House of Commons
Wednesday 21 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—
1. What recent discussions he has had with CBI Scotland on the condition of the Scottish economy. (8911)
I have had productive discussions with CBI Scotland and others on the Scottish economy, as has my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, and I plan to meet them again in the near future. Our plan to cut the record budget deficit that this Government inherited is the key to ensuring a sustained economic recovery.
In the years to come, it must be the private sector that creates the growth and jobs in Scotland; it is not realistic to have an ever-increasing public sector there. Does the Secretary of State agree that for my constituents in Skipton and Ripon to be funding an ever-expanding Scottish state is an unfair situation?
Across the United Kingdom we inherited a huge deficit in the public finances, which we have to tackle. If we do not, it will not be in just the private sector but the public sector where difficulties will arise.
Recent economic indicators show that the recession in Scotland has been shorter and shallower than in the rest of the UK, but the recovery is fragile. Does the Secretary of State therefore agree that the case for proper financial responsibility in Scotland to help drive economic growth makes sense?
I quite accept the underlying figures that the hon. Gentleman refers to, and the situation in Scotland and in the whole of the UK is indeed challenging. However, as far as future financial accountability and other issues in Scotland are concerned, we believe that the Calman proposals, which we will bring forward in this House, offer the best way forward.
Professor Andrew Hughes Hallett, who advised the Calman commission, says that proper fiscal responsibility could significantly add to Scotland’s GDP. Is the Secretary of State looking closely at the proposals for growth and not just at a funding mechanism, which will not achieve that?
I am sorry but I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s proposition, and nor should he ignore the others who sat with Professor Hughes Hallett on the Calman commission expert group. They have recently again made it plain that they believe these are the most appropriate powers to give to Scotland at this time.
In my right hon. Friend’s discussions with the CBI, did he recognise that it is very important to build on the success stories in Scotland in order further to advance the Scottish economy? To that end, with the north-east of Scotland providing so much revenue to the Treasury, will he ensure that all levels of government realise how important it is that there be no barriers to investment there, and that companies locating there benefit both the region and the UK?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that, and in getting private sector-led recovery in this country, businesses such as those in the energy sector in the north-east will be absolutely critical. I take on board all the observations he makes.
The right hon. Gentleman is having meetings with the CBI, but does he understand that the Government’s cancelling the third runway at Heathrow will have a remarkable effect on Scotland’s air transport system? What is he going to do about that?
We fundamentally disagree with the proposal for the third runway, as the hon. Gentleman understands; we do not believe that it is appropriate either economically or environmentally. The important point is that, by ensuring that we work with the private sector across the whole of government—be it our proposals in the Budget to reduce corporation tax, or the many others to do with banking reform—we believe that we will create the right conditions for the private sector and the transport sector to recover and have a sustainable future.
Scottish employers know that the future jobs fund helps people back into work. The Secretary of State for Scotland claims that it is unsustainable, but he will not publish a shred of evidence to back up his assertion. Employers, the unemployed and even Liberal Democrats in his own constituency support the future jobs fund. As unemployment continues to rise across Scotland, I ask the Secretary of State this specific question: will he now agree to lobby the Chancellor to maintain the future jobs fund in Scotland?
We had this exchange during the last Scottish questions, and the right hon. Gentleman has repeated the phrase that I used then. If I may, I will repeat the point I made then. The future jobs fund was not sustainable in the form it was in. May I remind him, as I did then, that places are still available under that scheme, which will run through to March next year? Some 11,000 places have been funded, but they were temporary, short-term jobs. We believe that a new system of supporting the unemployed is the best way forward.
So, the Secretary of State will not publish a shred of the evidence behind his assertion, and today he has confirmed that he will not even listen to Scotland and meet the Chancellor in order to maintain the future jobs fund and help the unemployed in Scotland. Does he not share the sense of anger across Scotland about the policy immorality of a gang of millionaire politicians cutting support to the most vulnerable people across Scotland? The only surprise for many people in Scotland is that he, as a Liberal Democrat, is going along with it. But perhaps Scotland should not be surprised, because he is fast developing a reputation not as Scotland’s man in the Cabinet, but as the Tories’ salesman in Scotland.
The immorality would be for us to do nothing about the legacy left behind by the right hon. Gentleman’s Government, which is undermining the public sector and any prospect of a private sector recovery.
2. What recent discussions he has had with the Deputy Prime Minister on the implementation in Scotland of proposals to equalise the size of constituencies; and if he will make a statement. (8912)
By equalising the size of constituencies across the UK, we will ensure that people’s votes carry the same weight. We have proposed the two exceptions of Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles to take account of their special geographic circumstances. The Bill that we will introduce will also provide for an upper limit on the geographical size of a constituency.
In Scotland, there are urban seats that have an electorate of between 50,000 and 80,000; that disparity cannot be justified by extreme geography. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is disappointing that the previous Government had so little regard for the fundamental principle that every vote should have equal value? [Interruption.]
Order. First, some questions are too long, and secondly, at this early stage, the atmosphere is far too raucous. Right hon. and hon. Members need to calm down.
This is Scottish questions!
Yes, we have a few traditions to maintain. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) on the basic principle that votes should have equal weight across the country, wherever they are cast.
Members of the House understand the unique geographical factors that affect island communities, but does the Secretary of State accept that it would be grossly unfair to Scotland’s great cities if their constituency numbers were artificially inflated as a result of that fact, to make up the difference, so that the Government can reach an arbitrary number plucked out by Conservative party central office? Surely the issue should be determined solely by the independent Boundary Commission, not the Conservative party that he seeks to support?
The hon. Lady is trying to advance the very strange principle that across the country there should be different weights for votes, depending on where they are cast. We have to ensure that when we redraw the boundaries, we equalise out those votes to give them equal weight. If people need to register to vote, let us get on with ensuring that they do; there is a responsibility on all of us, and on local authorities, to ensure that that happens.
Future Jobs Fund
3. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effects on levels of employment in Scotland of ending the future jobs fund. (8913)
All existing future jobs fund commitments will be honoured, and there are still places available. Next year, we will bring forward our Work programme, which will introduce better targeted and more effective support for young people and the unemployed.
Until the recent worldwide economic downturn, youth unemployment in my constituency was all but eradicated. The future jobs fund created 11,000 jobs, and was projected to create another 20,000. What strategy does the Under-Secretary have on youth unemployment, or are the Government just hoping for a visit from the fairy job mother?
The future jobs fund creates temporary, short-term posts, and the grants do not include any incentives to move people into permanent jobs. Our investment will move young people into sustainable employment, rather than creating temporary changes to unemployment.
Will the Minister advise the House of the cost of each permanent job provided by the future jobs fund?
It is clear that the future jobs fund was not an effective use of resources. It was aimed at making temporary changes to unemployment figures, rather than moving people into sustainable, permanent jobs.
Commission on Scottish Devolution
4. What recent assessment he has made of the recommendations of the final report of the Commission on Scottish Devolution. (8914)
5. What the proposed timetable is for implementation of the Calman commission’s recommendations. (8915)
As I outlined in response to questions from hon. Members on 16 June, I have asked officials to work for the autumn introduction of a Bill to take forward legislative proposals, with non-legislative recommendations taken forward under a similar time scale.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. He knows, or at least I hope he does, that one of the considerations in moving to a Scottish income tax, as proposed in a recommendation by the Calman commission, was whether Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs systems would be able to collect it. They currently cannot; how does that fact correspond with the comments that the Chancellor made yesterday about tax simplification?
As I have set out, we intend to engage fully with the different sectors in Scotland that will be affected by the changes. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we are heavily engaged with the Treasury and HMRC to work our way through the changes that will come as a consequence of Calman, which I believe his party still supports.
Does the Secretary of State agree with the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Parliament, Tavish Scott, when he says:
“Politicians should not be able to take easy spending decisions without the responsibility of accounting for this money. Blaming Westminster should not be a get-out clause”?
I am in complete agreement with the hon. Gentleman.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the devolution settlement in Scotland depends on having free and fair elections to the Scottish Parliament? Does he not see that the integrity of those elections is in danger of being undermined by the Government’s deciding to hold a referendum on the alternative vote on the same day as elections to the Scottish Parliament?
I regret having to disagree with my hon. Friend. We propose a referendum on the change to the voting system for this place on the same day as an election to the Scottish Parliament. We believe that that is entirely sensible. It will reduce cost, it will be more practical and it is on the same way of voting as in elections to the Scottish Parliament, so we will be able to cope with that without too much difficulty.
West Lothian Question
6. Whether he has had discussions with the Deputy Prime Minister on the West Lothian question. (8916)
My hon. Friend will be aware that the coalition agreement specifically commits this Government to establishing a commission to look at the West Lothian question. We will bring forward proposals in the autumn.
The biggest threat to the United Kingdom comes not from Scotland but from the resentment that people in England feel at the current constitutional settlement. My right hon. Friend and I both stood on a manifesto promise that we would stop Scottish MPs voting on matters in this House that related only to England. When will that happen?
As I said in my answer, a commission is to be established. This coalition Government, unlike the previous Government, are determined to deal with the issue.
Can the Under-Secretary justify to his constituents the fact that he will not take part in such debates and such votes when he knows only too well that his constituents depend on health service provision in Cumbria and further education support from Cumbria? Is it not right that he takes an interest in what is happening this side of the border?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I will be taking an interest in the resolution of the West Lothian question. The hon. Gentleman agreed with Lord Derry Irving when he said that the only answer to the West Lothian question was not to ask it.
7. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on the relationship between the Government and the Scottish Executive under the devolution settlement. (8917)
I am regularly in contact with Ministers from the Scottish Government, including the First Minister, on a range of matters.
I am delighted that the Prime Minister visited the Scottish Parliament on the third day of the new Government, unlike his predecessor who never visited there, but will the right hon. Gentleman have a word with the Prime Minister to encourage him to visit the Scottish Parliament again to have further discussions with the First Minister about the relationship between the Government and the Scottish Executive to see whether the new miracle cure for prostate cancer can be made available throughout England?
I absolutely agree that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister took an important step when he visited the Scottish Parliament to meet the First Minister at such short notice after the coalition was formed. I understand the anguish, not just in Lockerbie and Scotland generally but across the world, about what happened in the course of the release of the Lockerbie bomber, but I believe that the medical decision was taken in good faith.
Given what the Secretary of State has said, will he press all relevant UK Government Departments to release all papers relating to both the negotiation of the prisoner transfer agreement between the UK and Libya and the concurrent commercial contract between BP and Libya?
The Prime Minister in his discussions with the President of the United States and other senior American politicians has put forward the proposal that the Cabinet Secretary will review the papers that exist, and we believe that that is a very important step forward, and one that, hopefully, will find support across the House.
Computer Games Industry
8. What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on tax relief for the computer games industry in Scotland; and if he will make a statement. (8918)
My right hon. Friend is meeting the hon. Gentleman and representatives from the industry next week to discuss how best to stimulate further growth and expansion in this important sector.
We are actually meeting tomorrow, not next week. How can the Government justify a £110 million tax break for the film industry, but not allow a £50 million tax break for Dundee and the games industry?
I am glad that the Government are dealing with the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises with even more urgency. As he knows, the major package of reforms to business taxation in the Budget is designed to make the UK the most competitive tax regime in the G20 and that will substantially help the video games industry.
Future Jobs Fund
9. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effects on Scotland of ending the future jobs fund. (8919)
I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I gave to the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray).
I am disappointed that yet again the Minister has failed to address the substance of this question. I have listened to his colleagues rubbishing these jobs, calling them artificial and unsustainable. Frankly, I am not surprised that a Cabinet packed with millionaires who went to exclusive private schools and elitist universities cannot see the need for such a scheme and how valuable it is to have paid employment on the CVs of these young unemployed people. Will he press his colleagues to re-examine the decision to scrap the future jobs fund?
When I had the opportunity to visit the Clydebank jobcentre in the hon. Lady’s constituency, I found that the people there—who are on the front line in helping the unemployed into work—welcomed the Government’s measures to replace the myriad schemes introduced by the previous Government with a single Work programme.
10. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the effect on households in Scotland of the proposed increase in the rate of value added tax. (8920)
The VAT rise is part of a fair and progressive Budget. Difficult decisions are necessary to tackle the record deficit that this Government have inherited, but the richest will pay more than the poorest.
Given that every independent analysis says that VAT rises are not progressive but regressive, did the Minister examine the impact of the rise on any aspect of Scottish industry and, in particular, the tourism industry in my constituency, which is a large employer and very relevant to household incomes? Did the Government look at the impact of the increase in VAT on anything?
The right hon. Lady makes a good point about the tourism industry and she will know that many jobs in that industry are low paid. The decision to raise the income tax personal allowance for under-65s by £1,000 in 2011-12 will benefit 2 million basic rate income tax payers in Scotland, including many working in the tourism industry.
11. What recent discussions he has had with CBI Scotland on the state of the Scottish economy. (8921)
I have had productive discussions with CBI Scotland and others on the Scottish economy, as has my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, and I plan to meet them again in the near future.
Bearing in mind that trade and industry is a reserved matter while economic development is devolved—and that both are vital in addressing the key challenge of economic growth—how will the Secretary of State use his role to work effectively to stimulate private enterprise and job creation in Scotland?
Given the legacy that we were left by the Labour Government, it is essential that we tackle the deficit so that we can tackle interest rates and do not pay the cost in jobs. As far as the private sector is concerned, the measures introduced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the Budget, which we passed in the Third Reading of the Finance Bill last night, will see corporation tax lowered over the course of this Parliament, and include others to boost the private sector.
Given the delicate state of the Scottish economy and the fears about the recovery, does the Secretary of State accept that the proposed massive cuts in public spending—including the huge job losses and the taking of so much money out of the economy—risk a double-dip recession?
If we do not get rid of the historic deficit inherited by the Government—at £155 billion, the largest in peacetime history—we will pay the price in lost jobs for years and years to come. It is essential that we tackle that and take on board the other measures set out in the Budget to ensure we get a good private sector-led recovery, which will fund future public services.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it was wrong of the Scottish Parliament to release al-Megrahi supposedly on compassionate grounds, and that this matter should be looked into given that he committed a horrendous crime?
The decision to release al-Megrahi was a decision for the Scottish Government—it was entirely theirs, and they answer for that decision—but we, as a Government, have made plain what we felt about it. However, there have been inquiries in the House and the Scottish Parliament, and I do not believe that, at this stage, a public inquiry would be appropriate.
Is the Secretary of State aware of research by Oxford Economics that states that 2.3 million jobs in the private sector will be lost because of the Government’s public sector cuts? Can he explain the devastation that that will cause in Glasgow, which it predicts will be the second-hardest hit city? What does he plan to do for jobs in Glasgow, not only in the public sector but in the private sector? Will the number of jobs go up or down in Glasgow because of his Government?
Across the country we want rising levels of employment and to ensure that, through a private sector-led recovery, we will have a sustainable economy going forward. Were we just to keep going as the hon. Lady’s colleagues in the previous Labour Government did, we would be in very deep trouble indeed.
12. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues and the Scottish Executive on upgrading the A1 in Scotland. (8922)
The provision of road transport in Scotland is a devolved matter. Transport Scotland is responsible for the management and maintenance of the trunk road network in Scotland, including the A1.
For 13 years we have had an A1 that is largely single-laned, holding back economic development in south-east Scotland and Northumberland. Will its upgrade be considered in the comprehensive spending review?
I advise my hon. Friend that the Scottish Government have no proposals for any major schemes on the A1 trunk road in Scotland, but I will speak to colleagues in the Department for Transport about the need to liaise on cross-border routes. [Interruption.]
Order. There are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber, and the decibel level is far too high. I wish to hear the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty).
Strategic Defence and Security Review
13. If he will take steps to ensure that account is taken in the strategic defence and security review of the implications for the Scottish economy of that review. (8923)
Maintaining a strong Scottish economy is one of my top priorities, and I have, and will continue to have, regular conversations with my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Defence and the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the implications for Scotland of the strategic defence and security review.
Thousands of highly prized, highly skilled and highly paid jobs in manufacturing and engineering are dependent on the aircraft carriers going ahead. Back in Fife, all political parties, including the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, support the building of the second aircraft carrier. The Secretary of State’s former special adviser said that scrapping the second aircraft carrier would be crazy. Will the Secretary of State therefore come to Fife and meet the management and work force at Babcock during the summer recess, so that they can present their case—
Order. We have got the essence of it, and we are grateful.
I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the skills and expertise of the engineering sector, not just in defence but in so many other parts of the Scottish and UK economies. I fully understand the concerns that he is raising, and many of these issues are being considered as part of the strategic defence review. He might also be aware that I am planning to visit Babcock in the next few weeks.
Does the Secretary of State want to go down in history as the man who presided over the closure of the Clyde shipyards, or will he defend the two aircraft carriers?
The hon. Gentleman, particularly in his distinguished new role as Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee, is a strong campaigner on these issues. As he knows, I intend to visit with him the shipyards and other defence installations in Glasgow in the near future.
14. What recent devolution issues the Advocate-General has considered. (8924)
Since 1 May, the Advocate-General and his predecessor have received 716 minutes notifying them of devolution issues. In the same period, the Advocate-General has continued monitoring 41 devolution cases, has been represented in court in three, and is currently involved as intervenor in two cases.
Will the Minister share with the House whether or not the Advocate-General has given a view on the timing of a referendum on independence, as proposed by the Scottish Government?
As far as I am aware, the Scottish Government appear to have abandoned their proposal for a referendum on independence, especially after 80% of voters in Scotland at the recent general election voted for parties that support the Union.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 21 July. (9848)
I have been asked to reply. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is visiting the United States for meetings with President Obama and briefings on Afghanistan.
I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Marine Jonathan Crookes, from 40 Commando Royal Marines, and Senior Aircraftman Kinikki Griffiths, from the RAF Regiment, both of whom died on Friday; and to Sergeant David Monkhouse, from the Royal Dragoon Guards, and Staff Sergeant Brett Linley, from 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, the Royal Logistic Corps, both of whom died on Saturday. They were, of course, men of great courage and selflessness who died in the service of our country, and their sacrifice will not be forgotten. I am sure that I speak on behalf of the whole House when I say that we also send our deepest condolences to their families and friends, whose own courage and dignity, like that of so many others who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan, are truly inspiring.
I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our deepest sympathy and condolences to the families and friends of our brave service personnel who have died in the course of their duties while in action in Afghanistan.
It is now a fortnight since the people of Gateshead were told of the axing of the Building Schools for the Future programme, which affects five local schools in the borough of Gateshead. This deeply concerns both communities, which have lost much needed investment, and Liberal Democrat councillors in some of those areas, who now fear losing their seats. Will the Deputy Prime Minister agree to meet the borough’s MPs to discuss a way forward for those schools, which have had much needed investment wrenched from their grasp by this Government’s action?
Of course I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern about schooling in his constituency, but we should be under no illusions. The Building Schools for the Future programme would have had to be cut even if Labour were still in power. It was the Labour Government who cut capital investment by 50% but did not deign to tell people what that would mean. Building Schools for the Future was a programme that was not effectively run: it took three years after it had begun before the first brick was laid. Of course we will look at new ways of ensuring that capital investment continues to flow into existing schools and new schools—particularly primary schools, which were excluded from the Building Schools for the Future programme—and of course we will meet with him.
May I express my gratitude for the Prime Minister raising the case of my constituent Gary McKinnon with the US President? Give the mutual commitment to find a way through and seek an appropriate solution, are there now real grounds for optimism that there is light at the end of a tortuous tunnel for Gary McKinnon?
I have long been associated with this case, and I would like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work that he has done on behalf of Gary McKinnon. No one doubts the gravity of the offences that Gary McKinnon is alleged to have committed. That is beyond question; the simple question is whether he should, in the circumstances, be tried here or extradited to the United States. The Prime Minister and the President of the United States indicated yesterday that they have had a discussion about Gary McKinnon and that, notwithstanding the gravity of the alleged crimes, they hope to find a way forward.
I join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the British servicemen who have been killed in Afghanistan in recent days: Marine Jonathan Crookes, from 40 Commando Royal Marines, and Senior Aircraftman Kinikki Griffiths, from the RAF Regiment, who both died on Friday; and Sergeant David Monkhouse, from the Royal Dragoon Guards, and Staff Sergeant Brett Linley, from 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, the Royal Logistic Corps, who both died on Saturday. These were very brave men who lost their lives in the service of their country—our country. We salute their courage, and we will always honour their memory and sacrifice, which they have made for us. I also join very much with the right hon. Gentleman in sending our deep condolences to the families, comrades and friends of these brave service personnel.
We welcome the Kabul conference, which the Foreign Secretary has attended, and hope that it does indeed lead to positive improvements in the lives of the people of Afghanistan. The Prime Minister has said that he wants to see United Kingdom combat troops withdrawn by 2014. Could I ask the Deputy Prime Minister whether that commitment is unconditional, or will it depend on the circumstances on the ground at the time?
First, I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box. I look forward to answering his questions. This is the first time a Liberal leader has been in this position since the 1920s. Given the right hon. Gentleman’s great longevity in politics, that was probably around the time he first joined a Labour shadow Cabinet.
As to the right hon. Gentleman’s question about our engagement in Afghanistan, the Prime Minister has been clear, and we have been clear as a coalition Government, that we do not wish to see British troops in a combat role in Afghanistan by 2015—not 2014, as the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) suggested. That is consistent, of course, with the timetable for the Afghan forces assuming responsibility for security by 2014, as agreed in the Kabul conference yesterday. No timetable can be chiselled in stone, but we are absolutely determined, given how long we have been in Afghanistan and given that we are six months into an 18-month military strategy and embarking on a new political strategy, to be out of a combat role by 2015.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome of my appearance, probably my one and only appearance, here in this capacity—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Well, there we are. I am also grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his answer, from which I take it that he was saying—in my view, wisely—that this commitment is indeed a conditional one.
The right hon. Gentleman told this House on 22 June that the Government had denied a loan to Sheffield Forgemasters because the owners
“did not want to dilute their own shareholding in the company.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 148.]
But we now know that, in private, the right hon. Gentleman admitted to the chief executive of the company:
“You… made clear to me your own willingness to dilute your equity share”.
Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the shadow Business Secretary asked you about this, Mr Speaker, and you ruled that
“if a Minister makes a factual error in a statement to the House, it is preferable… that he or she should correct that error in the House.”—[Official Report, 20 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 186.]
Will the right hon. Gentleman now correct that error?
First, lest there be any confusion on the vital issue of Afghanistan, which I hope will continue to enjoy cross-party support, let me be absolutely clear that we will see our troops withdrawn from a combat role in Afghanistan by 2015. We are determined to see that happen.
On Sheffield Forgemasters, the right hon. Gentleman knows that the problem was simply one of affordability. Lord Mandelson was writing out cheques to companies like Forgemasters, which he knew would bounce, all the while writing in his memoirs:
“We were deep in a pit of debt and still digging.”
That was what was wrong. It was wrong to pretend that there could be Government assistance for a great company like Sheffield Forgemasters when, as the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury said, there was “no money left”. [Interruption.]
I find it surprising that the Deputy Prime Minister, who has preached the importance of open, transparent and honest politics, cannot bring himself to correct the record of something that was plainly wrong. The explanation that he is now offering is not the one that he offered previously. That explanation was about the dilution of the company’s shareholding—the same explanation that the Prime Minister offered the House. The Prime Minister told the House on 7 July:
“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.”—[Official Report, 7 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 369.]
Now that it is clear that the basis on which the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister made the decision to refuse the loan was simply wrong, will he reconsider that decision?
That was not a question—it was a sort of dissertation. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman talks about openness and transparency. It would have been more transparent if Lord Mandelson and his Government had admitted that there was no money. [Interruption.] Hon. Members should not take it from me; the position was summed up rather well in Sheffield Forgemasters—[Interruption.]
Order. I must appeal for calm. I can see Members ranting at the tops of their voices at the Deputy Prime Minister. It is wrong, and it must stop. Whatever the feeling, it must stop. The public detest it and so do I.
If the right hon. Gentleman thinks that is a lot of noise, he should try it from the Bench I formerly occupied—it is even worse.
Let me cite what a worker on the shop floor of Sheffield Forgemasters said in Sheffield’s The Star only last week. He said that on a visit by Lord Mandelson to Sheffield Forgemasters:
“I asked Lord Mandelson, if the country was near to bankruptcy, where would the money come from? He turned away to speak to my gaffer. I asked again and he said very”—
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Deputy Prime Minister, but that is very discursive and not relevant to the precise responsibility of a member of the Government. [Interruption.] Order. I do not require any guidance. We will leave it there.
Let us consider affordability—not the reason that the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister gave originally, but affordability. The Deputy Prime Minister says that he is concerned about affordability, but we are talking about a loan, not a grant, to help Sheffield Forgemasters build Britain’s future in low-carbon manufacturing. He is not prepared to make that loan, but why is he prepared to acquiesce in spending £550 million a year on so-called tax breaks for marriage—a policy that he described as “patronising drivel”?
The right hon. Gentleman is living in complete denial. When we came to government, we discovered that the structural deficit was £12 billion worse than he had led us to believe. His Government had announced £50 billion of cuts without having the decency to tell the British people what they would do about that. We now discover from Lord Mandelson’s infinitely helpful memoirs that the Chancellor had planned to increase VAT, lower tax for people on low pay and cut corporation tax. Does that sound familiar? Yes, it does. We had to do it; they did not have the courage to do it.
I note that the right hon. Gentleman did not say a word about his acquiescence in spending half a billion pounds a year on marriage tax breaks, which he has criticised. No wonder that his noble and new-found Friend Lord Ashcroft says today—[Interruption.]
Order. I want to hear what the noble Lord has been saying. Let us hear it. There is far too much noise.
Lord Ashcroft says today,
“even in the Liberal Democrat-held seats, less than a quarter of voters thought the Lib Dems were having a significant impact on the Government’s agenda.”
First, the Deputy Prime Minister blamed the cancellation of the loan on Sheffied Forgemasters’ unwillingness to dilute the shareholding, then he said that it was unaffordable. Last week he told the Yorkshire Post that the company did not need a loan after all. [Interruption.] I am not surprised that hon. Members are baying, because there has been one excuse after another. He said—[Interruption.]
Order. Members are beside themselves. I am quite worried about their health. They really do need to calm down. [Interruption.] Order. Let me simply say to the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) that I want some time to be left for Back Benchers.
The Deputy Prime Minister said to the Yorkshire Post:
“Forgemasters can find the money for expansion elsewhere”.
Now that we know that it cannot find the money—as it said yesterday—has not the whole edifice of the Deputy Prime Minister’s argument been demolished? Why on earth will he not reconsider this ludicrous decision?
Thank heavens this is the last occasion on which the right hon. Gentleman will be at the Dispatch Box in this capacity. It seems to me that he needs to go away and practise a bit more.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about impact. Let me just ask him this. Why did his Government do nothing to sort out the banks which were not prepared to offer a decent loan to Forgemasters at reasonable rates? We imposed the levy; his Government did not. Why did pensioners have to wait until this coalition Government came to power for the restoration of the earnings link, which he failed to restore for 13 years? Why did his party scrap the 10p tax rate, whereas we have taken 800,000 people on low pay out of the tax system altogether? That is more progress in 10 weeks than he managed in 13 years.
I call Claire Perry. [Interruption.] Order. I want to hear Claire Perry.
On the issue of progress, will the Deputy Prime Minister—
Order. I think that the right hon. Gentleman has had his allotted span. [Hon. Members: “No.”] I apologise. It felt like it. I call Jack Straw.
With apologies to the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), Mr Speaker.
Just over a month before the election, the Deputy Prime Minister warned about the dangers of policies of the kind that he is now following. He said:
“just imagine the reaction of my constituents in South West Sheffield.”
People like that are going to ask, “Who are these people who are telling us that they are suddenly going to take our jobs away? Who are these people?” Well, now we know who these people are. Are they not the Liberal Democrats—the people who are giving power to the Conservatives without any influence over the policies that they used to oppose?
The right hon. Gentleman may bellow as much as he likes. I am happy to account for everything that we are doing in this coalition Government—a coalition Government who have brought together two parties, working in the national interest, to sort out the mess that he left behind. We may have to wait for his memoirs, but perhaps one day he will account for his role in the most disastrous decision of all: the illegal invasion of Iraq.
Order. The House really must start to behave itself. We have made slow progress—[Interruption.] Order. That progress must get faster from now on, with short questions and short answers. I call Claire Perry.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Third time lucky.
Can the Deputy Prime Minister tell us what the coalition Government have done in 10 short weeks to preserve the civil liberties of the British people—liberties that have been so cruelly eroded by the Labour party over the past 13 years?
I agree with my hon. Friend. The authoritarian record of the Labour Government is one of the most dismal records in modern British history, featuring the illegal invasion of Iraq, the turning of our prisons into overcrowded colleges of crime, the decimation of our civil liberties, the invasion of our privacy, and the roll-out of a surveillance state without any checks or balances; and look at what we have managed—
Order. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was going to talk about what the present Government had done, not what the last Government had done; and he is now coming to an end, I am sure.
This Government have scrapped ID cards, they will table a freedom Bill, and they have launched a counter-terrorism review to create the right balance between security and liberty.
Q2. Does the Deputy Prime Minister recall the comments of the Prime Minister on the road to the election, when he stated openly and clearly that the north-east would be hit hard? Does that mean that the hard-working people in my constituency and others, the disabled people, the young and the old must suffer as a consequence of these Budget cuts, or should they just accept the fact that they will be part of this wonderful new big society? (9849)
The hon. Gentleman is, of course, right that some regions and parts of the country are more vulnerable than others, and the north-east is an obvious example. It is a region where there has been a heavy dependence—arguably an over-reliance—on public sector jobs. One way or another, that was going to have to come to an end whoever was in government, because of the irresponsible overspending by the Labour Government. We are now putting measures in place, including the national insurance breaks for companies setting up in regions such as the north-east and the regional growth fund under which £1 billion is being precisely directed at helping those regions, to make sure that they are not disproportionately hit by the difficult fiscal contraction that we now have to introduce as a national duty because of the mess bequeathed to us by the Labour Government.
Q3. More than 250,000 older people live in sheltered retirement accommodation. Like many, two constituents of mine purchased their leases on the promise of full-time, in-house warden support at no charge. In the case of my constituents, that service has been whittled down to an off-site, visiting-by-appointment, chargeable service. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a shameful way to treat older people, and will he support my campaign to raise awareness of the legal redress that older people can have to secure their rights? (9850)
I am grateful for that question from my hon. Friend. She is well known for her outstanding record as a champion for older people prior to coming to the House, and I am sure all Members on both sides of the House share her concern that all older people, regardless of whether they live in their own homes, sheltered accommodation or residential care homes, can live in those settings with real dignity. That is one reason why we have just announced that there will be an independent commission to consider how we can ensure affordable and sustainable funding for care and support for all adults in England, and I hope my hon. Friend will be able to make her views and expertise available to that commission.
In his keynote Guardian interview on 10 July, the Deputy Prime Minister said:
“I am a revolutionary but”—
But he’s turned full circle.
Indeed. The Deputy Prime Minister said:
“I am a revolutionary but I am also a pragmatist”.
When he suddenly agreed to raise VAT, was he being a revolutionary pragmatist or a pragmatic revolutionary?
No one on the Government Benches took lightly the decision to raise VAT, but did we know before we went into government that the structural deficit was £12 billion higher? Did we know that the Labour Government had announced £50 billion of cuts but not told people what that actually meant in practice? Could anyone have predicted the economic firestorm in Europe? Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can tell me why the former Chancellor advocated an increase in VAT but was blocked by the then Prime Minister. The former Chancellor knew it was the right thing to do; the rest of his party stopped him.
Q4. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that in addition to dealing with the worst fiscal position in peacetime history, the new coalition Government should seek to arrest the decline in social mobility, and thereby reduce the gap between rich and poor? (9851)
My hon. Friend is right to say that as well as having to deal with a fiscal crisis—which has been handed over to us by the Labour party—we are faced also with a social crisis: social mobility has gone down; inequality has gone up; the gap between rich and poor has increased; and child poverty has increased by 100,000 since 2004 alone. That is why we have taken 800,000 people out of paying tax altogether. That is why we are going to deliver a pupil premium for children from poor backgrounds wherever they live in this country. That is why we have restored the triple guarantee to pensioners. That is why we have taken measures to make Britain fairer which were not taken by Opposition Members.
Q5. My constituent, Charlie Donegan, suffers from long-term mental health problems, septicaemia, pneumonia and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, and is a wheelchair user as a result. He receives the mobility and care components of disability living allowance at the higher rate. Can the Deputy Prime Minister explain to my constituent and to thousands of other worried members of the public like him, who rely on DLA for some small improvement to the quality of their lives, why he is now to face a medical test for a benefit that is intended to meet his non-medical needs? (9852)
This is not about taking away universal benefits; this is about making sure that those who receive DLA, such as the hon. Lady’s constituent, do so because of real need. That is why it has been proposed by Members from all parties for many, many years that one way to proceed is to have a simple medical test. I meet constituents; I meet people who say that rather than running the gamut of the vast bureaucracy that has now attached itself to DLA, they themselves would prefer a simple medical test to know whether they continue to be entitled to receive that benefit, yes or no.
Q6. As part of the political and constitutional reform process, will the Deputy Prime Minister undertake to give due consideration to the loyal subjects of Her Majesty’s overseas territories and Crown dependencies, who currently have no representation and no voice in the constitution of this country? (9853)
They are extremely well represented by my hon. Friend, who I know is a passionate advocate of our relationship with overseas territories and, of course, Crown dependencies. We will continue to work with him and others in this House to make sure that the citizens of the overseas territories are served by their own legislatures, with champions here in this House and in government, and of course we will work with the Governments of the Crown dependencies to help them develop their own wider ambitions. This applies to the Falklands or Gibraltar, although I have to confess that Gibraltar is a sensitive topic in the Clegg household.
If the intercity express programme survives the comprehensive spending review, Hitachi will build the rolling stock in my constituency, at Newton Aycliffe, creating 800 direct jobs and thousands of jobs in the supply chain. This will be the biggest investment in the north-east of England since Nissan. Will the Deputy Prime Minister ask the Transport Minister to meet me and a delegation of north-eastern business leaders and trade unionists, so that we can explain how important this project is to the region?
Of course that will be considered, as with everything else, in the comprehensive spending round. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the previous Government cut capital investment by 50%. We are determined to maintain investment in our infrastructure—in our transport infrastructure and in our built infrastructure—is maintained, so that we do not repeat the recessions of the past and cut deep into infrastructure, which is so important to the long-term economic future of this country.
Q7. May I first congratulate my right hon. Friend on being the first Liberal to answer questions to the Prime Minister since Lloyd George? In that too-long gap, many illiberal things have happened in this country, not least under the previous Government. One of the worst has been the detention of children for immigration purposes. There are words about that in the coalition agreement and there has been a review, but what concrete action will actually be taken to end this scandal? (9854)
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend that it was simply a moral outrage that last year the Labour Government imprisoned, behind bars, 1,000 children who were innocent of any wrongdoing whatsoever. This coalition Government, like so many other things, will once again restore a sense of decency and liberty to the way in which we conduct ourselves. That is why I can confirm that the Government will make an announcement shortly about how we will deliver on our pledge to end child detention and to close the Yarl’s Wood detention centre for good.
Q8. What recent discussions he has had with President Obama on coalition policy in Afghanistan. (9855)
As the hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is currently in the United States and will be discussing Afghanistan with President Obama during his visit. Yesterday, as the hon. Gentleman may have seen, they reaffirmed their joint commitment to the existing strategy, reflected on the bravery and shared sacrifice of United Kingdom and United States armed forces in Afghanistan, and agreed that the importance of progress on the political track to complement the military effort was essential.
Is it not time, after nearly 10 years of British deployment in Afghanistan, that the whole strategy should be reconsidered? Last year, 1,000 Afghan people died, and 300 and more British soldiers have lost their lives in Afghanistan, as have many from other coalition forces. Opinion polls in Afghanistan show declining support for western involvement there. If British troops are going to remain there for another five years, how many more are going to die, how much deeper is the civil war going to get and how much deeper are we going to be involved in conflicts in that region? Is it not time to say that this strategy has run its course and that it is time, now, to withdraw from Afghanistan?
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be giving a statement on Afghanistan imminently. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s stance on Afghanistan, but I admire his consistency in arguing his case. It is right that the coalition Government have been crystal clear that we want our troops to come home as soon as possible. We do not want a single British serviceman or servicewoman to spend an extra day more than is necessary in Afghanistan. That is why we have been clear that we will not have soldiers in a combat role in Afghanistan in 2015. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that history teaches us that insurgencies cannot be defeated by military means alone. That is why we are pushing very hard for a new political strategy involving reconciliation and reintegration so that the political strategy and the military strategy are better aligned than has been the case in the past.
Q9. My county of Herefordshire has below-average household income, but our schools are the third worst funded in the country. Does the Deputy Prime Minister share my view that it is time to rebalance public funding and give a fairer deal to our rural areas? (9856)
I certainly agree that just because poverty in rural areas is sometimes more invisible than more visible poverty in some of our inner-city areas, it does not mean that we should not make real efforts to address it. It is a matter of concern that under the previous Government a child from a poor family in an inner city area tended to get much more money allocated to their education than a child from a poor family in a rural area. That is why we are so determined to introduce a pupil premium that will provide extra resources to children from the most deprived backgrounds no matter where they live in our country.
Before I call the Foreign Secretary to give a statement, I appeal to hon. and right hon. Members whose lungs are probably exhausted now anyway to leave the Chamber quickly and quietly so that the House can hear the Foreign Secretary.
With permission, I will make a statement on the outcome of the Kabul conference and on progress in Afghanistan. Half an hour ago, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister paid his respects to the four servicemen who have died in Afghanistan in the past week. They died in the service of this country, and the whole House has already joined in expressing its gratitude to them and to the British forces in Afghanistan.
The past month has indeed been a difficult one, but we should not lose sight of what has been achieved since the London conference on Afghanistan six months ago. I do not want to minimise in any way to the House the immense challenges that we and our allies continue to face in Afghanistan or the difficulties and dangers that we encounter on a daily basis. Bringing security and stability to Afghanistan remains an exceptionally demanding task for the men and women of our armed forces, our diplomatic service and those involved in development. Their work is rarely less than outstanding on a daily basis, but there will continue to be setbacks and discouragements even while progress is being made. We must therefore always guard against over-optimism, but we must equally guard against listening only to bad news or failing to notice the millions of Afghans who want us to succeed.
In the last six months our troops have consolidated their position in Helmand, taken the fight to the Taliban and trained hundreds of Afghan troops; our diplomats and aid workers have worked with Afghan colleagues to promote a more inclusive political process and intensify our work, including on education and governance; and the Government of Afghanistan have acted on their London commitments and drawn together for the first time a cross-Government strategy to deliver widespread reform. As the Prime Minister has said, our objective is a stable Afghanistan that is able to maintain its own security and prevent al-Qaeda from returning, so that within five years we can draw down British combat troops.
The NATO objective in Afghanistan is simple: to assist the Government of Afghanistan in exercising their authority and influence throughout the country, paving the way for reconstruction and effective governance. That requires the protection of the population, the provision of more effective governance at every level and the creation of an Afghan security force that is able to maintain security and, indeed, prevent the return of al-Qaeda. That is the strategy that UK forces are helping to implement through their training and partnering of Afghan troops, and through their efforts to create the opportunity for more effective local governance in central Helmand. General Petraeus, the newly appointed commander of the international security assistance force, has made it clear that that remains his approach.
Together with my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary, I attended the Kabul conference yesterday, following the visits that I made to China, Japan and Oman. Some 40 Foreign Ministers and international organisations, including the United Nations, NATO, the European Union and the World Bank, attended what was an unprecedented event for Afghanistan. It was unprecedented also given the number of Muslim partners who were represented at such a conference. It showed the world that Afghanistan is increasingly able to run its own affairs, and it was a further step in the process of transition from direct international military and civil intervention to Afghan leadership.
The conference issued a communiqué that was agreed among all participants and builds on the progress that has been made in the last six months. It establishes the Afghan-led Kabul process, which aims to accelerate Afghanistan’s ability to govern itself with accountable government, to reduce dependence on the international community, to enhance Afghanistan’s security forces and to provide better protection for the rights of all its citizens. That is a single implementation plan for the coming years. International donors, including Britain, have committed themselves to realigning their funding behind the Kabul process, and that is a significant achievement for a country as beset by conflict and poverty as Afghanistan. The Kabul process holds out the prospect of a more secure future for Afghans.
The Afghan Government made yesterday a number of important commitments: to concentrate efforts on a limited number of national programmes and projects to transform the lives of people and reinforce the relationship between state and citizens; to have Afghan security forces take the lead on security throughout the country by 2014, and to set up an Afghan NATO board to analyse whether provinces are ready to begin the transition process; to create a lean, effective and appropriately paid public service, retiring those civil servants who are unable to perform or are not needed in a renewed and revitalised civil service; to ensure that the wealth generated from the mining sector is invested to benefit future generations; to require new national development programmes to be designed with international partners in order to ensure the highest standards of accountability and transparency; to amend the criminal law to increase penalties for the failure to disclose assets and to take to trial Ministers and other high-ranking officials who do not comply; to strengthen the High Office of Oversight for Government Accountability and the major crimes taskforce in order to tackle corruption; to establish a commission to find ways to bring together the public and private sectors in order to stimulate accelerated economic growth; to work with the Afghan Parliament to strengthen its constitutionally mandated role; and to improve financial management and agree a system with donors in order to allow more donor funds to be channelled through the Afghan budget.
That Afghan plan will be supported by the United Kingdom Government and by our international partners. On 10 June my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced an additional £200 million in funding to promote stability and development over the next four years. My right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary will set out further details of that in a written ministerial statement tomorrow. Britain will intensify and reinvigorate our development efforts, increasing the pace of work and the achievement of specific results in line with the Government of Afghanistan’s priorities. We will work closely with the Afghans, the United States and others to accelerate the stabilisation effort in central Helmand and the 81 key districts that have been targeted under the ISAF plan. We will work with others to ensure the successful implementation of the agreed peace and reintegration programme, help to support the forthcoming elections, and invest in improving the quality and effectiveness of the police. Our overall aim is to speed up the pace of transition to Afghan security leadership.
We will also support the Afghan economy and help with new jobs through investment in mining, roads, power and irrigation, and by bringing community-driven development to isolated areas of the country. We will help the Government of Afghanistan to deliver vital services and to tackle corruption, providing increased support to education, including technical and vocational training, and the administration of justice.
Our international partners have committed themselves to doing their part in supporting the Kabul process, as well. Afghanistan’s near neighbours will work to accelerate regional economic co-operation. An important milestone was reached in the days before the conference with the conclusion of the Afghanistan-Pakistan trade transit agreement. This much-desired economic measure has taken some 40 years to achieve.
The Kabul process is a major step forward for Afghanistan and an important staging post in Afghanistan’s development. There remains more to do, notably in the areas of governance. Measures to enforce transparency, anti-corruption and accountability have slipped and need to be brought back on track as soon as possible. We will pursue these and other issues as part of the follow-up to the conference. The Kabul process contains strengthened review mechanisms that include a more robust joint co-ordination monitoring board in Kabul and an overarching annual assessment which will report to an annual Kabul ministerial conference. My Department, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development will be closely involved in that process.
The Kabul conference has established a road map for more professional functioning and mature institutions. There will be other important milestones this year, including parliamentary elections, the NATO Lisbon summit, and President Obama’s review. Her Majesty’s Government will build on these steps to help to put in place the conditions for a stable, secure and increasingly prosperous Afghanistan.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and welcome him back to London. I thank him, too, for advance sight of his statement. We all join in his words of condolence and pride in the remarkable work of our armed forces. Their bravery, fortitude and intelligence are an example of the best of this country.
We welcome the Kabul conference as the chance for the Afghan Government to make their commitments to match those that the international community made in London in January. Thoughtful engagement with the profound and difficult issues for which the Foreign Secretary is now responsible requires us to ask probing questions in five key areas, and that is what I will do. First, there is the timetable for British withdrawal. Policy in this area is followed intensively by the forces and their families, by Afghans, and by other countries in the region. As Lord Guthrie said earlier this month, mixed messages are dangerous. Earlier today, the Deputy Prime Minister said that nothing is “chiselled in stone”, and then insisted, I think six times, that there would be no British combat operations from 2015.
Last November, the President of Afghanistan said in his inauguration speech that Afghans would lead the security effort across the country in five years. I would like to understand from the Foreign Secretary the British Government’s position. The Foreign Secretary has said that he would be very surprised if this process of security transition took longer than 2014. The Prime Minister then said that British troops would be out of combat by 2015. Last night in Washington, the Prime Minister said that British troops could begin pulling out next year. However, the Defence Secretary has said that he expects British troops to be the last to leave Afghanistan.
All of us want the troops home as soon as possible. Therefore, to resolve any confusion that may exist, could the Foreign Secretary tell us whether the Government stick by the position that the Prime Minister set out last year—that this
“should be based on success…you should do so once it’s safe…do it based on success, don’t keep talking about artificial timelines”?
Does that remain the position of the British Government?
Secondly, on a political settlement, the Foreign Secretary says that he agrees with me that there is no military solution in Afghanistan and that the only way to end a civil war is through a political settlement. The most important conclusion from the London conference in January was support for the Afghan Government’s national peace and reintegration programme, but the political settlement and the reintegration programme made up only a small part of the Foreign Secretary’s contribution at the conference yesterday. He did not set out the preconditions for a durable settlement—all the tribes in, al-Qaeda out, and Afghanistan’s regional neighbours on the side.
Will the Foreign Secretary tell us whether he met the leader of the opposition, Abdullah Abdullah, on this visit? If so, what did he say about how to overcome the ethnic divisions within Afghanistan and reach a political settlement? Will the Foreign Secretary also update us on whether General Petraeus plans to give the issue the priority attached to it by General McChrystal, what role NATO’s special representative, former British Ambassador Sedwill, will play in taking it forward, and what will be the next steps in the peace jirga that he applauded during the Queen’s Speech debate, given that the two Ministers responsible for the event have been forced to resign for its failings since then?
Thirdly, on our current work, we have noted the new announcements by the Secretary of State for International Development about increased aid. He will know that Helmand province is the most heavily aided province in the world, and the critical issue for the delivery of development aid there is, of course, security. We would be interested to know where in Helmand the Foreign Secretary thinks we will be able to add to the already extensive aid that is being delivered.
In respect of current operations, our immediate concern must be for our armed forces. Can the Foreign Secretary tell us the latest evidence on the Marjah operation, which General McChrystal described as a “bleeding ulcer”? We are told in the communiqué from the conference yesterday that reintegration shura, which are critical to bringing all the tribes inside the political system, are important in Helmand, and I agree, but my understanding is that in Marjah and the whole of Helmand province there has been only one public reintegration shura in recent months. Will the Foreign Secretary tell us whether he raised that matter with President Karzai?
Will the Foreign Secretary tell us also about planning for the Kandahar operation, which is obviously critical given the presence of our forces in Helmand? Where is the Afghan capacity for that operation, and what is being done to avoid a false choice in Kandahar between warlordism, some of which has important links inside major parts of the Afghan political system, on the one hand and Talibanisation on the other?
Fourthly, I turn to the Afghan forces. The number of soldiers in the Afghan national army, which the Foreign Secretary mentioned in his statement, is undoubtedly important, but quantity cannot override the importance of quality. The forces have to be representative of Afghanistan’s provinces and communities; otherwise they will find it difficult to move away from an image of being supplementary forces to foreign troops rather than the other way round. Will he tell us the number of south Pashtun Afghans who have been recruited into the Afghan national army? The figures of less than 5% that are around do no justice to the critical need for an army to have real legitimacy in the communities it serves.
Fifthly and finally, I turn to the regional dimension. The countries of the region, led by Pakistan, are key to a conclusion of the war, yet regional co-operation is, to put it mildly, anaemic. Can the Foreign Secretary update us on plans for a regional economic and security council, whether any meetings have been planned and what he will do to push that forward?
Some 318 British military personnel have died in Afghanistan. Every single death and injury weighs heavily on those of us who have had the privilege of meeting our armed forces and their families. We owe it to them to ensure that we have a clear vision of the endgame, that we are consistent in what we say and that we provide the leadership necessary to see this through. That is what we are committed to and what we look to see from the Foreign Secretary and the Government.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments and questions, and I pay tribute to him for his work at the London conference, of which much of this work is a direct consequence. That conference set the stage for the Kabul conference, which has been a successful follow-up to what was agreed in London.
The right hon. Gentleman asked a wide range of questions. I shall respond to them perhaps in a roundabout order, but I shall try to cover them all. He asked about the work that we are doing in Helmand, including development work. Some of the money that the Department for International Development is providing, as my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have announced, will go into Helmand, for instance to help build new police stations and patrol bases, giving 2,500 recently trained policemen and women the infrastructure to operate effectively. In Nad Ali, it will fund the building of two new schools to educate 1,900 children and the paving and repairing of roads to try to open up trade and commerce, which, as he knows, is fundamental to improving security and providing livelihoods for people in Helmand and throughout Afghanistan. The money and effort that DFID has announced is not purely dedicated to Helmand, but he can see from what I am saying that some of it will benefit people there.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the operations in Kandahar, which remain in progress. They are not traditional military operations—they are greatly concerned with the quality of governance and not just of holding territory in a military sense. The capacity exists to do that, and we underline constantly to our Afghan colleagues the need for clear Afghan leadership and support for the operations in Kandahar.
On the number of troops, it is true that the quantity is there. In fact, the quantity is ahead of schedule: the Afghan national army has already met its target of 134,000 strength, ahead of October. That is why I said in my statement that although there are often setbacks and discouragements, we should listen not just to the bad news. Sometimes, there is good news that we ought to comment on and recognise as part of the balance in presenting what is going on. Of course, quality is important too, and that shows the importance of the ongoing training and the embedded partnering that will be at the heart of our forces’ work over the coming months and, very likely, the coming years.
The right hon. Gentleman quite rightly pointed to the low level of recruitment to the Afghan national army among south Pashtun people. That is a long-running problem, as he knows, and it is not easily solved, except as part—one day—of a wider political settlement, involving support across Afghanistan for the basis of governance and authority. That cannot be solved overnight, but the build up of the ANA is so far one of the success stories taking place in Afghanistan.
We of course discussed regional co-operation at the conference and raised it with many other nations. In our time in office so far, the Government have concentrated on encouraging closer co-operation between Pakistan and Afghanistan, which is indeed taking place. It is also encouraging to see the strong support of India. More than $1 billion of support will come from India over the next few years for development in Afghanistan. Regional co-operation is improving, but it needs to improve further on the back of the Kabul conference. Other nations in the region were around the table in Kabul yesterday, including Uzbekistan and, indeed, Iran. As I said, the basis for regional co-operation is at least improving.
On the question of a political settlement, the Kabul conference is taking forward the commitments made at London. The Afghan President has now established the high peace council. He won support from the peace jirga at the beginning of last month for a process of reconciliation and reintegration, and the reintegration trust fund has now been established—again, that was one of the commitments made at the London conference. We stress, as the Deputy Prime Minister stressed at Prime Minister’s questions, that a political process remains fundamentally important. None of us thinks that there is a purely military solution to the problem, but the process of reconciliation must be Afghan led. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and I stressed that in our meeting with President Karzai.
On timings, in the last 24 hours the Prime Minister again put things very clearly when he said:
“The faster we can transition districts and provinces to Afghan control, clearly the faster that some forces can be brought home…I don’t want to raise expectations about that because that transition should be based on how well the security situation is progressing.”
However, he also said:
“What I have said is”
“people in Britain should understand we’re not going to be there in five years’ time, in 2015, with combat troops or large numbers because I think it’s important to give people an end date by which we won’t be continuing in that way.”
That is the position of the Government, and it is consistent with the expectation of the entire international community at the conference yesterday that Afghan security forces will be able to be in the lead by 2014. That is the position of all Ministers in the coalition Government. I am not sure whether the Opposition support that commitment on 2015—they will need to reflect on whether they do so—but I am sure that it is the right position for this country.
Order. Many right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. If I am to accommodate most or, better still, all of them, brevity in both questions and answers is required.
Why has it taken NATO nine years to acquaint itself with the facts of life in Afghanistan when it could have learned them by studying the communiqué issued from Kabul in 1842?
As always, there is some force in my hon. Friend’s question and perspective—[Hon. Members: “He was there!”] I do not think he was there, but he always speaks with a good deal of wisdom and perspective on history. It is true that it took a long time for NATO to get its act together in Afghanistan. However, as he would have heard from what I described, it is now true that there is a clear military strategy, a very clear economic and development strategy, and the prospect of a political process, which as the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband) pointed out, requires further encouragement and work. Those three things have now come together. It has taken many years for that to happen, but we start from where we start, and we must make a success of them.
While appreciation of the bravery of British soldiers and a total loathing of everything the Taliban stand for is felt throughout the country, does the Foreign Secretary recognise that public support is increasingly being lost simply because there is an understanding, which I share, that this is an unwinnable war? The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) referred to 1842. Is it not the fact that virtually—or perhaps literally—every outside, foreign intervention in Afghanistan has always been unsuccessful?
The hon. Gentleman must remember that we are in Afghanistan at the invitation of the Government of Afghanistan and under a United Nations mandate. We are not seeking to conquer Afghanistan, which is clearly impossible. One has only to fly over Afghanistan and look down at the deserts and mountain ranges to know in a moment that it is not possible to conquer Afghanistan, but it should be possible to provide the necessary support for a legitimate Government of Afghanistan to conduct their own security and provide for the future of their own people.
The hon. Gentleman is right that there is great public concern. As I said in my statement, I do not want to minimise the difficulties or imply that things are easier than they are, but I believe that if those three things—the military strategy, the economic strategy and a political process—are pursued successfully together it is possible not to have a purely military success, but to succeed in our objective of an Afghanistan that can look after its own security.
Does the Foreign Secretary accept that what the public will now regard as a timetable for the withdrawal of British troops will depend on better governance from the Karzai Administration, and a degree of professionalism from the Afghan police and army that we have not previously seen? What confidence can we have that those will be achieved in this instance? What is better about July 2010 than any occasion in the past when similar promises have been made and simply not honoured?
I entirely understand my right hon. and learned Friend’s scepticism, because commitments have been made and not honoured in the past. I drew attention in my statement to the fact that not enough progress has been made in matters of governance and tackling corruption. Those are factors that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and I stressed very strongly to President Karzai and Ministers in the Afghan Government.
It is fair to say that progress is being made. For instance, we discussed on Monday in Kabul with the Minister of Mines the forthcoming contracts for the development of Afghanistan’s incredibly rich natural resources. He is publishing the 108 contracts to develop those resources and their terms. As the House has discovered, transparency is the best antidote to suspicion or wrongdoing. That is also true in Afghanistan, with wrongdoing on a spectacularly greater scale.
Those lessons are being learned. For instance, rules that are to be introduced to forbid Afghan Ministers or Members of Parliament from having relatives involved in the country’s tax system are also important steps forward. I will argue not that we have solved the problem, but that what was committed to at Kabul is important progress.
The Foreign Secretary referred to the aim of accelerating Afghanisation and its governance, including by enhancing security. Can he therefore explain why whereas the London communiqué refers to a number of provinces that will transition to an Afghan lead by late 2010 or early 2011, the Kabul communiqué simply states:
“The Government of Afghanistan and NATO/ISAF are to assess jointly the provinces with the aim of announcing by the end of 2010 that the process of transition is underway”?
Is that due to the influence of General Petraeus, or to the concerns that some NATO partners in those areas of Afghanistan might leave the coalition more quickly?
No, it simply reflects the complexity of assessing when a province is ready for transition. I do not think that there is any contradiction between the London and Kabul communiqués. The Kabul conference backed the NATO-Afghan joint framework that has been agreed in recent days for assessing which provinces—and, if relevant, districts—are ready for transition from ISAF control to Afghan security control. That assessment will be based on a number of criteria, which will include governance and the rule of law. Predominantly, however, it will be a security-based assessment. As set out in the communiqué, NATO and the Afghan Government intend to announce that the transition process is under way by the end of the year. Further details will be set out at the NATO Lisbon summit. Between the summit and the spring of next year, we expect the first batch of provinces to have transitioned. So I think we are on track, but we are coming to a point at which we need to make the assessments, rather than setting out specific statistical targets.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement, and particularly his announcement that the Afghan Government will take the lead on security by 2014. Closely interwoven with that aspect is the Government of Pakistan. He has mentioned Pakistan in the context of trade, but to what extent will there be co-ordination and involvement with the Pakistan Government on security?
That co-operation is also improving. My hon. Friend is quite right to say that this is an important matter, and it is one that I stressed on my visit to Pakistan a few weeks ago, as well as in Afghanistan just now. We must not understate the importance of the trade transit agreement. It will allow goods from Afghanistan to travel through Pakistan to markets in Pakistan or elsewhere much more easily. The security co-operation is also important, however, and it is fair to say that at all levels of government, including military levels, co-operation between the Governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan has improved in recent months. That is something that we will continue to encourage, because it is fundamental to success in the south of Afghanistan. We will continue to press that subject hard.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that a sober, realistic assessment of the UK national interest in Afghanistan reveals the need for sufficient security and stability to prevent al-Qaeda from getting back in and establishing bases there, given that it has now been driven out successfully? Does he agree that we are more likely to achieve that stability and security if the arrangements were to encompass a political agreement—however unpalatable in some respects—with the Taliban, rather than trying to achieve an outright military defeat?
I agree with much of the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I am sure that he will agree that the military pressure on the Taliban—the work that our armed forces do in fighting the Taliban and making areas secure—is an important part of putting them under the necessary pressure so that they will want to enter into a political agreement. That is an indispensable part of looking for a political settlement in Afghanistan. I also differ from the hon. Gentleman when he says “however unpalatable”. Yes, we want a political settlement in Afghanistan, but we want one under which al-Qaeda cannot return, and under which a constitution is respected and a legitimate Government can be in office and take the necessary decisions. So I think it would be going too far to say that we want an agreement, however unpalatable it might be.
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend, and indeed with the Deputy Prime Minister, that counter-insurgency campaigns always end in a political settlement. Will he accept, however, that those political settlements can vary from even-handed ones to ones that are little different from a negotiated surrender by one side? By setting a definite date for combat disengagement, he is helpfully putting pressure on the Afghan Government, but no pressure at all on the Taliban. For that reason, will he bear in mind an alternative—namely, the creation of a sovereign base bridgehead area, which would ensure that pressure could be put on both sides so that a compromise might actually be reached?
I am not going to redefine our objectives. My hon. Friend will understand what the Prime Minister and I, and other Ministers, have said about 2015. Yes, it is true that our announcement puts pressure on the Government of Afghanistan to live up to the commitments that they have made, and it puts pressure on all those involved to ensure that the Afghan national security forces are expanded and trained according to the schedule that has been set out. It also recognises that, by then, we will have been in Helmand for nine years. It is important in any such operation that we achieve our objectives in that time scale. I understand the point that my hon. Friend is making, but I do not want to define our objectives for 2015 any more tightly.
May I echo the earlier tributes that were paid to the bravery and courage of our servicemen and women in Afghanistan, and indeed to their families? It is vital that they should not have died or been maimed in vain. The Foreign Secretary will have detected a degree of concern about the ability of the Afghan Government and authorities to implement the necessary reforms and changes that will allow them to take the lead by 2014. Can he assure us that that is the priority, and that the Afghan security forces will be in a position to take the lead by 2014?
As the right hon. Gentleman can gather, that is the intention of the Government of Afghanistan and of the members of the international community—nearly 80 nations were represented in Kabul yesterday—who are assisting in various ways with that progress. He has voiced a natural scepticism, but the encouraging thing is that that work is on track, and in some cases, ahead of track—certainly in the building up of the Afghan national army. The Government of Afghanistan will continue to work with the international community to increase the number of skilled and trained security forces personnel. That is clearly a very high priority. At the current rate of progress, the strength of the Afghan national army will reach 171,600 by October 2011, so we are beginning to look at a very large army, and the fact that it is an Afghan army is an important part of the solution.
Of course we do not want to conquer Afghanistan; nor do we want to scuttle out and leave chaos behind. But is there not, to coin a phrase, a middle way? No foreign combat army has ever held ground for any length of time in Afghanistan—it is like pushing water around in sand. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that we ought to place more reliance on Afghan forces, on our own special forces and even on buying or bribing Afghans—anything you like, rather than leaving combat forces on the ground as sitting targets?
Much of what my hon. Friend suggests is now part and parcel of the strategy that we are pursuing. Almost all the work of our forces will in future be based on embedded partnering with the Afghan forces. We shall be working and fighting alongside the Afghan soldiers themselves. It is interesting to note that, when that happens, our own forces’ casualties are generally lower. That is an important part of our strategy, as is the reintegration of former Taliban fighters. The right hon. Member for South Shields noted that not enough of that had happened yet, and that is true, but it is beginning to happen in places such as Nad Ali, where 60 or 70 approaches have been made by people wanting to come back into the local community. So I must stress that this is not just a military effort.
Regrettably, Afghanistan remains one of the most corrupt places on the globe. I accept what the Foreign Secretary said about making progress in that regard, but what progress has been made on law enforcement? Specifically, how many prison places are available in Afghanistan in which offenders might successfully be held?
The hon. Lady draws our attention to another important issue. Some progress is being made. The expansion of the Afghan national police force is also taking place; there are now 105,000 police officers, against a target of 109,000 by October. They may well hit their target for the number of police by October, which is intended to increase to 134,000 by October of next year. In the case of the police force, quality is an even greater issue than it is with the army, as she knows. That is why a lot of the increased international assistance is going into training the police force, and some of the assistance that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has announced is going in that direction. That work is therefore taking place and is among the most difficult work in Afghanistan, but it is a vital matter.
One area that was too weak in the Afghan Government’s preparation for the Kabul conference was the administration of justice. We stressed that at the Kabul conference, as did many other countries, and renewed work is being done in that regard. Only when people accept justice at the hands of the official authorities will the Taliban not hold sway in some parts of Afghanistan.
I do not have to hand an answer on the specific number of prison places, but I will write to the hon. Lady with the details.
On governance, during my own time in Afghanistan it was clear that great progress was being made in building capacity in national Afghan Ministries, but very much the weak link was the lack of capacity in provincial government. Was that subject discussed during the conference, and how do we intend to address it?
Yes, it was. My hon. Friend, with his experience in Afghanistan, draws attention to a very difficult area. There has been a great lack of capacity in government at all levels, which, in the opinion of the most capable Afghan Ministers—if I may describe them as that—is beginning to change with the arrival back in Afghanistan of students who have studied away from the country since 2001. There is now a flow of capable, professional, qualified young people back into Afghanistan, and that resource is increasingly helping the central Ministries. There is a Finance Ministry and a Ministry of Mines, which are so essential to the country’s economic survival. I do not think that that flow of skilled, qualified people is yet reaching the provincial level, but that is a necessary part of what must happen over the next few years.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that this very welcome naming of an exit strategy will change the mindset and acquire its own accelerated momentum, whereby the public will say, “If 2014, why not 2011, like the Canadians?” NATO generals and politicians will increasingly ask themselves the John Kerry question: how can I ask a soldier to be the last one to die for a mistake?
Of course people will question at all times what we are doing, and that should be expected because it is so difficult and costly. However, there is a straightforward answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question about the difference between 2014 and 2011. In 2011, the Afghan national security forces will not be remotely ready to lead their own operations throughout the whole of Afghanistan, whereas on current trends and performance, they will be able to in 2014.
There is another way of thinking about the hon. Gentleman’s question. If we were simply to abandon the current situation now and say, “We are not going to work with the Afghans to deliver a situation in which they can look after their own security,” what would we say to the families and friends of those people who have already died in this effort?
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Prime Minister on beginning the process, which I hope they will accelerate, of disentangling our troops from a bloody and unnecessary commitment? I appreciate that my right hon. Friend has to continue to deploy the argument that the security of our streets requires the commitment of our troops to prevent the re-establishment of al-Qaeda. But can he, in the privacy of this Chamber, reassure me that he does not actually believe it, since logically it would require us to deploy troops in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and elsewhere where al-Qaeda already has a presence?
My right hon. Friend understandably refers to the privacy of this Chamber, given that we have all said things in it that were widely unnoticed by the rest of the world, and which, when we said them in a television interview two weeks’ later, were news to the rest of the country. However, perhaps that is because not enough of our friends are upstairs regularly enough. However, I do not agree—[Interruption.] Well, I will not go any further down that road. I do not agree with the wider thrust of my right hon. Friend’s question. I would not want the House to think that we are now, as he put it, disentangling ourselves. As he can see, there is a huge British commitment to the international efforts in Afghanistan over the coming years. That is true in military terms and in development terms, so I would not at all put it in the way he has described.
If we failed in, or abandoned, Afghanistan, the opportunity would be there for terrorist bases to be established again in Afghanistan, and it would give great heart to terrorists based in other countries—whether Yemen or Somalia—and embolden them in their own campaigns.
Given that women have been particularly oppressed in Afghan society—even elected women MPs are still having difficulties working in that society—what assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of the security of women’s positions now, such as girls in schools and women in the professions? Does he share Hillary Clinton’s worry that talking to the Taliban might further undermine the position of women in Afghan society?
The position of women in Afghan society is central to the development work that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will be making a further statement about. Some 20% of participants in the recent peace jirga were women, which, we should note, is more than in some western Parliaments or local authorities. Simultaneously with the Kabul conference, the Afghan women’s movement held a conference at which all 34 provinces were represented. Part of the agreement at the conference was on a national programme for human rights and civic responsibilities that recognises the rights of women. So there is tremendous support for women’s rights in Afghanistan, and we must continue to be true to that in how we conduct ourselves, including in any political settlement.
In a few weeks’ time, 16 Air Assault Brigade will be deployed once more to Helmand province, including some 3,000 soldiers from the Colchester garrison. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s positive, upbeat statement and its reference to the three sides of the triangle—political, economic and military. However, in the summer of 2008 all four battalions of the Parachute Regiment—notably 2 Para and 3 Para, from the Colchester garrison—were engaged in a very dangerous mission to install transformers at the Kajaki dam. Two years later, that has not happened. So in order to act on the Foreign Secretary’s statement about supporting the Afghan economy and helping new jobs through investment, including in power generation, what positive action is going to be taken?
I recognise that it is my hon. Friend’s constituents who will go out to Afghanistan, and that is often the case with me—Catterick garrison is in my constituency and many of the forces based there have been in Afghanistan in recent months. He is right to point out what has happened with the Kajaki dam, but it is also important to point out the improvements that are now taking place and will be taking place in Afghanistan under the commitments given at the Kabul conference. They include priority programmes on agriculture, on access to safe drinking water, on half a million more jobs in agriculture, and on training in technical skills in the next three years up to 300,000 people who have never attended school, so that we can see—as long as these plans are implemented—major improvements in the lives of the people of Afghanistan.
There are some future risks in having an ever-stronger Afghan army if it is alongside a still systemically corrupt and weak Government. The Foreign Secretary referred in his statement to the Afghan Government’s drawing together for the first time across government a strategy to deliver widespread reform. However, toward the end of his statement he also acknowledged that measures to enforce transparency, anti-corruption and accountability have slipped. Can he therefore tell us how credible Karzai’s commitment is to a reform strategy, how robust the plans are, and how reliable the oversight and review mechanisms to which he referred will be? Will they ensure that the process of reintegration will not involve simply creating a new matrix of corruption?
That was four questions, but one answer will suffice.
Yes, Mr Speaker. I realise that we must proceed with greater speed. I hope that I have given some answer to all four of those questions earlier in my responses. We are talking about an area where not enough has been achieved; we stressed that strongly at the conference. I mentioned earlier several of the specific mechanisms being introduced to tackle corruption. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that a large army, without a system of administration that is relatively free from corruption, would not be a safe thing to have. I hope that I answered some of his questions earlier.
Although I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments on the growth of the Afghan national forces, and on local reconciliation, does he recognise that one of the keys to success, both in the campaign in Iraq and, in earlier eras, in campaigns in the region that we are discussing, has been buying off, and getting onside, local groups of armed men?
Yes, it has. We should be careful about reading straight across from one conflict to another; the social and tribal composition of Afghanistan is different from that in Iraq. However, the reintegration programme, for which there is now a fund, is about people who have been fighting coming back into their community, and that community then being supported in a way that makes life better for it, and for those who were formerly fighting. That is one form of what my hon. Friend is talking about.
There is now an Afghan army more than twice the size of the entire British armed forces, and we are apparently committed to being in Afghanistan for another five years. How much more is all this going to cost? Given that public support for the Afghan war is declining in Britain and Afghanistan, is it not better just to cut our losses and announce a much earlier date for withdrawal, rather than go through the torpor of another five years of increasing numbers of deaths among British soldiers and Afghan civilians, and an increasingly desperate civil war in that country, in which we will be forced to take sides?
The hon. Gentleman has a completely different view on the subject, and that is understood and respected. He would not have got involved in Afghanistan in the first place—I realise that—and he has always called for an end to our involvement. I have a different view, and so, I think, do the majority of Members in the House, as well as the former Government and the coalition Government. We want to give the international strategy the necessary time and support to succeed. Yes, it is expensive; the cost runs to billions of pounds a year. More important than that, it is expensive in lives, as we know, but the alternative—failure in Afghanistan—would, we believe, be deeply damaging to the peace and security of the world. That is the choice that we have to make.
Despite individuals’ opposition to our policy in Afghanistan, unity of purpose is important, going forward, if we are to achieve any sort of success in that country. Given the impression still being created by disparate voices in the coalition—including, most recently, by what President Karzai said on strategy—will the Foreign Secretary take the opportunity to confirm that what will ultimately decide the timetable for British withdrawal is the achievement of set objectives, not predetermined timelines? Otherwise, we are making things easier for the Taliban.
I would not want my hon. Friend to be under the impression that the Prime Minister is not absolutely clear about what he and other Ministers have said about 2015—that we will not be there with combat troops, and will not be there in significant numbers, in five years’ time. I do not want to leave my hon. Friend with any impression that there is any doubt about that. However, that is on the basis of what has been said over the past year, and what we were all committed to at President Karzai’s inauguration, the London conference and the Kabul conference—the Afghan national security forces being able to lead their own operations by 2014. They are on track to do that. There is, of course, a little bit of leeway in what we have said, given that the target is for 2014, and we want to stick to that.
Will the Foreign Secretary say what discussions he has had with Cabinet Ministers other than the International Development Secretary about offering expertise in kind to Afghanistan, such as police, court and prison support, and justice support generally? In passing, would he like to comment on what the Deputy Prime Minister said at Prime Minister’s questions about Iraq being an illegal war?
The Deputy Prime Minister has a different history from mine on that subject; that is certainly true. It is, of course, for the Ministers who were in power at the time to account for their actions, but that, I know, Mr Speaker, is a separate subject from today’s. There is work on, and involvement in, the issue across Whitehall, as there was under the previous Government, with different agencies and Departments taking part—through provincial reconstruction teams, for instance—in the development of the capacity of the Afghan state. Of course we will continue that.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, contrary to some of the views that we have heard today, setting a target date for withdrawal does not necessarily lessen the chances of success? That is a lesson that we can learn from Iraq; in the Sunni triangle, when the Petraeus doctrine was given the resources to work, it worked, even though the American Administration set a target for withdrawal of their combat troops.
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point, and he can see that we, and nearly 80 international partners, are giving the strategy the necessary resources—and the necessary time—to succeed. We are also clear that we cannot be in Afghanistan for ever in a combat role.
We welcome the speediest return of combat forces from Afghanistan, but the Foreign Secretary knows that UK units are, in the weeks and months ahead, being deployed to Afghanistan. Given the uproar during Iraq operations when announcements were made about the amalgamation and disbandment of units at the front, will he give a commitment that that will not happen in the case of Afghanistan as a consequence of the strategic defence and security review?
I fully take the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I recall the controversy at the time, but as the strategic defence and security review is ongoing, I cannot give commitments about its outcome.
Could my right hon. Friend tell the House what remonstrations Her Majesty’s Government are making about the position of Muslim converts to Christianity in Afghanistan, many of whom have been arrested, and some of whom face execution?
We have indeed made remonstrations on that subject, as did the previous Government, and I expect that we will do so again. My hon. Friend is quite right to feel strongly about the issue. It was not the subject of the conference yesterday, which, as he will gather, was about the economic development of Afghanistan, but we always stand ready to make such remonstrations, and I should be happy to discuss the subject with him.
In the margins of the conference, did the Foreign Secretary have an opportunity to discuss, especially with the Americans, the situation in Yemen? As he knows, the London conference was about Afghanistan, but there was a conference about Yemen at the same time. We welcome the visit of the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), to Yemen, but will the Foreign Secretary please make sure that the Government’s focus remains on that country? Al-Qaeda is already there. If it is pushed out of Afghanistan, it will merely go to Yemen and strengthen its forces there.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very powerful point, with which I agree strongly. I had many bilateral meetings with other Foreign Ministers during the Kabul conference, and that was a regular subject. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary and I have spent most of the morning with the Italian Foreign and Defence Ministers, and Yemen was high on our agenda, as was Somalia, on which the Italians have particular expertise. We will try to make sure over the coming months that we reinvigorate the Friends of Yemen process launched by the right hon. Member for South Shields, and I fully take the point made by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz).
May I commend the Foreign Secretary on the role that he played at the Kabul conference, and ask him what proportion of the Taliban are Afghan, and what proportion are from outside Afghanistan? That will be a relevant factor in a long-lasting political settlement.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He will understand that there are few precise statistics on the subject, but it is interesting to note that most of the Taliban who have been killed, so far as we can determine, were fighting within about 20 miles of their home. That is why we should attach importance to the reintegration process; they are certainly not all of an ideological disposition, and it is, of course, easier to come to a political settlement with those who are not.
The Foreign Secretary referred in his statement to a number of things that will be done, and one of them was the development of mining. It is well known that Afghanistan has something in the region of $1 trillion-worth of precious materials, gas and oil. What steps will he take to ensure that the Afghani people benefit from the mining of their country?
That is a very important point. On Monday I visited the Herat region in western Afghanistan, an area rich in mineral wealth. Not only is it very much part of the Kabul process to ensure that an estimated $11 billion can be added to Afghanistan’s GDP into the 2020s by the proper exploitation of its extractive industries, but, as the hon. Lady can tell from what I said earlier about the transparency of the publication of all the contracts now for the development of those industries, big steps are being made to ensure that the Afghan people benefit from them.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that most front-line Taliban fighters hold no particular love for the Taliban but simply fight because they are paid to do so and have few other economic opportunities, and that economic development, agricultural reform and support for those who are willing to become ex-Taliban fighters must form an essential part of our strategy for withdrawal?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is a vital part of what the reintegration programme is about, and that is why it is so important to provide economic opportunity for people, including in Helmand. As he can gather, that is an important part of our strategy.
The Irish Guards are redeploying again, so I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s comments in relation to the troops and the fact that they are an encouragement for them. In relation to winning the hearts and minds of those in Afghanistan, will he give us some more detail about the road structure? As I understand it, the road programme will not be one of the targets, and he made no mention today of the farmers and those involved in drugs, and the need to encourage them away from that. Will he comment on that?
That is a lot more subjects than I can deal with at this stage of proceedings. I mentioned earlier that one of the objectives in the programmes adopted at the conference yesterday is to create 500,000 more jobs in agriculture. There are four priority programmes in agriculture and the provision of access to safe drinking water, so a tremendous amount of work is contained in this. If the hon. Gentleman studies the communiqué and the statement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development about our development work, he will see that the issues that he raises are all being addressed.
In the drive to tackle corruption in Afghanistan, will my right hon. Friend say a little more about what steps are being taken to disrupt the drugs industry, which does spread its tentacles very directly to our streets?
Yes, the British Government continue to give a lot of resources to counter-narcotics work—£26 million in the current financial year. We support programmes for growing alternative crops in Afghanistan. I was interested to note in Herat on Monday that saffron is being grown on a wide scale and brings a much larger income to the farmer than the growing of opium poppies. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has reported a 22% fall in opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan in the last year.
I wish the Foreign Secretary well in the difficult task of bringing our troops home. What is the position of our partner nations with regard to the 2015 unconditional withdrawal date, of which the Prime Minister spoke?
There is no difficulty on that among our partner nations. We have discussed it with the United States and with many other partners, and they are entirely comfortable with that position. In all the meetings that I held yesterday, I do not think that any of those whom I met raised any objection to it.
My right hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that many of my constituents are sceptical about our prospects of success in Afghanistan. He warned both against over-optimism and over-pessimism. I appreciate the complexity of the subject, but does he think that there is the potential to provide a few simple metrics by which hon. Members and the general public can measure success in implementing the plan during the next four years?
In a way, yes. The Kabul process is a clear programme for the future in Afghanistan. I think that my hon. Friend and all of us in the House, and those of his constituents who take a close interest in these matters, will be able to see whether it is being implemented or not. Clearly there are statistical targets such as the size of the army and the police and the growth of the economy. Those things do exist, but, as he knows, it is the quality of them that matters as well as the timing of the quantity being achieved, so I am reluctant to say, “Here are four or five things by which we judge the entire situation.” But I think that we will be able to see whether this is working or not.