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Commons Chamber

Volume 513: debated on Monday 5 July 2010

House of Commons

Monday 5 July 2010

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

1. If he will discuss with his French counterpart joint UK-French procurement of medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles. (5303)

I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the Royal Marine who died in Afghanistan last Thursday. His family and friends are in all our thoughts and prayers at this very difficult time for them. We are very fortunate to have such men in our armed forces.

I will be discussing a range of issues when I next meet my French counterpart. I would expect the subject of unmanned aerial systems to be among them.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response, but what assurances can he give me that the progress made by the UK recently in technological advances in UAV research, which have been particularly effective in the fight against improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan, will not be lost owing to budget cuts coming up in the Ministry of Defence?

Both Britain and our key partners have defence aerospace skills and technologies that we wish to maintain as sovereign capabilities. As part of assessing any procurement system—we have made no decisions—the impact on critical UK aerospace skills and capabilities will be considered in the strategic defence and security review, as well as in the upcoming budgetary rounds.

But is the Secretary of State aware that the French are thinking of buying in the Reaper drone from General Atomics because their EADS also is so far behind in producing this kind of essential new weapon? After reading your interesting interview in The Independent today, Mr. Speaker, I wonder if you are aware of the report by two French Deputies exactly on drones, produced last December in the French National Assembly—a 90-page specialist report by a Socialist and a Conservative MP presented to the French Ministry of Defence? Do we not need such input from MPs to try to help the Secretary of State as he makes decisions?

I am always open to the help offered by the right hon. Gentleman. Perhaps one day we will find a use for it. We are indeed in discussions with the French about joint procurement, but a decision by the French to join Predator would not necessarily preclude them from joint procurement in the future with the United Kingdom on long-term solutions.

Trident

The Ministry of Defence’s work on the value-for-money study should be completed at the end of this month. The findings will go to the Cabinet Office, and will then be considered by the National Security Council. The council’s conclusions will inform the strategic defence and security review and the comprehensive spending review, which will be published in the autumn.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Will the results of the value-for-money study include plans on the infrastructure that supports our deterrent?

It might help the House if I tell my hon. Friend that the programme will cover the timetable itself, submarine numbers, the number of missiles, missile tubes and warheads, infrastructure and other support costs, and the industrial supply chain.

Given that Trident is costing us perhaps £1 billion or £2 billion every year, and an estimated £96 billion over its entire lifetime, does the Minister agree that we should listen to the military figures who are increasingly saying that it is not necessary and counting it as something to be considered in the comprehensive spending review?[Official Report, 19 July 2010, Vol. 514, c. 1-2MC.]

Ultimately, it is up to the Government to decide what the policy should be. There is a wide range of advice, military and otherwise. The House came to the conclusion that it did in 2007 on the basis that we believed that that was a cost-effective way for this country to go forward with a nuclear deterrent. We know that abroad there are a number of countries trying to develop nuclear weapons. We do not know what will happen between now and 2015—the time scale for the Trident replacement programme—and we cannot play fast and loose with Britain’s defences.

NATO

In 2009, NATO agreed a series of measures to improve working practices in its headquarters in Brussels, and a new defence planning process better to help allies develop, acquire and maintain the capabilities required for the full range of NATO missions. Work to reform NATO’s resource management, rationalise its agencies and streamline its command structures is also under way, and should be agreed by the NATO summit in Lisbon in November.

Will the new structure that is in place in NATO be altered again so that we get better results from our operations out of area, particularly in Afghanistan?

My hon. and gallant Friend makes a very good point, and at the NATO Defence Ministers’ summit last month my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary made it clear that command structure reform is a key priority for the United Kingdom and for the alliance, because NATO’s structure is too big and static, and too much is simply not geared up for the missions that we are undertaking, such as in Afghanistan. The House might like to ponder on the fact that, significantly, NATO did not employ elements of its command structure in any meaningful capacity in Afghanistan; instead, it put together a bespoke operation.

As the role of NATO in Afghanistan is increasingly criticised and the threat of terrorism here comes far more from our own disaffected Muslims than from the Tora Bora mountains, is it not rather bizarre that from on high we have heard recently that there are likely to be cuts in our counter-terrorist units here while we continue to sacrifice the precious, heroic lives of our young people in an unnecessary and unwinnable war against the Pashtun tribes?

Order. I know that in the reply from the Front Bench the hon. Gentleman will of course refer to the reform of NATO.

I have quite a few challenges, Mr Speaker, but that is one that I am not entirely geared up to meet in the light of the observations and question from my hon. Friend. His views are well known and I have a huge admiration for him, but I have to tell him that I am not responsible for the resources that are devoted to counter-terrorist operations. None the less, I can tell him that there is a very clear view from the Government Front Benchers here that the mission in Afghanistan is a NATO mission. It is not an American mission; it is not even an Anglo-American mission. It is a NATO mission, and it is extremely important that that mission succeeds.

Military Equipment Expenditure

4. What estimate he has made of his Department’s expenditure on military equipment in 2010-11; and if he will make a statement. (5306)

The Department’s current planned expenditure on the procurement of military equipment—excluding urgent operational requirements for Afghanistan—for the financial year 2010-11 is £6.6 billion, of which £5.5 billion is capital expenditure. In addition, planned expenditure on the associated military equipment support costs for the financial year 2010-11 is £6.3 billion, of which £1.6 billion is capital expenditure.

Will the Minister confirm that he has digested fully the lessons of the Bernard Gray report, which was suppressed by the previous Government and, when released, suggested that £2.5 billion was being wasted on procurement procedures? When will he update the House with the new procurement procedures?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on a very sensible question. Labour’s record on debt and financial instability makes that challenge even more important than it already was. I have digested the lessons of that very important report, the strategy for acquisition reform continues, and I hope to report to the House at a later date.

The Government recently made a commitment to publish regional and national defence expenditure statistics and then, within days, reneged on it. Does the MOD have any commitment to equitable defence spending throughout the UK?

If Scotland accepted the case for the nuclear deterrent, the hon. Gentleman’s argument would be a lot more impressive.

It is good to hear about the Department’s planned expenditure and, particularly, from my hon. Friend. Last year, on 20 July, the Ministry of Defence published its accounts, which set out the planned expenditure, and for the third year running those accounts were qualified. Will they be published again this month, and will they be qualified again this year?

They will be published at a very early date, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend’s Committee will take a very close interest in them when they are.

In December last year, I announced £150 million to improve the capacity of our counter-improvised explosive device teams in Afghanistan, and, as that is the highest threat level that our forces face, expenditure was kept under review. Recently, the Prime Minister announced another £67 million for the same purpose, and I welcome that, because it is really needed. However, will the Minister clarify the situation? The Prime Minister has repeatedly said that that £67 million will double the number of counter-IED teams. Is that true?

The £67 million is intended to provide enhanced protection for our teams in Afghanistan and additional mine-detecting equipment, and to procure working dogs—a very effective part of counter-IED work.

I understand that, and it is welcome. That is exactly what I put in place when I was doing the job that the hon. Gentleman and his team are doing now, and I kept that need under review. However, is it all new money, and will it do what the Prime Minister repeatedly said it would? He said in terms, “We are doubling the counter-IED teams.” He cannot double the counter-IED teams for £67 million. Let us have a straight answer.

The right hon. Gentleman is understandably concerned, as this is about a very important threat to our armed forces. I can tell him, however, that the difference between this Government and the previous Government is that we have found the money that is crucial in dealing with this threat, and lectures on new money or old money come very ill from him. In the past, commitments were made for many things, but we are actually going to find the money and deliver this vital tool for our armed forces serving in Afghanistan.

Cadet Forces

The Government remain committed to the cadet movement, the origins of which date back 150 years. It is one of the oldest and most successful voluntary youth organisations in the world. The strategic defence and security review is looking at all areas of defence, and it would be wrong to speculate on its conclusions.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Will he join me in paying tribute to the Avonmouth and Filton sea cadets in my constituency, with whom I actively work, and to the volunteers who give up so much of their lives for these organisations? Can he assure me that they will continue to have Government support, since the role they perform is so valuable and they do not always perform it in the best of facilities?

I can certainly reassure my hon. Friend that I pay tribute to those organisations. The cadet movement is extremely important; as I said, it is one of the most successful voluntary youth organisations in the world. It has been somewhat under-appreciated in past years, and we very much hope that it will now raise its levels of appreciation. Indeed, tomorrow I am going to the march-past and parade in the Mall to celebrate 150 years of the cadet movement.

During the series of Government cuts that we all face, will the Minister consider whether buildings belonging to the Government that are being closed could have a future life in providing headquarters for the cadet movement? Many cadet forces are struggling to find accommodation, and there could well be small offices or equipment stores that they could use. Will he look at that, please?

I would be very happy to look at it. The Government welcome any submissions, from wherever, about broad or individual cases such as those that the hon. Lady mentions. We cannot prejudge the results of the SDSR, as she will understand, but I would, by all means, be grateful if she would make a submission on individual or general cases.

I am lucky enough to be the Honorary Colonel of Nottinghamshire Army Cadet Force—a famous fighting unit. We provide almost 60% of our soldiers—cadets—as recruits for the regular Army. Sadly, too many of these individuals are going to Lincoln and Nottingham Army careers information offices and finding that they are being turned away having been told that there is a delay of at least nine months, and in many cases 12 months, before they can join the regular Army. I do not find that acceptable.

Nottinghamshire Army Cadet Force is very privileged to have my hon. Friend as its colonel, and I know that he will do very good work for it given his gallant past in the Army.

Regarding recruitment, at the moment the Army, in particular, is almost exactly at full recruitment levels, and there are therefore no places available. However, as my hon. Friend will know from his past experience, these things change literally by the month. I hope that the keen cadets from Nottinghamshire will continue to come forward, and I hope that we can find places for them in the Army. However, especially when we are considering an SDSR, I am afraid that we cannot swell the Army just because there are excellent recruits coming forward; we look forward to seeing them.

Aircraft Carriers

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we are in the process of carrying out a strategic defence and security review within which all aspects of the defence programme, including the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, will be examined. The impact on any specific equipment projects will be announced following the conclusion of the review in the autumn.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but urge him to stand by the Defence Secretary’s pre-election comments and statements saying that these particular carriers were of urgent and vital importance to Britain’s defence. May I urge the Minister to give full steam ahead to these projects and invite him to meet me at my constituency shipyard to discuss the matter further?

I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman in his constituency and look forward to doing so on a mutually agreeable date. However, he will understand that with a strategic defence and security review going on, it is impossible to give the type of commitment that he seeks. I wish I could, but I cannot.

Trident

The Government are committed to retaining a minimum nuclear deterrent based on Trident. We have commissioned a review to scrutinise existing plans to renew the deterrent, to ensure value for money.

Have the Liberal Democrats put forward their alternatives to Trident as set out in the coalition agreement, and if so, what are they? They kept very quiet during the general election about what they were.

I am responsible for a lot of things, but the Liberal Democrats’ answers on specific points of policy are a matter for them, not for me. The coalition agreement is very clear that although the Government have set out their policy, the Liberal Democrats are very good at coming forward with their own particular solutions, as I can make clear to the hon. Lady.

In the inexplicable absence of any Liberal Democrat on his feet, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he agrees that as an alternative to Trident, the idea of putting nuclear-armed cruise missiles on Astute class submarines would be more expensive and less effective, would put the submarines at risk and, because one cannot know what sort of warhead is on a cruise missile until it has landed, could start world war three by accident? Does he agree that apart from that, it is a great Liberal Democrat idea?

I am unlikely to be tempted down that route.

As the House will know, when we considered the entire issue in 2006 and 2007 we looked at options for other systems, including cruise missiles, silo-based missiles and air-launched weapons. Those other options were discounted due to effectiveness and cost. That analysis has not changed, and alternative systems will not be considered as part of the value-for-money review.

Armed Forces Accommodation

8. What steps he plans to take to improve the standard of armed forces accommodation; and if he will make a statement. (5311)

The coalition Government place a high priority on the welfare of service personnel and their families. We will look at whether there is scope to refurbish the armed forces’ accommodation from efficiencies within the Ministry of Defence.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer, because as he is fully aware, the Labour Government put aside £3 billion to improve the living accommodation of the armed forces. Has that money been ring-fenced to protect it from the 20% Treasury cuts?

The last Administration may have put aside a great deal of money, but they did not say where it was coming from, and indeed the money did not exist. As the hon. Lady will know, we are living with the serious economic and financial conditions that the last Administration put in place. In the SDSR we will prioritise the needs and accommodation of defence personnel and their families.

Does my hon. Friend agree that as well as being extremely important to the regular armed forces, accommodation is also crucial to the reserve forces and cadets? Following the earlier question of the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), may I urge him to examine the remarkable work of Greater London Reserve Forces and Cadets Association in finding ways of saving money by sharing cadet accommodation with a variety of different youth organisations?

My hon. Friend has been explaining the situation of the reserve forces to me for a very long time, and as he knows, I broadly agree with him. He makes a very sensible suggestion, and I would be most grateful if he made a written submission. If we can save money and be more efficient, we would certainly be delighted so to do.

For starters, has the Minister signed off the money for this year? The money is there, and I wish he would not keep peddling these untruths that things are not costed.

The Conservative defence team, when in opposition, gave a high priority to armed service accommodation. The Secretary of State, in The Daily Telegraph last January, wrote:

“Welfare is another major issue that needs to be better addressed. We all too often hear about substandard housing”.

I am sure that Conservative Members, and more importantly members of our armed forces and their families, will expect the coalition to match our funded commitments on accommodation, or are we just to see yet another cynical ploy whereby the Conservatives support the armed forces in opposition with various spending commitments but then cynically withdraw them, as we saw last week with the freezing of armed forces pay?

There are such things as parallel universes. We had 13 years of the last Administration and now, after seven weeks, we are accused of failing to address the issues of armed forces accommodation. This is complete nonsense. The hon. Gentleman accuses me of peddling untruths; I refer him to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Defence Committee, who wants to know about the Ministry of Defence accounts. When we see those accounts, we will be able to judge whether the money was there.

Afghanistan

9. What his most recent assessment is of the security situation in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (5312)

We recognise that the security situation in Afghanistan remains very serious. However, we remain committed to protecting the Afghan civilian population and to developing the Afghan national security forces, to enable them to take on the lead for security themselves.

Given that the development of the Afghan national forces is critical to the eventual withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, will my hon. Friend please advise the House on how the training and equipment of the Afghan national forces is progressing?

There are currently about 119,000 members of the Afghan national army and about 104,000 members of the Afghan national police in Afghanistan. Targets for significant increases in both the army and police, supported by the international community, were agreed at the London conference. I remind my hon. Friend that that target is 171,000 members of the army and 134,000 members of the police by the end of next year. That would take the total security force numbers to more than 300,000.

A detailed American investigation into the Afghan army reports that a third of this group of drug-addicted mercenaries desert every year and that its members have little or no loyalty to their election-rigging President, their own Government or international Governments. Why on earth do we expect to build a stable Afghanistan on that crumbling foundation?

I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s description. I visited Afghanistan just two weeks ago and British and American armed forces spoke very well of their Afghan colleagues. Nobody pretends that the situation is perfect, but we are involved in an embedded partnering relationship with the Afghan national army to try to ensure that the highest degree of skill and professionalism continues to grow and develop. We are impressed with what it has done so far; it is increasingly able both to plan and execute missions in its own right, and I have no doubt whatever that we are continuing to progress in the right direction.

I, too, have been out to see the Afghan national army being trained in Afghanistan. My impression is that it has been doing extremely well under the brilliant professionalism of the British instructors. But does the Minister accept that the police are much more worrying and have hugely further to go? The issue is about not just how many there are but the quality of their training. Can we not get more help from the Metropolitan police or other British police forces to help with their training?

In recent years, it has certainly been true that there have been concerns about the police not being as good as the army. However, I think that that situation is being rapidly addressed and that there is a tangible improvement in the training being given to the Afghan national police. The Helmand police training centre is based strongly on western models. There is a lot of western assistance in there, and most recent reports say that the quality of police recruits has improved tangibly on what it was like a couple years ago.

Can the Minister for the Armed Forces help to clear up some of the recent confusion on Afghan policy? The Prime Minister seems to be saying, both in the House and elsewhere, that there is a deadline—that all our troops will be out of Afghanistan by the end of the Parliament, by 2014. The Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary appear to be saying something slightly different. And we now have Lord Guthrie; I am so pleased to be able to quote Lord Guthrie. He warns us that

“The Army doesn’t want a government that dithers.”

I agree. Is there a deadline?

The key to our exit from Afghanistan is that we want to see the Afghans take control of their own security. They are not able to do that yet, but will be better able to do it as time goes on. As they progressively do that, our own troop numbers will come right down and our role will completely change. The process of handing provinces and districts to Afghan control will take place on the basis of an assessment of the facts on the ground. However, the Prime Minister has made it very clear that there will not be British troops in a combat role or in significant numbers in five years’ time. Of course, troops will still be there in a training role, as part of a wider diplomatic relationship like that which we have with other countries.

Works of Art

Since 2005, the Ministry of Defence has spent on average around £58,000 a year protecting, preserving and maintaining its art collection. No works of art have been bought by the Department in the last five years.

Was the Minister as surprised as I was to learn that the Ministry of Defence has some 1,500 works of art, complete with curating staff? Does he agree that the MOD should focus on running our armed forces rather than an art gallery?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that we should concentrate on running the armed forces, but I am sure she would agree that £58,000 is not a huge amount to spend on curating. However, I was pretty surprised to discover that in 2004, £250,000 was spent on Hoque and Cattrell paintings for the foyer of the main MOD building. It seems to me that that money could have been better spent on, for instance, armed forces accommodation, which has was raised earlier.

Will the Minister therefore confirm whether the Department or the Government have any plans to sell off any of the Government art collection?

Defence Training Review

11. If he will consider, as part of the strategic defence and security review, the merits of the Army returning to RAF St Athan rather than RAF Cosford. (5314)

Plans for the defence training review package 1 project remain unchanged, and consequently it is still planned for 102 Logistics Brigade to relocate to RAF Cosford in 2018 under the BORONA programme. Like everything else in the defence world, that is subject to the strategic defence and security review. At this point, no decisions have been taken.

Let me be clear: Shropshire has a long and proud history of working with the British Army, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, but does it not make sense, given the presence of the excellent special forces support group and 1st Battalion the Parachute Regiment, and indeed the logistic hangars and a very long runway indeed at RAF St Athan in Wales, for 102 Logistics Brigade to return to St Athan rather than to RAF Cosford in Shropshire?

My hon. Friend is aware that there were two different proposals in the final analysis for the defence training review facilities: Cosford and St Athan. Those were subject to the most detailed scrutiny to decide which was the better fit for our defence requirements and the decision was that the defence training review should relocate facilities to St Athan. We believe that there is an obvious synergy between that and other work at St Athan, particular in high technology, and a lot of work has already gone into preparing for that move. To change course now, as he suggests, would undo a great deal of investment that has already been made and add considerably to the final cost.

I wholeheartedly endorse what the Minister says. He is a brave man: he has seen off the first of the Tories of the afternoon, and I am delighted that he is sticking with St Athan. Is he prepared to meet a cross-party group of MPs from Wales so that we can feed into the ongoing discussions on the strategic defence review, and so that we can ensure that he understands fully the enormous value of bringing those elements of training together in south Wales, better to support our armed forces, which, in the end, is the single most important thing we can do?

I take the hon. Gentleman’s endorsement in the spirit it was intended. He will understand that our concern is to ensure both value for money and that the training facilities that we secure are best fitted to our defence needs. Decisions on progress will be necessary in the course of the next few months, and as part of that consideration and that work, I will be happy to talk to him and to others.

Tri-service Military Covenant

We are committed to rebuilding the military covenant through the creation of a tri-service military covenant and have identified a number of areas that will allow us to do so. These measures are listed in our programme for government that was published on 22 May. The Prime Minister recently announced the doubling of the operational allowance in Afghanistan, which was an important first step on this road.

It is crucial that we care for our serving personnel, but we must also care for our veterans. What measures will my hon. Friend put in place to ensure that we care for our veterans properly in the future, especially with regard to mental health issues?

On the broader issue, I have had two meetings in the past week on the military covenant and its implications. My hon. Friend mentions mental health in particular. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who is in his place, is considering health issues and will report this summer on all such issues, including the mental health needs of ex-service personnel.

Afghanistan

United Kingdom forces are in Afghanistan as part of an international coalition. We will take decisions on troop numbers in consultation with our partners.

Was the Secretary of State given advance notice of the Prime Minister’s statement in Canada recently that he wanted our armed forces home by 2015, and did No. 10 see a copy of the Secretary of State’s speech before he made it in Washington last week?

The G8 in Canada in June sent a collective signal that we want Afghan national security forces to assume increasing responsibility for security within five years. 2015 is a full year beyond General McChrystal’s assessment of ANSF capability and it is entirely realistic that we will not have combat troops in Afghanistan at that time.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that any timetable will depend not just on the numbers in the Afghan national army, but on its effectiveness? What discussions has he had about the emerging problems of recruitment and retention, infrastructure and logistics? Are not those matters critical to the effectiveness of the Afghan national army?

My hon. Friend is correct on all those issues. In fact, the number of the Afghan national security forces has tended to be ahead of trend in recent times. The quality of the training is constantly kept under review and I had discussions in Washington on the subject last week.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the security issue in Afghanistan is really whether we have enough troops on the ground? Even by General Petraeus’s assessment, we have barely one third of those required. Unless and until we can increase that number—and there is no prospect of doing so from any side—the choice will be to expose our troops and the American troops to more danger or, conversely, to expose the Afghan people. In the light of that, will he make a statement about the prospects for the future? Without security we have no future.

We are seeing an increase in the number of American troops at the moment. As for the UK troops, it is not just the number but the relative force density that is important. That has improved in recent times and there is now a better match between our footprint and the size of the force. That happened under the previous Government and will continue to happen under the current Government until we are satisfied that we have an appropriate ratio.

Dedicated Military Wards

14. What steps he plans to take to ensure that injured service personnel are treated in dedicated military wards. (5317)

Injured service personnel will be cared for in the best specialist hospital ward for their clinical condition. Operational casualties with multiple trauma injuries will usually be treated in the military ward at the new Queen Elizabeth hospital in Edgbaston, but all patients, wherever they are treated, are given the invaluable military welfare, care and support that can contribute so much to their well-being and recovery.

Will the Government be proceeding with the four purpose-built recovery centres first proposed by the Labour Government?

We are indeed proceeding with personal recovery units as part of the Army recovery capability. That was a legacy of the previous Administration, and one that I praise.

The Minister will be aware that under the previous Government the Haslar royal naval hospital was the last military hospital to be shut down. We are now at risk of losing another massive employer in Gosport in HMS Sultan, the Royal Navy engineering training school—recently graded outstanding by Ofsted—which could move to St Athan. Has the Minister considered the effect that any such move would have on the local community?

I have to confess to my hon. Friend that I have not been looking at that particular issue; however, I am sure that the closure—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Well, I am awfully sorry, but it is not part of my remit. However, I am sure that, as with everything else, we will be looking at that issue in the strategic defence and security review, and I hope that there will be no unfortunate implications for employment in the Portsmouth area.

May I pay tribute to the dedicated staff at Selly Oak and to the men and women of Defence Medical Services, whom I had the honour of working with? We owe them a great debt of gratitude, and they include some previously unsung heroes who were rightly honoured in the recent Queen’s birthday honours list. I enjoyed reading about the coalition’s new defence policy in The Sun last week, including the re-announcement of the new military ward at Selly Oak. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has announced that the Army recovery capability, which was fully funded, will be continued. However, can we have an assurance today that Defence Medical Services will be protected in the defence budget, or will we just see cynical re-announcements of Labour achievements, albeit without the funding to go with them?

I do not feel that I have been cynically re-announcing any Labour achievements. What I would say is that it is not Selly Oak doing the work any more; it is the new Queen Elizabeth hospital down the road, which is replacing Selly Oak. It is a good hospital, and the scheme was planned and executed—although the facility was not opened—under the previous Administration. I entirely accept that. Indeed, I visited Selly Oak not a month ago, and I think that the care that people receive there is pretty good—it was not so good to begin with, but it is pretty good now. I shall not be cynically re-announcing anything; I shall just be planning on the basis of the coalition’s policies.

Armed Forces Pensions

I am just so busy today that I missed that one, Mr Speaker. We have received a number of representations on armed forces pensions, including in relation to the 1975 armed forces pension scheme and eligibility for those who served prior to its introduction; the link to the retail price index; and widows’ and widowers’ pensions for life.

I thank the Minister for that delayed answer. Let me make a plea on behalf of one particular group of people. One important thing about the armed forces is the number of people who extend their terms of reference—who want to extend their period in the armed forces. It is imperative that that is not stopped. When the Minister looks at the review that is currently under way, will he ensure that the extension is protected for that group of armed forces personnel, for whom the pension is an important part of the decision to extend their time?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. I should declare an interest, in that I am an armed forces pensioner—under the 1975 scheme, I think. I am not entirely clear about the question, so perhaps he could write to me with the details, and I will certainly respond to him.

Chief of the Defence Staff

16. What role he will play in the appointment of a new Chief of the Defence Staff; and if he will make a statement. (5319)

The outgoing Chief of the Defence Staff provides an assessment of his potential successors, together with his recommendation. I then discuss the recommendation with him and my Defence Ministers, before making a recommendation to the Prime Minister. Thereafter, the approval of Her Majesty the Queen will be sought.

Once the appointment is announced, will the Government ensure that both the Secretary of State for Defence and the Prime Minister make it clear that they support the new appointment, and do not indulge in the spectacle of competitive briefing, claiming that they were the individual who got rid of the predecessor?

No, I can confirm that we will break the precedent set by the former Government, and that we will indeed give full support to whomever is chosen as the candidate.

Defence Procurement

Out of the 57 equipment-related projects that were subject to re-approval as part of the exercise announced by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on 17 May, two projects—the search and rescue helicopter project, and the procurement of long-lead items for the successor deterrent—have been suspended pending the outcome of urgent ongoing reviews. However, all projects, including those that have been re-approved, are being considered as part of the strategic defence and security review.

Does my hon. Friend believe that it is in the best interests of our armed forces that senior officials involved in preparing MOD contracts are regularly recruited to work for the contractor and lobby Government on its behalf?

Like my hon. Friend, I have severe doubts about that particular practice, and I can assure him that I am watching it very carefully.

Can the Minister tell the House when he expects to agree the contract signed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) for the A400M, which is built in Bristol and serviced in north Wales? Twenty-two planes with 22 sets of wings are under contract by the Labour Government, but they have been frozen by the Conservative-Liberal Government.

I wish I could answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question at length, but all I can say is that the A400M, like all other major projects, is part of the strategic defence and security review—the long overdue strategic defence and security review.

Topical Questions

My departmental responsibilities are to ensure that our country is properly defended now and in the future, that our service personnel have the right equipment and training to allow them to succeed in their military tasks, and that we honour the military covenant.

Only last August, a top military adviser stated publicly that it would take between 30 and 40 years for us to nation-build in Afghanistan under the present strategy and that there was no question of NATO pulling out. Within the last few days, the same top military adviser has stated that the time has begun for talks with the Taliban and that we could indeed have resolved our mission within the next four years. What does this conflicting advice say about the quality, the coherence and the consistency of the strategy which our Government have inherited in Afghanistan?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He will probably remember a former Prime Minister saying that advisers advise and Ministers decide. For the benefit of newer Members, let me say that she was absolutely correct to do so. The Government decide the strategy in Afghanistan. We believe that we are there for reasons of national security, and we believe that we will have succeeded in our mission in Afghanistan when it is a stable enough state to manage its own internal and external security without reference to outside powers.

T6. On reflection, does the Secretary of State think that the best way to advise of the retirement of the Chief of the Defence Staff is through the pages of The Sunday Times even before the Prime Minister has been consulted or before the Queen has been provided with that information? (5390)

T2. With defence exports being of critical importance to the economy in Fylde and jobs in the north-west, can the Secretary of State update me and the House on efforts made to drive the export potential of the Typhoon Eurofighter? (5385)

I can tell my hon. Friend that the good news is that the Typhoon aircraft, a formidable piece of kit, is in demand across the world, and there are a number of countries that have expressed serious interest in the Typhoon. I can also tell him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already had a number of discussions with a number of interested parties, and that we shall arrange some cross-departmental ministerial visits to promote this very important aspect of our policy.

T9. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is absolutely essential that the training of the three armed forces should be integrated into one site? (5393)

As I said in the earlier part of questions, it remains our intention to proceed as planned, but this, of course, like everything else, is part of the strategic defence review.

My hon. Friend will have observed that the Secretary of State declined an opportunity to state that he would publish the results of the Trident value for money review. May I urge him to publish the foreign policy baseline, which is the starting point of the defence review, so that the House can have the opportunity to debate the Government’s foreign policy objectives before we are presented with a fait accompli in the defence review itself?

During the debate on the strategic defence and security review, I set out the foreign policy baseline, as I have on previous occasions, and as the Foreign Secretary also has. It will be considered as part of the debate inside the National Security Council as part of cross-departmental security reviews.

The Veterans Minister just said that he was redoubling efforts to honour the military covenant and he praised the Prime Minister for doubling the operational allowance, yet he also admitted that he was cutting accommodation, freezing Army pay and making service personnel pay more for their pensions. Will he therefore explain what he means in practical terms by “redoubling” the effort?

I have always maintained that the hon. Gentleman is much nicer than his reputation. However, I have not said that we are cutting accommodation. As he knows, the whole country is faced with the appalling economic and financial situation that was left by the previous Government. We are considering all ways of saving money, including a pay freeze across the public sector. However, the spine increases for armed forces personnel will continue.

T3. The Prime Minister’s announcement last month of £67 million to deal with the threat faced by our troops from improvised explosive devices was most welcome. Will my hon. Friend say what part of that will be for training, which is an integral part of the deal? In particular, will he note the excellent service provided by the International School for Security and Explosives Education in Chilmark in my constituency, which I visited on Friday? (5387)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. There is no doubt whatever that high-threat counter-IED operations in Afghanistan are the most dangerous activity undertaken by members of the armed forces. The Prime Minister’s announcement of a further £67 million included £40 million for protected vehicles for use by CIED teams in Afghanistan and £11 million for remote control vehicles. The remaining funds will be used to enhance other critical capabilities in the counter-IED campaign, including enhancements to our military working-dog capability. There are problems with training, which we are doing our best to address. One problem is the inherited shortfall in counter-IED experts, which needs to be addressed as quickly as possible.

Ministers will be aware that the Royal Irish Regiment is to deploy to Afghanistan later this year and that our armed forces personnel from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales make a major contribution to operational deployment on a continuous basis. Is it not therefore incumbent on the Secretary of State in his review to look again at the distribution of defence expenditure on a more equitable basis across the United Kingdom?

The allocation of defence spending across the United Kingdom will be determined in the light of what we think are the best decisions for the defence of the United Kingdom. The right hon. Gentleman is correct, however, about the contributions made by our armed forces from different parts of the United Kingdom. They are United Kingdom armed forces. When I meet troops in Afghanistan, they do not ask one another whether they came from Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh or London. They are forces under the Crown and proud of it.

T4. On the eve of the Turkish Foreign Minister’s visit to London, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that Turkey is one of our foremost allies in a most volatile region. What steps can his military take to increase our strategic co-operation with Turkey? (5388)

My hon. Friend is entirely correct: Turkey is a very important strategic partner for the United Kingdom, not only because of its geographic location and the countries that border it, but because of other issues such as energy security. I had a long discussion with the Turkish Defence Minister at the NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels a couple of weeks ago, and I intend to see him again in London next week. We intend to continue to discuss issues such as joint exercising, joint training and potentially joint procurement. It is enormously to this country’s advantage to have Turkey onside and looking westwards rather than in any other direction.

Will Ministers tell me how effective they consider Vector Aerospace, in Almondbank in my constituency, to be in keeping the UK’s armed forces’ front lines effective?

I am delighted to pay tribute to the many defence companies that make such a valuable contribution to the work of our armed services, and I would be delighted to hear more from the hon. Gentleman about the company in his constituency. I know that its work is very valued.

T5. In view of the constraints on military spending, both financially and in terms of personnel, what help has the Ministry of Defence been asked to give the Home Office in providing security for the Olympic games? (5389)

My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. In the National Security Council, we are committed to a cross-departmental defence of the United Kingdom and defence review. As part of our ongoing discussions, we will continue to discuss arrangements for the Olympics. The Security Minister and I have had a number of discussions on that subject.

There is a growing public perception that the Trident replacement is being insulated from any kind of scrutiny—including the defence review—while the Government continue to tear conventional forces to bits. I am thinking particularly of the cuts in aircraft, which have already been mentioned. How long will the Secretary of State be happy with that situation?

There will be no plans for any part of the defence of the United Kingdom until the defence review is completed in the autumn. We will, of course, face a very adverse financial position because of the utter financial incompetence of the outgoing Labour Government, who have left the country with record debts, and, sadly, we will have to make decisions about defence and other Government budgets in that light.

What steps will the Secretary of State take to reduce homelessness among former members of the armed services? Will he promise to take steps to provide support in regard to mental health and tenancies, and to support those who turn to drugs and alcohol after their time in the armed services?

We are certainly concerned about any ex-service personnel who are homeless, but I do not think that we should overstate the case. According to the most recent review, conducted by the previous Government, only 3% of homeless people served in the armed forces, and three quarters of those were over the age of 45. That is not to say that we are not concerned about people over 45, or people under 45.

We will examine the issue as part of the military covenant. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) is examining mental health issues, which do indeed take a long time to come to the fore—typically, about 14 years.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be an extremely retrograde step for the cuts in Government spending to sacrifice the new coastguard search and rescue helicopters that are such an important part of front-line rescue services in our country? They would be 30% faster than the Sea Kings, they are fitted with forward-looking infra-red, and they are good at low-flying night-time search and rescue. Surely there cannot be any more front-line expenditure than that.

The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of the services to which he refers. They are currently under review, as part of the defence review and our ongoing discussions with the Treasury. However, it does not come well from any member of the former Government to lecture anyone about public finances when we are having to make decisions on public spending against a more adverse financial backdrop than any Government have faced at least since the second world war.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the anger in my constituency because the reverse bidding for the contract for the supply of socks did not work effectively? Does he understand that HJ Hall, which has supplied socks for three generations, lost the contract because it could not make its bids within the existing system, and will he please look into the issue?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his vigorous defence of his constituents. I agree that the matter is important, and I should like to discuss it with him further.

When personnel tragically lose their lives on active service, is there a time limit by which their families must vacate service accommodation? If so, what is the time limit, and what assistance are those families given to find alternative accommodation?

I should make it clear that I was not warned of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I understand that there is no such time limit. However, it is obviously in the interests of families—apart from any other considerations—to move out of service accommodation at some stage. We are examining all these issues because we are convinced of the need to support, especially, the families of brave young men cut down in their prime, and also those who have been injured. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will provide that support.

Is the Minister aware that the previous Government shut down the Harlow Territorial Army centre? What plans has he to restore Territorial Army morale in Harlow and elsewhere in the country?

The role of the Territorial Army has been greatly undervalued too often in the past. I pay tribute, on behalf of the Government, to the role that it plays in the security of our country. The specific future role of the Territorial Army, along with the roles of all sections of our armed forces, will be considered as part of the ongoing defence review.

I am most concerned by what I read in the newspapers about the Taliban’s reaction to the timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. What implications does that have in respect of the issue of the Taliban in Pakistan, and has the Secretary of State had conversations with the Pakistan Government, given the crossover and the sensitivity between the two?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has recently been in Pakistan and has had discussions with the security services there about the importance of the Pakistani Government dealing not only with the Pakistani Taliban but the Afghan Taliban. Unless we see these as a continuum in terms of security, we will not be able to make the progress we want and to achieve the security on the Afghan-Pakistan border that is vital for the security of the people of both countries.

Following on from the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies), what decisions, if any, have been made about putting money into home-grown defence projects, especially in the Lancashire region?

The Government intend to look at the value of home-grown defence projects in further consultations about the role of small and medium-sized businesses in the defence industry and the issue of sovereign capability for the United Kingdom. I look forward to my hon. Friend making some very full contributions to that debate when it takes place.

Political and Constitutional Reform

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s proposals for parliamentary reform.

Every Member of this House was elected knowing that this Parliament must be unlike any other—that we have a unique duty to restore the trust in our political system that has been tested to its limits in recent times—and if anything was clear at the general election it was that more and more people realised that our political system was broken and needs to be fixed. They want us to clean up politics. They want to be able to hold us properly to account.

So the Government have set out an ambitious programme for political renewal, transferring power away from the Executive to empower Parliament, and away from Parliament to empower people. That programme includes: introducing a power of recall for MPs guilty of serious wrongdoing; tackling the influence of big money as we look again at party funding; taking forward long overdue reform of the other place; implementing the Wright Committee recommendations, and taking steps to give people more power to shape parliamentary business; speeding up the implementation of individual voter registration; and increasing transparency in lobbying, including through a statutory register.

Today, I am announcing the details of a number of major elements of the Government’s proposals for political reform. First, we are introducing legislation to fix parliamentary terms. The date of the next general election will be 7 May 2015. This is a hugely significant constitutional innovation. It is simply not right that general elections can be called according to a Prime Minister’s whims, so this Prime Minister will be the first Prime Minister to give up that right.

I know that when the coalition agreement was published there was some concern about these proposals. We have listened carefully to those concerns, and I can announce today how we will proceed, in a Bill that will be introduced before the summer recess. First, traditional powers of no confidence will be put into law, and a vote of no confidence will still require only a simple majority. Secondly, if after a vote of no confidence a Government cannot be formed within 14 days, Parliament will be dissolved and a general election will be held. Let me be clear: these steps will strengthen Parliament’s power over the Executive. Thirdly, there will be an additional power for Parliament to vote for an early and immediate Dissolution. We have decided that a majority of two thirds will be needed to carry the vote, as opposed to the 55% first suggested, as is the case in the Scottish Parliament. These changes will make it impossible for any Government to force a Dissolution for their own purposes. These proposals should make it absolutely clear to the House that votes of no confidence and votes for early Dissolution are entirely separate, and that we are putting in place safeguards against a lame-duck Government being left in limbo if the House passes a vote of no confidence but does not vote for early Dissolution.

I am also announcing today the details of the Government’s proposals to introduce a Bill before the summer to provide for a referendum on the alternative vote system, and for a review of constituency boundaries in order to create fewer and more equally sized constituencies, cutting the cost of politics and reducing the number of MPs from the 650 we have today to a House of 600 MPs.

Together, these proposals help to correct the deep unfairness in the way we hold elections in this country. Under the current set-up, votes count more in some parts of the country than others, and millions feel that their votes do not count at all. Elections are won and lost in a small minority of seats. We have a fractured democracy, where some people’s votes count and other people’s votes do not count; where some people are listened to and others are ignored. By equalising the size of constituencies, we ensure that people’s votes carry the same weight, no matter where they live. Only months ago the electorate of Islington North stood at 66,472, while 10 miles away, in East Ham, the figure was 87,809. In effect, that means that a person voting in East Ham has a vote that is worth much less than a vote in Islington North. That cannot be right. These imbalances are found right across the United Kingdom.

Reducing the number of MPs also allows us to bring our oversized House of Commons into line with legislatures across the world. The House of Commons is the largest directly elected Chamber in the European Union, and it is half as big again as the US House of Representatives. It was never intended that the overall size of the House should constantly keep rising, yet that is precisely the effect of the current legislation—the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. Capping the number of MPs corrects that, and it saves money too. Having 59 fewer MPs saves £12 million a year on pay, pensions and allowances alone.

On the referendum, by giving people a choice over their electoral system, we give that system a new legitimacy. Surely, when dissatisfaction with politics is so great, one of our first acts must be to give people their own say over something as fundamental as how they elect their MPs. The question will be simple, asking people whether they want to adopt the alternative vote, yes or no; and the precise wording will be tested by the Electoral Commission. [Interruption.]

As for the date of the referendum, in making that decision we have been driven by three key considerations: first—[Interruption.]

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Deputy Prime Minister. The statement by the Deputy Prime Minister must be heard with courtesy. If Members want to question him, they will have the chance to do so. The Deputy Prime Minister will be heard.

The first is that all parties fought the general election on an absolute pledge to move fast to fix our political system, so we must get on and do that without delay; secondly, it is important to avoid asking people to keep returning to the ballot box; and finally, in these straitened times we must keep costs as low as possible. That is why the Prime Minister and I have decided that the date for the referendum on the Bill will be 5 May 2011, the same day as the elections to the devolved legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and local elections in England. That will save an estimated £17 million. I know that some hon. Members have concerns over that date, but I believe that people will easily be able to distinguish between the different issues on which they will be asked to vote on the same day.

Our Bill will make explicit provision for the Boundary Commissions to report on more equally sized constituencies and for the process to be completed by the end of 2013, allowing enough time for candidates to be selected ahead of the 2015 election; and we will ensure that the boundary commissions have what they need to do that. That means that, in the event of a vote in favour of the alternative vote, the 2015 general election will be held on the new system, and according to new boundaries. These are complementary changes—the outcome of the referendum is put in place as the new boundaries are put in place, too.

The Bill will require the Boundary Commissions to set new constituencies within 5% of a target quota of registered electors, with just two exceptions: Orkney and Shetland, and—[Laughter.]

The exceptions are Orkney and Shetland, and the Western Isles, which are uniquely placed, given their locations.

Order. I am sorry to have to interrupt the Deputy Prime Minister, but the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) must not, however strongly he feels, shriek from a sedentary position in that way. It is very unseemly and, if I may say so, very untypical of the hon. Gentleman, who is normally grace itself.

The two exceptions are Orkney and Shetland, and the Western Isles, which are uniquely placed, given their locations. We have listened also to those who have very large constituencies, so the Bill will provide that no constituency will be larger than the size of the largest one now, and we intend that in future boundary reviews will be more frequent, to ensure that constituencies continue to meet the requirements that we will set out in our Bill.

I understand that this announcement will raise questions from those in all parts of this House, as these are profound changes. Let me just say that, yes, there are technical issues that will need to be scrutinised and approached with care as these Bills pass through Parliament, but ensuring that elections are as fair and democratic as possible is a matter of principle above all else. These are big, fundamental reforms that we are proposing, but we are all duty-bound to respond to public demand for political reform. That is how we restore people’s faith in their politics once again. I commend this statement to the House.

I begin by thanking the right hon. Gentleman for early sight of his statement. First, will he acknowledge that his proposal today to abandon the 55% requirement for Dissolution following a vote of no confidence represents the first major U-turn of this Government, and it has come in less than two months? Why did he not think before about the impossibility of a Government hanging on after they had lost a vote of no confidence by a simple majority? That would have saved him a great deal of embarrassment. As to his now subsidiary proposal for a two-thirds majority for any other Dissolution, what is its purpose? It is not completely superfluous? Either he is in favour of fixed-term Parliaments as long as the Government of the day enjoy the confidence of this House or he is not.

On the issue of a referendum on the alternative vote system, the House will be well aware that just such a proposal was in a Labour Government Bill and was agreed by this House but not the other place before the election. Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that during the general election campaign he told The Independent that the alternative vote system was a “miserable little compromise”, saying

“I am not going to settle”

for that? Could the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House what has changed his mind?

Let me turn to the question of the date for this referendum. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he decided on this May date, which coincides with the Scottish parliamentary and Welsh Assembly elections, and local elections in some, but by no means all, parts of England without any prior consultation with the Scottish Executive, the Welsh Assembly Government, the Northern Ireland Executive or—as far as one knows—local government? Will he confirm that none of the four previous referendums held in the United Kingdom—the EU referendum in 1975, and the more recent Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland referendums—has been held on the same day as elections? What is the argument for not following that precedent? Would it not have been altogether more sensible to consult widely on the best possible date and then to add the date to the Bill in due course? What is the argument against that?

The House will be well aware that we not only sought before the election to legislate for British voters to have a choice about whether to have the alternative vote system or to continue with first past the post, but we pledged to do so in our manifesto at the election. So my party is in support of voters having that choice at a referendum. However, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we will not allow that support to be used as some kind of cover for outrageously partisan proposals in the same Bill to gerrymander the boundaries of this House of Commons by arbitrarily changing the rules for setting boundaries and by an equally arbitrary cut in the number of MPs?

There never has been an issue about the need for constituencies to be broadly equal in size. That principle has been embodied in legislation for decades and has all-party support. As it happens, six of the 10 largest constituencies in the United Kingdom are Labour and only three of the 10 smallest are Labour. The right hon. Gentleman has agreed in debates in this House since the election that there is a huge problem, highlighted by the Electoral Commission this March, of 3.5 million citizens who are eligible to vote but are not on the electoral register. If his aim, as he says, is principle and to make the system fairer, why has he said nothing in his statement about how he will ensure that those 3.5 million are included in the Boundary Commission’s calculations about the size of constituencies and how he will get them on to the registers in time for the review?

If the right hon. Gentleman now accepts that there is a case for Orkney and Shetland, with an electorate of 37,000, and the Western Isles, with an electorate of 22,000, to be given special consideration, what on earth are the arguments for natural and historic boundaries elsewhere not to be taken into account by the Boundary Commission and by the legislation? As he claims that he wants to “empower” the people—his word in his statement—is it his intention that local communities should continue to have a right to an independent local boundary commission in their area if those local people wish it? If that is his intention, when he says, “we will ensure the Boundary Commissions have what they need” to complete this huge task by the end of 2013, only two years after this legislation has any chance of getting through, what additional resources and staff will the Boundary Commission be given?

Let me now turn to the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal to cut the number the number of MPs from 650 to 600—the most arbitrary and partisan of all his proposals. Does he recognise that his international comparisons are tendentious in the extreme since virtually every western country has many more proportionately elected representatives below the level of their national Parliaments than we do, whether the other nation is a federal state such as Germany or a unitary state such as France?

As for all the nonsense that the right hon. Gentleman came up with about how under Conservative legislation passed in 1986 the number of MPs has allegedly been rising inexorably, does he recognise that over the past 50 years the total number of Members of this House has increased by just 3% whereas electorates have increased by 25% and that the work load of Members of Parliament and the demand from constituents on them has expanded exponentially? How will having fewer Members of Parliament enable the British people to be given a better service by their Member of Parliament?

Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when he gave evidence to his local Oxfordshire boundary inquiry in 2003, castigated the notion that there might be too many MPs? He said then:

“Somebody might take the view that at 659 there are already too many Members of Parliament at Westminster.”

He continued

“I certainly hope that is not the case.”

Was not the Prime Minister right then, and are not he and his deputy completely wrong now?

Before I deal with the questions that the right hon. Gentleman raised, I want to acknowledge, recognise and pay tribute to the fact that he and his colleagues in the previous Government—certainly in the early years—were a party, at one point, of political reform. They introduced significant reforms: getting rid of the hereditaries in the other place; changing the electoral system for election to the European Parliament; and devolving power to Wales and Scotland. Opposition Members have a choice, and I hope that they will take this opportunity to rediscover that spirit of political reform.

I shall respond to the right hon. Gentleman’s specific questions. He suggested that for the Government to listen represents a major U-turn. We listened to the objections raised on both sides of the House to our proposed 55% threshold, and we have acted on them. The inclusion of the two-thirds threshold gives an additional, new power to Parliament. Let us be clear what we are doing with the fixed-term provisions—provisions that his party used to support. We are taking power away from the Prime Minister and giving Parliament more power over the Executive. Surely that is something that he and other Opposition Members would support.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the fact that the referendum will coincide with elections being held on the same day. Is he seriously suggesting that people are incapable of taking more than one decision in a day, or of filling in an extra box to answer yes or no to a straightforward question? That is misleading and patronising at best. He claims that the ambition to have more equal constituencies is “outrageously partisan” and involves gerrymandering. It was the Chartists, back in the 1840s, who first proposed equal-sized constituencies. The Labour party used to believe that votes should have the same weight, wherever they were and whatever part of the country people found themselves in. How on earth can he and other Labour Members brand something as simple as giving fairness to every voter in the country as “outrageously partisan”? This proposal is based on a simple principle of fairness and he should support it.

The right hon. Gentleman cited the figure of 3.5 million unregistered voters, and I agree that something should be done about that—[Interruption.] Something has needed to be done about it for the past 13 years, and we will bring forward proposals to accelerate individual electoral registration, precisely to help to do that.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether local people would be heard during the boundary review process. Yes, of course they will. He also returned to the issue of the size of the House of Commons. Let us remember that existing legislation—the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986—already suggests that our Chamber is far too large. If we do not change that by capping the number of MPs, that number will just ratchet up and up.

It seems to me that the right hon. Gentleman and the Labour party have a choice. Are they in favour of reform, or of the status quo? Over the past few weeks, the signs have not been very promising. Last week, he turned his back on any progressive reform of our criminal justice system. Every day since the election, he and his colleagues have opposed every measure that we have put forward to sort out the black hole in the public finances that they created. Is the Labour party a party of progress or of stagnation? Is it a party that stands for something, or does it just stand against everything? Is the Labour party in favour of change, or just in favour of itself?

Order. A great many right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, and accommodating most, let alone all, of them will require economy in questions and answers.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if a referendum on a major constitutional issue such as voting reform is to be seen as fair, it should not be the case that a mere 50% of those voting on the day should make the decision? Ought there not to be a threshold of, say, 40% of those entitled to vote, as was the case in 1978 in Scotland?

The coalition agreement is very clear that the referendum will be decided on the basis of a simple majority. If we had thresholds for legitimacy, many Members of this House would not be here right now. It is a simple principle that a simple majority should be sufficient to pass the referendum one way or the other, and that is what we will do.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that if we are to reform our democracy, one of the most important things is that we take not only our people, but our Parliament with us? Will he therefore ensure that there is effective pre-legislative scrutiny of the two Bills that he has proposed and the Bills that are to come? Without that, he is in danger of denying the legitimacy that his proposals will depend upon.

Of course I agree that it is essential that the Bills are properly scrutinised. As the hon. Gentleman knows, given that they are constitutional Bills, every stage of the passage of the Bills will be taken on the Floor of the House, so that every hon. Member can scrutinise these important Bills and have their say in the final shape of the legislation.

Obviously, I welcome the historic progress towards the alternative vote referendum and the fixed-term Parliaments. May I be a little more parochial and ask a question on the issue of constituency size, as for the past 27 years, under three sets of radically different constituency boundaries, I have had the privilege of representing the largest geographic constituency in this place—just below the 13,000 sq km cap that my right hon. Friend proposes to introduce? Can he confirm that the boundary commissioners will retain the flexibility in the Scottish context that they had last time round for the Westminster boundaries, when they could have opted for two Highland council area seats—that is a land mass the size of Belgium, let us remember—but in fact they opted for three?

I recognise, of course, the outstanding job that my right hon. Friend does across a constituency that is by far the largest in the country. That is why, taking the cue from his constituency, we will specify in the Bill that no new constituency can be any larger than his present constituency—just shy of 13,000 sq km. As for the basis upon which the Boundary Commissions will make their decisions, the exceptions on the face of the Bill will be very limited—for obvious reasons, the two island constituencies that I set out, and the geographical cap in size that I specified. Beyond that, the duty will be on the Boundary Commissions to deliver what we have always intended should be delivered—constituencies that are more equal in size in terms of the number of voters in each constituency.

If one were to cut the number of MPs but keep the same number of Government Ministers, as is laid down in statute, one would have increased the stranglehold of the Government over the House. If the Deputy Prime Minister is to proceed with the cut, will he undertake to cut the number of Ministers, and if so, could he cut it by 22?

The key question is whether the package of reform increases the power of Parliament to hold the Executive to account. That is the fundamental issue of principle which members of the Labour party, when they were in favour of political reform, used to understand. This package of reform unambiguously puts this Parliament back in the driving seat.

I commend the Deputy Prime Minister for changing his mind on the 55% proposal, but may I ask him to think again about the timing of the referendum? The reason that the Electoral Commission recommends against holding referendums on the same day as elections is not that people cannot decide on more than one thing at a time, but that it leads to differential turnouts, which means that the subsequent referendum is unrepresentative. Would that not be unfortunate on such an important issue?

The Electoral Commission, which the right hon. Gentleman cited, said just last week:

“There are benefits of holding elections and referendums on the same day—for example to encourage turnout, but there are risks associated with combination too.”

What we must do is act in order to minimise those risks and increase the benefit. The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point. There were real problems in the elections in 2007 which, as analysed in the Gould report, raised concerns about combining elections at the same time, but let us remember that as the Gould report demonstrated clearly, the complexity at that time arose from the coincidence of elections to Holyrood and very complex and lengthy ballot papers for the local elections in Scotland. In the proposed referendum, there will be a very simple question to which there is a simple yes or no answer. I think people will understand that that is best held at the same time as they go to vote on other matters, rather than asking them to return to the ballot box on another occasion, at great additional expense to the taxpayer.

Making this announcement and fixing, to use the right hon. Gentleman’s word, the date of the next general election for the same day as the Scottish and Welsh elections totally ignores the strong recommendations of both the Gould and Arbuthnott reports. It sounds to me not like the respect agenda, but actually like the contempt agenda.

I do not recognise that it is contemptuous towards the people of Britain, wherever they live, to give them that opportunity for the first time—an opportunity, by the way, that was first promised by the Labour party in its 1997 manifesto, but never delivered, like so many other points of the political reform agenda that remained undelivered over the past decade. I do not think it contemptuous to ask people—wherever they live in Wales, Scotland, England or whatever part of the United Kingdom—to have their say on the electoral system that elects Members to this House, and to ask them to do so on a very simple yes or no basis at a time when they are voting in any event. It underestimates the people of Wales, Scotland—the United Kingdom—to suggest somehow that they are incapable of deciding more than one thing on the same day.

That is not the suggestion being made. We all know that voting reform—changing the voting system—is a big deal in here but of very scant interest to the vast majority of our voters. What is the justification for artificially inflating turnout by coinciding the referendum with other elections, when the right hon. Gentleman has yet to receive any formal advice on that topic from the Electoral Commission?

With respect—[Interruption.] It is absurd to suggest that it is artificially inflating turnout by just giving people the opportunity to have their say. There is absolutely nothing wrong with giving people the opportunity to have their say and doing so on a very simple basis, with a simple question and a simple yes or no answer, at a time when people are voting in any event—unless the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we waste millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on organising it for another occasion. I see no logic in that whatever.

It is a great shame that the Deputy Prime Minister did not have the guts to fight for the best change in the electoral system, and the one in which he once believed and I still do—that is, proportional representation. Would it not be fair to give the electorate a say on that as well as on the alternative vote in the coming referendum? If he couples the alternative vote, which benefits only the Liberals, with a reduction in the number and redistribution of seats, which is designed to hurt the Labour party, is that really democratisation or the biggest gerrymander in British history?

Once again, another Labour Member calls a simple act of democracy—giving people in a referendum the right to have a say about how we are elected to this House—gerrymandering. Only in the weird and wonderful world of a party immersed in the most mind-numbing, introverted leadership contest would that be called gerrymandering. It is simply aimed at one objective: to make sure that our elections are conducted more fairly and people’s votes are of the same weight wherever they find themselves in the United Kingdom. That is an issue of principle which I believe is right, and I hope that when the hon. Gentleman thinks about it he will join the rest of us who want to give people the chance finally to reform our broken political system.

I am grateful to the Deputy Prime Minister for having listened to the views of Back Benchers on the ludicrous 55% proposal, but will he reconsider the answer that he gave to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)? If the right hon. Gentleman’s avowed intent is to give more power to Parliament at the expense of the Government, how can it be right to maintain the current number of Ministers while reducing the number of MPs who hold them to account?

I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Gentleman. He is a long-serving Member who will always hold any Government’s feet to the fire, and I respect him for that and pay tribute to him—

Order. I apologise—[Interruption.] Order. There is simply too much noise in the Chamber. The House must behave in a more seemly fashion.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also agree, however, that the measures that we have announced today will strengthen the role of Parliament in holding the Executive to account. They will strengthen the power of this House to throw out a Government through a motion of no confidence, and if a Government are not re-formed within 14 days there will be a general election and a Dissolution of the House. That seems to me to be a very significant shift that takes power away from the Prime Minister, which has never been done before, and gives more power to the House. It is something that I hope the hon. Gentleman will welcome.

I welcome the Government’s decision to implement Labour’s election manifesto pledge for a referendum on the alternative vote system. Many Labour Members will support a yes vote in that referendum, but we will not support the gerrymandering of parliamentary constituencies. What concrete action will the Deputy Prime Minister take to reduce the number of people—3.5 million—who are eligible to be on the electoral register but are not?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for a referendum that would allow people to have their say on the electoral system. I believe, none the less, that the boundary changes that we are proposing are perhaps more modest than he and other Labour Members fear. [Interruption.] Well, it is a cut of 7.7% in the number of Members of this House. It brings the size of this House much more into line with existing legislation on what it should be, it starts to bring the size of this Chamber into line with those in other parts of the democratic world, and—this is perhaps part of the answer that I should have given to the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope)—it does not impede the ability of this House to hold Ministers, however many or few of them there are, to account. That package, combined with the additional powers of Dissolution, provides fairness in the votes that are cast and provides more power to this House.

I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister has, like me, noticed how the Labour party has mutated from a party that believes in political reform to one that would quite like it, but not now, and not this particular reform. Given Labour Members’ opposition, as with the 1832 Reform Act, to their rotten boroughs being removed, does he see that they have now given up on the idea of one person, one vote of equal value?

I agree. It is quite remarkable for a party that was once proud of its credentials as a movement of political reform now to act with barely disguised paranoia about a perfectly logical approach to redrawing our boundaries and with churlishness at the opportunity finally to have a referendum that would usher in AV, which is a proposal that the Labour party used to make—a party, remember, which back in 1997 fought the election campaign on a manifesto commitment to giving people the right to have their say about how people are elected to this House. This is, yet again, a commitment to political reform that the Labour party has failed to deliver and that we are now delivering for them.

May I reiterate the request for short questions and economical replies? A very large number of colleagues wish to contribute, and I would like to enable them to do so.

Does the Minister now regret using the term “fix” in the context of the political system? Does he believe that the referendum that takes place—I would support that—will remain simply on the question of the voting system, or might it not also give people the opportunity to express a view on whether they support the programme of increasing VAT and making cuts that the Liberals have endorsed, and allow us to give a verdict on whether we approve or disapprove of the Liberals?

I suspect that I know how the hon. Gentleman might vote in that referendum. No, the referendum question is just on the narrow point of giving people the option to support the alternative vote system, and it will be susceptible to a simple yes or no answer.

I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister’s proposals to equalise the size of constituencies. Does he agree that this is not just a case of giving equal weight to each vote but it is very important in the context of removing an element of bias in our electoral system and making the system that we have much more proportional than it is at the moment?

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. It cannot be right that we can have a situation whereby, as I cited earlier, there are 20,000 more voters in one constituency than in a constituency just 10 miles down the road. That means, quite simply, that the weight of the vote where there are 20,000 more electors is worth less than that in a constituency just 10 miles down the road. It seems to me that it is obvious to most people that that is unfair and needs to be changed.

As the Member with, I believe, the sixth largest electorate in the country, I am acutely aware, despite having 86,000 electors, that in the most deprived parts of my constituency very large numbers of people are not on the electoral register. There is a huge bias in our system against the most deprived people living in the most deprived areas, and unless the Government do something to get them on the register, this really will be a fix.

But what did the previous Government do for 13 years? Of course we can all agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is bad and wrong that 3.5 million people are not on the register—he is absolutely right about that—but we will take measures to increase and accelerate individual electoral registration. [Interruption.]

Order. I genuinely apologise that I have to keep interrupting the Deputy Prime Minister, but I want to hear him. I want to hear the content of his arguments and his mellifluous tones, and I keep being prevented from hearing him by people chuntering away from a sedentary position. Please do not.

They chunter because they do not like to be reminded that they did nothing on voter registration for 13 years. They did nothing to give people the chance to have a say about how we are elected to this House, or to rectify the unfairness of the way in which votes are distributed across constituencies. If we could work together across parties to deal with these big issues, including ensuring that those who are not registered become properly registered, I would welcome that, but I just do not think it is helped by the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) somehow accusing a new coalition Government, who have been in power for only a few weeks, of failing to do something about a problem that his Government did nothing to rectify for 13 years.

My right hon. Friend has made a brave and courageous statement for a Government who want radical reform. However, does he agree that referendums should not be held on the same day as elections, so that we can have proper debate? Would it not be a good idea to hold a series of elections on that date, and perhaps another vote that was a matter of yes or no?

I hear what my hon. Friend says, but I disagree with him for the simple reason that I do not think that the question that will be put forward will be very complex. Is it a simple choice: do people want to have the alternative vote as the system by which Members are elected to this House—yes or no? I personally do not see why it would be right to incur the additional cost, complexity and delay that would arise if we had the referendum on a separate date.

We already know that the Prime Minister will campaign for a no vote in the referendum, and many of his Conservative hon. Friends will back his lead. If the Deputy Prime Minister is seeking a yes vote, he will need a lot of support from people such as me—electoral reformers on the Labour Benches. Does he realise that he is not likely to get that if there is a single question on both increasing the size of constituencies and moving to AV? The only way he will get support for AV is by having separate questions on AV and the number of constituencies.

The review of the boundaries will not be subject to a vote in the referendum. The referendum question will simply be on whether people—yes or no—want the alternative vote as the means by which Members are elected to this House.

The hon. Gentleman alludes to the fact that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I will be on opposite sides of the argument. I understand that for the hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members it is difficult to imagine that there might be different shades of opinion in Governments. I read in the newspapers this weekend of a pollster for the Labour party who disagreed with the party but was too frightened to leave the Government because she said she knew that she would be smeared in the newspapers. At least we on these Benches are grown-up enough to be open and relaxed about differences where they exist.

Could the right hon. Gentleman assist me by saying how much consultation there has been with either residents of the Isle of Wight or those further afield?

Of course there must and will be consultation with the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, as there will be with constituents up and down the country. I recognise, of course, that he will have particular concerns as he represents an island constituency, but I hope that he will be able to see the virtue of a general principle of fairness and more equal constituencies applying across the United Kingdom, with the exception of the two island constituencies that I referred to earlier.

I wonder whether the Deputy Prime Minister could give a clear answer to a simple question. Did he or any of his Ministers have discussions with the Scottish Government or any of the Scottish party leaders prior to the date of the referendum being trailed in the press? If he did not, what does that say for the so-called respect agenda for the devolved Administrations?

Clearly, we will be consulting with the devolved Administrations. [Interruption.] I do not think that there is anything wrong with the Government’s putting forward their proposals in the manner that we have. We have been open and transparent about it and moved as fast as we can. We have told the House first; I often hear Opposition Members complaining that announcements should not be communicated to others. We have come to the House at the earliest possible opportunity. The date and all other matters will now be subject to full scrutiny here on the Floor of the House of Commons, as is right for all Bills that have a constitutional significance.

Could the Deputy Prime Minister kindly inform the House about who was consulted about the date of the referendum? If anyone was, what was the response he got? Can he also assure me that there will be legislation before the summer about the reform of the House of Lords, which seems to be sadly lacking in the statement that he has made to the House this afternoon?

I will not repeat what I said earlier about the consultation on the measures that I have described today. As for the Bill for the reform of the other place, I remain determined—we remain determined as a coalition Government—to produce a draft Bill, for the first time in more than 100 years in the debate about reform of the other place, by the end of this year.

May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister specifically what consultation there was with the First Minister about the issue of the Assembly election and the AV referendum being held on the same day?

It is within the gift of this Government to make the proposal and to come to this House first with the announcement. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways; he cannot criticise us for talking to others outside the House when in fact this time we are doing what he and his Labour colleagues have been saying for weeks—that we should come to this House. That is what we have done and that is the right way to proceed.

The Deputy Prime Minister wants to hold a referendum to change the voting system and make a coalition Government more likely in future. Why does he not think that it is worth letting people see for much longer what a coalition Government look like, so that they can make an informed choice on the voting system rather than having the decision thrust on them so quickly? Why the rush?

By the time the referendum is held, people will have had a whole year; I suggest that that is long enough for them to make a judgment, even if my hon. Friend has made an instant judgment himself.

In 1832, Wales had 32 MPs and a population of 1 million. Now Wales has a population of more than 3 million and there has been only an 8% increase in its percentage of MPs. Is that just?

I am afraid that I do not agree with the right hon. Lady’s assumption that the worth of the House should be judged by the number of Members sitting in it. I do not think that a constant inflation of politicians is a sign of the health of any democracy. I really do not think that a cut by 7.7% of the number of Members in the House is the chilling, draconian measure that she and so many Opposition Members seem to think it is.

The Deputy Prime Minister proposes a referendum on how we are elected. He has also proposed an in-or-out referendum on Europe. Is he aware that some of us will vote to give him a referendum on AV only if he gives us the in-or-out referendum?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the coalition agreement also includes clear provisions for a referendum lock on any further transfer of power and sovereignty from Parliament to Brussels and Strasbourg. That will reassure him and everybody else that that matter will be put to a referendum of the whole country.

I have heard before the words that the right hon. Gentleman uses about making every vote count, and I supported him, although in that case they referred to a more proportional voting system. However, I would support him in making every vote count in terms of equal constituencies if he could confidently show the House that that would be the result of the changes. In view of the fact that the census will report in 2013 and that he proposes a new registration scheme, what resources has he sought to ensure that everyone eligible is registered, so that we can get genuinely fair and equal constituencies?

As the hon. Lady will know, we need to start with the work of the boundary review as soon as possible in order that it can be concluded in the timetable that we have set out. That is why the boundary review will be based on the electoral register that will be published at the beginning of December this year.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. He will be aware that the boundary between Cornwall and England was set more than a thousand years ago, sadly by conquest. Will the direction that he and the Government give to the Electoral Commission through the Bill take account of such ancient boundaries?

I hear what my hon. Friend says about the boundary between Cornwall and England, although I am sure that many of his constituents would be delighted to know that they are also citizens of England and the United Kingdom. The rule of thumb will be that the Boundary Commission should seek to redraw boundaries according to the simple principle that constituencies should be of a more equal size than they are at the moment, within the parameters that I have described. That will be the predominant requirement on the boundary commissions, and it will be of greater weight and importance than any other considerations.

On fixed-term Parliaments, does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with the statement that the Prime Minister made during the general election campaign that unelected Prime Ministers ought to face election automatically within six months?