national curriculum. That would be the wrong thing to do—
Educational psychologists have a statutory function in respect of assessments required for statements for children with special educational needs. However, the Department believes that they can play a much wider role in helping schools with early intervention, identifying needs early, and helping to advise on appropriate support. More broadly, they can help to train school staff in particular subjects to enhance their skills and knowledge in respect of SEN. We continue to value and support the important work that they do.
My hon. Friend will be aware that this year local authorities’ voluntary contributions have raised only about half the funds required for the training of educational psychologists, and the picture is likely to be even worse next year. In the context of the statutory functions to which my hon. Friend has referred, will she look again at the possibility of direct Government funding for the training of educational psychologists, so that they need not continue to rely on voluntary contributions which are not forthcoming?
I wrote to all local authorities on 16 November, after the meeting that we held with the Association of Educational Psychologists, urging them to contribute to the funding. It is also worth mentioning that the Children’s Workforce Development Council is developing a long-term and sustainable employer-led funding and training scheme. I shall meet the new general secretary of the Association of Educational Psychologists, Kate Fallon, very shortly to discuss the matter again.
Concerns are still being raised about the impact of the new qualifications route and its funding. Is the Minister continuing to monitor not only the current position but the future supply of educational psychologists, particularly in the light of the role that they must play in regard to early identification and early intervention?
I am continuing to monitor that very carefully. As I have said, we had a meeting in October, and I wrote to local authorities earlier this month. I plan to have another meeting in December to discuss the position. Further research is being conducted on work force planning for educational psychologists in the years ahead.
Schools have waiting lists of pupils wishing to see child psychologists. Meanwhile, education authorities are cutting the number of psychologists to save money. How can the Minister ensure that the number does not continue to be reduced at a time when we should be trying to increase it in each education authority?
If Members wish to cite individual authorities that are experiencing that problem, I shall be happy to look into it further. We need to engage in long-term work force planning, but I should stress that educational psychologists are the employees of local authorities, and that local authorities are responsible for ensuring that their number is sufficient.
School Playing Fields
In the last five years, 51 applications involving the sale of school playing fields have been approved.
School playing fields at Castle View on Canvey Island, Scrub Lane in Hadleigh and Jotmans in Benfleet in my constituency have recently been given up for development in one form or another. What on earth is going on in Essex county council education authority? Will the Government step in to enforce their excellent policy of protecting our school playing fields, which are so valuable?
I do not know what is going on in Essex county council, but I should be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss it and see what we can do together.
The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point about safeguarding school playing fields. He will know that in 1998 we changed the law to ensure that any sale of school playing fields had to be submitted to the Secretary of State for his agreement. Very few such applications have been made, because the criterion is very tight. The hon. Gentleman will also know that before 1998 considerably more school playing fields were sold, and that the receipts from the sale of any playing field—whether by an open school or a closed school—must be put back into either education or education–related leisure facilities.
Safeguarding Children (Ofsted Inspections)
Safeguarding is not a new aspect of school inspection, but it has been given increased focus in the new inspection framework. Ofsted has issued detailed guidance on how safeguarding should be assessed during its school inspections.
I am grateful to the Minister for her answer. Does she agree that what is important is safeguarding children, not sticking to rigid rules, and that if, for example, Ofsted finds that there is a problem with the single central record but that is put right, afterwards there is no need for the school in question to be judged inadequate in that regard, because that undermines the morale of the whole school for no good reason?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, schools are not marked down solely on account of minor administrative issues; Ofsted has assured us that that is the case. The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of a failure being identified during an inspection that is corrected subsequently. If it is corrected before the inspection is completed, that can be added to the assessment, but as he knows, the inspection is a snapshot and there is a gap between its taking place and the publication of the findings, so in some circumstances even though schools may have corrected matters, that snapshot cannot be changed. If the hon. Gentleman is worried about a particular issue, I will be more than happy either to speak to him about it, or to receive details in writing and look into it further.
Muslim Girls Boarding Schools
To date, there are no Muslim girls boarding schools with more than 4,000 pupils established in England.
My friend will know that there is a proposal on the drawing board for a huge 5,000-place independent boarding school for Muslim girls in my Pendle constituency. Does she believe, as I do, that the existence of very large, single-faith, single-gender schools can work against community cohesion, and that we should tread very carefully indeed?
My hon. Friend may be interested to know that the largest independent boys’ boarding school at present is Eton, with 1,311 pupils, and the largest girls’ boarding school is Cheltenham Ladies’ College, with 640 pupils. The figure of 5,000 for the number of pupils at a boarding school would, therefore, be unprecedented, and we would obviously have to give very careful consideration to a proposal for a school of that size.
Academic Standards (Primary Schools)
Significant improvements have been made in primary school standards over the past 12 years, and this year’s results are 17 per cent. higher than those of 1997. However, we recognise that there is still more to do to ensure that all children receive a world-class education. Our recent White Paper signalled a new approach to primary school improvement, which will include a comprehensive package of support for schools. We will be announcing detailed plans on that later in the week.
In seeking to raise primary school standards further, will the Minister look specifically at the teaching of British history, beginning right at the beginning of the curriculum and going through to secondary education, because nothing dismays me more than discovering while taking school parties around the Palace of Westminster that great chunks of British life and history are not known by them. Will the Minister take a serious look at this matter?
The hon. Lady will be reassured to know that British history is in the primary curriculum. We have just gone through a major consultation on the Rose proposals in respect of changes to the primary curriculum and we will bring forward legislation on that shortly.
While improvements in academic standards are, of course, always welcome, like the rest of us my hon. Friend realises that catchment area plays a crucial role in respect of what young people can achieve. When are we going to start putting more emphasis on the added value that schools bring to young people?
Of course we must recognise that added value is very important, but we should celebrate the fact that our young people are leaving primary school better able to read, write and do their sums. Whereas in 1997 only 43 per cent. of our children could read, write and do their maths, the figure is now 61 per cent., and that is very good. Obviously, we need to improve further, but we have made vast improvements in the past 12 years.
History is compulsory in schools up to the end of key stage 3. The national curriculum for history requires pupils to be taught a substantial amount of British history; it covers the mediaeval, early modern, industrial and 20th century periods, and that includes studying the causes and consequences of various conflicts, including the two world wars, the Holocaust and other genocides.
As we welcome 19 Light Brigade, representing the prowess of our military at this time, back from Afghanistan to the Palace of Westminster today, may I invite the Minister to be even more robust in ensuring that our young people are reminded of Britain’s glorious military past and of our great battles such as Agincourt, Trafalgar and the battle of Britain? Will he ensure that these traditional subjects are on the agenda, rather than the sort of woolly stuff that Mrs. McCabe, that splendid headmistress, has been suggesting the Government are threatening our children with?
I know that the hon. Gentleman spends considerable time raising these issues on a number of occasions, not only because of the passion that he feels about the subject, but because of his constituency interest. Given what is happening at the moment, it is obviously important that we reflect on what is taught in our schools to ensure that our young people grow up with the values that we want for them. He will know, because he will have looked into this, that, as the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson), has just said, British history is a part, and will form a part, of the primary school curriculum. If he were to read the content for the key stage 3 curriculum, he would see that many of the things that he has just mentioned are part of it—I am sure that he would welcome that.
School Refurbishment (Plymouth)
I am pleased to inform the House that Plymouth is one of 12 projects that will be joining the Building Schools for the Future programme today. It is for Plymouth to determine the pattern of school builds in consultation with the Department, Partnerships for Schools and the local community.
I warmly welcome the go-ahead that has been given to £78 million of investment in our schools. Could my hon. Friend tell me what impact he hopes it will have on raising standards at schools such as Stoke Damerel community college, which he visited recently, and Lipson community college, which the Secretary of State has visited within the past year?
First, I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) on the work they did to campaign for Plymouth to be part of the Building Schools for the Future programme. Schools buildings are important, but to get BSF money authorities have to demonstrate that the new buildings are linked to school improvement and a strategy for change; clearly, standards are an essential part of any school building programme. When I went to Plymouth, I saw that one of the reasons why Plymouth has been successful with its bid is that it has clearly identified that the new school buildings will be a means by which it can continue to improve on the already excellent standards in its area.
Head Teachers (Retirement)
We estimate that 38 per cent. of current head teachers will have retired by 2015. Dealing with the loss of their skills and experience will be not only a challenge, but an opportunity. We have invested £30 million, through the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services succession planning strategy, to ensure that this demographic challenge is managed effectively. The national college continues to work closely with schools, local authorities and faith bodies around the country to find, develop and keep excellent head teachers.
Although the head teacher recruitment crisis may have eased slightly, Professor John Howson, who is widely respected as the best analyst of these issues, says that the crisis in recruiting heads is continuing. The Government have had 12 and a half years in office, so why is that the case and what do they propose to do in the next six months to make the prospect better?
I said to the hon. Gentleman that the national college has been working exceptionally hard to develop succession planning. It has been out looking to identify people who might well be the heads of the future. The hon. Gentleman will know—perhaps he saw some of the reports over the weekend—that the national college said that there were more teachers now than before who were aspiring to be the head teachers of the future. One of the ways that we can get more head teachers is to keep reminding ourselves and everyone of the excellent job that our head teachers do, of the need for proper leadership in our schools and of the way in which, if we get that effective leadership, we can turn around any sort of school. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would join me in saying that it is an excellent profession. May I take this opportunity to congratulate our head teachers on the work that they do?
We have made a commitment that all schools will have good behaviour, strong discipline, order and safety. To secure this ambition, we have launched a new strategy to enable all schools to achieve good or outstanding behaviour standards. The strategy includes a range of measures to support and challenge schools. It builds on existing work that has resulted in the number of schools with inadequate behaviour being driven down to less than 1 per cent.
What the Minister has said is splendid, but the reality of the situation is that more and more of our children are being excluded from school because of behavioural problems and Government targets. What is the Government’s strategy for dealing with those children who, in reality, have behavioural problems?
May I say to the hon. Gentleman that the number of young people being excluded from our schools with permanent exclusions has reduced? One of the most effective ways of dealing with behavioural problems in schools is what many schools do across the country—they have a firm code of conduct that is properly enforced with the support of the parents, alongside proper measures within the school to deal with those young people who cause a problem. One of the most effective ways of doing that, which I would encourage—in fact, I did it when I was a deputy head teacher—was to have internal methods of exclusion that keep young people in school and prevent them from having problems outside school while preventing them from undermining the educational entitlement of the other pupils in the class.
Some local authorities, particularly in London, have been facing big and unexpected increases in the demand for primary school places. Earlier this year, the Schools Minister and I invited local authorities to bid for £200 million of extra investment to meet that demand. Following extensive discussions with the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, I can tell the House that we have further increased this funding and we are today allocating £300 million to create an additional 15,000 primary places for four and five-year-olds across 34 local authorities.
I can also tell the House that 11 local authorities are joining our Building Schools for the Future programme. They are Brent, Darlington, Devon, Havering, Kingston, Croydon, Norfolk, Plymouth, Sefton, Wakefield and Warrington. Two more, Lancashire and Tameside, have been able to move forward in the programme faster than expected. That adds up to £1 billion-plus of investment to rebuild or refurbish our schools—investment that would be put at risk by the Opposition’s proposals to cut £4.5 billion.
I am sure that the House is very grateful for that ministerial statement. If the Secretary of State agrees with me that how well we look after children with severe learning difficulties is a measure of what sort of country we are, will he find out why it was that only last week in Wiltshire the local council forced a family to a tribunal because it did not want to pay for the residential care recommended by all that child’s teachers?
I would say first of all that I think that Members on both sides of the House will be grateful for the £1 billion of extra investment that is going into primary school places and new buildings. I know that in Salisbury that is a little further down the track—the hon. Gentleman will have to hope for a Labour Government to be re-elected if he is going to get the new schools in his constituency. On the particular points that he raises, I am happy to look at the details. It disturbs me greatly if any local authority is ignoring advice when a child with severe learning difficulties needs residential care. That should not be happening. These are local decisions, but I am happy to look at the details and see what we can do to help.
The Schools Minister has been doing so; we have had a series of meetings. We have responded to some of the concerns and set out the evidence clearly. The legislation will be debated in the House. Although it is important to listen to parents’ concerns, we have a balance to strike. We have a responsibility to the children as well, to make sure they are safe and that they are getting a proper education. When the hon. Gentleman looks at the detail, I hope he will be able to join what I hope will be a cross-party consensus that the proposals are good, sound and fair, and that they are to the benefit of children but respond properly to the concerns of some of the parents.
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment, and I again thank her and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) for their work in putting forward Plymouth’s case. We expect the plans between January and March next year, and that building will start soon afterwards.
I am very happy to visit any excellent school—special or otherwise—and I am very happy to go to Manchester, Withington to see what is happening on the ground. I have been there once and seen new buildings being built, standards rising and great teachers—all delivered by a Labour Government, and I hope at the next election supported by a Labour MP.
May I tell my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the Sure Start children’s centres he has visited in my constituency are extremely successful? Can he absolutely assure me that they will be allowed to thrive under the next Labour Government?
I assure my hon. Friend that the centres will be able to thrive under the next Labour Government. There is a commitment in obligations to local authorities to make that a comprehensive offer to young children. Unlike the Conservatives, we are not proposing to make any cuts at all to the Sure Start budget.
Very briefly, I expected the hon. Lady to say what good news it was that £42 million had come through for Havering’s Building Schools for the Future, but there was no mention of it—maybe she knows what cuts are on the agenda for those schools. As for school college places, we are funding 55,000 more places. More places will be coming through for the hon. Lady and her college, which would not be delivered by the cuts that the shadow Secretary of State is proposing—[Interruption.]
Order. I just say to the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) that I hope Members accept that there is a particular responsibility at questions to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families for hon. and right hon. Members to set a good example.
As we fast approach the Christmas holidays, a number of secondary school age children in my constituency are still without a school place. I am concerned about the provision that is being made for children who are without a school place for so long, so will my right hon. Friend arrange for someone in the Department to meet me to tell me exactly what the duties of the local education authority are to provide an adequate education for people awaiting a school place?
Of course, the planning for primary school places is a matter for the local authority, and we have sought to deal with the problems that have emerged in some local authorities with those authorities. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have announced £12.8 million for Croydon to deal with the problem that he mentioned. As he pointed out, Kingston and Croydon, as part of the BSF, will have a further £100 million between them to take these issues forward. As for 2011 onwards, that will be a matter for the next spending review, but I know which party I would rather have in power to take that decision.
I should like to ask the Minister for Schools and Learners what he is doing to ensure that children are taught the importance of reducing waste and of recycling throughout their school career. If we are to give future generations a chance, we should not put so much waste into landfill and we should build far fewer incinerators.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Part of the curriculum review in primary schools will mean that waste, recycling and a general understanding of sustainability will be very much part of what is taught to primary school children. I am happy to have a meeting with my hon. Friend to discuss the issue further and to look at the good practice that already exists in some primary schools.
The position is that no decisions have been made. If the hon. Gentleman would like to make representations, he can do so to me and to the Schools Minister. I am happy to have a meeting so that he can do so. In the end, these matters are for local decision, not for national imposition. I am told that the school in question has seen substantial increases in its results, but it is not too late for the hon. Gentleman to make his representations.
My hon. Friend will know that Darlington is part of the BSF announcement that we have made today. I understand that Hurworth secondary school is in his constituency and that he, along with many other Members of the House and many of my hon. Friends, has campaigned for that. I congratulate him on that, and I am sure that the school will welcome these developments.
I do not. I take it from that that the hon. Gentleman will not be supporting our pupil guarantee, which will ensure that every pupil who falls behind will be guaranteed 10 hours’ one-to-one tuition in year 7 or in years 3,4 or 5 if they fall behind. In the end, we have to decide whether we want those guarantees to give every child the support they need or whether we want a lottery in education. If the hon. Gentleman’s chair of governors wants a lottery, he had better vote Conservative.
My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we have been having a series of meetings on this very subject. I recently met the Health and Safety Minister in the House of Lords to discuss it, so it is an ongoing issue. I am happy to have a meeting with my hon. Friend if that would be helpful.
May I express a degree of surprise that the Secretary of State wrote a letter to the chair of governors of Great Tey primary school on Thursday, asserting that the school has failed to follow its published complaints procedures, on the basis of representations from the parents of only one child and apparently without consulting the local education authority, which is responsible for giving impartial advice? Is he aware that the letter is being used in a public campaign against the school, and was it his intention that it should be used in that way?
I contacted the school through my officials in September. I pointed out to the school its obligations in law to make sure that a proper complaints procedure was followed when a parent made a complaint. I wrote to the school last week, two months later, to say how much I regretted the fact that it had not had a proper complaints procedure in this case, and I asked the school to reflect again. I hope it will reflect again. If not, I will have to require the school to have a proper complaints procedure. It is important that it does, because in this case there are some substantial concerns about the treatment of that child, which are not being properly addressed by the school and by the governors.
I was very pleased to hear the Secretary of State announce an increase of £100 million in the funds for extra primary school places, but our difficulty will be to deliver those fast enough. Will he allow Slough borough council to create community primary schools, rather than insisting that new schools must be foundation schools or other forms of school through a competition, so that we can do it fast enough?
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments about the money announced today for Slough for primary school places. The extra £9 million will be worth while in Slough, and I know that she has campaigned long and hard for that. On the provision of a primary school, we are looking at how we can ensure that Slough can quickly deliver the primary school that it needs.
Further to the excellent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), the Government like throwing money at divisive and politically correct projects such as Black History month. May I urge the Secretary of State to scrap that kind of initiative and direct the funding at a unifying programme promoting pride in British history?
I am not sure how to respond to that question and stay within the bounds of acceptable parliamentary language. All I can say is that I attended a reception for Black History month in the House of Commons just a few weeks ago. I heard the testimonies of young people from different races and different ethnicities, all saying that by working together, respecting diversity and having unity in our country, we can combat extremism. That is the right way to proceed. Black History month is the right way to proceed. I ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on those comments, which do him no justice, nor the Conservative party.
Afghanistan and Pakistan
With permission, let me begin this statement on Afghanistan by once more paying tribute to our armed forces. Since 2001, our forces have been fighting in Afghanistan one of the longest military campaigns of recent times—longer, indeed, than the world wars of the last century—as part of our century’s fight against global terrorism.
At all times our armed forces have shown the highest professionalism, dedication and courage, which make them the best and most admired in the world. They have endured heavy and tragic casualties. They deserve our utmost gratitude. Let me acknowledge the presence today, as visitors to the House, of members of 19 Light Brigade who have served with distinction in Afghanistan.
Decisions to extend military action are as critical as those that commence military action. There are two prior questions that people ask of our mission with our American and coalition allies in Afghanistan: one about the present, one about the future. Rightly, both questions have to be answered. The first is why today our armed forces are in Afghanistan, and the second is how and when Afghanistan can take responsibility for its own security so that our troops can come home.
The origins of our intervention in Afghanistan and the scale of the terrorist threat are known to us all. Around the world thousands of men and women of all religions, including thousands of the Muslim faith, have been murdered in al-Qaeda outrages. The London 7 July bombings cost 52 lives and injured more than 750 people. More recently in Britain, we have seen the 2006 Heathrow liquid bombs plot, the 2007 London and Glasgow bombings, and then this year an al-Qaeda-inspired conspiracy to target shopping centres. There are now over 120 convicted terrorists serving sentences in British prisons, and the security services report to me weekly on the hundreds of would-be terrorists who seek to operate within and target our country.
To counter that terrorist threat, we have, since 2001, trebled the resources available to our intelligence services and more than doubled the number of operatives. Today, almost twice as many regular police officers are engaged in full-time work to counter the terrorist threat. Suspect travellers are now checked at the border in real time against watch lists; an increasing number of people are excluded on national security grounds from Britain; and, because this is a fight for hearts and minds against violent extremism and those ideologies that would pervert the true Islamic faith, we have stepped up our work with our allies both to expose the damage that murderous and extremist ideologies do and to support those working across all faiths to uphold the common ground of dignity tolerance and respect for all.
So, our security in the United Kingdom and our effort to counteract terrorist propaganda have been, and continue to be, strengthened at all levels. Faced with the terrorist threat, some have argued that the most effective strategy is simply to defend Britain within our own borders—a fortress Britain; and some ask why British troops are in Afghanistan at all, if al-Qaeda can organise in Britain, in Somalia, in Yemen, in other places and, even, in internet chat rooms in every part of the world. But, as long as the Afghan-Pakistani border areas are the location of choice for al-Qaeda and the epicentre of global terrorism, it is the Government’s judgment that we must address the terrorist threat at its source. Indeed, as long as three quarters of the most serious terrorist plots against Britain have links to those Pakistani-Afghan border areas, we would be failing in our duty if we did not work with our allies to deal with the problem where it starts. A more stable and secure Afghanistan and Pakistan will help to ensure a safer Britain.
Since 2001, progress has been made in driving al-Qaeda into the mountains of Waziristan. Today, for the first time since 2001, tens of thousands of Pakistani troops are in Waziristan, and, with President Obama, I have been urging Pakistan’s leadership, most recently in a conversation with President Zardari on Saturday, to step up its efforts not just against the Pakistani Taliban in that region but against al-Qaeda. So, as an international community, we must intensify our support for the action of the Pakistani authorities, improve co-operation with Pakistan in the months ahead and press ahead with a development programme, amounting to two thirds of a billion pounds over four years, which is focused increasingly on the border areas and on encouraging the development of schools to counter the propaganda of the madrassahs. It is essential that progress in driving al-Qaeda from Afghanistan be matched by actions not simply to isolate but to defeat al-Qaeda within Pakistan.
Success in driving al-Qaeda into Waziristan has led some to propose that it is now sufficient simply to target al-Qaeda there. To explain why that is an inadequate response, we must understand the al-Qaeda network, its long-standing links with the Afghan Taliban and the extent to which al-Qaeda continues to seek, as in the past, a Taliban-controlled, permissive Afghanistan that would allow it unfettered opportunities to plan and launch with impunity its attacks on Britain and other countries.
So, our task is to prevent the Taliban from giving al-Qaeda that safe haven. Stabilising Afghanistan will not solve all our challenges in Pakistan and elsewhere, but instability in Afghanistan can only increase the risk of conflagration where the rest of the world can least afford it. That is why the safety of people on the streets of Britain requires us to deny al-Qaeda the space to operate across Pakistan and the option of returning to operate in Afghanistan.
That is the considered view of the 43-nation coalition, a unique force of NATO and non-NATO members led by the United States of America and supported by clear United Nations resolutions. Today our purpose is the same as in 2001: to deny al-Qaeda space to operate. But our approach to achieving that has now to be different. In December 2007, our Government became one of the first to suggest that Afghanistan must be prepared to take far greater control of its own security. Since then, we have consistently argued that to weaken the Taliban we have to strengthen the Afghan Government nationally and locally.
This approach is built on our knowledge that the Taliban have only minority support among the Afghan people and our judgment that the long-term security of Afghanistan is best secured by training the Afghan army and police, by building up civilian government at a local as well as national level, and through economic development giving Afghans a stake in their future. This has to be supported, as we propose, by stronger international civilian leadership to work alongside General McChrystal to deliver the civilian aspects of this strategy. It is an outline programme for the transfer of lead security responsibilities to the Afghans—district by district, province by province—with the first districts and provinces potentially being handed over during next year. Let us be clear that this process will depend on the Afghans being ready to take responsibility and control: first, through more trained Afghan troops; secondly, through better policing; thirdly, through effective local and national Government; and fourthly, by giving Afghans, as I said, a stronger stake in their economic future.
I can also say that over time our objective is to work for and to encourage a new set of relationships between Afghanistan and its neighbours based on their guarantee of non-interference in Afghanistan’s future affairs and on a commitment to fostering not only its long-term economic and cultural links with other powers in the region but immediate confidence-building security measures from which all can benefit. So I want the London conference on Afghanistan to be held on 28 January, which President Karzai and the Secretary-General of the United Nations have confirmed they will attend, to unite the international community behind a programme now and for the longer term to help the Afghans to secure and govern their own country.
Against this background, our coalition military strategy is essentially to create the space for an effective political strategy to work, weakening the Taliban by strengthening Afghanistan itself: a military surge, yes, but complemented by a political surge that is, most of all, an Afghan surge. Today I want to set out the benchmarks for this approach and then, and in that context, to give details of the numbers and deployments of our armed forces.
First, over the coming year, the coalition seeks a major expansion of the Afghan army from 90,000 to 134,000. We expect this surge in recruitment to allow an extra 10,000 troops to be deployed in Helmand, of which 5,000 will be trained and partnered by British forces. And we can start now. Six hundred Afghan soldiers are arriving in Helmand this month—an extra company for each Afghan battalion there. A further 10 Afghan companies—1,000 more troops—will soon reinforce the Afghan army’s 205 Corps across southern Afghanistan. Increasingly, therefore, it will be Afghan forces that clear and hold ground as they prepare for the time when they can assume responsibility for their own security.
Secondly, within the next six months, the international community will agree with President Karzai’s Government a police reform plan. We have agreed that, in Helmand, Afghan police numbers will increase immediately to 4,100, with further increases to follow. By mid-2010, the capacity of the Helmand police training centre that we have established in Lashkar Gar will be doubled, and we will double the numbers of police trainers provided by the Royal Military Police from 100 this year to 200 next year.
Thirdly, there needs to be an effective and accountable local administration. Over the next nine months, President Karzai will be expected to implement, with our support and that of our international partners, far-reaching reforms to ensure that from now on all 400 provinces and districts have a governor appointed on merit, free from corruption with clearly defined roles, skills and resources. District community shuras have been formed in Nad Ali, in Garmsir, in Gereshk and in Nawa, with more to come. Nationwide, the number of community development councils will increase within two years from 22,000 to 31,000.
Fourthly, there should be a clean, effective and inclusive national Government in Kabul—one that reaches out to political leaders and citizens from all strands of Afghan society. While President Karzai has agreed with us on the priority of tackling corruption with a new anti-corruption taskforce—and last week the arrest of 12 leading officials took place—we recognise that the test is not initiatives but delivery on the ground, and we will monitor carefully what President Karzai’s Administration are doing.
We support President Karzai’s call for a Loya Jirga and for reconciliation. It is the task of military forces—international and Afghan—to weaken and pressurise the insurgency, but it is right and essential that this work is combined with the offer of a way forward for those prepared to renounce violence and to choose to join the political process. Reintegration can only be led, and must be led, by Afghans themselves at both national and local levels.
For Afghanistan to enjoy stability in the future, farmers and working people in towns and villages must have a greater stake in that economic future: a major Afghan-led programme backed by significant funding to identify the likely growth areas in the Afghan economy, and to provide Afghans with credible economic alternatives to the poppy and the insurgency. With 20 per cent. more land growing wheat, this year’s wheat harvest is expected to be the highest in 30 years. Programmes funded by our development Department will this year create 20,000 jobs in this area, and by 2013 will be able to raise the incomes of 200,000 people.
I turn now to the details of our force levels and our deployments. In my statement to the House on 14 October, I said that to support our strategy of Afghanisation—and particularly to train more Afghan soldiers and police, while at the same time maintaining the security of our forces—the Government had agreed in principle a new force level of 9,500, to be implemented once three conditions were met. I can report on each of these conditions.
First, I made it clear that we would increase the number of British personnel in Afghanistan only if we were assured that it would continue to be the case that every soldier and unit deployed is fully equipped for the operations they are asked to undertake. At this morning’s meeting of our Afghanistan and Pakistan national security committee, the Chief of the Defence Staff gave that assurance—that this condition has been met both for the existing force and the additional 500 troops. Indeed, the chiefs report to me the continuing delivery of new equipment. Newly arrived Merlin helicopters have today been given the “green light” for operations in Afghanistan, a month ahead of schedule. Compared with three years ago, we have doubled helicopter flying hours; in the coming months, these will increase by a further 20 per cent.
By the end of the year, the number of heavily armoured, mine-resistant Mastiff vehicles will have almost doubled compared with August. The number of Ridgback—a smaller, more agile version of the Mastiff—will have increased by over 75 per cent. By spring next year, they will be joined by more Mastiffs adapted for explosive disposal work and new Warthog tracked vehicles, showing the results of our investment over the last three years of more than £1 billion from the Treasury reserve in vehicles for Afghanistan. By the end of this year also, the build-up of a 200-strong counter-improvised explosive device task force, along with the dedicated equipment necessary, will be complete. In addition, aerial surveillance hours available to commanders have increased by over 40 per cent., and a further 200 specialist troops will be deployed against IEDs by spring 2010.
Three years ago, equipment and support for our forces deployed to Afghanistan, funded from the Treasury reserve, was estimated at around £190,000 supporting each individual there. This year it is more than double that—around £400,000 and still rising—and the best possible support and equipment is what we owe those who are fighting for our country in Afghanistan.
I said, secondly, that our contribution of 9,500 must be part of an agreed approach across the international coalition, with all countries bearing their share—a coalition whose principal member and largest troop contributor is of course the United States of America, and we continue regular discussions with the President and his team about the coalition’s evolving strategy. America, as everyone knows, will make an announcement tomorrow, and the Secretary-General of NATO—I pay tribute to his work—reports that, in addition to the UK and the USA, eight countries have already made offers of additional troops and that other countries are likely to follow.
It is often said that America and Britain are fighting alone. This is wrong: excluding America and Britain, the numbers of international coalition troops will have risen from 16,000 in January 2007 to around 30,000 soon, and I believe that over the coming months even more countries will respond. Our effort in Helmand will benefit. Last year, total international force levels in the province were around 7,000; now they will be above 20,000—three times what they were.
Our third condition for deploying additional British troops was that the military effort of the international coalition must be matched by Afghan effort. President Karzai and his Defence Minister have assured us not only that 5,000 members of the new Afghan national army corps will be deployed to Helmand to be partnered by British troops during 2010, but that additional recruits will arrive for training in the next few weeks.
So with the three conditions now met, I can confirm that we will move to a new force level of 9,500; that the extra troops will deploy in early December to thicken the UK troop presence in central Helmand; and that from late January they will make the transition to the partnering role that we envisage for them. For understandable reasons of operational security, we shall continue to withhold information about their deployment and the nature of activities of our special forces, but at this time of increasing international effort, it is right to give a more comprehensive account of our total military commitment to the Afghanistan campaign. I believe that the British people have a right to know, and deserve the assurance, that our highly professional, widely respected and extraordinarily brave special forces are playing their full role not only in force protection but in taking the fight directly to the Taliban, working in theatre alongside our regular forces. I want the whole country to pay tribute to their work.
Taking into account those special forces, their supporting troops and the increases announced today, our total military effort in Afghanistan will be in excess of 10,000 troops. That force level enables us to deliver our military strategy of bringing security to the population. It will support our political strategy of strengthening the Afghan Government at national and local level, as they in return take steps to govern in a clearer, more effective and more inclusive way. It will accelerate the development of the Afghan army and police, so that in time they can take over responsibility for security and thus ensure that our troops can come home.
We are ensuring as best we can the safety of our forces, and we are today setting benchmarks for Afghanistan to meet. In the past few months, we have worked hard to achieve a stronger military presence across the coalition, with a more equal sharing of the burden, and in all we do we will never forget this fundamental truth of the military campaign: that keeping the streets of our country free from terrorism is our utmost responsibility, and that for a safe Britain, we need a stable Afghanistan. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement, but before turning to Afghanistan, may I start by putting right something I got wrong last week? Although the two Islamic schools I mentioned got Government money while being run by people linked to the extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, and although they did receive that money under a pathfinder scheme, it was not the pathfinder scheme concerned with combating extremism. I am sorry for the error—I believe that when one gets a fact wrong, one should put it right—but I continue to believe that it is wrong that taxpayers’ money goes to schools run by extremists.
In Afghanistan, 235 British service personnel and Ministry of Defence staff have lost their lives and many more have been injured. That is a high price to pay, so first I endorse absolutely what the Prime Minister said about our forces. They are doing an extraordinary job, and they have the admiration and support of our whole country. We also back the reason for being in Afghanistan—that is, to enable Afghans to look after their own security without presenting a danger to the rest of the world. The sooner that happens, the sooner our forces can come home.
I want to ask the Prime Minister today about three matters: first, the political and military surge; secondly, the conference that is planned for January; and thirdly, the timetable that he has set out for handing over provinces and districts to Afghan control. On the 500 additional British troops, this is the same further deployment that the Prime Minister announced on 14 October, as he said, subject to the three conditions being met. Let me ask a little more about the three conditions. The first was burden sharing among NATO allies. He told the House on 18 November that he was in touch with eight allies about increasing their contribution, and he repeated the figure of eight allies today. Can he tell us which countries have pledged more troops, how many troops there will be in total, when they will be deployed and how many of them will go to Helmand?
The second condition was to ensure the forces had the necessary equipment. The Prime Minister today tells us that they will have that equipment. I have to say that that is a test set by the Government and then judged by the Government. Although what he said about helicopters is welcome, is it not the case that in pro rata support, the US forces in Helmand have far more helicopters available to them? Is it not also the case that the Merlins, which the Prime Minister mentioned, are unconnected to the 500 troops that we will deploy because the Merlins were ordered a long time previously? It is worth making the point that if the Prime Minister had not personally cut £1.4 billion off the helicopter programme, we would not be in the situation that we are in today.
The third condition was that additional Afghan forces would deploy to Helmand. The Prime Minister helpfully gave us the figures today. Will he assure us that they will remain in Helmand once deployed? Is it still the case, as was reported to me, that fewer than 10 per cent. of Afghan forces are in Helmand province, even though almost half the fighting in Afghanistan takes place there?
The Prime Minister has set out some clear benchmarks for the Karzai Government. Why are we setting out such conditions only now, three and a half years after our forces arrived in Helmand? On the detail, is it really credible to deal with corruption in the police in the Prime Minister’s six-month timetable when we have not managed it in the past three and a half years?
On what the Prime Minister said about appointing provincial governors, since my understanding is that most are already in place, what exactly does he mean by that pledge? Does he mean that some current governors must be replaced?
Let us consider the London conference. The Prime Minister also mentioned the Loya Jirga. Does he now believe that the Bonn settlement got it wrong and that the constitution in Afghanistan is too centralised? We have been pressing for some time for the appointment of a senior international figure to help drive forward the political strategy. Does the Prime Minister believe that that will now happen? Will he take up our suggestion of creating a permanent contact group of Afghanistan’s neighbours to help deliver stability?
On Pakistan, some of the Prime Minister’s remarks at the weekend, reported in the press, seem rather different from what he has said in the Chamber in recent weeks. When I asked him in October about Pakistan, he went out of his way to defend the way in which Pakistan was planning to take on al-Qaeda. As he put it, the Pakistan Government were
“planning how to deal with not only the Pakistan Taliban but the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda itself.”—[Official Report, 14 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 305.]
He described that as “encouraging”. However, he has now gone out of his way to criticise Pakistan for failing to deal with al-Qaeda. Will he tell us a little more about what has changed in his thinking about the approach?
There has also been much speculation, following what the Prime Minister said in Trinidad, about timetables for handover. The statement to the House is slightly different from the briefing given to the press at the weekend. He says that he wants the London conference to determine the conditions for transferring provinces and districts to Afghan control. Yet he also said, not to the House, but in Trinidad, that he wants to see at least five provinces transferred to Afghan “security lead” by the end of 2010, and that he believed that that would be possible for “one or two” districts in Helmand. How can the Prime Minister be confident of that timetable before the London conference has even met and set the benchmarks? Naturally we all want our troops to come home as soon as possible—as soon as their job is done. However, does the Prime Minister agree that we must never say or do anything that gives the impression to the Taliban that we will not see this through? Nor should we raise any false hope or expectation among the families of British forces that may later be dashed. Can he therefore assure the country and our forces, as we approach the general election, that any suggestion about timetables for handover will be based on a hard-headed assessment of the situation on the ground? Is it not the case that the British public want us to do what is right—not speculate and risk the danger of raising false hopes?
First, I want to thank the Leader of the Opposition for his continuing support for the work of our forces in Afghanistan. In spite of the detailed comments that he made on some issues, we should get this in proper perspective. We are fighting terrorism and fighting al-Qaeda in Pakistan, but to do that successfully we must prevent them from having space in Afghanistan. Our plan for Afghanistan is not simply a military strategy—although that is central and fundamental to what we are doing—but a political strategy that, over time, the Afghan people can take more responsibility and more control over their own affairs. I do not think that I could have been clearer in saying that our objectives are not limited by date, but by achievement. The achievement of Afghan control and the ability of the Afghan people to take responsibility for their security is the determining issue in all that. We are making not a time-specific, but a task-specific commitment about what we need to do.
Let me answer the right hon. Gentleman’s questions about the conditions. I said—he probably picked me up wrongly—that eight countries had pledged more troops in Afghanistan and that I expected more countries to do so in the run up to the conference on 28 January next year.
I also said that President Karzai had promised that 5,000 Afghan forces would be transferred to Helmand to partner with British forces over the coming year. I also said that those recruits were starting to come now into Helmand and would be deployed with British forces in holding ground in the area in the months to come. I have said previously that the imbalance between the numbers of Afghan forces in Helmand and elsewhere has had to be addressed, and this is one way of doing that. In total, 10,000 of the Afghan forces will be trained in Helmand over the next few months.
The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) suggested that I should name all the countries concerned, but it is for them to make their own announcements. The Secretary-General of NATO has made it clear to me and others that eight countries have already given him a pledge of additional forces, and that other countries will follow.
As for our own troops and their equipment, the Chief of the Defence Staff talked this morning about the increase in ground forces in Helmand. He said:
“We have a third more protective patrol vehicles and helicopters have gone up by a third too. We have more than met the remit in quantity and it is also going up in quality. The equipment people are using is the best they have ever had.”
The Leader of the Opposition also asked about the conference on 28 January. It is designed to bring the international community together. I said in my statement—again, he cannot have picked this up—that we wanted a new international co-ordinator to deal with the problems of civilian and military co-operation that have arisen in Afghanistan. I hope that when the UN appointee Mr. Eide is replaced, we will be able to consider in more detail the overall co-ordination of that effort. At the conference in January, we will also want to discuss how the neighbours of Afghanistan can come together to give guarantees about Afghanistan’s security and its freedom from interference in the future, and at the same time how to support the economic and social development of the country. That was covered in my statement.
Other countries may wish to make announcements about troops and force generation in connection with the conference. The issue of constitutional reform, and the possibility of a constitutional reform commission for Afghanistan, may be the subject of remarks that President Karzai may want to make. We also want further agreement on how we can transfer lead security responsibility to the Afghan people. The conference, which all countries involved in Afghanistan will want to consider attending and which will be attended by President Karzai, will be an important milestone in the development of the policy of the international community in co-operation with Afghanistan.
The Leader of the Opposition also raised issues in connection with Pakistan. It is right that 30,000 Pakistan troops are now in Waziristan and are taking on the Pakistan Taliban, as well as isolating and cornering al-Qaeda. This is an important development. Over the last few months, perhaps the most significant thing that has happened in the region is that the Pakistan Government and all Pakistan authorities, including the opposition parties, have recognised that if they do not take action against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, they themselves will fall victim to terrorism within their own country, as well as allow international terrorism to flourish in Pakistan.
As I have said in the House on several occasions, it is an important development that Pakistan is now taking action in those areas. It is also necessary, however—as has been made clear by President Obama to the Pakistan authorities, and as I made clear to President Zardari on Saturday—for more action to be taken if al-Qaeda is operating within Pakistan and seeking further space to operate there. It is the duty of the Pakistan authorities to work with all international partners to attempt to isolate and destroy al-Qaeda in Pakistan.
I do not think that there is any contradiction in what I have said. It is important to recognise what Pakistan has done, but it is important also to recognise that for the past eight years, al-Qaeda has been able to send instructions from Pakistan to the rest of the world and to organise, from Pakistan, terrorist attacks that have affected every continent. That is why we want the Pakistan authorities to act.
We are providing the additional troops that are necessary, and we are working with a coalition of 43. It is a unique coalition that has never before been assembled, and one that involves NATO and other NATO members in dealing with the terrorist problem. Today we are giving the troops both the equipment and the resources necessary to do the job, and I hope that the whole country will support us in doing so.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, and of course join him in recognising and commending the enormously impressive work and selfless bravery of our armed forces in Afghanistan. I also join him in welcoming the soldiers from 19 Light Brigade and others who are in the House of Commons today.
It has finally become mainstream to talk about the need for a big shift in our strategy in Afghanistan. When I first questioned the effectiveness of our action there six months ago and called for precisely such a step change, I was told that it was unpatriotic to do so. The Prime Minister’s change of tone since then has been dramatic and welcome. Our approach to our mission in Afghanistan has always been simple: we should do it properly or not do it at all. So does the Prime Minister agree that success is not just about troop numbers, and that focusing on troop numbers, as he has done today, to the exclusion of other things is putting the cart before the horse?
There is no point in sending a single extra soldier unless the strategy that our troops need to succeed in their mission is in place. So why is the Prime Minister making any announcements about troop numbers today, when we will not know until President Obama’s announcement tomorrow what the new strategy is and what chances it has of success? I have in the past criticised the Prime Minister for keeping quiet over Afghanistan and failing to speak out in support of our troops and their mission. Has he not now swung a little too far in the opposite direction, seeking to make an announcement on troop numbers before we know whether the things are in place that would allow them to succeed?
We know from previous successful peacekeeping missions, such as those in the Balkans, that we cannot succeed unless we have the support of all the big regional powers. In Afghanistan that does not mean just Pakistan, China and Russia; it also means Iran, which is now at loggerheads with the west over its unacceptable announcement of 10 new nuclear facilities. Can the Prime Minister tell us how he will find a way to take a tough stance with Iran while seeking to keep it engaged in securing peace in Afghanistan?
A centrepiece of the Prime Minister’s announcement today was his benchmark-setting for President Karzai. What happens if President Karzai does not achieve those benchmarks? What efforts are the Prime Minister and others in the alliance making to develop a plan B of bypassing Karzai’s Government in Kabul and instead dealing directly with local and regional government? I am sure that the Prime Minister agrees with me that, given Karzai’s record on corruption, we should not hold our breath for him to change, but work on finding ways to succeed without him if he does not.
Let me turn to what the Prime Minister said about improved equipment for our brave troops, in particular the welcome delivery of new Mastiff, Ridgback and Warthog vehicles. Can he confirm here today that that means that the poorly protected Snatch Land Rovers are no longer being used by any of our troops out on deployment in Afghanistan?
Finally, let me address the issue of troop deployments by our NATO allies. The Prime Minister himself said that the deployment of any extra British troops would be conditional on other countries sharing the burdens, yet he refuses to tell us today exactly which other countries are sharing that burden. As he has made that a condition, will he now be clear and detailed in setting out what he expects? Which NATO countries are offering troops, when will they arrive in Afghanistan and what will their role be on the ground?
For several years now, since our troops first stepped into Afghanistan, the Government’s strategy has been over-ambitious in aim and under-resourced in practice. I hope that today’s announcement and the one that will follow tomorrow from President Obama finally turn the situation around, so that our troops have what they need for success and can come home as soon as possible, with their heads held high.
Again, I think that we should concentrate on where we agree. We agree, I believe, that the strategy of moving to greater control by the Afghans themselves over their own security is the right one. We agree that that will require the extra military numbers that we are putting in theatre, but so too are other countries. We agree that that has to be complemented by a political strategy which, as I have argued for quite a long time, has to involve building up the Afghan army and police, strengthening local and national government by freeing it from corruption while at the same time giving people an economic stake in the future. I believe that on all these things, we are agreed.
As for the commitments that the Afghans themselves must make, it is not possible for us to give them a blank cheque. What we have to insist upon is that the promises they have made about cleaning up the corruption that is obvious in Afghanistan, and their promises about delivering troops that can be trained in theatre with Britain and other coalition allies, are upheld. The test, of course, is not the words that are in addresses and statements; the test is in actual delivery. That is why I have put more force on what has been done in the last few days since President Karzai started his second term than on the statements made before these early days. It is important to recognise that troops are being provided, that an anti-corruption task force is being set up and that people have been arrested. More, of course, has to be done, but we have seen a start to delivery on a number of key issues that we put to President Karzai and demanded he made commitments to.
As for vehicles in the field, we need some small vehicles as well as the large ones. We have more Mastiff, we have more Ridgback and we now have the Snatch Vixen, which has been upgraded, but I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we must ensure that all our troops have the best equipment possible. The truth is, as he knows, that we have had to move from a situation of face-to-face conflict with the Taliban to a guerrilla war conducted by Taliban members through the use of explosive devices to damage our morale and also to damage and kill our troops.
We have had to adjust our tactics to that, with different equipment, with extra work against explosive devices while at the same time bringing more equipment into the field, including unmanned drones to enable us to carry out surveillance where improvised explosive devices are being placed. We have had a great deal of success there, with more than 1,000—probably 1,500—IEDs dismantled as a result of what we have done. Where people suffer or are maimed or killed as a result of IEDs, we have a responsibility to do more. That is why we have increased the amount of equipment now available in the field for those tasks. More engineers will be going into Afghanistan in the next few months, to make sure that our increased number of troops are properly protected.
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we take very seriously indeed what he says about equipment and the provision of proper measures for the safety of our troops, but I believe the answer is in the investment we are making, the new helicopters going into the field, the new vehicles going into the field and the special protection against explosive devices.
However effective the Karzai Government, with their history of corruption, are in meeting the benchmarks, is not the reality that we are in Afghanistan for our own national security reasons? In that context, the Prime Minister rightly praised the efforts of the Pakistani Government, but how confident is he that the civilian Government in Pakistan have the power to shift the focus of their military and intelligence agencies to combat al-Qaeda, as opposed to their obsession with India?
My hon. Friend, who is an expert on these affairs, is absolutely right to draw attention to the importance of Pakistan and to the fact that, as I said, we are in Afghanistan for national security reasons. Because there is a terrorist threat to the people of our country, it is not enough for us to defend ourselves within our own borders. It is important that we try to deal with that terrorist threat at source.
As far as Pakistan is concerned, I have talked to President Zardari, as I said, and I also keep in touch with the opposition leaders in Pakistan while at the same time talking to the military—as do other members of the Government—and, of course, our armed forces. We can be sure that the Pakistan authorities are aware that they have to deal with the threat posed by the Pakistan Taliban and also by al-Qaeda. We can also be clear that we have to give the Pakistan authorities the support to enable them to do that.
I think that we must also take a long-term view of Pakistan. Its population will rise dramatically in future years, and the number of young people in the country who are subject to influence by terrorist and extremist groups is large. Given the number of madrassahs that exist in Pakistan’s education system, there is a problem with young people being indoctrinated with extremist ideologies.
The Secretary of State for International Development, who is now in the Chamber, is right to insist that we put resources into education. He and the Foreign Secretary have undertaken a review of Pakistan’s education system which is to be led by Professor Michael Barber. They are making a number of proposals that will improve the text books as well as the quality of education available in the schools of Pakistan, to which we are prepared to devote substantial resources to enable Pakistan to have an education system free of the influences of indoctrination. We want to work with Pakistan on a comprehensive strategy.
We can of course ask proper questions about the detail of the statement, and can throw back at the Prime Minister what he said about the importance of producing delivery on the ground rather than just words. Let me say, however, that it is high time that the Prime Minister finally came to take real personal charge of the argument in favour of our presence in Afghanistan, and that he needs to argue in favour of our presence there to help the stability of Pakistan, with its nuclear weapons. Does he agree that his statement constitutes not the end of that argument but the first of many statements to the House?
I appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman has said, in his capacity as Chairman of the Defence Committee. I think we all share the view that there is a terrorist threat, and that it must be dealt with at source as well as in our own countries. It is important for us to explain to the general public not just of our country but of other countries what we are doing, and to explain not only why we have a case for being in Afghanistan, but what our strategy is to enable the Afghans gradually to take more control of their own affairs so that our troops can come home. It is our duty not just to put across the case for being in Afghanistan, but to assure people that we have a plan and a strategy that is co-ordinated across NATO; the right hon. Gentleman’s help in putting that message across will be much appreciated.
Order. These are obviously very serious matters, and many Members wish to ask questions. May I ask for one very brief question—and, perhaps, one brief reply as well?
The Prime Minister’s statement was obviously a good one, because we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel. I hope that that light comes earlier rather than later. Can the Prime Minister confirm, however, that there is no truth in the rumour that the Italians are pulling their troops out before Christmas, the Canadians are talking about pulling troops out, the Dutch are going to pull troops out, the Germans are talking about it—although they clock off at 5 anyway—and Poland is having trouble getting its troops in?
I cannot confirm all those rumours. It is true that Canada and the Netherlands have made announcements about the time-limited nature of their deployments to Afghanistan, but it is also true that a number of countries are ready to put additional troops into Afghanistan, including NATO members and countries that are not members of NATO. I am satisfied that thousands of additional troops will be provided not just by America and Britain, but by other countries. As I have said, eight countries have already indicated to the Secretary-General of NATO that they have numbers of troops that they are prepared to deploy to Afghanistan. I think it is also true to say that he has had indications from others that they will make announcements soon.
Why has the President of Pakistan just announced that he has given up his personal control of that country’s nuclear weapons and transferred them to his Prime Minister, given that we have been assured for years that they are under the control of Pakistan’s army, not its politicians?
My right hon. Friend rightly focused on the issue of first-class equipment for our brave troops in Afghanistan. At the recent opening of the £100-million Thales plant in Crawley the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and I saw the fantastic work being done there, and how much pride our workers feel in the fact that they are producing first-class equipment for our troops. A lot of this sort of information could be put out to our constituents without putting our troops at risk; if we did that, would that not let the public know that we have confidence in our troops and that we are giving them the very best of equipment, produced in the UK?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the equipment being produced for our troops, to deal with the new eventuality of the guerrilla warfare being practised by the Taliban, is of a very high quality. I am proud of the British firms that contribute to the equipment orders that are making possible greater security for our forces in Afghanistan. We will continue to upgrade the equipment available to our forces. In addition to the ordinary defence budget, several billion pounds have now been spent on new equipment—whether it be vehicles, helicopters or equipment to deal with IEDs—and some very notable firms, including some in my hon. Friend’s constituency, are responsible for the advances we are making in both technology and equipment.
Will the Prime Minister undertake to invite Russia, China and India to take part in the London conference? Does he accept that not only would that be appropriate because they face the same international terrorism emanating from Pakistan and Afghanistan as we do, but that their presence would also reassure British public opinion and international opinion that, unlike what happened in Iraq, our presence in Afghanistan has the unanimous support of the United Nations Security Council?
The former Foreign Secretary is absolutely right: any permanent settlement that will ensure non-interference by other countries of the region in Afghanistan’s affairs will have to include the countries that he mentioned. They will have to be part of the discussions about the relationship between Afghanistan and its neighbours, and they can be part of better security arrangements for Afghanistan. We will announce more information on the specific details of the London conference in due course, but I take on board what the right hon. and learned Gentleman says: there have to be talks with the countries in the region about how they can secure the future of Afghanistan and, of course, build the economic, cultural and social links that are essential if Afghanistan is to be able to control its own affairs.
When I was in Helmand this summer, I was able to see for myself the excellent medical facilities that we have at Camp Bastion; the soldiers there were also hugely impressed by them. With the increase in the number of troops being deployed, will the Prime Minister ensure there is a commensurate increase in the in-theatre medical services and the aftercare services back here in the UK?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the high-quality service—indeed, the superb service—provided by those charged with the health care of the people who are fighting in Afghanistan. I have seen for myself—as he and many other Members have—the facilities at Camp Bastion, so I have seen that that hospital has some of the most modern equipment in the world, and how well its nurses and medical staff care for people who have been wounded or injured, or who are in difficulty as a result of what has happened in-theatre in Afghanistan. Working with the Americans and other parties who share this medical facility, we are determined to improve it at all times. We are also determined to ensure that the facilities at Selly Oak in Birmingham are the best for members of our armed forces who are injured and need recovery, and for rehabilitation we have invested substantially in Headley Court and will continue to do so.
The Prime Minister has rightly referred several times today to the need to deal with the terrorist threat at its source. Can he tell the House what proportion of terrorist threats or plots that have been uncovered, disrupted or prevented in the United Kingdom in the last five years have been directly connected with the Afghani Taliban, rather than the Pakistani Taliban?
I was talking about al-Qaeda and the threat posed in the United Kingdom by terrorist plots organised by, or in collaboration with, members of al-Qaeda in Pakistan. The evidence is that many of the plots we have had to deal with, including the most recent plots, are inspired by instructions that come from al-Qaeda operatives. There is contact between these al-Qaeda operatives and people in the United Kingdom. My point about the Taliban is this: if al-Qaeda were to have the space to operate in Afghanistan as a result of the Taliban coming back to power in Afghanistan, they would be an even greater danger not only to the region but on the streets of Britain.
The Prime Minister mentioned the whole country, and the whole country will be reassured by his statement. Was it not appropriate to remind the House that we are in Afghanistan under United Nations fiat, that 43 nation states are in the coalition and that eight further nations have pledged troops, with others? Would it not be appropriate for the Secretary-General of NATO to announce these pledges as soon as he can, so that we can build upon the confidence from today through to the conference in London on 28 January?
My hon. Friend is right: this is a unique venture. It is difficult to look back upon an event where so many countries have come together as part of one coalition, with the leadership of NATO and the United Nations, and are committed to providing additional resources not only to enable the surge in military activity to happen over the next few months, but at the same time to enable a political settlement to be reached. As for naming the countries that have offered troops, it is possible for me to refer to statements made by different leaders in different countries, but I think that the announcements should be made by those leaders themselves. No doubt the Secretary-General of NATO will want to make a comprehensive announcement soon. I am confident, if I may say so, that the 5,000 additional troops that I talked about a few weeks ago as being an important part of the continuing mission will be obtained as a result of the requests being made to other NATO and non-NATO countries.
Will the Prime Minister say what steps he will take to try to persuade the many countries whose forces in Afghanistan are confined, essentially, to a non-combat role to change their policies and be willing to share the combat burden with our forces?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are some countries that, either through their constitution or through their decisions, do not participate in the military fighting in Afghanistan, and do other work. It is important to recognise that we need the help of all countries, and that where countries are willing to make financial contributions, or contributions involving equipment, we should be prepared to accept them—as, for example, with helicopters. Of course the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that we want more people to share the military burden—the fighting on the front line—that has been an essential part of bringing peace to Afghanistan. I agree with him that we would like more countries to contribute with military forces prepared to go to the front line.
My right hon. Friend knows well that Plymouth understands sacrifice; indeed, we are burying another very brave young man this week. However, perhaps I could read to him the words of Lance Corporal Pilgrim Patton of 2nd Battalion The Rifles. He wrote the following in the Plymouth Herald:
“We are making a difference in Afghanistan. My friends didn’t die for nothing”.
We should remember that 14 of his comrades did die on the previous tour. He also said that the British Army has
“the best equipment in the world”.
Would my right hon. Friend support Lance Corporal Patton’s view?
I am very pleased that my hon. Friend has been able to read out a letter from a serving member of our forces. I pay tribute to his work on behalf of the country, and to the work of all the people from Plymouth who have served in our armed forces, as well as people from the rest of the country. It is important to recognise the advances in equipment that have been made in recent years. It is important also to recognise that we have had to change our tactics because of the nature of the Taliban assault. Equally, it is important to recognise, as she said, that we have the best forces in the world, and we are genuinely very proud of everything that they do.
May I thank the Prime Minister for the detail in today’s statement, and say that I genuinely hope that the conditions he has set out will be met? He was quoted earlier today as having said:
“What we need is a political push to match the military push we’re now agreeing to”.
Given that the United States is engaged in an exhaustive review of strategy, would it not have made more sense to make a statement on the strategy and on our allies’ political commitments to this conflict before the statement on deployment that we have heard today?
I hope that in looking at the statement, the hon. Gentleman will agree that I have tried to set forward the strategy that we have to pursue. Since December 2007, when I first said that the strategy must be one of giving the Afghan people more control of their own affairs and of, over time and progressively, building up the Afghan army, police, security services and local government, we have tried to pursue that consistent strategy and to persuade our allies to adopt it. It is important, of course, that we allow the deployment of troops to happen as quickly as possible now that decisions have been made across the alliance. It is right that, side by side with the statement of strategy and why we are there, I announced the figures for troop numbers. As I said, the troops will be deployed to Afghanistan within the next few weeks. It is important that we can signal that that way ahead can start. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to suggest that we should have waited longer; it is right to move ahead now.
The Canadians are withdrawing combat forces from Kandahar in 2011. Kandahar, as you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is right next door to Helmand. Has my friend spoken to Stephen Harper, the Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, to ask him to reconsider, and what did Mr. Harper say?
I spoke to Mr. Harper at the Commonwealth conference and we had a discussion with other countries that were also present, including Australia, which is involved in Afghanistan, and New Zealand. It is my view that in Kandahar and Helmand there will be a greater number of troops next year than there are this year. Although some countries have made difficult decisions that they themselves have the responsibility to take, overall the number of troops in Helmand and Kandahar will rise.
In a few months, the Afghan national army will be bigger than the British Army. The Prime Minister has mentioned the 43 nations in the coalition, but he must accept that the vast majority of our major European NATO allies have not contributed troops on the ground in southern Afghanistan. May I ask him one specific question, which I believe will be a great help for our servicemen and women? May we have the deployment of more unmanned aerial vehicles—UAVs—to help detect terrorist activities?
The hon. Gentleman is right to mention that. I think I mentioned in my statement that the numbers would rise. It is an essential part of our strategy that this surveillance takes place so that we can discover and then dismantle the IEDs that have caused so much damage to our forces. Everybody here knows that 80 per cent. of the deaths that have been caused over the past few months have been caused by IEDs. To track and dismantle them we need unmanned vehicles. We also need military intelligence and engineers in the theatre who are enabled to dismantle these weapons, which have caused so much destruction.
On the hon. Gentleman’s more general point, I believe that we will see additional troops coming from coalition members that are not America or Britain.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that his cogent explanation of our purpose in Afghanistan will command widespread understanding? Did I hear him right when I heard him say that the civilian aid programme will now work together with the military effort so that we can have a co-ordinated and unified approach under General McChrystal? Could this not be an opportunity to get around the corruption that at the moment so besets the Karzai regime and is the biggest threat to our being successful in our programme? Could that not be brought together under General McChrystal and delivered direct to the governance in the districts and provinces?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says. It is essential that we tackle corruption in the Afghan Administration. The way to do that is to ensure that moneys that are being spent in Afghanistan are properly accounted for. When money goes to the Afghan Administration for spending within Afghanistan, there is an Afghan reconstruction trust fund that is audited by the World Bank, and we try to ensure that moneys are going for the purposes that are intended.
My hon. Friend’s more general point about the co-ordination of military and civilian work is very important and that is what we want to look at as part of the agenda for the London conference. It is important that as we look at who will succeed the UN special representative in Afghanistan, we try to bring together the military and civilian work in a more co-ordinated way and that we have people in charge of the humanitarian and development work in Afghanistan on a consistent and co-ordinated basis. What my hon. Friend says will definitely be taken into account as we consider what we can achieve as part of the London conference.
I am pleased to note that members of the armed forces who have served in Afghanistan are now in the Public Gallery of this House. I want, as will the whole House, to thank them for everything that they do in the service of our country.
Having campaigned over the last four years for more protected vehicles with V-shaped hulls, I welcome the increased numbers of Mastiffs and Ridgbacks being delivered to theatre. Is the Prime Minister confident that the extra troops being sent to Afghanistan will not have the opposite effect to that which is intended—to exacerbate the situation, as has happened in the past? Could this not be history repeating itself?
No, I do not believe so. As I have said, we have had to adjust to a change in tactics by the Taliban. They are fighting what is in effect a guerrilla war and we have to change the techniques we use to deal with them. By having properly protected vehicles, surveillance of IEDs and intelligence backing up the military work of our troops in the field, I believe we are doing the right thing. The necessary surge in numbers in the parts of Afghanistan that have been subject to the greatest violence will be complemented by a political strategy, whereby if we take ground, it will increasingly be Afghan forces who hold the ground. Therefore, far from being seen as an occupying force, by partnering with Afghan forces we shall enable them over time to take security responsibility for their country.
Does the Prime Minister accept that a different analysis could be put on this? The vast increase in American troops due tomorrow—apparently—the increase of British troops to more than 10,000 and the demands on other countries look more and more like a colonial occupation, with all the demands that have been placed on the civilian administration in Afghanistan and apparently virtual control of it. Will that not just increase opposition there, in Pakistan and in neighbouring countries? Will it not actually make the situation worse, so that British troops may be there not just for another year, but for another eight years?
The question my hon. Friend has to ask himself is whether he believes that the Afghan Taliban, who are responsible for the denial of human rights, particularly to women, have the political support of the people of Afghanistan or not. All the recent evidence we have seen is that only a small minority of the population of Afghanistan support the Taliban. Even part of the insurgency includes people who are mercenaries, who are paid for their work and have no ideological commitment to what the Taliban say. In some cases, nationalists fighting with the Taliban can be detached from them by an effective Afghan Government and the process of reconciliation. If my hon. Friend starts from the proposition that the insurgency has massive support in Afghanistan, he may of course reach the conclusion that it is a mistake for us to work with the elected Afghan Government and the Afghan people to defeat that insurgency, but I start from the proposition that the Taliban have limited support in Afghanistan.
Bearing in mind the fact that in the Prime Minister’s last two statements to the House, he has quite rightly stressed the need for all our NATO allies to commit far more troops to Afghanistan and that he has also stressed that he would make great efforts to ensure that would happen, does he understand that it is disappointing and disturbing for many of us that this afternoon he has been forced to be so coy and not reveal any of those extra troops and their countries?
I think the right hon. Gentleman is labouring the point. I have announced that eight countries have already agreed with the Secretary-General of NATO that they will provide troops additional to those that they have in Afghanistan. I have also said that the NATO Secretary-General expects more countries to announce that in the next few days. I have already given figures on the doubling of numbers of non-British and non-American troops in Afghanistan over the last two years and more to show that the international coalition is made up not just of Britain and America, but that a vast range of countries contributes to the coalition forces. We should wait and see what the announcements of other countries are before we rush to the conclusion that the right hon. Gentleman has rushed to.
We are probably something less than six months away from a general election and I think our troops deserve to hear the House speak with one voice. Has the Prime Minister considered, therefore, bringing in the leaders of the main Opposition parties to agree on the strategy for Afghanistan to ensure that Afghanistan does not become a party political football?
I hope from what has been said today that a message is going to the country that despite our other differences, the leaders of the major political parties in this country are all supportive of the efforts our troops are making in Afghanistan, and that they agree that the strategy moving forward is one whereby Afghanistan itself must take more responsibility for its own affairs, that we must work with Pakistan as well as Afghanistan to deal with the terrorist threat in that region and that although the financial commitment is strenuous, it is right to support our troops and our forces as we are doing.
Even with the 500 additional troops, total allied forces, including Afghans, do not exceed the 27,500 troops we had in Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles. Given that Helmand province is four times the size of Northern Ireland and that the ratio of helicopters to troops is far lower than when I served in Northern Ireland, what makes the Prime Minister think that an extra 500 troops will make sufficient difference?
Our strategy is not as the hon. Gentleman implies in his question; it is to build up Afghan forces so that they are in a position to take more security responsibility for their country. I am also telling the hon. Gentleman today that although there are 90,000 Afghan troops now, there will be, in our view, 135,000 or so by next year. It is our strategy to train up these Afghan forces so that they, by their professional ability, can hold the ground as well as take ground in Afghanistan over time. That is our strategy—not to rely exclusively on allied forces, but to have allied forces working with the Afghan army and a corruption-free Afghan police over the next few years. So the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the strategy if he puts it the way he is doing.
May I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that he should set out his strategy in a fully detailed White Paper to be published by the end of this year and that the White Paper should be debated on the Floor of the House on a votable and amendable motion before 28 January?
We did set out—in April, if I remember the date rightly—the proposals that we had for what we called the Afghanisation strategy. We have set that out in detail in the House. Of course, if Members of the House want to debate these things in more detail, it is right that we should do so, but I had understood—perhaps I have been misled—that the official Opposition support our strategy.
May I reinforce the comments of my colleague on the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), about the role of other forces in Afghanistan? There was consistent criticism by British and US forces when we visited in April that NATO allies on a NATO mission were not playing their full role. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that the new troops going to Afghanistan from NATO and other countries will not be governed by so-called caveats? It is frankly no good having troops who will not fight at weekends, who will not fly at night and who go home at five o’clock.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we expect other countries to do more, but he is also a fair man and he recognises that, over the last few weeks, we have been trying to persuade NATO allies and, indeed, allies outside NATO to do more. But I think we also have got to appreciate that, in the end, we have got to build up the Afghan forces, just as Pakistan has got to have a more professional approach to dealing with terrorism, and that is where the answer to the problems lies in Pakistan and Afghanistan. We can do a great deal and we will have to do more, but, in the end, we want Afghan people themselves to take more responsibility for their own affairs.
Many of the extra EOD—explosive ordnance disposal—engineers the Prime Minister referred to will have to come from the Territorial Army. Now that he has seen the error of his ways and reversed his proposed cut to the TA, will he simply reassure the House that there will be no cuts to its budget next year?
I think we have made absolutely clear in the last few days the value we attach to the Territorial Army, given the decisions about money that we have made. But I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also consider that the priority at the moment is the effort in Afghanistan, and directing our resources to Afghanistan means also that we finance the Territorial Army for what it can do in Afghanistan. That is a decision that we have made. I had thought that the Opposition might be more—
I am grateful for the fact that the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) has served and I am grateful to all people who serve in the Territorial Army. It is important to recognise that, but it is also important to recognise that our resources have got to be prioritised towards what we are doing in Afghanistan.
The right hon. Gentleman puts the question in the context of territory. I would prefer to put it in the context of people, and people working with the British Army in the main population centres. Our strategy is to work with the Afghan people in the villages and towns—particularly in the towns—to make sure that they feel comfortable with the Afghan army gradually taking more responsibility, to have an Afghan police force that is more in tune with the needs of the people, and, as I said, to build up the shuras and Afghan local government with good provincial and district governors. That is the strategy that we want to pursue.
The Prime Minister stated that there are 90,000 trained Afghan troops, but as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition pointed out, just 10 per cent. of those troops are in Helmand province, yet 50 per cent. of the action—the hostilities—take place there. Surely it is time for more Afghan trained troops to be sent to Helmand province. The Prime Minister stated that there are 5,000 recruits coming. It will take two years to train those troops. Could he call President Karzai and get more Afghan troops down to Helmand now?
I think the hon. Gentleman misunderstands what I am saying. First, there are 10,000 troops to be trained for partnering in Afghanistan’s Helmand province over the next year, not 5,000. Half of these will be trained by the British, and half of them by the Americans. Some of the troops that will come to Helmand will already have been trained and they will be there for partnering. Some of them will come to be trained from the beginning. The commitment that I have from President Karzai is that he now sees that Helmand is a priority, and that troops will be dispatched from the rest of the country to Helmand where, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, a great deal of the violence is. It is in recognition of that that I have made today’s announcements.
In his statement the Prime Minister mentioned Yemen. He will know that Yemeni nationals form one of the largest groups operating within al-Qaeda, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Will the Prime Minister give a commitment that he will continue to work with the Government of Yemen to ensure that it does not become a failed state, and that Government Ministers and officials from Yemen will be invited to the London conference?
The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the terrorist threats that we see in different parts of the world. It is true that terrorists operating from Yemen, and in some cases then trained in Pakistan, are people whom we have had to pursue. It is also right that Somalia has become a major centre for the development of terrorist activity and that some of these groups are targeting Britain, but I repeat that the main centre—the epicentre, so to speak—of global terrorism remains Pakistan and the Pakistan-Afghan border. To take on the terrorist threat in Britain, we have to target Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the efforts that we put there into a political as well as military strategy are the most important things we can do. Of course we will not neglect the importance of Yemen and the dangers that I know exist there, but I emphasise that the important centre of global terrorism remains the one that we have been talking about today.
The Prime Minister leads the House in noting the sacrifice given by our soldiers. Sadly, is not this initiative repeating the mistakes of a political generation ago in Vietnam, when people talked about the west being under threat, saying with all good will that we wanted to withdraw, but inevitably getting drawn closer and closer into a conflict that ultimately could not be won?
The hon. Gentleman ought to look at the evidence for the support for the Taliban in Afghanistan. His assumption is that somehow the insurgency has massive popular support, and that the vast majority of the population would go with that insurgency if they had the choice. I do not think that that reflects the situation in Afghanistan. A recent poll showed that only 8 per cent. of the population of Afghanistan supported in any way the Taliban and the insurgency. I believe that most Afghan people want security and safety. I believe that they will support the partnering of British and coalition forces with Afghan forces, and that we have the ability to work with the Afghan people to defeat the insurgency. I also believe that there are many people associated with the insurgency who are mercenaries or others who do not share the extremist ideologies of the Taliban or al-Qaeda, and may wish at some point to join the ordinary political process and renounce violence.
Last year we had 8,000 troops in Afghanistan, and at the moment we have more than 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, so the idea that we have not increased our forces over the past year in response to events is completely wrong, if I may say so. On the 500 additional troops whom today we have agreed to send, I think that it was right to lay down conditions that had to be met, partly because the public needed to be assured that everything possible had been done to make it clear that the equipment for our forces was the best possible; partly because we had to assure ourselves that other countries would play a part in the effort; and partly because we needed the Afghans themselves, after the election period, to commit to providing the forces that are necessary for training.
If our strategy is to work, we need the Afghan forces to be trained by British forces and by coalition forces. That is why it was important to get the assurances and, indeed, the practical announcements from President Karzai about the designation of troops to Helmand. I believe that putting conditions on the additional 500 forces personnel was the right thing to do, and I think that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely wrong in saying that we have not acted over the past year. We have done that, and I think that it was absolutely right to lay down conditions that, having been met, mean that we can go ahead immediately and send the additional troops to Afghanistan.
We must now move on to the next statement, which is on Basildon and Colchester hospital trusts—