House of Commons
Wednesday 7 July 2010
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
In the last 12 months, my Department has provided aid to Pakistan to help to put more children into school, improve macro-economic stability and support the efficient and effective delivery of basic services.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Oxfam has said that 1 million Pakistanis fleeing from fighting remain in overcrowded camps and depend on emergency relief to survive. What is being done to help internally displaced persons and refugees in Pakistan?
My hon. Friend is right to identify that particular problem in Pakistan, and it was one of the problems I specifically looked at when I was in Pakistan some three weeks ago. My hon. Friend will know from his own very close relationship with members of the Pakistani diaspora in Britain that, as the Oxfam report makes clear, extensive work is being done in all the affected regions of Pakistan, but we are looking at our whole programme to see whether there is anything more we can do.
Does the Secretary of State agree that, although the aid for Pakistan is welcome, the Pakistani authorities must realise that the appalling murder, persecution and torture of the Ahmadiyya Muslims in Lahore, with the complicity of the authorities, must cease?
The hon. Gentleman is a Birmingham Member of Parliament, as am I, and, like me, he will have received representations from the diaspora in Birmingham on that specific point. I had the chance to visit Lahore in January, and I will carefully consider what he has said and see whether additional action is required.
Aid Expenditure (Transparency)
I launched the aid transparency guarantee on 3 June, which will ensure that UK and developing country citizens have full information about British aid.
I am sure my right hon. Friend is aware of recent surveys showing that, in these difficult times, public support for international aid is waning. Does he agree that if we are to win the argument for his Department’s budget in the court of public opinion, we have to ensure that the transparency agenda is linked to achieving the goals of the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and it is always important to underline that there is strong cross-party commitment to this important budget partly for moral reasons, but also because it is very much in our national self-interest. My hon. Friend will have heard the words of the Foreign Secretary and myself about the importance of wiring more closely together defence, diplomacy and development, and he has my assurance that we will continue to do that with great care.
In last Thursday’s debate, the Secretary of State was transparent enough to admit that he did not yet know how the extra £200 million for Afghanistan announced by the Prime Minister will be spent. Given the question asked by the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) and the increasing speculation that DFID money in Afghanistan will be spent on things over which the Secretary of State’s Department has no control, can he tell the House whether the Foreign Secretary—or, indeed, the Defence Secretary—has made any suggestions to him as to how that £200 million should be spent?
The hon. Gentleman will understand that a Government who are properly co-ordinated and working together will discuss all these matters to make sure that, as I have said, we wire together in the best possible interests defence, diplomacy and development. However, as the hon. Gentleman is well aware, as he has been a junior DFID Minister, the OECD Development Assistance Committee rules are what pertain in the spending of money on development, and the coalition Government have confirmed what his Government said: those rules will persist.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s initiative in setting up a more effective watchdog for transparency and accountability and to publish what DFID funds in more detail from January. That will provide a welcome reinforcement of the value of our aid. May I also say that the Select Committees are very anxious to start their work and anything he can do to ensure that they are constituted will help to enable the International Development Committee to take evidence from him next Thursday so we can expand on these issues?
I am grateful to the Chair of the International Development Committee for his comments. He knows a great deal about these matters. The transparency guarantee is enormously important, first in reassuring British taxpayers by enabling them to see where the money is being spent and that it is being well spent; and secondly, in assisting in the building of civic society to ensure that people in the countries we are trying to help can hold their own political leaders to account. I look forward to discussing next week with his Committee these and other matters, especially independent evaluation.
Media High Council (Rwanda)
The UN-led programme of support to six oversight institutions in Rwanda, including the media high council, comes to an end in this financial year. There are no plans for further DFID support.
I thank the Minister for that reply, and I am relieved to hear that we will not be funding the media high council given that it has recently suspended Rwanda’s two leading independent newspapers, Umuseso and Umuvugizi, and given that a leading Rwandan journalist, Jean-Léonard Rugambage, was murdered in Rwanda in June. Will the Minister make urgent representations, through his Department, to the Rwandan authorities and make sure that we fund things that promote freedom of speech, particularly in the run-up to the elections?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting these issues. I assure her that when I visited Rwanda between 15 and 17 June I raised these very matters at all levels, including the very highest levels, in the various meetings I had. It is important that as part of the general support that DFID gives to help the Rwandan people, we press for the opening up of political space and that we make sure that pertains up to the election. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will take the opportunity, later this week in a meeting with the Rwandan high commissioner, to press the issues that the hon. Lady has rightly identified.
DFID has given the 1GOAL campaign £804,800 so far and will give a further £195,200 this financial year. In addition, DFID offered support to the Government of South Africa for a summit during this World cup, and we have received an invitation to that summit this very morning. It will take place this Sunday and we are considering who should attend.
I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. There have been a great many goals in this World cup, but signing up to a road map to deliver education to 72 million children around the world by the next World cup could be the greatest goal. How will he ensure that the momentum of today’s education campaign summit is not lost between now and Brazil 2014?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her excellent question. She, like all hon. Members across the House and particularly Her Majesty’s Government through DFID, is passionate about the need to boost education, particularly for the millions who have yet to receive the benefit of a primary education. There are few bigger prizes to grasp, and she is right to say that we need to maintain the momentum of the 1GOAL campaign, which we have been very pleased to support. The summit that is about to take place should help to boost that momentum and we shall do all we can to help to maintain it.
Will the Minister join me in congratulating the pupils and staff of Eaton Mill primary school in my constituency, who, like those in many schools up and down the country, have made an enormous effort to raise awareness of the 1GOAL project and the aims of improving education throughout Africa?
I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the school in his constituency that has so eagerly taken part in this campaign. About 8,000 schools in the United Kingdom have asked for supporter packs from the 1GOAL campaign, so it has had a real impact. There have also been lesson plans and other activities for schoolchildren and I dare say that many Members across the House have had similar experiences to my hon. Friend. That is a measure of the impact and success of the campaign to date.
I welcome the Minister’s support for the 1GOAL summit, and I hope that he or one of his ministerial colleagues will accept the invitation that has been extended to the ministerial team. The Secretary of State has repeatedly told the House in recent weeks that he is focused on outcomes, so will the Minister tell me what steps, if any, he will take in the coming weeks and months to help to finance the removal of school fees, for how many children and in which countries?
As part of the broad attempt to ensure that the millennium development goals are met, we are keen to do everything we can to boost access to education. What matters is what works, and we need to push very hard in a number of countries through programmes to ensure, if we can, that user fees are removed. In some areas vouchers could be used, but the main thing is to focus on what works, and we are certainly focused on that.
I note the lack of detail in the Minister’s response, and that he mentions vouchers. Does he still intend to implement his plans for voucher schemes, which were described by the director of UNESCO’s global monitoring report on education as
“using vulnerable people to advance an ideologically loaded, market-based vision for education, which would exclude millions of kids from school”?
I am only interested in what works, and of course the precise detail will come out of the bilateral aid review that we are undertaking, of which the right hon. Gentleman is aware. Of course we will be happy to try to ensure that we learn the lessons of the experience for which he was responsible as regards the use of vouchers, particularly in relation to maternal health in south-east Asia.
Yes, we will. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has commissioned a review of DFID’s bilateral aid programme to ensure we target UK aid where it is needed most and where it will make the most impact. The Caribbean programme will be included in that review.
Much of the Caribbean is very poor, and it is currently being carved up by countries such as Taiwan, China and Venezuela. May I urge my right hon. Friend to recall the historical Commonwealth links and huge good will towards Britain in that region as he develops his policy in this area?
We do indeed have strong historical links with the Caribbean. This Government, rather unlike our predecessors, very much value our links with the Commonwealth and fully recognise our responsibilities to the overseas territories, including those in the Caribbean. We give support especially to combat crime and insecurity as well as the effects of climate change, and we stand ready to help in the event of any natural disaster.
In relation to international development and the money that goes to the Caribbean countries, illegal trade in children from Haiti to the Dominican Republic has taken place and has been very apparent in the news in the last while. Can we use our influence to ensure that the money available through international development goes to stop that trade?
6. What aid his Department is planning to provide to Colombia in 2010-11; and if he will make a statement. (6266)
DFID does not provide direct financial assistance to the Government of Columbia. We provide aid primarily through multilateral organisations, including the European Commission and the World Bank. In addition, DFID supports a number of projects through non-governmental organisations to support human rights and poverty reduction. We are, of course, reviewing our programme and Colombia will be part of that.
I thank the Minister for that response. Will he assure the House that any direct or indirect aid is channelled through humanitarian groups such as the International Red Cross? He is aware that Columbia is an extremely dangerous place to be for those who oppose the regime and, just recently, President-elect Santos ordered his troops to dress up in International Red Cross uniforms to carry out illegal activities. I am sure that the International Red Cross would welcome the opportunity to meet the Minister to talk through this issue.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this point because it is extremely important. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will meet the head of the International Red Cross next week and this will be a significant matter on the agenda for that meeting.
Aid Expenditure (Legislation)
The Government are fully committed to our pledge to spend 0.7% of national income on aid from 2013, as defined by the rules of the OECD Development Assistance Committee, and to enshrine that commitment in law. We are looking into the best way to proceed and will inform the House when a decision has been taken.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State and I share his view that our aid commitment is both a moral imperative and in the UK national interest. Will he be more specific, however? The legislation that he is talking about will not cost the Chancellor a lot of money, so it will be easy to bring forward very quickly. Is he not a little worried that his Back Benchers might not be with him 100%, as many of them are uncomfortable ring-fencing his Department’s money?
I do not know of any Back Bencher who is not a strong supporter of this law. I share with the hon. Gentleman a frustration about the length of time it is taking to bring forward the legislation, but he will have seen the wise words of the Select Committee Chair in the debate last week when he made it clear that it would be sensible to look carefully at the precise terms of the law. There is some gentle disagreement among members of the development community and it is obviously right for us to consider all these matters before proceeding.
The Secretary of State will recognise the concern about recent newspaper reports of the amount of his Department’s budget that was spent on trade unions in this country and other politically correct causes. Given also the money that goes to China and India, and other money wasted by the EU, does he not accept that all that taken together undermines the case for the 0.7% requirement, particularly in this age of austerity?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about value for money and the effectiveness of British aid. That is why we have set up our bilateral review of every place where Britain is spending this important budget, so that we can be sure, as I said earlier, that for every £1 of hard-pressed taxpayers’ money, we are really getting 100p of value. He specifically mentions China. He will know that, on the day that the Government took office, we announced that we would stop all aid to China. The bilateral review is of course looking at India.
On trade unions, I would make two points. First, trade unions spend overseas money well on building the capacity of societies to hold their leaders and politicians to account. What is wrong, in my view, is funding development awareness. Sadly, the former Secretary of State felt it was right to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of British aid and development money on supporting Brazilian dance groups—
Millennium Development Goals Summit
8. What objectives he has set for the forthcoming UN millennium development goals summit in New York. (6268)
The Government aim to reach international agreement on an action agenda to achieve the MDGs by 2015. That will require developed and developing countries to make results-based policy and financial commitments, including on the most off-track MDGs, such as those on maternal and child health.
We know that the Prime Minister will be unable to attend the UN MDG summit in New York because of his impending paternity leave. I congratulate him on taking advantage of that family-friendly policy, championed by trade unions and many Opposition Members. Now that the Deputy Prime Minister will take over those duties in New York, how many times has the Secretary of State personally discussed the objectives for the forthcoming summit in New York with him?
I have discussed the matter frequently with the Deputy Prime Minister. Indeed, shortly after this Question Time, I will hold a meeting with him specifically on that. The country is fortunate that the Deputy Prime Minister, with his deep knowledge of these matters, will go the MDG summit.
I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of the recent UN report on the lack of progress on some MDGs that cites unmet commitments, inadequate resources and a lack of focus and accountability. As he is so interested in this subject, what further lead can he give at the New York summit later this year so that we make better progress?
I had the opportunity to speak at the UN last week, specifically on the importance of injecting real vigour and energy into trying to ensure that we have a proper road map for progress in the last five years of the MDGs. [Interruption.] They have produced a real opportunity to reduce poverty and hunger around the world, and I am certain that the extensive work that will be done in the run-up to September will be effective in achieving that. [Interruption.]
Tackling Climate Change
Decisions on UK international climate change finance will be determined through the comprehensive spending review.
The hon. Lady will know that the fast start funding for climate change, which will come from the development budget—something that was confirmed by the previous Government when they were in office—takes up to 2012, but I hope she will understand that long-term decisions on climate change funding will need to come from the comprehensive spending review, and that work is happening at the moment.
I am not sure that I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s point about disagreements on the basic science. I think there is agreement on the basic science, and an authoritative Dutch report published this morning underlines that very point. I would be happy to engage with the hon. Gentleman on what those doubts are, perhaps by letter.
All project proposals are developed within agreed strategies, discussed with relevant partners, and subject to careful appraisal. We are reviewing all major spending areas to ensure that they represent value for money.
In the case of countries in receipt of UK aid that also have considerable wealth and are pursuing an aggressive economic growth strategy, such as India, what mechanisms will also be in place to encourage and support them to ensure that they sort out their social problems in an equally aggressive manner?
My hon. Friend makes an important point that is at the heart of the bilateral review of British aid spending, which we are conducting at the moment. She specifically mentions India, but India is different from China in that an Indian’s average income is only a third that of a Chinese. India has more poor people than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, and, through the Commonwealth, we have deep links with India. We will consider all these matters in the context of that bilateral review. [Interruption.]
Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Act
I acknowledge the success of the hon. Member in initiating this important Act, which is a key part of action against so-called vulture funds. It means that UK courts of law can no longer be used to pursue excessive claims against some of the poorest countries on their historic debts, ensuring that resources are available to tackle poverty. We will review the effectiveness of this new Act before the sunset clause expires next June.
May I take this opportunity to place on record my thanks and appreciation to Sally Keeble, who successfully steered the Bill through while I was recovering from illness? Given the importance of this legislation to the 40 most indebted countries, will the Minister please ensure that it continues so that these important measures remain in place in the UK and that never again will a British court be used to take the third-world debts from these countries?
I acknowledge the work of the hon. Gentleman and the former hon. Lady in putting the legislation on the statute book. It was there as a result of the wash-up in the last Parliament, and so enjoyed cross-party agreement. The Act has been in place for only a month, and we will examine its effectiveness in the hope that it can be shown to work and can be renewed in the future.
Poverty and Hunger Eradication
While globally MDG 1 is the most on-track MDG, we recognise that in Africa and some parts of Asia it is still well off track. DFID is fully committed to meeting the target. For example, in Ethiopia we are helping 7.5 million people to access more and better-quality food, and in Bangladesh we are providing 1 million people with agricultural services, helping to increase incomes by 50%.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his election as Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, and I pay tribute to his expertise in the House on population, and, above all, to his recognition that, as part of all our reviews and DIFD programmes, we are embedding the choice for women to decide whether and when to have children, and to ensure that that helps to underpin not just MDG 1 but many of the other MDGs.
As the millennium development goals have been developed, what financial and technical support will the Department give to the newly created UN Women’s Agency to make a genuine difference to women in poverty in the third world? It is well recognised that direct help for women is the best bet for both families and communities.
Achieving the millennium development goals, including those for education, is at the heart of the Government’s development policy. We are reviewing all our programmes to ensure we focus on those that deliver maximum value for money.
I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but may I also commend to him the Global Campaign for Education’s work on this matter, in particular its request that the UK Government commit themselves to a 10-year sector plan for education? If there is one thing that education needs, particularly primary education, it is stability in those funding streams.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about consistency and clarity of funding, and we will be looking at all these points in connection with the bilateral review of how we spend money in each of our target countries. As he knows, an important conference is taking place this weekend in South Africa, which I hope a Minister will be able to attend.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 7 July. (6246)
As the House will be aware, today is the fifth anniversary of the 7 July terrorist attacks on central London. I am sure that everyone in the House and people in the country will remember where they were, and what they were doing, when that dreadful news came through. Our hearts should go out to the families and friends of those who died. They will never be forgotten. Our thoughts are also with those who were injured, physically and mentally, by the dreadful events of that day. It was a dreadful day, but it was also a day that will remain—I believe—a symbol of the enduring bravery of the British people.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the people of Somaliland on the successful, peaceful and transparent election of a new President? As the Somaliland republic has now been a beacon of democracy in Africa for nearly 20 years, will the Prime Minister ensure that the UK keeps its promise to increase engagement with a new Government with democratic credentials?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise this important issue concerning an area of the world of enormous importance for our own security. I join him in welcoming the peaceful and credible elections in Somaliland. They are an example of genuine democracy in an area of the world not noted for it. The UK provided funding for election supervision, and we are keen to engage with the new Government. I believe, and I am sure the whole House would agree, that the key is to prevent terrorist groups from establishing a foothold in Somaliland, as they have done in Somalia. That is vital, and, yes, the Government will continue to engage.
The Prime Minister will not be surprised to hear that I intend to continue campaigning to keep the Hercules fleet at RAF Lyneham in my constituency as long as I can. However, if, at the end of the day, it moves to Brize Norton in his constituency, and takes with it the jobs and economic prosperity that go with it, will he at least use all his good offices to ensure that we find some way of bringing jobs and economic prosperity back into the vacated site at Lyneham?
My hon. Friend has fought a long and noble campaign on this issue, and has made very strong arguments—I know how strong they are, because every time I get into a Hercules, whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere, the pilots always immediately complain about having to move from his constituency to mine. He makes a good point about economic development, and we will ensure that, if this goes ahead, we will see good, strong economic development in his constituency.
I support what the Prime Minister has said on the fifth anniversary of the terrible 7/7 bombings. Today we remember those who were killed and injured, and their families and friends. We pay tribute to the emergency services, which responded with such care and such courage, and we stand with the Government in our determination to defeat those who would bring terror to our streets.
There has been a lot of progress on tackling domestic violence, but still every year hundreds of thousands of women are victims of it. Many of the perpetrators are sent to prison—rightly, in my view—but now the Justice Secretary has embarked on a sentencing review, and has suggested that short sentences do not work. However, often what is needed in domestic violence cases is not rehabilitation, but a clear message to the perpetrator that it must not be repeated, and a clear message to the victim that the justice system takes this seriously. That is what a short sentence can do. Will the Prime Minister confirm that the sentencing review will not stop magistrates giving short prison sentences for domestic violence?
First, I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for what she said about the anniversary and the tribute that she rightly paid to the emergency services, which played an unbelievably brilliant role on that day, and to the many people who helped them.
The right hon. and learned Lady is absolutely right to raise the issue of domestic violence. For too many years it was an issue that police forces and prosecutors did not deal with properly, and to be fair to the last Government, good progress has been made over the past decade. I agree that there are occasions when short sentences are required, and indeed the Lord Chancellor takes exactly the same view. He said in the speech—[Interruption.] It is very important to read the speech, not just the headline. He said:
“In my opinion, abolishing all short-term sentences altogether…would be a step too far. We need penalties for the anti-social…recidivist.”
We need to ensure that magistrates have that power, but the review is important to try to ensure that we get this right.
I thank the Prime Minister for that reassurance. It is reassuring that the promise that the Liberal Democrats made at the election is not going to be carried forward. I notice that the Justice Secretary is not looking very cheerful; perhaps he should go down to Ronnie Scott’s to cheer himself up.
May I congratulate the Prime Minister on, instead of listening to his new partner, listening to his mother? In the election he told us that his mother was a magistrate and that she told him that magistrates needed the power of short sentences. Quite often, it is the right thing for somebody not to listen to their new partner but to listen to their mother, so I am glad that he has done that on this occasion.
I turn to something else mentioned in the election campaign. The Prime Minister said that any Minister who comes to him with cuts to front-line services
“will be sent straight back to their department to go away and think again.”
Does that apply to the Home Secretary?
First, may I say that in my experience there are very few people more cheerful than the Lord Chancellor. He is celebrating his 40th anniversary in this House, and he likes to point out that he was elected before the Chancellor of the Exchequer was born. He brings enormous experience and good humour to all our counsels.
I am delighted that the right hon. and learned Lady has brought up the issue of my mother, who served on the Newbury bench for many, many years. I have to say that one of the biggest challenges she had—[Interruption.] As well as me, one of the biggest challenges that she had, and one of the reasons why she needed to hand out so many short sentences, was badly behaved CND protestors outside Greenham Common. [Interruption.] I do not know whether the right hon. and learned Lady was there. Anyway, if she wants to have more episodes of “Listen With Mother”, I am very happy for that at any time she would like.
On the Home Office, of course we have to make savings. We have to make savings across Government. It is not going to be easy, but absolutely we must ensure that we do everything we can to protect the front line. However, I simply do not believe that when we look at the Home Office budget there are not examples of waste and inefficiency and things that we can do better. The right hon. and learned Lady went into the election calling for 20% cuts in every Department. That was her policy—a policy of 5% cuts each year. Ours is 6% cuts each year, so these are Labour cuts as well.
We went into the election very clear about protecting police numbers. I am asking the Prime Minister a straightforward question, which he has so far failed to answer. At Prime Minister’s questions, he was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) this very simple, straightforward question:
“Will there be fewer police officers at the end of this Parliament”—[Official Report, 23 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 287.]—
compared with now? He skirted around her question and did not answer it. Will he answer it now?
Of course there will be difficult decisions, but let me—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] A simple question was put to the shadow Home Secretary before the last election. [Interruption.] Wait for it:
“Andrew Neil: Can you guarantee if you form…the next government that police numbers won’t fall?
Alan Johnson: No”.
But my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) went on to say—I think that that was selective quoting—that we would guarantee the funding that would ensure police numbers and the numbers of police community support officers. We were absolutely clear about that. The Prime Minister’s Lib Dem partners said that they would have 3,000 more police officers on the beat, while he said that he would protect front-line services. Is either of those promises going to be kept? People who are concerned about crime want to know.
There is nothing selective about the word no. That is what the shadow Home Secretary said when he was asked whether he could guarantee that there would be no cuts in police numbers. Let us remember why we are here. We have a £155 billion budget deficit. The Labour party went into the last election promising 50% cuts in capital spending and 20% cuts in departmental spending. We are clearing up the mess that Labour made. I sat at the G20 table last weekend and, looking round the table, thought, “Who’s got the biggest budget deficit? Is it Brazil? No. Is it Spain? No. Is it Argentina? No.” Labour left us in a situation where we get lectured by Argentina on the state of our budget deficit.
If the right hon. Gentleman had read the Office for Budget Responsibility report, he would have seen that its forecast for Government borrowing was lower than the forecast that we made before the election—if he had read it, he would probably also have found that the Chair would not have resigned immediately after being appointed. Is it not clear that these are the Government’s crime policies—that the right hon. Gentleman is threatening to take away the police officers people want on the beat, cutting down the right of local residents to CCTV and making it harder for the police to use DNA evidence? Those are his policies. Let me ask him a straightforward question: does he think that those policies are more likely to make crime go down or go up?
The shadow Foreign Secretary is shouting and shaking his head. Gun crime and violent crime almost doubled under the last Government. There is going to be a rush of new Labour memoirs coming up, so perhaps hon. Members should start with the report of the spin doctor who worked for the last Prime Minister, who—
Before the election, we were hearing all about tougher policies and more police from the Conservatives; now all that seems to have sailed off with those prison ships that the right hon. Gentleman was promising to buy. We were clear: we said when we first came into government that we would bring crime down, and we did. Will he promise that under his Government he will keep crime coming down? If he will not make that promise, it is only because he knows, as we all know, that his policies will put crime up.
Mr Speaker, I was only trying to boost sales.
I can promise the right hon. and learned Lady one thing: I will not be wandering round my constituency in a stab-proof vest. That is what it came to under the last Government. Gun crime went up, violent crime went up, reoffending of prisoners went up, every prison place cost £45,000, more than 10% of prisoners should not have been there because they are foreigners, half of them are on drugs and 40% of them commit a crime on the way out of prison. That is the record that we have inherited, and that is what we will be clearing up.
The latest report from the US Department of Defence to Congress highlighted the speed and decisiveness of insurgent propaganda in Afghanistan as a key threat to allied forces. What can the coalition do to counter this threat, given that the longer it goes on, the harder our task becomes?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that we are not just fighting a war on the ground; there is a propaganda war as well. We have to demonstrate the progress we are making in training up the Afghan army and the Afghan police, and in spreading security and governance across Afghanistan—particularly, in our case, in southern Afghanistan. I can tell my hon. Friend that we will be publishing a monthly update and having quarterly statements in the House to ensure that we keep the British public fully informed and on side as we take difficult decisions in this conflict.
Q2. In the run-up to the general election, the Conservatives claimed to be the party that would support small businesses, yet in their first Budget they cancelled tax breaks for the computer games industry, which is crucial to my constituency. Can the Prime Minister tell not only me and the House but the hundreds of people in Dundee who are employed in the computer games industry and the students who study at Abertay university exactly why his Chancellor feels that that tax break was poorly targeted? (6247)
We believe that what matters is having low tax rates, and what we did in the Budget—which the House voted on last night—was to cut the small company rate of corporation tax back down to 20p from 22p and set out a path for getting corporation tax down to 24% by the end of this Parliament. That would give us one of the lowest tax rates in the G8, the G20 or anywhere in Europe. That is what we will benefit from, but I note that the Labour party voted against those tax reductions.
Q3. How can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents about the planning system? Under the last Government, my local councils turned down some massive developments such as the Pyestock mega depot, only to have those decisions overturned by Ministers who had never even visited the site. How can we re-engage local people in these local decisions? (6248)
I want to reassure my right hon. Friend, because it is right that local authorities should be taking decisions that affect people and that those decisions should be taken as locally as possible. We are scrapping the targets and the bureaucracy that we inherited from the Labour party. I can tell him that, since the election, we have managed to scrap the new unitary councils; the comprehensive area assessments have gone; regional spatial strategies—gone; regional assemblies—gone; home information packs—gone; and Labour’s ports tax and bins tax have both gone.
If the respect agenda is to mean anything, surely it should include proper consultation with the devolved Governments and legislatures on fundamental constitutional and political reform, which affects all parts of the United Kingdom and will affect the composition of the devolved legislatures. Will the Prime Minister therefore undertake urgently to enter into discussions with the representatives of the devolved Administrations and, if necessary, revise his proposals in the light of what they have to say? Let us have a proper respect agenda.
Of course these discussions need to take place, and they will take place—[Interruption.] Let me answer the question very directly, because I listened very carefully to the statement by the Deputy Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg) on this issue. The date and the nature of the referendum are Westminster Parliament issues and it is right that they should be brought before the Westminster Parliament first; it does not make sense to take them in front of other Parliaments and Assemblies first. That is the way to do it—[Interruption.]
I can certainly give my hon. Friend that reassurance. We are committed to a Bill in this Session. This needs to happen. It was in 2008 that the parliamentary ombudsman referred to a “decade of regulatory failure”. The fact that we have had to wait until now for this to be done is wrong. The last Government had plenty of opportunities to grip this, but I am afraid that, in quite a cynical way, they were just waiting and waiting, so that more of the Equitable Life policyholders were dying off. That is disgraceful, and we need to get this done.
Last Saturday afternoon, I joined the community of Stonehouse in my constituency to welcome home Sergeant Gary Jamieson. Sergeant Jamieson, from the Scots Guards, lost both legs and his left arm in an explosion in Afghanistan. The most humbling aspect of meeting Sergeant Jamieson was his distinct lack of bitterness. He fully supports the mission in Afghanistan, and strongly believes that the British forces there are making a difference. May I ask the Prime Minister to join me in paying tribute to a true British hero, and does he agree that the most fitting way in which to pay tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, and those who have suffered the most terrible injuries, is to stay in Afghanistan until the job is done?
I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in paying the tribute that he has rightly paid to Sergeant Jamieson and to all who have served. Anyone who has met some of the soldiers—when visiting Headley Court, or elsewhere—who have lost limbs in combat, through improvised explosive devices or in other ways, cannot help being incredibly impressed by their spirit and bravery, and their determination to go on and live as full lives as possible.
We have set out very clearly what we want to achieve in Afghanistan. This is the key year, when we surge up the military forces and surge up the political pressure. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will make a statement later today about how we can best do that, and how we can ensure that our forces are properly spread across Helmand province so that we can really have the effect that we want.
Let me be clear. Do I think that we should be there, in a combat role or in significant numbers, in five years’ time? No, I do not. This is the time to get the job done, and the plan that we have envisages our ensuring that we will not be in Afghanistan in 2015. We have already been in Helmand for four or five years, and, obviously, we have been in Afghanistan since 2001. It is time to maximise the pressure now, and then to bring our forces home as we train the Afghan army and police force to do the job that needs to be done, which is to keep the country secure. That is our goal, that is in our national security interest, and that is what we will do.
Q5. Park home owners are often elderly and vulnerable, and some suffer greatly as a result of the actions of a small minority of site owners. They suffer threats, intimidation and neglect. Will the Prime Minister meet a small delegation, and me, so that we can discuss how park home owners may be better protected? (6250)
I have every sympathy with what the hon. Lady has said. I suspect that many Members—including me—have encountered problems with park home owners who have been really badly treated by, frankly, pretty disreputable site owners. We all know of cases in which people who want to sell are put under pressure, and the rules are used to prevent them from obtaining fair value. It is not right, and it is not fair. The Minister for Housing, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), is looking into the issue, and I think it is probably best for the hon. Lady to meet him in order to ensure that we have robust rules and the right approach, so that the rights of park home owners are respected.
On Friday, my constituent Zac Olumegbon was murdered in a planned attack close to his school. He was just 15, and I know that the thoughts of the entire House will be with his family at this very difficult time. He was the 13th teenager to lose a life needlessly in our capital city. Can the Prime Minister tell me, the rest of the House and the country what his Government are doing, and will be doing, to stop this happening in our communities?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise that case, about which everyone will have read. It is absolutely horrific, and it seemed so planned and premeditated. It is appalling to think that things like this happen on our streets. What will we do about it? I think that we need short-term measures, and then much longer-term measures as well.
In terms of the sentencing review, it is clear to me that we need to send the strongest possible signal that carrying a knife on our streets is just unacceptable. We need to send the signal that it is not a defensive measure, that it is not a cool thing to do, that it should not happen, and that the punishment will be tough. That, in my view, is the short-term measure that we need. As for the longer-term measures, we must do more to strengthen communities, to strengthen families, and to give people an alternative to the gangs towards which they will otherwise be drawn. Too many young people join a gang because they do not have other networks, help, respect and hope in their lives. That is a long-term agenda, it is an agenda that I know is shared on both sides of the House, and we must pursue it.
Q6. Can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that he will resist further moves towards economic governance of the United Kingdom by the European Union, and that we will not see the vetting of our Budget plans by the European Commission before those plans are presented to the House? (6251)
My hon. Friend is entirely right. The UK Budget should be shown to the UK Parliament—the Westminster Parliament—before it is shown to anyone else, and that will always be the case under this Government. I am pleased to report that subsequent to the publication of our Budget, a number of international bodies—such as the OECD, the EU, the G8 and the G20—have recognised that it is an extremely good Budget that will help to put this country back on track.
We are absolutely committed to meeting the child poverty targets. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this Budget, despite all its difficulties, does not add a single family to child poverty, in contrast to the last Government, who put up child poverty by 100,000—[Interruption.] They shake their heads. Check the figures and come back to me.
I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. Academies will be required to ensure that pupils with special educational needs are admitted on the same basis as other schools. Children with special educational needs have special needs, and a compassionate, decent and tolerant country will ensure that they get the help, support, education and love that they need.
The chief executive of Sheffield Forgemasters, Dr Graham Honeyman, was last year presented with a lifetime achievement award by the Institute of Directors, but various Government Front Benchers have made unwarranted personal attacks on him in the media. Will the Prime Minister apologise now for those unjustified attacks on a highly regarded business man?
I am sorry to disagree with the hon. Lady, but no one has made an attack. This is an excellent company. The question is whether it is an appropriate use of taxpayers’ money to give it to a business that could raise that money by diluting its shareholding. Labour simply does not understand. It handed out money before the election without asking whether it was value for money. No wonder we are in such a complete mess.
Q8. The UK has a splendid reputation for the quality of its agricultural science and research, and these skills will be needed to face up to the challenges of climate change and an increasing world population. Will the Prime Minister confirm that Government and EU policy decisions on such matters will be taken on the basis of sound science and proportionate regulation? (6253)
I know that the hon. Gentleman is a member of the all-party group on science and technology in agriculture. These are difficult issues, but my view is that we should be guided by the science. We should also be guided by what consumers want, and it is vital that we have accurate labelling. That will really be the key to ensuring that we make progress with this issue in a way that keeps the public on side and allows them to understand what it is that they are buying and consuming.
The whole House will be aware of and concerned by the ongoing incident in the north-east. The killing of Chris Brown and the wounding of Samantha Stobbart took place in my town of Birtley, and our thoughts and prayers should go out to their families and friends, and to PC David Rathband and his folk. Can the Prime Minister update the House on this issue, and can he assure us that all lessons will be learned from this incident? Can we especially look again at getting guns off our streets?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this case, and the whole country is thinking of those who have lost their lives and those who have been injured. It is a horrific case. I do not think that it is right now to start to talk about learning lessons: this is an ongoing case. The Home Secretary has been briefed by the chief constable and I know that the House and the country will wish the police well in their search for this individual, so that we can put a stop to the horrendous spree that is taking place.
Q9. Voting by non-resident home owners in regions such as Cornwall is becoming a contentious issue. Councils are not checking whether people are voting in two locations in the same election, and local residents are worried that sometimes election results might be skewed. Will the Prime Minister meet me, or invite one of his ministerial colleagues to do so, to discuss this issue? (6254)
I am very happy that one of my colleagues should have a meeting with the hon. Gentleman. It is important that we make sure that electoral registers are accurate. It is also important to recognise that it is an offence to vote at a general election in two different places. However, I think that there are problems with saying whether second home owners can vote. I think that a number of hon. Members might take rather a dim view, as some of them might not be able to vote in their own constituencies, but I am happy for the hon. Gentleman to have a meeting with the Minister responsible for electoral registration.
Decent Homes Programme
First, may I welcome the hon. Lady to the House?
Good quality social housing is vital, especially in areas such as her constituency. It is completely unacceptable today that 58% of the housing in her constituency is not of a decent standard. We have a huge backlog of work to be carried out. We have ploughed £170 million back into social housing schemes this financial year, which the last Government promised but did not fund. Clearly, the decent homes programme will have to be looked at in the spending review, but I understand the force of argument in her constituency particularly.
I thank the Prime Minister for that reply. Is he aware that some 7,000 council homes in Tower Hamlets still need to be brought up to the decent homes standard? The previous Government committed £220 million towards addressing the problem. Will his Government honour that commitment to my constituents?
As I said, we have filled in some of the black hole left by the last Government because a promise of extra spending was made but the money was not found. While we made the £6 billion-worth of cuts to start sorting out the finances, we used some of the saved money to fill in the black hole so that those social housing schemes could go ahead. Clearly, the decent homes programme is important. We have to make sure that it provides value for money, but the hon. Lady’s constituency has very great needs, with so many substandard houses.
Q11. My nine-year-old constituent, Paisley Ward, says that she and her brother learned to swim because it was free. Paisley is worried that her little sister will not be able to learn because this Government want to charge. In her letter, Paisley says, “please, please stop this madness”. Will the Prime Minister listen to Paisley and have a rethink? (6256)
First, may I congratulate the hon. Lady? Many people in this country think that this is a good time to leave politics and go into the media. May I congratulate someone who left the warmth of the GMTV sofa in order to sit on a green Bench here?
The hon. Lady raises an important case, but I have to tell her that not all Labour councils were able to deliver the free swimming pledge. I am afraid that this is one of the things, like many others, that it will not always be possible to guarantee in the incredibly straitened times that we are living in, when we have a £155 billion budget deficit to deal with.
Mr Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity to update the House on our operations in Afghanistan. As the Prime Minister has said, we intend to make regular updates to the House.
As this is a complex subject, I have made maps available to assist hon. Members. I am grateful to you for your support, Mr Speaker. These are now available in the Vote Office, and the Whips on both sides of the House are distributing them. In addition, I will obviously be happy to arrange further briefings at the Ministry of Defence, should Members find them useful.
The Prime Minister reminded us today of the ongoing sacrifices made by our armed forces in Afghanistan. In the face of such losses, we should be in no doubt about the importance of the mission—particularly today, the fifth anniversary of the London bombings in 2005. It is vital to our national security that we have a stable Afghanistan that is able to maintain its own security and prevent al-Qaeda from returning.
As I made clear in Washington last week, we are a committed member of the international coalition of 46 countries in Afghanistan. We have a clear political strategy, and a clear military counter-insurgency plan to support it. The focus now is on delivering, and we can be confident that General Petraeus will build on the considerable success of General McChrystal.
We face many challenges. Progress has been slower in some areas than others, particularly on the political side. We can expect success in counter-insurgency to be gradual, cumulative and hard won, but there has, nevertheless, been considerable progress. Through a UK lens, it would be easy to assume that all of Afghanistan is like Helmand. In fact, many parts of the country are largely secure, with low levels of violence. In Kabul, the Afghans themselves have assumed responsibility for security, and have proved themselves capable of dealing with the localised threats that have emerged.
We are also making good progress on building up the Afghan security forces, so that this pattern can be repeated elsewhere. The Afghan army has been growing steadily over the years—and by 20% in recent months—to about 130,000 troops now. We are playing our part, and the Government have recently approved the expenditure of up to £189 million on new surveillance, communications and logistics equipment for our bases, as part of Britain’s ongoing commitment to support the effective partnering of the Afghan security forces.
In southern Afghanistan, the story of this year has been one of the Afghans themselves increasingly coming to the fore in the fight against the insurgency. In Kandahar, and under the direct oversight of President Karzai, Afghan security forces are leading operations as part of a rising tide of security in order to set the conditions for improved Afghan governance. In Helmand, Afghan and international security assistance force units have together succeeded in expanding the authority of the Afghan Government to 11 out of the 14 districts, by driving insurgent fighters out of the population centres of Babaji and Nad-e-Ali, while consolidating previous gains in Lashkar Gah, Now Zad, Nawa and Gereshk. The situation in Marjah remains challenging, but counter-insurgencies are about progressively winning the confidence of the local people, and the US Marines are well placed to succeed.
Elsewhere in central Helmand, where our presence is more established, we have seen considerable success. In Nad-e-Ali, British troops have been operating alongside the Afghans to secure the district centre and allow unfettered access to local roads Improved security is allowing effective governance to flourish and trade to grow. In May, for example, around 3,000 Nad-e-Ali residents elected a more representative district community council. ISAF now intends to reinforce this success. For that reason, I have accepted an ISAF request for a temporary deployment of elements of our theatre reserve battalion, the 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. The theatre reserve battalion is a standing force based in Cyprus, which I have instructed should be used only for time-limited deployments to fulfil specific tasks. This deployment will meet those criteria. The additional forces will be used to give commanders additional flexibility to reinforce progress in central Helmand this summer.
In a counter-insurgency campaign, the people are the prize. It is hugely important that we strike the right balance between the numbers of the civilian population and the size of the security forces available to protect them. The Prime Minister and I regularly argued in opposition that British troops in Helmand were too thinly spread and that we had insufficient force densities for effective counter-insurgency. That is why we welcome the arrival of more than 18,000 US Marines, whose presence is allowing us to deliver a better and more realistic distribution of tasks within the international coalition.
As the House is aware, ISAF has already transferred security responsibility for Musa Qala and Kajaki to US forces, who are building on our achievements there. Lieutenant General Rodriguez, ISAF’s operational commander, will today announce the next phase of this process—I understand that he will do so within the next hour. ISAF intends to restructure its forces in the Farah and Nimroz provinces so that it can consolidate a US marine brigade in northern Helmand, which will assume responsibility for security in Sangin later this year. This will simplify current command arrangements and enable UK troops to be redeployed to reinforce progress in the key districts of central Helmand. The theatre reserve battalion will then withdraw. The result will be a coherent and equitable division of the main populated areas of Helmand between three brigade-sized forces, with the US in the north and south, and the UK-led Task Force Helmand, alongside our Danish and Estonian allies, in the central population belt.
We have been closely consulted by ISAF, and fully support this plan. In Sangin, UK forces have made huge progress in the face of great adversity. The district centre has been transformed. Helmand, as a whole, is a safer place as a result of our endeavours and sacrifices there. I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to those who have lost their lives in Sangin, and those who continue to serve there.
The operations in Afghanistan, though geographically distant, are of vital importance to our national security. On the ground, we continue to make progress. There will be hard days ahead, but the further changes that I have announced will mean more manpower and greater focus for the key terrain of central Helmand. We have the right strategy, and we are determined to succeed. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Defence Secretary for his statement, for early sight of it and for the indications that he gave me yesterday about the broad outline of what he was going to say today. That is good news for our ability to continue to support, from all parts of the House, our forces’ operations in Helmand province.
I welcome what the Defence Secretary said about his commitment to regular updates to the House, and his offer of briefings in the Ministry of Defence, but will he consider continuing the direct military briefings that started last year for Members here at the House of Commons? They were appreciated by Members on both sides, and I know that the all-party Army group has written to him and asked him to continue them. If he could, that would be appreciated. I know that it is onerous in terms of his time, but I ask him to consider doing so.
I totally agree about the purpose of the mission. Our forces are in Afghanistan to protect our national security and to keep us safe. The right hon. Gentleman says that we have a clear counter-insurgency plan and the military tactics to support that plan, but he knows that there is some concern and confusion over whether there are deadlines. Will the Government do their level best to clear up that confusion, so that people know the exact commitments? Is our combat mission in Afghanistan to continue on a conditions-based footing until the Afghan forces can take over, as was the situation, or is there a very clear deadline from the new Government stating that our combat mission will end on a particular date, irrespective of the conditions in Afghanistan? It is enormously important to clear up that point.
The right hon. Gentleman felt the need to say that, in opposition, he and the current Prime Minister repeatedly said that there were issues of force density, but I ask him to accept that it was not only he in opposition who felt the need to concentrate on and deal with force densities, because we in government had exactly the same priorities. Before force densities could be addressed, however, we needed to have someone to hand those districts on to, so, before the arrival of the American uplift, we could not hand on Musa Qala, Kajaki or Sangin to anyone other than the Taliban. Thankfully, the American uplift now gives us an opportunity to rebalance our forces in Afghanistan, and we have been doing that for some time. I understand that his announcement today is simply a continuation of an ongoing process. Does that effectively end the need for force rebalancing? In the British area of operations, do we now have the same ratio of forces to population as the Americans have on their side of the line?
The right hon. Gentleman said that Marjah is very challenging. Does he intend to deploy elements, as he said, of the theatre reserve battalion to the American—Marjah—area of operations? If so, for how long, and in what numbers? He says “elements”. Does that mean the whole theatre reserve battalion? Do we now, effectively, have no reserve for the rest of the deployment, or are some elements of the theatre reserve battalion still available to cover other contingencies that might arise?
We had already agreed in principle to hand command in Sangin over to the American brigade. I understand that the Secretary of State is now saying that it is not only in terms of command—the Americans themselves will take over in Sangin. When will that happen? Has he any idea what forces will be deployed, and in what numbers, into the Sangin area?
Does the Secretary of State accept that there will be mixed emotions, and pretty deep emotions, among many elements of our armed forces who have served in Helmand—not only those who have experienced injury, but those who have lost loved ones, which includes families back here, and everybody who has served in the most dangerous part of our theatre of operations? Our forces went out there on a daily basis to patrol, fully knowing the risks that they faced, and the whole House must pay tribute to the immense bravery, courage and resilience that they have shown over a period of time. They have achieved some considerable improvements in Sangin, but I think that the Defence Secretary will accept that we are still handing on a challenge. We have not got as far as we ideally would have hoped to get in Helmand before this hand-on.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support for the specific proposals that I have set out today and for his general support on the mission in Afghanistan. He was very generous with the briefings that he made available to the Opposition when he was in government, and we will continue the same courtesy. I also fully intend to continue the briefings for Members of Parliament begun under the previous Government; they are very valuable. In addition, as I said, if we are able to provide more detailed briefings in the Ministry of Defence, we are happy to do so. We should not, in any way, shape or form, be shy about providing any Member of this House with the information they require to make better sense of what is happening in this most important national security mission.
The shadow Secretary of State is entirely correct that it took until the American surge was fully under way for us to be better able to have sensible force densities. He asked me directly about comparisons between the British and Americans. Combat Team North has a population of 441,000, which is 37% of the population; Task Force Helmand has 388,000, or 32%; and Combat Team South has 370,000, or 31%. These are much better matches in terms of force density. He asks if this will effectively be it. Well, not necessarily, as there will be changes in the mission, but we will want to continue this pattern, or shape, in terms of force density. As he says, we have reached the end point, at least for now, of a process that began some time ago.
On the size of the theatre reserve, we will have some 300 personnel, and they will stay there until October. The size of the current UK force is about 1,000—I think that the exact number is 1,008. The exact number that the Americans put in will of course be for their commanders to determine in terms of the security situation that they find.
As regards 2015, I can only repeat what the Prime Minister has said—that British troops will not be there in a combat role, or in significant numbers, in five years’ time, but we can expect them to still be there in a training role. There will be a continued need for us to ensure that the quality of the Afghan national security forces is adequate. I echo the point that he made by saying that we are very fortunate in this country to have a volunteer Army—people who are willing to put their life and limb at risk on a voluntary basis for the security of this country, its people and its interests. We are deeply honoured and privileged to have such people in our armed forces.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and particularly what he said about the ratio of troops to local population.
General McChrystal instigated a change of policy so that our troops should fire only when they were absolutely sure that Afghan civilians would not be put at risk. Inevitably, that put our troops at a greater degree of risk, but with the longer-term aim of maintaining the support of the local population. Is any change to that policy being considered?
Although I am not completely convinced about the reasons for the movements that the Secretary of State described today, in fairness, I do not have the facts and intelligence that he has. I am also concerned about the Prime Minister’s statement that we should be out of Afghanistan in five years, which has been repeated. Will that statement encourage or discourage the Taliban in their operations against our forces?
We intend to follow the strategy through. We believe that it is the correct strategy, and that it is likely to produce success in the time scales outlined. I should reiterate to the hon. Gentleman that General McChrystal initially assessed that the Afghan national security forces would be able to take on the role themselves in 2013. We amended that as part of the strategy, to 2014, because we believe that that is a more realistic target. What the Prime Minister set out is entirely consistent with the strategy. The Afghan national security forces can be expected to take full control of their own security by 2014, as set out in the strategy by General McChrystal.
Five years ago to the day, we were attacked not by Afghans, but by Yorkshiremen. They were trained not in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan and the Lake district. The previous Government insisted on telling us that conventional military operations would somehow impede that sort of attack in future, but that is clearly nonsense. Will the Secretary of State come to the Dispatch Box and explain that we are involved in a regional war that stretches right the way from Iran to Russia, that that is as much about fighting for Pakistan’s stability as Afghanistan’s stability, and that the lives and blood of our servicemen and women are being shed in a crucial cause?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for the points he makes, which will resonate across the House. It is clear—as it always has been, to the credit of the previous Government—that this is not just about Afghanistan, but about Pakistan. Increasingly, on both sides of the Atlantic and throughout the international coalition, it is recognised that we are dealing with a regional problem, and that without success in Pakistan and the full co-operation of the Pakistani authorities in dealing with the Pakistan Taliban and the Afghan Taliban, we would find the mission in Afghanistan much more difficult.
I am happy to reiterate my hon. Friend’s points. This is a vital national security mission. We cannot simply wish it away. If I could make one wish, it would be that all countries in the international coalition show the same resolve displayed by our armed forces in burden sharing effectively, with the minimum of caveats, to ensure that we are absolutely able to deliver the maximum effect for the international coalition’s mission.
I disagree with the broad consensus on Afghanistan, and have done so for some time. Is the Secretary of State aware that the question every Member of the House should ask whenever they sit in the Chamber is this: how many more British soldiers—I pay tribute to their bravery—will die or be seriously injured before the talks begin with the enemy? General Richards, the most senior British general, says that such talks are more or less inevitable. I believe that the war is unwinnable, and that it does not help in the fight against terrorism; other hon. Members say that the war is essential in that.
There are a number of points to make in response to the hon. Gentleman. I fully accept that he has long held the view that the war was not justified, but we must agree to disagree on that. I believe that it is a vital national security mission for this country. There has never been any doubt that ultimately there must be a political element. The international coalition, the previous Government and this Government have always held the view that we cannot win the wider regional conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan by military means alone.
There is difficulty in determining who is reconcilable to the Afghan constitution and Government and who is not—that is an ongoing process—but I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The measure of a conflict or war is not the number of those who, sadly, die, but whether we succeed in our mission and strategy. I believe that we should at all times see our armed forces not as victims, but as champions of the freedoms and security that they are trying to bring for our country. I am sure that that is how they would like to be seen: as victors, not victims.
My right hon. Friend is undoubtedly the right man in the right role, and he is loyally defending a strategy even though it might not be the right one. Does he accept that there is a fundamental tension between classic counter-insurgency warfare down among the people, which takes many years to bring to a conclusion, and the statement made by the Foreign Secretary yesterday? He said that
“there will not be British troops in a combat role or in significant numbers in Afghanistan in five years’ time”—[Official Report, 6 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 168.]
If we are not to sacrifice our strategic interests in the area, will the Defence Secretary hold himself open to the possibility that a plan B might be necessary if plan A does not work out on schedule?
The Government believe, in alliance with the United States and the other members of the international coalition, that we have the correct strategy. We believe that the counter-insurgency aim of protecting the population, and of providing them with security so that there is a space for better governance, is the correct strategy.
There is a difference between our national security mission to ensure that Afghanistan can develop in a way that enables the Afghan forces to look after their own security, and the wider mission of reconstruction and development—that is complementary to, but not the same as, the national security mission—which will have to be undertaken for a very long time, given the social state of Afghanistan.
I support the Secretary of State’s response to the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick). On the question of dialogue with the Taliban, we need to be clear that it would be entirely unacceptable for us to discuss the future of Afghanistan with them at the same time as they are killing our soldiers in that country. Should not we draw on the lessons from Northern Ireland and other theatres of conflict? We should require a clear and unequivocal ceasefire by the Taliban and some degree of commitment to non-violent principles before there can be any question of dialogue with them.
Although in principle I do not disagree with the right hon. Gentleman, we must be clear what we are dealing with. The Taliban covers a broad range of different groupings—there is no single Taliban commander or a Taliban army with a Taliban uniform—and it is advantageous to find the groups among them who are reconcilable to the process, and to bring them on board to create a critical mass of support. That can only help us in our wider counter-insurgency aims. We should also reflect on the terms we use—not just “the Taliban”, but “the insurgency”—and ask whether there are a number of discrete insurgencies rather than just one, just as there are a number of discrete groups that we tend to call “the Taliban.” If the House accepts that we are dealing with greater complexity than is sometimes described, we might find it easier to understand the complexity of some of the solutions that we and the Afghan Government must find.
The Afghan national army is now larger than the British Army. The Secretary of State referred to the international coalition of 46 countries in Afghanistan. I pay tribute to Denmark and Estonia, but the simple fact is that none of our major European allies have had troops on the ground in Helmand province. Bearing in mind that soldiers from 16 Air Assault Brigade will this September make their third deployment to Helmand, will he confirm that the new surveillance equipment will include additional unmanned aerial vehicles, because they must be a great way of identifying insurgents and those planting improvised explosive devices?
My hon. Friend is correct. We have to make available the full range of ways in which we can deal with IEDs, including UAVs. The subject of our NATO allies has been raised by previous Defence Secretaries, and I raised it at the NATO ministerial meeting, where there was what I would have called when I was in the Foreign Office a full and frank exchange of views on burden sharing in NATO. I would flag up just one issue, however. As we move into the transition phase in Afghanistan, with districts being handed over to the Afghan Government, it would be very unwise for the alliance to believe that that was an excuse for it to leave Afghanistan, or for any members of the alliance to do so and thereby leave only a small number of countries in the most difficult areas. During the transition period, it is essential that we look to have a NATO strategy that ensures that burden-sharing continues to the end of the mission, and that there is not an easy bail-out for those who just happen to have been in some of the quieter areas.
This October will be the ninth anniversary of the deployment of British troops into Afghanistan, 300 of whom have died. Thousands of Afghan people have also died, and the war has spread over into Pakistan and is in danger of spreading into other countries as well. What on earth would the Secretary of State say constitutes victory in Afghanistan, before the withdrawal inevitably takes place?
“Victory” is a word I do not use; I talk instead about success in Afghanistan. On the national security mission we have set ourselves, I would describe success as a stable enough Afghanistan that is able to manage its own internal and external security without the need for external intervention. There is of course the Pakistani problem to be dealt with as well, which will require us to give considerable help in a number of different areas to the Government of Pakistan. There is not going to be a moment when we can hoist up a flag say, “This is a victory.” There will be ways in which we measure success in terms of national security, but the regional problems are likely to continue for some time, and if we are serious about the national security of the United Kingdom we cannot simply turn a blind eye and wish them away.
Does the Secretary of State agree, however, that we went into Afghanistan on the wrong premise? We were told we were going there to protect Londoners going to work. We now know that al-Qaeda has moved most of its operations to Pakistan, and that most of the Taliban whom we kill die within 20 miles of where they were born, so why are we there? Is it to hold territory, which nobody has ever succeeded in doing in Afghanistan—not even the Soviets with 240,000 people? If it is to fight a dirty war and keep heads down, why do we not place more reliance on special forces, rather than let the British Army carry on bleeding to death?
My hon. Friend knows that we never comment whatsoever on special forces and what they do, but we are in Afghanistan to give the Afghan Government space to develop the skills in governance and security, so that when we do leave we do not leave behind an ungoverned space into which, as a security vacuum, elements of transnational terrorism are once again drawn.
I sometimes wonder whether the general public remember the chronology correctly. I was in the United States last week, where a woman said to me, “If we hadn’t been in Afghanistan, we would never have had 9/11.” We need to remember that we did not seek this confrontation; it was brought to our streets and cities against our will. We did not seek this conflict, but we will see it through to its conclusion.
This morning some of us met Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations special representative in Afghanistan, who pointed out the importance of the mission to women in Afghanistan. They have returned to the professions and to the schools, and that should not be underestimated. Perhaps there are never enough women in the Ministry of Defence, because this point is never made in the Chamber.
As I said, we are providing the security environment in which the Afghan Government can, over time, develop not only their own security structures but better governance, and part of that better governance has to be a full understanding of human rights, and that human rights apply irrespective of race or creed or gender.
Many years ago during the Gulf war, I accused the BBC of being the Baghdad broadcasting corporation. I am very concerned that there is now a similar situation with the Taliban, in that they are getting far too high a profile. The news this morning is that, apparently, it is a defeat that we are moving troops around in Sangin. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the media must be very responsible when reporting propaganda from our enemies, and that they need to take a close look at this?
I think it is good counsel for the BBC and the media generally, and for Members of the House, that we use reasonable language and are balanced in our views when discussing this issue. We have a large number of serving men and women in Afghanistan, and they will listen to what we say and to what the media say. That is also true of those who are our enemies in that part of the world. Clarity and honesty would be two very useful tools. I also think, however, that we need to use information. For that reason, I have asked a group of our national newspaper editors to come to the MOD in the near future for a detailed briefing, simply in order that they can understand the facts on the ground and get them first hand from the military, so that there is no excuse for misreporting the facts in future.
Good progress has been made on the number of Afghan national police, but to be frank with the hon. Lady, that is not really my concern. My concern is the quality of the recruits to the Afghan national police, and what we need to do is not to have them recruited and then trained, but trained and then put in place. That is a vital mission for the whole of the international coalition. The issue was widely discussed at the NATO ministerial meeting at a number of different levels, and I think there is growing acceptance that providing policing and law and order, not at a Supreme Court level but in terms of dispute resolution and effective policing at the very lowest level, is one of the ways to deny the political and social space that the Taliban will otherwise occupy.
All countries tend to see Afghanistan in different ways depending on the focus of their national media. There are countries that see Kandahar as being Afghanistan, and there are countries that see Kabul as being Afghanistan. We tend to see Helmand as being Afghanistan. It is useful if people understand that across the country as a whole, a lot of progress has been made on security. Those Members who have been travelling to Afghanistan over a period of time will have noticed that, for example, in Kabul there is a great difference in the security arrangements and how easy it is to move around the city. Clearly, that has not yet spread to enough parts of the country, but we are getting close to transition. While it is understandable that we and our media focus on our casualties and the fatalities that we, very sadly, have taken, we also need to show the other side of the ledger to the public—the successes being achieved in Afghanistan. That is vital if we are to maintain public support, which is a very important part of our resilience in a democracy.
Unusually, I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on these matters. Can the Secretary of State tell the House how many of our 46 coalition partners have set a date for the end of combat operations, and if he were a Taliban commander in Helmand, would he be more encouraged or less encouraged to continue his insurgency knowing that such a date had been set?
I think the best way to deal with the elements of the Taliban is to show our commitment to the strategy itself—to show that we are willing to put the forces on the ground and that we are in full support of the strategy as set out by General McChrystal and now being carried forward by General Petraeus. I hope the increase in US troop numbers and some of the movements I have set out today will leave our enemies in Afghanistan in no doubt as to our seriousness about taking and holding territory and improving security on behalf of the Afghan Government.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Does he agree that the challenge in Afghanistan is to turn military success into “hearts and minds” success on the ground, so that the public there see some advantage from our military success? In doing that, we will achieve two things: we will make it less likely that it will be a training ground for terrorists, and more likely that we will get a political settlement.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. As I said earlier, it is not possible to separate entirely the military elements from the wider political elements. Indeed, the whole point of the counter-insurgency strategy is people-centric: it is there to give greater security to the people of Afghanistan and to give them greater confidence in the ability of their Government to provide that security later. When we are making some of these arguments, we must also remember that as we win what he describes as the “hearts and minds” battle in the counter-insurgency strategy, that also provides us with better intelligence. The greater the proportion of the Afghan population who feel secure, the more likely we are to get information that will tell us who is planting IEDs and where. That is what ultimately happened in Iraq, and that counter-insurgency strategy and those same themes will apply in Afghanistan.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. One of my concerns, which has been voiced by other Members, is about media speculation. Some of the papers referred to retreat today, but there is no retreat: the fact is that some soldiers’ tour of duty is coming to an end. Will he state clearly to everyone, including those in the media who perhaps do not have the ears to listen but who need to listen, that what is being done is tactical and is not being done for any other reason? Earlier, the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann) spoke about his constituent who had lost two legs and an arm, and about his great courage. One could not fail to be touched by his comments. On behalf of the soldiers who have returned injured and the 99 who have died, we need a commitment from the media to support the troops in the way that we clearly have.
What I have announced today makes complete military and strategic sense. It is what commanders in ISAF wanted to happen to make full use of the forces that we have. Our forces in Sangin have done a wonderful job, as will the US Marines after them. When our forces leave Sangin and move into central Helmand, they will do so with their heads held high, rightly proud of their achievements. Any attempt by anyone to describe that as a retreat is quite contemptible.
I pay tribute to my old regiment, the 1st Battalion Scots Guards, who are currently serving in Helmand province and who will be not only delighted but encouraged by the fact that the redeployment will bring better focus. Working closely with the United States makes them remember that they are not alone. Is it only the US that is going into Sangin, or will other international partners be joining in that redeployment?
It will be the United States that goes into Sangin, but to enable US forces to be fully deployable to Sangin, other nations will be taking up some of the territory currently occupied by the US. I hope my hon. Friend understands that, although I am aware of which forces they are, I have been asked by ISAF commanding forces not to say who they are yet.
I am reassured to hear the Secretary of State repeating the Government’s support for the comprehensive approach. We will not find security in Afghanistan and be able to leave until the Government of Afghanistan, nationally, regionally and locally, are respected and trusted by the Afghan people; it is they who have to win the hearts and minds of the people. What is the governor of Helmand province doing to reach out to all sections of the non-insurgent population and their political leaders to incorporate them in government? What is being done to start talks with those sections within the insurgency who can be talked into laying down their arms and joining constitutional government?
I have met the governor in Helmand on several occasions, and he is one of the most impressive and bravest politicians in Afghanistan. Despite a number of attempts having been made on his life, he continues to get out among the population. A good example of the projects he has been spearheading includes the distribution of wheat seed and fertiliser, which I personally saw him being involved with.
The hon. Gentleman is correct that it is not only the governance of Kabul that will matter, but the governance at ground level. As I said to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) earlier, simple issues such as dispute resolution at the very lowest level will be required if we are to deny the Taliban the space they will otherwise occupy. We need to be very clear that if we are not there, they will be, and we have to make some of those small details available. When I spoke to a farmer—I think I have mentioned this in the House before—he said, “When I sold poppy, I was given a farm price by the Taliban and I sold it at the farm gates. When I take wheat to market, I have to go through several checkpoints and it costs me money every time I go through a checkpoint.” It is the small things on the ground that we sometimes have to focus on and get right if we are to have wider success in the big strategic picture.
This was simply a common-sense approach to have greater clarity in our command structures given the increased size of the force, and it has shown just how well the coalition is now working together. I remember criticisms being made in the House in the early part of the deployment in Afghanistan that there were too many command structures, and that no one was talking to anyone else. Anyone who has spoken to General Parker or General Carter recently will have discovered that we have very clear lines of communication and command. That has been a major improvement over the years in what is happening in Afghanistan.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving this update on what is going on in Afghanistan. I am a little encouraged by what he says will be the likely situation in 2015, but can he assure the House that every possible diplomatic avenue will now be pursued with the greatest possible vigour, so that we can come out of there as soon as possible?
It is very important that our concentration, diplomatically, is on getting all the parts of the international coalition to do everything they can to support the success of the mission. It is also important, as I said earlier, that as we move to transition, we do not have a coalition in which some members think it is permissible for them to leave without making any further contribution. There will be a very important diplomatic effort in the months ahead to hold the international coalition together, so that we see through this strategy to a successful conclusion.
I very much welcome today’s statement and the focus on central Helmand that it implies. If I have understood the Secretary of State correctly, the deployment of the theatre reserve battalion will effectively mean an increase in our forces on the ground in Afghanistan of about 10%, which will be of concern to some people. Will he confirm that that deployment will simply be until the Americans take over in Sangin, when the battalion will be withdrawn, so that effectively, the number of our troops will remain the same as the current number?
May I press the Secretary of State further on the ongoing combat role of our troops? He will keep his options open, will he not? If in three, four or five years’ time there continues to be a need for a significant number of British troops in a combat role, he will be prepared to keep them there, will he not?
I do not intend to give any comfort to the Taliban by talking about what might happen if we are not successful. We intend to see this mission through, to do what is required to put in the numbers needed to make the mission a success, to ensure that the equipment is there and to play our full part in the international coalition. We intend that the strategy as set out by General McChrystal will be met within the time scale he set out.
I join the rest of the House in paying tribute to the courage and commitment of our forces, the burden of which is reinforced by this redeployment, which shows what they have undertaken on their own so far. Will the Secretary of State outline what effect the new military reconfiguration will have on the provincial reconstruction team and on engagement with civilian communities in those areas?
The provincial reconstruction team will continue as it is. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me this opportunity, which I should perhaps have taken earlier, to praise the work of the PRT. Its success will be central to the long-term stability of, and thereby the governance support for, the security situation. It is a leading example of what is possible and is internationally admired.
Every effort is made, including substantial talks undertaken by the Foreign Secretary in Pakistan recently. All contacts at a political, diplomatic and military level are used constantly to emphasise to the Government of Pakistan the importance of their role in dealing with this wider security issue. As has been mentioned already, this is not simply a problem that relates to Afghanistan within its own borders. There is a regional element and unless we have the full co-operation of Pakistan and success in Pakistan, any success we might achieve in security in Afghanistan would naturally be undermined. We take every opportunity to tell the Government of Pakistan that we stand ready to help them in their important contribution to this mission.
My right hon. Friend will be fully aware that for there to be any sort of success in Afghanistan, we need to win the propaganda war, yet the latest report to Congress from the US Department of Defence clearly highlights that we are not succeeding on this front. What more can we do to turn this around? Success in a counter-insurgency war can soon become a pyrrhic victory if we do not carry the people with us.
One of the elements of asymmetry so often talked about is the fact that, whereas we, in a democracy, must take our people with us, the Taliban do not have the problem of having to influence democratic opinion. It is vital, as my hon. Friend says, that we should do so. It is incumbent on us in this House, on the Government as a whole, on the media and on our armed forces to show the British public that there are two sides to the ledger. Yes, we have fatalities and casualties, but there is also success. We are beginning to see greater stability across much of Afghanistan. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) said earlier, if we stopped viewing things entirely through the prism of Helmand and started to view them across the country as a whole, perhaps the electorate in this country would get a better and more accurate picture.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, given that the Taliban continue to draw their funding from the illegal drugs trade, we must tackle them successfully on all fronts—not only militarily, politically and diplomatically, but economically too—by getting to grips with the illegal drugs trade and cutting off their funding at source?
I agree with my hon. Friend that dealing with the drugs trade has to be part of the long-term way in which we improve stability, security and governance in Afghanistan. If we are to do that, we must find alternative incomes for some of the poorest people on the planet. Until we can provide alternative incomes for those who are basically subsistence farmers, in many ways, we are unlikely to win hearts and minds—or, indeed, the economic case that my hon. Friend so correctly points out.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Are you aware that the BBC is reporting that the Education Secretary is to apologise for the inaccuracies in the information given to this House on Monday about cuts to the school building programme? Are you aware of such an apology and has the Secretary of State made any representations to you about making it to the House? I ask this because the BBC reports that the apology is to be in the form of a letter to you, Mr Speaker. Surely any such apology should be made in this Chamber. Chaos on Monday has turned into farce on Wednesday.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and for a few minutes’ advance notice of that point of order. In response to his first point about whether I am aware of the BBC news report, the answer is an unequivocal yes, for the simple reason that he apprised me of his point of order. The second point that I would make is that I have had no communication from the Secretary of State on this matter, so I am reading the report in the way that anybody else might read it. It is of course always open to Ministers to come to the House to make statements, including to make apologies if they deem it appropriate. I have a sense already that it would be regarded by Members as more helpful in these circumstances and perhaps more apposite if the relevant Minister were to seek to come to the House to make a statement. I should emphasise that we have an important Opposition day debate to follow, and that such a statement, if it were to be made today, would have to be made after the Opposition day debate.
As for revealing matters to the media before revealing them to the House, including revealing an intention to say something at a later stage, my ruling stands. If people have things to say, they should come to the House to say them. The House expects to hear before anybody else does. I hope that that is a satisfactory response.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for your customary indulgence. Further to that point of order, is it in order for me to inquire whether the shadow Minister who raised that point of order informed the Minister concerned that he was going to mention him from the Dispatch Box on this occasion?
The hon. Gentleman may ask that. I do not know the answer, but there is no breach of order if a Member comes to raise a point of order about someone else without notifying that person first. The hon. Gentleman is a very courteous man—I will have known him for 27 years in October of this year—and he might well expect that as a matter of courtesy there would be advance notification, but there is no obligation to notify. He has put his views on the record and contributed enthusiastically to our exchanges.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. As you know, a number of schools in my constituency have been affected by this misleading information. I tried to phone the Secretary of State yesterday, but he was not courteous enough to return my call. I heard Mr Andrew Neil announce that the Secretary of State was going to apologise for this matter and I assumed that he would do so to the House. Do we have any remedy to try to ascertain what the Secretary of State is doing? I have already cancelled a meeting to come here and it would be unfair and discourteous if he made Members cancel any other meetings.
There are a couple of points to make in response to the hon. Gentleman. The first is that the Secretary of State is an extremely busy person and it is not for me to comment on the nature or frequency of telephone conversations that he has. I can say only for myself that if the hon. Gentleman were to telephone me, I would always be delighted to hear from him and would regard it as a matter of some priority to have a telephone conversation with him. Secondly, I think that I have made the overall position very clear and people on the Treasury Bench will have heard it. What I am saying, in short, is that if the Secretary of State has something to say to Members, he should say it here. If he has something to say to me, he could usefully say it here and it would be a jolly good thing if he came to the House to make a statement at a suitable time—that is, at or shortly after 7 o’clock.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During his statement on Monday, in column 35 of Hansard, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson), the Deputy Prime Minister indicated that the reason why he had not consulted the devolved Administrations about the parts of his constitutional proposals that affect the devolved Administrations of the United Kingdom was that it was necessary for him to announce them to this House first. That was repeated today by the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Question Time. Will you confirm, Mr Speaker, that it is perfectly in order—on a Government-to-Government basis through the UK civil service, which exists for that purpose—for the Prime Minister or Deputy Prime Minister to discuss proposals affecting the devolved Administrations with Ministers on a ministerial basis prior to making an announcement to this House? In fact, in the case of Northern Ireland, if they did not do that, one could not imagine the consequences.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am sure that you will be aware that the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 stipulates that only 95 Ministers, including Whips, may sit and vote in the House of Commons at any time. In addition, “Erskine May” recognises only two kinds of Whips: Government Whips and Opposition Whips. Until yesterday morning, only 95 Members were Ministers, but three additional Lib Dems were appointed as Whips yesterday. That takes us to the number of 98. The Act makes it very clear that those additional three people cannot sit or vote in the House of Commons—unless they are not Government Whips, but Opposition Whips.
As always, I am engaged, not to say fascinated, by the product of the hon. Gentleman’s lucubrations. I will look into the matter, but I am sure that the House will eagerly await, with bated breath and beads of sweat on its collective brow, any thoughts that I may have thereafter. The appetite for points of order has now been satisfied.
[3rd Allotted Day]
Jobs and the Unemployed
I beg to move,
That this House notes with grave concern that the emergency budget will increase unemployment; calls on the Government to publish the HM Treasury analysis of jobs that will be lost in the public and private sector; condemns the Government’s decision to axe the Future Jobs Fund, the Youth Guarantee and the Jobseeker’s Guarantee, scrapping hundreds of thousands of jobs and training places for the unemployed; further notes that the Government is cutting employment support to help people into jobs at a time when growth is still fragile; regrets that the role of the voluntary sector in helping people into work is at risk; further notes that the current claimant count is half the level it was in the 1980s and 1990s as a result of the support and investment the previous Government provided for jobs and getting people back to work; further notes the cost to communities and the economy of long-term unemployment; and condemns the Government’s decision to abolish regional development agencies with potentially damaging consequences for regional economies at a time when the recovery is not yet assured.
Mr Speaker, you said in response to the points of order that Secretaries of State are busy, but that it is very important that Ministers are accountable to the House. At 11.45 this morning, I took a call from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who is not in the House today. He rang to tell me that he would not be here today and that he would not answer the debate because he is speaking to civil servants. Instead of giving a speech to Parliament, he has gone to speak to a London conference for civil servants. He has decided that he cannot rearrange making that speech, despite the fact that he is speaking at a three-day conference organised by the same civil servants who work for and answer to Ministers and advise them on the importance of answering to the House. So the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has chosen to turn his back on Parliament and the debate. A debate in Parliament on support for jobs and the unemployed is clearly not important enough for him.
Will the right hon. Lady confirm to the House that, during no fewer than three of the last six Opposition day debates held under the previous Government earlier this year, the Secretary of State in the previous Labour Government failed to appear in the House?
The right hon. Gentleman will know that, on many occasions, the then Opposition did not put up their shadow Cabinet Minister to open the debates. He will also know that Members have given reasons for not attending. I was ready to take the call from the Secretary of State, had he told me that he had a family emergency, a health problem or a European event to attend. The Minister has an engagement in Brussels, and I understand that he will therefore not be here for the close of the debate. I completely understand that; of course, he must fulfil his international responsibilities. Of course, we recognise such responsibilities, but to choose to attend a three-day conference for the very hour at which the Secretary of State should be present in the House to discuss support for jobs and the unemployed is a dereliction of his duty not only to the House, but to the unemployed he should be trying to help.
We think that this is an important subject. That is why we have chosen it for our third Opposition day debate. This month, many young people will leave school, college or university, and they are looking for their first jobs. It is not an easy time to look for work. We have just come through the worst global recession for many generations, and across Britain as in many other countries, many people have been hit by job losses and unemployment as a result.
Next week, the June unemployment figures will be published. The House will know that the International Labour Organisation unemployment figure currently stands at 2.47 million, more than 500,000 less than many experts predicted when the recession and financial crisis started and more than 500,000 less, too, than in the 1980s and 1990s recessions. The claimant count is 4.6%—less than half the 10% that it reached in the ’80s and ’90s recessions and almost 750,000 less than expected in last year’s Budget, thus saving us £15 billion over the next few years.
Of course, those figures are too high, families are still struggling and we need to bring down unemployment, but it is worth understanding why unemployment has been kept lower during this recession, because it reflects the work that businesses and employees have done to protect jobs. People have been working fewer hours, often cushioned by tax credits—a cushion that Government Members now want to take away. To help to save jobs, businesses have cut other costs. The fact that unemployment has been kept lower reflects the extra support for the economy—the VAT cut, the public sector construction contracts, the car scrappage scheme and the maintenance of public spending and public sector jobs through the recession—all opposed by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. It reflects, too, the extra help to get people back to work faster than in previous recessions—the youth guarantee, the extra education training places, the stronger jobseekers’ regime run by Jobcentre Plus—all support that the new Government now want to take away.
I pay tribute to the work that Jobcentre Plus did during the recession to help as many people as possible to get back to work much faster than in previous recessions, but this is a dangerous time. Too many people, especially young people, are still struggling to find work. If we look at the lessons from history, we see that this is the time when the labour market is at its most fragile. This is the time, just as the economy is coming out of recession, when there is most risk of people getting stuck in long-term unemployment. If we look at what happened in the 1990s, we see that it was a long time before unemployment started to come down after the recession finished. Youth unemployment rose for 18 months after the recession finished. If we look at what happened in the 1980s, we see that unemployment rose for years after the recession finished. Youth unemployment rose for four years after the recession finished.
On youth unemployment, has my right hon. Friend noticed the total absence of Liberal Democrat Members from this debate? Does she believe that they are unwilling to come to the House to defend their complicity in scrapping the future jobs fund?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. In fact, the welfare spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats said that his party had no plans to cut the future jobs fund and, indeed, that it supported help to get young people into work. He is not here either, despite the fact that he is a Minister in the Department that is responding to the debate.
In the ’80s and ’90s, the then Conservative Government turned their back on the unemployed, particularly the young unemployed, and unemployment rose for years as a result. But unemployment scars. Unemployment causes people problems for years to come. If people lose their jobs and cannot get back to work quickly, they can find it much harder to get back into jobs, even when the economy is growing again. That is what happened in the 1980s. It took a long time to get new job growth in many communities across the country, and by the time that we did, many people had been scarred for life and some have never worked again.
Does my right hon. Friend share my fear that the problem basically is that the Conservative party believes that the only reason people are unemployed is that benefits are too generous, that we do not need job creation projects and that all they need do is to cut benefits and, somehow, unemployment will magic itself away?
The troubling approach that the new Tory-Liberal Government are taking is to cut the help to get people back into jobs and to cut their benefits when they cannot get back into work. The Secretary of State has claimed to be concerned about intergenerational poverty and worklessness, but the truth is that many of the problems that the Government worry about have their roots in the unemployment and hopelessness of communities without work in the 1980s. If they are really serious about tackling long-term poverty, they should act to prevent long-term unemployment now. They talk about broken Britain, but the truth is that their party broke Britain in the 1980s and now they are trying to do the same thing again. Let us look at their actions in the first four weeks: cuts of £1.2 billion in support that was getting people back to work; cuts in the future jobs fund; cuts in the youth guarantee and in help for the long-term unemployed just when they need it most; and a Budget that cuts the number of jobs in the economy so that there are fewer jobs than there would have been, not just next year but in every year for the rest of the Parliament too.
Many of the previous Government’s measures helped some people into work, but the 3 million workless households where no adults of working age were working were barely touched in the Labour years. It is all very well to talk about the 1980s, but what was happening between 1997 and the last election? Precious little. Many of those people never saw anybody from Jobcentre Plus or anyone else. They were just left to stew.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman what happened after 1997. In fact, there was a reduction of 350,000 in the number of people claiming inactive benefits, as a result of the extra support that was put in. That was in strong contrast to the early ’90s recession when we saw an increase of more than 450,000 in the number of people on incapacity benefits. In this recession, we have had a reduction of more than 70,000 in the number of people claiming those long-term sickness benefits, despite the difficulties in the world economy.