House of Commons
Monday 15 March 2010
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
Death of a Member
I regret to have to report to the House the death of Dr. Ashok Kumar, Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland. Ashok was a most assiduous Member, much respected by the House and, by professional background, a very fine chemical engineer. I am sure that Members in all parts of the House will join me in mourning the loss of a colleague and extending our sympathy to the hon. Member’s family and friends.
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Work for Your Benefit Measures
I am sure that all Back-Benchers and other Members of the House would want to share in your comments, Mr. Speaker, and, especially, to pass on our condolences to the family of the Member. (321772)
I would like to reiterate your points about Ashok Kumar, Mr. Speaker. He will be sadly missed, I am sure, by all colleagues right across the House. He was a good colleague and fine parliamentarian.
The “work for your benefit” programme will provide work experience placements, not jobs. These placements will be over and above the staffing requirements of the host employer and in addition to the existing or expected vacancies. As such, we do not expect the programme to have an effect on the employment of existing workers, whether low paid or otherwise.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he accept, however, that there is a danger that certain less scrupulous employers will take the opportunity to pay less to have one of these placements instead of paying the minimum wage, which has been so hard fought for?
The hon. Gentleman is right to remind the House of the minimum wage, which was introduced by the Labour Government and resisted in many quarters; I am pleased to say that there is now some consensus. We will ensure with contractors—our providers who ensure that we get places for people who have been out of work for two years, beginning with the pilot areas of Greater Manchester, Cambridge, Norfolk and Suffolk—that there is no displacement. This is about work experience. For people who have been out of work, that is an important part of their being able to get back to work. We think that if people are given that opportunity, they should take it.
Jobseeker’s Allowance (North Wiltshire)
May I also pay a personal tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland, who we will all sadly miss and whose family are in our thoughts today?
In the past 12 months, as a result of the recession, the claimant count nationally has risen from 1.3 million to 1.6 million—500,000 fewer than expected this time last year. In Wiltshire, it has risen from 5,250 to 7,300 in the past 12 months, but remains less than half the 15,000 level that it reached during the last recession in the 1990s.
The question was about the North Wiltshire constituency rather than the county of Wiltshire. In North Wiltshire, in January this year, the figure for jobseeker’s allowance was 1,735—some 500 higher than this time last year, and the highest figure since Labour came to power. That is against the figure of 294 jobs advertised in North Wiltshire. Will the Secretary of State comment on so-called ghost vacancies, which may have inflated that figure? These are vacancies that do not exist but which employment agencies have created in order to collect CVs more or less fraudulently.
The way in which the unemployment figures are calculated would not be affected by any inaccuracies in the list of vacancies, because it looks first at the claimant count and also at the labour force survey, which is very detailed. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that in his own constituency the figure is 1,735. He will also be aware, however, that the 500,000 lower than expected figure for unemployment translates into an improvement of about 700 in the claimant count for every constituency right across the country. I hope that that is something that he would welcome as a result of the investment that we have put in, which, unfortunately, his party has opposed repeatedly over the past 18 months. As for what employment agencies are doing, it is important that they act reputably and do not operate in any way that is fraudulent when putting forward vacancies, whatever their motive for doing so.
First, may I associate myself and my hon. Friends with the remarks that have been made about the untimely death of Dr. Ashok Kumar? He was indeed widely respected across this House, and of course our condolences go to his family and friends; our thoughts are with all of them today.
Official figures published today show that the UK accounts for one in seven of Europe’s entire hidden jobless population. After 13 years of a Labour Government, why is that?
In fact, as the right hon. Lady will be aware, unemployment in this country is significantly lower than in most of our major European competitors. In addition, we have seen a significant number of people going into further education and full-time education. We are proud of the increase in the number of students that has taken place over the past few years. I am sorry that her party refused to support funding for the September guarantee, which has helped a lot more young people, in particular, to stay on in education and has helped to reduce the number of people who are unemployed.
But what the Secretary of State failed to address was the issue of the hidden jobless, which was what my question was about. There are 2.3 million people in this country who want to work but are not in work and are not counted in the unemployment figures. In those figures, of course, one group for which unemployment has been rising in recent months has been those on incapacity benefit. The Government’s figures now show that they are going to miss their target of getting 1 million people off incapacity benefit by 2015, not by 100,000 or 200,000 but by 700,000. Is it not the case that five more years of this Labour Government will leave 700,000 people needlessly written off to a life on benefits?
We should look at the facts. In fact, the number of people on inactive benefits has fallen by 300,000 since 1997, despite the recession. That is in marked contrast to the figures when the right hon. Lady’s party was in government, when the number of people on incapacity benefit trebled from 1979 because her party consistently turned its back on people, wrote them off and ignored people who were on long-term benefits such as unemployment and sickness benefit. If she wants to get serious about helping people back to work, will she finally support the £5 billion extra that we are putting into helping people back to work, which her party has repeatedly refused to support?
We are backing 470,000 additional youth opportunities, including through the £1 billion future jobs fund, as well as extra training and job opportunities. That is part of a youth guarantee, which is that all young people should be guaranteed a job, training or a work placement if they have been unemployed for more than six months.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but does she recognise that 923,000 young people aged between 16 and 24 are now unemployed? That is a 50 per cent. increase on the number in that age group unemployed when this Government came to power in 1997. Will she admit that the Government have got it terribly wrong for the youth unemployed?
No, I think the Government are right to provide additional support for young people, through a youth guarantee that the hon. Gentleman’s party opposes, and the future jobs fund, which it would abolish. He asked about the figures. In fact, if we exclude the number of full-time students from those figures, there are 657,000 young people who are unemployed according to the definition of the International Labour Organisation, compared with 830,000 in the early ’90s and more than 1 million in the early ’80s. It was the hon. Gentleman’s party that turned its back on the young unemployed and left a lost generation, whose scars we have seen for very many years. We are not prepared to do that, which is why we are investing in the youth guarantee that his party opposes.
May I add my condolences to the family and friends of Ashok Kumar? He and I became very good friends, not least because he was the only Member of Parliament who had read my father’s seminal history of British Steel.
How can the Secretary of State say that the Government have done enough on youth unemployment when one in five young people still cannot find a job, the young person’s guarantee, which she mentioned, has been delayed for a year and only half the jobs that she claims have been created under the future jobs fund have actually received any funding?
Again, the hon. Gentleman does not have his facts correct. The youth guarantee started this January and is already offering substantial support for young people across the country. I am surprised, frankly, that he cares when it started, seeing as he opposes it and his party wants to abolish it. To point out the facts in his area, there are currently 2,455 youth claimants in Oxfordshire, compared with 5,865 in the early ’90s recession. It is because we are putting in extra investment that we are preventing youth unemployment from rising as high as it did in previous recessions, but we agree that we should do more and will do more next year. His party opposes that.
Thankfully, there is very low youth unemployment in my constituency, but I spoke to a large youth conference last weekend and I can tell the Secretary of State that very few young people have any idea of the work that her Department is doing. What will she do to ensure that some of the young people who may unfortunately become unemployed are aware of the work that is going on?
If young people are unemployed, signing on and going to the jobcentre, they should certainly get a dedicated personal adviser who should be able to tell them about all the help available in their area. We are also working with the careers service and with colleges to ensure that we can make as much information as possible available; the internet is important, too, because we know many young people will increasingly gain their information from those kinds of sources, and we are trying to provide better information for young people in that way.
The question is how successful the Government’s policies have been and how well they have kept their promises. They came to power in 1997, saying that they would get 250,000 young unemployed off benefits and into work. Is the Secretary of State aware that there are now 250,000 more unemployed young people than there were in 1997, that there were more unemployed young people before the recession began than there were in 1997 and that the number of unemployed young people has been going up since about 2001? Is it not time for some fresh thinking to give chances to our young people, or is the Secretary of State going to tell us at exactly what point since 1997 the Government claim to have kept their promise?
In fact, the new deal for young people helped huge numbers into work and off benefits. Indeed, the 250,000 figure of young people helped into work was met more than 10 years ago, exactly as a result of the support we put in. Young people have been more heavily affected than older workers as a result of the recession. That is why we think it right to put in additional support to guarantee them that extra help to get back to work, but if the fresh thinking the hon. Gentleman is calling for involves cutting £5 billion of help for the unemployed and abolishing the future jobs fund, which is helping huge numbers of young people to get good career opportunities, I have to say that that it is not a form of fresh thinking that Government Members are interested in.
Defined Pension Benefit Schemes
We continue to look at ways of supporting defined benefit pension provision while protecting members’ interests through our ongoing deregulatory review. We have today laid new employer debt regulations to help the restructuring of companies. These are due to come into force in April this year and will save employers up to an estimated £49 million a year.
Starting with the tax on pension funds, the Government have introduced a number of policies over the years that have discouraged final salary schemes. I have always wondered whether that was intentional or due to incompetence. It looks like incompetence; am I right?
No, there are very many reasons why defined benefit pension schemes have been in decline. The decline began in the 1960s when I was still at school. Among the main reasons for it are increases in longevity and changes in FRS 17 and various other accounting rules. There is no single magic bullet to try to ensure that defined benefit pension schemes continue, but we are looking through the deregulatory review to give such help as we can. We also need to balance that by protecting those who are already members of schemes.
The reality is that defined benefit schemes have been in decline for decades and it is unrealistic to expect to reverse that tide. May I suggest, however, that the reality for the future must be a compulsory state earnings-related scheme for everyone, as that is the only way to avoid forcing millions of people into poverty in old age?
We are creating for those currently in work the national employment savings trust, which will ensure that those on medium and low earnings can for the first time in their working lives have a workplace pension scheme with a guaranteed employer and Government contribution. We are working very hard to introduce that new scheme.
Can the Minister tell us why her Government have presided over the closing of 100,000 pension schemes and the halving of active membership of those schemes? Why have her Government been so timid about supporting risk-sharing models so that employers and employees alike do not have to face the stark choice between DB and DC—defined benefit and defined contribution—schemes?
Current law allows a range of risk-sharing models, but they have not been much taken up by employers, and we have to remember that DB pension schemes are a voluntary arrangement between employers and employees. We have introduced changes to the employer debt regulations and we have reduced the revaluation cap from 5 per cent. to 2.5 per cent., all of which has saved £300 million. We have also introduced statutory override and we continue to look at other deregulatory measures that might encourage employers to maintain provision. I add that 2.6 million people are still accruing rights in the private sector and DB schemes, which remain a very important part of the pensions landscape.
Tax relief on pension contributions costs £18 billion a year in forgone revenue. Does the Minister have any evidence whatever that tax relief encourages people to save for pensions, because her Department certainly did not used to have any such evidence?
The decisive action taken by this Government has significantly reversed the trend of rising child poverty. As a result of the policies introduced since 1997, we have lifted 500,000 children out of relative poverty and halved absolute poverty. Measures announced in and since Budget 2007 are expected to lift around a further 500,000 children out of poverty.
Half the children in poverty live in a family in which someone is working, yet the Government’s reliance on means-tested benefits has created a poverty trap, in which it does not pay to work or pay to work longer. What measures do the Government propose to make work pay and ensure that more children are therefore brought out of poverty?
The introduction of tax credits and the national minimum wage have, of course, been a huge success in ensuring that those families whose parents are in work are not living in poverty. Furthermore, in his pre-Budget report, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced an extension of free school meals to primary school children whose parents are on working tax credits. That, too, is a significant improvement for that group of families and in relation to work incentives.
We know that the availability of part-time work is critical to achieving our child poverty targets. Does the Minister think that child poverty might now not be rising, as it unfortunately has been over the past few years, if more Government Departments had led the way by providing more part-time jobs? Is she happy that five major Departments have fewer than 10 per cent. of their staff working part time? Are the Government going to do anything about that?
The Government have already done something about that. We have introduced flexible working and the Department for Work and Pensions has led a taskforce on part-time working, which brought together people from the public, voluntary and private sectors to look at how we might increase the amount of part-time working across the whole economy.
Jobseeker’s Allowance (Wales)
The claimant count is 1.6 million for the UK; 80,000 for Wales; and 1,748 for Clwyd, West in the most recent figures.
The unemployment rate in Wales is not only the worst of any of the home nations, but worse than that of countries such as Romania, Slovenia and Bulgaria. Is that a matter of concern to the Secretary of State, or does she share the satisfaction of the Secretary of State for Wales that at least Wales is doing better than Rwanda?
We are putting in place a lot of additional support for people who have lost their jobs in Wales. That is the right thing to do. We are helping people in Wales back to work significantly faster than was the case in previous recessions. The hon. Gentleman will know that although the figure is 80,000 today, it was 130,000 in the 1990s and 160,000 in the 1980s. I think it is right that we keep up that support.
In fact, I went to Merthyr Tydfil just a few weeks ago to look at the work being done there to support the future jobs fund, and to provide opportunities for people to get back to work as rapidly as possible. We will continue to do that, but we have set out investment for it. The hon. Gentleman’s party wants to cut that investment, and that would hit Wales hard.
Just before I ask my question, I should just put the Secretary of State right. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) asked about incapacity benefit. She was clear that the number of people on incapacity benefit in May 1997 was 2.616 million, and that the latest figures—those of August 2009—show that it is 2.632 million. It has gone up by 16,000 since the Government have been in power, not down, and it may have gone up because the Government’s White Paper said that pathways to work—the flagship programme that is supposed to be dealing with this matter—had no employment impact when it was rolled out. The Government’s latest research report reveals that there is
“management pressure to focus on”
the clients who are easiest to get into employment, “parking”—leaving clients who are difficult with no help—and steering people away from helping disengaged clients. We really do need a change. We cannot go on like this. We need a programme that is successful in returning disabled people to work, which is what our “Get Britain Working”—
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) asked about the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s report and about worklessness. The figures relating to the number and proportion of workless households have indeed fallen.
The right hon. Lady also raised the subject of incapacity benefit. As Conservative Members will know, incapacity benefit trebled under a Conservative Government. It rose steadily for about 30 years, and the first falls were a result of the Government’s support before the recession. The additional support that we are providing as part of the new work capability assessment and the employment support allowance is also making a difference, making it possible to find more people who are fit for work.
Support for people receiving long-term sickness benefits does need to be improved. We will not only apply the new work capability assessment but increase support for those receiving those long-term benefits as well as the long-term unemployed, because we do not want to see—and are not seeing—the big increases in long-term sickness benefits that were encouraged by the right hon. Lady’s party during the last recession.
The claimant count is 1.6 million nationally and 3,111 in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
I have here a booklet entitled “Britain forward not back”, and also entitled “The Labour party manifesto 2005”. It can be found in the fiction sections of all good libraries. In bold letters, chapter 1 promises “Low debt and high employment”. Instead, we have record debt and high unemployment. Why should we believe any promises made by the Labour party?
The hon. Gentleman may have missed it, but 18 months ago there was a rather major financial crisis which involved major banks throughout the world nearly crashing to the floor and having to be rescued by national Governments throughout the world. Global trade has shrunk substantially, and as a result every country in the world has experienced recession and an impact on employment.
This Government believe that it was right to support the economy through difficult times. That is why we increased investment, and also why we have kept the unemployment level half a million lower than it was expected to be last year. Billions of pounds have been saved for the Exchequer as a result.
Pensioner households are currently £600 a year better off on average as a result of increases in income provided by pension credit and its predecessors since 1997. The poorest third of pensioner households are around £1,100 a year better off.
Does my hon. Friend agree that another measure that would help to reduce pension poverty is the restoration of the link between earnings and the basic state pension? Will she reaffirm that it is the Government’s policy to do that in the next Parliament—in line with the Pensions Act 2007—and also to ensure that the retirement age is not raised until 2024-26?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that that is the Government’s policy. Indeed, we have legislated to restore the earnings link within the lifetime of the next Parliament. What we have not done is announce, in an “age of austerity” speech, that we will arbitrarily and suddenly increase the retirement age so that every man over 54 sees his retirement plans ripped up at a cost of £8,000 a year, and every woman is charged an extra £5,000 a year, because they are being forced to work for an extra year.
The Minister will know that pensioners can boost their incomes by paying voluntary class 3 contributions and that the special scheme for women born between April 1938 and October 1944 expires on 5 April. With the deadline coming, there has been a surge of applications. Can she offer me the assurance either today in the House or in writing urgently that people who contact Newcastle to get the detailed and complex information that they need to make the right judgment will be able to pay the money after 6 April, provided they make contact by the deadline?
Pension Credit (Take-up)
The Government are committed to ensuring that pensioners receive all the support they are entitled to. The latest estimate for 2007-08 is that the level of pension credit take-up by caseload is between 61 per cent. and 70 per cent. Take-up of the guarantee credit only, which is paid to the poorest pensioners, is higher, at between 72 per cent. and 81 per cent.
The House must recognise that the Labour Government have helped the poorest pensioners, particularly with the pension credit and in promising to re-index the basic pension to earnings. I hope that whoever forms the next Government will get on and do that quickly. But the take-up for pension credit is still too low, particularly for the poorest group; about a quarter do not take it up. Can whoever is in government after the election make sure that we automate that payment?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging the work that has been done to date with regard to pensioner poverty. We have taken 900,000 pensioners out of relative poverty and 1.9 million out of absolute poverty. The figure of 29 per cent. of pensioners in poverty that we inherited when we came into government is now 18 per cent. That is still too many, which is why we have to look at things such as automatic payment. Draft regulations before the House will look at automating pension credit payments on a pilot basis to see whether we can improve the take-up of pension credit, especially by the most vulnerable.
We try to contact those who are older and may not be taking up their entitlement to pension credit. I am proud to say that we make 13,000 home visits to the most vulnerable pensioners every week. We also ensure that there are higher winter fuel payments for those over 80 and free television licences, not to mention the bus passes and free swimming. I wonder how much of that would survive a change of Government.
Social Security Fraud
We have recovered £23 million-worth of overpayments categorised as fraud in the period from April 2009 to the end of February 2010. We specifically target fraud overpayments and, on the latest figures, 92.6 per cent. of such cases are under active management. At the same time, we continue to bear down on fraudulent claims so that there are fewer fraud overpayments occurring in the first place.
That is a tiny amount compared with the £700 million that the UK taxpayer loses every year to benefit fraud. Only a third of cases make it into court. Some 12,000 people last year were cautioned and only one in 100 was sent to prison. Is it not about time the Government started to take tough action rather than just producing more rhetoric and tough talk only?
The hon. Gentleman has given a rather selective picture of what is going on. Last year the Department for Work and Pensions and local authorities between them caught over 56,000 benefit fraudsters and took a range of actions, including administrative penalties and court action. Consequently the level of recoveries being made now has increased from £180 million to £280 million in the last five years.
The fraud figure has fallen from about £2 billion so although it is still too high, there has been some success. At the same time, the level of loss due to overpayments has increased dramatically. What is the Department doing to drive up standards of decision making to deal with that issue?
My hon. Friend has a very good understanding of what is going on across the board. In the last four years, the number of identified overpayments has increased from 992,000 to 1.6 million, but the level of official error has fallen as a proportion of the amount of benefit paid out. Next month we will introduce a one-strike provision, which should prove to be a further significant deterrent.
The level of carer’s allowance is reviewed annually and uprated in April in line with the September retail prices index. In 2009 the index was negative, so to help carers during the early stages of economic recovery we are bringing forward a 1.5 per cent. increase.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but can he give us a time scale for that, and is he aware that many carers are still struggling to make ends meet while others do not really know what benefits are available to them? What is he doing to target those people?
One of the measures we are taking to support carers is the establishment of carers’ support managers, who are based in every Jobcentre Plus, and whom I have met, alongside representatives of Carers UK, the Princess Royal Trust for Carers and Crossroads Care. They are making a real difference, bringing together the various carers groups in our communities to ensure that people know what they are entitled to, and assisting them if they wish to find work. That is why we have put aside some £38 million in funding to assist in paying for the care while such people undergo training.
I greatly welcome the Minister’s response to that question, and his recognition that there is much more to do to promote the take-up of this benefit, but does he accept that the level of take-up is not yet acceptable? Many more people could be benefiting from the allowance if they knew about it, and the Government need to look further into providing innovative ways of promoting take-up.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. It is vital that we have improved infrastructure so that our care partnership managers can reach out to, and meet, all the different carers groups. I can certainly put my hon. Friend in contact with the care partnership manager in the Leicestershire area, so he can find out what is being done there to assist carers in getting the benefit entitlement and the advice and support that we very much want to provide to them, as mapped out in the carers strategy that we published a couple of years ago.
Jobseeker’s Allowance (EU Claimants)
The information is not available in the form requested. Accession-country nationals who have worked and paid sufficient national insurance contributions, and who meet the other conditions of entitlement, may be entitled to contributory jobseeker’s allowance. Of those who have claimed income-based jobseeker’s allowance, it is estimated that 5,647 passed the habitual residence test—the test that must be satisfied to access income-related benefits—in the 12 months to September 2009. However, data on how many went on to receive the benefit are not available, as this information is not recorded by nationality.
Does the Minister find it surprising that thousands of eastern Europeans may well be claiming these benefits given that, despite the fact that we have had 13 years of anti-discrimination legislation, some companies are now allowed openly to advertise that they do not want to employ indigenous British people, but only those of Polish or other eastern European origin? Is that not outrageous?
No, if I can give the hon. Gentleman a little more information, he will understand that his claims are exaggerated, to say the very least. Last year, 162 A2 nationals passed the HRT. The number who passed for claiming income support was 40, the number who passed for making a claim for employment and support allowance was 16, and the numbers from the A8 countries were some 6,000, so the hon. Gentleman should set this in the context of the overall amount of benefits that are paid in this country.
In north Oxfordshire, we are determined to ensure that no one gets left behind, including those not in education, employment or training—NEETs. May I make two suggestions to the Secretary of State? First, there is a need for greater connectivity between Connexions and Jobcentre Plus. Secondly, most of the businesses in my patch are small and medium-sized enterprises. Can we work out a way of helping them to offer apprenticeships, perhaps by introducing group apprenticeship schemes for SMEs?
The hon. Gentleman has raised some important points. He might know that we have been working with the Federation of Small Businesses not only on increasing the take-up of apprenticeships among small businesses but on helping them to take on interns, particularly graduate interns. There is a lot more that small businesses could do to help young people, and they are often keen to do so. If the hon. Gentleman is aware of any small businesses and employers in his constituency who might be interested in doing so, I hope that he will direct them to the Backing Young Britain website, which will provide them with the information that they need.
I fully support the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). The Federation of Small Businesses has advised Members of Parliament in a press release that some 69 per cent. of apprentices work in businesses with 50 or fewer employees. It has also said that many more apprenticeships could be created if the apprenticeship system were simplified and better promoted. Do the Government agree with that, and what action will they take to meet the views of that very sensible organisation, which represents the seedcorn of future businesses?
The hon. Gentleman has made an important point, and I agree that we need to do everything we can to make this easier for small businesses. Indeed, I have discussed the matter with the Federation of Small Businesses and other employers with the aim of doing exactly that. We have been working on this for some time, and we already have measures in place that are making it easier for small businesses to take this up. We want to urge as many small businesses as possible to find out about this and, as I have said, to take on apprentices and interns, because those small businesses that find it impossible to offer a full apprenticeship might still be able to take someone on for a temporary internship.
Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that evidence given to our Select Committee showed a clear link between employment without training and NEETs? Apprenticeships are the preferred option for many young people. Can we seize this last chance in the last weeks of this Parliament to get the full 5,000 apprenticeships with SMEs in place?
My hon. Friend will know that we have already increased the number of apprenticeships. If we look back 10 or 15 years, apprenticeships had pretty much died away in many areas, which was a tragedy for vocational training across the country. We have now put in the additional investment, which has substantially expanded the apprenticeship scheme, but I agree that we need to continue to work to increase the number of apprenticeships, not only in small businesses but with all kinds of employers across the country.
May I express my condolences on the passing of Ashok Kumar? We worked together on the recent Flood and Water Management Bill. He will be sadly missed in the House and in his constituency.
May I press the Minister on this question? My understanding is that the Government have changed the criteria for jobseeker’s allowance, which has taken a large number of people who would otherwise have qualified for it off the register. I put it to her that the Government are massaging the unemployment figures in this way, and that the actual figures are far higher than they are indicating.
We are today publishing a paper on social fund reform with proposals to simplify the social fund so that it is easier to understand for customers and simpler to deliver. The proposals will also make it easier for people to get one-off help and affordable credit when they are in severe financial difficulties and will also provide more support and conditions for those who need repeat help so that they can have sustainable support to tackle their long-term financial difficulties.
The Chancellor stated in the pre-Budget report that retirement pensions would go up 2.5 per cent. In fact, it is only the basic state pension that is going up 2.5 per cent., while the state earnings-related pension scheme—SERPS—is being left with zero increase. Is this just another example of Labour trying to con the British people?
No. In fact, the details were made clear on the day of the pre-Budget report. My hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society gave a statement to the House in which she set out those details. We have been clear about that. As hon. Members will know, the retail prices index for this year would have meant that there were no increases in pensions at all had the ordinary uprating processes happened. We did not think that that was right and that is why we have had the increase in the basic state pension. We considered the implications for the additional pension, but as Opposition Members will also know, it is closely linked across the board to both public sector pensions and a range of private sector pensions, too. That is why we have ensured that there are still no real reductions in the value of the pension and we have increased the basic state pension by 2.5 per cent. too.
My hon. Friend will be aware that there is considerable work under way between jobcentres and children’s centres. In some areas, we have been piloting having outreach workers from the jobcentres working directly with parents in the children’s centres. We want to continue with that work. There is significant potential and we certainly agree that there should be close working between all children’s centres, Sure Starts and jobcentres. Frankly, anybody who thinks that it is a good idea to cut back on Sure Start does not know what it is like to bring up young children in most parts of this country.
The hon. Lady will be aware from our earlier discussion that it is true that young people have been heavily affected by the recession, but that is exactly why we have provided additional support through the future jobs fund, with more than £1 billion, and through the youth guarantee, too. They are all measures that will help young people to get back into work and to get back into training and education opportunities. I have to say to the hon. Lady that they are all measures that her party opposes and would abolish. That is the real challenge that I give back to her.
The outreach service involving children’s centres is already up and running as a pilot programme that involves a series of areas across the country. In fact, I have met some of the outreach workers and I think that they are doing a fantastic job. We are considering the potential for providing additional support in other areas.
The new posts of disability employment advisers provide important support for disabled people going into jobcentres, and included in that will be people with autism. Once someone is on a programme, they are part of that programme and will receive ongoing support. If the hon. Lady has a particular point to make about a particular constituent, I will more than happily deal with that.
My hon. Friend is right that the Government have put in place substantial support for the economy but also for the unemployed in response to the recession. We expected unemployment to be significantly higher, this time last year; in fact, it is around half a million lower than the average of the independent forecasts of last year, and it is likely to be around 650,000 lower during 2010 as well. That is saving us billions of pounds in unemployment benefits and other benefits for those who are unemployed, which shows that making good investment early on to support jobs and growth is also the best way of bringing the deficit down in future.
In fact, through things such as the tax credit system, we have already provided additional support and incentives for people to go back to work, and that has made the difference of, often, thousands of pounds for many families, to make sure that they are better off in work. However, we want to go further. That is why, from next year, we will introduce a better-off guarantee so that everyone who has been unemployed and goes back into work will be at least £40 a week better off as a result.
From those on the Labour Benches who are genuinely much opposed to unemployment, may I tell my right hon. Friend that during the 18 years when I sat on the Opposition Benches I saw very little concern—indeed, hardly any—from Conservative Members about mounting unemployment? The position now would be that much worse without the measures that have been taken by the present Government arising from the global recession.
My hon. Friend draws some important historical comparisons, but if the focus is on what is happening now, Mr. Speaker, the key thing is that the Conservatives would do the same again. They want to cut back all of the support now, so that would take us back to the 1990s—and to the 1980s as well.
I think that the important thing is to provide both grants and loans for people in different circumstances. There are circumstances in which we think it is right for people to be provided with grants—if they do not have a way to repay the money and need additional help for particular things—but we also think it is right to provide access to affordable credit for people who would otherwise find themselves in considerable difficulties, because the modern financial economy has changed substantially. Most people need to use credit at different times to pay different kinds of bills, and if they do not have access to affordable credit and then end up in the arms of loan sharks and so on, that can make life extremely difficult. That is why it is important to provide a loan service in addition to a grant service.
Given that the last Government cooked the books 18 times, changing the way unemployment is measured, and that this Government have accepted the widely recognised International Labour Organisation measure of unemployment, can the Secretary of State give us some comparative figures for unemployment—the United Kingdom versus some of the other European Union member states?
I can tell my hon. Friend that the figure is lower than the EU average. It is also lower than the OECD average and lower than the G7 average. That is important, but I apologise for not having the precise figures in front of me as my hon. Friend asked the question.
I supported the excellent campaign by Age UK and its predecessors to abolish the mandatory retirement age. We had a positive announcement from the Minister for Women and Equality in January, so can the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions give us an idea about whether the Government will actually do something about it before the election?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. For many people across the country, the existence of a default retirement age simply does not fit with their expectations and their approach to working as they get older. That is why we set up the review of the default retirement age, and we are currently looking at the results of the review. The evidence has all been gathered, so we are looking at it and will set out the way forward. The important thing is to give people choice, not to tell people in their late 50s that they suddenly have to work for longer because their state pension is being withdrawn at very short notice. I think it is right to give people choice, as the hon. Gentleman suggests.
My hon. Friend will be aware that under the Child Poverty Bill it was agreed that one of the measures of childhood deprivation was that every family should have access to a living room that no one should have to sleep in; it should just be used for living, recreation, homework, eating and so on. Can she tell us how that measure is being taken forward?
My hon. Friend was most assiduous in promoting the need for improved housing as an important component of ending child poverty. We have, therefore, decided to ask further questions in the family resources survey about the quality of people’s housing so that we have reliable data on which we can base policy.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have taken the power to do that, but because housing benefit—following its introduction by the Conservatives—is administered by 400 different local authorities, there are some practical issues, particularly to do with IT and software, which we are, even now, working with them to overcome. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are making progress as quickly as possible.
For more than 25 years, the Carlyon print works in my constituency provided work opportunities to those who had physical disability or mental impairment. When it was closed down, more than a year ago, the Liberal Democrat and Conservative council that closed it down said there would be further opportunities for those people to take up in the local community, but many of them are still without jobs. What can my hon. Friend do to ensure that councils do not close operations such as that, which provide such an important service—
Obviously, local authorities have their own decisions to make in terms of what they provide, and I hear what my hon. Friend said about councils in his area. I can tell him that from October the workstep programme will become work choice, and we are extending the number of places on it for disabled people. He will also be aware that we are increasing the access to work programme with some specific places—about 3,500—for people with mental health conditions and learning disabilities. The public sector, including Whitehall, can do far more to employ people with learning disabilities, and I am pleased to announce that we are employing people with learning disabilities in Ministers’ offices.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As a result of very low interest rates, which have been the right thing to support the economy as a whole, those who depend on savings income have been affected. That is why the Chancellor took action in the Budget last year to try to provide support for people through their savings. We will continue to do that through such things as individual savings accounts, but I agree with him about the importance of people being able to plan with some certainty. That is why I oppose his party’s policies to rip up people’s retirement age when they are already in their 50s.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Further to the point of order that I raised last week, I wonder whether you have had an opportunity to look at the advice provided. I understand that there is a convention of the House that members of the Panel of Chairs who chair Bill Committees and report them to this place are supposed to remain neutral and are not supposed to object. It was therefore wrong for the objection to the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill made by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) to be taken.
I am grateful—[Interruption.] Order. I can look after these matters myself, I assure the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). It is important that the Member about whom a complaint is being made is given reasonable notice. I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who says that she left a note—
In a minute.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for confirming that she has done that, and for raising this matter. I am well aware that objections to private Members’ Bills on Fridays are often the cause of frustration. It has not hitherto been the practice of the House to require the identification of an objector at that time or on other occasions. At this stage, I am not aware that anything disorderly occurred.
On the specific point about whether the Chair of a Public Bill Committee could or should object to a Bill proceeding, if that is what happened—and I emphasise the word “if”—I suggest that that is a matter for study by the Procedure Committee. As the hon. Lady has raised the matter with me, I will discuss it further with the Chairman of Ways and Means.
On the future progress of the hon. Lady’s Bill, I am sure that she will seek the advice of the Public Bill Office.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker.
The House is a sovereign body and is entitled under our constitution to make decisions unfettered by anything, I understand. Therefore, I ask for the decision made on Friday—that further consideration should take place this Thursday, 18 March, which was agreed to by Madam Deputy Speaker, was not objected to by the Conservative party, and was printed in Hansard—to be adhered to. We should then have enough time for a vote on the Bill.
The date to which the hon. Lady refers is not a private Members’ day. Therefore, it is not immediately obvious to me that the situation is as she describes. I think that the fairest thing that I can say to the hon. Lady, whose two points of order I have listened to very attentively, is that I will inquire further into the matter, and I am happy to revert to her and other Members raising points of order on it, and indeed to the House as a whole.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have been a Member of the House for a considerable number of years, and never have I come across a situation in which a person who has been Chairman of a Public Bill Committee through which a Bill proceeded on a Tuesday comes down to the House of Commons on a Friday to object to a Bill of which he was in charge in Committee. I will not go into the fact that that Bill was supported by all three political parties whose MPs were members of that Committee, but it strikes me as unprecedented, and unparliamentary, for the Chairman of a Committee to block the Bill whose proceedings he chaired. In view of the fact that we may have very little time in which the Bill can go through its stages, it is essential that the matter be dealt with speedily—and, frankly, that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) be called to order, because he seems to me, rather than being in charge of parliamentary procedure, to be in need of psychiatric help.
Thank you. I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He expressed himself with the freedom and force for which he is renowned in all parts of the House. I hope that he will understand if I simply sound a cautionary note at this point. It is not clear that the hon. Gentleman who is “accused” of objecting to the Bill did so; I do not have that information. It is right that the matter be looked into further. I understand what the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) said about precedent, the chairmanship of Committees and subsequent performance, or non-performance, at the later stages of Bills, and that is clearly on the record. I reiterate very clearly for the right hon. Gentleman, whose point of order I take very seriously, that I will look further into the matter. I will discuss it as appropriate and I will revert to the House as a whole speedily, to use his word.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would you accept that private Members’ Bills Fridays are a shambles, and that, as one of our most public-facing means of communication, they should be, to use your phrase, referred to the Procedure Committee, as was recommended by the Wright Committee—the Reform of the House of Commons Committee—so that we can look at the matter in the round, as well as at the behaviour of a member of the Panel of Chairs on Friday?
I said what I have said about the possible locus of the Procedure Committee in relation to at least a part of the matter. The hon. Gentleman is a highly active and very experienced parliamentarian, and I know that he is extremely exercised about the issue; I understand that. I have ruled on the matter, and I know that the hon. Gentleman would not for one moment seek to inveigle me into a debate in which I should not join.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I absolutely take the point that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) is a senior Member of this House and will be well aware of the convention relating to members of the Panel of Chairs. However, my understanding is that the other two Opposition Members who were present in the House, and who might equally have shouted “Object”, are members of the Opposition Front-Bench team. A way of removing the aspersion cast on the hon. Member for Christchurch forthwith would be for one or other of those two Members to admit now that it was them who shouted “Object”.
I do not think that it is my suspicious mind; I have now come to the view that there is an attempt to inveigle me into further participation in this debate. I feel sure that the attempt was an inadvertent one, and I am sure that it will not persist. I have been very fair on the subject. I have said clearly what I intend to do, but I really cannot properly or safely add to what I have said.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have no wish to inveigle you into any further involvement in today’s discussion, but I want to draw to your attention and that of the House the fact that the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) was not the only one blocked on Friday. The Local Authorities (Overview and Scrutiny) Bill, which I have been taking through its later stages—it was introduced initially by the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor)—also had all-party support but was also blocked, despite having completed all its stages other than Third Reading.
The right hon. Gentleman has made his own point in his own way, but I know that he will understand, and others will accept, that the point of order procedure cannot be an occasion for individual complaints about the failure of particular measures to progress.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As a young and relatively inexperienced Member, may I say that I am looking forward very much to discussing in this House the important subject of defence? I am getting worried that we will be unable to do so because of these ludicrous points of order. If the Government wanted the Bill, whatever it was—I do not even know what Members are talking about—to go through its stages, they could have found time to enable that to happen on some other day during the week, and not through the private Members’ Bill process, could they not?
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Last Thursday, the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) came to the House and informed all Members of “alarming stories” of the diversion of aid from the Department for International Development into the pockets of Ministers in Sierra Leone. That hugely damaging statement was totally inaccurate and, moreover, the DFID office has just been subjected to a rigorous National Audit Office audit, which went very well. Will you advise me, Mr. Speaker, what means exist to enable Members to correct wholly inaccurate statements in the House, particularly that statement, which has unnecessarily damaged reputations and undermined the good work and offices of the presidential and DFID offices in Sierra Leone?
I am genuinely sorry to have to say to the hon. Lady, having heard her remarks, that that is not a point of order. It is a very real expression of concern, but what she is considering and commenting on is ultimately a matter of debate. She has, however, very clearly put her thoughts and concerns on the record, which will be there for everyone to see.
If we have no further points of order—
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. If the House had not decided to suspend Standing Orders and reduce the number of days available for private Members’ Bills, there would be more time. Unfortunately, the Members who have raised points of order today all voted for that suspension.
The House has decided what it has decided—to which, as the hon. Gentleman would expect, I have nothing to add. If the enthusiasm for points of order has been exhausted, we shall proceed to the main business, which is a general debate on defence in the world. I call the Secretary of State for Defence to move the motion.
Defence in the World
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of defence in the world.
The armed forces of the United Kingdom provide the country with a unique instrument for the protection of Britain’s national security and the promotion of our national interests. Whether it is protecting the shipping lanes from piracy, defending our dependent territories on land, in the air or at sea, providing humanitarian assistance, keeping the peace in areas of conflict, or fighting to protect national and international security, they are a force for good, and the people of Britain are rightly proud of them.
As we have said before, the main effort for our armed forces is Afghanistan—it is also the main effort for the Ministry of Defence. We are in Afghanistan to ensure that the country cannot be used again as a base to export terrorism, which is a proven threat to our citizens. We will achieve that by supporting the growth of an Afghan Government who reject violent extremism, and who can deny terrorists a haven by maintaining their own security. We must see this job through. The consequences of premature withdrawal would be profoundly dangerous.
This is the context in which the brave men and women of our armed forces are risking life and limb on our behalf. So far this year, 27 UK personnel have been killed, and many more injured. We can minimise, but we can never eliminate, the risks that our armed forces face—this is hard soldiering at the sharp end, and there will be further sacrifice ahead. I was with our forces in Helmand and Kandahar last week, and I met senior allied military commanders, civilian officials and Afghan Ministers in Kabul. There is clear progress on both the security front and the political front, which I shall take in turn.
First, on security, over the past 12 months the number of international security assistance force troops in Helmand has risen from about 7,700 to more than 20,000. The Regional Commander South, Major-General Nick Carter, will therefore continue to review the balance of forces across southern Afghanistan. As announced last week, as part of that, responsibility for Musa Qala will be transferred from UK forces to other ISAF forces. The transfer gives ISAF the opportunity to redeploy UK troops to central Helmand, thickening our forces in the most heavily populated area of the province, where the majority of our troops are already based. Further changes in Helmand are likely in due course to ensure that force lay-down is in line with the campaign priorities set by Major-General Carter.
The early stages of Operation Moshtarak are now complete. We have achieved significant success. The operation has created the space for district Afghan governance to emerge, removing the Taliban’s hold over a large area of central Helmand. Immediate stabilisation activity has begun. The Afghan Government, supported by the UK-led provincial reconstruction team, have launched their district stabilisation plan. This has set priorities and committed resources and manpower to deliver key services in Nad Ali. Three thousand local Afghans have been employed to work on development projects in cash-for-work programmes.
Last week the Secretary of State for International Development and I walked down a lane that only weeks earlier had been known as “IED alley”. The Afghan police were on patrol where previously they had been absent. Locals were selling fruit from stalls where previously commerce had been too dangerous. The Royal Anglians told me how different things were from their first tour in 2006, when they were involved in head-on fighting with Taliban units. This time, they had settled in with speed. The response from the locals had been warm. In total, 1,000 Afghan national security forces personnel have taken part in the latest operations across Helmand, and we expect more than 2,500 to take part in the next phase, including 1,000 Afghan gendarmerie.
But let nobody underestimate the task ahead. Only the first part of Operation Moshtarak has been done. The area has been cleared, but we now have to hold and build. Together with our partners, and in particular the Afghans themselves, we have to provide security for confidence and governance to grow. As the suicide attacks in Kandahar show, the Taliban will come back at us. We cannot take our eye off the ball.
I, too, have just come back from a visit to Afghanistan and share the Secretary of State’s cautious optimism that things are progressing and moving in the right direction. However, Operation Moshtarak does not include the Sangin area, and I am concerned that as areas of responsibility are handed over to the Americans, Sangin, which is very much a British focus, seems to be left out and is turning into our Achilles heel. My former regiment, the Rifles Regiment, is based there. Can the right hon. Gentleman provide more information about that area, which seems to be left out in the cold?
The hon. Gentleman anticipates me. I am coming to the issue of Sangin, as people would expect me to do.
We cannot take our eye off the ball. In other parts of Helmand, UK forces are continuing to support the Afghan Government to bring security and governance to their people. It is a difficult task, which our forces face with resilience and courage. Sangin in particular is one of the most difficult places where our forces are operating. Sangin is Afghanistan in microcosm—an extraordinarily complex situation where poor governance, the drug trade and tribal grievances fuel the insurgency. 3 Rifles are doing a remarkable job in the most difficult circumstances, and the casualties, sadly, reflect that.
The answers to the problem in Sangin will not be provided by the security effort on its own. The problems are political, and the answers will be political. Governor Mangal has acted with determination. He has replaced those who have fallen short or who have abused power—the district governor, the chief of police and other senior security officials. Progress in Sangin is slow and it has, sadly, been hard won. Providing security is difficult and dangerous work and we should expect these challenges to endure for some time.
Although the Secretary of State is right that troops on their own cannot provide the entire solution, troop density levels in counter- insurgency operations are still very important. Ten thousand British troops account for roughly two thirds of the population, and 20,000 Americans account for one third. Does he not think that that balance is out of kilter, and that we need to put it right?
The changes that Major-General Carter has announced will address that issue to a degree, but not to the fullest extent, as I think the hon. Gentleman knows and the mathematics will clearly tell him. Kajaki is another area that we need to think about, and plans are being worked on, but I am not in a position to say what the proposals are, because they have not been completed. However, people are aware of the very issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, and of the need for a proper balance of forces throughout Helmand province.
In the Task Force Helmand area of the province, we need to be able to take full advantage of the increase in troop density from, as I said, 7,700 or thereabouts a year or so ago to 20,000 now. That is not counting the additional ANSF personnel who are flowing into the province as well. Further rebalancing is therefore being looked at, but there are various propositions and none has been finalised, so I am afraid that I cannot tell the House that there has been more than the handover of Musa Qala. But Musa Qala will help, and all the troops from that area will be redeployed to central Helmand, giving additional support and troop density to the people operating in that area.
Just as in Sangin, political progress is needed throughout Helmand to consolidate the military progress that we have made. On 7 March in Marjah, President Karzai held a shura and listened to the grievances of local people. The significance of that should not be underestimated. He was told in no uncertain terms that the people did not want the Taliban, but nor did they want Afghan Government officials who abuse their power. I totally agree with the Foreign Secretary in the approach that he set out last week. The security that ISAF can provide will become permanent only when it is provided increasingly by the Afghans themselves, and consolidated by a political process of reintegration and reconciliation.
Building on the agreements at the London conference, we will support the Afghan Government’s national peace and reintegration programme. President Karzai has announced his intention to hold a peace jirga at the end of April; the trust fund to offer economic alternatives to those who renounce violence and who work within the democratic process has already received pledges of more than $140 million; and a good start has been made on the growth of the Afghan national security forces, with recruitment in the Afghan national army increasing sevenfold since the end of 2009. We have opened a new window of opportunity for governance, development and the political process of reconciliation and reintegration to take hold. We have the time to succeed, but we certainly have no time to waste. Our forces are shouldering a heavy burden to protect our national security, so let me directly address some of the accusations that have been made in the past week.
It is fair to say that in Iraq, and in entering Helmand in 2006, we—I include our military planners in this—did not, with hindsight, get everything right. Risk is inherent in military operations, and as the military will tell us, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. In both cases, the situation on the ground changed rapidly, and we had to adjust posture and learn lessons quickly. For instance, in 2006 when UK forces first entered Helmand, insurgent fighters came at us in groups of up to 100; now they increasingly use IEDs, which, as we are all too aware, cause the majority of UK fatalities. In 2009 more than 70 per cent. of the UK’s fatalities involved IED strikes, compared with 20 per cent. in 2006. As the situation evolved in Afghanistan, the force lay-down, the air support and the breadth of available equipment have had to change, too, but some requirements cannot be delivered overnight.
However, let me be clear: no commander has been asked to achieve objectives for which they have not been equipped or manned. No urgent operational requirement to address changes in circumstances or new threats has been turned down by the Treasury. As the circumstances have changed, so have the resources. Funding from the Treasury reserve has been provided at the level required to meet the need. It has risen from £738 million in 2006-07, when we had about 6,000 troops in Afghanistan, to an estimated £4.5 billion this financial year to support 9,500 troops.
The Defence Secretary mentioned urgent operational requirements. He will know that BAE Land Systems in Hadley in my constituency has worked very hard to meet those requirements, yet today people there are in fear of losing their jobs if the Government have awarded the upgrade to Warrior, with the new cannon, and the upgrading of other armoured vehicles, to foreign companies rather than British companies. Would he like to state on the record what the Government’s position is?
On the Scout vehicle, we have run a competition, in which two companies have been involved, both of which have been treated fairly. It has been a long and thorough process, and an evaluation has been made. Of course we are mindful of the position of jobs, and there are jobs created in the UK as result of both those bids. Overwhelmingly, however, when we come to take a decision on the Scout, which will happen in the very near future, that decision must be based on capability. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is the wrong priority, but I do not. I am as much wedded to protecting British jobs, British companies and British industry as anyone else. As I said, a lot of jobs in Great Britain are coming from both the bids. We must be mindful of that, but we must be mindful, overwhelmingly, that we are buying a vehicle that is the best that we can get for our armed forces. That is the basis on which the decision will be taken and the basis on which BAE Systems has been treated, along with its competitors in this process.
The Secretary of State mentioned Op Telic and referred to lessons learned. What I picked up during my last visit to Afghanistan was the fact that we are now on Op Herrick 10. Each time we have been there, the brigade commander has almost had to reinvent the wheel in working out what counter-insurgency tactics are most appropriate for Helmand. The consequence of this has not gone unnoticed by the Americans. Given the name of this debate, “Defence in the World”, I pose this question: what do we bring to the table that assists the Americans or allows us to stand up and be counted? We used to be experts in counter-insurgency, but we have now fallen behind the curve, and that is something that this House needs to address.
I would say to the hon. Gentleman that that is a little harsh. The Americans learned some huge lessons in Iraq around the time of 2006-07, and all credit to them for that. At the time when that campaign was going south at a worrying pace, American minds, at the very highest level, turned to how to turn the situation around, and we should be every bit as respectful of the capability that they showed in doing that. The hon. Gentleman has just been to Afghanistan. If he gets out in the area in which Operation Moshtarak is taking place, not only in the American area but on our side of the line in the Nad Ali area, he will see that some superb counter-insurgency lessons have been learned and are being implemented. We must all try to make absolutely certain that those lessons are properly understood and embedded across the entire force. It is all right having that excellent understanding where the main effort is, but we need to ensure that every battle group has the same level of understanding and campaign continuity. It is very important to improve campaign continuity; I accept what he says in that regard.
On this occasion, the Secretary of State is quite wrong. I want to ask him about the lessons that have been learned in Afghanistan, and before that in Iraq. They have been extremely hard-learned, because we had completely forgotten how to fight a counter-insurgency war. As most of the casualties have come from IEDs, why did this country sell its Chubby sets, which would have protected routes, and why are we still using a mediaeval system of Barma route clearing? When will Talisman—I am grateful to the Minister for the Armed Forces, who recently wrote to me about it following the previous debate—be fully operational in Afghanistan?
Talisman is in theatre and being used. Of course lessons are learned all the time, but the IED threat in Iraq was significantly different from the IED threat that we face in Afghanistan. In Iraq there were shaped charges aimed overwhelmingly at armoured vehicles on semi-metalled roads and so on. In Afghanistan, small IEDs are being laid on an industrial scale to maim and injure our troops. There are very different methods and devices, and of course we have to learn as quickly as we can from the changing threat.
We have deployed a 200-strong counter-IED taskforce, along with specialist equipment, to find and disable IEDs and to help identify and target the networks that lay them. Of course, we cannot find and prevent every IED laid by the insurgency, but we can ensure that our troops have the best equipment available to protect themselves from the threat. Since 2006, the urgent operational requirement process has provided for 1,700 additional heavy armoured vehicles as the threat of IEDs has grown, including first Mastiffs and now Ridgbacks, which offer world-leading protection. At the repair facility in Camp Bastion, I saw one Mastiff that had been blown up six times, once in Iraq and five times in Afghanistan. Every single person survived, and it has been repaired every time and is still going strong. At the joint helicopter force in Bastion, I saw the Merlins, Sea Kings, Chinooks and Apaches that our troops rely on, and I was assured that availability is meeting demand.
I find myself again disappointed by the Conservatives. Despite the record, they would have the public believe that our troops are not being properly resourced. In doing so, they are both painting a false picture and undermining public support for the mission, and for what? For short-term party political gain. Who is playing politics with our armed forces now?
The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) accuses the Prime Minister of electioneering by visiting theatre. Is he really saying that it is inappropriate for the Prime Minister to visit troops, hear from them and thank them for a major operation? [Interruption.] Opposition Members say that the problem is timing alone, but the hon. Gentleman will know—if he cares to know—that we cancelled a lot of people’s visits to Helmand province because of stage 1 of Operation Moshtarak. A lot of people in the House were not able to go, and I had to change the date of my visit to Helmand to ensure that I did not burden people. The Prime Minister had to get his visit into the window that was provided between the end of the first stage of operations and the start of the relief in place, as did I. It is quite disgraceful for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that the timing was an issue. We were cancelling other people’s highly desirable trips to Helmand province because of operational need, because of the fact that we were in the middle of an operation and because the relief in place was about to start. That was what dictated the timing, and the hon. Gentleman is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.
Will the Secretary of State tell us why previous visits took place just before the Prime Minister was thinking of calling an election some two and a half years ago, and during the middle of the Conservative party conference? Is there not a pattern emerging here, in which the Prime Minister of this country uses the British armed forces as some sort of photo opportunity in order to get votes?
I say to the hon. Gentleman and all his hon. Friends that I have never criticised anybody in the Opposition for visiting theatre, or for producing webcasts from it in order to advertise what they are doing. I have never done that, and I would not dream of criticising anyone on that basis. Let me explain why. It is because I will not play party politics with the Afghan operation in the disgraceful way that was done last week.
Frankly, I wish my right hon. Friend would move on because he should not give any credence or credit to the disgraceful and not very honourable remarks that were made by Conservative Members after the Prime Minister’s visit. Is it not the case that between 1997 and 2003, an extra 17 per cent. of fresh new money was given to our military services, which then decided what to do with it? To attribute problems in the field to the then Chancellor is like blaming the Treasury Secretary in America because American soldiers fall in the field in Afghanistan. The Conservative party is a disgrace on this issue.
This issue cuts right to the heart of the morale of our troops, which is damaged by people playing party politics with these matters. I think that is disgraceful. On troop morale, the right hon. Gentleman knows that when forces return from active service, they face many issues and problems, one of which is getting housing. Will he consider what action the Government could take to force local councils such as Castle Point to give priority to our returning heroes, as that would help their morale?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the treatment our troops get back here and the appreciation shown to them here is important, as well as the support they need out in theatre. We have made some changes to oblige local authorities to treat our troops properly; we must ensure that those are properly implemented and enforced so that our troops get a place on the housing list, as well as help with health.
Let me move on to some other issues raised over the last week or so. The hon. Member for Woodspring has accused the Government of cutting the order for light protection vehicles when, as he well knows, buying an initial order is standard practice to ensure that we can incorporate the lessons learned from the vehicle’s use in later orders. We need 200 of these vehicles for Afghanistan. Ordering the initial batch now means that those vehicles will be delivered to Afghanistan as soon as possible. We are simply trying to deliver world-leading equipment to our troops. Who is really playing politics with our armed forces?
The hon. Gentleman suggests that Ministers are trying to suppress news from Afghanistan during the election by quoting the Purdah code, drawn up by civil servants to guide the behaviour of civil servants to try to ensure fairness between the parties. Is he actually suggesting that the Government intervene to alter the rules governing the civil service during an election? The only person playing politics with the operation in Afghanistan is the hon. Gentleman. In the Opposition day debate that he called just two weeks ago, he at no point offered any alternative.
The Conservative leader accuses the Government of fighting wars on a peacetime budget.
The hon. Gentleman says, “Quite right”. So, should the Conservatives win the forthcoming election, the shadow Chancellor’s emergency budget after the election will presumably be a “wartime” budget. Would the hon. Member for Woodspring like to confirm what his plans are for the defence budget under a Tory Government? Would he like to stand up now and tell us? Can he confirm—he has repeatedly failed to do so to date—that he will match Labour’s promise to increase the defence budget by more than inflation in the next financial year? Once again, answer comes there none.
I rise to seek clarification on that point, because my understanding is that the Conservatives intend, on their first day in government, to examine the break clauses in a variety of contracts, including those for the aircraft carriers, possibly with a view to cancelling them to save money. That is hardly an indication that more money will be available for the defence budget, is it?
I understand that that is precisely what has been said, but it goes far wider than that. The point I am trying to bring out is this: the Conservatives’ criticism of resources and deliberate misrepresentation of what has happened over a period of time will not replace straight answers about their intentions. We have made it clear that next year, there will be a real increase in the defence budget. Try as we might, we cannot get an answer from the hon. Member for Woodspring, who, when asked, said from a sedentary position, “You’ll have to wait.” The electorate will have to wait until after the election to see what the Tory party’s intentions are.
I have been very clear that that will form part of a strategic defence review. I have equally said that it would take a very strange turn of events for the aircraft carriers to become unnecessary. That is why we ordered them and are building them, and why we are cutting the steel and getting on with the job right now.
I trust the Secretary of State will be in the Chamber when I rise to deliver my remarks, because I will be addressing some of the points he has raised. Can he give a guarantee that defence spending will be ring-fenced for the next four years, because that is what he seems to be promising? If he is not promising that, he should be very clear about it.
The hon. Gentleman must not try to put words in my mouth. I have produced a Green Paper and said that there will be a strategic defence review. He is a genuine campaigner for defence and I know that deep down, he is appalled by the lack of a commitment from Conservative Front Benchers. All I said is that we cannot get a commitment from them—
I am talking about next year. We cannot get a commitment about next year from the party to which the hon. Gentleman gives his allegiance, and we cannot get one from the hon. Member for Woodspring. I cannot go beyond next year, and I have never said that I would do so. There will be a strategic defence review. I will try to be in the Chamber to listen to the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) speak more widely on the matter later.
I must tell the hon. Gentleman that I want to make some progress now.
The truth is that the shadow Chancellor will not let the hon. Member for Woodspring answer my question, because the Conservatives do not intend to increase the defence budget. They can argue all day about how much they cut the defence budget in the 1990s or how much Labour has increased it since—by they way, that increase was 10 per cent. in real terms since 1997, not including the £17 billion that has been spent from the reserve on operations and the £5 billion earmarked for Afghanistan next year—but the public want to know what the hon. Gentleman’s plans for the future are. I bet that he does not come to that, because although there is plenty of rhetoric from him, it is matched by not a single extra commitment.
The Minister of State announced today that 1 Signal Brigade and 102 Logistic Brigade are no longer coming to RAF Cosford in 2015, as planned; their arrival has been deferred by three years. Why has that happened, and what will happen to RAF Cosford during the five-year gap between the moving of the training operations to Wales and the much later arrival of the logistic brigades? That is what my constituents want to know.
Does the Secretary of State accept the suggestion by the Royal United Services Institute that over the next six years there will have to be a cut of up to 15 per cent. in defence expenditure? Does he accept the institute’s premise, and if not, why not?
Decisions about the long term have yet to be made. We have committed ourselves to a strategic defence review, I have done everything I can to try to get a defence debate up and running, and we have seen some good signs that part of that debate is indeed up and running ahead of the strategic defence review. The country will have to decide what role it wants to play in the world, and how much it is prepared to commit to the necessary defence expenditure that would underpin that role in the world. If RUSI thinks it can second-guess the answers to those questions ahead of the major decisions, it is wrong, but I am not sure that it actually said that. I have a lot of time for RUSI, and I think the hon. Gentleman may have misunderstood what it said.
The Opposition have suggested that announcing plans to proceed with major equipment programmes so close to a general election is wrong. I disagree. Last year, I published a Green Paper to pave the way for a strategic defence review. As part of that process, we will need to make decisions about the role we want the United Kingdom to play in the world and the capabilities the armed forces need to support that role. However, we will need to press ahead with decisions when they are required to maintain momentum on important projects that are integral to the future defence programme.
At the time of the Queen’s Speech, I set out the approach that I would take to decisions ahead of a strategic defence review. First, each decision would be tested against its effect on operational requirements in Afghanistan, as the main effort in defence. Secondly, each decision would make a contribution to bringing the defence programme into balance in both the short and the long term. Thirdly, we would avoid, as far as possible, significant decisions on capability that should properly be made as part of a strategic defence review.
In December I announced plans to rebalance the defence programme, including the shifting of additional resources towards the campaign in Afghanistan. We have now worked through the details, and I shall be announcing decisions relating to several equipment programmes over the next few days. In each case I have been given detailed advice on the requirements, listened to the views of the service chiefs and considered the question of long-term affordability. The decisions I will announce are not being rushed through, but are being judged carefully against the tests I have set out. That is the right way to proceed.
The £5 billion figure is astonishing. If that amount is required, it is required, but it is bleeding our armed forces dry.
I ask the Secretary of State to think back to 2002-04. What a shame that we did not put in the right amount up front then to allow our armed forces’ stabilisation projects to continue appropriately. That would probably have allowed us to expedite our exit from Afghanistan, rather than continuing on a prolonged course which, as I have said, is costing more and more each year. Five billion pounds is an astonishing amount to spend when we are seeing no exit strategy.
I think the hon. Gentleman misunderstood what I just said. This year, according to our latest estimate, there will be an extra £4.5 billion—not just the £35 billion, approaching £36 billion, in the defence budget—for the Afghanistan operation. We estimate that next year there will be a requirement for an extra £5 billion. That will not come from the defence budget, and we will not be “bleeding our armed forces dry”, as the hon. Gentleman suggested. An extra amount will be provided from the reserve, through the urgent operational requirements process. If the hon. Gentleman insists on looking backwards and flatly refuses to look forwards, let me tell him that by far the biggest cut in defence in modern times took place in 1995-96—a real-terms cut of 10.24 per cent. Who was in government at that time? It was the party that the hon. Gentleman supports.
Afghanistan is the main effort for defence but the armed forces continue to undertake their standing commitments, including defending UK airspace and waters, maintaining the continuous nuclear deterrent and, of course, defending the overseas territories. For instance, we currently have 1,200 personnel deployed in the Falkland Islands. The Government are fully committed to the defence of the south Atlantic overseas territories. We have made all the preparations necessary to make sure they are properly protected. Our deterrence force consists of a wide range of land, air and maritime assets and can be reinforced quickly should the need arise, but we do not judge that to be necessary at the current time.
The military and maritime presence around the Turks and Caicos Islands, for instance, is wholly inadequate. More importantly, what response have the Government given to the US Secretary of State, who talked about having negotiations between Argentina and the United Kingdom about the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands? Have we told her unequivocally to mind her own business and that that is not negotiable?
The Foreign Secretary has made our position clear: it is that our sovereignty of the Falklands is under no doubt, that we will take the appropriate measures to defend them and that we are entitled within those sovereign waters to explore for minerals. My hon. Friend needs to justify his point about the Turks and Caicos Islands. He might want to come and see me afterwards to do so, as I do not understand his point.
May I take my right hon. Friend back to the question of programmes? There is already an enormous gulf of blue water between those on the Front Benches on the question of the aircraft carrier, but that should not mean that we have to stand still on naval ordering. When does my right hon. Friend expect to make an announcement about taking forward the next stage of the Type 26 order? Can he tell me how many I am likely to get of those?
My hon. Friend cannot expect me to make announcements ahead of making the announcements, but announcements to that effect on the future surface combatant will be made in the near future.
We also maintain significant forces in Cyprus, Brunei, Gibraltar and Germany, in addition to standing operational naval commitments worldwide. We have announced today the next phase of our programme to relocate to the UK three major military formations currently based in Germany: Headquarters, Allied Rapid Reaction Corps this summer; 1 Signal Brigade in 2015; and 102 Logistics Brigade in 2018. When the programme as a whole is complete, the UK force levels in Germany will have reduced from 22,000 to 15,000. With the agreement of the German Government, our plan remains to base HQ 1 UK Armoured Division, with most of its formations and supporting units, in Germany for the foreseeable future.
The right hon. Gentleman knows that I have spent a fair bit of my 23 years here in Committee Rooms trying to wind him up; without succeeding, I hasten to add. I have waited a long time—it is a great pleasure to do so just before I leave this place—to say that I agree with the Government and with the Secretary of State. I wanted to get that on the record. What he has said about the Falklands is absolutely right. They are British and they need our defence. His assurance that the Government will renegotiate nothing with the Argentines is the best news I have heard for a long time, and I thank him.
Our efforts to wind each other up have been mutual, and although they have probably been mutually unsuccessful, they have also been quite enjoyable on a personal level. I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has just said about the Government’s policy on the Falklands.
The Secretary of State referred to Operation Borona and the draw-down of British troops from Germany. As he will know, under the defence training review programme RAF personnel are due to leave Cosford in 2013 and relocate to Wales. That base was due to be backfilled with the British Army, but there is now to be a delay of five years. Will the Secretary of State put on the record, for the benefit of the people of Shropshire and the west midlands, what is going to happen to RAF Cosford in that five-year period?
These decisions are not taken lightly, and they are not easy decisions, but prioritising Afghanistan and making it the main effort has consequences; there is no way around that. I know of nobody who genuinely and seriously thinks that that does not have to be our main effort at this time. Difficulties will arise and I am sorry for that, but there is no point in coming to the House and pretending, as the hon. Member for Woodspring does, that we can move the whole British Army back to the United Kingdom, and save money by so doing and do it without cost. The costs of doing this in the short term, on the kind of time scales the hon. Gentleman has pretended are a possibility, are monstrously out of kilter with the facts. That cannot be done.
The hon. Gentleman has been bidding for a continued armed forces presence in his constituency for a very long time and with considerable tenacity. I do not blame him for that, and I welcome his support for the attempt to maintain our presence in Lyneham as the location of the Hercules planes changes.
The footprint of UK forces is global. That is because the interests of this country, and the threats against it, are global. I believe it is essential for the UK to remain in the premier league of military powers, and under this Government we will remain so. In every endeavour our armed forces perform, there is a dedicated professionalism that is humbling to see. They have the gratitude of this Government, this House and this country.
May I begin by paying tribute to all our service personnel who have made sacrifices for our safety since we last debated this subject? We extend our condolences to the families and friends of those killed, and we hope that their sadness may be diminished by the pride they take in the courage and commitment of our world-class forces. To those injured, not only do we offer our support, but we must all do everything possible to ease their paths in the future. We must also thank all our civilian personnel, whose efforts in theatre and in support often go unmentioned but are none the less invaluable to our national effort in Afghanistan.
The Secretary of State talked about recent developments in Helmand, and although his description of Operation Moshtarak sounds optimistic, the House might rightly ask why it has taken us so long to get an update. The operation has been taking place for more than a month and up to 4,000 British troops have been involved, but the House has not been given an update on it, or on Afghanistan generally, for some time. On 1 February, the Foreign Secretary made a statement to the House on Afghanistan, albeit in the context of the London conference, but the last statement on Afghanistan by the Prime Minister was in mid-December—almost three months ago. Since then, we have had the appointment of a new civilian representative—Mark Sedwill—as well as the launch of a major offensive in Helmand; speculation about a major offensive in Kandahar involving British forces; the relocation of British forces from Musa Qala to the area around Lashkar Gah; and visits by both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State. Surely that warrants more frequent oral statements to the House, so that hon. Members can question the Government on that specific issue, rather than on the wider issues that we are debating today, although they will understandably expect the debate to focus on Afghanistan to some extent.
On the broader issues in Afghanistan, counter-insurgency is about protecting the population, and it requires a better force-to-population ratio than we currently have in Helmand, as my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) mentioned in his intervention. That is why the expected uplift of American and Afghan troops by this summer is welcome. Most people agree that there needs to be a rebalance between United Kingdom and US areas of responsibility, even if that might mean concentrating Task Force Helmand’s assets into a smaller geographical area in central Helmand, in a similar arrangement to the one that has been announced for Musa Qala.
British troops have fought gallantly in Musa Qala since 2006, and the move that the Government have announced should not be interpreted in any way as a downgrading of the UK effort. Rather, it represents a better match between our resources and our commitments. It is essential that the United Kingdom plays a full role in Afghanistan, including a full military role, but it must be proportionate to our force strength and configuration. The announcement that British troops will be transferring Musa Qala to American forces is a sensible one for this country. We are part of a coalition, and the Americans obviously have vastly superior levels of resources and troops. Our roles must be set out according to our relative strengths.
Let me turn to the main topic of our debate. Since the last strategic defence review in 1998, the world has become a more dangerous place. Transnational terrorism, nuclear proliferation, the battle for cyberspace and the effects of climate change are all playing a part in destabilising the equilibrium of global security. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 completely altered the western view of global security. It is worth pointing out that an attack that cost al-Qaeda only $250,000 to stage ended up costing the United States economy alone $80 billion. That is the scale of the change that we have seen. Transnational terrorism continues to pose a real threat. Although largely defeated in Iraq, al-Qaeda is threatening the stability of Pakistan, the horn of Africa, south-east Asia and the Arabian peninsula—notably Yemen. On a visit to Saudi Arabia only last week, I was struck by the seriousness with which the authorities there are focusing on that threat.
On proliferation, while countries such as Libya have seemingly given up their ambitions for weapons of mass destruction, North Korea has successfully tested two nuclear bombs. Iran is on the verge of acquiring a nuclear weapon, and continues to be a net exporter of terrorism and instability to its neighbours in the region and beyond. The nature and behaviour of the regime in Iran, and the risk of triggering a nuclear arms race in the middle east, are a cause of growing anxiety. In my view, this is the biggest emerging threat that we face. The possibility of state-on-state warfare—most recently demonstrated by the Russian invasion of Georgia and the subsequent occupation of 20 per cent. of its territory—cannot be ruled out, especially as the competition for scarce resources heats up in some of the world’s most unstable regions.
Other threats might seem remote to the British public, but if they were to become a reality, they would have a devastating effect on our way of life. The proliferation of biological weapons and their use by terrorist organisations and other non-state actors are a real threat. Nuclear terrorism, including the use of dirty bombs, is another. The House should make no mistake: we are already living in the era of the dirty bomb. The first ever attempted dirty bomb attack was carried out in Moscow by a group of Chechen terrorists. The bomb was not detonated, and it was later found by the police, but neither the terrorists nor the source of the caesium has ever been identified. None the less, the terrorists successfully sowed the intended seeds of fear in the minds of both the populace and the authorities. Nuclear proliferation, particularly in the middle east, needs to be seen in the context of that type of threat.
I shall come to that. I think that we need to consider the full range of threats at home and abroad.
On top of the issues that I have mentioned to do with biological weapons and dirty bombs, the use of an electromagnetic pulse device that could destroy all electronic communications infrastructure over a distance of hundreds of miles is also being considered and researched, and possibly being tested. All those different things need strategies to deal with them in the wider context of our security in a dangerous world. Like it or not, cyber warfare is a modern-day reality and attacks are increasing in both frequency and seriousness—from the mass attack on Estonia to the targeted attacks on British companies and institutions.
These threats are occurring on top of our contingent overseas operations, such as Afghanistan, maritime security in the Gulf and reacting to natural disasters such as the recent earthquake in Haiti. We know from bitter historical experience the difficulty of predicting future conflict, its nature or its location. We cannot base our future security on the assumption that future wars will be like the current ones. That is why we must maintain generic capability able to adapt to any changing threats.
The default position for the UK is and will be to operate as a partner within one alliance or another. However, the UK has unique national interests and we cannot always—nor should we always expect that we can—depend on our partners when Britain’s direct national interests are threatened. That is why I said that although we agreed with much of the process and the output of the Green Paper, we cannot accept its assumption that Britain will always operate as part of an alliance. Most of the time, we will engage in operations as part of a coalition, whether through NATO, the European Union or coalitions of the willing, but we have unique national interests and must maintain the unique capability to act on our own if required. That is why that has to be an essential part of the strategic defence review.
Considering the instability around the world, any defence and security review—increasingly, they are synonymous—must be carried out in a logical sequence. It must begin with our foreign policy priorities, outlining what we believe to be our national interests. We must then consider what we believe to be the threat environment in which those interests will exist so that we can try to determine the strategy we need to respond to them. Only then can we determine the military capabilities we will require in that threat environment and only then can we come to the specific equipment programmes that will make those capabilities a reality. Finally, we will have to confront the harsh facts of the economic climate in which we will have to operate given the catastrophic economic management of the current Government.
Of course, we could try to carry out the process the other way around, and it has been done many times in the UK. In other words, we could begin with the budget and see what we can buy for it. However, that would end up, as it has in the past, with unintended consequences for our foreign policy and our wider capabilities. We would have missed the opportunity to return some real empiricism and stability to policy making.
I am delighted to hear my hon. Friend deal with the subject matter of this debate in the context of a broader global landscape. Does he agree that it is important that we do not lock ourselves, through treaties or arrangements of the St. Malo-type, into grand visions that do not work? The most that we should be prepared to do, given his proper insistence on our national interests, is to enter into discussions, but we should certainly not lock ourselves into arrangements with the French, the Germans or anybody else.
The most important element is that the defence and security of the United Kingdom remain the sole preserve of the UK Government. We already have a defence alliance—it is called NATO. There might be a role for the European Union where NATO cannot or will not act, but it will always remain a secondary role. The cornerstone of our defence must be and will remain NATO, not least because it brings in the might of the American defence umbrella. The idea that we would leave behind the United States’ defence umbrella, knowing that some of the minor players in Europe, not least those who are neutral, would be there for us in our hour of need, seems to me a ludicrous way of taking forward defence in the United Kingdom.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and I have set out on a number of occasions what the foreign policy objectives of a forthcoming defence review under a Conservative Government would be. First, and obviously, we must be able to defend the United Kingdom against threats to our territorial integrity and our wider international interests. Those interests are both broad and deep in a globalised world, not least because we have an estimated 12 million British citizens living abroad. We are an international hub for financial activity and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the G8, the G20, the Commonwealth and the European Union, and we are a leading member inside NATO. Our domestic interest must also be protected. When required, the armed forces must be able to augment and support civil emergency organisations during times of crisis. Defending the UK also means maintaining key strategic tasks such as a continuous, at-sea, submarine-based nuclear deterrent based on the Trident missile system.
Secondly, we must be able to defend our 14 overseas territories, with the main focus right