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Volume 507: debated on Wednesday 10 March 2010

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the sacrifice of soldiers who have lost their lives in Afghanistan. They are: Rifleman Jonathon Allott; Rifleman Liam Maughan, from 3rd Battalion the Rifles; Lance Corporal Thomas Keogh, from 4th Battalion the Rifles, attached to 3rd Battalion the Rifles; and Corporal Stephen Thompson, from 1st Battalion the Rifles, attached to 3rd Battalion the Rifles. These men have made the greatest of sacrifices in the service of their country and their comrades. Their heroism and bravery cannot, and will not, be forgotten. Their legacy will be in the future that is being won for the people of Afghanistan and the protection they are securing for the British people. They will be remembered with great pride by the British people and by their families. As we honour their memory, we send our sincere condolences to their families and loved ones, who feel their loss the most. The debt that we owe them can never be repaid.

The whole House, I think, will want also to pay tribute to the life of Michael Foot. He will be remembered as a man of deep principle and passionate idealism who was, in the views of many in all parts of this House, the greatest parliamentary debater of his generation.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

The whole House will want to concur with the words of condolence that the Prime Minister has offered to those members of the Rifles who lost their lives. For those of us who served with the regiment that has now become the Rifles, we feel the loss of the families very intensely, but it is matched with pride at what that regiment has become and what it is today.

The Army Families Federation has carried out postal trials which prove that it is unlikely that the vast majority of our armed forces serving overseas will be able to vote in the coming election. Will the Prime Minister intervene to ensure that we do not have the perverse situation whereby we have people fighting abroad for others to have the right to vote, but we are denying them that right themselves?

I repeat and endorse what the hon. Gentleman has said, not only about the regiment that he is talking about but about the bravery of the individual soldiers. I also say to him that the Justice Secretary is making the best arrangements possible so that every soldier and every member of the armed forces overseas who has a vote will be able to cast their vote. I will personally write to the hon. Gentleman about all the arrangements that are being made. It is absolutely right that everyone should have the chance to cast their vote in every election.

Q2. I ask to be associated with the remarks on the loss of life, and on the late lamented Michael Foot.I believe that my right hon. Friend is in favour of full financial disclosure by parliamentarians. With that in mind, will he assure me that the Cabinet Office is currently undertaking an investigation into the tax returns of the noble Lord Ashcroft? (321220)

I have been involved in no such investigation of Lord Ashcroft. I have to tell the House that I believe the assurances that were made in December 2007 that Lord Ashcroft was paying his taxes and was a resident in Britain. These assurances were given to us in an interview by the Leader of the Opposition.

May I first echo what the Prime Minister said about Michael Foot? Obviously, I did not serve with him in the Commons, but I have always admired his writing, his brilliant oratory and, above all, his dedication to this House of Commons. While I did not agree with much of what he said, not least about the Soviet Union and disarmament, he held all his views with conviction and with passion, and that is how we should remember him.

May I also join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the four servicemen who have lost their lives in Afghanistan in the past seven days: Corporal Stephen Thompson, Lance Corporal Tom Keogh, Rifleman Liam Maughan and Rifleman Jonathon Allott. We pay tribute to their bravery and their service, and, as the Prime Minister said, we will not forget what they have done.

Yesterday, we had the inquest into the deaths of four soldiers in Afghanistan in 2008. At the time the Defence Minister, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), linked their deaths to the commanders’ choice of vehicle. That was flatly contradicted by what the coroner said, so will the Prime Minister now apologise on behalf of his Minister?

The Minister apologised at the time, and I repeat that apology. The issue for me is, first of all, that our thoughts must be with the families of Corporal Sarah Bryant, Corporal Sean Reeve, Lance Corporal Richard Larkin and Trooper Paul Stout. They also died serving their country and building a safer Afghanistan, and therefore a safer Britain.

I have read the coroner’s report from the inquest. That report will go to the Ministry of Defence, which has said it will look at every detail that is raised by the coroner and take whatever action is necessary. There are really three areas that have got to be looked at, and we have to be absolutely sure that everything possible is being done. The first is on vehicles themselves. We have ordered 1,800 new vehicles since 2006 at a cost of £1.7 billion to make sure that we have the vehicles that are necessary for the commanders on the ground.

Secondly, on training, we have made sure that the training is better, and it will be improved for those who are going to Afghanistan. Thirdly, on improvised explosive devices, as everybody knows, the guerrilla warfare in Iraq and in Afghanistan led to IEDs starting to be used, and we had to take extra measures to deal with that. We have improved our engineering capability and our surveillance capability, and we now have 3,000 mine detector machines on the ground for our troops. That will double over the next few months. We are doing everything we can to deal with the IED threat, so we are answering legitimate questions that have been raised.

I hope that we can also pay tribute to the dignity with which the parents of those who died spoke yesterday. The dignity they showed is something that I believe impressed everybody throughout all the country.

The Prime Minister has now apologised for something that should never have been said by the Minister, and the House will be grateful for that.

From that apology, let me turn to the broader issue of the Prime Minister’s evidence to the Chilcot inquiry. Following his evidence, one former Chief of the Defence Staff said that he was being “disingenuous” and another said that he was “dissembling”. Both those people worked with the Prime Minister—[Interruption.] Oh, it is because they are Tories, is it? That is what this tribalist, divisive Government think about people who serve our country. I think, first of all, the Prime Minister should get up and dissociate himself completely from what those people behind him have said.

It is common cause within this House that we support the campaign in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and it is common cause also that we do not send our troops into battle without the commanders assuring us that they are properly equipped for the operations they are undertaking. In every instance where the Ministry of Defence asked for equipment under urgent operational requirements, that equipment was given.

If I may say so, as far as vehicles are concerned, the Leader of the Opposition praised us last summer for what we had done to increase the number of vehicles in Afghanistan. If we are talking about these issues, let us find where the common ground is rather than where there is division.

The Prime Minister’s Members of Parliament have questioned the integrity of people who have served this country, fought for this country and are essays in the bravery of this country. Before we go on, he has got to get to that Dispatch Box and dissociate himself from those disgraceful remarks.

I have never at any time criticised the patriotism of anybody who has been involved in the defence establishment of this country. I think we should have a debate about this that is both serious and based on facts. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that every request that was made to us by the Ministry of Defence for urgent operational requirements was met. We have spent £18 billion in Afghanistan and Iraq, on top of the MOD budget. I assure the House that every time our commanders go into action, I ask them for an assurance that they have the equipment they need for the operation. I want to applaud the patriotism of everyone who serves our country, and so does the vast majority of this House.

The Prime Minister has given us a lecture this morning outside the House on character, but he does not have the character to stand up to his own Back Benchers—it is a disgraceful slur.

It was not just Chiefs of the Defence Staff who said this. We have had a former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence talking about a guillotine budget, a serving permanent secretary talking about a serious dispute between the Treasury and the MOD, and a former commander of the Paras in Afghanistan saying that he was

“staggered by the lack of any sense of responsibility”

from the Prime Minister. Why does the Prime Minister think that all those people, who are dedicated to the defence of this country, are wrong, while only he is right?

I put the facts before the inquiry on Friday. I said to the inquiry very clearly first of all that the expenditure of the Ministry of Defence has been rising in real terms under this Government. I also said that in addition to that expenditure, £8 billion had been spent in Iraq, and that we are spending £9 billion in Afghanistan.

I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that the Chief of the Defence Staff has said on record that we are the best equipped force that we have ever been. That is the person who—both on the ground and in his position—has got to satisfy himself that the forces have the equipment they need. I also have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that I am going to take no lectures on integrity from the man who will not answer even one question about Lord Ashcroft—[Interruption.]

The Prime Minister talks about the former Chiefs of the Defence Staff. The fact is that one said that the Prime Minister was “dissembling”, and the other said he was “disingenuous”. The Prime Minister answers every question by talking about urgent operational requirements. Of course the Government never rejected those, but they never thought about what that meant for the defence budget. The fact is that the Prime Minister has tried to fight two wars on a peacetime budget. Will he confirm that when he was Chancellor, the Treasury massively underestimated the cost of the war in Afghanistan?

No. I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that the defence budget has been rising every year. He might have had a complaint if we were cutting the defence budget every year, but it is rising every year. The only time the defence budget has been cut was in the 10 years before 1997, when it was cut by 30 per cent. by a Conservative Government—by half a billion a year. The shadow Defence Secretary has had to apologise for the cuts that the Conservatives made.

The reason the defence budget fell in the ’90s is that under the Conservatives, we won the cold war—[Interruption.]

And we all remember who was wearing the CND badges at the time.

I asked the Prime Minister a very specific question: did he underestimate the cost of the war in Afghanistan? I have a freedom of information request saying that the cost of the war was estimated at hundreds of millions of pounds, but the cost this year is £4 billion. Is it not the case that we have Ministers blaming commanders, a Prime Minister failing to take responsibility, and a Government who have been found out? Should not everyone conclude that they failed to plan, failed to act, failed to prepare, and failed in their duty of care?

First of all on defence, the right hon. Gentleman cannot deny the fact that the budget is rising every year in real terms, and he cannot deny, when he raises the question of Afghanistan, the fact that we have now spent £9 billion on Afghanistan. That is on top of the defence budget. As for his talk about the cold war talk about him asking for no partisanship in the House of Commons! I seem to remember that he was at school at the time.

The Conservative party talks about the new politics, but how can there be new politics with Lord Ashcroft? The Conservative party talks about modernisation, but how can there be modernisation with Lord Ashcroft? And the Conservative party talks about change. How can it ever change as long as Lord Ashcroft is vice-chairman of their party? [Interruption.]

Order. I have already told Mr. Twigg that I am worried about him. Mr. Burns, your heckling is as boring as it is boorish. Stop it or leave the Chamber: I do not mind which.

Wigan has 19 Sure Start centres. Beech Hill primary school is following Westfield, Woodfield and Canon Sharples schools in being rebuilt, and all our secondary schools are being rebuilt through the Building Schools for the Future programme. Can my right hon. Friend guarantee that any Government led by him will continue to invest in our children, the citizens of my constituency and our country?

I can tell the House that we have now built 3,400 Sure Start children’s centres. There were none in 1997, but now there are five or six in every constituency in England. Three and four-year-olds are now entitled to a free part-time early education place. If the Conservative party persists in its policy of cutting Sure Start children’s centres to serve a minority of children, millions of children will lose out on early education and the whole country will suffer.

I wish to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the families and friends of Corporal Stephen Thompson, from 1st Battalion the Rifles; Lance Corporal Tom Keogh, from 4th Battalion the Rifles; Rifleman Liam Maughan, from 3rd Battalion the Rifles; and Rifleman Jonathon Allott, from 3rd Battalion the Rifles. All tragically lost their lives serving bravely and selflessly in Afghanistan this week.

I also wish to add my tribute and that of my colleagues to the late and lamented Michael Foot. As we know from the warm tributes paid earlier, he was a great parliamentarian, a great orator and a great intellectual, but above all a man of great integrity.

Today’s report from the National Audit Office lifts the lid on Labour’s dark secret. Thirteen years of tough talk on crime has actually turned our prisons into colleges of crime. Repeat crime, as the report shows, now costs the taxpayer £10 billion a year and the human cost of tens of thousands of victims is even higher. Will the Prime Minister now admit the truth—that this Government are not tough on criminals, because they are turning the young offenders of today into the hardened criminals of tomorrow?

I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman the facts. Reoffending among young people is down 25 per cent. Whatever he says, he has to face up to the fact that crime is down in this country, violent crime is down in this country and the number of police in this country has gone up. People have a right to feel safer and we are doing more with neighbourhood policing. He cannot give the House information that he cannot back up with the statistics.

How can the Prime Minister defend a record in which nine out of every 10 young men who go into prison on short-term sentences go out and commit another crime within two years? Under Labour, prison is not working. He is spending 11 times more on locking children up than on stopping them committing crime in the first place. Will he not admit that he talks tough on crime and ignores the evidence, but it is the victims who end up paying the price?

Again, the right hon. Gentleman cannot ignore the facts. There are 20,000 more prison places. Adult reoffending has fallen and youth reoffending has fallen. If he would support us on CCTV and DNA, we might be more able to catch criminals at the right time and in the right place. I share with him a desire to prevent young people from reoffending, and a desire that prison is better at educating people for the future, but he cannot ignore the advances that have been made or that youth reoffending is down 25 per cent.

In this week which includes international women’s day and mothers’ day, is the Prime Minister aware that Mumsnet is organising a group of women to come to the House on Friday to remind us all that 500,000 women around the world die in childbirth every year, and 2 million children die on the first day of their lives? Will he commit to action to reduce the number of deaths among women giving birth and newly born children?

I applaud the work done by my hon. Friend, the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood and other organisations to highlight the avoidable loss of maternal life during childbirth and the damage arising from the fact that the children born are without mothers. The themes of the G8 this year will be to make advances on maternal mortality, and to ensure that mothers are better prepared and given better help. It is not a huge amount of money that each mother needs to have a safe pregnancy, but it is vital that together we all ensure that those supplies are available. To reduce maternal and infant mortality is one of the great causes of our time. I hope that the whole House can support that cause.

Q3. The Prime Minister referred earlier to vehicles, training and IEDs as the three issues that now need to be examined, but the Wiltshire and Swindon coroner, David Masters, made it clear that the soldiers whom the Prime Minister named earlier were killed unlawfully—that was the verdict—because they had unsuitable vehicles, inadequate training and insufficient bomb-detection equipment. Why would he send people into battle with unsuitable vehicles, inadequate training and insufficient bomb-detection equipment? (321221)

Before any operation is carried out, we ask those in charge whether they have the equipment needed to undertake it. We are dealing here with a situation in which four people in a Snatch Land Rover faced a huge mine that blew up. At that stage, the mining detection equipment was not as good as it is now. It is a lot better now, and we have learned lessons over the past few years, which is why I say that 6,000 mine detectors will be out in Afghanistan in the next few months. On training, the Ministry of Defence has already said that training has improved and that it will look again at how it can improve further.

On Snatch Land Rovers, the hon. Gentleman will know that in 2006, we decided, on the recommendation of the chiefs of staff, to allocate £90 million to buying Mastiffs, Ridgbacks and other vehicles. He will also know that a contract for 200 light protected patrol vehicles to replace Snatch has been awarded in the past few days. Everything we can do to ensure that our vehicles are safer is being done, which is why 1,100 new vehicles have been made available since 2006 and why we spent £1.8 billion on it. I cannot bring these soldiers back to life, but I can assure him, and the soldiers’ families, that we are doing everything we can to ensure that training is improved, equipment against mines is better and the vehicles in which people drive are safe.

Michael Foot and the Labour party never needed, and do not need now, any lectures in patriotism. He was one of the greatest patriots this country has ever had. In the light of the speech given by the former head of MI5 yesterday, will the Prime Minister tell us when protests were made to the United States over the barbaric use of torture? When did MI5 officers know what was happening, and is it not clear from our experience in Northern Ireland that such torture as used in the United States is counter-productive and will not help in the fight against terrorism?

We do not support or condone torture; we condemn torture. Any allegations of torture will go to the proper authorities to be investigated.

Q4. Last week, 170 families in Sutton, Cheam and Worcester park learned that their children had not been offered a place at the local high school in my constituency. That means that many boys and girls in my area are the casualties of an unfair admissions system that has condemned them to go to schools that are unpopular and miles away from their homes. Will the Prime Minister look at my private Member’s Bill setting out proposals to deal with that issue, and will he take the steps necessary to ensure that no child gets left behind in this way again? (321222)

At the moment, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the admissions framework ensures that all parents are free to consider the right school, not just the nearest. Last year more than 85 per cent. of Sutton parents secured one of their three most preferred schools. I recognise the intention behind his comments, but I have to tell him that anything that narrows the range of schools available to all families is not something we can support.

Q5. Will my right hon. Friend allay my fears and those of my constituents about the two carriers, and not do what the Leader of the Opposition, in his feigned anger, and his defence spokesman have done, which is to say that they will open up any contracts and look for break clauses on day one of the next Government? (321223)

Once again, we are committed to the aircraft carriers and to the programme that is necessary for the Navy and for the defence of our country. We are going ahead with the aircraft carrier programme because we believe, on the recommendations of our defence staff, that it is the right thing to do. My hon. Friend is right that it would be far better if there was all-party consensus on the issue and if we had support from the Opposition on the aircraft carriers. Their silence on this issue today suggests that they cannot commit themselves to the aircraft programme; and as the shadow Chancellor has hinted, it may be one of the first cuts under a Conservative Government. The public are owed an answer from the Conservatives about what their position really is.

In view of the answer that the Prime Minister gave to the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) a few moments ago, could he say why, when stillbirths are running at more than 3,600, and deaths of children in the first seven days of life are running at more than 1,700, he has yet to implement the recommendations of the neonatal taskforce that reported to the Government last year?

I do know a lot about this issue, and I know about the problems that arise. I know that there are issues affecting health inequalities, as well as issues of medicine involved, and I assure the right hon. Lady that we are doing everything we can to reduce the number of infant deaths and to ensure, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) earlier, that mothers too are safe in childbirth. I can assure the right hon. Lady that we will do everything that we can.

Q6. I am sure that the House will join me in offering condolences to the family of those who died so tragically in my constituency on Sunday. Turning to the economy, does my right hon. Friend share the view of the executive board of the International Monetary Fund and a growing band of leading economists, including Sir Alan Budd, that to slash public investment this year would drive us back into recession and destroy jobs? (321224)

I share the condolences that my hon. Friend has expressed for those who died in his constituency on Sunday. It is not just Sir Alan Budd, the senior adviser to the Conservative party on fiscal policy, who has said that we cannot remove the fiscal stimulus now; it is every sensible piece of opinion and every sensible expert opinion in this country and other countries. How the Conservatives can be in a position where they want to cut public spending now, at the moment when the recovery is fragile, I do not know. They were wrong on the issues as we entered the recession, they were wrong in calling for cuts at the height of the recession, and they are now wrong in calling for cuts as we try to escape the recession. On every major economic policy question they have been wrong, wrong and wrong again.

Q7. Will the Prime Minister give an unequivocal commitment that no Labour Government will renege on the opt-out negotiated in the 1972 European Communities accession treaty to zero-rate value added tax on food, children’s clothes, newspapers and books? (321225)

We made a decision in November not to go ahead with VAT, but to go ahead with a national insurance rise. In fact, traditionally the party that has raised VAT is the Conservative party. The Conservatives raised it from 8 to 15 per cent., and then to 17.5 per cent. The Tory tax is VAT, and they have imposed it many, many times.

Was it not under a Labour Government that NATO was created, and does the Prime Minister agree that it was British soldiers from all political parties and no political party who joined our forces throughout the cold war to defeat Soviet expansionism? And does he not recall that it was Governments of all colours—

I think it is important in this House that people recognise where there is agreement and where there is not. There is agreement on our membership of NATO, and there was agreement on what we had to do to end the cold war. There has been agreement that we need to finance our defence forces more, and there has been agreement that we needed to take action in Iraq and Afghanistan—[Interruption.] And I have to say that, for the Conservatives to reduce big issues to ridicule shows just how juvenile their behaviour in this House is.

Q8. It is unfair on rail passengers and contrary to the Government’s carbon reduction strategy that, since 1997, the cost of motoring has decreased by 14 per cent. while the cost of rail fares has gone up in real terms by 13 per cent. Given that a large reason for this is the Government’s policy of forcing up rail fares by 1 per cent. above inflation every single year, will the Prime Minister now give the House and the country an assurance that, if a Labour Government are re-elected, they will end their RPI plus 1 policy and their train fare escalator? (321226)

The railways are carrying more passengers and more freight than ever since the second world war, and we will be announcing plans tomorrow to expand our railways to ensure that we have the most modern railways for the future. I believe that passengers welcome the fact not only that we have better services but that trains arrive on time. It is important to recognise the huge investment that this Government have made in the railways of this country.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the insidious campaign of the Murdoch empire to undermine public service broadcasting in general and the BBC in particular? As we approach the general election, will he affirm that this Government support public service broadcasting and the BBC?

What worries me more is the Conservative campaign to undermine the BBC, Ofcom and British Telecom. The Conservatives have made announcements that put at risk the future of digitalisation and broadband in this country. We are determined that everyone in this country has access to broadband and access to the best services. The Conservative policy would make sure that 100 per cent. did not have full access.