House of Commons
Monday 22 February 2010
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
In addition to procuring a number of unmanned aerial vehicles and related systems for Afghanistan, we are making several longer term investments in research in this area and supporting two technology demonstrators—Taranis, an unmanned combat air system project, and Mantis, an intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance asset. Both contracts have been placed with BAE Systems.
That is excellent news as UAVs have proved very successful in Iraq and Afghanistan. Will the Minister continue to support research, development and production in this country? Will he also consider deployment of UAVs in the Falkland Islands, which would send a strong message to the Kirchners and the Government of Argentina that we are determined that while the Falkland islanders wish the Falkland Islands to remain under British sovereignty, they will so remain, come what may?
In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s first point, we remain committed to continuing to ensure that this country remains at the cutting edge of these important technologies for the future. The second question is an operational issue, rather than an issue of equipment for me, but I am certain that commanders in that theatre or any other will call on whatever assets are most appropriate for the tasks in hand.
This is a very important programme that will succeed the Hermes 450, which has been doing sterling work in Afghanistan. The Watchkeeper programme has a number of significant advantages over the Hermes 450, although I will not go into those in public. We are procuring 54 of those vehicles for the foreseeable future, and I am assured that delivery will take place before the end of this year.
Given that Britain and France both have a requirement for a medium altitude long endurance UAV, and in the light of the recent improved attitude by the French towards joint procurement, will the Minister consider the possibilities of joint procurement with the French and possibly even the Italians? Might not we all benefit from establishing a European platform in UAVs?
That is certainly a pertinent and well informed question, and I discussed precisely those matters with my French counterpart, the head of the DGA, last week in Paris. I have also discussed them with my Italian opposite number. However, I am not in a position to make any concrete announcement today on the subject.
Defence Equipment Budget (Cost Overruns)
The most recent audited estimate of projected cost overruns in the defence equipment budget is a forecast increase of £1.242 billion in the financial year 2008-09, as reported in the 2008-09 annual report and accounts. These cost increases were virtually entirely attributable to two projects—the A400M aircraft and the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. I have no reason to suppose that this year there will be any such serious cost overruns. Nearly 90 per cent. of projects in the past two years have been delivered to cost.
In evidence to the Defence Committee, the Minister confirmed that at the start of the 2009 planning round the deficit in the equipment budget was £21 billion, and that at the start of the 2010 round it was £6 billion. What is the present value of the deficit and how does he explain the £15 billion reduction?
Those are two separate questions. We are not in a position to go beyond the £6 billion figure at the moment, but we are working on the figures as part of the present planning round at the end of the financial year. This is a netting exercise as the hon. Gentleman will understand. There may be some projects for which we have over-provided and will be able to write back some provision, and some projects will be descoped for operational or other reasons, or cancelled for non-performance. It is therefore impossible to predict the exact position at the end of the financial year.
As for the reduction in the forward projected deficit of £21 billion last year to £6 billion, that £15 billion was accounted for by several factors. In some cases, projects were repositioned in the pipeline until some later date, forgoing that capability for the time being. In the majority of cases, the reduction was because of the descoping of the programmes that we were undertaking anyway or an agreement to reduce the capability that we intended to order—
If I may be allowed a word in edgeways, it was not until recently that Ministers admitted to the Select Committee on Defence that there was any deficit. Indeed, it was only a short time ago—less than a year— that the Minister for defence equipment and support, addressing a conference called “Punching Above the Budget: A Prospect seminar”, said, “There is no…deficit.” So why have the Government now admitted that there is a deficit? It has been common knowledge among everybody who knows anything about defence that the Government have a programme far too large for their budget, so why did they not admit that years and years ago?
The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the quotation that he has attributed to me was in relation to the last financial year, when there was not a significant deficit. The point that I have just made about the long-term deficit, as opposed to—[Interruption.] He obviously cannot understand the difference between a long-term deficit, going out to 10 years, and a current deficit, in the course of one year. If he cannot understand that, he will have to ask one of his hon. Friends to explain it to him.
One of the affected programmes is the Nimrod MR2 programme, which has been withdrawn and replaced by the Nimrod MRA4. There is now a gap between the two that will impact on search and rescue capability. When will the Ministry of Defence update the House on which fixed-wing aircraft will perform that task for long-range cover capability, and say what its range, radar and communication capability will be?
The answer is that a number of assets, not all of them fixed wing—some may be helicopters—will fill that gap.
The £1.2 billion cost overrun to which the Minister has referred constitutes yet another damning indictment of this Government’s pathetic stewardship of defence procurement throughout their time in office. It is interesting how little support he has from his own Back Benchers today. Where are they all? Does the Minister not accept that it is utterly irresponsible for the Government’s lamentable performance to be compounded by rushing through major project decisions in the dying days of this decaying Government? Does he not realise that although he might think he can buy votes in marginal seats by promising kit that he will not have to pay for, he will be bitterly disappointed when we win the next election?
All that electoral rhetoric is completely at odds with the facts. I have already explained that the deficit was due to two things, one of which is the A400M programme. That was the result of technical problems on the part of the supplier; it had nothing to do with the competence or otherwise of this Government. That is one of those things that, as the hon. Gentleman ought to know—and he does know, of course—invariably happens with new generations of military aircraft. As for the carriers, we made a deliberate decision not to bring forward that capability earlier than we needed it. By doing that we released quite a lot of current cash, which we needed to spend on more urgent items. That was good management; it was none of the things that the hon. Gentleman described it as being.
The UK armed forces are operating in Afghanistan as part of the 43-nation international security assistance force. ISAF forces are conducting security and stability operations throughout the country in support of the Afghan Government. We are supporting the growth in capacity and capability of the Afghan security forces. Our armed forces, alongside our ISAF partners, also play an important role in facilitating and protecting improvements in governance and socio-economic development.
I cannot get to a higher class than to have the Secretary of State reply to my question. Can he give me and the House an update on the deployment of mine detection and improvised explosive device-clearance systems, and on the Talisman project, which I understand was scheduled for initial fielding in late 2009?
I am aware of how important the class of the people whom he mingles with is to the hon. Gentleman. We have stepped up our efforts on countering IEDs over a long period, as the Taliban have increasingly relied on that capability to attack our forces. We have doubled the counter-IED force in theatre, and we have tried to get various new pieces of kit and equipment, including Talisman, which is operating in Afghanistan, into theatre. However, the big thing that we need to do is tackle the IED networks, through the increased use of intelligence, so that we can be proactive in taking apart the networks that seek to target our troops.
Is there to be a full inquiry into the NATO airstrike on Sunday that resulted in many civilian deaths—more than 30—following other civilian deaths? Is that the way to win hearts and minds? Increasingly, one understands the decision taken by the Government of Holland.
The recent incident took place in Oruzgan province, as my hon. Friend knows. He also knows—or should know—that the ISAF commander has apologised for those deaths. Every time I hear General McChrystal speaking, particularly to his own forces, he is really hard on this issue. Every civilian death is one too many, and he tries to hammer that through at every level and on every occasion. If we are to win this campaign, we have to win it in the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, and making every effort to reduce civilian deaths is his absolute priority. I believe that that is the right priority for him to have.
Given that stability has slipped significantly in previously secure areas such as Kunduz and Herat, and that there are Taliban shadow governments in every Afghan province, what is the coalition’s strategy for decreasing the strength of the insurgency across the country as a whole, beyond the southern area that is the focus of the current military operation?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the insurgency has looked to increase its capability throughout the country, and that it has enjoyed some success in certain areas. The feeling is that the insurgency has to be confronted in its heartland, and that the main effort therefore has to be made in the central Helmand valley. That is currently taking place through Operation Moshtarak, which is progressing fairly well in terms of taking the areas concerned away from Taliban control. The commander of the ISAF has also said that his other priorities are to clear the routes to enable people to travel freely on the main routes in Afghanistan, and to tackle the insurgency in Kandahar, which he will probably move on to soon.
The last thing we want to do is to peg people to a timetable in that regard. Our handing over security control to the Afghans in any district or province has to be based on capability, and on their ability not only to take the lead in security in the first instance but successfully to prosecute that lead thereafter. The last thing we want to do is to hand over any district or province prematurely, as that could set the Afghans up for a setback. Capability has to be the key concern. Of course we want to make progress, and we need to be able to show progress in this next year, but we do not want to impose an artificial timetable in any particular area.
Public support at home for our armed forces in Afghanistan is vital for our long-term success, which is why we must give constant reassurance that NATO seeks at all times to minimise civilian casualties—which we do. However, with 80 per cent. of civilian deaths due to direct Taliban activity, with clear successes in recent operations, and with international co-operation resulting in a substantial reduction in al-Qaeda and Taliban capability in Afghanistan and Pakistan—including the loss of many of their military chiefs—why are the Government still failing to get a more positive and balanced message across to the British public? The British people need to see more than just casualties on our side if we are to keep them with us supporting our troops in their mission. What do the Government intend to do to win hearts and minds in Britain, too?
I genuinely do not accept what the hon. Gentleman has just said. We have made great strides recently, and to some effect, in terms of reassuring people about what we are doing, why we are doing it and how we are doing it, and about the success that we are having. There has been some excellent reporting of the recent Operation Moshtarak in central Helmand. Yes, of course, there has been some misleading reporting —as ever—but the majority of it has been first class, and people have been able to see what we have done and how we have done it, and the degree of success that our people have had.
In the Ministry of Defence, we have recently employed General Messenger, who has commanded in Afghanistan, as a spokesperson who can contact the media on a regular basis and provide in-depth briefings—both on and off the record—on how we are conducting our operations in Afghanistan.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) is wrong: the Dutch Government have taken no decision on Afghanistan; they have simply collapsed on account of Afghanistan. Does that not send out a slight warning signal that we perhaps need a little less military confrontation, with all its collateral damage that does so much harm to our good name in Afghanistan, and much more political and diplomatic containment?
We need political progress in Afghanistan, which is vital, and we need to deliver it through the Afghan Government. However, the last thing that we want is to provide anything other than reintegration, reconciliation and political progress, but we will not achieve it from a position of weakness. The Afghan Government still depend on ISAF for their basic position, and they will do so for some time while we grow the capability of the Afghan national army and the Afghan national police. Of course we should emphasise the political and development side of these operations, as they are vital at the end of the day.
University Training Units
The Government fully recognise the value of the university royal naval units, the officer training corps, the university air squadrons and the defence training undergraduate scheme, which allow individuals to develop skills that are extremely valuable in future careers either within or without the armed forces. There are currently no plans to change the role of the university training units.
I remind the House of my interest. Just one month before the start of the new training year, OTCs and Territorial Army units are yet to have next year’s training budget confirmed. That forms a major problem for the commanding officers of those units, and it is a problem that the Armed Forces Minister recognised on 26 October, when he said that
“it is incumbent on us in the Ministry of Defence to reach conclusions on the budget for 2010 as quickly as possible”.—[Official Report, 26 October 2009; Vol. 498, c. 140.]
Four months on, we still do not know, so will the Minister simply confirm that all budgets will be in place before 1 April?
The reductions in university OTCs—on training, for example—were made on the recommendation of the head of the Army in order to make in-year savings. I accept that they have caused some problems for individual units. We reinstated the moneys for the trainers, but decisions on this year’s budget are ongoing within the MOD and will be announced in due course.
What effect does the Minister believe cuts in university training programmes and cuts in the training of those already serving in the armed forces will have on the long-term skills and capability of our men and women who serve in uniform? Is not the fact that the Government have brought these proposals forward another damning indictment of their mismanagement of the defence budget and the impact it has on the armed forces?
The decision to reduce or take away pay in the OTCs was taken on the recommendation from the head of the Army to make in-year savings. Costs are involved in supporting undergraduate schemes across the three armed forces, so if we are to ensure that we have a balanced defence budget and a balanced defence force, all factors need to be taken into consideration. If the hon. Gentleman wants to ensure that money goes directly into university schemes, I challenge the hon. Gentleman to say, first, where it will come from and, secondly, whether it will affect other parts of the defence budget?
As a member of the university air squadron when I was an undergraduate, I am well aware of the vital role that these schemes play in recruiting for our armed services. The Minister has just told us that the head of the Army proposed cuts in the training budget, so what assessment has he or his Department made of the impact it will have on the number of recruits coming through these schemes, and what cost will fall on the Army if such recruitment no longer takes place?
As I have said, this is a recommendation for in-year savings this year. Again, I will challenge the hon. Gentleman: if a future Conservative Government wish to ring-fence this area, they can, but they will have to say what would give in the defence budget. In terms of the strength of the UOTCs, the establishment for 2009 was 2,946 and the establishment at the moment is 3,500.
While I welcome the Minister’s support for university training units, I am none the wiser after the last three answers as to how that valuing of them will be turned into real action or which of the unique training opportunities that those units provide will be preserved and which the Minister thinks can simply be dispensed with.
The hon. Gentleman has to realise that the concentration is on current operations in Afghanistan. In November last year, the head of the Army instigated a review of the UOTCs. The reference group that he has set up includes the chair of the Council of Military Education Committees of Universities of the UK. It is important that, under its terms of reference, the steering group looks at everything that the UOTCs do to ensure that they are effective for the Army and provide value for the taxpayer.
The memo from HQ Land dated 12 October, which leaked in-year cuts to the OTC, warned of downstream implications for officer recruitment. Ominously, it went on to say that because money was so tight, there may be further cuts in the pipeline to be discussed with Ministers. Given that the MOD’s financial position since October cannot be said to have improved, will the Minister say what further discussion he has had on cuts to cadet forces, which the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), would probably call “descoping”? Given that the nature of recent conflict requires us to have more able people in military leadership roles than ever before, may I press the Minister for a proper assessment of not only the likely damage to recruitment numbers but also the military effect of his gross budgetary short-termism?
I assume from what the hon. Gentleman suggests that this is yet another uncosted commitment from the Conservatives. The proposal was put forward by the head of the Army. The head of regional forces has set up a study into the OTCs, which will report by June this year. It includes not only the financial implications, but how the OTCs are structured and how they will go forward. A similar exercise is being done for the Royal Navy and the RAF. That is a proper way of listening to our military commanders’ advice about what is fit for purpose in the long term, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to state today that a future Conservative Government will ring-fence money for the UOTCs, he will need to tell taxpayers and voters come the election where else in the defence budget money will come from.
UK armed forces continue to play an integral role in the command and control of EU, NATO and coalition counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia.
We are determined to play our part, through the Royal Navy, and in close co-operation with other Government Departments and countries, to tackle piracy and to protect legitimate trade and transport.
We strongly welcome the commitment from the Government of the Seychelles, which was encapsulated in the Djibouti announcement, to consider hosting a regional counter-piracy chamber to prosecute pirates within their national jurisdiction. One of the key challenges that we face is ensuring that prosecutions can take place locally and regionally, and we will continue to press partners in that direction.
I wholeheartedly agree with the right hon. Gentleman. While I understand where people who desire the payment of ransoms are coming from, in the longer run it would simply lead to greater problems and more kidnappings—it would store up problems for the future. The Government are therefore right to resist the payment of ransoms.
Along with some colleagues, I was out in the Gulf in the summer recess, and I encourage my hon. Friend and Opposition spokespersons to do the following. When the Labour party is returned to government after the next election, there will be hundreds of new MPs, and I ask that every Front-Bench spokesman writes to every new Member suggesting that they join the armed forces parliamentary scheme. It is important to do that, because the scheme is about not only front-line services but what the armed forces do for this country.
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. I know many colleagues on both sides of the House who have taken part in that scheme. Indeed, there is a dinner this evening, hosted by Mr. Speaker, that both the Secretary of State and I will attend. It is a genuinely worthwhile scheme that brings home very practically to Members across the House the reality of life in the armed forces.
I heartily endorse what has been said about the armed forces parliamentary scheme, even though some of my Liberal Democrat opponents do not. Returning to the subject of piracy, however, the Minister spoke about playing a part, but since the policy of releasing pirates after simply confiscating the equipment with which they were proposing to commit piracy has been so widely practised, what are we doing, other than playing a part, to deter piracy? Can the Minister confirm that the new proposals he has mentioned will mean an end to the policy of stopping pirates and then releasing them unharmed and able to carry on with their mischief?
I do not want to intrude on the private grief between the hon. Gentleman’s party and the Liberal Democrats—and, in any case, I am unsure of its provenance. In respect of piracy, where there is credible evidence, we seek to move towards prosecutions, but where such evidence does not exist, we have to act differently. However, we are giving a wide range of assistance to maritime shipping passing through the gulf of Aden, and it is important to make it clear that since December 2008 only one merchant vessel that was registered with the Maritime Security Centre (Horn of Africa) and that was operating in accordance with best practice has been seized by pirates. That is the result of the actions that we and other partners are taking to tackle this problem.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a connection between piracy and the funding of terrorism, and also that piracy off the horn of Africa is one of a lengthening list of defence issues in Africa? Therefore, is it not now time that NATO developed a policy towards Africa, by bringing all those matter together within a formal relationship with the African Union?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that there is a link between the piracy challenge and the military challenges we face, but there is also the issue of the appalling human rights situation and lack of government in Somalia, and we therefore need to work across Government Departments and with our international partners to tackle the problem at source. Yes, there is a military component to this, and we are enforcing that very effectively, but there need to be political changes in the region as well.
The UK, alongside the rest of the international community, supports the Afghan Government in their plans to reintegrate disaffected Afghans into mainstream society, providing that they pursue their goals peacefully, within the constitutional framework, and have no ties to terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.
I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees with me that, in dealing with conflicts, one can learn a lot from history. What historical precedents are the Government using to guide their strategy in Afghanistan, and how do those precedents serve to lead the Government to their conclusions?
In operations such as that in which we are involved in Afghanistan, reintegration of at least parts of the insurgency is a legitimate and appropriate way to proceed. It is not only a case of building up the Afghan national capability so that the Afghans are able to protect their own country from the insurgency. There are also parts of that insurgency that do not share all the goals of some of the leadership, and we ought to recognise that and work to peel off those people where that is appropriate, such as where they are involved in their activities for money or because of local grievances. We therefore encourage the Afghan Government to do precisely that.
My right hon. Friend will realise that the one big difficulty that former farmers who became Taliban fighters would have is that if they were to go back over to the side of the Afghan Government, they would want assurances that the Afghan forces will guarantee their safety and that of their family, and that the Taliban will not return and take retribution. Does he understand that that is the crucial part in building confidence among the Afghan people?
Providing safety for insurgents who are prepared to lay down their weapons and behave peacefully is an important part of reintegration. If that is what they are prepared to do, this is about providing safety from our own forces in terms of giving them reassurance, and being able to protect them from insurgents who continue to present a problem. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that that will be a key concern of anybody who is preparing to turn away from the Taliban insurgency.
One of the contributions of the Dutch in Afghanistan has been working effectively with civilians in the areas in which they have been operating. If the Dutch pull out of Afghanistan, how will that work be compensated for? What are the Government doing to ensure that there are no further pull-outs from the NATO coalition, as they would be so damaging to the prospects in Afghanistan?
We need to see this issue in the light of the overall picture. Some 43 nations are now involved in the coalition, so it has widened over the years. Separate from the American uplift announced in response to General McChrystal’s report, we have managed to secure 9,000 non-American additional forces. So there have been moves in the right direction on the international effort in Afghanistan, but we will need to replace the Dutch leadership in Uruzgan province if the Dutch go ahead with their pull-out from Afghanistan.
But does the Secretary of State not accept that this is a matter not just of numbers, but of the quality of commitment and effectiveness, and that in those regards the Dutch forces have been exemplary? If they pull out, that will inevitably have a consequence for the overall capability of NATO in Afghanistan.
The Dutch forces have been superb in terms of both numbers and capability over a period of time. We have done everything we can to encourage the Dutch to continue to make whatever contribution they are prepared to make. However, their commitment was time-limited and we have seen what has happened in terms of Dutch political decisions. I can only repeat that while we have seen these decisions being taken, other nations have been prepared to increase their contributions and new nations have joined the international security assistance force. We need to have balance in our views on this, because there has been a huge increase in troop commitments across the board.
The Royal Navy continues to meet all its operational tasking and remains extremely busy in support of current operations and standing commitments. The Royal Navy remains flexible and dynamic in its ability to respond to unforeseen events and emergent tasking.
I thank the Minister for his response, but will he make a statement on the future role of equipment in the Royal Navy, including HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Queen Elizabeth? How will they fit into the United Kingdom’s future national security interests?
May I say to the hon. Gentleman that we remain determined that the wishes of the Falkland islanders should be paramount? We have transformed our military presence since 1982 and we maintain an appropriate deterrence force on the island and in the south Atlantic, comprising a range of land, air and maritime assets. Of course, we keep our military presence under constant review to ensure that the islands are properly protected.
In view of what the Minister has just said, will he confirm not only that the Government are paying attention to the interests of the Falkland Islands and the south Atlantic but that the Royal Navy has the ability to protect all 16 of our British overseas territories, wherever they might be throughout the world?
I know that my hon. Friend has taken a real interest in these issues. Indeed, we discussed them when I visited Plymouth, Devonport a couple of weeks ago. The future surface combatant is expected to build on the capabilities of the existing Type 22 and Type 23 multi-purpose frigates that it will replace. It is an integral part of the balanced fleet required to support the UK’s future defence commitments, and we will be making an announcement on the issues very shortly.
That is a large and significant challenge. It has a political dimension in tackling the root causes of piracy, and the £21 million a year we are investing through the Department for International Development is extremely important in that. We also need to provide advice to vessels on implementing effective self-protection. Critically, we also offer group transit to vulnerable vessels using the internationally recognised transit corridor, which is protected by international forces.
The seas around the Falkland Islands are part of British overseas territories. Is it not the duty of any British Government to do all that is necessary to give adequate protection to vessels, companies and individuals who carry out legitimate business in these waters? Is it not also the case that no amount of intimidation from Buenos Aires can alter what is a fundamental issue of self-determination? Will he also tell us what communication Defence Ministers have had with their opposite numbers in Argentina to make all this crystal clear?
There has been no change whatsoever to our policy. We have no doubt about the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, and there has been no change in our support for the Falkland Islands’ legitimate right to develop a hydro-carbon industry within their waters. We do take, have taken and will take whatever steps are necessary to protect the Falkland Islands, and our counterparts in Argentina are aware of that. We continue to have a bilateral relationship and we use every avenue within that relationship to get those messages across.
Given the renewed tension in the south Atlantic, the huge upsurge in piracy already mentioned, the challenges of energy security and the fact that 92 per cent. of Britain’s trade goes by sea, just how big a mistake was it for the Government to cut our surface fleet from 35 destroyers and frigates to about 20, and to cut the number of our attack submarines from 12 to eight and now, probably, to seven? Do they regret what they have done to the Royal Navy?
Our forces today are much more capable, and that has enabled us to make the changes we have made. I hear a lot of noise from the Opposition but the hon. Gentleman needs to recognise, acknowledge and admit that his party is not committed to one extra penny of defence expenditure compared with the amount to which we are committed. Hollow words provide no conviction whatsoever.
Strategic Defence Review
The commitments identified in the 1998 strategic defence review have evolved over the intervening period to reflect the changing strategic setting and the experience of operations. Successive spending reviews have provided resources to fund these.
The Gray review describes the Government’s procurement system as “sclerotic” and “substantially overheated”. Does the Secretary of State accept that the failure to hold a strategic defence review in the past 12 years has contributed significantly to that?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have updated the strategic defence review over the intervening period. He ought at least to acknowledge that the Government commissioned the Gray report in order to assess exactly where we are regarding defence acquisition. We have responded to the report with some pretty far-reaching proposals on defence acquisition reform, which we recently announced to the House as part of the Green Paper package.
Iran’s military capability is primarily defensive in nature with offensive capabilities intended to provide deterrence to any potential aggressor. Many of Iran’s conventional platforms are old, predating the 1979 Islamic revolution. Despite Iran’s efforts to procure and produce spares to supplement existing platforms with new equipment, they do not present a significant conventional threat to our or our allies’ interests. We are, however, committed to working with the international community to ensure that the difficult issue of Iran’s nuclear ambition is resolved through diplomacy.
The Secretary of State will well know that the nuclear issue is the focus of attention. What concerns me is whether the military preparations in Iran are sufficient to give it the flexibility to make a conventional attack on any of its neighbouring countries. We saw the loss of life during the Iran-Iraq war, which was horrendous, and we saw the Iranian Government’s lack of value of life. Could that happen again and is there a strategic threat to the United Kingdom’s interests?
We would like to encourage Iran to be a good neighbour, to take its part in the region and to be a positive force in that regard. Notwithstanding what I have said about its conventional capability eroding over time and about its not being able to maintain that capability, we have seen it create difficulties through proxies for its neighbouring countries. We would ask it seriously to reconsider that and to join the international community in providing a secure environment for the region. That would be in the interests of Iran as well as the wider middle east.
My Department’s responsibilities are to ensure that our country is properly defended now and in the future and that our service personnel have the right equipment and training to allow them to succeed in the military tasks in which they are engaged at home or abroad.
Will the Secretary of State find time to look into the issue of so-called friendly fire deaths? That cause of death has been alluded to in at least one soldier’s death recently. Will the Minister make absolutely sure that his Department is completely open about these matters, and urge our allies to do the same, so that relatives can find out the truth without long delays and can take up such matters as they wish?
I hope that we are. Not only do we deploy our own internal methods to expose the facts in such cases, but we use and increasingly value the coroner service and its investigative procedures to expose to the loved ones of those who have lost their lives the circumstances of their deaths. That is as important if they have lost their lives to opposing forces as if they have lost their lives to friendly forces in an accident in the operational theatre.
May I thank the Secretary of State for the forthcoming briefing on piracy at Northwood? Was it really wise of the Government to agree that piracy should be downgraded from an act of war to a criminal offence? Is the Minister satisfied that the rules of engagement for our naval commanders are sufficiently robust, given that vessels are from time to time seized almost under the noses of our Navy?
The hon. Gentleman takes a real interest in these issues, and the changes to which he refers enable us, in the right circumstances, to have more effective prosecutions. It is just not true, where we have had an ability to act through the Royal Navy to protect lives and not to put them at risk, that we have not taken such action.
The Green Paper was designed to ask the questions and provoke the kind of debate that is necessary within the Department, the wider Government and the nation as a whole in the run-up to a strategic defence review. I believe that all the main parties in the House are now committed to having a strategic defence review after the next election. Exactly how we conduct that is yet to be decided, but a lot of preparatory work has been commissioned through the Green Paper process, and that work is ongoing.
Tackling improvised explosive devices is the highest priority for the military and the Ministry of Defence. We do everything we possibly can; we are increasing resources; and we will look at the limit to which the hon. Gentleman refers to ensure that everything possible can be done.
Will the Minister say a word about the future of RAF Church Fenton, which is the proud home of Yorkshire Universities Air Squadron, and its parent base, RAF Linton-on-Ouse, which is home to 500 RAF personnel and 600 civilians whose future appears to be under review?
I know that my hon. Friend is concerned about this issue on behalf of his constituents, but RAF Church Fenton and its parent base—RAF Linton-on-Ouse—currently provide UK military flying training. As he knows, the future roles of those stations are under review. No decisions have yet been taken on the involvement of individual sites that are under review as part of the programme, but I am more than happy to talk to him about the detail of these issues.
If the hon. Gentleman thinks he knows better than those who are commanding our operations in Afghanistan, that is a matter of his own opinion. I do not share his view. The commander of the international security assistance force flagged the ongoing operation well in advance to ensure that we could carry out his priorities: to gain control of the area and to provide security for the people, with the minimum of damage and loss of civilian lives. None the less, we managed to achieve tactical surprise. We did not allow the enemy to know exactly where we were going or exactly when we were going there. So I urge the hon. Gentleman not to listen to some of the reporting of these operations, which have been extremely effective. We have achieved all our goals on the Task Force Helmand side of the line—the Americans are still experiencing some resistance—and we have done that very effectively, impacting minimal damage on the infrastructure in the area and minimal civilian casualties.
At the Munich security conference the other week, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said that Russian military doctrine now saw NATO as its principal foe. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is time that Moscow pressed its own reset button and started to work with us as allies and partners, rather than future enemies?
We would welcome a reappraisal by Russia of its attitude towards NATO. There is no reason for the Russians to adopt the line that they have, and any reappraisal or softening of their position with regard to what they perceive as the threat would be most welcome and beneficial to themselves as well.
I am concerned that the hon. Gentleman raises the issue. It was raised by the Defence Committee in its report about three years ago, and I worked with my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) when she was a Minister at the Department for Children, Schools and Families to ensure that statements are portable. If the hon. Gentleman has an example of one that is not portable, I should like to see it, please.
Chapter 6 of the defence acquisition strategy which accompanies the Green Paper says that
“industry needs to play its full part in helping to address the problems this strategy is seeking to tackle.”
What scope is there for companies such as Babcock Marine, which has its headquarters in Plymouth, Devonport, to participate in such partnership work?
We consult on a continuous basis formally and informally with industry on these matters. I must not comment on corporate issues currently in the media.
I can go further than that. We have had a very successful campaign with the Electoral Commission and the Ministry of Justice to ensure that people register for service voting. The level is now at 65 per cent. Can we do more? Yes, we can. We have also put in place emergency provision whereby postal votes for those serving in Afghanistan are given special priority.
The two RAF stations have a future, but rightly, we must look at the most efficient way of operating our assets. I made the point earlier that the Opposition are not committed to spending a penny extra on defence issues. Such criticisms therefore ring somewhat hollow.
Has the Secretary of State approached Germany, a wealthy NATO member with relatively few troops on the ground in Afghanistan, for cash contributions towards countries such as ours with a large commitment, and if not, why not?
There are well over 4,000 troops from Germany in Afghanistan, and Germany only recently agreed to increase its contribution to the Afghan training effort with an additional 500 troops. Although we would always want all our allies to do more, let us not underestimate the contribution that is being made.
In the earlier exchanges about the Falkland Islands, no mention was made of Ascension Island and how important that is to the Falklands effort. May I invite the Government to look at the potential strategic importance of the island of St. Helena, also in the south Atlantic, which could be an alternative, should things get hot again in that part of the world?
Why is it that after Bosnia, the UK virtually led the field in mine clearance, with the exception of the South Africans, yet we virtually gave away the very effective Chubby sets and now we are behind all other armies and three years behind the Canadians? Was that not a terrible mistake, which has led to unnecessary loss of life in Afghanistan?
I do not accept the hon. Lady’s remarks at all. We are, in my view, at the forefront of technology in mine clearance and counter-IED effort, and we are collaborating closely on the basis of complete transparency with our key allies in Afghanistan.
Bearing in mind the enormous debt that we owe to those who laid down their lives in the two world wars and the conflicts since, will the Minister support a private Member’s Bill, which I propose to introduce on 10 March, to close all shops on Remembrance Sunday, just as they are closed on Christmas day?
I have a brief statement to make on a matter of privilege.
On 10 February the Joint Committee on Human Rights made a report to both Houses on a possible contempt. It concerns an attempt to influence the views of certain members of the Committee shortly before it considered a draft report directly relevant to the chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
I have considered a letter from the Chair of the Joint Committee and the report, and I have decided that they raise issues that justify me in giving precedence to a motion relating to them. Accordingly, if the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) tables such a motion, it will be taken as first business tomorrow.
As is customary, I do not intend to take points of order on this matter, or to allow any further discussion on this matter before it comes before the House for decision.
British Passports (Dubai)
(Urgent Question): To ask the Foreign Secretary if he will make a statement on the use of fake British passports by persons implicated in the murder of Mr. Mahmoud al-Mabhouh; the timing of the Government’s knowledge of the incident; the process of establishing the facts related to the issue; and the implications for British passport holders.
Although new facts continue to emerge, let me set out the facts as we know them.
On 19 January, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was killed in Dubai. The first press reports about the death appeared on 28 January. On 31 January, the Emirati authorities confirmed to our officials press reports that European—I repeat, European—passports had been used, and undertook to provide us and others with further details as their investigation proceeded. That was followed up by embassy officials in Dubai and Abu Dhabi on several occasions. On 12 February, the Emirati authorities informed UK officials in London that UK passports might—repeat, might—have been involved. On 15 February, they confirmed that and provided the details of six British passports involved. Soon after, on the same day, they provided a full briefing to the media.
On 17 February, the Prime Minister announced a full investigation by the Serious Organised Crime Agency. On 21 February, the Foreign Secretary spoke to Abdullah bin Zayed, the Emirati Foreign Minister, who confirmed that they would be sending us details of at least a further two British passports that might have been involved. That information was received by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office today. It would be wrong of me to prejudge the SOCA investigation, but let me make it crystal clear that no part of the British Government, either Minister or official, had any foreknowledge of Mr. al-Mabhouh’s killing, the use of British passports in it or any clandestine operation being planned. To suggest otherwise is to make an irresponsible allegation without any basis in fact.
I know that there is considerable concern among hon. Members about the possible role of the Israeli authorities, so I should set out our exchanges with them. On 18 February, the Israeli ambassador came to the Foreign Office for a meeting with the permanent under-secretary, and earlier this afternoon my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met the Israeli Foreign Minister, Mr. Lieberman, in Brussels. My right hon. Friend underlined the deep discontent felt in this country, in this Government and in this House over this issue. He made it clear that we were concerned about the implications of the killing of Mr. al-Mabhouh for stability in the region. He stressed that we require full co-operation from the Israeli authorities with the SOCA investigation. He said that we stand ready to work with Israel on bringing stability and peace to the middle east, but that we can do so only on the basis of trust and mutual transparency.
Hon. Members are rightly also concerned about the incident’s impact on the British nationals involved. I can confirm that our embassy in Tel Aviv has been in touch with all six whose passports have already been reported as having been misused. We will do all that we can to ensure that they get the consular support that they need.
I am grateful to the Minister. Across the House, we are agreed that the misuse of British passports is a grave matter that must be prevented. I have three quick sets of questions.
On the timing, can the Minister clear up the discrepancy between the Dubai police saying on 30 January,
“we have the identities of the people involved”
“are approaching all the channels including embassies and consulates”,
and the Government’s insisting that they knew nothing of the forged identities until 16 days later? Was it simply that the police did not pass on those identities, what efforts were made to secure them, and why does the Minister think that the information was not supplied for so long? Yesterday, the Dubai authorities indicated that diplomatic passports may have been used by other suspects, without naming any other country. Is that the matter to which the Minister referred in relation to the information obtained from Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed yesterday?
On the wider implications, is the Minister concerned that relations with the United Arab Emirates have been damaged by these events? Our ambassador was summoned to its Foreign Ministry yesterday; can the Minister say what message was delivered? It has been reported that the cloned passports contained irregularities which could have marked them out as suspect. What plans are there to guard against the future fraudulent use of British passports?
Finally, looking to the future, have the Government sought, or has the Foreign Secretary sought in his meeting with Mr. Lieberman today, assurances from Israel, as a friendly nation, that it will not sanction, for whatever reason, including in any intelligence operations, the misuse of British passports?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. I should apologise on behalf of the Foreign Secretary, who would obviously have been giving this reply were it not for the fact that he is in Brussels for the Foreign Affairs Council and the meeting with Mr. Lieberman.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the discrepancy, as he called it, between what has been said about what information was provided on 31 January and on 15 February. Let me repeat that what had been said in the press, namely that some European—I repeat, European, and not specifically UK—passports might have been used, was confirmed to us on 31 January. It was not until 15 February that the Emirati authorities confirmed what they had said on 12 February only might be the case, namely that UK passports might have been used.
To answer directly the right hon. Gentleman’s question about whether the two passports to which I have been referring and the added information that we have provided today relate to the question of whether diplomatic passports might have been involved: no, that is not the point at issue.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise the matter of relations with the United Arab Emirates—an ally with which we want to work as closely as possible. We have sought to give full assurances that we had absolutely no foreknowledge of this situation. Any suggestions in the media that we might have had any foreknowledge are completely untrue and unjust. I think that our colleagues in the United Arab Emirates have taken our assurances in the spirit in which they were intended.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the future use of passports and what work needs to be done. I am very keen not to prejudge the SOCA investigation and, for that matter, the Emirati investigation, both of which need to be allowed to pursue their courses fully so that they can get to the bottom of all the matters involved.
There is widespread concern at the misuse of British passports, or cloned passports, in this matter, and I thank the Minister for his assurance that the authorities will continue to investigate it with the utmost thoroughness. However, there is even wider concern about the unlawful killing itself. I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary has communicated disquiet to the Israelis about this matter. I urge the Government to continue to do that, but not to lose sight of the wider picture: blockade of Gaza and the illegal settlements on the west bank, despite the best efforts of President Obama to dissuade Israel, are the greater issues. In putting pressure on the Israelis as best we are able, we must keep open a productive dialogue so that those wider issues can be pursued with the utmost diligence.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He is absolutely right: we consider ourselves to be a critical friend to Israel, and the emphasis is fully on both those words. That means that we have expressed very fully and regularly our unhappiness about the humanitarian situation in Gaza and what we believe to be unfair treatment of the Palestinians. We have also made it clear that we wholeheartedly disagree with the illegal settlements on the west bank and with the annexation of East Jerusalem. I should also say that the European Union made clear today its views on the killing, and we wholeheartedly supported its statements.
Will my hon. Friend tell me when the international community will take action to deal with the crimes committed by this rogue state of Israel, which sends out assassination squads; which, as I have seen for myself, imprisons and blockades 1.5 million people in Gaza in violation of the Geneva convention; and which persistently violates international law by building settlements in Jerusalem and on the west bank? If it were any other country, would we not by now have imposed sanctions and an arms ban?
My right hon. Friend speaks very forcefully on this issue, knows well the situation in Israel and has visited on many occasions, but I do not want to speculate about what may or may not be the precise facts of the situation. We need to ensure that the investigations conducted by SOCA and the Emirati authorities are pursued with diligence, and that the Israeli authorities co-operate fully with those investigations. As I said to the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), we make clear on a regular basis our opposition to some of the policies advocated by the Israeli Government that do not promote security for Israel or stability, as we see it, in the region.
Does the Minister not share the concern of many about the comments of senior members of Hamas that there could well be an escalation of violence between Hamas and the Israelis anywhere in the world? What can the Government, and specifically the Foreign Secretary in his discussions with Mr. Lieberman this afternoon, do to try to prevent such a happening?
Of course we oppose the militant position adopted by Hamas. We have said regularly that we would be only too happy to speak to Hamas if it were possible to do so once it had adopted the four conditions laid down by the Quartet. That is why we believe that situations such as this do not contribute to the middle east peace process. Nor, for that matter, do the attacks that have been undertaken by Hamas.
Will the Minister confirm that he has had a conversation with the Home Secretary or Ministers in the Home Office about the forging of passports? Last Friday, one of my constituents came to see me. He had received his new British passport, which had a picture of somebody 30 years younger than him—a completely different person. I am not suggesting that it was a forgery, because it was clearly a mistake, but the issue of passport forgery in this country is also very important.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. The integrity of the British passport system is absolutely vital to our security, and we are determined to do everything we can to ensure that we are ahead of the game in knowing what terrorists may try to do to undermine it. I have not spoken to the Home Secretary, but I have spoken to officials in the Home Office today, and one of the major points that the SOCA inquiry will need to investigate is how we can ensure that such a situation could not be repeated.
I cannot resist the temptation to say that if there are any passports in the Home Office with photographs of someone 30 years younger than myself, I should be very happy to receive one.
More seriously, what undertakings have the Israeli Government given about providing the co-operation that the British Government seek from them? Will Her Majesty’s Government make public either the results of any such co-operation or a failure to provide it?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is doubtless about to produce his election literature, and I hope that he will not use photographs that are 30 years old, although that is common practice among some of his colleagues.
As the right hon. and learned Gentleman says, we need to ensure that we have full co-operation with the SOCA report from the Israeli authorities. When speaking to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary this afternoon, the Israeli Minister was left in absolutely no doubt about that, as was the ambassador when he came to see the permanent under-secretary last week.
Prisons (Early Release)
With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the release of prisoners under the early release scheme, which is known as the end-of-custody licence. The scheme will be brought to an end on 12 March this year. All prisoners who are eligible for release on ECL on or before 12 March will be so released. Prisoners who have, as of today, been formally notified, under form ECL3, of release dates under the scheme up to and including 9 April, will also be released. No prisoners will be released on ECL from and including 10 April.
In the past 13 years, the prison population has increased dramatically. When I became Home Secretary in May 1997, the population stood at 60,300; the most recently published figure—that of 19 February—was 83,800. Predicting the prison population and matching places to meet demand has always been difficult and inevitably imprecise. I can certainly recall, during my first 18 years in the House, early release schemes on three separate occasions—in 1984, 1987 and 1991—when the Government of the day faced what amounted to crises in handling pressures on the prison population.
In June 2007, my predecessor as Justice Secretary, my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Falconer, introduced ECL to manage temporary pressure on the prison estate and to guarantee that prison places were available for all those sentenced to custody. ECL enabled prison governors, under existing prison rules, to release on licence up to 18 days before the end of their sentence offenders who had been given a determinate prison sentence of between four weeks and four years. The scheme specifically excluded offenders convicted of serious violent crimes or sexual offences subject to registration requirements; those who had broken the terms of temporary release in the past; and foreign national prisoners who would be subject to deportation at the end of their sentence. The scheme was later amended to exclude anyone convicted of terrorism-related offences.
ECL was explicitly introduced as a temporary measure. I have always said that we would end the scheme as soon as we could and recognised that, although necessary as a temporary measure, it was inherently unsatisfactory and potentially damaging to public confidence in justice—public confidence that is otherwise reasonably high and rising, particularly in the light of falling crime levels. I have told the House on a number of occasions that I would bring ECL to an end as soon as I judged that it was safe to do so. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has underlined that, for example on 7 May 2008, when he said at Prime Minister’s questions:
“When we have built up the number of prison places”
“86,000…we will make…decisions on the right thing…about early release.” —[Official Report, 7 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 696.]
We are now at that point, and we are there because we have worked hard to increase the capacity of the prison estate.
In consequence of the measures that we have taken, prisoners have not been held under Operation Safeguard in police cells since September 2008, or been held in court cells since February 2008. The House might wish to compare the situation with that in 1991 when, as I recall, a total of nearly 376,000 nights were spent by prisoners in police or court cells.
Twenty-seven thousand additional prison places have been provided since 1997, including 6,700 since April 2007. We now have well over 86,000 places by way of operational capacity, with headroom of around 2,500. We anticipate that withdrawing the ECL scheme will increase the prison population by between 1,000 and 1,200 prisoners. My assessment is that on the basis of our plans further to increase the capacity of the prison estate, we can safely manage the forecast prison population this year, in 2011-12 and beyond, and we are on track to provide a total of 96,000 places by 2014 through our capacity building programmes.
Given the headroom available in the estate, we are therefore in a position to end the scheme, but that does not mean that there is no longer pressure on prison places. The system continues to operate at levels that are close to capacity. I pay tribute to all those who work so hard to protect public safety and help offenders to turn their lives around.
Protecting the public is the first priority of this Government. We have acted decisively to tackle crime, and the use of prison has been central to that. Prison will always be the right place for the most serious, persistent and violent offenders, and it is vital if we are to protect the public properly. There are 75 per cent. more serious and violent offenders in prison now than in 1997, and people who commit serious offences are going to prison for longer. I recently announced that, as a result of decisions by the judiciary, the minimum tariff for murderers had been increased by three years, or 18 per cent. Indeterminate sentences have been introduced for the most dangerous offenders—more than 5,000 have been imposed by the courts in the first three years of the scheme—and we will continue to ensure that there are places for them.
At the same time, we have introduced tougher, more visible and more effective community sentences, and we are giving communities a say in the types of projects that offenders carry out. In the case of less serious offenders, such non-custodial sentences are often a better alternative to prison, in turning offenders away from crime and further cutting reoffending rates. However, whether a particular offender is to be given a non-custodial or a custodial sentence is, of course, always a matter for the judges or magistrates concerned, and not for Ministers.
We are also working hard to implement the findings of the Corston and Bradley reviews on women and mentally ill offenders. I am certain that in such cases diversion from prison is often the best approach for both the offender and the wider community. We will continue to examine the number of women and mentally ill people in prison.
As a result of the Government’s strategy, there has been an overall fall in crime of 36 per cent. since 1997. That is the most substantial and sustained reduction since the war. Violent crime is down by 41 per cent. according to the British crime survey, the most reliable measure, and the chances of being a victim are at their lowest for a generation. We have transformed the justice system into a public service that is focused on the needs of victims and the law-abiding majority, and we will continue to do so. I commend my statement to the House.
I thank the Justice Secretary for allowing me advance sight of his statement.
Conservative Members have been calling for an end to the Government’s reckless early release scheme for some time. In principle, therefore, the statement is welcome, but, as always with this Government, it is necessary to check the fine print. The House will recall that the introduction of the early release scheme was a direct result of the present Prime Minister’s failure. As Chancellor, he choked funding for the prison cells for which the Home Secretary had asked to provide the capacity that was required to meet official projections for the prison population. The consequence of that failure has been stark. Eighty thousand criminals were let out of jail early, including 15,000 violent offenders and two terrorists, and those released went on to commit 1,500 crimes, including several rape and murder offences.
Given that record, it is vital to bring the scheme to a close by providing the cells that are needed to house the prisoners and protect the public; yet, over the past six months, the Justice Secretary has shelved plans for a prison in north Wales and, more recently, for one in Dagenham. That leaves a gaping hole in the Government’s plans. Can the Justice Secretary confirm that, according to the Government’s own projections—taking account of planned increases in capacity—the prison population will still exceed operational capacity by July 2011? Those are his Department’s projections. Can he please confirm them?
Not only do we have the Department’s projections; I have personally received a letter complaining that the Justice Secretary has been warned by his own officials that the prison population will continue to rise without adequate capacity, and that that will create a crisis of overcrowding within two years. The Justice Secretary has a track record of ignoring Government legal advice. Can he say categorically that he has not received any official advice warning that ending early release cannot be sustained for more than a temporary period?
Today, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) has also released a written statement to the House, announcing a new contract that will promote the use of home detention curfews. The Minister is explicit. She says that the Government want
“courts and prison governors to make greater use of conditional bail and early release on Home Detention Curfew”.
It seems that the Justice Secretary gives with one hand and takes with the other, or perhaps his right hand does not know what his left hand is doing. Can he confirm what that means and whether we will in fact have more early release under another label? Let there be no doubt that this party wants an end to early release, but it would compound the recklessness of the scheme to end it if that can only be done temporarily, or to reintroduce it under another name.
On 9 February, I asked the Minister of State whether the Government had plans to end early release. She denied such plans, stating that the Government would end early release
“as soon as practically possible”.—[Official Report, 9 February 2010; Vol. 505, c. 742.]
In less than two weeks, what has rendered possible what was then practically impossible? The timing of the end of the scheme, just weeks before an election is called, only increases our fears that the Government are acting out of political desperation and not in the national interest. Is the Justice Secretary talking tough on crime before the election because he certainly does not care a bit if the result is tough on us after it?
The Opposition need to work out whether they are in favour of or against our ending the scheme. Only on Saturday, the Leader of the Opposition said that he wanted to see an end to the early release scheme. I assume that he took advice from his shadow Justice Secretary about whether it would be safe to do so before he said that. The projections up to 2015 for the future operational capacity of prisons are public. I have been supplying the hon. and learned Gentleman with as much additional information as I can in recent weeks by way of answers to parliamentary questions.
I have of course taken advice, but this is my responsibility. I have made what I regard as the safe judgment that it is appropriate to end the scheme now. Ever since it was introduced, the Conservatives have been calling for it to end. Back in October 2007, the Opposition went so far as to issue a public statement saying that early release should be ended immediately. That would have been irresponsible, because the figures did not back it up. Every week, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) and I examine the figures, and some weeks ago we came to the conclusion that it probably would be safe to end this scheme and that there would be sufficient headroom, not just tomorrow but in the future. We now judge it appropriate to end the scheme.
As for the examination of the basis of these proposals, I will not disclose official advice. It would be a strange constitutional doctrine under which Ministers had to explain the official advice that they have received. I am perfectly happy, however, to ensure that the full facts are made available for examination by the Justice Committee, because I am entirely comfortable about the responsible nature of the projections that we have made.
As for the hon. and learned Gentleman’s last point, which was frankly silly, when he spoke about so-called political desperation, the only desperation that I now see is that emanating from those on the Conservative Benches. Because the Opposition do not know what their policy is, and to the extent that they do know what it is, they change it—
Almost every week. Or, because in the case of justice policy the Leader of the Opposition says that he wants to increase the prison population, whereas his shadow Justice Secretary says that he wants to cut the population to 44,000, it is no wonder that the Opposition are facing, and are in panic about, a fast-diminishing opinion poll lead. We have acted sensibly.
Let me make this last point about the problems that we had in the summer of 2007. They were nothing as compared with the problems that arose repeatedly during the 1980s and 1990s. Such problems can arise because the actual prison population can vary significantly. If the hon. and learned Gentleman looks at the latest population projections for 2014, he will see that they differ significantly even from the projections of a year or two years ago. However, I repeat to the House: I am clear that we are taking a sensible and responsible approach for the medium term.
I also thank the Secretary of State for early sight of his statement. However, I notice from the statement that he is still trying to claim that crime has fallen under this Government because of their prison expansion policy. The truth is that crime started to fall in 1995, not 1997, and that it has fallen in all western European countries apart from Belgium, whether or not they have gone in for a massive prison-building programme. Will he not concede that although the chances of becoming a victim of crime have fallen substantially, as he said, the chances of becoming a victim of crime in this country are still far higher than the European average, and higher than in all western European countries except one? That is not a successful policy; it is an expensive failure.
I welcome the end of the early release scheme, but the problem with the Secretary of State’s statement is that he confirmed that the Government’s policy is still to increase the prison population towards 100,000. An extra 10,000 prison places will mean about £400 million a year in running costs. We all know that some offenders have to be in prison, but we also know that there are non-custodial sentences—restorative justice is the best example—that are better at reducing reoffending. The cost of restorative justice for the whole country would be only about £60 million. Why can the Secretary of State not accept the conclusion of the Shapland review, which is that restorative justice would be better value for money? In an interview with The Times on becoming Secretary of State, the right hon. Gentleman said:
“we cannot…build our way out of prison overcrowding”.
He was right then. What has changed now, apart from the looming election?
Let me take the Secretary of State through the detail of the figures. He said that the figures would allow headroom for a number of years, but they do not seem to fit with the figures that the Ministry of Justice gave the Prison Reform Trust last year. The prison population then was 111 per cent. of certified normal accommodation. Where, precisely, have the extra places come from? Is the Secretary of State just allowing more doubling up in cells, which is just another form of overcrowding?
I do not agree with the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) that the end of the scheme will reduce crime by very much, because the crimes committed in those 18 days would probably be committed anyway, 18 days later. However, I accept that the end of the scheme will reduce risks, because it means that fewer prisoners will be released without proper supervision. However, is not the real problem the reoffending rate of all prisoners? Two thirds of prisoners are reconvicted within two years of release, while 75 per cent. of young prisoners are reconvicted in that time. Does the Secretary of State not accept that the real problem is not earlier or later release, but the fact that too many offenders reoffend in the first place, regardless of whether prisoners are released early?
I readily acknowledge that crime has fallen since 1995. It is my judgment that it began to fall because of the rather more coherent policies that were adopted towards the end of the Conservative Administration, including an increase in prison building, and it has continued to fall because of that. I do not claim—I never have done—that having more prison places is the only factor that has led to falling crime. There have been others—much more effective policing; neighbourhood policing; a wider range of powers to deal with persistent antisocial behaviour; and reform of the youth justice system, plus other measures in education and health—all of which have borne down on offending.
However, I believe that there is a connection between the fact that the prison population has risen and the fact that crime has fallen. The hon. Gentleman will know that, in his own constituency, there were persistent offenders who represented individual crime waves, and that when they were locked up, crime went down. If he does not believe that, I suggest that he go through the local newspaper or the court records, and then tell the Cambridge Evening News which of those offenders he believes would be better out on the streets than inside. He owes it to his constituents to let them know about that well before the date of any general election.
The hon. Gentleman has conceded that our victimisation levels are now lower than they have been since the British crime survey started in 1981. If he wishes to make a comparison, he will see from the Eurostat figures that our levels of recording of crimes of victimisation are significantly better than in many other areas, and that the levels are falling.
So far as restorative justice is concerned, yes, I am an enthusiast, but none of these measures is a panacea. Yes, we need to get reoffending rates down, and we have been doing so; they are falling. The rate for young offenders is down 20 per cent., and we have seen a significant drop in the number of youngsters coming into the youth justice system for the first time. That is one of the reasons why there is less pressure on the youth justice estate, and that is very welcome. The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston has done great work in regard to women in prison, and their numbers have also gone down, not up.
Certified normal accommodation is nice to have, but the truth is that we cannot run an effective, efficient prison system by not having accommodation levels above CNA. All Administrations have used operational capacity, and we will continue to do so.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement today, including what he said about women prisoners and the mentally ill. I urge him to redouble the efforts of his Department to reduce offending and reoffending. If the example of violence reduction in Cardiff were followed right across England and Wales, would that not reduce the need for prison places and enable prisons to be used more effectively to reduce subsequent reoffending, as the Justice Select Committee has argued?
I strongly endorse what my right hon. Friend has said. This gives me an opportunity to commend the work of Professor Jonathan Shepherd in Cardiff. He has made a huge effort to cut down the incidence of violent crime in Cardiff, and also, when violent crime does take place, to reduce the injuries. His work has had a dramatic effect, and it should be studied and followed elsewhere in the country.
The Secretary of State is right to end the early release scheme, which is not a sound or evidence-based policy, but should not he and those on the Opposition Front Bench also recognise that the prison population will always expand to fill the places available? Making those places available is an expensive process that pre-empts resources that need to be used to prevent people from getting involved in crime, and in the addictions and alcoholism that are the source of much crime, in the first place. Will he look carefully at the Justice Committee’s report on justice reinvestment in that regard?
I will indeed look carefully at what the Justice Committee has said, and I hope to follow many of its recommendations. I am afraid, however, that I do not accept the basis of the right hon. Gentleman’s statement that the prison population expands to fill the places available. For example, that has not been the experience in respect of women’s prisons, which now have 800 spare places, thanks to the work of the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston on implementing the recommendations of the Corston review, with all-party support. That is very good. We are also reducing the number of mentally ill people in prison.
If the right hon. Gentleman cares to compare the latest prison population projections, which came out in August 2009, with those for the same years that were published in 2008 and 2007, he will see that—coincidentally with our increasing capacity—they have come down. Obviously, the closer we get to the end dates, the more reliable the projections are. I am pleased to reassure him that his central assertion is not borne out by the facts.
Will my right hon. Friend expand a little more on his thoughts on restorative justice, which the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) mentioned earlier? I visited Canada a couple of years ago with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and I met the chief of police for Toronto. He has real enthusiasm for restorative justice, whereby the offender meets the victim and learns what damage he or she has done to the victim’s life. Apparently, the reoffending rate in Toronto went down from about 80 per cent. to 35 per cent. as a result of that policy.
As I told the hon. Member for Cambridge, I am an enthusiast for restorative justice; I have seen it work. It is central to many of the non-custodial sentences available in the youth courts, and we are trying to extend it to the adult courts as well. Again, I should say that none of these proposals and measures will work in all circumstances. Restorative justice always requires the consent of the victim, without which it cannot take place. So far as its effectiveness is concerned, available assessments to date show that it does not necessarily have a significantly different effect on reoffending rates when compared with other disposals. It does, however, significantly increase the confidence of the victims; I regard that alone as a sufficient justification for it, but if we can get crime down as well, so much the better.
The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston has the happy task of finding another site, but I should tell the hon. Gentleman and the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) that finding sites is difficult—it always has been—because everybody says that they want more prison places unless and until it is suggested that such prison places be provided in their back yard, at which point they complain vocally. We looked at two sites in north Wales, one of which I judged to be really good, but the local community was not happy about it. Another site was judged to be less good, but we went for it. However, it has turned out not to be satisfactory, so we continue to look for a further site. A similar problem has arisen in Dagenham. Indeed, the only area in the country that has been willing to back its rhetorical calls for more prison places with pledges that sites will be found is east Lancashire, including the towns of Blackburn, Accrington, Burnley, Nelson and Colne.
I welcome what I think is a sensible and timely announcement, and I am sure that if there were more Members on the Opposition Benches, or indeed any Members on those Benches, they would do so, too. May I press my right hon. Friend a little further on what he said about the reduction of the women prison population and about some of the lessons that were clearly learned from that? Are there any things that he felt led to that reduction that could be actively transferred to the male prison population?
Yes, there are, but my hon. Friend has put me on the spot. I will have to write to her in some detail as the expert is in her place on my left. The key is about sentencer confidence. What we have managed to do—through the excellent work of the Corston report, followed by the excellent work of my ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston and as a result of the all-party consensus in favour of reducing the women’s prison population—is to build up sentencer confidence about the alternatives to prison. It is more straightforward with women prisoners, as many fewer women offenders who are potential candidates for custody have committed violent offences; whereas one of the principal reasons for jailing male prisoners is their propensity to violence. I will write to my hon. Friend with a better and more accurate answer.
The Justice Secretary is right to focus on public confidence, but he surely accepts that the public will not be truly confident until we genuinely and directly link prisoner early release with prisoner behaviour during their time as prisoners and the likelihood of them reoffending and being a danger to the public. Will the right hon. Gentleman work with me and others in the House to try to get honest sentencing at some time in the future?
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s key point. One criticism we all had about this early release scheme— the end of custody licence—was that if prisoners fitted the criteria, they had to be released, because that was the only way to operate the scheme. Other systems of early release—for example, home detention curfew—are very much dependent on good behaviour in prison and outside, and they work effectively.
On honesty in sentencing, which is a holy grail for all Administrations, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 requires sentences to spell out what they mean. Given that prisoners with determinate sentences serve a minimum of half the sentence, we could change the sentence denomination to say that when a four-year sentence is given, it would mean two to four years. We could put that into law. That may be sensible; indeed, that approach has been adopted for the indefinite sentence for public protection, where the tariff set is the minimum that has to be served. There is merit in that. However, it would not be sensible to imply that we were going to double the prison population, because there are not the places.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry to trouble you yet again, but can you help me please? Recently, Tories visited my constituency improperly for the fifth time without informing me—this time it was the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). They are ignoring your injunctions. They are either incompetent or wilfully and arrogantly holding your authority in contempt, and they are insulting Castle Point people, who expect us in this House to act with decency.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. The convention is clear, and I have reiterated it on innumerable occasions. The hon. Gentleman has made his point with his customary force. It is on the record and I dare say that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) will have heard it. I think that I need add nothing more. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.
It is always a slightly tricky business to seek to get ahead of oneself and to deal with a question that, at this stage, is hypothetical. It is not for me to have views, as the hon. Lady knows, but perhaps I can just speculate that in the light of the number of people who have expressed an interest in contributing to the debate, the scenario that she outlines seems unlikely to materialise. I think that we will leave it at that for the time being. We will proceed to the main business.
Report from the House of Commons Reform Committee on Rebuilding the House
[Relevant documents: The First Report from the Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons, Session 2008-09, on Rebuilding the House, HC 1117, and the uncorrected transcript of oral evidence taken before the Committee on 10 February 2010, HC 372-i.The First Report from the Liaison Committee, Session 2009-10, on Rebuilding the House: Select Committee Issues, HC 272.]
As the House will be aware, I have imposed a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions. I hope that the House will also understand that that limit will apply after the contribution by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). I call the Leader of the House.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of the report from the House of Commons Reform Committee on rebuilding the House.
This is going to be an important day in the history of reform of this House. If, as I hope, we take forward the reforms which we are debating today, this will be the most far-reaching package of reforms that has ever been agreed. We will debate the reforms today, and then we will return to these issues next week, on 4 March, to vote.
The House needs reform to give more power to Back Benchers and to give the House more power over the Government. And the House needs reform to help restore its reputation, which has been battered by the expenses revelations.
This is House business; it is not Government business. When we come to vote on Thursday next week, it will be a free vote for Labour Members, not a whipped vote.
Will the Leader of the House spell out in a little more detail how she envisages our business on next Thursday will be conducted? Will this be our sole business, followed by a vote, or will there be topical debates and other business beforehand? I know that the right hon. and learned Lady will agree that not only must there be a free vote, but as many Members as possible should vote, and it would therefore be extremely helpful if we were to have as much notice about this as possible.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I gave you advance notice of a matter relating to Standing Order No. 24B that causes me a good deal of concern. I tried to table a manuscript amendment because it seems to me that we must be able to ensure that an amendment can be put to this motion in order to guarantee that the Standing Orders are not simply with the Executive, but revert to the Speaker himself. I would be grateful if you would take that point on board, Mr. Speaker, because it lies at the heart of the debate we are about to engage in.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter, although I am not sure that I am all together grateful to him for raising it when he did, as the debate has already begun and, although the hon. Gentleman is not technically out of order, it is a little discourteous to raise a point of order when the Leader of the House has already started her speech. I hope we will not see a repetition of that, but let me address this matter as I understand it. I understand that the hon. Gentleman did, indeed, seek to table an amendment to the motion on the Order Paper, and what I say to him is that I think he will know from his extensive knowledge of procedure that Standing Order No. 24B provides that when such a motion is tabled
“in neutral terms, then no amendments may be tabled to it.”
I hope the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to make his substantive point later in the debate. Meanwhile, however, I call the Leader of the House.
I think it might be helpful if I get on with delivering my short speech, because, at the end of the day, it is for all hon. Members not to ask me what I think, but to work out for themselves what they think about the motions on the Order Paper. I will therefore press on with my speech, and then the right hon. Gentleman will be able to work out for—
I am very grateful to the Leader of the House, as what I want to say relates precisely to the point she has just raised. She said this would not be a whipped vote. We have had votes before that were said not to be whipped votes, but at which people bearing a striking resemblance to Government Whips were visible outside the Lobby giving general directions to Government party Members as to where they would like them to go. Will that happen on this occasion?
This is not going to be a whipped vote; it will be a free vote. If people want to accept advice from dear friends and colleagues of any political party, they can do so, but the serious point here is that this will not be a whipped vote. I should also point out that in some of the votes to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred, he will have seen that different members of the Government went into a different Lobby and, indeed, different members of the Whips Office went into a different Lobby, so the fact that there might be lively debate at the entrance to the Lobby does not mean votes are not free votes. I want it to be absolutely clear that, from our side, this will be a free vote, not a whipped vote, and there is nothing mysterious about that.
I want to set out to the House my views, in particular on the four key recommendations of the House of Commons Reform Committee. Before the general election, I want us to have done the following: to have approved and put in place plans to elect Chairs of Select Committees by secret ballot and to elect members of Select Committees by each party in the House by a secret ballot; to have provided for Members’ motions, where Members can table a debate on a motion that the House will vote on; and to have established a Committee of the House to decide on Back-Bench business. Those are the four key recommendations of the House of Commons Reform Committee that I would like the House to take through. These measures will mark a major step forward in the process of reform that has been under way over the past years, and which was given new impetus by the Prime Minister in his statement of 3 July 2007, when he said:
“All Members of this House and all the people of this country have a shared interest in building trust in our democracy, and it is my hope that, by working together for change in a spirit that takes us beyond parties and beyond partisanship, we can agree a new British constitutional settlement that entrusts more power to Parliament and the British people.”—[Official Report, 3 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 815.]
This process of reform has—
I am sorry to interrupt, because I know that my right hon. and learned Friend wishes to be brief in order to allow hon. Members to contribute. I believe that underlying much of the report without being mentioned—I have said this to the Committee—is the slippery slope to the separation of powers. Will she reaffirm that she and others in the Government do not want to see the Executive removed from this House and do not want to see the future of this House put in the hands of personalities who do not have the loyalty to values that they told their electorate they came in to share?
I do not think that the proposals from the Committee, which I am supporting, are the slippery slope to the separation of powers; what they are is an opportunity for this House to hold the Government more to account and to help in the work of this House.
Indeed, that process of reform has brought major changes over the past 13 years, including improvements in the process of legislation. Such improvements have included: Bills being published in draft, thus enabling pre-legislative scrutiny; Bill Committees taking evidence in public sessions before they deliberate on a Bill; and the establishment of a new system of post-legislative scrutiny, so that we check on the impact of legislation that the House has passed.
The changes have involved more power for Back Benchers, through their being able to ask a Minister questions without giving notice; through the election of the Speaker by secret ballot; through the Liaison Committee of Select Committee Chairs questioning the Prime Minister twice a year; and through the strengthening of Select Committees by increasing research resources and by paying Select Committee Chairs.
Progress has been made on getting greater public involvement in and understanding of this House. That has come about through a big improvement in our education and information programmes, and by allowing the UK Youth Parliament to meet in this Chamber. I hope we can build on that by letting other organisations, for example, the pensioners annual convention, to meet in our Chamber when we are not sitting.
No, I am not going to give way.
Improvements have been made to the way in which the House works, for example, we now have an earlier start and an earlier finish on two days of the week—we could still make more progress on this, and perhaps we will when the new Members arrive after the next election. We also now have an Order Paper that Members can understand and, thanks in large part to you, Mr. Speaker, we will at long last have a nursery for the children of Members and of House staff.
I am not going to give way to the hon. Gentleman. He really does not need to ask me any questions, because he can read the Order Paper, he can make his own speech and he can make up his own mind. I am sure that he has the answer to his own question.
So we are not starting from scratch. The proposals that the House will consider today and next week are not the beginning of reform, nor will they be the end of it. However, they are substantial reforms, and I should like warmly to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) for making the suggestion of setting up this Committee and for accepting the Prime Minister’s invitation that he should chair it. I should also like to thank the members of the Committee for working hard in a short space of time.
I know that many Members are waiting to speak, so I will not speak at great length today. In addition, this is House business, so it is important for all Members from all parts of the House to have their say. Members will have had the chance to see my written ministerial statement of 9 February and some will have had the opportunity to hear the evidence that I gave to the House of Commons Reform Committee on 10 February, and I have had the opportunity on successive Thursdays at business questions to set out my views. The Deputy Leader of the House and I will listen carefully to the debate, but at the end of the day—or at least at the end of 4 March—this is a matter for the House, not the Government, and it is for the House itself to decide. The Government are facilitators here, not deciders. Because we want to see further reform of the House, we have taken this forward by doing the following: bringing the motion to the House to set up the House of Commons Reform Committee— that was a Government initiative—tabling motions on 5 February, again that was a Government initiative; tabling this debate today; and providing for the votes next week.
I want to say a few words about the process that I have set out for making progress. The Committee reported at the end of November last year. We then identified 21 proposals that could be turned into motions and we have accordingly tabled 16 motions to give effect to those 21 proposals. We tabled those motions 17 days before this debate to give plenty of time for hon. Members to consider them and to table and support amendments.
I have told the House that, in particular, we want to see the four “big ticket” items taken forward. There are, therefore, on the Order Paper motions that would, if passed, mandate further work or give effect to those four big ticket items by making the changes to Standing Orders and other changes that are required. I thought that it was important to have those motions on the Order Paper today for three reasons. First, they constitute the Government’s response to the Reform of the House of Commons Committee’s report. Secondly, they frame the debate today. Thirdly, when we conclude the debate tonight we have the opportunity for at least some of the motions—if everyone agrees to them—to go through on the nod. By leaving the substantive votes to next week, I have spared the House the prospect of starting what might turn into a series of 20 or more votes at 10 o’clock tonight.
I do not think that it is in the interest of the House for us to be voting until 5 o’clock in the morning on these proposals. The hon. Gentleman should be reassured that any motions that are not agreed to tonight will be tabled as substantive motions for debate and vote on 4 March, and there will be a series of votes on those motions and on the amendments to them. We will have a full day’s debate today. Any motions that are not objected to will become resolutions of the House.
If the right hon. Gentleman wants to outline in his speech the recommendation that he feels should be the subject of a motion, we can consider it and bring it to the House in a substantive motion. We have plenty of time to do that. If it is suitable, it could be tabled by way of an amendment. We have tabled these motions to say what the Government’s position is—I think that it is fair enough that we should be able to set out our position—but there is nothing about this procedure that prevents other hon. Members from bringing issues that arise from the Wright report to the House for a vote. Hon. Members should be reassured about that. They will be able to vote on everything on which they want to vote that arises from the Committee’s report not tonight but on Thursday week.
I wonder whether the right hon. and learned Lady can help us on this point. She will know that the major omission in the motions that she has tabled comes in motion 9, which concerns the Back-Bench business committee. She will know that an amendment has been tabled by myself and a great number of other colleagues from around the House to establish a House business committee. May I be clear about whether she supports that amendment and, if she accepts it, how we can make that happen under the procedure that she has adopted? The only way that we can debate and vote on that amendment is if we object to the first part of the motion, which many of us would not wish to do.
I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance on that. I was planning to deal with it later, so I shall carry on and, I hope, he and all other hon. Members will be reassured.
Any motions objected to will be tabled as substantive amendable motions for a short debate on 4 March and we will then vote on those motions and any amendments selected by the Speaker. Amendments have already been tabled—in particular an amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase and 129 other hon. Members—to enable the House business committee to deal with Government business as well as non-Government business. As I said when I gave evidence to the Reform of the House of Commons Committee on 10 February, I think that the best way forward is to set up a House committee for non-Government business. The next step—a committee to set Government business—should be proceeded with subsequently and in the light of the experience of the non-Government business committee.
The Committee itself recognises, in paragraph 16 of its report, that the proposals
“will inevitably need implementation in stages”,
and that some
“can only come into effect in a new Parliament”.
It also recognises the importance of building on experience of the changes.
The amendment to our motion setting up a House committee for non-Government business would approve the establishment of a House business committee for Government business
“during the course of the next Parliament”,
and when it comes to the vote, I will vote for it. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) is concerned that there should be an opportunity to vote on something that the Government are not putting forward—that the House business committee should be able to put forward the agenda for the House in relation to Government business as well as non-Government business. As that is not one of the four main items that we are recommending to the House—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Will hon. Members bear with me? We are trying to make our position clear. As that is not one of the four big ticket items that we want to see taken forward, we are not tabling it as a resolution, but we have seen the amendment and we assume that it will be selected as an amendment and can therefore be voted on. If it is selected, I will vote on it—[Hon. Members: “For it?”] I will vote for it, yes. What did I say? [Hon. Members: “On it.”] I will vote for it. I want to reassure the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and other hon. Members that I understand full well that if 130 Members ask for a particular proposal from the Wright Committee report to be voted on, the House needs to be able to vote on it. I will make sure that the House can vote on it one way or another. If Mr. Speaker decides, at his discretion, to select it as an amendment, it will come to the House, and if he does not select it, a substantive motion will be tabled to ensure that it can be voted on. I will vote for it, but that does not mean that it is one of the four big things that the Government are urging the House to do.
All this might appear to some people to be nothing more than procedure and technicalities, but I believe that it is important. The relationship between the Government and the House of Commons is important.
I am grateful to hear that the Minister will support the amendment—or words to the same effect—of which I am one of the sponsors, but would it not be sensible and less confusing if she were to table in her name, as a Minister, the wording on which all the sponsors agree? If she did that, we would not have to rely on it being selected as an amendment to something that might otherwise not be on Thursday’s Order Paper if it is not objected to tonight. Would not it be clearer if she co-operated with the process, made it clear that she supports the measure and joined others in proposing it?
I do not think that things need to be unclear. I have said that I will make sure that the issue comes to be voted on by the House—the issue being that there should be a House committee that will decide Government business. When we come to vote on that issue, all hon. Members will be able to decide for themselves, on a free vote, how to vote, and they should not find it confusing because it will be there on the Order Paper. We have not put the wording in a substantive motion because the motions that we have tabled are those that we support and urge the House to support. Other hon. Members have proposed that the House committee should deal with Government business as well as non-Government business, and I, as a Member of the House on a free vote, have said that I will support that amendment. Hon. Members should be reassured that, whether or not the issue comes to the House by way of an amendment to a substantive motion, if it looks as though it might not be selected or that we might not get to vote on it, on 4 March, I will arrange, as Leader of the House, for it to be voted on. I do not know how many times I must say that to make it absolutely clear. I recognise that there is a climate of suspicion. [Interruption.] There need not be a climate of suspicion—this is perfectly clear and straightforward—and it would be helpful to the House to realise what the Government are urging on the House and what other colleagues are urging on the House, and we can support their proposals or not, depending on the view that we take.
A lot of people outside the House might think that this is very procedural and technical—I should think that they would be encouraged in that thought by the last discussion that we have just had—but it is important because of the relationship between the Government and the House of Commons, and it is important to the House of Commons and to our democracy. It is important for public trust that a Government can implement the manifesto on which they were elected. There is keen public concern about Governments keeping their election promises. Although few, if any, of us have met someone on the doorstep who raises the matter of House of Commons procedures, people want an effective House of Commons, which scrutinises legislation and properly holds the Government to account.
This is House business, and we should work together on it. I look forward to hearing the shadow Leader of the House, and I hope that we can debate this in the spirit of House business. This is important for Back Benchers and Front Benchers and for hon. Members on both sides of the House. I hope that, together, we can take through these major reforms.
I respond to that challenge from the Leader of the House by saying that they do not come much more consensual than the shadow Leader of the House of Commons. We are grateful for this opportunity finally to debate these important reforms, although, of course, we will not be able to vote on them today. I agree with her that the report represents a chance for the House to change, and it is chance that we should seize.
We all acknowledge that the past year has been a disastrous one for Parliament, and I believe that there are two ingredients if we are to rebuild public confidence in this institution. Putting right the expenses scandal is one half, which has occupied much of our time. The other half is enabling Parliament to do its job better. A Parliament untainted by sleaze would be a step forward, but it needs to be accompanied by reforms that enable us to hold the Government to account more effectively and, indeed, to represent our constituents more effectively.
These opportunities come relatively infrequently, and we muffed the last one in 2002, when the Cook reforms to Select Committees were voted down. We can show the public today that we can be constructive and collaborative, not just confrontational and relentlessly partisan. In that spirit, I congratulate the cross-party Committee on Reform of the House of Commons on a landmark report that was produced in record time.
Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that there are some problems with the Committee? It was elected by the different parties in the House, but because there had not been proper discussions beforehand, it ended up being fairly unrepresentative. [Interruption.] A Committee of 19, with only two women and no one from Scotland is simply not acceptable any more. If the House is to proceed with the recommendations, there must be ways to ensure that what he says is important—decent representation—is reflected in how we do these things.
I am afraid that I fundamentally disagree. The best way to get a representative sample on a Committee is to have an election. After all, that is how we all got here.
I was congratulating the cross-party Committee on its report. In June last year, I welcomed the fact that the energies of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) would be applied to this subject; he is an experienced Chairman of Select Committees and that experience underpins much of the report. I had the pleasure to serve, briefly, on his Committee until I was persuaded to go elsewhere; had I remained on it, I am sure that I would have signed the report. I have a background of work on Democracy Task Force that has indicated my interest in and appetite for reform. On behalf of all my colleagues on the Opposition Benches, I pay tribute to the Committee.
The Leader of the House is always keen to point out that there has been a continual process of what the Government like to call “modernisation” since 1997. I recognise that there have indeed been some real improvements to the working practices of the House. Westminster Hall has been a success. Public Bill Committees have benefited from formal evidence sessions. Our sitting hours are less extraordinary and more amenable to family life. No one wants to return to all-night sittings. The Prime Minister’s appearance before the Liaison Committee is another welcome innovation.
Parliament may have needed modernising, but it certainly needed strengthening, and some of the measures that modernised it also weakened it, such as the automatic guillotining of Bills. The reduced sitting hours were accompanied by an increase in legislation which we have been unable to digest. One source of the problems that we seek to address today was the creation of the Modernisation Committee, chaired not, as would be appropriate, by a senior Back Bencher, but by a Cabinet Minister—an arrangement that my party is committed to ending.
The Government said that that would allow Parliament to own the process, but it has not. It ensured that the Government dictated the pace of change. When it suited the Government, the reforms happened, and when it did not, they did not. The report says as much in paragraph 4.
The right hon. and learned Lady spoke a great deal about consensus, but where was the consensus on regional Select Committees when she used her casting vote to force the report before the House? Nor was there consensus when it reached the House with 254 in favour and 224 against. When the Government want reform, as they did a fortnight ago when they wanted voting reform, we got a debate, we got amendments and we got votes. But when they are less than keen, as is the case today, we do not get that. We get a “take note” debate, and a single shout of “Object!” obstructs progress.
Would the right hon. Gentleman like to see votes today or on 4 March? He objects to the fact that a Member can shout “Object!” and the debate and the votes are thereby deferred until another time, but I get the impression that most hon. Members want the so-called reforms to go through on the nod. I do not understand.
In all the previous debates in which I have taken part, we have had a debate and then we have voted on a series of propositions, with amendments. That is how, in the past, the House has dealt with reform. It is a perfectly acceptable way of doing that and one that the House is used to. What is being proposed today is unusual. This is an unorthodox way of dealing with reform, and I happen to prefer the way that we have dealt with it so far.
On the report, it was encouraging that the Prime Minister agreed to the proposition from the hon. Member for Cannock Chase and, in doing so, appeared to understand that, as the report says,
“the Modernisation Committee has run out of steam”,
but despite the Prime Minister’s assurances in his statement that this would be an “urgent” process, it was a full seven weeks later, and just one day before the summer recess, before the Committee was formally set up.
Lethargy also seemed to settle on the Government once the report was published on 24 November. The Committee made it clear in paragraph 15 that it expected a debate
“within the next two months when a House majority can freely determine the outcome.”
What it has got today, three months later, is a debate at the end of which, as we have heard, one shout can block a recommendation. Also, only the recommendations of which the Government approve are on the Order Paper.
That contradicts the astonishing claim made by the right hon. and learned Lady in an interview yesterday with the BBC that the Government have been “on the front foot”. In fact, the Government have been always one step behind. They tried to restrict the terms of reference to exclude Government business. That is what they did at the beginning, then they backed down. They stalled on having a debate. They originally wanted to avoid bringing back to the House any proposals that were objected to, but that is now going to happen.
Ten days ago, the Government said that they did not think the time was right to have a House business committee, but yesterday, in a welcome but rather blatant about-turn, the right hon. and learned Lady said that she would vote for the amendment that would see a House business committee established in the next Parliament. Far from leading from the front, she has rather been dragging her feet. Like the Duke of Plaza-Toro, she has been leading her regiment from behind.
Following his comprehensive indictment of the Government’s attitude, does my right hon. Friend agree that serious consideration should be given to whether the Executive should control the Standing Orders? Will he go further and suggest that we should return to the practice when Parliament was really vibrant, as a former Clerk of the House clearly indicated in a recent article, and that the Speaker, not the Executive, should have control over the Standing Orders?
I shall shelter behind Mr. Speaker’s ruling at the beginning of the debate.
The proposals before us give the House much more power than it has, and we should rally behind them and try to get them up and running. I should welcome the chance to embark on the broader debate about where control of Standing Orders should lie, but that is separate from the debate before us. Nevertheless, I am glad that the right hon. and learned Lady now backs the stance that we publicly took before the Wright report was published, namely that the Government should relinquish their grip on the agenda of the House.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will spend some time on that issue, because my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement today was the most significant one that we could expect. She did not say whether the Government would vote for the proposition, but she did say that she would. Do not we as a House have to reassure Governments that they have a right to get through mandated business if the electorate are to hold them to account? This House might determine the timetable by which Governments get it through, but for unmandated business, which is not in election manifestos, there will be much more of a struggle between the new business committee and the Government. My right hon. and learned Friend made an important point when she stressed that the issue is not just about how we govern our affairs, but about how Governments are held to account by the electorate.
I also drew a distinction between the propositions that the Government support, which are the motions before us today, and the proposition that the right hon. and learned Lady will personally back, namely the proposal for a business committee. I deduced from the way in which she gave her commitment that other members of the Government may not share that commitment in the same way that they share the commitment to the other motions before us.
On the point that the right hon. Gentleman raises, I think that any Government should take some comfort from paragraph 29, which states:
“We should recognise that the Government is entitled to a guarantee of having its own business, and in particular Ministerial legislation, considered at a time of its own choosing, and concluded by a set date.”
That guarantee on the mandate in the manifesto gives the Government—any Government—the comfort that they need, and once paragraph 29 is set in statute they can afford to be more relaxed about the rest of the business of the House.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will excuse me if I move on.
The right hon. and learned Lady asked me what I thought we should do on 4 March. I think that the Government should table all the resolutions of the Wright Committee and let the House come to a judgment on them, rather than picking, choosing and tabling only those that they prefer. That would be in the spirit of the establishment of the Wright Committee and the respectful way to proceed with the report.
The right hon. and learned Lady referred to the big ticket items, but there are some important little ticket items, which the motions before us do not cover, such as giving the Opposition more flexibility on Opposition days. Will she look at some of the other recommendations and see whether they cannot be progressed?
On the little ticket items, does my right hon. Friend not accept that, unfortunately, there is no motion to be voted on relating to the way in which the House deals with amendments on Report and Lords amendments? Those stages are currently programmed, and important issues often cannot be debated at all because time runs out. Is it not inappropriate that programming be used on Report and for the remaining stages of a Bill, when that could be a Member’s only opportunity to contribute?
What a first-class intervention from my hon. Friend! His point is covered in an amendment, which he has signed, that specifically refers to ensuring
“more effective scrutiny of legislation at Report Stage and consideration of Lords Amendments.”
More broadly, however, none of that will happen unless there is some self-discipline by any Government over not only the sheer volume of the legislation that they put before the House, but its quality. Unless they get that right, they will simply pre-empt House time and squeeze out many other debates.
Ultimately, the process that we have been through in the past few weeks has made the case even more effectively than the report for the Executive to relinquish their grip on the business of Parliament. I cannot put it better than the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), who said with characteristic panache:
“The power of these shadowy forces at work behind the scenes demonstrates more clearly than ever why the Wright Committee recommendations need to be implemented in full, and that the clammy fingers of the whips and Government business managers are prised once and for all off matters that are for Parliament rather than for party”.
I do not have bloody hands. I have never believed in doing things in any way other than straightforwardly and openly.
Is the right hon. Gentleman confident that his suggestions will not mean that instead of people talking and coming to agreements in this House, the media will have campaigns as to who they want to be Chair of this Committee or that Committee, and that we will get the grandstanders rather than the workhorses? In any democracy, one needs a balance, as he well knows.
The right hon. Lady devalues the judgments of those who share the Labour Benches with her. The notion that when they vote in a secret ballot for members of a Select Committee they will be unduly influenced by the media is strictly for the birds. They will vote for the people they think will do the best job on that particular Committee—
I thank the shadow Leader of the House for reminding me of one of my better quotes. Let me point out to him that I was talking about shadowy forces on the Opposition Front Bench as well. I congratulate him on winning the battle in his shadow Cabinet to come off the fence on the Wright Committee proposals, because the dark forces are on both sides of this Chamber.