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Commons Chamber

Volume 506: debated on Monday 1 March 2010

House of Commons

Monday 1 March 2010

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Culture, Media and Sport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Listed Sporting Events

Let me begin by apologising for the absence of my hon. Friend the Minister for Sport, who is en route back from Vancouver.

I intend to make a decision on this issue as soon as possible following the close of the Government’s statutory consultation.

When considering representations from the England and Wales Cricket Board, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that grass-roots cricket receives as much money from the lottery and the Sports Council as it does from broadcasting, that the principal sponsor of English cricket says that it is far more likely to renew its sponsorship if there is some free-to-air exposure, and that the proposal to relist the Ashes effectively means simulcasting one series from 2017 on free-to-air and subscription television?

As my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say, grass-roots sports benefit not only from the revenue raised by the selling of television rights but from significant central Government funds, through our sporting bodies and the lottery. I am well aware of the strong support in the House and the country for the return of test cricket to free-to-view television. We will consider all representations very carefully before making a decision that we think will be in the interests of the public.

Notwithstanding that, does the Secretary of State accept that our success in a number of sports in recent years, particularly cricket and golf, has been largely due to the huge amount of money that has gone into those games as a result of the sale of broadcasting rights? The ECB has estimated that listing the Ashes tests will cost it £100 million. Will the Secretary of State think about that very carefully when he considers the Davies report? If he proceeds with the listing, huge damage will be done to grass-roots sports throughout the country.

We will consider all representations very carefully. The hon. Gentleman has made an important point about the potential impact on some of the sporting organisations, although some of the figures that are being bandied about may be open to challenge. There is a balance to be struck between the understandable desire of sporting organisations to make a lot of money by selling television rights and the right of the public to have access to some of the big sporting occasions that the nation enjoys.

Whatever the final decision, it will have different impacts on different parts of the country. I am thinking particularly of the impact on grass-roots football. Before the final decision is made, will my right hon. Friend receive a representation from Scottish football fans and members of the Scottish Football Association to ensure that there is very little impact on grass-roots football in Scotland?

A considerable number of county cricket chairmen, including one whom I believe has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), are writing to Members in all parts of the House about the listed events review, and they have been joined today by the International Cricket Council. Given that Sport England grants cricket—I think—£37.8 million, and given that, as my hon. Friend said, the county cricket chairmen claim that the hit to cricket will be £100 million, will the Secretary of State confirm that, having extended the review to the middle of March, the Government intend to conduct an independent economic assessment? Without such an assessment, it will be almost impossible to reconcile the two conflicting claims.

I can confirm that, but I urge the hon. Gentleman, who regularly raises sporting bodies’ concerns about this matter in the House, to recognise that there are two sides to the debate. I was surprised to read last week that he thought it would be foolish to list test cricket, and that listing events was

“an artificial interference in the freedom of a sport’s governing body.”

That is the complete opposite of what was said by the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt), the shadow Secretary of State, who, only last November, welcomed the Davies report and the principle of listing. That further U-turn from the Conservatives demonstrates their complete confusion over their policy.

Tourism Industry

2. What recent assessment he has made of the prospects for the domestic tourism industry in 2010; and if he will make a statement. (318849)

We expect continuing positive growth in domestic tourism following a 7 per cent. increase in the number of overnight trips and a 4 per cent. increase in visitor expenditure in the first 10 months of 2009. VisitBritain has forecast that the number of visitors from overseas could increase by 0.8 per cent. in 2010, with a corresponding rise of 3.8 per cent. in visitor spend.

Is the Minister aware of a study of lower VAT rates by the British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions, which concluded that were we to adopt a VAT rate for accommodation and restaurants similar to the rates charged by our competitors in Europe, we would not only boost domestic tourism but increase Treasury revenues in the long run?

Indeed. I am also aware that BALPPA’s figures for last year showed a 10 per cent. increase in the number of visitors to its members’ attractions.

I have received representations on the issue of VAT. That issue is obviously a matter for the Chancellor, but we provide visitors with benefits that other countries do not provide. For example, free access to our museums is a very important attraction that encourages people to visit the United Kingdom.

What effect does the Minister think changes to the industrial building allowance tax regime will have on the domestic tourist industry?

Again, I have had representations on that issue, and, again, I have to say that it is a matter for the Chancellor. The fact that we have been able to encourage both domestic tourism and increasing numbers of people from Europe to visit Britain ought, of course, to benefit the tourism industry, and all the figures and statistics suggest that we are moving in the right direction.

As the Minister will know, we have a very good network of farms with second homes that are let out as holiday lets, particularly in the Ribble Valley. In the last Budget, however, a tax change made it less advantageous for the owners of these second homes to let them out as holiday lets. Will the Minister make representations to the Chancellor, asking him to right the wrong that has been done so that we do not lose this network, particularly as it has proved to be a great income supplement on farms that do not make a lot of money?

I am very aware of that problem, and I have taken members of the industry who are already particularly affected to a meeting with the Chancellor. The position is, however, that we are being driven by European regulations, not by any desire to increase income to the Treasury. [Hon. Members: “Ah.”] Yes, this is, indeed, to do with European regulations, and if Opposition Members do not like that, I am not quite sure what they propose to do about it. I shall, however, repeat to the hon. Gentleman what I have already said to the industry, which is that if it comes forward with a proposition that is workable for it and that complies with the EU regulations, both myself and Treasury Ministers will look at that very seriously. We do not want to do anything that has a negative impact on that part of the industry.

Scottish Television

3. What assessment has been made of the likely effect on employment in Scotland of reclassification of Scottish Television as an independent producer. (318850)

We are currently assessing the responses to our consultation on this proposal, and, as my hon. Friend will be aware, there are differing views in Scotland about the benefits in terms of jobs and production. We will take all these responses and views into consideration before proceeding further.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. In conducting a further assessment of the responses to the consultation, will he accept that, although there is a very strong argument for the share of commissions from Scotland increasing from the current 2 per cent., any reclassification should be made only after consideration has been given to the effect on independent television producers in Scotland as well?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend on that. On a recent visit to Glasgow, I had an opportunity to discuss these issues with representatives of STV, the BBC, which has an indirect interest in this, and smaller producers, and we certainly would not want to do anything that had a negative impact on any of them. Our common objective is to increase the amount of domestic production in Scotland and in the UK as a whole.

May I raise with the Secretary of State another matter of considerable import to Scottish television—and it would be remiss of me on St. David’s day not to mention that it is also of considerable interest to us in Wales—which is the prospects for the independently funded news consortiums? Is there any realistic chance that the contracts will be signed before the general election, and if they are not, will not the entire process simply be placed in abeyance until the outcome of the election is known?

I am grateful for your assent that that question is in order, Mr. Speaker. I cannot promise the hon. Gentleman that the contracts will be signed before the general election, but it is certainly our intention to announce the preferred bidders, both in Wales and Scotland and in the sole English pilot region of Tyne Tees and Border. Whether we manage to secure quality regional news in Wales, Scotland and the English regions in the future will depend on the outcome of the next general election, because the Labour party is committed to achieving that, while the Conservatives have absolutely no proposal whatever to do so.

Television Production (Funding)

4. What steps the Government are taking to encourage funding for the development of original UK television content. (318851)

The Government are taking a number of steps to encourage more investment in original UK content, including through the Digital Economy Bill that is going through Parliament. I also welcome the fact that the BBC has said its current review will include steps to boost investment in domestic content.

As I am sure the Secretary of State is aware, investment in original content has declined by £340 million in the last five years. In the light of that, will the Secretary of State consider using the Digital Economy Bill as an opportunity to repeal the contract rights renewal regulations, which penalise, in particular, ITV’s investment in original content?

I do not think it is practicable to do that in the Bill going through the House, because that Bill contains a lot. We have carefully examined the possibility of doing what the hon. Gentleman suggests, and I am sympathetic to the point that he makes and to the complaints that have been made about this by ITV. As he will be aware, the Competition Commission has not yet made its final ruling and we should await the outcome of that. ITV would, of course, be perfectly able to appeal against that decision, and this Government would be very supportive of such an appeal.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to get more original content, we need more original talent? Is it not time that the BBC stopped looking as though it is a closed shop for the Yentobs and the Dimblebys, and enabled young people who come from ordinary backgrounds but who have talent to make programmes?

I think that there are great talents of people of all ages; I happen to think that David Dimbleby, who I believe is in his early 70s, does a remarkable job—

My hon. Friend may not like it, but David Dimbleby does a remarkable job. There is also very good young talent on the BBC. One of the BBC’s great strengths is that it nurtures and values talent of all ages and in all types of taste. Perhaps that is not to the taste of everybody in this House, but that is exactly what the BBC is there to do.

May I welcome what the Secretary of State said about contract rights renewal and ITV, but does he acknowledge that it is the BBC that is one of the key providers of original UK content and that it needs security of funding to be able to plan for the future? [Interruption.] Does he, therefore, accept that it does not help if a potential Government start talking about top-slicing and cutting the BBC down to size or even, as he has done, about bringing the licence fee to an end in just three years?

The whole House will have heard the chorus of disapproval from Conservative Members at the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that the BBC should have proper secure funding in the future. I agree with him; I think that the BBC is probably the best broadcasting organisation in the world. It is a very valuable part of our media landscape, and it is hugely important in terms of nurturing talent and investing in UK production. Of course there will be a debate about the future of the BBC, and the future of its funding and the form of it, as that always happens when we have a discussion about the charter and licence fee renewal. That is the time to have that debate, and we should support the BBC and all the good work it does for the country.

Digital piracy is one of the biggest concerns for people investing in British TV, so what specific measures has the Secretary of State taken to block access to websites that deliberately promote illegal downloading?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the position, because of our discussions about this both in private and in the other place about measures in the Digital Economy Bill. I suggest that the most constructive thing he could do to help prevent this serious theft, which is losing our creative economy hundreds of millions of pounds a year, is to support the Government’s attempts to get this Bill on to the statute book, and not to try to undermine them.

But the Secretary of State knows that clause 17 cannot be used to block access to illegal downloading websites—he told me so himself. It is possible to rephrase the Digital Economy Bill to do this. The person who would do that would presumably be the Minister responsible for the creative industries, so why has the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) not been replaced since he stepped down? Is it that the Secretary of State is waiting for the country to replace not just one Minister, but all of them?

The hon. Gentleman knows very well why we do not think that his solution of site blocking is a sensible way forward. He has received a briefing on it, and if he disagrees with our reasons, he should make his concerns plain to us. However, I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my erstwhile colleague who, as Minister with responsibility for the digital economy, did a great job. As the hon. Gentleman knows, ministerial appointments are a matter for the Prime Minister. In the meantime, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and I are coping fairly well, thank you very much.

5. What estimate he has made of the level of funding for television programme production in the UK in the last five years. (318854)

Until the recent fall in advertising revenue, there had been a steady and welcome increase in funding for UK production. We would expect this increase to resume as the economy recovers and as a result of the measures that I was outlining a moment ago.

I must congratulate the Secretary of State on his support for product placement—this is going to make a difference. When will the necessary legislation be in place and what benefit will it give to Granadaland, which has fine studios for the production of local television?

We intend to lay the order in the next few days—either this week or next—and, as I understand it, it will then be on the statute book within three weeks, as long as it is not prayed against.

Has the Secretary of State seen the recent report from the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs? It indicates that Northern Ireland has been shamefully neglected in the funding of television programmes, that Northern Ireland is not adequately portrayed in this country and that talent is not sufficiently encouraged there. When the Minister appeared before the Committee, he was totally ignorant and had not even been to Northern Ireland.

I have certainly been to Northern Ireland many times, although not in my current capacity. I shall certainly look at the recommendations made by the hon. Gentleman’s Committee and I shall respond to him, if I may, in writing. I would add, however, that we have recently committed ourselves to some considerable funding for Northern Ireland to help preserve the Irish language service when the digital switchover happens. He will also be aware, as he takes a strong interest in these things, that some of the commercial pressures that the rest of the commercial ITV network has come under across the UK have not been so severe in Northern Ireland. UTV has still performed very strongly, because of the strength of its brand.

Participation in Sport

6. What assessment he has made of his Department’s progress in increasing the level of participation in sport since 1997. (318855)

The number of adults regularly playing sport has increased since the figures were first collected in 2005 by more than 600,000 to just under 7 million. There has also been a dramatic turnaround in school sport. In 2003, only one in four children got at least two hours of quality physical education. Today, 90 per cent. do and more than half are doing at least three hours a week.

I thank the Secretary of State for those figures, which are impressive. However, does he think that we would have made even more progress if we had had a separate Department for sport and health?

No. I think that the structure of governance that we have at the moment, which we introduced in 1997, is a very good one. That does not mean, however, that there are not very good arguments for my Department working much more closely with the Department of Health and the Department for Children, Schools and Families, as we have been on the whole public health, sport and physical activity agenda. We have been seeing the fruits of that co-operation and we will see further fruits of that co-operation in the weeks to come and in our manifesto.

The school sports partnership impact study found that declining participation was especially marked among the 16-to-19 age group. What progress has been made in reducing the number of 16-year-olds who drop out of sport?

The challenge that the hon. Gentleman puts his finger on is that it is more difficult, obviously, when young people are not necessarily in full-time or compulsory education to devise a curriculum that ensures that they take part in physical activity. However, strenuous efforts are going on at local level through the school sports partnership and other sports bodies to address the particular concern that he raises. I will happily write to him with the latest figures on participation among 16 to 18-year-olds if that would be helpful.

Travelling Circuses

8. What progress has been made in discussions between his Department, the local authorities committee on regulatory services and representatives of the circus industry on reform of the licensing regime for travelling circuses; and if he will make a statement. (318858)

We have convened a working group of stakeholders, which includes local government and circus representatives, to develop options for what is called a portable licence for travelling circuses. The group met on 23 February and hopes to conclude its work by late spring, after which there will be a public consultation on possible options.

I hope that the Minister will pass to her colleague the Under-Secretary my gratitude for this progress—perhaps belated progress, but progress none the less—that is being made. If I may take a liberty, may I adapt her party’s election slogan and say that if she keeps up momentum, we might be able to look forward to a future circus for all?

I note what the hon. Gentleman has said and I congratulate him, because he has taken a close interest in these matters. I think that his lobbying has finally been successful. I know that the group is meeting again at the end of March and I hope that the consultation will then be produced immediately after the election and that the new regulations can be brought into force quickly.

Media Images (Women)

9. What recent discussions he has had with media representatives on the portrayal of women in (a) publications and (b) broadcasts. (318860)

We have regular discussions with the independent regulators—Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority—and keep these matters under constant review.

I was encouraged by the positive response from the Leader of the House when I raised a similar issue on Thursday. Has the Minister been able to take cognisance of the report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which suggested joint working between advertisers, media, Government and physicians to deal with this very important issue?

I noted the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the Leader of the House last week. This is a very important issue and it is very difficult to find specific influences on outcomes for children and their behaviour. We have also had the report from Linda Papadopoulos last Thursday, which we are studying to see whether there are implications to which we need to have regard and whether we need to take further action.

Is the Minister aware of the quite widespread concern among women, particularly mothers, about the proliferation of lads mags? The concern is not that they exist, but that if one goes into a newsagents with one’s child to buy some sweets, one finds them at the child’s eye level, often displayed in prime position. What can be done to toughen the regulatory regime to ensure that those magazines are put on the top shelf where they deserve to be?

I am, indeed, aware of those concerns, and I know that the vast majority of lads mags are on the top shelves. The last figures I saw suggested that 58 per cent. were put on the top shelf. Until now, this has been a matter for self-regulation, but we keep it under constant review; it is an issue on which all Members of the House share concerns.

Live Music (Small Venues)

Small venues are using the new minor variations process to add live music to their licences, and we have also been encouraging the use of the existing incidental live music exemption. The Government are also consulting on a proposal to exempt small live music events from the Licensing Act 2003.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Will the Government be supporting the Live Music Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), which will assist venues that do not serve alcohol, such as village halls and school halls, in that regard?

We think that there are a number of problems with the Bill, partly because there has been no formal consultation on its proposals. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the proposals in the Bill are strongly opposed by the Conservative-controlled Local Government Association and by LACORS—Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services. Without such proper consultation, we would be very worried about the legal robustness of such legislation. Also, we do not think that the focus on the old two-in-a-bar rule, which the Liberal Democrats and the music industry campaigned against for many years, is the right way forward. We think that our proposal is sensible and that it balances the needs of the music industry, of young musicians to get experience of performing and of local residents and councils regarding undue noise and disturbance.

Is it not sensible to apply restrictions on the volume of sound that is produced in small venues rather than on the nature of music or sound being produced? The situation is such that a single musician, heavily amplified, can make more noise than a jazz big band; I think that is a great shame.

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why we believe that the approach proposed by the Liberal Democrats through the Bill that originated in the other place is not the way forward to address this problem.

I thank the Government for the action that they have taken to relax licensing requirements for charitable events, but will the Secretary of State give further, strong guidance to local authorities that are still being over-officious in preventing small and medium-sized charity events from proceeding?

Yes. One of the main problems in this area is not that existing guidance and legislation are flawed, but that they are implemented differently by different local authorities. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to put his finger on the problem that some local authorities are much more sensible and proportionate in their enforcement of the rules and guidelines while others are much more, as he calls it, officious. Authorities should look to adopt the best practice guidance, which respects the needs of local communities for peace and quiet but does not stifle opportunities for young, creative musicians to perform and practise.

The Government are fond of saying that there has been an increase in live music since the Licensing Act came in. One reason for that is that the number of events that need to be licensed has increased, and another is the coming on stream of the O2 arena and Wembley stadium. Is the Minister aware that the UK Statistics Authority has said:

“The DCMS…and Press Office will be alerted to the possibility of misinterpretation and the need to exercise caution when quoting the figures”?

Can he confirm that the UK Statistics Authority has written to him in those terms and that he will exercise caution in using those figures in future?

Unlike the Conservative party, we always take very seriously what the UK Statistics Authority says, and I shall do so. Certainly on the information we have, I do not think anyone challenges the fact that there has been significant growth in the amount of live music, but the hon. Gentleman is right to identify the fact that it has been concentrated in medium and larger-sized venues. Similar growth has not been seen in smaller venues, which is exactly why we are proposing to extend the exemption to them.

Again, however, I am afraid I am still completely confused about the hon. Gentleman’s policy. On the one hand, he told the Performers Alliance, at a reception at Parliament recently, that he supported Lord Clement-Jones’s Bill; but on the other, the Conservative Local Government Association is vehemently opposed to any exemption for licensed premises.

Cultural Olympiad

11. What recent progress has been made on the programme for the Cultural Olympiad; and if he will make a statement. (318862)

Three major cultural projects have been launched so far, and nearly 150 projects have been awarded the Inspire mark. More than 1,400 open weekend events were held during 2008 and 2009. In July 2009, the Cultural Olympiad Board was established, placing delivery of the Cultural Olympiad in the hands of our world-renowned cultural sector.

Does the right hon. Lady believe that further progress could be made if the rather pompous title “Cultural Olympiad” was dropped for something in plain English that describes to the general public what it actually means? Will she ensure that if there is a lasting cultural legacy from the Olympics, it is spread throughout the United Kingdom and not just confined to London?

On this issue. It is for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games and the Cultural Olympiad Board to look at the name, and I know that Tony Hall, as chairman of the board, is suggesting a new title.

I also have a lot of sympathy for the view that the benefits of the Cultural Olympiad—as it is known now—should be shared throughout the country. Many of the events to date have been outside London, and we need to do more and more to make sure that they take place throughout Britain.

Broadcasting (Impartiality)

14. What recent discussions he has had with broadcast media industry representatives on the impartiality of news and current affairs programmes. (318866)

Impartiality is an essential element of Britain’s broadcasting culture. The suggestion that the requirement for impartiality in broadcasting should be lifted that has been made by the Conservatives and some of their friends in the media would be a regrettable, even dangerous, step.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. I know he agrees that some people in the House would like to get rid of the impartiality rules for everybody except the BBC. Does he agree that that should not happen? The only thing we want in relation to Fox News is for hunting not to be repealed.

I think my hon. Friend is absolutely right. When one looks at all the surveys of public attitudes towards broadcasting in this country, one sees that one of the things the public greatly value is the requirement on broadcasters to be impartial. It would be a retrograde step and a dangerous step for democracy, when we look—as my hon. Friend has—at the landscape in the United States under proposals similar to those the Conservatives would like to introduce in the UK. It is bad for democracy, bad for the quality of broadcasting and the public will not like it.

National Lottery Funding (Sport)

Since April 2005, the national lottery has raised £1.1 billion for the sport good cause. In addition, in that period the Big Lottery Fund distributed more than £700 million of lottery money to projects focused exclusively on community sport and physical activity. The Big Lottery Fund has also funded many other community projects that include some element of sport and physical activity.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response. However, is he aware that many people in my constituency feel that the proportion of national lottery money going to sport has been inadequate and that Ministers and the Government have funnelled lottery funding to their pet projects at the expense of sport?

I believe that hon. Members on both sides of the House are aware that we have the Olympics games in 2012, so, yes, of course a proportion of the funding that used to go not just to sport but to other good causes has been diverted to the Olympics, but that is absolutely right. We want the Olympics to be a great success, but when they are over in 2012, that funding will return to those original causes. The hon. Gentleman must answer the question about the impact of the Conservative party’s policy of withdrawing the funds derived from the Big Lottery Fund and instead going back to the four original pillars, which would hit community, sports and leisure projects in his constituency.

I do not know whether the Secretary of State wants to come round to this side of the House, because he seems to be asking the questions rather than answering them. Could he answer this one? Representatives of Northamptonshire county cricket club came to see me on Friday. It is one of the less prosperous county cricket teams and its representatives are very concerned about the money that they will lose if Sky loses the right to the exclusive use of cricket on the media. I know that this has been discussed before, but substituting lottery money for Sky money does not work. Does he have an opinion on this? What does he think the balance is on this matter?

The hon. Gentleman accuses me of asking the Conservative party questions, but, a few weeks before a general election, I think that both the House and the public have some entitlement to know what his party stands for. Its policies are totally confused across the entire responsibilities of this Department, just as they are nationally. Not only his leader, but Opposition Front Benchers wibble and wobble all over the place on policy. [Interruption.] Exactly as my hon. Friends say, their policy changes every day. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman, who, I know, likes taking orders from Sky and Rupert Murdoch, as does his party, that he should be—

Order. May I say very gently to the Secretary of State that I am sure that he will now return to the matter of Government policy?

The hon. Gentleman was asking me about listed events and the impact that listing cricket as an event—for example, the test match home series—might have on community cricket. I think that many hon. Members think that the impact of that has been somewhat exaggerated. I simply gently point out to the hon. Gentleman that, just as he has the concern of a certain broadcaster at heart, millions of people in this country value cricket going back on to free-to-air, terrestrial television. We speak for them; the Conservatives speak for vested interests.

In the light of the UK’s performance at the winter Olympics, does the Secretary of State wish that we had spent more of our money on elite sporting performance in winter Olympic sports?

The hon. Lady is rather negative about the UK’s performance at the winter Olympics. We actually won our first gold medal in a single event for 30 years—since Robin Cousins—so it was our best performance for several years. But of course, these funding decisions are not taken by Ministers in this Government, although she might like that to be the case under a Conservative Government. We believe in the sports bodies making the decisions about where funding goes. Of course, they will review whether the funding that they put into certain winter Olympic sports represents good value for money, and they will make decisions about future funding based on those talks.

The Secretary of State was alluding to the 2012 Olympics and the legacy that we will receive from it. Will he inform the House exactly how much the games will cost NHS London? I asked the same question of the Secretary of State for Health the other day, and he indicated that it would be £41 million.[Interruption.] Will this Secretary of State give us the documents, so that we know how much the Olympics will cost NHS London?

I am afraid that, because of all the noise, I did not hear the specific question, but if the hon. Gentleman will write to me, I will happily write a reply to him.

Order. A little excitement is a good thing; too much excitement is a bad thing. I appeal to hon. Members to be conscious of the way in which we are viewed by people outside the House who regard a lot of raucous noise as pretty undesirable.

Topical Questions

My Department is responsible for a wide range of policies that support the arts, culture and sport, which are all essential to our nation’s sense of well-being and identity, as well as making an invaluable contribution to the British economy.

My right hon. Friend was in York last month, and perhaps he knows that, at the British Museum at the moment, there is an exhibition of some of the greatest treasures from Yorkshire, including the Middleham jewel, the Coppergate helmet and the Ormside bowl. Will the Minister encourage members of the public, particularly Londoners, to go to the British Museum to see what makes York so special, perhaps as a taster to encourage them to go north in the summer and visit the real thing in Yorkshire?

I am delighted that the temporary closure of the Yorkshire museum has made it possible for those jewels in our crown to be exhibited in a room in the British Museum. I encourage everybody to go and see them. The partnership between national and regional museums is hugely important in ensuring that all the country’s wealth of artefacts are enjoyed by many more people. It is this Government who, through a renaissance in the regions, have made that partnership possible. That is why it is enormously important that we continue to fund that programme.

Although I am sure the whole House would want to congratulate Amy Williams on winning her gold medal at the winter Olympics, does the Minister believe that the British taxpayer got value for money from those games?

That sounds like a suggestion that we should not invest in sport. It is not just about the number of medals that people win in competitions, though I repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride)—that this was the best performance by a British team for many, many years. It is also about all the training, and all the investment that goes into improving people’s lives and giving them the opportunity to train for those events. Winning medals is great, but the investment that we put into sport in this country is about far more than just winning medals.

T3 . What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of next generation digital access, particularly in a region such as the south-west, which is largely rural? How will he stop people in the south-west becoming second-class consumers, citizens and patients? (318870)

My hon. Friend raises an important point, particularly for regions such as ours in the south-west, which are largely rural and bits of which are very sparsely populated—that is, that the free market will not deliver high-quality next generation broadband to all those areas. Everybody accepts that, except the Conservative Opposition. That is why we are proposing a very small levy on fixed phone lines—smaller than the amount by which the cost of those lines has decreased in recent years—to help ensure that no one is left out of the digital revolution, and that individuals and businesses in Devon and elsewhere in similar regions can continue to flourish.

T4 . According to the Department’s website, three quarters of children aged between eight and 15 have a television in their bedrooms. Given the dubious effects of television at best on the development of young minds, their attention spans and school attendance, does the Secretary of State think that is a good thing or a bad thing? (318871)

On the whole, the facilities that are enabled by new communication and better communication can have a beneficial impact on children, their educational attainment and their knowledge of the world, but that has to be controlled by parents, in the first instance. Parents play the most important role. If they allow children to have televisions in their own room, I hope they do something to ensure that children do not spend all their time watching television or playing games.

Will my right hon. Friend use his influence to do whatever is possible to support the supporters of clubs such as Chester and Portsmouth, who have been so badly let down by financial backers?

Yes. My hon. Friend raises an important point. There remain some tough questions for the football authorities to address, following the events at Portsmouth and elsewhere—issues of debt and takeovers, and the need to strengthen the financial governance of football. I commend to my hon. Friend the model that my own football club in Exeter uses, which is that of a supporters trust. The club is owned by the fans, and it has no insolvency or debt problems because it does not have any debt. It is democratic, it is a co-operative, and it is a great model of labourism. That is the sort of model that I would like to see spread throughout the game.

T5. Will the Secretary of State accept that he is plain wrong about the speed of broadband being rolled out to areas in north Yorkshire? The speed is nothing like he claims. Why are we being treated so unfairly and so uncompetitively within the digital broadband economy, compared with the rest of the United Kingdom? (318873)

Forgive me. I was not making claims about current speeds. I was talking about the future in answer to a question about the future. The point that I made was that there is nobody in the industry or the country except the hon. Lady’s party who does not believe that there must be some intervention to ensure that constituents exactly like hers get the benefits that those living in urban areas get. We are proposing a solution to deliver high-quality fast broadband to her constituency. Her party will not intervene in the market to deliver that. It will leave 30 to 40 per cent. of her householders and her businesses without broadband, and her constituents need to be aware of that.

Are leaked proposals to close BBC Radio 6 Music and the Asian Network a betrayal of the Reithian principles to support diverse culture creation, or the BBC capitulating to the culture bully boys on the Conservative Front Bench?

It is rather difficult to know, because one day last week the Opposition broadcast spokesman, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey), said that he supported the BBC’s proposal to close 6 Music and then, two days later, when he was inundated with angry e-mails, he did another U-turn—the third in one week. My hon. Friend makes a very early representation to the consultation that the BBC Trust will have to conduct when it finally comes up with proposals. I would rather comment on those proposals than give a running commentary on leaks.

T6 . With one premiership football club in administration and several others in hundreds of millions of pounds of debt, what steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that there is financial probity in football? (318875)

Without repeating too much of what I said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), I simply point out to the footballing authorities, which often look to Government to help them resist some of the more draconian proposed regulation from the European Union, that if they want our help on such proposals, they must get their own house in order. We still await the full implementation of the Burns recommendations. Some have been implemented, and we welcome that, but the football authorities need to get a move on. What has happened at Portsmouth should act as a real wake-up call for them to do so.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), and given that a BBC press release on 15 February said that BBC Radio 6 Music was a distinctive service that did a great deal to fulfil the BBC’s public purposes, should not the argument behind any proposal to close 6 Music be examined very carefully, indeed?

Yes, of course. [Interruption.] No, the question was: should the consultation be very carefully considered? Unlike the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey), I do not give a running commentary on how the BBC should run its affairs. I have said that this is a matter for the BBC; there has been a leak; and we should wait for the full report. There will then have to be a full consultation on that—[Interruption.]

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Secretary of State. The hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) should not witter away from a sedentary position in evident disapproval of the stance taken by occupants of the Treasury Bench. The hon. Gentleman can speak from the Dispatch Box, but he should not speak from his seat.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. If the hon. Gentleman has anything useful to say he can get up on his feet and say it. My hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) is absolutely right: there must be proper consultation on any proposal that the BBC makes. Of course people will have strong views—there will be those who feel very strongly in favour of that proposal or very strongly in favour of another. I am sure that my hon. Friend, who always shows a very strong interest and has great expertise in the matter, will be central to that consultation.

T7 . Given the talk today of major cuts in local government funding, what action will the Government take to protect the crucial library service? (318876)

Shortly we will publish our document on the review of, and way forward for, the library service. At the end of the day, local authorities have to take their own decisions on funding priorities, but they have a statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient service, and it is up to the Secretary of State to ensure that they do so.

Will my colleagues on the Front Bench reaffirm to the good people of Chorley that there will be free swimming lessons for young people and pensioners in the next financial year?

Yes, and it is very much to be deprecated that, almost exclusively, those local authorities that do not offer free swimming to young people and pensioners are Conservative-controlled.

T8 . What steps are being taken to encourage community sports clubs to work more with local schools in order to increase the opportunity for young people to participate more in competitive sport? (318877)

If the hon. Gentleman has not yet visited his local school sports partnership, I suggest that he does so. I am sure that he will be able to discover for himself the amazing work done locally in his constituency between groups of schools and sports clubs and sports organisations to give young people the opportunity to do two hours of quality sport and physical education a week. More than half do three hours of sport a week, but the target is five, and that includes competitive sport. There are more than 3,700 new coaches in schools—new competitive managers, as they are called—specifically to deliver the competitive sport that I am sure the hon. Gentleman wants to see take place. We certainly do.

Even bearing in mind that Birmingham is the capital of the west midlands region, the city receives far too much Arts Council funding per capita when compared with other towns and cities such as Wolverhampton. What measures can the Minister take to address this outrageous imbalance?

Birmingham’s rich cultural infrastructure is of benefit not only to the residents of Birmingham but to residents of the surrounding area. I was delighted that last week Birmingham succeeded in reaching the shortlist for the UK’s first city of culture in 2013, and I wish it well in taking that bid forward to the next stage. Of course, we want to see arts and culture spread throughout the country in the best way possible, but this is a matter for the Arts Council. Politicians should not intervene in the distribution of resources to arts and cultural projects—that would be an extremely dangerous road to go down. It is for the Arts Council to decide where it should best place its money.


The Minister for the Olympics was asked—

Olympic Legacy (North-West)

The north-west, as with every region in the UK, will gain from sporting, economic and cultural opportunities created by the London 2012 games. Even two and a half years away, 44 north-west businesses have won Olympic contracts—for example, the steel for the Olympic stadium taking shape in the Olympic park is supplied by a Bolton company. There are 45 games-inspired cultural projects across the north-west. There are 65 Olympic and 25 Paralympic pre-games training camps in the north-west, with Thailand, Oceania and the Australian Olympic team already committed to basing themselves there. As my hon. Friend will know, the north-west will also host the Olympic football at Old Trafford.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. She is aware of the partnership in my area that could lead to a sports village at the Cheshire Oaks complex. May I put on record my thanks to Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson for her magnificent support for that project? Will my right hon. Friend come up and visit that project to see what she could do to help this development for people in my constituency?

I commend my hon. Friend for the energy that he has put into supporting the development of the Cheshire Oaks sports village; and yes, I would be absolutely delighted to come and see this exemplary new sporting project in his constituency.

Vancouver Winter Olympics

2. What assessment she has made of the lessons to be learned from the Vancouver 2010 winter Olympics for the London 2012 Olympics. (318879)

Once again, the whole House will want to congratulate Amy Williams on her gold medal in the skeleton bob. The celebrations continue in Cambridge and in Bath, where she trained.

While in Vancouver, I had a full programme of meetings, and I am happy to place a list of these in the Libraries of both Houses. The value of those meetings is that they provided real-time opportunity to discuss a number of issues related to city operation of the games and security. I know that the hon. Gentleman will be particularly interested in the time that I spent considering the risk of an increase in human trafficking associated with the Olympic games, and I worked closely with the security services and police officials at federal, district and city level on that. I have met representatives of non-governmental organisations in Vancouver and here, since I returned. We will in due course publish a proper debrief on the Olympic and the Paralympic games.

Given that all major sporting events attract an increase in criminal activity, and in view of the fact that the Metropolitan police have said that there are already new indications that criminal activity in east London is increasing, two years before the Olympics, will the Minister consider a major poster campaign on all London buses, on the underground and on sites, to highlight the fact that Britain is no longer a welcome place for human trafficking and to ensure that human traffickers realise that they are no longer welcome in Britain?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct in his last point, and the focus of all the meetings, visits and engagement that I have had on the issue has been that we want to send a signal to traffickers and criminals from around the world that London will not welcome them in the run-up to the 2012 games. The hon. Gentleman should reflect, as I know he does, on the complexity of the matter. No simple conclusions should be drawn, and we are ensuring that we mitigate the risks.

Cheap ticket prices were fundamental to the success of Vancouver, allowing real sports fans to attend and witness the superb success of Amy Williams from Bath. Some 50,000 free tickets were issued, and 100,000 were issued at less than £16. Equivalent figures in London would be 300,000 free tickets and 600,000 below £16. How many cheap and free tickets does the Minister expect to be issued for London 2012?

The hon. Gentleman knows that I am enormously concerned about ensuring that families with children from right around the country can afford to come to the games, and that tickets are affordable for Londoners. The pricing of tickets is, however, a matter for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, which will make announcements about it later this year. I am quite sure that it will listen to the messages that are coming loud and clear from the House about the importance of affordability.

May I add my congratulations to Amy Williams on her gold medal? That is a fantastic way to end Olympic questions for this Parliament. However, her achievement should not disguise the fact that we under-shot the Government’s UK Sport medal target of three; that Snowsport GB, the governing body responsible for snow sports, went into receivership on the eve of the games; and that at a time when we have successfully raised more than £600 million of sponsorship for London 2012, despite the £6 million of lottery and Exchequer funding that has gone into winter sports we have not attracted a major sponsor into that area. As we move forward to the Sochi Olympics—

Order. May I just gently say to the hon. Gentleman that there are other questioners on the Order Paper? I hope that he will bring himself to a question very quickly.

I was actually just going to finish by asking whether, given all those factors, the Minister now feels it is time for a fundamental review of where we are going with winter sports before Sochi.

I do not want anything to detract from Amy Williams’s gold medal or the significant number of top 10 finishes that our athletes had, and nobody in the House should talk down the efforts of team GB, every single member of which deserves our congratulation. It is worth noting that investment in winter sport doubled between Salt Lake City and Vancouver, from £3 million to £6 million for the same number of athletes. I am quite sure that UK Sport, as the responsible body, will want to review progress and the funding strategy.

Olympic Legacy

London 2012 will be the first legacy Olympics. We made two pledges when we won the games in Singapore: to transform a generation of young people through sport, and to regenerate east London. On sport, 10 years of investment will mean that by 2012, 60 per cent. of young people will spend five hours a week on sport and competing, up from 23 per cent. doing two hours of sport a week in state schools in 2002. The regeneration of east London is there for all to see, so those are two legacy promises made and two legacy promises delivered.

I thank the Minister for her response. In my borough of Bexley, we are all passionate supporters of the London Olympics. Regrettably, however, no Olympic events are to be held in my borough. What does the Minister see as the lasting legacy for outer-London boroughs such as Bexley?

Well, I think outer-London boroughs such as Bexley could start by taking up free swimming for children under 16 and people over 60.

Apprenticeships (Olympic Park Site)

Some 350 apprenticeship places will be created on the Olympic park and village by 2012— 3 per cent. of the work force, and more than three times the industry norm for the south-east. The latest figures show that there were 150 apprentices on site in December 2009, 56 of whom were from the host boroughs. The Olympic Delivery Authority and its partners are on track to increase that number to 180 apprentices in 2010.

Would my right hon. Friend care to relate those figures to what she said about the norm for British industry, and will she tell us how they impact on the five host boroughs?

Those apprenticeship places are a very important part of contributing to the skills legacy for the Olympic park—the 350 places will represent 3 per cent. of the work force at its peak, as I indicated. We also welcome the fact that the construction skills academy, which is now relocated at Beckton, will continue after the games, providing a young, skilled work force, including increasing numbers of women, to the construction industry in London and beyond, which is important once the Olympics are completed and as we move towards the construction of Crossrail.

Vancouver Winter Olympics

5. What assessment she has made of the lessons to be learned from the Vancouver 2010 winter Olympics for the London 2012 Olympics. (318883)

I hope I have dealt with the question of the lessons learned from the Vancouver Olympics, both on construction and legacy. As I indicated earlier, a full report will be prepared in due course.

One success of the Vancouver games appears to have been the provision of large screens in public parks, whereby very large numbers of people could watch the activities taking place on the slopes. What lessons will the Government draw from that successful experience for London 2012?

The lessons will be to have—right across the country—large screens, live sites, volunteers, and activity locally through the Cultural Olympiad, sporting events and so forth, so that there really is a sense of Olympic celebration right across the UK, and so that people are able, wherever they live, to have first-hand experience of the games.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During Question Time the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport made an accusation that I took orders from Sky and Murdoch. That is a most extraordinary accusation. I have been in Parliament for five years, and I have never taken orders from anybody. I would have hoped that the Secretary of State would apologise, but he did not take the opportunity to do so. Can you suggest how I pursue an apology, Mr. Speaker?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. He has placed his views and concerns very firmly on the record, and I listened carefully to what was said. Although I was mindful of our prohibition on imputing false motives, I think that in this case it was a matter of taste rather than of order.

The Secretary of State is here. If he wishes to respond—[Interruption.] Order. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to respond, he is free to do so—[Interruption]—but he is under no obligation to do so.

The Secretary of State does not wish to apologise. So be it. [Interruption.] Order. The House is getting a little over-excited. The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) is getting very worked up, and I am quite worried about him. I do not want his health to suffer by him getting overly worked-up—that would be bad for The Wrekin, bad for the House and bad for the nation. We do not want that to happen, so we will move on to the next point of order, which comes from Dr. Spink.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Many hon. Members will have to fight an election soon in which tainted Ashcroft money has been used, perhaps unfairly, to buy votes against them. Are you aware of any opportunity for the House to debate that very worrying matter, which hits at the very heart of our democracy and the concept of fair play?

The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of the House, and he knows that the scheduling of business, the timetabling of debate and the question of which debates take place are not matters for me. He is a perspicacious fellow, and he knows that he can of course raise the matter at business questions if he wishes to do so. As for the issue being debated, although what we have just heard certainly did not represent a full-scale debate, the hon. Gentleman has left his constituents in no doubt about his views on this important matter.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Last Tuesday you made an important statement about new rules for petitions, beginning today. I will have the honour later this evening to present the first such petition, organised by Cassian Horowitz on behalf of hundreds of staff against the closure of Bellamy’s bar. In your statement, you said:

“The right to petition Parliament is one of our oldest and most cherished…traditions. The changes…will refresh and improve an important democratic mechanism.”—[Official Report, 23 February 2010; Vol. 506, c. 163.]

It has been drawn to my attention, however, that the departmental Communications Officer of the Department of Facilities sent an e-mail to staff on Friday saying that they should express their views through their line manager—and, by implication, not sign the petition. Please, Mr. Speaker, will you confirm that the democratic right to petition Parliament extends to all the staff working in Parliament, and that they are free to sign the petition without fear of victimisation?

This is not a proper matter to be aired extensively on the Floor of the House. I will make inquiries, but what I will say to the hon. Gentleman—I do not think that he has ever accused me of ducking a matter, and I do not wish to give him the opportunity to do so on this occasion—is that he has made his point extremely forcefully—[Interruption.] Order. I stand by what I said about the right to petition. I will look further into this matter and the very particular charge—or criticism—that he makes, but it is perfectly proper that he should air his concern. Now is not the time for a general debate about it on the Floor of the House.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I remind you that the very first recorded petition to Parliament came from my constituency? It was dropped from a horse and found on Salisbury plain. It was eventually brought to the House of Commons, where it was considered by the House—and burnt.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is in his 27th year as a Member of the House. He will therefore know that what he has just said is most certainly not a point of order, but it would be widely regarded as a point of enlightenment, and we are grateful to him.

Bills Presented

Bilingual Juries (Wales)

Presentation (Standing Order No. 57)

Hywel Williams presented a Bill to amend section 10 of the Juries Act 1974 to provide that in certain cases all members of a jury be bilingual in Welsh and English; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 April, and to be printed (Bill 75).

Registration of Births and Deaths (Welsh Language)

Presentation (Standing Order No. 57)

Hywel Williams presented a Bill to make provision about the registration of births and deaths where particulars are given in Welsh and English; to permit certificates of particulars of entries of registers of births and deaths to be in Welsh or English only in such circumstances; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 April, and to be printed (Bill 76).

Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 (Amendment)

Presentation (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Andrew Dismore presented a Bill to amend the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 March, and to be printed (Bill 77).

Opposition Day

[4th Allotted Day—First Part]


I beg to move,

That this House expresses its continued support for HM armed forces personnel and their families; notes that over 440 service personnel have been killed on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001; further notes that the armed forces have operated over the original planning assumptions for years; regrets that there has not been a Strategic Defence Review (SDR) since 1998; believes that the 1998 SDR was never fully funded and failed to provide proper equipment for the Iraq war; recognises that the Government failed to plan for post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq; further recognises the cut to the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion in 2004; is concerned about the cuts to the frigate and destroyer fleet from the 32 recommended in the 1998 SDR 23; is further concerned by the failure to provide the Royal Air Force with a modern troop transport and air-to-air refuelling fleet; believes that the Government has presided over a failed procurement process; further believes that the Government has failed properly to fund the armed forces for wartime operations; and calls on the Government to acknowledge its failure to honour the Military Covenant.

At the beginning of this debate, our thoughts and prayers are very much with the families and friends of Sergeant Paul Fox, Rifleman Martin Kinggett and Senior Aircraftman Luke Southgate, who have all given their lives in the service of their country in the past week. The sadness that we share with their families is mixed—correctly—with pride in their courage and devotion to their country.

With the 1998 strategic defence review, new Labour got off to a relatively good start with the armed forces. The 1998 SDR was a well-respected document. Moreover, it used a foreign policy baseline, not a Treasury baseline, as many of its predecessors had done. That was, and is, the right way of conducting such a review. However, the failure to have a review for more than 12 years means that our armed forces—as well as Government across Whitehall, for that matter—have failed fully to adapt to the increasingly changing global security situation.

The events of 9/11 fundamentally changed the international security environment, while the aftermath of Iraq made the planning assumptions of the SDR largely obsolete. Looking back, we can also see that the review’s ambitions were never fully matched with funding. That has meant that for 12 years our armed forces have been operating well beyond what they were resourced to do. The truth is that the current Prime Minister as Chancellor was never willing fully to fund Tony Blair’s wars, and that same sad story has been retold time and time again during the Chilcot inquiry.

As the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) stated in his evidence, within the Ministry of Defence

“there was quite a strong feeling”

that the 1998 strategic defence review

“was not fully funded,”

and that

“in the subsequent CSR programmes we asked for significantly more money than we eventually received”.

Sir Kevin Tebbit said that as permanent secretary he had to operate a permanent crisis budget. Former Chief of the Defence Staff Lord Walker said that the SDR was underfunded by well into £1 billion.

In one of his many moving farewell speeches, in one of the final pieces of spin of his premiership, Tony Blair said that defence spending had remained broadly stable, at 2.5 per cent. of GDP, if we take into account Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, much of the burden of the cost of Iraq and Afghanistan was being carried by the core defence budget. The truth is that the Ministry of Defence was effectively fighting two wars on a peacetime budget.

The Treasury’s unwillingness fully to fund the MOD’s 1998 SDR meant that there were big losers across defence and a degradation of our capability. Let us look just at the Royal Navy. Time and time again since the 1998 SDR, the Navy has been blackmailed into accepting cuts to its fleet, to ensure the eventual addition of two new carriers. During the 1998 SDR process, the Navy agreed to cut its fleet of 12 attack submarines to 10, and its fleet of 35 destroyers and frigates to 32, in return for the promise of the two carriers. A decade later we find our Navy with only eight attack submarines, with a possible future reduction to only six or seven, and 22 —an astonishingly low number—of destroyers and frigates. Maritime commitments have not decreased since 1998 but have risen, at a time when our Navy has been slashed, mothballed and, in some cases, sold off. There is a similar pattern to be found across all three services, including the reserves.

I will in a moment.

The Government’s failure fully to fund their SDR is only one item in a long litany of failures. The true story behind the invasion of Iraq is now being told. I am sure that the whole country is looking forward to the Prime Minister’s evidence this Friday, but what we already know is quite shocking. Not only did the Government fail to plan properly for the post-conflict period in Iraq, but it is now well known that what most of us suspected all along is true: that troops were sent into Iraq without proper equipment. We now know that during the early planning phases of the Iraq war, the then Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Boyce, was blocked by the then Defence Secretary from organising crucial logistics, in case it sent the wrong political message: that we were preparing for war. In the words of Lord Boyce,

“I was not allowed to speak, for example, to the Chief of Defence Logistics—I was prevented from doing that by the Secretary of State for Defence, because of the concern about it becoming public knowledge that we were planning for a military contribution which might…be…unhelpful in the activity…in the United Nations to secure”

a Security Council resolution.

I understand that Opposition parties have to try to point out shortcomings, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that defence, like other public expenditure, is a matter of choice, that as the world changes the choices have to change, and that if we want to spend more on things such as unmanned aerial vehicles and intelligence, we have to think about what we are going to spend less on?

That is a statement of the obvious. I will come in a moment to the economic backdrop against which future decisions will have to be made.

The point that I am making is that we now know that troops were sent into harm’s way in Iraq without the proper equipment for political reasons. Sending troops into harm’s way without the proper kit for domestic reasons is a serious breach of the military covenant.

May I go back to the point that the hon. Gentleman was making when I sought to intervene on him? He was speaking movingly about the shortfalls affecting the Navy. Is it true that the first act of a Conservative Government would be, as he said to the convenors of the shipyard unions only last week, to examine the break clauses in the aircraft carrier contract?

It would be the act of any sensible incoming Government to look at the unavoidable costs in any project that the previous Government had committed them to—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] That is a sensible thing to do. If we are going to go ahead with some of the essential projects required for the country’s military and diplomatic prowess, we will need to be able to look at what the costs are going to be across all Government programmes. That is exactly the point that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) made a moment ago.

One would have thought that the Government had learned enough, following their failures in Iraq, to ensure that we were prepared for our mission in Afghanistan, but again they failed to understand the situation and sent our forces into a hornets’ nest, without the proper resources to carry out what they were being asked to do. An Army board of inquiry into the death of Captain James Phillipson in 2006 found that there had been delays in the delivery of basic equipment, partly because

“The MOD and the Treasury were unwilling to commit funds to urgent operational requirements enhancements prior to any formal political announcement.”

The Government were sleepwalking into the early stages of our engagement in Helmand province by sending only an initial 3,500 troops. The brigade commander in 2006, Brigadier Ed Butler, has made it clear that that number of soldiers was deployed as a result of a “Treasury-imposed cap”, and not as part of an objective analysis of the situation on the ground.

The shortage of key equipment in Helmand—especially helicopters, as has been well documented—has in part led to a number of high-profile military resignations, including those of Colonel Stuart Tootal, Brigadier Ed Butler, Major Sebastian Morley and Major-General Andrew Mackay.

The hon. Gentleman will recall that the mandate to go into Iraq was secured in this House. Prior to that, no activity could take place at ministerial level, or within Government Departments, that would suggest that we were going to go into Iraq, for fear of presuming on the House. He will also know that some 23,000 items were required to be deployed as part of personnel security. Does he not understand that although the intention to deliver is there, it is sometimes not logistically possible to do so?

I simply do not accept that point. Sensible contingency planning ought to have been taking place. It was not that the equipment was unavailable or that it could not be ordered; it was specifically not ordered because that would have sent a specific political signal. That is where the moral culpability of the Government lies.

Perhaps the Government’s biggest failure in their conduct of defence is their mismanagement of the equipment programme. The defence and security of the country is increasingly being run on a wing and a prayer, and as the money has failed to materialise for the unfunded projects, they have been delayed and delayed, with the taxpayer left to foot the bill and the military left to ponder their absent capabilities. The default position should be that we spend to save, rather than that we delay to spend. Speedy procurement ultimately saves money, but the Government have too often failed to understand that.

Unfortunately, if half of what was reported in the Gray review is true, the next Government will have not only the task of balancing defence priorities between the conflict that we face today and the wars of tomorrow, but the challenge of putting the MOD’s finances back on track after a decade of mismanagement and neglect. The Labour Government came to power with a promise to introduce smart procurement, which would deliver equipment faster, better and more cheaply. Nothing could be further from the truth, however.

None of us knows exactly when the election will come; there have been rumours that it could be announced today, but personally I doubt it, because if the Prime Minister were any more of a serial bottler, he could start a factory. But whenever the election comes, the Government in office after it will find themselves with a military that is overstretched, undermanned and in possession of worn-out equipment.

We know that the equipment programme is underfunded—by exactly how much is anybody’s guess, but most estimates put it at billions of pounds. Bernard Gray, the Government’s own analyst, placed the figure at £16 billion over the next 10 years, which equates to an unfunded liability of some £4.4 million a day. The plunging value of the pound, which we have seen again today, has left an estimated £1.3 billion black hole in Britain’s defence budget.

According to the most recent figures available from the National Audit Office, the top 15 major procurement projects are £4.5 billion over budget and delayed by a total of 339 months. The A400M aircraft is £657 million over budget and will be delayed by 82 months. The Type 45 destroyer is £1.5 billion over budget and will be delayed by 38 months. The aircraft carriers are more than £1 billion over budget already, and the service entry date for the first carrier has been delayed from 2012 to 2016. The decision in 2004 to cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion—in the middle of two wars—was inexcusable, irresponsible and irreconcilable with the basic duty to maximise the safety of our troops while carrying out a dangerous mission. In the words of the former Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Ashfield, to the Chilcot inquiry,

“had that budget been spent in the way that we thought we should spend it, then those helicopters would probably be coming into service any time now.”

Due to this failed procurement programme, billions of pounds have been needlessly wasted—money that could have gone into equipping our front-line troops.

The Ministry of Defence’s record of waste is staggering, as £2.5 billion has been spent on external consultants, but it could not find £20 million to train the Territorial Army. Furthermore, £2.3 billion was spent refurbishing the MOD, but it could not find £4 million for officer training corps training.

A further £6.6 billion was wasted on account of lost equipment, including among other things 3,938 Bowman radios and an untold number of laptops. Another £113 million was wasted on a super hangar for fast jet repair that was never used, while £118 million was wasted on armoured vehicle cancellations, £8 million was lost on cancelled training courses and almost £250,000 lost on works of art to hang on the walls of main building. How can all that be allowed to happen? It is a picture of serial incompetence and a lack of grip by Ministers on the Department.

Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House what the cumulative efficiency savings have been in each of the comprehensive spending review periods from 2001 onwards?

No, I do not have those figures, but I look forward to being enlightened about them when the hon. Lady speaks.

New Labour’s deluded belief that we can all live beyond our means indefinitely has produced an economic train crash whose effects will be felt for a generation. The enduring legacy of new Labour’s brand of socialism has been to saddle us with “cradle to grave” debt. When the Government leave office, they will not only have failed in their duty to support our armed forces properly in conflict, but the economic calamity they leave in their wake will make the task of rebuilding our security in a dangerous world all the more difficult.

Put simply, Mr. Speaker, it cannot go on like this. Our armed forces cannot take another five years of Labour. The damage this Government have done to our armed forces will take years to put right, and will limit our ability to react to the unexpected for years to come. It should come as no surprise that the Government’s decade of neglect simply reflects the way in which their leadership view defence. We have had individual Defence Secretaries, including the current one, who have been both competent and committed to the armed forces, but we have had four Defence Secretaries in four years, one of whom was part-time, even though we were heavily engaged in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Besides using the armed forces as props in a photo shoot, the Prime Minister himself has never shown much interest in the armed forces. The former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie, described the Prime Minister as

“the most unsympathetic Chancellor of the Exchequer, as far as defence was concerned”.

We now know that in 2004 the service chiefs came close to resigning en masse.

The Prime Minister’s instinctive lack of interest in the armed forces has been compounded by incompetent procurement and failure fully to fund the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Inevitably, that has resulted in a weakening of the military covenant, with many in the armed forces feeling undervalued. Perhaps we should have known that when, back in 2000, Lord Mandelson described the Brigade of Guards as

“a lot of chinless wonders marching round Horseguards Parade doing incomprehensible things with flags”.

Since 2001, 63 members of the Household Division have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. That senior members of the Government should even think like Lord Mandelson is chilling, and I doubt that any member of the Government Front Bench could defend those views today.

Our armed forces are, in the words of the Leader of the Opposition, “the best of British”. That is why the words of the Chief of the General Staff in his recent memorandum echo so resonantly:

“my greatest concern…is the deteriorating experience of soldiers and their families in the period between tours which, the team reports, is disaffecting attitudes, damaging morale and risks undermining our ability to sustain the campaign over the next years. We need our soldiers to be ready, mentally and physically, to endure repeated tours in Afghanistan in a harsh environment, with the real prospect of significant casualties each time. To maintain the necessary morale and cohesion they must see tangible signs between tours that they and their families are valued.”

That is it: our armed forces need to be valued.

Labour has had 13 years, and in that time has failed to understand the value, the essence and the importance of the military covenant. It is a dangerous world, and this Government are tired. The Ministry of Defence and our armed forces need a new vision and a new life, which only a new Government will have the energy to provide.

I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “2001” to end and add:

“pays tribute to their sacrifice; believes that the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) and the updates that followed the September 2001 attacks on the US have provided a robust policy foundation for the modernisation of Britain’s armed forces that has enabled them to take on successfully the many challenges they have faced over the past decade, including the major operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; notes that the Ministry of Defence has brought into service 31 new ships, 63 new multi-role fast jets, six large transport aircraft and 171 new helicopters and provided the Army with a wide range of new equipment it has required to succeed on operations; recognises that the defence budget has grown by more than 10 per cent. in real terms since the SDR and that an additional £14 billion has been provided by the Reserve for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; and welcomes the steps that have been taken substantially to improve support, medical and welfare services for the armed forces.”

I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute, as the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) did, to those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan in recent days: Senior Aircraftman Luke Southgate of II Squadron Royal Air Force Regiment, Rifleman Martin Kinggett of 4th Battalion The Rifles, and Sergeant Paul Fox of 28 Engineer Regiment. They and, indeed, all who have lost their lives in operations in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan or closer to home in Northern Ireland, deserve the gratitude of the entire nation. Their families and their friends are in our thoughts. I have the utmost admiration for the bravery and professionalism, and the selfless commitment to duty, of our armed forces: they show that day in and day out.

I listened closely to the hon. Gentleman. At a time when our armed forces are engaged in dangerous operations that are crucial to this country’s national security and international stability more widely, it is important for us to ensure that defence is widely debated. That is why I find it disappointing that the Conservatives want only to look backwards. Perhaps that is because of their lack of clarity on their own policies for the future.

The strategic defence review of 1998, and the updates that followed in 2002 and 2003, modernised our armed forces to enable them to take on successfully the many challenges that they have faced over the last decade. The Conservatives supported every major operation since the strategic defence review, and they were right to do so. I must say to them, however, that it is not possible to will the ends, oppose all the means and try to score political points with the benefit of hindsight without proposing anything different. That is not a responsible approach to opposition.

Let us take Afghanistan. The Conservatives agree with us about the need to be there. They agree with the military and political strategy that the Government are pursuing. They have supported each deployment of further troops. They have supported the increase in funding of equipment and support for personnel in theatre. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) disagrees, she disagrees with her party’s Front-Bench team and not with me. They agree that we can succeed. They agree that we cannot put a limit on how long this will take. Yet the hon. Member for Woodspring tries to score political points about equipment, publicly accusing the Government of betraying our troops without even checking his facts. He claimed that Ridgback armoured vehicles were stranded in Dubai for lack of airlift to take them into theatre when, in reality, those vehicles were being sent to Afghanistan ahead of schedule. False claims do not just damage the Government; they risk damaging the morale of our troops and the public, and they also risk damaging the mission. Let me set the record straight, and I challenge the Conservatives—

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment. I challenge the Conservatives to say what they would do differently. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman now, if he stands up and tells us what he would do differently. Going forward—not going back—what would he do differently?

Any strategic defence review has to be fully funded. Therefore, any SDR that a future Government would decide on would be fully funded; it would be irresponsible not to do that. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether, on the Government record, it is true that the Government cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion in 2004, in the middle of two wars?

I was about to come to the Government’s record. It is a record of which the Government can be proud, and the facts are as follows. First, operations are not funded from the core defence budget. By the end of 2008-09, the Treasury reserve contributed more than £14 billion to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. We estimate that a further £4.5 billion will be provided this financial year, and we expect the reserve to contribute some £5 billion to the cost of operations in Afghanistan in the next financial year. More widely, compared with 1997, we now have armed forces that are more capable and better equipped, and successfully working together. To achieve that, we have had to invest more to get more. Since the 1998 defence budget, the budget has grown by more than 10 per cent. in real terms—that is aside from the commitment from the reserve—and there has been the longest period of sustained growth since the 1980s, which is in marked contrast to the situation in the 1990s, when, under a Conservative Government, the defence budget decreased substantially. The defence budget will be some £35.4 billion this financial year, rising to £36.9 billion in 2010-11. We have ring-fenced that increase next year, again in marked contrast to the Conservative party, which has refused to guarantee that the defence budget will be safe from the axe in their proposed autumn Budget.

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman if he is going to stand up now and tell us whether the defence budget will be safe from the axe in his party’s proposed autumn Budget.

It is very kind of the right hon. Gentleman to give way, but when I try to intervene it is because I want to ask him questions, not because I intend to answer any he might wish to put. The question I wish to put to him is this: does he, or does he not, accept that if any money that is forthcoming from a Treasury reserve budget in order to fight wars is added to the core budget, yet the proportion is still only 2.5 per cent. of GDP, it is no good the Secretary of State saying the Government are funding the wars separately if the overall peacetime defence budget as a proportion of GDP is remaining the same? The Secretary of State is giving with one hand and taking away with the other, and he is not fully funding the wars that he undertook.

That is not the case, and the hon. Gentleman is aware of his sleight of hand here. We are talking about a period of substantial growth, and the facts are as follows. The defence budget grew by 10 per cent. in real terms additional to the £14 billion from the reserve. He knows those facts to be true, yet he tries to suggest they are not.

Given what the Secretary of State has just said, can he explain why, according to the Ministry of Defence’s own statistics, there has been a £4.3 billion underspend in Scotland in recent years?

May I say to the hon. Gentleman that, much to his annoyance, defence is a UK-wide activity? He would like to stop that arrangement, but I am opposed to its being stopped as I believe in the United Kingdom, and I see defence as a whole. I know that he would like to do something different and that, under any Scottish nationalist regime, defence would be slashed to the bone, at great cost to the people of Scotland.

We recognise that we also need to continue to improve how we use our resources. We are aiming to deliver efficiency savings of more than £3 billion over the current spending review period and we are also working to ensure that we get the maximum value for the resources that we spend on buying and maintaining equipment. Defence acquisition is a complex and expensive business that all nations find difficult. Despite shortcomings, our acquisition system compares favourably with those of our allies, and we have already made considerable improvements on the system that we inherited in 1997. Nevertheless, significant cost pressures on the defence budget exist, which is why the Government have examined how we can make further improvements to defence acquisition, including through regular defence reviews, improved transparency and indicative 10-year budgets.

We should not forget that over the past 12 years very substantial investment in defence has enabled us to provide the equipment and support required to conduct today’s operations overseas and to prepare for the future, and I wish to set that out. For Afghanistan, 1,700 new vehicles have been supplied since 2006; we have doubled the number of helicopters in theatre since November 2006; we have more than doubled the number of helicopter hours available to commanders; more than £100 million has been provided for the Counter-Improvised Explosive Device Task Force; there has been a doubling of the Reaper drone capability; an additional C-17 aircraft has been supplied to strengthen the air bridge and improvements have been made to the Hercules fleet; and 22 new Chinook helicopters are on order, with the first 10 set to arrive during 2012-13.

I shall give way in just a moment. The individual soldier in Afghanistan is better equipped than ever before. Our soldiers are fighting in dangerous circumstances in Helmand with great success, and few other nations can do the same. For defence as a whole, we have made significant strides forward. We have brought into service—

I hope that the hon. Gentleman would like to hear the list. We have brought into service more than 170 new helicopters, including the hugely impressive Apache attack helicopter; six new giant transport aircraft; 63 multi-role Typhoon aircraft; and 31 new warships. The first of the six new Type 45 destroyers will enter service later this year and will provide a step change in capability.

I will give way in a moment. Looking forward, we have taken steps to maintain the armed forces at the forefront of air power with our commitment to the joint strike fighter. Work on the two new aircraft carriers is proceeding well. I challenge the hon. Member for Woodspring to set out his party’s position on the carriers so as to provide clarity—he can do so now if he wishes; let us hear what his party’s position is on those. Has the shadow Chancellor prevented him from doing so?

I shall give way to the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell), as perhaps he can tell us his views on the carriers.

I am intervening on the Afghanistan point that the Secretary of State has just made. Given the enormous commitment of material and money to Afghanistan that he has just outlined, is it not an extraordinary example of the fundamental misjudgment that the Government made on the seriousness of the commitment that they sent in 3,300 troops in 2006 and the Secretary of State of the day stated that he hoped they would get in and out without firing a shot? The Government completely misread the strategic task that they were undertaking.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to look at the record, because I was sitting in the House at the time when those comments were made. The then Secretary of State sent 16 Air Assault Brigade south—people do not send 16 Air Assault Brigade south without some serious intent. My right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State knew that southern Helmand was a dangerous area.

I shall give way to the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard). Perhaps he can enlighten us on the position held by the hon. Member for Woodspring on the two new carriers.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He is a reasonable man. Does he agree with me that it is completely unacceptable when troops are returning from the front line in Afghanistan that they should be delayed unnecessarily, not because of bad weather but because of problems with ageing, old airframes delayed in Cyprus? That time is taken away from time at home with their loved ones. I have had a constituent this week in tears, saying, “I want my husband home and he is delayed in Cyprus.” It is not good enough.

We have, from time to time, problems with the air bridge. There is no doubt about that. We do everything that we can to minimise those problems and the RAF seeks, all the time, to make the air bridge as robust as possible, but delays are caused and they cause distress. We have invested in new aircraft to try to minimise those delays, such as the new C-17 that I ordered in December, which will give a new added robustness to the air bridge for Afghanistan.

May I take my right hon. Friend back to the question of commitment and remind him that the tooth fairy does not deliver equipment—it has to be manufactured and, we hope, manufactured in this country? As a defence worker during the late ’80s and ’90s, I well recall the thousands of people who were made redundant by the Conservatives. They cut projects and cut orders and thousands of people lost their jobs. My right hon. Friend would be well advised not to take advice on cuts from the Opposition.

I agree with my hon. Friend. That is why I tried to elicit an answer to the question of the carriers, just as an indication of wider issues that there might be—

Aha! It has taken a while, but now there will be a response on the Conservative party’s position on the carriers.

Patience is its own reward. We have always made very clear our arguments about seaborne air power projection. It would be perfectly reasonable to expect the carrier programme to continue under another Government, unless there were strong reasons in a strategic defence review for it not to do so. It is therefore impossible to exempt any programme. Now that I have clarified our position, will the Secretary of State tell us for the sake of clarity whether the Government will exempt the carrier programme from their proposed SDR?

If that was clarity, it was about as clear as mud. We waited a long time, but clarity came there none.

I am sorry to disrupt the dialogue, which should obviously be encouraged—the Secretary of State is taking a justifiably pugnacious approach—but may I ask this question? Obviously, extra equipment improves morale, but could morale also be improved if Ministers attended when fallen heroes return to this country?

If the hon. Gentleman means the ceremonies at Wootton Bassett, I have to say to him that I find myself in as difficult a position as anybody. If we attend one, how many do we attend? We are also repeatedly advised, as Ministers, that these are military occasions and that we should confine ourselves to attending proper commemorative occasions when they are called—there have been a few and there should be as many as required—for our services as a whole. I do not see how we can go to one and then not another. I get grief about this all the time—people misunderstand the reasons why we are not constantly at Wootton Bassett watching the coffins return. We simply cannot play politics with a very serious, solemn occasion that is there to provide the families, overwhelmingly, with an opportunity to accept their lost loved one back into their arms.

I am most grateful. I think I must be having a bit of difficulty, because I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) ask whether the carriers would be exempted from the strategic defence review. The Secretary of State has been demanding clarity from my hon. Friend; I think that it is only fair for him to give the same to us.

The right hon. Gentleman will also have heard the hon. Member for Woodspring say that he had provided clarity, but when the right hon. Gentleman looks at the record, he will see that clarity came there none. Instead, there has been a mealy-mouthed response. The Opposition are attempting to look backwards because they are frightened to say what the consequences of their proposals would be, looking forward.

I shall not give way because I would like to make some progress. I shall try to give way a little later.

I want to move on to welfare, because the hon. Member for Woodspring has talked about the military covenant. It is not only in relation to equipment that we have modernised. We have improved defence for our people as well. The service personnel Command Paper of 2008 put in place the first cross-government strategy to support our armed forces with a network of champions across central and local government. We have put in place a tax-free lump sum operational bonus worth £2,360 for those fighting in Afghanistan. We have allocated more free phone calls and internet access and free wi-fi for our troops in Afghanistan. We have doubled the welfare grant for the families of those on operations. We have created top-class medical care in theatre, at Selly Oak and at Headley court. We have provided comprehensive in-service occupational mental health care. We have established a compensation scheme—

Let me complete the list, which is quite extensive.

We have established for the first time, in contrast to what applied when the Conservative party was in power, a compensation scheme that allows injured men and women to receive compensation while they remain in the armed forces. We have doubled the tax-free lump sums for the most serious injuries, and we are committed to increasing all other levels of the award.

We have delivered 38,000 new or improved single living bed spaces, and we have upgraded more than 14,000 family homes, despite having been saddled with the dreadful sale and leaseback agreements that were made by the Conservative party when it was in power.

Let me complete the list.

Basic pay has gone up in line with the recommendations of the independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body, in full and on time, in each of the past 11 years. The largest percentage increases have quite rightly been targeted at the junior ranks. The 2009-10 award means that, for the third year running, the increase for the armed forces will be among the highest in the public sector.

Of course, we have delivered changes not just for serving personnel and their families but for leavers and veterans too. They include grants to adapt housing for disabled veterans; the retention of places on the NHS waiting list when people move between areas; help for spouses to find work when they move; priority places in state boarding schools for forces children; fairer treatment when people apply for social housing; free further or higher education for service leavers; and help with getting on the housing ladder. That is the list of measures that the Government have introduced on the welfare side.