House of Commons
Monday 11 January 2010
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Effective international partnerships are crucial to our security as a nation and we will benefit from strengthening multilateral and bilateral co-operation. We expect to build further on both our European Union and transatlantic relationships. Those who think that it is a choice misunderstand where our interests lie. The EU, NATO and our bilateral relationships are complementary one to another. The Green Paper will address that issue.
The world faces threats from global terrorism, global warming and global poverty. Those international issues require international solutions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK’s defence is best served by strong alliances with mainstream parties in Europe, not with those on the lunatic fringe?
Totally. Those who believe that the EU has no effective role to play in our security, of whom there appear to be some in the House, really miss the point. As I said, the EU is complementary to our other alliances and relationships and can play a very significant part in our security. We should welcome that and build those relationships.
Although I agree with the burden of what the Secretary of State says, it is nevertheless true that because of the European Union’s poverty of ambition and its disorganisation, it needs to be directed towards the military operations for which it is equipped and in which it is able to take part. Does he agree that stabilisation operations are ideal for the EU, but that we need to look to NATO for the serious war-fighting operations?
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says, but not exclusively. The EU can play a role. We should not build concrete alternative structures, but what the EU can do and is doing should be complementary to NATO. After all, most of its members are also members of NATO. I was at fleet command in Northwood only a few days ago, where the EU is working well with NATO on anti-piracy and making a real contribution.
Although the transatlantic relationship will obviously remain our most important alliance, does the Secretary of State agree that in the 21st century the Americans will increasingly look towards the Pacific and less towards the Atlantic? Will the Green Paper offer an opportunity to reappraise the military relationship with some of our key European partners and move it on to a scale that we have not seen in the past?
Our bilateral relationship with the United States is, as the hon. Gentleman said, the most important security and defence relationship that we have and will stay that way for the foreseeable future. However, no serious people in the US expect us to do anything other than build good working relationships with our European neighbours and the European Union. They see that as a positive thing, so there is no competition in that regard, as some people appear to think there is or should be.
Given the state of the defence budget, the fact that we are fighting a war and the possible danger of duplication by investing sums of money in European alternatives to NATO defence structures, what possible justification can there be for spending any significant sums at all on the duplicatory European defence capability?
The hon. Gentleman would have to explain exactly where we have done that and where there has not been effect from European Union involvement in the operations that it has undertaken. As I said, I recently visited fleet command, where we have run Operation Atalanta without any structures and without building any unnecessary bureaucracy. We have got that operation up and running in pretty short order, under a European flag and co-operating with NATO. Why is his party so totally opposed to such effective operations?
Force Levels (Afghanistan)
We continue to press our international security assistance force allies to share more of the burden in Afghanistan. We will encourage a focus on what they can realistically deliver, including military and non-military assets and other contributions.
There has already been a significant response to General McChrystal’s requests for additional forces for Afghanistan, and we are getting pretty close to the number that he asked for. Of course, we will try to address burden sharing even more to ascertain how people can co-operate and help one another and the contribution that they are capable of making. As I have said in the House previously, not all our partners can make the contributions that others can, but there are things that they can and should do to help. There will be other issues to address at the NATO conference, such as trying to get a framework for transition and maintaining momentum and progress in Afghanistan, but burden sharing will be an important part of the discussions.
I heard “Not a lot” from a sedentary position. We are approaching the figure of 40,000 additional troops that General McChrystal requested. The Americans have overwhelmingly provided them and we have made a substantial contribution, but so have other partners—it is wrong to deny that. The countries to which my hon. Friend refers are providing all the things that he mentioned, such as money—sometimes nations have the ability to make a military contribution in Afghanistan but cannot finance it, so bringing different partners together to try to help finance things that others are prepared to do is another aspect of burden sharing that we are encouraging and getting into in detail with some of our allies.
Does the Secretary of State agree that it has taken considerable courage for an Arab country such as the United Arab Emirates to play the role that it plays in Afghanistan? What moves is he making to encourage other Muslim countries to take part in Afghanistan?
We welcome all contributions and I agree that it is a brave but appropriate decision to support our operations in Afghanistan. If we can get Muslim countries involved in the Afghan operations, that will be a real boon, so we will do anything and everything we can to widen the coalition as well as seeking appropriate support from those who are already part of it.
Is it not becoming increasingly obvious that some NATO alliance members, particularly in mainland Europe, will not risk the lives of their soldiers for anything but their national defence? At what point should we as a nation start to reassess the principles of article 5?
There are some of our allies who take a different view of what they can contribute and what they ought properly to contribute to those operations. We have tried to give them as many opportunities as possible to make a contribution. Many have seized it, and although it is not often in the form of force capability that can do the job in Helmand province, those matters are and will continue to be discussed in NATO.
Our armed forces value political consensus on Afghanistan when possible, so let me begin the new year on that basis. Counter-insurgency is about protecting the population. It requires a better force-to-population ratio than we currently have in Helmand province—that is why the expected uplift of American and Afghan troops is welcome. Britain is currently responsible for two thirds of the population in Helmand, with only one third of coalition troop strength. Does the Secretary of State agree that that has to change? Would it not be sensible to have a better equalisation of troop densities as the number of US troops in Helmand increases?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and I welcome and agree with his comments. As Major-General Nick Carter, who commands the whole of Regional Command South in Afghanistan, has said, he has already had an additional 20,000 troops. He will receive another 21,000 troops and it would be strange indeed if he were not considering how to balance the force in areas in the south. That is primarily a military decision. No decisions have been made yet, but it is appropriate that he looks at the matter.
Further to that, does the Secretary of State agree that there needs to be a rebalance between UK and US areas of responsibility, even if that might mean concentrating Task Force Helmand’s assets into a smaller geographical area in central Helmand? Does he agree that that should be interpreted not in any way as a downgrading of the UK effort, but as representing a better match between resources and commitments? It is essential that the UK play a full role in Afghanistan, including a full military role, but one that is proportionate to our force strength and configuration.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have 9,500 troops in Afghanistan, the overwhelming majority of whom are in Helmand province, and it is right, as he says, that we currently have a responsibility for the majority of the population in Helmand province. With the kind of inflows of troops that General McChrystal will have, and that Major-General Carter will have in the south, the latter is going to have to look at force densities to try to make sure that he is properly using those troops where they are needed. If that means that there is a concentration of British effort in part of our current area of operations and some handing-on to American forces, we should look at that. Major-General Carter is looking at that, and I would encourage him to do so. I know that he has talked to the hon. Gentleman about that, and he has certainly talked to me about it as well.
Military Objectives (Helmand)
I regularly discuss the mission in Afghanistan with my NATO counterparts. Afghanistan is an international security assistance force mission and all the objectives in Helmand province are directly related to the objectives laid out in the NATO comprehensive political-military plan.
Is it not the case that our superb military forces have regularly achieved their military objectives, but that that has regularly proved unsustainable because of the political vacuum at the top? Is not the most important task of the London conference to frame a political settlement with which our military objectives will need to be aligned? Otherwise, we are wasting our effort in Afghanistan.
A good political arrangement, an effective Afghan Government and good governance in the local provinces are absolutely vital to progress in Helmand, and everyone in the military understands that they alone cannot make progress in this area and that they need the political structures and development to come in behind. It is true that the London conference must address those issues, as it must address reintegration where that is possible, because the insurgency has many different aspects to it. We must also address transition to effective Afghan control and have some mechanism in order to deliver that.
Will the Secretary of State explain to the House how it helps any conceivable military objectives to be propping up a discredited Karzai regime which, at the very highest level, is deeply involved in the drugs trade?
I do not think that anybody has tried to suggest that the Afghan Government are perfect or that the elections that we had recently were perfect, but my hon. Friend almost suggests that some alternative to the current Afghan Government is there and available to us. There are people in the House—a minority—who sometimes suggest that there is support for the Taliban among the Afghan people, but there is not. We must work with and improve the Government structures in Afghanistan. That is how to deliver a better Afghanistan, and thereby more security for us back here in the United Kingdom.
Body Armour (Afghanistan)
The Osprey armour, which we began to issue to our troops in 2006, is second to none in the world. We are now in the process of issuing a new version that is more comfortable but equally protected—Osprey Assault—together with the mark 7 helmet, to all those who are liable to deploy outside the wire in Afghanistan. That is another example of the concept of a continuous pipeline of improvement in the equipment provided to our forces in Afghanistan in operation.
When my constituent Marine Corporal Danny Winter died in action, he was the first casualty from Stockport for 30 years. That has much increased local concern about whether we have the right equipment in the right place and at the right time. Will the Minister say clearly to the House when he believes that we shall have good force protection equipment in place and avoid the casualties and the terrible injuries that are now occurring?
We are all bitterly sorry about the death of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, and about that of every other man and woman who has fallen for the country in the difficult conflict in Afghanistan. However, my answer to him and to the House is clear: we provide, and will continue to provide, the very best equipment that we can—the very best armour, the very best weapons, the very best communications equipment, the very best vehicles, the very best helicopters and the very best of everything else. We regard that as a sacred task.
Does my hon. Friend agree that although we can design body armour that gives more protection, there is a risk that it will be heavier and more difficult to move about in? There is a tension between the amount of protection that can be given and the mobility of our soldiers in the field. If we are not careful, there is a danger that some soldiers will not wear all their body armour in order to get more mobility.
My hon. Friend, who is an expert in this field and a distinguished member of the Select Committee on Defence, has got it absolutely right. There are always trade-offs in such matters. Quite simply, no human being could carry the weight that would be required to provide ballistic protection all over the body. That is a physical impossibility, and we will just have to face it. There are already trade-offs made, in circumstances where troops are carrying electronic counter-measures and communications equipment. They might be carrying 60 kg or even 70 kg each, often in appalling weather conditions, with temperatures in the 40s, and so on. There are genuine limits, and we are looking all the time at how we can provide the essential equipment as lightly as possible, consistent with the best possible outcomes.
I am grateful to the veterans Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), for our meeting before Christmas to discuss body armour. I know that he appreciates—presumably his colleague does as well—the capabilities and limitations of body armour. The United States increasingly relies on aerial reconnaissance to detect improvised explosive devices, which, despite personal protective kit, kill more soldiers than anything else in Afghanistan. Is the different approach to force protection down to the Minister’s failure to get the US to share technology or the withholding of funds for equipment, which was discussed over the weekend in connection with the then Defence Secretary, Chancellor and Prime Minister?
The suggestion of a lack of co-operation with our American allies, like the suggestion of the withholding of funds, is utter rubbish, complete nonsense, totally libellous and without the slightest foundation in fact. I hope that the hon. Gentleman takes those words on board. In fact, we have very close co-operation with the United States on counter-IED measures and force protection. Indeed, we use the same methods, based on various air vehicles, which have been very successful and which I have seen for myself in real time in theatre.
Conflict Resolution (Afghanistan)
As the Secretary of State for Defence, I regularly visit Afghanistan. During those visits, I take every opportunity to engage with the members of the Afghan Government, in their role as the elected representatives of the Afghan people, and to discuss issues that are important to us all, conflict resolution being one of them.
The allies did virtually everything wrong in Iraq, but at least they ended up siding with the majority of the population, the Shi’as. In Afghanistan, we have alienated the majority of the population, the Pashtuns, who have a long history of fighting whoever they perceive as occupiers. Does it not make military sense to enter into serious negotiations with Pashtun leaders and to bring them to power?
Reintegration is an important part of any counter-insurgency operation. We are more than happy to get involved in the reintegration of all parts of the insurgency that are prepared to revert to peaceful means. We need to provide methods to allow them to do that, but the process surely needs to be led by the Afghan Government, not by us as the international support force in Afghanistan. Of course we want to see the reintegration of those parts of the Pashtun population who feel alienated but who are not irreconcilable. Indeed, the title of Taliban applies to irreconcilable international jihadists on the one hand and to poor disgruntled farmers on the other, so there is a good opportunity for that to happen.
Given the very small number of Pashtun speakers in Her Majesty’s armed forces serving on the front line in Afghanistan, and the small number of Pashtun speakers in the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, will the Secretary of State please explain how the British Government communicate with local communities in Afghanistan? Do they use local interpreters or is there a growing body of civil servants being trained to speak Pashtun?
We use local interpreters, but we also seek to use the local government arrangements in Afghanistan. The hon. Gentleman will have heard me describe the excellent relationship that we have with Governor Mangal in Helmand province, where most of our forces are. He is right, however, to suggest that we need to look seriously at how many Pashtun speakers we have, and to seek to develop that capability.
Since there must be very few people who really believe that an outright military victory in Afghanistan is possible, is it not absolutely essential to put much more emphasis on a political solution, which must involve a good number of those who are, sadly, fighting the coalition forces? Simply to work on the assumption that military victory will be achieved in another four or five years is not to live in the real world.
I do not know why my hon. Friend is so surprised at that. I have said that reintegration is a necessary part of the process. We want to see the Afghan Government holding a hand out to all those who are reconcilable and whom they can bring back into the fold—of course we do.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the Afghan Taliban have no ambitions beyond Afghanistan and the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan, while, by contrast, Osama bin Laden is the protagonist of an international caliphate? Instead of lumping them together, would it not therefore be wiser to try to separate them by offering the Taliban an early withdrawal of foreign troops in exchange for their permanently excluding al-Qaeda, with which the Taliban have always had an uneasy alliance?
As I have said, elements of the Afghan Taliban are precisely as the hon. Gentleman describes. But let us not forget that they are still led by Mullah Omar, who ran Afghanistan. In that capacity, he welcomed al-Qaeda into his country and was an arch ally of Osama bin Laden. Surely the hon. Gentleman accepts that, if we were to pull our troops out of Afghanistan in a precipitate way, the likelihood that Mullah Omar would again control large parts of Afghanistan, if not the entire country, would be pretty high—as is the likelihood that he would do again as he did in the past, bringing a threat back to us in the United Kingdom.
Chinook Crash (Mull of Kintyre)
First, may I offer my sincere condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in the Mull of Kintyre Chinook helicopter crash? I will meet representatives of the families of those who were tragically killed in 1994, to explain why there is no new evidence to lead the Ministry of Defence to revisit the board of inquiry’s findings.
As the Minister knows, I represent the family of one of the deceased pilots, Flight Lieutenant Jonathan Tapper. Obviously, the family are still very distressed indeed about the finding of gross professional negligence against their brave son. Will the Minister confirm that, since the crash, there has been a change in the rules governing the attribution of blame, so that deceased pilots cannot now be found guilty of gross negligence? Surely it is only fair and just that the two Chinook pilots who were killed—Flight Lieutenants Cook and Tapper—should benefit from that change of rule.
I reiterate that I am willing to meet representatives of the family. The change in the rules governing inquiries was brought about by this Government in July 1997, but it was made abundantly clear at that stage that that would not be retrospective and that it would not affect previous rulings.
Let me make it clear to the right hon. Gentleman, who I know has taken a detailed interest in this matter, that in all the publicity surrounding this case—and certainly that produced by the BBC in recent weeks—there has never been any evidence of technical failure. The clear reality of the situation, demonstrated by a clear and diligent analysis, was that the pilots flew their aircraft at low level and high speed towards rising ground and in poor weather, which was contrary to the flight safety instructions. It is for that reason that the board of inquiry reached the conclusion it did.
Surely the fact that the board of inquiry itself did not entirely rule out the possibility of some kind of technical failure, together with public unease at the verdict of gross negligence on pilots and the number of calls for a review from all sides of the House, militates in favour of having such a review. If this Government will not hold such a review, let me tell the Minister that an incoming Conservative Government will.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was the previous Conservative Government who accepted the board of inquiry’s findings in the first instance. This is a very sensitive issue and I fully understand the concerns of all the families that have lost their loved ones, but I do not think that we should play politics with this issue. The substance of the case is that absolutely no evidence of a technical failure has been produced that would lead to a different conclusion from that of the board of inquiry.
Heavy Lift Capability
Since the last strategic defence review, which identified the requirement for strategic lift, we have made a lot of progress on this front. Six C-17s are currently in service together with the 24 C-130Js and 14 C-130Ks. We signed a contract for a further seventh C-17 in December 2009. As the House knows, we are also on contract for the delivery of 25 A400Ms. That project has run into well documented difficulties, and we are in the process of re-examination with partner nations and the firm of possible ways forward.
Of course there is a great demand for the A400M across the world. It is a much-needed aircraft, but we also need deep maintenance of that heavy lift capability, which ought to take place at either Warton or Woodford. Will the Minister look to ensure that the tanker programme and all the heavy lift can have deep maintenance that is done in the north-west?
If and when we have sorted out the problems of the A400M—and we have official and ministerial meetings on that subject later this week—we will need to focus on the support arrangements, and at that point I will certainly bear in mind what my hon. Friend says.
The answer to that question is no it will not entirely, but we are taking other measures, including improving infrastructure at Brize Norton, increasing contractor support, which will give us greater availability of the C-130Js, building a new hangar and so forth. I am advised that the measures we are taking will, in combination, maintain the existing air bridge capability.
Helicopters in Afghanistan provide an essential capability due to the unforgiving terrain and the dual threat from IEDs and mines to our troops. However, in 2004, the current Prime Minister as Chancellor cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion. Over the weekend, it was suggested in leaked letters that that cut was against the direct advice of the then Secretary of State. Will the Minister confirm that those letters exist, and will he release them to the public to save us the trouble of submitting a freedom of information request in order to get to the bottom of a matter that has hugely impacted on the safety of our forces?
First, I was not around in 2004—[Laughter.] I was about to say “in my present capacity”, and I have certainly not seen any letter of the kind to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.
Secondly, of course helicopters are vital to operations in Afghanistan. I remind the House that we have doubled the number of helicopters there since 2006, and that we are in the process of increasing helicopter numbers substantially. This summer there will be 50 per cent. more helicopters in theatre than there were in the summer of 2009. That is a remarkable achievement. If Opposition Front Benchers were not so utterly churlish and inclined merely to play party politics with important issues such as this, they would acknowledge those dramatic facts.
Armed Forces Accommodation
To make good a legacy of underinvestment, the Department has significantly increased spending on living accommodation in recent years. That has resulted in the delivery of 38,000 new or improved single living bed spaces, and it is planned that a further 19,000 will be provided by 2013. Moreover, 14,000 service family homes have been upgraded. All occupied houses in the United Kingdom will be of the highest standard by 2020. Homes in condition 1 and 2 meet or exceed the Government decent homes standard. No families are expected to live in service family accommodation of the lowest standard except as a result of personal choice.
I will take no lessons from the Conservatives, who sold off armed forces housing and created some of the problems, such as lack of investment, that we are trying to rectify now. Eighty properties at Royal Marines Poole are in the current central heating replacement programme, and 56 more will be included this year. That demonstrates that we are investing in Royal Marines Poole. Of the 178 properties there, 82 are in the highest-standard condition, although the charge is in the lowest-standard category to take account of, for instance, their proximity to noise from helicopters. The daily charge is £2.38.
While the upgrades are more than welcome, people such as my constituent Andy Hibberd, a recent ex-serviceman, have direct experience of seriously substandard accommodation. What can my hon. Friend do and say to reassure my constituent that much more is being done to ensure that every single serviceman—and, more to the point, the family of every single serviceman—has a decent home in which to live?
Our record speaks for itself, in marked contrast to that of the Conservative Government. We are investing real money in improving both family and single living accommodation. Between 90 and 95 per cent. of family accommodation is in the top two grades, 1 and 2, both of which meet or exceed the Government’s criteria for decent homes. We are committed to investment. This year I secured an additional £50 million from the Treasury, which is making a real difference in improving both single and family accommodation.
The RAF Regiment establishment is currently 2,220 personnel, which includes the additional Force Protection Wing Headquarters and RAF Regiment Field Squadron formed in April 2008. In July 2009, we announced our intention to increase that by providing an additional Force Protection Wing Headquarters and RAF Field Squadron. That currently remains our intention, but given the acute cost pressures facing the Department and given that operations in Afghanistan are rightly our main effort, all such measures remain under review.
I am grateful for that information, but will the Minister provide a more specific response in the form of an update on the recruitment of personnel for the post created by the establishment of the additional RAF Force Protection Wing Headquarters as well as the RAF Regiment Field Squadron?
This is an incredibly important decision and we need to get it right. We have come up with one or two possible new technical options for the design of the successor class submarine, and we will need a few more months to evaluate those fully before we take a decision.
When will the Minister be able to tell the House whether it is possible to have continuous at-sea patrols with three submarines rather than four? When will the National Security Committee report back to the Prime Minister? Is not the whole timetable for replacing our strategic nuclear deterrent now getting extremely tight?
The answer is that we are very focused on achieving the 2024 deadline. We take the issue of the successor class submarine extremely seriously. The 2006 White Paper stated that if it is possible to deliver credible and continuous at-sea deterrence with three boats, we will, of course, want to do that. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister repeated that recently, and he has instructed that a study of that subject should be undertaken. That study will report to him very shortly.
Does the Minister not agree that we would be much better employed by awaiting the outcome of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review, and making a real contribution towards global disarmament by cancelling the replacement of Trident and spending the money on something more socially useful and less divisive, and not on another weapon of mass destruction?
So long as the world remains as dangerous a place as it is, with some very difficult and dubious people developing, or threatening to develop, their own nuclear capability or weapons of mass destruction, this country will need to continue to have an independent nuclear deterrent. The fact is that we have said—we have committed to this in the NPT—that in the context of general and complete disarmament, we would close down our own nuclear deterrent capability.
The veterans welfare service is available through the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency to all veterans and their families. For those leaving the service as a result of serious injury or illness, locally based welfare managers, working closely with service charities, provide practical advice and assistance and will act as gateways for the services provided by other Government Departments, including Jobcentre Plus and the Benefits Agency.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he look again at the case of Mr. William Harvey? After 17 years of distinguished service in the British Army, during which he was injured on three occasions, in Bosnia and in Northern Ireland, he has been in receipt of Veterans Agency support as compensation for his injuries, but he is therefore unable to receive jobseeker’s allowance. The jobseeker’s allowance rules appear to bar him from receiving the support of jobseekers’ advisers in gaining new employment. This policy muddle should be addressed.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that issue, and a similar case was raised when I met veterans the other day. I am working on this, alongside other issues concerning overlapping policies, with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions, and we will make an announcement in February.
The Minister will no doubt be aware that in the Army, and in particular in the combat units, battalions and regiments are rapidly filling up with lesser-injured men and women who are nevertheless not capable of deploying on operations. What are we going to do with these people? There must be fresh thinking on this, and I wonder what the Minister has in mind.
This morning, the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) and I announced initiatives on giving a lifetime guarantee to the severely injured in respect of the transition into the health service and support for life. In respect of the individuals to whom the hon. Gentleman refers, I am currently engaged in a piece of work and an announcement will be made in February.
Afghan National Army
The UK does not provide direct financial support to the Afghan national army but does deliver assistance in other forms, including the provision of training through the “NATO Training Mission—Afghanistan”, in Kabul, and through a number of operational mentoring and liaison teams in Helmand province.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but does he not agree that unless an army is well paid, it does not get good soldiers? It is clearly crucial that the Government of Afghanistan have a good army, and if we do not help to fund that army, either now or in the immediate future, who is going to be responsible for that if that Government cannot provide the money?
I take it that that was another uncosted spending pledge from the Conservatives. I should say directly to the hon. Gentleman that there has been an improvement in pay in the Afghan national army and the issue remains under review, but that is not just a responsibility for this country; it is a responsibility for the whole of the international coalition and the Afghan Government.
My hon. Friend’s comment underlines the lack of development in Afghanistan—that is a reality that we face. On education, the key priority that we have set out is to work alongside the Afghan forces to train, mentor and develop them. In addition, this country is committed to providing £500 million in development aid assistance over the coming four years to try to improve these conditions and the lot of the people in Afghanistan.
My Department’s responsibilities are to ensure that our country is properly defended, now and in the future, and that our service personnel have the right equipment and training to allow them to succeed in military tasks in which they are engaging, either at home or abroad.
Given that the British public expect that a decent level of compensation will be guaranteed for service personnel who suffer injury, disability or loss of limb while on service, may I ask my right hon. Friend to take this opportunity to update us on the armed forces compensation scheme review that this Government initiated last year?
It was this Government who introduced the armed forces compensation scheme in 2005. Prior to that nobody received any kind of lump sum payment and people depended on a pension when injured in the service of the nation. We introduced the scheme and then in 2008 we doubled the level of up-front compensation for the most seriously injured personnel. We are in the middle of a review, which is being conducted on our behalf by Admiral the Lord Boyce. Various aspects of the compensation scheme are being examined and we hope that he will report in the near future.
We are certainly not going to announce that we are abandoning that project, for the important reasons that I set out in response to an earlier question. As I said in that response, as soon as we have gone through all the various technical options—one or two have arisen recently and we have to examine them seriously and profoundly—we will come to a decision about the right technical solution for the design of the successor class submarine. We will then go through what we call “initial gate” and we will make an announcement to the House at that time, and that is a matter of a few months away.
The defence advisory forum has been of great assistance in the preparation of the Green Paper. Not only have we allowed and encouraged various experts to give us the benefit of their views as we have been drawing up the paper, but we have managed to encourage the other two political parties to participate—we tried to ensure that the Green Paper has a broad political base for the propositions that it makes.
This is a significantly acute challenge. The Royal Navy is doing an immense amount, but, as the hon. Gentleman rightly identifies, it is the source of piracy that needs to be tackled. That requires a comprehensive approach, including significant investment and governance action in Somalia.
The project is 100 per cent. safe in our hands. We are 100 per cent. committed to going through with the project to build these two vital 60,000 tonne carriers for the future defence of the nation. My hon. Friend will not get the same kind of ambiguous response on this matter, sadly, from the Opposition.
Over the Christmas holidays, I met serving military and their families in my constituency and they mentioned a whole range of welfare issues, from warm jackets being inadequate in Afghanistan to the lack of housing repairs. Will the Minister name an official in his office to whom we can go with these kinds of problems? Most could be resolved with a decent dose of common sense.
It seems to me that the hon. Lady is covering an array of issues. If she is concerned about welfare or housing, will she please contact my private office? Hon. Members on both sides of the House know that I take complaints very seriously.
Like my right hon. Friend, I support the excellent work done by the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in Musa Qala and Sangin valley. I know that she has been a strong advocate of the work that it has been undertaking. I also agree that the manifesto of the Royal British Legion is a substantial document that contains many significant and positive ideas, a number of which are already being implemented, and I endorse it.
Ahead of the Afghanistan conference later this month, will the Secretary of State pay tribute to our Commonwealth cousins the Canadians, who have lost 137 armed forces personnel and had 400 injured, many of them seriously? Indeed, will he comment on supporting those of us who want to see that courage and commitment given beyond 2011?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and I am sure that the Canadian armed forces will too. They have provided a very capable high-end fighting capability in Afghanistan, which has been much appreciated by all those who have worked alongside them. We encourage and hope that the Canadians will continue to make a contribution in Afghanistan. They have been real allies in every sense of the word.
There is a project to increase the electricity supply to the whole of Afghanistan and the turbine at Kajaki is an important part of that. It is not all that we have relied on, and there have been local generation schemes, too. Of course it took a great deal of effort to get that turbine up to Kajaki; it was a tremendous achievement to get it there. Although we have not made the kind of progress that we would have wanted to make within the time scales that we would have wanted to meet in order to get the benefit of that achievement, the Kajaki dam none the less delivers electricity, and we are hopeful that we can increase the amount of electricity that it provides.
Do Ministers share the concerns that have been expressed to me by servicemen who have recently returned from Afghanistan that, although they welcome the arrival of new equipment, in many cases the first time that they get an opportunity to use it is in theatre because it is not yet available for training outside Afghanistan?
That is not true. People have equipment available during pre-deployment training for their operations in Afghanistan. The hon. Gentleman will remember that just before Christmas we announced a diversion of resources from other programmes to ensure that the equipment that people are expected to fight in will be available to them far earlier. That diversion was opposed by many Opposition Members at the time, but I see from the newspapers that they are now prepared to cut the defence budget, albeit that they will protect the mission in Afghanistan.
Has the Secretary of State seen the report in The Times of India about a secret conclave of the Indian general staff in Simla last month in which a planned military attack on Pakistan was discussed openly? Is it really helpful for a Commonwealth partner and nuclear power to talk about attacking Pakistan at this stage? Will he write to ask his Indian opposite number to stop beating the drums of war?
I did not see the article. I think that we have made considerable progress in our relationship with Pakistan, which has begun to see the insurgency and terrorism as a big part of the existential threat to Pakistan. We want it to continue in that direction, and so good relations with India have a vital part to play if we are to achieve that.
One injured serviceman recently said to me that his fear for other injured servicemen in receipt of lump-sum compensation packages was that they got no financial advice on how to manage that money. For some of them, it is a large sum of the sort that they have never had before. Will the Minister consider that issue to make sure that they get the proper financial advice?
Our independent nuclear deterrent exists to provide us with a response to the kind of blackmail that we could potentially face from other states that are armed with nuclear weapons. I therefore believe that while such threats exist we need to continue to possess a nuclear deterrent.
Major-General Andrew Mackay, the commander of British forces in Helmand, recently reported that the UK had “consistently failed” to understand the motivations of local Afghans, and called for a fresh “hearts and minds” strategy focusing on the local culture. When will we see that new strategy?
There is not going to be a new strategy. We have a strategy, which is a comprehensive and political strategy as well as a military strategy. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that our understanding of the reasons behind the insurgency, and of local culture, needs to be strengthened. In any conflict, we need to learn those lessons as quickly as possible and get to a level of skill and understanding as soon as we can. We are not perfect at that, as the Afghan and Iraq operations have proved. That is one of the issues that we need to address in a future strategic defence review.
In The Times today, Robin Greenwood of Christian Aid writes:
“senior military officers complain that aid workers spend too much time and money empowering Afghan women.”
That refers to a quote from an article last week by reporters from The Times. Is that an accurate view of Britain’s senior military personnel?
Our military personnel working in Helmand province—I have seen them working alongside their civilian counterparts—recognise completely the absolutely essential role that civilians play, and the need to empower Afghan institutions. We can do things on our own without any involvement from the Afghan authorities, but they will not be lasting, and they will fall apart as soon as we let them go.
We have already begun to deploy them. The first Merlin arrived before Christmas, and Merlins are in the process of being deployed there. Over the next few months, we will deploy not only more Merlins, but more Chinooks and the re-engined Lynxes, which can fly 365 days a year. As I said earlier, between July last year and July this year, there is to be a 50 per cent. increase in the number of helicopters in Afghanistan, and an even greater increase in available flying hours.
The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), will be aware that a review is under way of the future of Navy buildings in Greenock. Given that the review is four months old, and given that the issue is extremely important to the people who work there, will he provide an update on that review? If not, will he agree to meet me to discuss the matter?
I refer the Secretary of State to the typically excellent question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell). What evidence is there that any of the Taliban whom we have killed in Helmand had anything to do with bomb plots against this country?
There is no doubt that the centre of al-Qaeda’s power remains in the area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It may well currently reside on the Pakistan side of that border, but if our troops were not on the Afghan side of the border, the threat would be bound to return, in my opinion, and a return of the direct threat to this country would result from that.
The housing priority is already in place, but I shall roll out the welfare pathway, which was launched in Kent in November. That is about councils working together with other agencies, the Ministry of Defence and service charities to bring together maximum help for veterans, service personnel and their families. There is now one phone number for anyone who needs help; it is 08000 223366.
I, too, have a constituent who was tragically bereaved by the Chinook accident. Will the Minister indicate whether there are any circumstances in which he might reopen the matter and review a decision that is increasingly challenged and that looks more and more unhappy?
Will Ministers learn the lesson from the tragic death last year of Andrew Watson, my constituent, who, having served in Iraq, had continuing mental health problems, and will they make sure that when servicemen and women return, they always have 24-hour-a-day access to mental health services that understand their past and their difficulties?
They already do, in terms of decompression at Camp Bloodhound in Cyprus, but I am pleased that today, my counterpart, the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O’Brien) and I signed a memorandum of understanding with Combat Stress, concentrating not just on veterans but on their expertise, and on how we can ensure that the lessons from the six mental health pilots are included in mainstream services in the NHS.
Severe Weather (Transport and Public Services)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall repeat a statement that my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Transport made about the severe weather, transport networks and public services.
With leave, I will make a statement on the recent prolonged severe weather that we are currently experiencing and on the steps being taken to support our public services. The current cold weather began in mid-December and is the most prolonged spell of freezing conditions across the UK since December 1981. The Met Office forecasts that the current very cold conditions are likely to continue across most of the country for some days longer.
These extreme conditions continue to affect our transport and energy networks, as well as public services, including schools and hospitals. I would like to thank the many hundreds of thousands of people working tirelessly across the country to keep Britain moving in these extreme conditions.
Over the past weeks, we have seen many tremendous examples of Britain’s community spirit in action, with people lending vehicles, digging clear paths to allow ambulances and police vehicles through and visiting neighbours in need. We will do all that we can to support and encourage people helping out in their communities.
Our key priority is to keep open the core transport networks, national and local. All main transport networks are operational, even though with reduced services in some areas. The vast majority of the motorways and major trunk roads remain open. Network Rail and the train operating companies advise that the major rail routes are open, subject to delays and cancellations. The position is similar for air travellers. Eurostar is running a reduced service. Our advice remains that people should check routes before they travel, and I thank all travellers for their forbearance at this time.
To keep our roads open, much of our attention has been on ensuring that ploughs and gritters have got out to where they are needed most. The Highways Agency has had its fleet of 500 salt spreaders and snow ploughs out in force throughout this period, as have local authorities.
Last week, we opened Salt Cell—a collaborative task force involving central Government, the Local Government Association, the Met Office, the devolved Administrations and Transport for London. The group advises salt suppliers on how best to distribute salt.
Last Friday, I directed the Highways Agency to manage its use of salt in response to forecasts of prolonged bad weather, by reducing its daily use of salt by at least 25 per cent. It has achieved that by taking measures such as not directly spreading salt on the hard shoulder of motorways.
For local roads, the Local Government Association and the Mayor of London have agreed to reduce daily use by at least 25 per cent. also, recognising the importance of mutual support to keep Britain moving safely. Local authorities are taking their own decisions on the prioritisation of supplies in their localities. The Highways Agency has played a key role in providing mutual aid of additional salt and gritters to local highway authorities and key organisations, such as Felixstowe port.
We continue to take all possible steps to maximise the production of salt from our principal suppliers. On 29 December, the Highways Agency placed an order for significant additional salt imports, which are due to start arriving later this month.
The energy sector is experiencing high demand due to the extreme conditions. The system has been responding generally well at a time of record demand. However, ongoing supply issues in Norway have caused National Grid to issue a gas balancing alert today, as well as on Saturday, when the problems arose. The gas balancing alert is a tool that National Grid uses to make sure that there is enough gas on tap and there is no shortage of supply for domestic customers.
The Department for Work and Pensions is helping citizens in two ways this winter: with winter fuel payments—first introduced in 1997, and now standing at £250 for pensioner households, rising to £400 for the over-80s—and cold weather payments of £25 for those in receipt of pension credit, where there are sub-zero temperatures over the course of seven consecutive days. Cold weather payments were last year increased to £25 from £8.50 per week. These payments are automatic. Everyone in Great Britain who is entitled will get them and should not worry about turning up their heating.
During times of increased demand, we all need to think responsibly about whether our health issues are a genuine priority and use NHS resources responsibly. Medical advice is available by phone through NHS Direct.
There are no reports of major problems with food supplies reaching retailers. Because the UK has a diverse supply of food from domestic and international suppliers, we are not reliant on just one source of food, which helps maintain stability of supply as well as helping keep prices stable. Last week we relaxed the enforcement of drivers’ hours regulations to ensure that the essential deliveries of rock salt and animal feed could be made. Over the weekend, we further relaxed the enforcement of the regulations to allow the delivery of fuel oil to remote areas of Scotland and of de-icer to airports, and to allow bulk milk tankers to continue making their deliveries.
Schools are making every effort to reopen after last week’s closures, and this week there has been a significant improvement. The Department for Children, Schools and Families reports that virtually all exam centres are able to run their exams as scheduled, or have found alternative locations at which to hold them.
I know that the House will wish to join me in thanking the hundreds of thousands of people across the transport industries, the NHS, the education system, the armed forces, local authorities and other public services for helping all our communities come through this severe weather. However, the forecasts are for a further period of snow and sub-zero overnight temperatures and we must take further steps to keep Britain moving.
In July last year, the UK Roads Liaison Group published a report into the lessons learned from the severe weather experienced in February 2009. Recommendations that were made to central Government were adopted immediately and in full. There were recommendations to local authorities as well, on which individual authorities were expected to act. The key recommendation was that local highway authorities should keep at least six days of salt stocks, and that over and above this the Highways Agency should hold an additional strategic supply to underpin national resilience. To this end, the Highways Agency came into this winter period with a 13-day supply of salt, subject of course to replenishment.
The report also made recommendations for my Department to convene a Salt Cell task force to prioritise supplies in the event of extreme conditions. That we have done. Salt Cell has enabled us to prioritise salt distribution to where it is most needed, and I am grateful for the co-operation of the Local Government Association, the Mayor of London and the devolved Administrations. Salt Cell next meets tomorrow morning.
Given the prolongation of the very cold weather, further measures are likely to be required over the next 48 hours to keep networks open. These are likely to include further steps to conserve salt, to ensure that the Highways Agency and local authorities can manage during the continuing severe weather. The Local Government Association and the Government are in constant contact and we will continue to take the necessary operational decisions to keep networks open as far as possible. We are experiencing the most severe weather conditions for 29 years, in common with much of northern Europe. We need to continue pulling together for the common good, as we have done over the past weeks.
I thank the Minister for advance notice of his statement.
Like the Minister, I pay tribute to all the councils, council workers, salt producers, the armed forces, the police and others who are working so hard to try to keep the country moving during the present crisis. We should remember that many communities have had three solid weeks of this, without the brief respite over Christmas that much of the south-east enjoyed.
Everyone accepts that a degree of disruption is inevitable with such extreme weather, but the Government have important questions to answer about the adequacy of the preparations that they made for the weather episode. It is not acceptable for the Government just to pass the buck to local authorities. Will the Government accept their share of responsibility for the current shortage of gritting salt, particularly in the light of the fact that the Government’s Salt Cell now controls allocations of salt across the country?
What are the local salt stocks now held in the UK, and how long will they last? Which areas in need have the lowest stocks? Does the Minister have any estimate of the proportion of roads and pavements that have not been gritted or cleared? Have our armed services got all the salt that they need? Should the NHS be included in the Salt Cell to help ensure that hospitals and emergency services have access to all the salt that they need? Why did it take until last week to relax drivers’ hours, when these problems have been ongoing for nearly a month?
The media have reported a recent diversion of exported salt to use in this country. What other exports have taken place since the cold weather episode began, and why were steps not taken more quickly to divert exports back for UK use? Why is Salt Cell not meeting today, given the urgency of the situation? What estimate has the Minister made of the cost of repairing the damage to the roads caused by the freezing conditions? Does he agree that it is wholly contrary to common sense if people feel at risk of negligence claims when they clear paths and pavements? Is that not penalising the sort of socially responsible behaviour that all parties should encourage? Is he aware that anxiety about liability was one reason why many schools stayed shut?
The Government accused us of scaremongering about gas supplies, but if everything is fine with energy supplies why did National Grid issue its fourth alert in two weeks today? The Local Government Association, in its July report, “Weathering the Storm: Dealing with Adverse Winter Weather Conditions in the UK”, concluded with the key lesson that should have been learned from last February’s weather crisis and low salt supplies. It stated:
“Effectively, the country is almost completely reliant on two main suppliers operating deliveries on a ‘just in time’ basis.”
Will the Minister acknowledge that the Government’s failure to heed that warning meant that many councils found it almost impossible to obtain resupplies as the cold snap progressed? Does he accept that the scarcity of salt supplies has undermined councils’ ability to grit and clear side roads and pavements? Will he acknowledge the extent of the concern about slippery pavements—shown particularly by the elderly, many of whom have felt reluctant to leave their homes for the past few weeks?
The Secretary of State’s requests for councils to reduce their daily use of salt by 25 per cent. was an admission of failure by the Government. They made inadequate preparations for the cold weather; they sat on the LGA’s report on the issue until two days before the snow started to fall; and they failed to learn the lessons of February 2009, leaving our road network far more vulnerable to disruption than it should have been—to the detriment of families and businesses throughout the country, already struggling with the impact of one of the longest and deepest recessions in modern history.
May I say how disappointed I was by the mean-spiritedness with which the hon. Lady asked the vast majority of her questions? Before I take each point that she raised in turn, may I repeat my tribute to local authorities of whichever party throughout the country? I appreciate some people’s nervousness at the fact that a number of local authorities are Conservative-run, but I am not going to point the finger at them and blame them for the problems that they have had. We have to understand this point: either we are a nanny state, telling local authorities what to do and controlling how much salt they order; or we trust locally elected councillors to order the right amount of salt based on the advice that experts gave in July.
It is worth reminding ourselves of the history of the issue. After February’s severe weather, the then Secretary of State for Transport asked not only for a review but for experts to report on the matter, and they did so in July. Of the many recommendations that were made, four applied to my Department and all were dealt with immediately and in full. A number of recommendations applied to local authorities. I appreciate the difficulties that we have with some authorities that are Conservative-run, but I am not going to point the finger at them. I must say, however, that the idea that we state-produce salt and tell local authorities where to get it from is absurd. These are commercial decisions that local authorities take.
The hon. Lady referred to the decision to reduce the amount of salt that we distribute on our roads—the motorways and trunk roads—by at least 25 per cent. We took that decision for the roads that we control, and the Local Government Association and the Mayor of London agreed to those levels. We could not force them to go down to those levels; they showed that they understand the challenges that we face, and they agreed to reduce the amount to those levels because they actually run things and know when a common-sense decision needs to be taken. They did not oppose it for opposition’s sake.
Over this period we have had constructive dialogue with all key stakeholders, including Government offices, the regional resilience centres and others. It is not true—indeed, it is misleading—to say that the first decision to relax EU hours was taken last week and this weekend; it was taken before Christmas and extended last week and over the weekend.
In relation to Salt Cell’s meetings, again I should say that one benefit of running things is that one gets some experience, and one thing that we have to do before we hold such meetings is to get the information in. Today is therefore important, because, before a decision is taken about where salt goes over the next period, we are actually speaking to local authorities and finding out how much salt they have, and finding out from salt suppliers where the salt went during the previous period.
The hon. Lady was right, however, to express concern about scaremongering in relation to potential litigation and about the prosecution of people showing common sense and a generosity of spirit in clearing their pathways. I would say, however, that the situation is not helped when certain newspapers carry front-page stories causing alarm and distress among some of the elderly people she and I are concerned about.
On the LGA report of July-August, the fact that it could prepare a report after the report by the UK Roads Liaison Group shows that it understood the challenges that it faced. I would say in its defence that this is the most severe and prolonged period of bad weather in 29 years. I am sure that local government would be criticised if it had bought equipment and salt that sat idle for 10, 15, 20 or 30 years, especially when it has been asked to make stringent—some would say savage—cuts over this period. We continue to work constructively with all key stakeholders, whether they be local government, the Mayor of London, the devolved Administrations, or salt suppliers working in the private sector.
I hope that the Opposition have seen the generosity of the British public over the recent period; I would expect that generosity to spread to politicians as well.
May I, too, pass on my thanks to the staff of the Highways Agency and local councils, and indeed the railway industry, for what they have been doing to try to keep our infrastructure going?
I accept that, as the Minister says, much of what takes place is a matter for devolved local council work, or for private companies such as the salt companies, but I hope that he accepts that the Government have an ultimate responsibility to ensure that the national infrastructure is kept operational and intact. With that in mind, will he reflect on the suggestion that local authorities should have had six days’ supply of salt and consider whether that is adequate given the experience that we have had, and given that, as regards the order that was put in on 29 December, it will take some time for overseas stocks to arrive, which means that if the weather deteriorates—it may not—we could run out of salt?
Some local authorities have done extremely well, but some appear to be using the lack of salt as an excuse to cut back on gritting, perhaps unnecessarily. Will the Minister consider whether that is appropriate and examine these procedures to ensure that people across the country have the best transport infrastructure that they possibly can in the circumstances that apply?
Will the Minister confirm that the Highways Agency has been asking local authorities whether they can help with its supplies? For example, Stockport borough council has been asked if it can help the agency by providing extra stocks.
Does the Minister recognise that significant long-term costs will arise for local highways authorities as a result of the damage to the road network that will undoubtedly be caused by the use of salt and grit? There will be a big repair bill at the end of this—will he factor that into the local government settlement for councils?
Notwithstanding the wish that the Minister and I share for devolution to local councils, does he recognise that some councils, including my own, have taken the view that it is inappropriate to treat any pavements at all and have concentrated all their salting and gritting on the roads? Is that not unfair on pedestrians, particularly those who are elderly and infirm, and may, for example, have to get off a bus on to an ice sheet next to the bus stop?
Will the Minister examine the cost to the economy of this episode, which is running into billions? Will he consider whether higher levels of grit and salt maintained by local councils would do more to minimise the damage to the economy, as well as the cost to the NHS arising from people being in hospital unnecessarily as a consequence of falls?
On legality, does the Minister accept that, unfortunately, some people, including those in schools, are genuinely concerned about possible liability issues? In my view, many schools should have opened much sooner but have not done so because of fears of liability. What sense does it make for children to be turning up at school, having trudged their way through ice and snow to get there, only to be told that they have to stay indoors and cannot go out in the playground to play because schools are worried about being sued if the children fall over there?
Finally, will the Minister ensure that there is a review of this whole episode and report back to Parliament in due course on the lessons to be learned?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and questions. He is right to refer to the issue of six days’ supply of salt. I draw his attention to the UKRLG report, which is a very full report that touches on many of the issues raised. In chapter 8, under the heading “Winter Service Resilience”, it recommended six days’ worth of salt as an adequate amount. In the group’s mind must have been the fact that, in February 2009, we had the worst weather in 18 years. We now have the worst weather in 29 years, and I suspect that once we reach the end of this prolonged period of bad weather and consider our options for reviews and so on, we will need to make a cost-benefit analysis of whether, given that we have had prolonged bad weather in two consecutive years, it makes more sense to save enough salt for a longer period. That analysis would include, for example, investment in salt barns, because one of the big challenges for local authorities and the Highways Agency is the amount of storage space that they have for salt. Local authorities have asked themselves whether it is worth their spending money on salt barns given that they use salt so infrequently. That is for experts to consider, not for me on the Floor of the House, but it is an important question.
The hon. Gentleman raised an important point about diversifying suppliers in the chain. Salt is a geological issue and I cannot invent salt in the mines of England overnight, but as part of the contractual terms with suppliers, even domestic suppliers can be asked to have some foreign imports in their supply chain. The Highways Agency does that to ensure that it protects our supply chain of salt.
The hon. Gentleman made an important point about mutual aid. We can provide central aid to local authorities, but there are also many really good examples of local authorities helping others that have less salt, for obvious reasons, by giving them salt. That is an example of the generosity of spirit that I mentioned, and we need more of it.
The hon. Gentleman referred also to the damage to local authority highways caused by grit and salt, which is one issue that will need to be considered in a cost-benefit analysis of the general pattern of bad weather. He will be aware from the urgent question last week and my response to it that I cannot give advice centrally about which pavements should be gritted and which should not, and Salt Cell, the Government and extreme bad weather cannot be used as an excuse for a local authority not discharging its responsibility as it should. A local authority needs to consider the fact that as a matter of common sense, a pathway that leads to a general practitioner’s practice, for example, is probably more in need of gritting than a road that very few people drive down. Once again, it is for local authorities to take that decision.
The hon. Gentleman’s final point was the very important one of liability, which was also raised by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers). There are concerns about people being risk-averse or using the weather as an excuse not to do things that they should. I was pleased to see the comments of the president of the Association of British Insurers in the press today and yesterday, which will have given some comfort to schools and local authorities concerned about being defendants in a future civil litigation or prosecution if they open up the schools. As far as individual schools are concerned, most decisions whether to open or close are taken by head teachers. Some local authorities are giving out advice and being prescriptive, but other decisions are being taken by head teachers on a horses-for-courses basis. I am pleased as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is, that so many examination centres are open today, so that the many students who have revised for long periods can take their exams.
True grit, Mr. Speaker. I think the heckling needs to be short as well.
Does the Minister agree that one of the most important priorities must be to reopen the schools, to avoid damaging children’s education but also to allow other vital public sector workers such as ambulance drivers—and dare I say—gritter lorry drivers, NHS staff, firefighters and Highways Agency staff to get to work themselves? Will he commend the approach of Mr. Charlie Clare, head teacher of Geoffrey Field junior school in my constituency, who got together the staff, some private contractors and some parents to clear the snow and ice themselves this weekend, so that his school could open today? Teachers cannot be immune from the challenges faced in cold weather. Other public sector workers have to deal with them.
As ever, I cannot disagree with anything that my hon. Friend has said, and I commend and endorse his points. It is worth bearing in mind that every day a school is closed, not only is children’s education disrupted but the knock-on effect on their carers is phenomenal.
I ask you, Mr. Speaker, and the whole House to join me in congratulating the work force at Winsford rock salt mine on their continuous, 24/7 working, be they down the mine, in the office, the order takers or the management.
I hope that the Minister will take it as a positive and constructive comment that he should look carefully now at avoiding delays in the operation of Salt Cell so that the producers quickly get news of what is required where and can then get on with supplying without further delay. We should also ensure that we learn the lessons of how to resupply in the autumn rather than waiting for the winter.
I hear the hon. Gentleman’s point and will ensure that such delays do not happen. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark), reminded me that he visited the salt mine and was very impressed by the work of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.
May I also put on record my congratulations on the sterling work of Sheffield city council, which has done a fantastic job? That is in contrast with the Liberal leader of the council, who went on BBC radio on the evening of Friday 8 January to say that we would have a weekend of despair in the city because we had no salt and there was no telephone number to ring as people were not working over the weekend. While he was appearing on the news, 280 tonnes of salt were being delivered to Sheffield city council, and another 300 tonnes have subsequently been delivered. Will my right hon. Friend contact the city council to ensure that it has the right information so that the council leader cannot scaremonger in Sheffield?
As ever, my right hon. Friend has highlighted some of the options that people have taken during this difficult time—we can either come together and get through the difficult time, or make picky, silly points, which are factually incorrect, and use the conditions as an excuse to score cheap, party political points.
My constituents are almost on their knees because of the lack of trains due to First Capital Connect. Last Thursday, not a single train stopped in St. Albans—because, I gather, the trains were washed on Wednesday evening and therefore froze. What can be done to get a better service for my constituents, who are in despair about the lack of train services from St. Albans to St. Pancras?
The example beggars belief. May I look into the specific reason for disruption on that day? Network Rail and the train operating companies have told us that the lines are open. For obvious reasons, there are reduced services and some delays. The hon. Lady’s example looks like incompetence rather than a delay caused by severe weather.
The Minister spoke about prioritising salt and grit and putting gritters where they are needed most. May I put in a bid for rural, remote areas such as North-East Derbyshire, where it is still snowing, and ask him to put them at the top of his priority list?
We know that some of the roads and railway lines in the trans-Pennine area are experiencing particular difficulties. I will look into the specific issue that my hon. Friend raises, but we also know that roads are lifelines for rural parts of the country, especially for older people who are cut off from other members of the community and cannot be given simple things such as hot meals and for whom supply is a source of concern. I emphasise that I will consider my hon. Friend’s specific point.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about hours and days lost as a result of school closures. I understand that the Department for Children, Schools and Families gives guidance about the closure caused by extreme weather in which one of the issues is making up lost time.
There is concern in Lancashire that the county council has neglected east Lancashire, where there are many hills, and which has been hard hit. Has my friend given any thought to transferring responsibility to lower-tier authorities in two-tier areas such as Lancashire? Many people want local control of gritting.
We have not looked at devolving gritting even further. One of the lessons that may be learned from the experience of the past two or three weeks is whether there is sense in economies of scale, or in going the other way in some cases. The key point is that those who know their communities best know the places that are in most need of gritting. Local communities’ information can be of huge benefit and a great boon.
May I commend the efforts of local council workers and emergency service workers in Bexhill and Battle? I cannot say the same of the management of Southeastern trains. The train service south of Tunbridge Wells to Hastings has been patchy in the past few days, and it is totally unacceptable that station platforms were not cleared. Not a flake of snow was shifted from the platforms of Battle station from Monday till yesterday, making it extremely dangerous for the travelling public. That is simply not acceptable.
When I was a lad, schools did not shut because of the snow. Before the day is out, will the Minister nail the urban myth that people who clear the snow on the pavement outside their houses or businesses are somehow likely to be held legally liable? Will the Government please nail that urban myth, because it used to be that an uncleared pavement was the exception, but now the cleared pavement is the exception?
Those were the days! Somebody will probably come up with an example of someone being prosecuted or sued, but the hon. Gentleman is right: the message that is sent to the good citizen or somebody who wants to discharge their civic duty is perverse. At a time when schools are closed, we want young people to be doing something constructive. If a school is closed, people expect their young son or daughter to be outside helping a neighbour—perhaps someone who does not have children—to clear their pathways, and not to be frightened of being sued or prosecuted.
What would the Minister say to Conservative-controlled Northamptonshire county council, which was well prepared for the severe weather, but suddenly found that because Salt Cell was activated, supplies it was due to receive were sent elsewhere in the country?
When we talk about generosity of spirit, we hope it applies to local authorities as well as to politicians and members of our community. Salt Cell is about advising salt suppliers which parts of the country need salt most. If a local authority has adequate supplies of salt and another does not because of the prolonged bad weather, it is not going against the spirit of what we are talking about to allow the latter to receive the salt that it needs. That was agreed by the Local Government Association, the devolved Administrations, the Mayor of London and all the key stakeholders, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has reminded people, and it was recommended by the UK Roads Liaison Group.
I pay tribute to all those who have made sterling efforts to try to keep my constituents moving, but what lessons have been learned about the export of British salt and grit at a time when many local authorities, including my own, have not had the orders that they had placed fulfilled? May I gently say to the Minister that perhaps a good watchword for the future would be this: British grit for British roads?
One’s principles and values are challenged at difficult times. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we outlaw private companies from exporting to other parts of this planet for a profit? If so, I am happy to look into it—[Laughter.] However, I suggest that it is more sensible for local authorities to look at the market to see where salt is available and to learn from the experience of extreme bad weather. Some local authorities get salt from overseas, as does the Highways Agency itself.
We are still waiting for an answer to the question whether local authorities will have any additional funds made available to them to repair the damage to pavements and roads, but I am more interested in knowing what assessment the Department has made of the risk of flooding after the snow melts.
The second part of the hon. Lady’s question is very important. As the snow melts, there is a real concern about flooding—that is one issue that is being looked into. On her first point, if she is suggesting additional expenditure for additional funding for local authorities over and above the Bellwin funding and other sources, I am sure her hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor will be interested to hear of it, as indeed will we, because it will add to the £34 billion black hole in the Conservatives’ spending plans.
There are some village schools in my constituency, such as Horsington and Berkley schools, that cannot open, despite the best efforts of the staff, because the county council has not cleared the roads to them. The vice-chair of the Berkley governors was told on Friday by the county council: “As of this morning, the control of grit and salt has been taken over by central Government and therefore, even if we wanted to, we would not be able to authorise the clearing of the road to the school.” Is the Minister happy that the Government are now the excuse for Somerset county council?
As has been my experience over the past four and a half years, the hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Over the past few days and weeks, we have seen examples of local authorities and others using central Government as an excuse for their inability to run services in their communities. We need to be vigilant about local authorities that point the finger—most of them, I am afraid, happen to be Conservative authorities, as he will be aware—and that are prayed in aid by ill-briefed spokespeople for Her Majesty’s Opposition, whether for the Department for Communities and Local Government or the Department for Transport.
Can the Minister assure me that the Highways Agency, which he controls, will properly prioritise parts of our national roads? For example, the A5 at Hinckley next to my constituency is extremely dangerous on the Sketchley bends, but other stretches, further down, are not. Will he ensure proper prioritisation?
I undertake to get back in touch with the hon. Gentleman about the example that he raises. One of the key things that we need to do is ensure that the roads for which either the Highways Agency or the highways authorities are statutorily responsible, of which there are more than 150, are covered.
De-icer deliveries are vital to airports, as are deliveries of heating oil to homes and businesses throughout the north of Scotland and elsewhere. Driving restrictions have been relaxed, which I very much welcome, but the deadline for some of those restrictions is coming up. Will the Government review those restrictions, with a view to allowing those vital deliveries to continue?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The latest relaxation for de-icer products to airports was issued at 4 pm on Friday 8 January, and we know that it will run out imminently. We keep such matters under review and we have ensured that we relax EU directives whenever that is required. We shall of course take on board the various needs of the drivers, as well as the needs of the wider community.
Last week I received a clear assurance at Prime Minister’s questions that there would be sufficient salt supplies to meet the needs of local authorities, yet today most of the pavements and residential roads in my constituency are still treacherous and, in some places, impassable. What went wrong between last Wednesday and today, meaning that Hampshire county council has still not received the salt deliveries that it needs?
I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is suggesting that all the pavements in her constituency and her county should be gritted. As I have said a number of times this afternoon, and as has been said by others too, Salt Cell advises salt suppliers on which parts of the country need the salt the most. It is for local authorities to decide how that salt is used.
On Saturday I congratulated a couple of gritters who had visited Cow Ark near Clitheroe, a hamlet that had been isolated since before Christmas. We know that the gritters cannot do every village straight away, but I understand that in the past the network of farmers was used to clear the roads. However, we are now told that they need NVQs in health and safety. Is that correct? If so, as the Minister has relaxed some rules, can he now make absolutely certain that local authorities can ask farmers to get out there with the equipment that they know how to use and clear those roads?
I have referred all afternoon to the importance of common sense and generosity of spirit. What the hon. Gentleman describes is news to me. I shall get back to him on the points that he has made, because it seems that people who can help to clear pathways, and who want to use their common sense and demonstrate their generosity of spirit, are being deprived of the opportunity to do so. That should not be the case.
In that spirit, let me tell the Minister of the excellent work done by the work force of West Sussex county council, Mid Sussex district council and the town councils in Mid-Sussex, and of the heroic efforts of many other snow heroes, who used their common sense and tried to keep the place going. Does he agree that the lessons learned from the past few days will be extremely important for the future? Will he take the trouble to get examples of best practice from councils all over the country, so that the guidance issued is truly useful?
I cannot disagree with anything the hon. Gentleman has said. I shall merely add that one reason why the UKRLG was asked to produce its review following the February experience—the worst weather for 18 years—was that we could learn the lessons from it. We are now experiencing the worst weather for 29 years. We have a habit in this country of criticising ourselves and what we do when times are bad. However, when we compare what is happening here with the experience in northern Europe, where the weather is equally bad, we find that we have coped a lot better than France, Germany and elsewhere. The examples that the hon. Gentleman gave demonstrate the generosity of spirit and common sense of the people in Sussex and in other parts of the country.
I am grateful to the Minister for his efforts over the weekend to ensure that the working hours rules for drivers delivering heating oil to households across the highlands were relaxed. I understand that that relaxation will expire at midnight tonight, but there is still a significant backlog of heating oil deliveries. This will particularly affect needy families in rural areas, where it would be a disaster if energy supplies were to run short. Will he look urgently into continuing the relaxation of the working hours rules in the days to come, to ensure that the backlog can be cleared?
I have heard the hon. Gentleman’s request, and I have read the three texts that he sent me this morning. I will ensure that, when the relaxation of the rules expires tonight, we make the right decision, to ensure that his constituents, and those in the wider community, get the service that they need.
You will be astounded to learn, Mr. Speaker, that my local council gritted the access to the local Conservative club but totally refused to grit the access to a doctor’s surgery, which is long and dangerous for elderly and frail people. It is still refusing to do so. How can we get some common sense in how local councillors prioritise using their grit?
My constituents want to know who audits the lack of performance by local authorities, many of which have a considerable number of executives who earn more than the Prime Minister. That obviously does not include the Health and Safety Executive, because I reported Lancashire county council to the HSE last year for its blanket non-gritting of side roads and pavements. This year, the Conservative leader of Lancashire county council has berated me for wanting all the bus routes gritted. In fact, he proudly told local radio listeners that he would not do that. This is my question to the Minister: is this what we have to look forward to?
I pay tribute to the Local Government Association for the leadership that it is trying to provide in giving the right guidance to local authorities. Unfortunately, however, it cannot make local authorities do the right thing. My hon. Friend has given examples from her community of the council not providing the service it needs to provide. Councils such as hers are using central Government or Salt Cell as an excuse for not providing the right level of service. They should be prioritising roads that buses use, because that would allow people to catch buses and thus leave their homes. She and I need to ensure that we highlight the parts of the country in which councils have not provided the service that they should have done.
Children, Schools and Families Bill
[Relevant documents: The First Report of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, School Accountability, HC 88-I, and the Second Report of the Committee, The Review of Elective Home Education, HC 39-I.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Children, Schools and Families Bill is vital to meet what I believe is our moral imperative to help every child and young person to make the most of their talents and to ensure that no barrier is allowed to hold them back. But, as well as that moral imperative, we face an economic imperative to ensure that all our young people get the skills that they need and that businesses are demanding, so that our country can thrive and succeed in the 21st century global economy.
As we debate the Bill today, 750 education experts and more than 70 Education Ministers representing 1 billion children in 80 countries around the world are meeting here in London on the other side of Parliament square, at the learning and technology world forum—the largest education and technology event of its kind in the world. They are here both because the UK is a world leader in technology for education and because our Government and every Government around the world face these twin moral and economic imperatives.
As a result of our sustained record of investment and reform over the past 12 years, we have gone from below average to well above average in the world, but our ambition is to get to a world-class education system, in which every child, and not just some, gets all the help and support they need to make good progress, and every parent, and not just some, has the choice of a good local school. That is why the Bill sets out the next steps that we will take to achieve our ambition by providing a guaranteed route to a good qualification for every young person, a promise of guaranteed extra catch-up support for every child who falls behind, more power for parents, a boost to the status of the teaching profession and further backing for local leaders to ensure that every school is a good school with stronger back-stop powers for the Government to step in as a last resort if schools are not being turned round.
Those measures are essential for a strong economy and a fair society. They are now possible only because of our sustained investment and reform over the last decade and they are also all actively opposed by the Opposition parties, particularly by the Conservative party, which is proposing instead a costly and unfair free-market free-for-all that will be paid for only by huge cuts to existing schools.
Before I move on to the details of those measures, I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the former Member for North-West Leicestershire who sadly died on Boxing day and whose hugely well attended funeral took place on Saturday. He was a strong campaigner on behalf of children in this country and regularly made significant contributions to our education debates. He will be sorely missed in this House.
And he was opposed to academies.
My hon. Friend says from a sedentary position that David Taylor was opposed to academies, which is quite right, but he was also deeply committed to investing in and reforming our school system in order to deliver for all children, which was a regular part of his contribution.
To ensure that every young person can develop all the skills they need and that employers want, we have already introduced historic legislation to raise the education and training age to 18, to fund fully our school leavers’ guarantee, to expand apprenticeships and to introduce diplomas. Through this Bill, we are now legislating to implement Sir Jim Rose’s review of the primary curriculum from September next year so that teachers have more space and flexibility to decide what to teach while retaining a strong focus on basic literacy, numeracy and information communications technology. We will also put PSHE—personal, social and health education, including sex and relationship education and financial education—on a statutory footing for the first time and guarantee for the first time that all young people receive at least one year of sex and relationship education.
I speak as a governor of a Church of England primary school in my constituency, which has always taken tremendous care to involve parents in the sex and relationship education taught to their children in the school. What assurances can the Secretary of State give me that in future the ethos and culture of the school and the wishes of those parents will be respected, as I can tell him that there is worry across the House about this issue?
I can give him an absolute assurance on that. I consulted in detail both the Catholic Education Service and Church of England education leaders as well as more widely before coming forward with this proposal. The decision to make sex and relationship education statutory is, I think, supported by all political parties, but it is essential that it is taught in line with the ethos, including the faith, of the school. That is clear in the legislation: it is clear that parents as well as school governors will have a say in how the subject is taught, while there is also a parental opt-out, which will apply to pupils until they are 15. I can thus give the hon. Gentleman the complete assurance that the school will be in charge of how to teach SRE, but the fact of teaching it will be in law and guaranteed to all children.
The Secretary of State seems to have the impression—he is certainly trying to give the impression—that everyone is in favour of making this a compulsory part of the national curriculum, but he knows that in September the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency published details of responses to the consultation it carried out, showing that of 6,433 responses, only 32 per cent. agreed with the proposal to make PSE a statutory part of the national curriculum. The right hon. Gentleman is still going ahead, despite the fact that on the basis of information from his own agency, most people are actually against it.
I shall not fall into the trap of assuming that if those on the Opposition Front Bench support a policy the hon. Gentleman will support it, or vice versa. The fact that the hon. Gentleman does not support this policy and Opposition Front Benchers—I believe—do support it is probably fairly true to form.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there was an organised campaign as part of the consultation, but we also commissioned opinion polls, in both qualitative and quantitative terms. We published the findings at the time, and they showed overwhelming support from parents for making this statutory. I think that if the hon. Gentleman talks to parents and teachers, including head teachers, he will find a widespread consensus that—consistent with a school’s ability to make its own decisions about method, content and the parental opt-out—this is the right thing to do, it is probably overdue, and it will help us to reduce the incidence of teenage pregnancies and encourage a culture of mutual respect among our young people.
May I urge my right hon. Friend to avoid another trap? Will he ensure that discussion of the teaching of social and emotional behaviour, which is fundamental to all learning at primary and secondary level, is not narrowed to one tiny sliver of the argument about SRE, and that the Government’s life skills package, which is widely supported throughout the House, is seen in perspective? It seems that one or two of our more exuberant colleagues want to discuss only one tiny aspect of that broad package.
I agree with my hon. Friend, and wish him a very happy birthday. The fact that the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) almost certainly calls such classes “happy classes”, and opposes them, contrasts starkly with what I believe to be the general view—that this is a very important part of our school system. Through sex and relationship education, through financial education and, more widely, through SEAL—social and emotional aspects of learning—we are teaching our children in primary and secondary schools resilience, character, respect and the ability to make their way in the world with pride and confidence. I think that schools that provide such teaching consider it to be an important part of the curriculum, and it must not be narrowed in the way described by my hon. Friend.
I do not think that, in the 12 years of the current Government, it has given me so much pleasure to vote for a Second Reading as it will give me to vote confidently with the Government tonight—in contrast to the Conservatives, whose views on education are striking terror into the heart of every teacher and parent, especially in the poorer parts of Britain.
During the Bill’s Committee stage, will my right hon. Friend look particularly at clause 26, on home teaching? There are genuine concerns about that, and my constituent Mr. Mike Dalby has written to me about it. Will my right hon. Friend be prepared to consider the clause flexibly so that we can get it absolutely right?
It is important that we discuss the details of the home education provisions, and I shall say something about them in a moment. It is great to have my right hon. Friend’s support for our Bill. It would be very nice to have a cross-party consensus in favour of it, but unfortunately it seems that although guaranteeing one-to-one catch-up tuition for children who fall behind is a priority for our party, it is not a priority for the Opposition parties.
The biggest problem is the huge difference in funding across the United Kingdom. The average Shropshire child receives about £3,300 per annum for his or her education, whereas in other parts of the country the figure can be as high as £9,000, £10,000 or £11,000. What is there in the Bill to redress that huge difference in funding levels?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are currently conducting a review of the schools funding formula, and I hope that the subsequent report will enable us to make some progress in making the system fairer. Let me also point out that it is the hon. Gentleman’s party, not our party, that is proposing a cut in the schools budget in 2010-11, which will only lead to greater unfairness.
I know that people in Shropshire, which contains the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, are waiting for Building Schools for the Future to produce school building plans in wave 7. As the Chancellor announced in the pre-Budget report, we shall be proceeding with wave 7 in the coming months. It is the hon. Gentleman’s party that has promised to cut £4.5 billion from the school building programme, which in his constituency would put 22 potential new building projects at risk. That is something about which he may wish to speak to his party’s Front Benchers before raising the issue of schools funding with me in future.
The Secretary of State says that the schools budget will increase if the Labour Government are re-elected. For the sake of clarity, will he explain precisely what that means in the context of the overall DCSF budget? Does it mean only the dedicated schools grant, or does it also include the school standards grant and school development grant? Does it, perhaps, include the standards fund, too, and all the Partnerships for Schools school capital spending? Does it include the Training and Development Agency for Schools budget for teachers, and the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services budget? Will the Secretary of State make it clear which budget lines will receive an increase, and by how much?
I am happy to do so, because this was all set out at the time of the pre-Budget report. In 2010-11, our schools budget will rise as set out in the spending review, plus we will provide the additional money for the September guarantee for school leavers—we will provide that, but the hon. Gentleman, despite 12 chances to match that school leavers guarantee, will not do so.
In 2011-12 and 2012-13, the schools budget will rise by 0.7 per cent. a year in real terms; that means all the money, including for one-to-one tuition, that goes directly to schools. The combination of that and efficiency savings mean that we can meet the guarantees we set out in this Bill.
The hon. Gentleman knows that it does not include capital funding for schools, because the PBR set out a settlement of the current budget, and the current budget does not, by definition, include capital. He will also know, however, that the Chancellor announced that we will go forward with a further wave—wave 7 —of Building Schools for the Future bids in the spring; the hon. Gentleman’s party is committed to a £4.5 billion cut, but we are committed to continuing with the BSF programme. I also just said that all the budgets that go directly to schools have been guaranteed a 0.7 per cent. rise. That includes one-to-one tuition, but, at this stage, it does not include money going to non-departmental public bodies. This was all set out at the time of the PBR, so the hon. Gentleman has had the chance to ask me questions about it in the past—
No; if I may be allowed to do so, I shall finish my points before the hon. Gentleman stands up again.
I am raising the schools budget in 2011-12 and 2012-13, with the agreement of the Chancellor. The hon. Gentleman proposes to cut the schools budget in 2010-11, however; the reason is that the shadow Chancellor has told him he has got to do so. Despite regular attempts in the House to wriggle out of this, the fact is that, unlike the Conservatives’ health budget, under the hon. Gentleman’s watch the education budget is set to be cut.
Can the Secretary of State confirm that spending on initial teacher training in schools will increase, and spending on—[Interruption.] No, it is the Secretary of State who is wriggling. Can he also confirm that spending on head teacher training will increase—spending, for example, on ensuring that heads who become national leaders of education can do their job—or will that be cut?
I have just answered those questions. The problem with the hon. Gentleman is that, like the Leader of the Opposition, he writes his speeches and questions in advance, which means he never listens to the answers. What I said was that all the money that goes directly to schools is rising in real terms. The money that is going to agencies has not at this point been settled. So the money that is going to the TDA has not been settled—that is absolutely clear—but the money going to schools will rise this year, next year and the year after if this Government are re-elected, whereas it will be cut from next April if the hon. Gentleman’s party is elected.