House of Commons
Wednesday 10 February 2010
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported to the House, That the address of 15 December, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Anthony Hugh Burton Hobman as Electoral Commissioner with effect from 19 January 2010 for the period ending on 31 December 2013, was presented to Her Majesty, who was graciously pleased to comply with the request.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Both the UK and Welsh Assembly Governments take the impact of bovine tuberculosis very seriously. I am sure that the Welsh Assembly Government will consider the most effective means at their disposal, including vaccination, to eradicate bovine TB in Wales.
Of course, as the hon. Gentleman recognises, bovine TB is one of the biggest threats to the farming industry, which is a major contributor to the Welsh economy. There are mixed opinions in both Wales and England as to effective TB control, but the Welsh Assembly Government strongly believe—correctly, in my view—in a combination of badger vaccination, targeted culling and other cattle measures. The cull has not actually begun yet in Wales, but I am sure that lessons will be learned.
Will my hon. Friend note that bovine TB is a serious threat to the farming industry and whereas opinions may vary, the science is entirely against the suggestion that a cull of badgers would do anything to help farmers or the farming industry? Will he encourage his colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government, especially in the light of the today’s report from Imperial college, to study the evidence again?
I am aware of the press report to which my right hon. Friend has referred but, of course, nobody is suggesting that there should be a cull, full stop. We need to use a range of measures, with that mixed approach being required in south-west Wales in particular.
The Labour-led Administration in Cardiff bay have come up with a positive programme to eliminate TB in cattle in Wales, which includes better biosecurity, progress on the vaccination programme and a limited cull of infected wildlife. I am sure that the Minister will agree that devolution is not about isolation; it is about spreading best practice. Will he therefore have a word with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who seems to have lost the plot on this, and give him some good tips on how that approach could be implemented in England as well? That would provide a UK free of TB, rather than just one country free of it.
Devolution is, of course, about not only doing things differently, but learning from the experiences of others, and I am sure that the experiences will be shared when this cull begins. I should emphasise that this is one element of a strategy that has been devised by the Welsh Assembly Government and that is fully supported by the farmers unions in Wales; I have every confidence in it.
My hon. Friend is the most enthusiastic Member in the House.
Last month’s modest but welcome growth in gross domestic product shows that actions taken by this Government have begun to secure the economic recovery in Wales.
Up and at ‘em! We have had £124 million of objective 1 funding for Denbighshire, a £30 million Welsh Assembly Government investment in seaside towns in north Wales, £5 million from the Department for Work and Pensions for initiatives in Rhyl, two new further education colleges in my constituency and an extra 6,000 jobs created in Vale of Clwyd. Will those investments be under threat if that lot over there get in?
The answer is yes, and my hon. Friend’s constituents understand that. They know that the Conservative plans, which were reported in The Guardian only on Monday, for savage cuts that will go dramatically further than Labour’s restrained policies will jeopardise all that investment in his constituency and all the investment that is going in, and that has gone in, to Wales in 13 years of Labour Government.
Why is the Treasury forcing the Welsh Assembly Government to put on their balance sheet the £97 million that Finance Wales has loaned to small businesses and thus, in effect, capping the amount that can be lent, given that the Government here have been borrowing off balance sheet for years? Is that not another classic example of one rule for Wales and another for Whitehall, with Welsh people being penalised as a result?
First, I am not sure whether this is the hon. Gentleman’s last or penultimate appearance at Welsh questions, but I wish him well in his studies in America. We will all miss him dearly, although I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) will miss him as dearly.
At any rate, the points made by the hon. Gentleman should be considered in the context of current discussions. I am assisting the First Minister in trying to resolve the matter, because the hon. Gentleman is right that Finance Wales has played an absolutely crucial role in helping businesses in Wales and that it ought to be able to continue that role free from any debt.
There has been a 75 per cent. decrease in long-term unemployment in my constituency since 1997. Although we warmly welcome that, we should also be looking to create new, sustainable, high-quality jobs for the future, through such initiatives as the new science and technology campus in my constituency. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he supports that initiative and describe what practical help he can give to that excellent plan, because it is going to be an important development for the knowledge economy in south-west Wales?
I agree with my hon. Friend that the Swansea university innovation centre, which is in his constituency—and in our proud borough of Neath Port Talbot as well—represents a major breakthrough. That the university has been able to establish a new centre of innovation, in partnership with the business community and with the support of the Welsh Assembly Government, will help the whole area to go up an extra tier and ensure that the Swansea bay area, including Neath Port Talbot, can drive forward exactly as the Government want the economy to drive forward in relation to the digital economy, the low-carbon economy and the jobs of the future. All that would be put at risk by cuts in investment in precisely that sort of project.
Will the Secretary of State explain why, in the deepest economic downturn since the ’30s, his Labour colleagues in Cardiff, in the first half of the financial year, used less than a quarter of the business support programme money available to them for assisting our hard-pressed Welsh businesses?
What is interesting about the Welsh Assembly Government is that they have driven forward a series of imaginative business support programmes in all areas, including in European funding, which has helped to—[Interruption.] I am sorry about that; it was my wife calling in the middle of questions! That has helped to ensure that the Welsh economy is now recovering from, as the hon. Lady has said, the deepest recession for a very long time—at least since the 1930s. Company liquidations are down from the numbers in the 1980s and 1990s; employment levels are much higher; and housing repossessions are much lower. All that shows that the partnership between the Welsh Assembly Government and the UK Government is delivering for Wales.
I thought that that was the Secretary of State’s Plaid partners pulling his strings, rather than his wife calling.
The fact is that, under Labour, the cost of business regulation has soared, and against the rest of the UK, Welsh gross value added has fallen and the wage gap has risen. That is the appalling record that is the reality of Labour in power in Wales today. Has not this underspend—I noticed that answer came there none—come at a crucial time? It is another example of Labour’s economic incompetence. The money was there. Why did Labour not spend it?
Employment is still much higher than when we came to power; there are 90,000 more jobs than when the Tories were in power in Wales; housing repossessions are lower than during the financial crisis that the Tories dealt with; business bankruptcies are significantly lower; economic activity is rising; and the latest report from the purchasing managers index shows that economic activity is rising for the ninth consecutive month.
It is very important that the hon. Lady and the House consider the following point. A Conservative Front Bencher—perhaps it was her—told The Independent on Monday:
“We have not had a clear message…There has been no one in charge, no one to take a decision…The last few weeks have been a mess.”
She has been describing Tory economic policy, which would be visited on Wales if she got this job.
As my hon. Friend may know, almost 150 businesses will benefit from funding support of between £10,000 and £90,000 that is specifically intended to help new and existing businesses. That will especially assist disabled and disadvantaged employees. The counties of Gwynedd and Conwy will also be assisted in that way, and I look forward to her working with those responsible to take advantage of that opportunity.
With a quarter of the working-age population in Wales economically inactive, Wales is faring worse than the other nations in the kingdom. Will the Secretary of State tell me how many of those currently working part time do so not through choice, but because they cannot find a full-time job?
Some clearly have been working part time rather than taking a full-time job, given the economic recession, but they would be looking to move into full-time work—not all, but some. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has raised that question, because he will know that the number of people on incapacity benefit tripled under the previous Conservative Government, from around 800,000 in the UK to 2.5 million. Many of those people were in Wales—former miners and others were just pushed on to incapacity benefit—whereas under Labour the figure has fallen by a fifth in the past 10 years. Some 52,000 fewer people have been on incapacity benefit in the past 10 years in Wales, specifically as a result of the jobs programmes that we have put in place to support people with a disability to get back into work. All that would be jeopardised by Conservative cuts.
When GE Healthcare in Fforest Fawr in my constituency announced major restructuring last year, there were fears for the loss of highly skilled jobs in laboratories and in medical technology. Does my right hon. Friend welcome the news that all those threatened job losses have been averted, and that in fact there has been a net increase in the number of highly skilled jobs in the Cardiff area?
I certainly welcome that, and my hon. Friend’s role in supporting that initiative and its successful outcome is much to be commended. That shows how a Welsh Assembly Government led by Labour in Cardiff and a UK Government led by Labour here in Westminster, working together, can save jobs. Even today, we have heard about 200 new jobs at L’Oréal at Llantrisant, with a total investment of £7 million from the Welsh Assembly Government. That is good news for local workers, and it is the result of Labour investment, which would be put at risk if the Tories got into power and started their cuts programmes.
Given that recently published figures show that economic inactivity in Wales is worse than in any other part of the UK, that three Welsh local authority areas are among the five poorest in the country, and that Wales has the highest rate of severe child poverty of all the home nations, what did the Secretary of State have in mind when he boasted last week that
“Wales is still a wealthy country”?
Complacent or what?
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that, compared with Rwanda and most countries in the rest of the world—this is the point that I was making, if he had not chosen to take that quotation out of context— Wales is indeed still a wealthy country? Yes, we have suffered setbacks in the past few years, but we suffered terrible setbacks in the ’80s and ’90s. One of the reasons why we are in a strong position is that we have moved forward with investment to support businesses and the economy. That is one of the reasons why the number on incapacity benefit in Wales has come down by more than a fifth, when under the Conservatives it rose year on year.
Open Source Software
The Wales Office obtains its IT services from the Ministry of Justice, which follows the Government’s action plan for open source software. The Wales Office uses open source software to maintain its website, which hon. Members can find at www.walesoffice.gov.uk.
I know that my hon. Friend agrees that we need to get the best value possible for the taxpayer while also protecting front-line services, so what further savings can he suggest in his Department, and what talks can he have with Welsh Assembly Government Ministers about further savings that they could make by implementing the Government’s open source software action plan? There are sensible savings on this side, compared with chaotic cuts on the other side.
My hon. Friend is correct to stress the importance of open source software. It is an example of co-operative values in a modern context, and of computer programmes across the world coming together to improve access to the internet. Of course, saving money is also extremely important, and the open source approach can provide best value for money to the taxpayer in delivering public services. We are discussing this at Welsh Minister level and with Whitehall Departments, and it will be an issue that we will raise constantly with the Welsh Assembly Government.
Yes, and value for money is central to the Government’s programme. This marks a sharp contrast to the crude cuts that are being articulated by the Conservatives. We need to ensure that we have efficiency and value for money, as well as dramatic change and modernisation. We do not want crude, harsh cuts.
I was in Newport on Monday, and I saw good examples of companies that are thriving, admittedly in difficult circumstances. This registers the dramatic improvement that is taking place. One company that I visited is EADS, and it is a good example of that improvement. It is also necessary to maintain investment and to think strategically about how we can modernise the economy to meet the challenges of the world. That is why the Government’s programme of digitisation is so important.
Flood and Water Management Bill
My right hon. Friend and I have regular discussions with Welsh Ministers on the implications for Wales of the whole of the UK’s legislative programme. This Bill is very much a cross-border Bill, and it is a good example of the Government and the Welsh Assembly Government collaborating to benefit those on both sides of the border.
I thank the Minister for that reply. We welcome the Flood and Water Management Bill, but we are concerned by a number of potential cross-border issues relating to how the flood risk management strategy for Wales might impact on England. What assurance can he give the House today that those issues will be dealt with timeously, transparently and sensitively?
I can provide the assurance that the cross-border issues will be central to the implementation of this legislation. It is clear that, right from the start of the discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government, there has been close co-operation between us, and a recognition on both sides of Offa’s dyke of the need to ensure that our policies dovetail, overlap and pull in the same direction. This is a good example of the kind of partnership that devolution is all about, and it is in sharp contrast to what would happen if the Conservatives were in power.
Does the Minister agree that not-for-profit companies such as Dwr Cymru should be allowed to invest in infrastructure as they see fit in order to improve customer service? An example is the proposal for much-needed storm drainage in Llanelli, which has been rejected by Ofwat as offering poor shareholder value.
Investment is always important. Dwr Cymru, despite recent difficulties, illustrates how a forward-looking company that is organised in a progressive way can make a meaningful intervention. Investment in this area is extremely important, and one of the most positive examples of recent times has been the £6.1 million of European funding for flood and coastal defences across Wales. Given the hon. Gentleman’s attitude towards Europe, I suggest that funding such as that might be put at risk, were his party to get into power—[Interruption.]
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales met the hon. Gentleman and representatives of the company earlier this week to discuss the serious situation. The Government will take action to provide retraining and new work opportunities.
I thank the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary for their considerable help so far in contacting the local mayor, Joy Jones, and local Councillor Richard White, who are helping me to save this site. I am now approaching other firms to offer Newtown’s Shop Direct premises as a going concern. Is the Secretary of State willing to intervene directly, as it seems to me that that would increase the chances of making such a transfer in order to save 180 jobs?
I will certainly do all that I can, as will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, to help the hon. Gentleman, who I know has been working energetically to try to save that company and the maximum number of jobs that he can. He will be aware that the claimant count unemployment in Montgomeryshire has fallen consistently over the past four months and now stands at just 2.5 per cent. There are also some job vacancies, but the priority must be to save what we can; we will work with the hon. Gentleman as closely as we can.
Will the Government use their considerable clout with the banks to get more liquidity into small and medium-sized enterprises? The banks are withholding overdraft facilities and funding for decent, good, sound companies and subcontractors, forcing them to the wall. The banks still do not get it.
I understand the frustrations that the hon. Gentleman, who has been a tireless advocate on this issue, is expressing, but the truth is that the Bank of England says that there is now more bank lending and that we have intervened with banks such as RBS in which we have a stake to ensure that they are pressed into lending extra finance. The truth is also that the Welsh economy and the British economy as a whole have started to recover from this deep recession, because of the actions that the Government have taken. I hope that the hon. Gentleman supports what this Government have done, as opposed to the disastrous policies that the Tories would follow if they were in power.
My right hon. Friend will know that the construction industry in Wales has suffered during the recession and that this is partly due to the banks’ restricting lending in this sector—despite there being a significant demand for housing and despite the fact that the banks have received billions in taxpayers’ support. Will my right hon. Friend raise this issue at tomorrow’s economic summit in Llanelli, where Welsh Assembly Members and other colleagues will be in attendance, to ensure that lending is released to the construction industry, so that we get skilled workers back in work?
Yes, of course I would be happy to raise this matter, which has been a source of continuing agenda discussion at recent economic summits in Wales. We will certainly discuss the issue tomorrow in Llanelli, and I will bring my hon. Friend’s arguments to bear because the construction industry is vital. The investment that we are putting in will see more and more construction jobs, all of which would be put at risk if the Tories got into power.
Short and not so sweet! The effective operation of both Severn bridge crossings is a priority for all travellers using this vital route to and from Wales—something that both the Secretary of State for Transport and I fully recognise.
Will the Minister explain why users of the Severn bridge will have to pay an increase in charges, whereas users of the Humber bridge, thanks to Government intervention, will not? Why is Wales being discriminated against? Is it because the Secretary of State for Wales would prefer to compare us to Rwanda rather than to other regions of the United Kingdom?
I have to ask whether the hon. Gentleman is seriously suggesting that the Government spend billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on subsidising the Severn crossings. I have to say that he is a classic example of two-faced Tories—[Interruption.] Yes, they suggest savage cuts one moment, while promising to spend billions the next.
Although this is the 21st century, it is still the case that the Severn bridge toll can only be paid in cash. Because the toll is rising so fast, it is becoming trickier and trickier to have enough change. Is it not time to alter the law, so that travellers can pay not only in pounds and euros, but by credit card?
That is a good point. Credit card payments are, in fact, being introduced for that reason. I pay tribute to, in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Jessica Morden) for her tireless campaigning. As a direct consequence of her intervention, work is under way to make the necessary arrangements for secondary legislation.
The United Kingdom and Welsh Assembly Governments continue to support Welsh farmers’ promotion of their first-class produce overseas.
Has the Minister had the near-orgasmic experience of trying Rachel’s yoghurt, made in Aberystwyth, or perhaps of eating Llanboidy, Perl Wen or Llangoffan cheese from Wales? What action is he taking to ensure that those culinary delights are spread throughout Europe?
I am sure you do, Mr. Speaker, and I shall do my best to ensure that you do.
Let me give a couple of examples of the excellent work that is being done. Welsh food and drink producers will be at the Gulfood trade exhibition in Dubai this month—and of course I must add, as Members would expect me to, that Caerphilly town and borough councils are doing their utmost to promote Caerphilly cheese. It is the best cheese in Europe, Mr. Speaker, and I should be happy to give a piece to you and to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant).
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Private Sean McDonald and Corporal Johnathan Moore from 1st Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, attached to 3rd Battalion The Rifles, and to Warrant Officer Class 2 David Markland from 36 Engineer Regiment, Royal Engineers. These were men of great character and commitment, whose loss is already keenly felt by their colleagues. I want to pay tribute, on behalf of the whole House, to their courage and dedication. We think of their families and friends, and their sacrifice will not be forgotten.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and friends. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I am sure that the whole House is at one with the Prime Minister in sending our sincere condolences to the relatives and friends of the brave servicemen who have lost their lives in serving this country.
I am astonished at the orchestrated campaign of opposition to our social care plans that seems to have been mounted in some newspapers this morning, supported by Tory councillors and BUPA, especially as the Conservatives did not oppose those plans when they were before the House. Will my right hon. Friend commit himself to continuing the fight to improve the lot of some of our most vulnerable citizens, the poorest pensioners in the country?
I am passionately committed, as are the Government, to finding a better way of ensuring security and dignity for the elderly generation in retirement. That means not just providing institutional care of the highest standard, but helping people to stay in their own homes for as long as possible with as good amenities as possible. I hope that there will be all-party support for the Bill that is now going through the House of Lords, and has already been through the House of Commons, because it will enable us to make urgent need payments to all people—whatever their income—who need the very highest level of care in their homes. It will take time to develop a full social care system for the future, but it is in our interest to establish a consensus in the country about how we can move forward to a better system for every elderly person.
May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal John Moore, Private Sean McDonald and Warrant Officer David Markland, who have been killed in Afghanistan this week? Their deaths mean that more people have now died in this conflict than were killed in the Falklands war. That is a measure of the scale of the sacrifice being made. Our armed forces need to know they have all our support in the vital work they are doing.
May I return to the question asked by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon)? This morning local councils controlled by all parties have said that the Prime Minister’s social care plans are “unclear” and “unfunded”, that they will lead to “possible cuts” and “rises in council tax”, that they have “major weaknesses”, and, crucially, that they will falsely
“raise expectations among many of the most vulnerable”.
Everybody wants to do more to help with care, but why does the Prime Minister think that so many of the people responsible for delivering this policy are so completely unconvinced by what he has put forward?
The right hon. Gentleman’s party supported this Bill as it went through the House of Commons; I do not know whether he has done another policy U-turn over the last few hours. We have set aside £670 million in the next year; £420 million will come from the health service for providing that care for urgent needs. I know how much the right hon. Gentleman likes personalising politics, and of course I know how he hates Punch and Judy politics; I also know how much he wanted to build a consensus—such as we had, for a week, on the economy—but surely it is in the interests of this House that we are united in the way we help old people in their own homes. Surely a party that supported the policy one week should not be opposing it the next week.
If the Prime Minister is going to have pre-prepared jokes, I think they ought to be a bit better than that one—probably not enough bananas on the menu. We have consistently raised questions about the funding of this policy, and just this morning the response to a freedom of information request from the Treasury shows that it could put £26 on the council tax. I have to say to the Prime Minister that it is not just Labour councillors who are angry about the way the policy has been put forward, but Labour peers as well. Lord Lipsey was a member of the Government’s own care commission, and he says that this is
“one of the most disorderly pieces of government I have ever seen”.
Lord Warner, who was one of the Government’s Health Ministers, described the policy as a “cruel deception” of the elderly, the vulnerable and families. So can the Prime Minister explain why Labour councillors, Labour advisers and Labour Ministers are all angry about his mishandling of this?
When the right hon. Gentleman knew what Lord Warner and others had said about it, why did his party support it in the House of Commons? [Interruption.] He cannot one day say he supports a policy, and the next day have a completely different policy, on a very important matter. [Interruption.]
Order. I apologise for interrupting the Prime Minister, but there is far too much noise in the Chamber. I want questions and answers to be brief and focused on Government policy, and I want to get down the Order Paper. Let us have a bit of order, for the Prime Minister and others.
We have had U-turns every month—every day of the month—from the Conservatives. They said it was moral cowardice not to cut and tear up our Budget for 2010, and then they changed their minds and took a different position. On this issue, are they really going to say to the elderly of this country that they voted for this measure in the House of Commons, they have urged their people in the House of Lords to vote for it as well, and now they are refusing to support what we are doing to give local authorities and the elderly an extra £670 million a year? As I understand it, the shadow Health Secretary asked for talks with the Secretary of State for Health so that there could be consensus on this issue. It was only last night that they broke the consensus. They had to take down a poster that they had at the beginning of the year because it was not authentic—and they will have to bring down their new poster, because it is simply wrong.
What we want to know is: where is the money coming from? People who have worked very closely with the Prime Minister are completely opposed to the way this is being done. Let us try Andrew Turnbull. He was Cabinet Secretary, and he was permanent secretary for four years. [Interruption.] The Prime Minister waves him away, but Andrew Turnbull probably knows this Prime Minister better than anyone else, and he says this:
“It is doubly objectionable. It is objectionable in process and it is objectionable in substance.”
He also says:
“It’s a classic Gordon Brown dividing line”:
“politically expedient”, “poorly costed” and “badly constructed.” Why does the Prime Minister think Lord Turnbull has got it wrong?
Why does the right hon. Gentleman not address the policy issue? We have provided £420 million from the NHS for social care for urgent needs. We are providing £250 million from local authorities for efficiency savings. If he agrees with the local authorities and thinks that that is impossible, why is it his policy to freeze the poll tax by demanding hundreds of millions more savings from local authorities? Nothing he says adds up; nothing is consistent. He changes his policy almost every hour.
The fact is that it is Labour councils that are telling the Prime Minister that his policy does not add up. It is perfectly clear what the Prime Minister is doing: he wants to tell us about the benefits of the policy before the election, and the costs of the policy after the election. This is not about the benefit of the elderly; it is about the benefit of the Labour party. He wants to concentrate on the detail, so let me ask about the details of his social care plans. Will he say whether he is ruling out all forms of a compulsory levy, means-tested or not, that elderly people would have to pay? Is he ruling that out?
The right hon. Gentleman should read the White Paper that we put forward, which sets out all the various options before us—[Interruption.] The Conservatives can make all the noise they want, and they can put up all the posters, but they have absolutely no policy to deal with the problems. They have no substance, they have no judgment—but they can hurl insults. They are not the new politics; they are the same old Tories.
I have the paper right here, and one of the options is a £20,000 levy on every elderly person in this country, except the very poorest. That is what it says. Let me ask the Prime Minister again: will he rule out any form of compulsory levy on the elderly? Yes or no?
If the right hon. Gentleman reads the White Paper, he will see that he has not reported it correctly. He should read the whole chapter, so that he sees what it means. Once again, what positive policy has come from the Conservative party? He has been the leader of the Conservative party for four years. He has put up lots of posters, he has lots of soundbites, but there is no policy coming from him. When we are dealing with social policy—[Interruption.]
The Prime Minister keeps saying, “Read the White Paper.” Actually, it is a Green Paper, and I have it here. He wants a question about the detail. It says:
“people might need to pay around £17,000 to £20,000 to be protected under a scheme of this sort”.
Let me ask him one final time: are such levies ruled in or ruled out? He says that he wants consensus, and the fact is that there is consensus. Labour advisers, Labour Ministers and Labour councils all think that he is doing this to set up cheap dividing lines before an election. One last go: are you going to do a levy? Rule it in or rule it out.
The wall of noise will not disguise the fact that the Conservative party has absolutely no policy on an issue that is vital to the needs of the elderly for the future. This is a big challenge that this country faces because of the demographic changes that are taking place and the needs and ambitions of old people. I have to conclude that, when it comes to dealing with big areas of policy, this is no time for a novice.
I applaud the way in which my hon. Friend has promoted the development of Blackpool and all the seaside towns. The Sea Change programme has benefited 32 seaside resorts, and there has been £38 million in extra funding—money that would not be available if there were ever a Conservative Government. Regional development agencies are helping coastal towns to fulfil their economic potential—again, RDAs that would be abolished under a Conservative Government. We will do more to help the coastal towns, and employment in those towns, but that cannot be said of the Conservative party.
I add my expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Warrant Officer Class 2 David Markland from 36 Engineer Regiment, and Corporal John Moore and Private Sean McDonald from the Royal Scots Borderers, 1st Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, all of whom tragically lost their lives serving so bravely in Afghanistan this week. Reports that wounded soldiers will receive better compensation is a glimmer of good news on the day that we hear that injured veterans are having to pay for their own treatment abroad. Let me ask the Prime Minister about another hidden scandal that faces our troops. Why are our soldiers who are serving on the front line in Afghanistan receiving thousands of pounds less in basic pay than a new recruit to the police or fire service?
First of all, I have to assure the right hon. Gentleman that the new recommendations on the compensation scheme that are being prepared by Lord Boyce—and, I believe, welcomed as a review by the Royal British Legion—will extend compensation in a number of areas where there has been controversy in the past. We want to do the best we can by soldiers who are wounded. The Secretary of State for Defence will announce, later this afternoon, how the armed forces compensation scheme will be improved and in what areas, and how it will do more, particularly for award levels below the current high of £570,000. We will also introduce a faster interim payment. As for the pay of the troops, we have been determined to raise the pay of our forces at a higher rate than that of the other public services. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that for the lowest-paid troops, there was a 9 per cent. rise a year ago. I can also tell him that there is a theatre allowance, and that there is a withdrawal of any requirement to pay council tax while they are in Afghanistan. We are doing everything we can to ensure that our troops are not only well paid, but properly equipped for the challenges ahead.
Thousands of servicemen and women are about to put their lives on the line in the biggest offensive yet in Afghanistan. They have been stretched to the limit by a Government who have got their priorities wrong—employing 800 people to do media and communications for the Ministry of Defence but not giving our brave young soldiers a decent living wage. Is it not time for the Government to get their priorities right? They should cut the bureaucrats and pay our soldiers what they deserve.
We have always accepted the recommendations of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, which is set up on an independent basis to take information and evidence and then to make recommendations to the Government. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree, when he looks into this, that we have accepted recommendations that, in the past few years, have been for higher pay rises than elsewhere. I also remind him that 70,000 civilian staff have gone from the Ministry of Defence as we have made the focus of our efforts our front-line services. There will be more civilian redundancies as we use new technology to make available the back-office services that enable the front line to have the best equipment. The right hon. Gentleman cannot deny the fact that £14 billion in urgent operational requirements and additional money, on top of the defence budget, has gone to our troops, particularly for Iraq and Afghanistan. It really is not fair to tell our troops that they do not have the equipment that is needed when we have done everything in our power. I asked the Chief of the Defence Staff yesterday if the proper equipment was available for any exercises that we had to undertake, and he said that he had checked with those people on the ground, and that was exactly the case.
We are trying to transform cancer care in our country. Over the next 10 years, £15 billion is being invested in research, much of it in cancer. The cancer guarantee is that people can see a specialist within two weeks. We hope that this will happen within one week, so that people can sometimes have their diagnostic test and results on the same day. We want to introduce a service in which there is personalised care available for those suffering from cancer, so that they can also be visited at home. This is how the modern health service is going to develop—personalised services available to people and tailored to their needs. With the reforms that we have made, that is now possible. I cannot for the life of me understand why the Conservative party is rejecting the cancer guarantee that would allow people to see a specialist within two weeks. I believe that that challenges its very commitment to the health service.
Greece should stick by the commitments that it has made to the European Union and the world. As the House knows, at the G20 conference in London in April we put in place arrangements that could help countries if they were in difficulty. These arrangements are still in place and have been used by some countries. It is up to the euro area to decide what it wants to do in relation to euro area countries, but there is international support available if Greece wishes it.
Under a Labour Government there has been an increase of 6,000 police in the Metropolitan Police Service since 1997. We are also proud that there are 4,500 police community support officers available. However, I have to say that for the Conservative party to publish a document on law and order that does not mention police numbers, prison places, CCTV or DNA shows that it is the first Opposition party to run out of ideas even before facing an election.
I know that the former Prime Minister wrote to people at the time and expressed his condolences and sympathies to every family. I also know that on many occasions he has expressed his sadness at the losses that have taken place in Iraq. I say to the whole House that I think that we have been united at every point in mourning the losses of our troops, and also the loss of civilian life in Iraq.
The Conservative party cannot talk about new politics or transparency unless it answers the central question about the tax status of its chief fundraiser, Lord Ashcroft. The Information Commissioner has already said that the party has been “evasive and obfuscatory” about the Ashcroft scandal. The Opposition have questions that they have to answer.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that we have doubled the science budget over the past few years and done more for British science than at any time since the second world war. An innovation fund has been set up to benefit scientists as they develop their innovations and put them into the marketplace. I know that Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, announced today the thousands of jobs that can be created in new scientific industries as a result of our investment, and I believe that universities and science researchers recognise that we have doubled research activity in universities over the past few years.
As my hon. Friend knows, a decision was made at the Commonwealth summit that Sri Lanka would not host the next Commonwealth summit. We are aware of the human rights issues that have arisen in Sri Lanka since the fighting that took place with the Tamils. We urge the Government to recognise the human rights of all those who are Tamil citizens in Sri Lanka, and we also urge them to move forward with the reconstruction of the country so that those who have been excluded both from power and from the chances of a livelihood can benefit now.
I think, Mr. Speaker, that the hon. Gentleman is saying that the Conservatives have nothing to congratulate themselves about. It is the Government who have published a stroke strategy. It is also the Government who want to introduce a health test so that people can get a health check-up. We believe that that would remove the possibility of hundreds of deaths as a result of strokes or heart disease, and we will introduce that during the next Parliament. [Laughter.] The Opposition laugh every time we talk about measures that try to improve people’s health in this country. If they were really interested in the health service they would support the new health service guarantees, but because they are not, they cannot bring themselves to support a guarantee that every citizen of this country could get a health check-up, whereas previously they would have had to pay.
Thank goodness, Mr. Speaker. It is my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser) who has been a great champion of Dover and its people, and I know that he wants the best for the people of Dover, including a flourishing port. I share that aspiration. There will be no forced privatisation under Labour—[Hon. Members: “Reading!”] We will look for new ways of getting new investment into the port—[Interruption.]
If we took the right hon. Gentleman’s advice there would be massive cuts in public expenditure. He is the one who says that there should be even more cuts than are being proposed by the Leader of the Opposition. We would lose jobs and businesses, and our economy would go deep into recession again. That is not a policy that the people of this country want. The Conservatives have dozens of policies on this, and the right hon. Gentleman’s is the most extreme—but we will follow none of their advice.
Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell), and ahead of the European Council, will the Prime Minister confirm that any negotiations involving a bail-out for the Greek economy will be completely confined to eurozone countries, and have no impact on the UK?
I have already said that international support is available for countries, as set up by the G20 summit in London in April. That support can be drawn on at an international level. If the euro area wishes to move ahead with a proposal, that is for the euro area.
GPs are already required, under relevant legislation, to make reasonable adjustments to their written information for patients with a visual impairment. The Equality Bill also contains legislation that will avoid discrimination against people with lesser sight, and anybody with a visual impairment should also be aware that the General Medical Council has issued guidance that doctors must ensure that arrangements are made to meet patients’ language and communication needs. We will do everything in our power to improve the services to those with visual impairments, and I would be very happy to meet any delegation that the hon. Lady brings to me.
Does the Prime Minister accept that the welcome international support for eurozone countries facing economic difficulties is undermined by the $8 billion-worth of speculative transactions that are currently taking place against the value of the euro? Does that not reinforce his case for the urgent introduction of a Tobin tax, which could bring to the international table £400 billion per year? That would be as relevant to the developing needs of the poor countries in the south as it would be to avoiding austerity measures in the north.
What we want is international agreement to restructure our banking system in the way that is necessary. It cannot be done by one country on its own; it must be done by countries working together. We have put proposals to the G20 whereby we could co-ordinate activity in terms of capital requirements for banks, liquidity ratios and the rewards that they are prepared to pay, but it is also true that the relationship between banks and society needs to change. I have proposed, with other people, that a levy be raised from banks. There is new interest in that around the world, and I believe that over the next period we will reach agreement on a global financial levy. I am sorry that many people opposed it when it was first announced, because I believe that we will be able to go ahead with it in the not too distant future.
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement to the House on the case of Mr. Binyam Mohamed following the judgment handed down this morning in the Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal has ruled that, in the light of disclosures by a United States court in December 2009, which I shall describe below, the seven paragraphs that have been redacted from the original judgment of the divisional court in this country of 21 August 2008 should be published. The seven paragraphs contain summaries of American intelligence relating to Mr. Mohamed’s case held in UK files. I accept the Court’s ruling, which concludes a very complex, and in various ways apparently unique, case, and I have made the relevant paragraphs available this morning on the Foreign Office website. The judgment is significant not just in respect of the seven paragraphs but for important principles that are at the very heart of both our national security and our democracy.
The facts are as follows. Mr. Mohamed, an Ethiopian national formerly resident in the UK, was detained in Pakistan in 2002. In 2004, he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay. In August 2007, the then Home Secretary and I wrote to the US Secretary of State to seek Mr. Mohamed’s release from Guantanamo Bay and his return to the United Kingdom, along with four other UK residents. Mr. Mohamed was released from Guantanamo a year and a half later, in February last year.
In May 2008, Mr. Mohamed brought proceedings against the British Government in an effort to secure disclosure to his legal counsel of any material held by the British Government that might assist in the defence of his case before a US military commission. The question at issue in our appeal against the judgment of the divisional court was not this disclosure, which we supported and secured. It was instead whether intelligence provided, on a confidential basis, by one state to another, in absolute trust that it would be kept secure, should be disclosed into the public domain in the interests of open justice; or whether the breach of trust would be so grave as to endanger intelligence-sharing relationships and therefore affect national security. As I have said in this House on a number of occasions, in this case it was US intelligence and an English court, but it could just as easily be British intelligence in a foreign court. As I have also said to the House, often, at issue in this case was not the content of the seven paragraphs, but the principle of their disclosure by an English court against US wishes.
I am grateful for the consideration that the Court of Appeal gave to the control principle. This principle, which states that intelligence belonging to another country should not be released without its agreement, underpins the flow of intelligence between the US and UK. This unique intelligence-sharing relationship is vital to national security in both our countries. Crucially, the Court has today upheld the control principle. The judgment describes that principle as integral to intelligence sharing. It specifically vindicates the careful assessment that releasing the seven paragraphs without the consent of the United States would have damaged the public interest. It also specifically makes clear that
“this litigation has endorsed the application of public interest immunity and the maintenance of confidentiality over secret information.”
This is important for the future of intelligence-sharing with the US and others.
However, on 17 December last year, we received notice of a US court ruling in the case of another Guantanamo detainee, Farhi Saaed Bin Mohammed, which made a finding of fact in respect of Binyam Mohamed’s allegations of mistreatment. That judgment does not set out the content of the seven paragraphs per se, but it does include references to the treatment of Mr. Mohamed covered in the seven paragraphs. We brought this to the attention of the Court of Appeal and Mr. Mohamed’s counsel immediately. The Court of Appeal today ordered the publication of the seven paragraphs because, in its view, their contents were placed into the public domain by a United States district court. Without that disclosure, it is clear that the Court of Appeal would have upheld our appeal and overturned the fifth judgment of the divisional court. The Court of Appeal was also clear that the judiciary should overturn the view of the Executive on matters of national security only in the most exceptional circumstances. It states that
“it is integral to intelligence sharing that intelligence material provided by one country to another remains confidential to the country which provided it and that it will never be disclosed, directly or indirectly by the receiving country, without the permission of the provider of the information. This understanding is rigidly applied to the relationship between the UK and USA.”
I spoke last night to Secretary Clinton about this case, which has been followed carefully at the highest levels in the US system with a great deal of concern. Recent events have shown the importance of the US-UK intelligence relationship in the fight against terrorism; equally, the determination of the US authorities to protect the confidentiality of their intelligence has been absolute throughout this case. We will work carefully with the US in the weeks ahead to discuss the judgment and its implications in the light of our shared goals and commitments.
Mistreatment of prisoners, not to say torture, violates the most basic principles of this country, never mind our national and international legal obligations. There is a fundamental commitment on the part of myself, responsible for the Secret Intelligence Service, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, responsible for the Security Service, and the heads and staff of those agencies, to uphold the highest standards of conduct not just for ourselves but with the countries with which we co-operate.
A wide range of allegations have been made during the course of this case. Today some of the facts can be publicised, in some cases for the first time. First, the paragraphs released today describe information received by our intelligence agencies concerning the conditions of Mr. Mohamed’s detention by the United States in Pakistan in April 2002. They note specifically that he was subject to sleep deprivation, threats and inducements, that he was held shackled, and that the treatment, were it conducted by the United Kingdom, would be contrary to undertakings first given to this House in 1972. I repeat that it was not conducted by the UK.
Secondly, now that they are in the public domain, it will be evident that the paragraphs do not contain information on Mr. Mohamed’s most serious claims of mistreatment, notably in respect of alleged genital mutilation, during his detention until his release from Guantanamo last year. We, the United Kingdom, have no information to corroborate those allegations. Those matters have quite properly been raised by Mr. Mohamed in his civil claim for damages and will be addressed there.
Thirdly, during the course of these proceedings, allegations of possible criminal wrongdoing by a British official were made. The Home Secretary referred them to the Attorney-General for her consideration, and they are now the subject of a police investigation.
The most basic values of this country are at issue in the debate that will follow the Court’s decision today. Our position is clear: the UK firmly opposes torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. This is not just about legal obligations, it is also about our values as a nation and what we do, not just what we say. We have taken a leading role in eradicating torture internationally, both through organisations such as the United Nations and by assisting other countries. Where possible wrongdoing is found, it is fully investigated.
I also want to place on record the fact that we are lucky to have the best intelligence agencies in the world. Their staff are second to none in their commitment and public service. They are respected across the world, and the work that they do to keep Britain safe deserves all our admiration and gratitude.
There is a fundamental myth that needs to be addressed, which is that the security services operate without independent oversight. Ministers and agency heads have the first responsibility for the conduct of their organisations. The Intelligence and Security Committee provides parliamentary scrutiny of agency activities, and independent judicial oversight is provided by the commissioners, who by law must be given access to whatever documents and information they need. Both report annually to the Prime Minister and to Parliament. Then there are the courts, whose role is to protect the rights of individuals and provide recourse to justice when they believe they have been infringed. That they have done, and continue to do, in this case.
Today’s judgment is not evidence that the system is broken. Rather, it is evidence that the system is working and that the full force of the law is available when citizens believe that they have just cause. The six judgments in this case, plus a closed judgment, show a seriousness of purpose in our legal system that is a vital part of our system of accountability. We have fought this case and brought the appeal to defend a principle that we believe is fundamental to our national security—that intelligence shared with us will be protected by us. No one likes to lose a case, but the force of the judgment is that it firmly recognises that principle. In doing so, the Court is fulfilling its vital constitutional role, protecting this country and upholding the law.
We on the Conservative Benches have always held that the intelligence co-operation between the United States and the United Kingdom is unique in the world and of immense value to both countries, and that its disruption would have serious consequences for our national security. I echo the Foreign Secretary’s tribute to the security services.
At the same time, we have consistently argued for full investigation of all credible allegations of UK complicity in torture, and for the Government to find a way in this particular case to balance the needs of national security with the need for justice and accountability in our democratic society. We therefore welcome today’s judgment, which upholds the principle of control and the need for openness in this particular case.
The alleged treatment of Binyam Mohamed described in the seven paragraphs now released by the Foreign Office is so utterly unacceptable, and the alleged treatment described in the US court judgment in December so dramatically unacceptable, that if true, they are not only morally wrong but will harm our efforts to combat terrorists, play into the hands of their propagandists and weaken, rather than strengthen, our national security.
We have always believed that the principle of control could be upheld while seeking an exception in this case from the United States. The Foreign Secretary will recall that I put to him in the House a year ago this week that the Government could have positively asked the US for permission to publish these paragraphs. If they had done so, and if the US had agreed, we would have arrived at the same outcome as today’s Court judgment, without a further year of legal proceedings, more quickly and smoothly, and in a way that left the Government less open to the attack that they were withholding from the public evidence of complicity in torture. Does not the fact that the relevant information has been published anyway in the US strengthen our case that that would have been the right course of action a year ago?
In other respects, we agree with the Foreign Secretary’s statement, particularly on maintaining the principle of control of intelligence, which, indeed, the Court ruling reaffirms and which we fully support. He has long argued that the intelligence-sharing relationship would be damaged by the release of these paragraphs. Is it still his view that that relationship will be damaged now that the information has been published? Can he say whether there are any other cases pending involving allegations of torture, in which he expects the principle to be challenged? In the light of the failed Detroit bomb attack and the serious threat at the moment to both the UK and the US from terrorism, can he assure the House that the sharing of information at this critical time has not been affected in any way? Have any other countries with which we share intelligence warned that they will reconsider the basis on which they share information in the light of today’s developments?
My final set of questions concerns the overriding need to draw a line under this episode and restore the UK’s moral authority in the matter of allegations of complicity in torture. As the Court ruling states,
“the rejection of torture…has a constitutional resonance for the”
“people which cannot be overestimated.”
Many of us have criticised the use of extraordinary rendition and the possibility that it can sometimes lead to torture in a third country. The US court ruling, which was decisive in making the Court of Appeal here change its view on publication, states unequivocally that, as a matter of fact, Binyam Mohamed was tortured over a period of two years. Do the Government now accept that statement? The Foreign Secretary has confirmed that the police are currently investigating possible criminal misconduct in the case of Binyam Mohamed. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm whether there are additional investigations into other, parallel cases, and how many cases the Attorney-General is reviewing?
This case has come to epitomise the challenge of international terrorism and how we deal with it. However difficult that challenge is, we must be clear that winning the battle against the perpetrators of terrorism and their ideas requires moral as well as military strength. The Government must be able to assure the country and the world that a line has been drawn, that we are far more confident that allegations of complicity in torture cannot be made against the UK in future, and that all the necessary lessons of this episode have now been learnt.
I concur with the right hon. Gentleman that this case has come to symbolise or epitomise some of the most difficult issues raised by the terrorist campaign in the nine years since 11 September 2001. It has also come to symbolise some of the key judgments that need to be made on how to ensure that our values and security are brought together. It is absolutely the case that the shared commitment across the House against torture and in favour of meeting all of our commitments in respect of cruel or inhuman treatment is a vital part of making this a safe country—far from undermining that, our commitment goes to the heart of what we are seeking to defend.
The right hon. Gentleman queried the decision not to launch a campaign, as I called it last year, for the release of the documents in the United States. He is right that we did not launch such a campaign, although we were absolutely clear that they must be released to Mr. Mohamed’s defence counsel, as indeed they were.
The right hon. Gentleman said that he thought that the same outcome would have been achieved if we had launched a campaign and it had succeeded. That is not entirely the case, because obviously the commitments that the Court has made today about the control principle would not have been made in those circumstances, and those commitments and comments are valuable and important.
I also said to the right hon. Gentleman last year, and I stick by it today, that the United States Administration under President Obama have shown clearly their commitments in respect of anything that resembles torture or inhuman treatment. They are reviewing all the cases and they have clearly decided, so far, not to release the documents. The paragraphs released today are summaries of the US intelligence that we hold, not the actual documents, so I do not think that it would have been right for us to launch such a campaign. Apart from anything else, it would have suggested a degree of uncertainty about the commitments that the US Administration made that would not be merited.
The right hon. Gentleman asked an important question about any chilling or constraining effect that this case might be having, has had or will have on intelligence sharing. That is of grave concern to me, the Government and the whole country. I said in my statement that we would work with the US Administration, not just the State department but across all aspects of the US Government, to analyse this judgment; to understand its implications; to draw attention to the commitments that the Court makes in respect of the control principle; and also to discuss how we continue to defend that principle in the future. I am clear that it is an important job for me and for my colleagues to minimise any potential effect on the intelligence-sharing relationship, not least given the recent events that show how important it is, but it is too early to say that there will be no such effect and we need to work to ensure that that is indeed the case.
The fact that the Court of Appeal has so clearly said that it was the disclosures in a US court that led it to make its decision today that the seven paragraphs should be published is obviously a material aspect in the discussion about whether the control principle has been breached.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked about the judgment of facts that the US district court made. We await the US Government’s view on whether those are indeed matters of fact, as they have not yet corroborated or committed to that, but we obviously recognise that, as far as the court is concerned, they have been established as a matter of fact and it is not for us to query the judgment of the US court in that respect.
One key aspect of any lessons drawn or consequences arising from this case concerns the following three allegations that have no truth at all. First is the allegation that there is no oversight of the security services in this country. That is wrong. The second allegation is that it is our policy, if not to torture or commit acts of inhuman treatment ourselves, then to be complicit in them. That is not true. It is also not true to allege that, if possible wrongdoing occurs, it is covered up. This case shows clearly, in the work of the Attorney-General and the courts, that this country is committed to upholding all its commitments, and it does so for very good reason.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement, and echo his support for our excellent security services and his emphasis on the importance of our close relationship with our American allies, but given that one of the most senior judges in the land has openly criticised the Foreign Secretary and his legal representatives for accusing other judges of being irresponsible, and dismissed the Government’s appeal, the Foreign Secretary should have been more contrite in his statement today.
The Liberal Democrats also respect the control principle for the way in which foreign intelligence is handled, but unlike the right hon. Gentleman—and like the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague)—we believe that the Government had a duty to ask the American authorities at the highest level whether they would release this information. Given the gravity of the accusations and the information that has now been published, one would have thought that that was exactly the right thing to do.
I turn to the content of the seven paragraphs that the Foreign Secretary has been forced to publish today. Is it not now clear that the British authorities knew that the US was using torture techniques against Binyam Mohamed? Will the Foreign Secretary now tell the House what steps the British Government took at the time to deplore that use of torture? What steps did they take to ensure that Britain was not complicit in that torture? Will he guarantee today that at no stage in this case was Britain in breach of either our domestic or international obligations on torture?
Anyone who has followed this case closely, including the evidence given by the Security Service officer involved to the courts, will recognise that knowledge of the American use of torture did not remain within the secret service but was almost certainly passed on to the highest levels of Government. Does the Foreign Secretary know whether Ministers were told that the US was torturing Binyam Mohamed, and when? Will he now ensure that all such evidence is given to the police in charge of investigating allegations of British complicity in torture in this case?
I accept totally that the Foreign Secretary fought this case for honourable and just reasons, but will he now take another honourable step, given this and other allegations of British complicity in torture, and set up a wide-ranging judicial inquiry?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the work that is done by the security and intelligence services and salutes that work, but he does himself no justice by asking questions that he knows I cannot answer, because of the legal circumstances, or by repeating as questions allegations to which he knows the answer. He asked about the case involving so-called witness B. He knows that I cannot talk about that case because it is currently in front of the courts. It is not right to seek answers to questions that could prejudice an ongoing police investigation.
The hon. Gentleman also asks whether the police have been given access to all the relevant papers, and he knows very well that all the relevant papers have been handed over to the police, because that is the basis on which the Attorney-General made her decision to ask for a police investigation.
The hon. Gentleman also asked what the effects—I think that that was the word he used—of this case would be. It depends how the debate is carried forward, but he will know from the successive reports of the Intelligence and Security Committee that significant changes have been made in the nature of the guidance that is issued to our security and intelligence service personnel and the way that policy is promulgated. As well as the generic issue, individual cases have been examined and set out by the Committee. Its recommendations have been followed and the Government have said clearly what they have done in that respect.
One outstanding issue concerns the publication of the reformed guidance in the light of the Binyam Mohamed case. That is currently sitting with the Intelligence and Security Committee, as the Prime Minister promised the House that it would, before publication.
Is the Foreign Secretary aware that many people listening to this debate will be surprised to hear him describe the Court ruling as a vindication, when in fact he has been forced to reveal information that he has struggled for a long time not to reveal—even when it was legally available in the US? Is he aware that it cannot be right to describe the information released today as clearing the Government of any involvement, past or present, in extraordinary rendition—and thus complicity in torture? He must be aware that, whatever is happening now under a new US Administration, there are still questions to be answered about past British involvement in extraordinary rendition and thus in torture.
The vindication is of the control principle, and that was made clear by the Court. The Court also makes it clear that, in the absence of the American judgment of December 2009, it would have found in favour of the Government. That is an important point.
In respect of extraordinary rendition, I do not recognise my hon. Friend’s description of UK complicity—
Well, questions have been asked about extraordinary rendition in respect of Diego Garcia. My hon. Friend knows very well that two cases have emerged from studies of the American files. They were immediately publicised to the House in the appropriate way. There may have been subsequent questions, but there have also been answers to each and every one of those questions in respect of Diego Garcia. It is very important that we do not allow the impression to go abroad that there are outstanding issues in that respect—there are not.
May I thank the Foreign Secretary for making this statement, because it is good that he did so? Just before he stood up earlier, The Guardian published on its website a copy of a letter from Jonathan Sumption QC, his lawyer, raising the matter that the Government are still seeking a redaction—it would appear—from the judges’ rulings. I shall read the Foreign Secretary the following short extract from that long letter:
“The Master of the Rolls’s observations…are likely to receive more public attention than any other part of the judgments. They will be read as statements by the Court (i) that the Security Service does not in fact operate a culture that respects human rights…(iii) that officials of the Service deliberately misled the Intelligence and Security Committee on this point (iv) that this reflects a culture of suppression in its dealings with the Committee, the Foreign Secretary and indirectly the Court, which penetrates the service to such a degree as to undermine any UK government assurances based on the Service’s information and advice; and (v) that the Service has an interest in suppressing information which is shared…by the Foreign Office for which he is responsible.”
Will the Foreign Secretary comment on that?
I will comment on it, but it is very important that the facts are on the record, not the allegations, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to go through this. First, it is not correct to say that the Government or, more specifically, the counsel for the Government, sought redactions of the judgment. A redaction suggests that we wanted an item deleted that we accepted was true. Once our counsel had been provided with a copy of the judgment in draft, as is normal practice, he had a real concern that one paragraph set out conclusions that went beyond the evidence presented and raised prejudice in respect of the ongoing case involving witness B. He took the view that that should be brought to the attention of the judges in the case. The three judges examined that letter and decided to amend the paragraph so that it took the final form that it did; the court concluded that the concern was well founded, so it revised its paragraph in the light of it.
It is very important that we also remember that in open court today the counsel for Mr. Mohamed apologised unreservedly for releasing this private legal document—it is a normal part of legal practice that such correspondence should take place. It is also important that no suggestion is made anywhere to impugn the integrity of the judiciary in making their own judgments. What the judiciary say in a draft judgment or in a final judgment is their business, and their independence is at the heart of their final words. The words that appear today in public are those of the justices in the case, and it is their decision to release them on that basis.
In no way do I question my right hon. Friend’s integrity, but is he aware that for some of us the heart of this issue is simply the question of whether British security officials knew that torture was being applied against Mr. Mohamed by the United States? If no action was taken by us and no information was given to Ministers, that is a stain on the reputation of our country and it should never happen again. It is just not good enough to say that Britain is not a party to torture. If we know that torture is being carried out by our closest ally, we have a responsibility to act, and I am afraid that in the case of Mr. Mohamed we did not do so.
My hon. Friend rightly says that we have responsibilities not only in respect of the conduct of our own officials, but if we come to know that torture, or cruel or inhuman treatment, is being undertaken by others with whom we work. We have a responsibility to act when we have that information and we should do so. A criminal case is being studied at the moment to see whether the actions taken were in accord with the principles that he and I share, as does the whole House. That is how the system should work and that is how it is working. For all the proper talk of lessons, I should also say that significant changes have been made since 2002 in the way in which guidance is offered to all officers, in the way in which they are trained and in the way in which the system is patrolled and policed, and that is the right approach.
According to comments made by the great theorist of counter-insurgency, Sir Robert Thompson, more than 40 years ago, not only is prisoner abuse morally wrong, but it is lethal to any counter-insurgency campaign. I appreciate that the Foreign Secretary cannot or does not wish to comment on the particular case that is before the courts, but in response to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) can he address the question of what representations the Government made to our American allies more generally when it became known that waterboarding was being used?
I am very happy to say clearly that the Government, as has been detailed in successive Intelligence and Security Committee reports, did follow that up, and not just in terms of our own system and how practices were developed. I think I should set out what happened in a letter to the hon. Gentleman. It has also been documented what did not happen and what should have happened, not in respect of an individual case, but in respect of training and guidance for officials, for example. That means that we are in a much stronger position today than we were in 2001-02, and rightly so. We always keep things under review, and the publication of the current guidance, which is before the ISC, will be an important opportunity for not only the whole House, but for the whole country to see how that is taken forward.
May I join the Foreign Secretary and others in congratulating the security services on their professionalism? May I also take him back to the police investigation? I wrote to the Attorney-General on behalf of the Select Committee on Home Affairs a year ago about this matter and she referred it to the police. Has this been ongoing for a whole year? If so, can we expect an update from the police as to when these investigations will conclude?
No—I am afraid that there is a very short answer to that. It is not for the police to provide a running commentary on their investigations; they have to continue them until they are concluded and then make a decision. I understand that when the case was before the Attorney-General, my right hon. Friend made representations for her to speed up her work. She concluded that work and it is now before the police, but I cannot give him any joy about any running commentary that the police might provide.
The Foreign Secretary’s statement makes it plain that in 2002, while in US custody, Mr. Binyam Mohamed was subjected to systematic maltreatment, probably amounting to torture. Can the Foreign Secretary tell the House when the Government first learned of those facts? At what level in government were those facts known? What steps were taken to make urgent representations to the United States Government that this must stop? What steps were taken to prevent extraordinary rendition from being practised, to which we were a party? Was not the concealment of this document very damaging to Mr. Mohamed’s claim for civil damages?
I think that the best way I can answer the legitimate questions that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has posed is to detail for him what has, in fact, been reported through the ISC about what the Government knew, when they knew it and what action they took. In answer to one of his questions I wish to say that it was the actions of the Government, as recorded in the divisional court, that got the documents to Mr. Mohamed’s legal counsel. That is why the constant confusion between the “suppression of evidence” as regards Mr. Mohamed and the publication of the evidence is so damaging. It was at the heart of the Government’s case that we had a responsibility to ensure that Mr. Mohamed was able to defend himself. That is why we made representations to the US authorities, and the divisional court, in effect, congratulated the Government on achieving that. That is not the same as publishing the documents in the public domain, because one concerns justice for the individual whereas the other concerns the public interest in open debate. I shall provide the right hon. and learned Gentleman with a detailed explanation in respect of his other questions.
In thanking my right hon. Friend for his statement to the House and for once again making it clear to everybody that torture or complicity in torture is totally unacceptable, may I add a thank you for his comments about the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee, on which I serve? I believe that it scrutinises the security agencies forcefully and purposely. However, will there now be—this is crucial for us all—a watching brief on how intelligence sharing between Britain and the UK will continue? I ask that because it is important for us to acknowledge that that relationship is crucial to Great Britain’s future security.
My hon. Friend is right; there will be a taking stock, as I set out in my statement, and we will seek to ensure that the full intelligence sharing that is so vital to both our countries continues unabated. However, there is no point in denying that there will be a taking stock as a result of this judgment.
The Foreign Secretary said that our most basic values as a nation are at stake here. I agree. It is only by getting to the truth about all this that we can bring closure to the whole sorry episode that is now called extraordinary rendition and in which the UK appears to have allowed itself to become complicit in kidnapping and torture. Indeed, a judge in another case said that we had facilitated a rendition, so the issue of facilitation, in principle, is no longer in doubt. Given all that, will the Foreign Secretary now finally discuss with the Prime Minister the need for a judge-led inquiry, which is supported by Lord Carlile, who is the Government’s own anti-terrorism watchdog, and by the Leader of the Opposition and the Liberal Democrats, as well as many others?
I am interested to hear that the Leader of the Opposition is re-committing himself to a judicial inquiry—I shall pursue it with Opposition Front-Bench Members to see whether it is the case. The Government have discussed whether a judicial inquiry would be right, but have concluded that it would not be right, not least because the judicial system in this country is performing a very effective function in the courts, which is where it belongs. I also want to put it on the record that a dangerous confusion is emerging between rendition—sometimes called extraordinary rendition—and torture. They are not the same thing, although both are reprehensible and contrary to the laws and spirit of this country. However, it is important that we do not confuse the two. In Mr. Mohamed’s case, there are allegations that he was subject to both, but they are not the same; they are separate. However, they are both wrong and they both need to be addressed fully. In respect of the hon. Gentleman’s main point, however, I do not think that the conclusion to be drawn from today’s events is that a judicial inquiry is necessary; I draw the conclusion that the judiciary is performing its function extremely vigilantly.[Official Report, 22 February 2010, Vol. 506, c. 2MC.]
May I take the Foreign Secretary back to the question of Mr. Binyam Mohamed and what happened to him in 2002 in Pakistan? When did the British Government know about it, what protests have been made and are they satisfied that there is not a continuation of this practice, either in Pakistan or in other places, from where the US takes prisoners to some other destination? Furthermore, does he not think that Guantanamo Bay should have been closed many years ago and that we should have done much more to close it?
Yes, the Government have stood out against Guantanamo Bay for a very long time, but it is also a fact that the current US Administration are committed to closing Guantanamo Bay and are seeking to do so as fast as possible, and quite rightly so. However, I can answer in the affirmative to both the questions asked by my hon. Friend. In respect of whether those practices are continuing, it is absolutely clear from the executive orders that President Obama has issued, among other things, that those practices have been completely banned by the US, which puts it into line with our position.
In his statement, the Secretary of State stated that Mr. Mohamed is an Ethiopian national formerly resident in the UK. What is his current immigration status, and why was he allowed back into the UK, especially when it was obvious that he was going to seek legal aid to mount a challenge in our courts?
The Government judge that our interests in securing the closure of Guantanamo Bay were so strong that it was right that British residents, as well as British citizens, be given the chance to come back to the UK. We did that in the case of nine British citizens and five British residents. One British resident, Mr. Shaker Aamer, continues to reside in Guantanamo Bay, and we continue to press the case for his release. We took the decision on the basis that the closure of Guantanamo Bay was right and that we had to play our part in it. However, it is also right that Mr. Mohamed, along with four others, was a UK resident at the time of his extraordinary rendition—not rendition from this country, but from within south Asia.
This dreadful conduct is alien to our history and principles, and will certainly increase the risk of terrorism to this country. In the Secretary of State’s stock-taking, will he consider the possibility of returning to the fully independent, British foreign policy that served us so well in the Vietnam war?
I am happy to agree with my hon. Friend that British foreign policy is fully independent. However, it is not autarkic: although we pursue our foreign policy with our allies, we also have to pursue it with people who are not our allies in order to achieve our goals. We are absolutely committed to doing what is right for the United Kingdom, and that involves a very close relationship with the United States. However, that does not mean that we always agree with them, although I am pleased to say that we agree with the current Administration more than with some previous ones. That does not mean, however, that we agree on everything. That is the right way to proceed.
Will this case speed up the release and return of Mr. Shaker Aamer, to whom the Foreign Secretary referred and whose family live in my constituency? Is there any intelligence material about the torture of Mr. Aamer in our possession, and could that be a reason behind the reluctance of the US Government to agree to his return to this country?
Armed Forces Compensation Scheme
Today, I am publishing the review of the armed forces compensation scheme that I announced on 27 July last year. I would like to thank Lord Boyce for producing a rigorous report that has looked at every aspect of the compensation scheme, including the principles underlying it; the process by which a claim is made; and the amount of compensation provided. I will implement all of Lord Boyce’s recommendations in their entirety. This will include: raising by about one third the annual payment made to the youngest and most seriously injured personnel throughout their lives to help them to deal with the ongoing effects of their injuries; retaining the top award level of more than £500,000 for the lump sum payments but increasing all other levels by up to two thirds; and increasing the maximum award for those suffering from mental illness as a result of their service.
We ask a lot of our armed forces. On a daily basis, I see evidence of their bravery, selfless commitment and determination. The job they do on our behalf is unique. There is no such thing as a risk-free military operation, and those serving on the front line in Afghanistan know this, accept it and are committed to getting the job done. They are protecting Britain’s national security by denying safe haven to violent extremists, and the sacrifice has been significant. Earlier, the Prime Minister paid tribute to Private Sean McDonald, Corporal Johnathan Moore from 1st Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland and Warrant Officer Class 2 David Markland from 36 Engineer Regiment, Royal Engineers. They lost their lives in the past few days. These were professional, courageous, and committed men, and each death is a personal tragedy for the families, friends and comrades of those killed.
In Afghanistan today, British troops are fighting as part of an international security assistance force campaign to seize the initiative across southern Afghanistan. It will be hard, and we must brace ourselves for further casualties. There will always be a human cost when our forces are committed to action, and we have a moral obligation to honour their commitment and fulfil our responsibilities.
When servicemen and women are injured, we must ensure that they are provided with the right support—not just financial help, but medical care and through-life support. I am pleased that today’s National Audit Office report recognises that the medical care provided to our armed forces on the battlefield, in theatre and back here at home is first class. The advances made in medical care mean that many people who would previously have died of their injuries now survive and are able to lead fulfilling lives. Today we are announcing an extra 30 beds at the defence medical rehabilitation centre at Headley Court, as well as updating and expanding the existing facilities. For some people, injuries will mean that their career path in the armed forces is inevitably different. General Richards, the Chief of the General Staff, has been looking at that closely, and will be announcing shortly how the Army will ensure that everything is done to support soldiers in such circumstances.
We have a further duty to those injured due to service. They must have a just and fair compensation scheme. We must remember that the current scheme is a huge improvement on the war pensions scheme that it replaced in 2005. Unlike under the old system, injured servicemen and women are able to claim compensation while they are still in service. It is important that the new scheme is regularly reviewed, and that we act to ensure that it continues to evolve to meet people’s needs where it has been shown to fall short. For example, in 2008 we doubled the top levels of compensation payments, as part of the service personnel Command Paper.
Last summer I asked the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Lord Boyce, to lead the latest review. To support him, we put in place an independent scrutiny group of external experts, including those from the medical and legal fields, and representatives of the service charities. I would like to thank them for their work on the review. When put in place in 2005, the new compensation scheme was designed to ensure that those with the most serious injuries received the greatest support. I am pleased that Lord Boyce has concluded that that is the right approach, and that the scheme lives up to that promise.
As Lord Boyce has recommended, we will make the following notable changes. As I said earlier, we will increase most of the lump sum compensation payments. The top level will remain at £570,000, but every other level will go up. We will also increase tax-free annual payments to those who suffer the most serious injuries, to take account of future career prospects that they might otherwise have expected. For the youngest soldiers suffering life-changing injuries, those payments will be more than 35 per cent. higher. We will increase the top-level award for those who suffer mental illness because of their service, as well as increasing their annual guaranteed income payment.
We will ensure that the scheme treats those with multiple injuries more fairly. In future, all injuries from a single incident will be recognised as part of the compensation award. A new fast-track interim payment will be introduced, so that those injured can receive some money before the entire claims process is completed. We will extend the time that people have to make and to appeal claims. That will include taking further account of the late onset of a condition, which will particularly help with mental illness. We will create a new opportunity for exceptional reviews after 10 years if health conditions unexpectedly and significantly deteriorate. When making a claim, the burden of proof required will remain the same, but allowances will be made where records have not been properly maintained. We will also make a range of other improvements recommended by Lord Boyce, such as increasing payments to widows.
The injuries that those in our armed forces receive can be complex in the extreme. Ensuring that the compensation scheme is fair and just is not straightforward. One size does not fit all. Changes to the scheme must be guided by expert evidence. We will create an independent expert medical group to advise on the right level of compensation payments, as the knowledge and treatment of certain medical conditions improve. Together, all those measures will help us to give the scheme the flexibility that it has previously lacked.
As I said when I announced the review last year, in an exception to the normal rule, all those who have received compensation for their injuries under the armed forces compensation scheme since 2005 will benefit from the improvements that we are announcing today. Those in our armed forces must have the confidence that if they are injured, they will receive the help that they need. With the implementation of Lord Boyce’s recommendations, we have a scheme that fully recognises the severity of their injuries and helps to provide for their future.
It is not in our power to undo the injury, but the changes that I am announcing today will ensure that we do what is right and proper for those who sacrifice so much to keep this country safe and protected.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for prior sight of it. I would also like to join him in paying tribute to those who have recently lost their lives in Afghanistan. The whole House is united in respect for their bravery and their commitment to our security here at home. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and friends at this uniquely distressing time for them.
I would also like to add my thanks for the work done on this subject by Lord Boyce. It has been carried out with all the clarity and efficiency that we have come to expect from him, over many years of distinguished public service. There is much to be welcomed in the Government’s statement today, but we will of course need to examine the detail of its implementation before we can make a full judgment.
As Lord Boyce reminds us, the review was carried out in response to the public fury at the Court of Appeal case involving Corporal Duncan and Marine McWilliams. The sight of the Government trying to reduce compensation scandalised the country. Lord Boyce said that the judgment should be taken further, to provide even greater clarity about some aspects of the scheme, so let me question the Secretary of State further on a number of issues.
Lord Boyce has said that there is considerable scope for improvement in the current, unsatisfactory way in which the scheme is communicated to all members of the armed forces, their families and interested stakeholders. We are talking about the Government’s scheme, and therefore the Government’s failings. How will that be put right, and who will oversee this, to ensure that the Government do not get it wrong again? In particular, what role will there be for independent scrutiny?
Next is mental health, which the Secretary of State mentioned. The low priority that we give to mental illness in this country is a sad indictment of our values. The way it was treated in the past in our armed forces was a sad dereliction of duty. Today marks a welcome step forward. How will the proposed expert group be set up? By whom and with whom will it be set up, and how will Parliament get a chance to be updated on its progress? Mental illness is an issue of the utmost importance to Members in all parts of the House, and I am sure that we would wish for some transparency on it.
We welcome the extension, from five to seven years, of the period in which a claim can be submitted, but how exactly does that fit in with the extended periods for presentation of mental illness? As the Secretary of State well knows, post-traumatic stress disorder can take many years to present—up to 14 years, according to the latest figures from Combat Stress. How will the system be amended to ensure that those who present late with such problems do not find themselves excluded? Do we not need to find ways as a country proactively to seek out those who might be at risk, to prevent some of those problems from emerging, as our party has been proposing for some time?
On the subject of medical facilities, the Secretary of State said in his statement,
“we are announcing an extra 30 beds at…Headley Court”.
The written ministerial statement says, “We are therefore now working on plans to provide up to 30 extra ward beds later this year”. That is not quite the same thing. How soon can we expect the extra beds, and what factors might delay them? Is the Secretary of State concerned by today’s NAO report, which suggests that our ability to deal with significant increases in casualties might be limited? Does he share the anxiety expressed by the NAO when it suggests that we are just coping medically—a position that is less than ideal at the start of a major offensive?
The Secretary of State has announced what amounts to a retrospective review of settlements made under the 2005 scheme. I assume that I am correct in that assessment. That is a big undertaking, and it would of course be unnecessary if the Government had got this right at that time. What is the timeline for this process? How will it be structured? How many cases will be involved in the retrospective review, and what estimates have been made of the cost?
Finally, may I raise a point about the reserves? We welcome Lord Boyce’s suggestion that a factor should be introduced into the guaranteed income payment scheme to take account of the average range of promotions forgone while still in service because of injury. The whole House will agree with that, but how does it relate to reservists who might face long-term loss of civilian income because of the nature of their injuries? What is the equivalent compensation for them? That is especially important given our increased use of the reserves, not least in Afghanistan.
Our armed forces take unique risks and play a unique role in our national life. Is the Secretary of State confident that the money exists in the MOD budget fully to carry out the changes that will result from the review that he has set out today? Many people in our country will pay a high price for this Government’s colossal economic mismanagement. Our injured armed forces should not be among them.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about our armed forces and about Lord Boyce, who has done an excellent job; I am glad that that is recognised across the House. We took the case to court, as the hon. Gentleman knows, because we had to maintain the principles, the clarity and the fairness of the scheme. That was recognised by the judge. The issues that were raised at the time led us to bring forward the review, and the individuals concerned will benefit from the changes in the same way that any other individual will benefit.
On communication, yes, we do need to make every effort to ensure that those across the armed forces are informed of their rights and entitlements. We are putting in better systems to help those who are injured to get through what is a very complex process at a time when they are feeling particularly vulnerable. That is being overseen by the compensation advisory group that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) runs. That group brings in people from outside the MOD; we get assistance from service charities and others, and we take their advice on an ongoing basis. We—and, indeed, the single services—also need to step up the support that we give to people, and to ensure that it is adequate and that they know the situation that they face.
The hon. Gentleman said that the symptoms of mental illness often come to light only after many years. The timelines for the scheme will allow someone to make an application or an appeal after their diagnosis has been made. It will therefore not matter how long it takes for an illness to come to light. People will have an extended timeline after the date of their diagnosis in which to come forward and make a claim or an appeal. There will be no restriction on people with conditions such as PTSD, which often come to light many years after an individual’s service career has ended.
I hope that the House accepts that the NAO report said in no uncertain terms that the treatment available in theatre and back here at Selly Oak and Headley Court was first class. It does not criticise it in any way. Yes, of course it flags up the potential need for further capacity. We were already aware of that and planning for it—as illustrated by our announcement that we are seeking to provide another 30 beds at Headley Court—but we will have to do far more than that.
Approximately 6,000 people have made claims under the scheme since 2005. We have always said that that scheme would need to be reviewed. Anyone who examines the record can see that we have said that quite openly. We are dealing with a complex situation, and we made the commitment regularly to review the scheme. We brought forward this review, which is particularly thorough—I think we have Lord Boyce to thank for a lot of that—but we always said that we would backdate the benefits to the start of the scheme so that people did not have to worry that their claim might be overtaken by subsequent improvements that we introduced. The hon. Gentleman asked about reservists. They will benefit, as well as the regular forces, from the improvements that I have announced today.
I echo the words of tribute to those who have fallen in the past few days in Afghanistan; I salute their courage and valour.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and, indeed, for the briefing earlier today. The Government were right to introduce the scheme in 2005, but today’s statement shows that it has not worked as well as it might have done since then. I am pleased that the Government have changed course, because, as the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said, the sight of court cases fought over levels of compensation was not edifying. Admiral Boyce has done a very good job. He and his team have made some positive recommendations, which I welcome, on the levels of compensation, the easier time scales, the slight readjustment of the burden of proof and, in particular, the greater recognition of mental illness than has been the case to date.
What is it all going to cost? I know that that is hard to estimate, but the Government seem a little coy about it. There is a strong moral argument, whatever it costs, that it is the right thing to do, but I would welcome an estimate—they must have one—of what they think it will cost.
Lord Boyce said that he was trying to establish a system involving a comparator between the awards and those in civil life. I know that it is hard to make such comparisons, because the scheme involves an ongoing payment, which would be most unusual in civil cases. The Secretary of State says that the scheme will be kept under constant review, which is welcome, but I urge him to guarantee that the comparator with civil compensation remains part of the ongoing review process.
The Secretary of State also said in his statement that the quality of medical intervention was so advanced that many more lives were now saved than in the past. That is undoubtedly correct. It means that, at the point of the initial intervention, more compensation is needed than has ever been needed before. I welcome the fact that the statement acknowledges that. As he keeps these matters under review, will he also recognise that we will be entering uncharted territory, and that we might need to come back after several years, or even decades, to see how those people with very serious problems have been doing over the longer term, and whether their level of support needs to be revisited on account of factors that we cannot anticipate or even imagine at this stage?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for many of his comments. He mentioned the 2005 scheme. Let us remember that that represented a massive improvement on what went before. There was no lump sum payment and no ability to claim during service before the introduction of that scheme. I make no apology for wanting to make a significant difference with a lump sum payment for the most seriously injured. We did that in 2008, and Lord Boyce has now effectively readjusted the differentials to take into account the improvements that we made. That represents yet further improvement.
What will it cost? I did not say to Lord Boyce that we must keep within a particular envelope, as I do not believe that that is appropriate. I hope that hon. Members of all parties would agree with that. We have a commitment—a moral commitment—to these individuals that we must meet, and we have to meet the costs. Yes, they will have to come from the defence budget, but I do not think that it is unaffordable. We should not place it within any financial constraint: it has to come first and it has to be funded in full.
As to the need for ongoing reviews, I would make two points to the hon. Gentleman. First, by building in this expert medical panel, which will start considering issues such as hearing and other complicated difficulties that people have to confront, Lord Boyce has potentially brought some flexibility to the system. I cannot say to what degree that will need to be reviewed, because the expert panel will continually be able to bring back issues into the development of the compensation payable.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman should remember that the guaranteed income payment is tax-free and inflation-proofed, so we will not have to review that. I am personally particularly pleased—this is one area that I wanted to see addressed—that we have effectively uplifted the guaranteed income payment to take into account the progression that a young soldier is likely to have made during his career. That is a big improvement, because it is not right to assume that a 20-year-old would have stayed at the same level of remuneration for the rest of his life. His ability to have climbed the ranks and to have made progress in life must be taken into account.
I believe that we have a pretty robust situation now, but of course we must keep it under review. My hon. Friend the veterans Minister will do so in consultation with the groups that have helped us. We have had the involvement and support of the Royal British Legion, the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen’s Association, the Confederation of British Service and Ex-Service Organisations and the War Widows Association. The Families Federation was also represented on the group that supported us. We will continue to take those views into account.
I particularly welcome the announcement of the extra 30 beds at Headley Court, given the increase in exceptional survival rates. The Secretary of State also mentioned the potential increase in casualties over the coming weeks. Will he have talks with the Secretary of State for Health to ensure that in areas such as the west midlands, where Selly Oak is doing an exceptionally good job, neighbouring hospitals that are perfectly capable of providing the necessary extra care do provide it?
The reason why, over time, we will have to make increasing provision at Headley Court is not necessarily that the level of injuries will increase. It is because people are having to return for further or repeat treatment at the same time as the new injuries and new casualties are being dealt with. Therefore, there is a gradual increase in pressure on Headley Court, which we have to plan for and we are planning for; we will make certain that we deal with it. As to the current casualty level, we receive fantastic support from Selly Oak and from the Birmingham medical facilities overall. We plan surge capability so that we are able to put in additional medical services, which have been absolutely superb. We have talked to people in those services and made sure that eventualities can be catered for.
I welcome the statement. The Secretary of State and the veterans Minister deserve our thanks and our congratulations, as does Lord Boyce, not only on the changes made in the scheme but on the open way in which they have gone about that. The amendments to the scheme do not differentiate between injuries caused on active service in Helmand and those caused while training in the UK, for example. I entirely support that, but will the Secretary of State set out his thinking on why that should be the case?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I take his comments seriously in his capacity as Chairman of the Defence Committee. We get constructive criticism from him, but also a lot of support. We both appreciate that. We have thought about and discussed with various individuals over time whether there should be any differential between operational injuries and other injuries. It would be enormously difficult to do that, and I think that it would break the ethos of “One together” that applies to our armed forces. What would be “operational”? Pre-deployment training and all the other dangerous jobs that we expect people to do are not necessarily in the operational theatre in Afghanistan. We have always thought about it, but have set our face against differentiating injuries in service and other injuries. I have always been strong on that, and I think that it is the right decision.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his excellent statement and on the work of his ministerial team. Will he consider backdating eligibility, perhaps to the beginning of the Iraq war or even to the beginning of the Afghanistan campaign in 2001? Will he also consider giving current and ex-servicemen suffering mental health difficulties a statutory right to an assessment of their needs?
There is a statutory right to an assessment of needs. Lord Boyce looked at backdating. The answer is in some ways contained within my hon. Friend’s question. Why do we not consider backdating to this date, that date or whichever date? The previous scheme goes back to 1917. Where do we draw the line? The complexity is enormous. Benefits have been paid under completely different arrangements over time, from which other issues potentially flow. I have concentrated on trying to ensure that this scheme is as good as it possibly can be by continually updating it and by continually being prepared to look at it. The flexibility that Lord Boyce has built into the scheme as well as the other improvements are of real benefit.
I also warmly welcome the statement, which I know will be well received by many of my constituents who are serving armed forces personnel. May I encourage the Secretary of State to look at the Crown Proceedings Act 1947 in so far as it applies to this issue? As he well knows, serving personnel cannot sue the Crown for compensation for diseases they contract—asbestosis, for example, through working in a dockyard or naval base—whereas civilians who happen to be working alongside them can sue. Is that not a matter that the Government should now also consider?
Yes, of course we must keep the rights of our armed forces under constant review. The sacrifice that they are prepared to make—the position that they are prepared to put themselves in—is unique and therefore justifies a no-fault and improved compensation scheme such as this one. I recognise that many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents have served the nation over a period of time, and that some have paid the ultimate sacrifice and some have been injured.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the level of compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority for an off-duty soldier who receives serious head injuries as a result of being assaulted in the UK will still be considerably more than the compensation available under the armed forces compensation scheme if that same young man suffers serious head injuries as a result of being shot in Afghanistan while on active service for his country?
Lord Boyce tried as best he could to consider comparators in this country and abroad. That is enormously difficult, because the structure of other countries’ armed forces and welfare states is very different from our own. Lord Boyce could not say, did not say and shied away again this morning from saying that this country has the best scheme; ours is among the most generous. This is not a contested court-case scheme; it is a no-fault compensation scheme for our armed forces.
I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the three soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan in recent days, and whose bodies will be carried down through RAF Lyneham and through the high street in Wootton Bassett on Friday. Does he agree that the fact that the number of fatalities—bad as it is—is not greater is due to the outstanding work of the air medical evacuation teams and the medical emergency response teams at Camp Bastion, which ensure that soldiers leave the front line, go through Bastion and return to Birmingham as quickly as possible? Those people do a fantastic job, and they are worthy of praise.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Indeed, the care must begin long before Bastion. Getting people off the battlefield and back to Bastion as quickly as possible is life-saving, and the treatment and stabilisation provided at Bastion are magnificently impressive. Many skills are also immediately available throughout the Birmingham health authority—not just in Selly Oak—and at Headley Court. Anyone who has met an injured soldier will know of the huge desire of the injured to reach Headley Court. They know that once they are there, they are on the path to recovery, and that helps them to focus on the need to make progress.
Many Members, including me, have visited our soldiers in Afghanistan, and I agree with the Secretary of State that our soldiers have displayed extreme bravery, commitment and determination and deserve our wholehearted support.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s adoption of all Lord Boyce’s recommendations, including those on many levels of compensation. I also welcome the announcement of an extra 30 beds at the rehabilitation centre, and the commitment to updating and expanding the existing facilities. When does the Secretary of State expect the beds to be provided and the facilities to be updated?
We invested £24 million in the updating of Headley Court a while ago. We have also received fantastic support from Help for Heroes, which has provided a swimming pool. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an exact date for the provision of the 30 beds, because there are processes to be gone through.
Headley Court does a marvellous job and has an amazing reputation among the armed forces, but we have to plan for the future as well. The site is very constricted, and long-term thinking is needed. We must ensure that we can cope during the many years that lie ahead, because our responsibilities will not go away when a particular operation goes away or the media focus goes away. We, as a nation, will have an ongoing responsibility to the people who have made sacrifices on our behalf.
The Secretary of State is absolutely right about our duty of care to our wounded. As he said, the expansion of Headley Court is constrained. Has his Department had any discussions with private foundations or the private sector about a possible new location for a different sort of home?
Yes, and I think that we made people aware, in principle, that such discussions were going on. The trustees of Headley Court are certainly aware of the long-term planning, because it is taking place in collaboration with them. As I have said, the last thing that we can afford to do is lose the fantastic reputation that Headley Court has gained for first-class rehabilitation. We must ensure that whatever facility we have in the future can cope with not only the quality of care, but the quantity of care that may be needed.
I thank the Secretary of State for his excellent statement, and for this morning’s briefing by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and Lord Boyce. It is very welcome that all political parties in the House are being briefed on an equal basis, and I look forward to the continuation of that practice. I also commend the work of Lord Boyce and his colleagues. The report is excellent, and I am extremely pleased that the Government have accepted all its recommendations.
However, will the Secretary of State look closely at the issue of the bereavement grant, details of which can be found on page 41 of the report? It is being treated differently from the other forms of compensation that are being uprated. Although the 25 per cent. increase in the grant is welcome, there is to be no increase for people in receipt of that grant between 2005 and now. The 25 per cent. increase is intended to reflect increases in salaries. Will the Secretary of State consider carefully whether it is possible to taper the increase for families who lost loved ones between 2005 and the present day?
Lord Boyce’s recommendation in that regard is different from the rest. As the hon. Gentleman has said, the increase in the grant is a recognition of the need to take account of pay increases since 2005. We should be looking forward rather than back. Of course we will note what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I am currently minded to accept Lord Boyce’s recommendations as written in view of the logic behind them.
I warmly congratulate the Government on today’s announcement. Will the Secretary of State join me in also congratulating the service charities, particularly SSAFA—the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association—and the Royal British Legion, on their work with veterans and injured servicemen? Will he have a word with his colleagues in other Departments to ensure that the funds of such charities are not diverted because local councils are refusing to provide appropriate and proper disability grants, so that veterans and injured servicemen returning from service can adapt their homes in order to lead lives that are as near to normal as possible?
Under the service personnel Command Paper, which we produced in 2008, we have set up an ongoing review and an annual report. The service families federations and charities help us to determine the way in which other departments, local authorities and the rest of society serve veterans and our armed forces. That is an ongoing process. The last thing we can afford is for the Command Paper to give rights that just lie there gathering dust and never make progress. We must constantly examine new issues as they arise, and confront authorities when they do not treat our armed forces properly. The organisations that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned are a huge help in identifying those needs so that we can start to address them together.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones)—the veterans Minister—and Lord Boyce on the work that they have done. I think that we should all congratulate them and support their work wholeheartedly.
May I raise the issue of late-onset conditions and, in particular, cases of mental illness? I know about the compensation advisory group, but how many people out there in the wider communities—GPs, and those who supply mental health services—are aware of the path to that group, and is it able to present cases, especially those of mental health patients, to the compensation board? Who is there to represent those people and ensure that they are given a fair deal?
The compensation advisory group consists of a panel of people who have worked and will continue to work with the veterans Minister in identifying issues and ensuring that they are brought up to date, and they do that very well. It is not their responsibility to ensure that rights are communicated properly to all our service personnel. It is the responsibility of the Government, the chain of command and the single services to provide the appropriate information. According to one of Lord Boyce’s recommendations, we simply have not been good enough at that. We must and will ensure that that information is communicated all the way down to people in a timely manner, and I know that my hon. Friend the veterans Minister will drive it through as best he can.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Government have just released a written ministerial statement on the vexed subject of local government restructuring, which is going to force expensive and undemocratic restructuring on local government in Devon and Norfolk, and cast uncertainty over the future of the status of Suffolk. It represents a Government U-turn, reversing the position of the previous Secretary of State, and it ignores the advice of the Boundary Commission and introduces a wholly new concept of county constitutional conventions. Given the significant legal and financial implications of this statement, should it not have been an oral statement, so that Members on both sides of the House whose constituents are directly affected could properly debate the issue? The timing also raises serious questions about the probity of civil service activity so close to a general election. Do you not agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this statement should have been the subject of a debate, and that to issue a statement of such significance in written form just hours before the House rises does this House a grave disservice?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is the most naked form of opportunism I have ever witnessed in this place. The fact is that the Government have now ignored the criteria by which they originally judged the issue. They have overturned a decision taken in principle—
Order. That is not a point of order. I think I have grasped the heart of the point of order of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), and I do not think we should go down the debating route. The hon. Lady will understand that she cannot draw me into giving an opinion as to how a particular matter should be presented to the House. She will know that it is open to Ministers to decide how they will inform the House of a particular matter. I do not believe that it is an immutable, or necessarily a common, practice that local government boundary changes will always be announced by an oral statement, and there will be further opportunities for the House to debate the matter the hon. Lady raises. On the timing, again it is not for me to comment, except, perhaps, to say that we are all concerned when something comes out on the eve of a recess, which means there is a delay before it can be further considered, but, again, the timing is not a matter for the Chair. The hon. Lady has made her protest about this, and I am sure there will be other ways in which she can pursue the substance of the matter once the House resumes.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Have you had any indication that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport wishes to come to the Chamber to make a statement from the Dispatch Box crowing about the decision to make Exeter a unitary authority, because that is all about trying to save one Labour seat, rather than doing the right thing for the people of Devon?
I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman chose to try to take that comment down the route of a point of order, because I thought I had already explained to his colleague that we cannot have a debate on this matter. The Chair realises that this is of serious concern to Members representing the affected areas, but I am afraid that we cannot debate it now, whatever the feelings of hon. Members on the subject. That feeling has been registered, however.
Department for Work and Pensions (Electronic File Retention) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Harry Cohen presented a Bill to exempt the Department for Work and Pensions from statutory requirements to retain files in written form where it holds electronic files of the information in an approved form; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 March, and to be printed (Bill 66).
Water Tariffs Bill
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to review and report to Parliament on the current level of water poverty by local government area; to require water and sewerage companies to offer a social tariff to all customers within the water poverty threshold; to require the Office of Water Services to set common tariff levels for all water and sewerage companies; to require water and sewerage companies to contribute to an Infrastructure Investment Fund; and for connected purposes.
I make no apology for returning yet again to the long-standing subject of water prices, which have risen by 42 per cent. in real terms since 1989. An enormous amount of time has passed, and water tariff payers, particularly in the south-west of England, have waited a long time for the matter to be addressed. I and colleagues from the south-west have raised this matter in the House on many occasions, and time is running out for the Government to address this crippling injustice before the election, which will be held soon.
The population of the south-west will be all too familiar with the following figures, but let me remind the House of them once again. South West Water customers pay the highest water bills in the country: they are almost 50 per cent. higher than the national average bills. Part of the reason for that is the manner in which the industry was privatised in 1989. At the time, the water infrastructure in the south-west was in a dire state, but the Government did not provide any mechanism by which SWW would be assisted in meeting the costs of bringing it into a better condition. Instead, they allowed the company to pass on to customers all the costs of updating the infrastructure. As a result, the huge burden of cleaning up the coastline has, very unfairly, fallen on water customers in our region, with 3 per cent. of the population paying for the clean sweep of more than 30 per cent. of the UK’s coastline.
The south-west population is probably the least able of any region to shoulder this burden. Residents of Devon and Cornwall have the lowest incomes in England, and they are considerably lower than the UK average. Furthermore, more than 22 per cent. of the south-west’s population are pensioners living on fixed incomes, which is a higher proportion than anywhere else in England. All too often in the spring, any increase in state pension is immediately counteracted by increases in water bills or council tax. The need for reform is clear, therefore.
SWW operates the WaterSure social tariff scheme, for which it received 6,782 applications in 2008-09, despite the fact that the eligibility requirements are quite stringent. One of the requirements is that the customer must have a meter, which can be difficult in practice, particularly in blocks of flats, where the logistics are challenging. Nevertheless, SWW has received twice as many applications for such a tariff as any other water company.
As I have said, this problem dates back 20 years to privatisation, and I am very pleased that the Government commissioned a report on water charges, conducted and published by Anna Walker. That is clearly a step in the right direction. The report came up with some sensible solutions: greater use of social tariffs; the possibility of a contribution to SWW from the Treasury to recognise the extra costs it has faced; or a levy on other regional water companies to help meet SWW’s extra costs—which is the idea my Bill pursues. Some of the report’s other proposals are more controversial, such as moving to universal water metering, or putting a levy on holidaymakers’ hotel bills. The Government have had sufficient time to consider the report, and the time has now come for some decisions and actions.
My Bill places on Ofwat a duty to set exactly the same water tariffs across the entire country. Bills must be equalised at the current average across the country as a whole, rather than SWW’s level of bills being inflicted on everybody else. That would be the fairest system, and we should be steering towards it. My Bill also calls on the Government to recognise a new measure of water poverty, along the lines of the well-established fuel poverty principle, and it imposes on all water companies a duty to provide a social tariff to everybody who falls under this threshold—and not to have as many exemptions in place as, for example, the SWW scheme that I have just mentioned.
The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health has defined water poverty as being when a household’s water bill equates to more than 3 per cent. of its income after tax. There are winter fuel payments, but there is no similar assistance in respect of water poverty. More widely available social tariffs must be provided, and water poverty must become as widely accepted a concept as fuel poverty. We need to overcome the current obstacles to achieving those goals.
If the same tariff were to be set in every part of the country, the impact on different companies would vary sharply. If those companies were ordered off their current tariff level and on to a common tariff level, that would have widely differing impacts on their ability to fulfil their various regulatory requirements. Some would find that they had a cash bonanza and others would find that they had a shortfall in trying to meet their obligations. The purpose of an investment fund is to provide a mechanism through which the abilities to meet their obligations could also be equalised in way that would mirror the equalisation of the water tariff. Ofwat would determine what each water company should pay into the investment fund and allocate the resources from the fund to enable each of the different companies to fulfil the obligations that fall on them.
One has to recognise that there have been significant developments in the south-west in the years since privatisation. The “Clean Sweep” programme for the coastline has been a great success but the infrastructure that has been put in place needs ongoing capital maintenance. Of course, more requirements are being put on all the water companies about the quality of their drinking water, action to tackle leaks and all their other duties. There is no perfect mechanism, but if we established a central fund into which the companies made a contribution, depending on the level of profitability that the new equalised tariff gave them, those who were going to suffer a shortfall could draw the money out of it. Of course, if the Government were to consider further Anna Walker’s recommendation that Treasury funds should be part of the equation, the central fund would also be a mechanism through which that could be done. However, it is beyond the scope of a private Member’s Bill to propose that such a thing should be forthcoming from the Treasury.
This has been a long-running sore and it is not going to go away. When we take those with the lowest incomes in the country—those with very low disposable incomes—and place on them bills that cripple their household budgets, and when they realise that the cost of a bath in the south-west is vastly greater than that in other parts of the country, it prompts a simple question of fairness that has yet to be properly addressed.
The south-west has great assets that people from the whole country enjoy when they come on holiday. Among those assets are the clean beaches. It seems to me that everybody throughout the country needs to make a contribution to that. When we come to London, for example, and enjoy the benefits available for visitors, the central taxpayer has made a considerable contribution to those great attractions. It is simply a question of fairness. Twenty years after privatisation, there has been no progress at all. For the first time, Anna Walker’s report makes it clear in an independent study commissioned by Government that there is a real issue to address. It is not a question of the south-west whinging; it can be seen objectively that an injustice exists and a variety of measures have been proposed to put that right.
This has gone on too long. The time for action has come and my Bill would be a means by which that action could be taken.
Question put and agreed to.
That Nick Harvey, Dan Rogerson, Mr. Colin Breed, Richard Younger-Ross, Mr. Adrian Sanders, Andrew George, Julia Goldsworthy, Linda Gilroy and Alison Seabeck present the Bill.
Nick Harvey accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 March, and to be printed (Bill 67).
Section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993
I beg to move,
That this House takes note with approval of the Government’s assessment as set out in the Pre-Budget Report 2009 for the purposes of section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993.
I welcome the opportunity to debate the information provided to the European Commission under section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993. Each year, the Government report to the Commission on the UK’s economic and budgetary position and our main economic policy measures, in line with our commitments under the stability and growth pact, by formally sharing information from the pre-Budget report.
A year ago, as the world economy faced crisis, the European Council agreed a European economic recovery plan, which rightly called for a fiscal stimulus from member states equivalent to about 1.5 per cent. of gross domestic product. The Council encouraged member states to allow borrowing to rise to support the economy, acknowledging that this would lead to a deepening of deficits in the short-term and that the stability and growth pact should be applied in a manner that reflects the current exceptional circumstances.
We welcome the publication of the European economic recovery plan, which showed that the Government were right to take bold action in the 2008 PBR to support the economy through a fiscal stimulus and to provide further support for actions to front-load public expenditure and assist small and medium-sized businesses.
Last year, the global economy is forecast to have had the longest period of sustained negative growth in 60 years. It was against that backdrop that the pre-Budget report was delivered last year. That PBR is reported on in this document to the Commission.
Does the Minister accept that, having regard to the crisis in Greece and in the eurozone as a whole, as has been widely reported, the reality is that the stability and growth pact is simply not working and that the words contained in the pre-Budget report indicate that all the Government are doing is shunting on the whole issue on the basis of wishful thinking?