House of Commons
Monday 8 November 2010
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
I have a statement to make to the House. I have to inform the House that, as required by section 144 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, I have received the certificate from the judges appointed to try the election petition relating to the Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency election on 6 May 2010. The judges have determined that the election was void pursuant to section 159 of the Act because the candidate, Philip James Woolas, was personally guilty of an illegal practice. I shall lay the report and certificate on the Table, together with the full judgment and the shorthand writer’s notes, and will cause the full text of the report and certificate to be entered in the Journal. Members wishing to read the report and certificate for themselves will find it set out in the Votes and Proceedings for today, which will be circulated with the Order Paper in tomorrow’s Vote Bundle, available online and from the Vote Office. The full text of the judgment has been published by the court on the judicial communications website. I shall place a copy in the Library.
In accordance with section 160(4) of the Act, Mr Phil Woolas has been reported personally guilty of an illegal practice and must vacate his seat from the date of the report, 5 November 2010. I am advised that a renewed application for judicial review has today been made to the administrative court. The administrative court judge has ordered an expedited hearing of the renewed application as he considers it essential that the electorate of Oldham East and Saddleworth should know who is their Member of Parliament as soon as possible. My ruling is that this engages the House’s sub judice resolution, and that therefore the judgment of the election court cannot be debated in the House until court proceedings are concluded. I will not take points of order on this matter now; the opportunity for points of order will come after the 3.30 pm statement.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
“Fighting Fit” Report
1. What steps he is taking to implement the recommendations of the “Fighting Fit” report on the provision of mental health services for service personnel and veterans. (22161)
The Ministry of Defence takes the issue of mental health very seriously and warmly welcomes the findings of the “Fighting Fit” report from my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). We strongly endorse its key themes and recommendations. I wish to thank my hon. Friend on behalf of the House and the Government for his timely and well-considered report. We are working closely with the Department of Health, the NHS and voluntary and community sector organisations to implement these recommendations.
As Member of Parliament for a town that has very much led the way in support for veterans and service personnel, and as chair of the all-party group on veterans, I, too, warmly welcome the report by the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire and the Government’s endorsement of it. One of its recommendations is for the setting up of a veterans’ information service, which is a positive and constructive proposal, but does the Secretary of State share my concern that membership of it will cost £70 a year? Is there not a danger that that might deter some of the most vulnerable service personnel—for example, those struggling to find work or those on low incomes—from signing up?
The issue of access is important. I hear the point that the hon. Gentleman makes and I shall ensure that securing access for all who may be eligible, including the most vulnerable, is at the forefront of our discussions about the implementation of this report.
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for his welcome for my report and for the help that he has given in its preparation. He shares my concern for people with mild traumatic brain injury and knows that a British combat soldier is likely to face exposure to between six and nine improvised explosive device explosions in the course of his career, with the consequent risk of mild traumatic brain injury. Does he agree that more needs to be done to determine the prevalence of mild traumatic brain injury in the British military and to prevent and mitigate its effects?
Indeed. There is a great deal of interest in this particular element of scientific research on both sides of the Atlantic. I recently visited the veterans agency in the United States to ascertain what the updated information was. We will certainly want to consider all the evidence as it comes forward. It is an emerging science and we will get different types of information as we go through, but the art will be to try to ensure that we best titrate the treatments available to the information given to us scientifically at any one time so that we operate on the basis of evidence, not supposition.
V-shaped Military Vehicles
2. What representations he has received from senior military officers on the deployment of V-shaped military vehicles. (22162)
Ministers routinely have discussions with senior military officers on a wide range of issues, including vehicle protection. The advantages in blast protection that can be provided by a V-shaped hull are well understood and Mastiff, Ridgback and the new Wolfhound vehicle all incorporate this into their design. The vehicle selected for the new light protected patrol vehicle will also have a V-shaped hull. It would, however, be an oversimplification to suggest that vehicle protection is driven solely by hull design. The type of protection used on any given vehicle is very much driven by the capability the vehicle is designed to meet and the threat it is expected to face.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, but as he will know that has not always been the case. There was originally some resistance from the Army to introducing the V-shaped hull vehicles and if it had not been for the work of people such as Ann Winterton in this Chamber, as I am sure he recognises, they might never have been introduced. Given that, will the Minister assure us that when the troops finally withdraw from Afghanistan, the Government will not dispose of these vehicles in favour of the prehistoric design of the future rapid effect system’s vehicles?
It is a great pleasure to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Ann Winterton, whose sterling work on this issue and many others in this House has made a contribution to the happier place that we are in than might otherwise have been the case. Commanders probably now have the range of vehicles they need to cope with the different threats they face in theatre. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to emphasise the importance of ensuring that once the Afghan war is over we learn the lessons and have the appropriate range of vehicles in place to ensure that we can deal with future threats, too.
Given that the question of deployment depends very much on availability and reliability—not only of our vehicles and equipment but of those of our allies—and given that aircraft carriers are V-shaped vehicles—[Interruption.] They are undoubtedly V-shaped vehicles; there is no doubt about that at all. What views does the Minister have on the fact that the French aircraft carrier, Charles de Gaulle, has broken down yet again and is not available?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman.
Mr Speaker, your characteristic generosity has allowed the hon. Gentleman to proceed with his question. I am not sure that a carrier is a vehicle, but never mind—we will let that go. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and, like him, I wish we could buy three of our own aircraft carriers; he challenged me on this on Monday. We cannot do that, I am afraid, and I think we have adequate arrangements in place to sustain carrier strike in the future.
3. What his most recent estimate is of his Department’s likely expenditure on Trident replacement in this Parliament. (22163)
The 2006 White Paper “The Future of the UK’s Nuclear Deterrent” set out the initial estimated total procurement cost of the replacement nuclear deterrent as £15 billion to £20 billion in 2006-07 prices. The likely expenditure is dependent on the decision on initial gate, which is yet to be taken. I propose, however, to update Parliament on progress, including costs, after the initial gate decision through the publication of a report.
Will the Secretary of State assure me that no binding contracts will be entered into, as we have seen with aircraft carriers and the disgraceful contract in that case, so that if—as I hope—the next Parliament realises that we do not want or need to replace Trident, it will be able to do so at no huge expense?
The Government’s position is quite clear: we will replace the nuclear deterrent and we will replace it with an update of the Trident programme. It is unavoidable that, when we get to initial gate, contracts on the design at least will be placed.
Can the Secretary of State describe any plausible situation in which Britain would use a nuclear weapon independently, because our present policy encourages other nations, however unstable, to acquire their own nuclear weapons for defence?
The whole point of the nuclear deterrent is to deter, therefore we shall not use it. The success of our whole policy of nuclear deterrence since world war two is that we have never had to use it.
I realise that nothing would please my right hon. Friend more than to go into the next election fighting in defence of the rationale for the nuclear deterrent. Does he not recognise, however, that the appalling decision to postpone signing the main gate contracts leads us to a situation in which if—heaven forbid—there is another hung Parliament, the Liberal Democrats, who are really unilateralist, would be able to blackmail both parties to cancel the deterrent entirely?
There are two things of which I am sure. The first is that my own belief in the need for an independent, minimal, credible nuclear deterrent for the United Kingdom is and will remain undimmed. The second is that I shall be fighting the general election to see a majority Conservative Government returned.
The Secretary of State has said on many occasions that delays in defence contracts end up costing the taxpayer more. Will he say how much extra cost will be incurred by the delay to the Trident programme and the stretching out of the Astute drumbeat that that has necessitated?
The hon. Gentleman is at least partly correct. There will be additional costs to maintaining the Vanguard class through to 2028. We expect those to be around £1.2 billion to £1.4 billion extra to maintain those submarines for longer. However, his analysis would be far more correct if the ultimate decision to delay the in-service date increased the cost of the successor programme. As no cost will be set out until after main gate, it is impossible to make that assumption.
Mental Health Care Provision
4. What assessment he has made of the effect of the outcomes of the strategic defence and security review on mental health care provision for service personnel. (22164)
5. What assessment he has made of the effect of the outcomes of the strategic defence and security review on mental health care provision for service personnel. (22165)
The strategic defence and security review committed an additional £20 million per year for the provision of health care to service personnel, part of which will be used to deliver further enhanced mental health care services. It is planned that this will include an uplift to the numbers of specialist and supporting mental health personnel.
Although I welcome the Government’s commitment to increase mental health services for servicemen and veterans, does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the need to tackle the prevalence of dual diagnosis alcohol-related disorders given that it has an impact on those who are in the transition to civilian life, with some ending up in the criminal justice system?
Indeed, my hon. Friend makes an important point. A range of different groups suffer from mental health problems, both inside and outside the armed forces. There are those who come into the armed forces with a problem—either a mental health problem or a substance-abuse problem—those who develop one during their time in the armed forces and those who subsequently develop one. In a civilised society, it is very important that we ensure that all three groups are properly looked after. I would go so far as to say that it is the measure of how civilised a society we are that we look after the most vulnerable, and those with mental health problems must be in that group.
Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to pay tribute to service charities such as Combat Stress? It can take quite some time before mental health problems become apparent. It is important to support our veterans in the long term and not just in the short term or in the immediate aftermath of their retirement from the service.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Recent evidence suggests that post-traumatic stress disorder is likely to present at a peak at about three years, but may take as long as 14 years to present. It is therefore important that we recognise and see through our through-life responsibility to our armed forces. It cannot be right that our duty of care ends at the point of discharge from the armed forces themselves.
Has the Secretary of State considered the impact on former serving personnel of the proposals by the Government to remove the mobility component of the disability living allowance benefit for those residing in residential care accommodation, which includes, of course, many ex-service personnel?
On all the issues affecting the changes set out to welfare, there have been considerable cross-governmental discussions. I shall continue to have discussions with my colleagues because it is right, as I said, that we look after not only those who are serving but those who have served in a way that is indicative of the services that they have already given to this country.
The Government are reviewing tour lengths and the interval between tours. At the same time, they intend significantly to reduce the size of the deployable force. This means that operational commitments will increasingly fall on the same individuals with greater frequency. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that that will have serious consequences for the mental health and well-being of our troops?
Leaving aside the assumptions in the hon. Lady’s question, which are an argument in themselves, her key point is whether the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder is related to tour length or tour frequency, or a combination of the two. Evidence increasingly tends to suggest that the key element is the length of the tour rather than the frequency, and that, of course, will instruct the Government’s thinking.
Does the Secretary of State accept that mental health issues sometimes come to light only as a result of self-referral and that the culture of all three services is against such self-referral? Is one way of dealing with that to ensure that, during training, people—and not just those who will be in the chain of command—accept and understand the possibility of mental health issues arising, and that they are willing to recognise that and, if necessary, to take steps to deal with it?
That is true for not only the armed forces but society in general. Only when we, as a society, remove some of the taboo of mental illness will we properly unlock the ability to deal with it successfully. My right hon. and learned Friend is correct that we need to look at people’s willingness to self refer, and that process is made easier if they can contact a helpline run by members or ex-members of the armed forces, in whom they are likely to be able to place greater faith.
The King’s college review of mental health services for the military says that one way in which the mental health of those serving in theatre can be impacted is if they feel that their families are not being supported. Given the review of allowances that has taken place, how will we ensure that our serving personnel are confident that their families have good support and appropriate allowances?
The hon. Lady is absolutely correct. One thing that I learned during the five years I worked alongside the armed forces and their families as a doctor was that if one wants to create unhappy service personnel, the surest route is to create unhappy service families. We must examine the situation as a whole, and we need to look at all elements of the military covenant—not just the financial elements that she mentions, but service education, access to health care for service families and other welfare issues, including accommodation.
Service Personnel (Germany)
6. What timetable he has set for the return of service personnel garrisoned in Germany; and if he will make a statement. (22166)
As the Prime Minister announced on 19 October in the House, as part of the strategic defence and security review, the Government have decided to accelerate the rebasing of the 20,000 military personnel in Germany with a view to returning half those personnel to the UK by 2015, and the remainder by 2020.
Will my hon. Friend ensure that whatever decisions are made, we continue to consult our German allies closely while also showing our thanks to the many communities throughout northern Germany that, for 65 years, have welcomed our troops as neighbours, friends and, principally, as defenders?
I am happy to give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. I echo his comments about the outstanding support and friendship that the German people have given our forces over many decades. We recognise that the decision has significant implications for them. We will consult closely the German authorities at all levels as our plans develop.
In his statement to the House on 19 October, the Prime Minister said that changes in the Ministry of Defence would save £4.7 billion and that that would be
“made easier by the return of the Army from Germany.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 798.]
However, the Minister stated in a written answer on 27 October that it is
“too early to say what the financial impact will be”.—[Official Report, 27 October 2010; Vol. 517, c. 369W.]
Given that confusion, will he tell us whether there will be early cash savings or, in fact, significant early costs associated with the move?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box in his new role and congratulate him on his appointment. Work is in hand to start on a detailed rebasing plan. He is right to assume that moving troops back from Germany will involve an initial up-front cost, but it is important to stress that big savings will be made in the long term, because there are implicitly high costs involved in maintaining troops in Germany, and the operational rationale for their being there ceased long ago.
7. If he will assess the merits of putting to use the spare capacity at HMS Sultan in Gosport as part of his review of the defence training estate. (22168)
Following the announcement on 19 October of the decision to terminate the defence training rationalisation procurement, work has now begun on alternative options for the location or locations of future defence technical training. Changes to technical training and estate requirements arising from the strategic defence and security review will be taken into account and HMS Sultan will be considered as part of that process.
As the Minister knows, HMS Sultan already provides engineering training not just for the Navy and the Army, but for commercial organisations such as Network Rail. It recently had an excellent Ofsted report, and the good news is that it has spare capacity to do even more. Does the Minister agree, therefore, that in the spirit of good financial common sense, the Department should consider consolidating all existing military engineering training at that excellent site in my Gosport constituency?
I am happy to pay tribute to the work that goes on at HMS Sultan and congratulate everybody involved on the excellence of the training that is given. It would not be practical to bring all defence technical training together at that site but, as I stressed in my earlier answer, we are looking at location or locations, and HMS Sultan will be considered fully as part of that review.
Chief Coroner’s Office
8. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on the likely effects on the conduct of military inquests of the proposed closure of the chief coroner’s office. (22169)
Ministers have consulted on this matter, and my officials have been extensively involved in discussions with the Ministry of Justice about the abolition of the chief coroner post. In the current challenging financial climate, the Government have to consider all expenditure very carefully. We judge that there will be no significant impact on the conduct of inquests into the deaths of members of the armed forces.
The British Legion’s recent poll showed that a large majority of the British public back retaining a chief coroner to ensure that bereaved families have the support and reassurance that they need at inquests. Will the Minister look again at that, in order to provide support for those bereaved families?
We are firmly committed to ensuring that families have all the support they need at inquests, but we do not believe that the creation of the post of chief coroner is an essential prerequisite to achieving that. We will continue to give every possible help we can to families involved in such inquests, and we will maintain close contact with the British Legion as we discuss those matters.
The Minister will be aware of a small but important number of British military fatalities that have been caused in joint operations with US forces. In their inquests, the US forces have completely different sets of rules, and it is sometimes very difficult to find out the truth or the details of those deaths. The coroner’s office has been extraordinarily useful and helpful in these matters. Can the Minister assure me that there will be no further delay once the post is abolished?
The various functions will continue to be exercised by the Attorney-General or by the Ministry of Justice. I will give my hon. Friend an undertaking to keep a close eye on that aspect and ensure that there are no delays as a consequence of the decision.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) raises the support that the British Legion gave to the appointment of a chief coroner. I know from my time as a Minister in the Ministry of Defence that that was supported by a range of service charities and by the families federations. If we are not to have a chief coroner, can the Minister explain how we will get consistency across the country in inquests into military deaths?
The Lord Chancellor will take a proactive approach to ensuring that coroners conduct their investigations to national standards, including a best practice approach to conducting military inquests and monitoring cases that take more than 12 months to complete. A new complaints system will be considered as part of the work that the Ministry of Justice intends to take forward on a charter for bereaved people.
National Defence Medal
9. If he will bring forward proposals for a national defence medal to recognise non-operational military service. (22170)
The Government hold the professionalism, courage and contribution of all those who serve or who have served in the armed forces in high regard. I understand that some people believe that their service, and the service of all personnel, should warrant a medal. The coalition Government are committed to reviewing the rules governing the award of medals. However, at present, there are no plans to recommend to Her Majesty the introduction of a national defence medal.
I very much welcome the review. We are just a few days away from Remembrance day, and since 1919 we have been remembering the sacrifice of our armed services. Today, however, we have much improved media and greater transparency, and we understand more the mental, emotional and physical sacrifice that all our armed services personnel make. Is now not the time to include a national defence medal in that review?
We are going to have that review, and may I recommend to the hon. Lady that she puts forward her views at that time? Indeed, I know that they represent her party’s policy, which it adopted at a recent conference. Medals are awarded for campaign service because they recognise the risk and rigour of deployment, which is considered to be more extreme than when, I am afraid, people are in a barracks or at home on a base.
May I urge the Minister to err on the side of generosity? The previous Government could not take on the review committees of retired colonels and General Blimps, who refused to order even a Bomber Command campaign medal. People like to wear medals and are very proud of the Army now, and they also serve who serve in this country. I hope that the Minister will not shove the idea out to a review. He should come back and accept the hon. Lady’s suggestion.
As I have said, we are not shoving the idea out but having a review. Some who have served would like to see a national defence medal, but my experience is that probably the majority of those who have been in the armed forces and then left accept the decisions that were made when they were serving and do not wish to revisit history in that way.
Former Service Personnel (Support)
10. What support his Department provides to those who have served in or are about to leave the armed forces. (22171)
15. What support his Department provides to former armed forces personnel who have served in Afghanistan. (22176)
Regardless of where, or for how long, a member of the armed forces has served, all are entitled to receive some form of resettlement support. That ranges from housing advice through to vocational training. In addition, employment consultancy support is available through the career transition partnership for up to two years after leaving, as well as lifetime job-finding support. Those who are medically discharged will receive the full resettlement package.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. My local authority, Crawley borough council, is interested in investigating ways in which people who have left the services and are returning to their home town will not be disadvantaged by going on to the social housing list. Can he assure me that the Defence Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will work together to ensure that military personnel leaving the forces are not disadvantaged on the housing list?
I am delighted that my hon. Friend’s local authority is taking that action. All service personnel are entitled to briefings on their housing options, and some 50 briefings a year take place nationwide and, indeed, abroad. Advice includes obtaining property through a local authority, private renting or owning, and service leavers retain their key worker status for up to one year after having left. My hon. Friend will know that at the moment we are in very close discussions about the military covenant and how we can ensure that no one who leaves the services is disadvantaged when they return to their home area.
I pay tribute to the Royal Engineers, who have two regiments serving in Afghanistan. What steps are being taken to ensure that veterans are given support in the transition back to civilian life?
I echo my hon. Friend’s tribute to the Royal Engineers. Veterans receive a great deal of support in resettlement. Everybody trying to return to civilian life from the services now receives support, and—[Interruption.] I wish the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) would not interrupt me. I was just going to say that a lot of that was put in place under the previous Administration. I accept that absolutely and pay tribute to them.
However, there are resettlement courses. Everybody now receives them, and as they move on to seek employment, organisations such as the Regular Forces Employment Association help those who have left.
Will the Minister update the House on what progress he has made in working with the national health service to ensure that those who have left the armed forces continue to receive priority treatment?
We are looking at how the Ministry of Defence and the service charities, and everybody else, interrelate in the military covenant. The local authorities to which I referred interrelate, and certainly the NHS does. There have been frankly regrettable incidents in which people have been unable, for instance, to get dental services or to get on to an NHS doctors list. We are looking at improving that situation. Again, I hate to say this, but the previous Administration did some good work on this as well.
11. What recent discussions he has had on compulsory redundancies from the armed forces as a result of the outcomes of the strategic defence and security review. (22172)
I am in regular discussions with the chiefs of staff, and decisions on those selected for redundancy will be made by the individual services. A comprehensive implementation programme is being developed, and details will be promulgated by each of the three services in the coming months. We will ensure that those who leave are treated fairly and properly.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. He will agree, I am sure, that it is essential that the 25,000 civilian redundancies from the MOD announced in the strategic defence and security review do not result in service personnel being drafted in to fill the resultant gaps in capacity. Can he detail from which units within the MOD the redundancies will be made and outline any plans to supplement the lost capacity within the MOD?
As I have just said, it is for the service chiefs to set out over the coming months exactly which redundancies they think will be necessary. I am sorry that I cannot be more specific at this time in relation to the services or to the civil service, as we will seek to use natural wastage and careful management of recruits in the armed forces to minimise the number of redundancies required.
Will the Secretary of State give a guarantee that no soldier from 16 Air Assault Brigade currently serving in Afghanistan will be made redundant?
We need to maintain the Afghanistan rotation. It is therefore in the interests of common sense and fair play that no personnel serving in Afghanistan, or on notice to deploy, will be given compulsory redundancy.
The Secretary of State will know that this weekend thousands of people marched in Lossiemouth against the proposed closure of the RAF base there. That base accounts for about 10% of jobs in the area. Some will argue that the proposed closure saves the MOD money, but in truth other parts of government will have to pick up the costs of increased unemployment and the failure of small businesses. May I therefore urge him to pause and think again about the devastating wider impacts that this proposed closure would have?
First, may I welcome the shadow Secretary of State and his entire team to Question Time for the first time?
Let me say at the outset that neither party in the coalition wanted to see redundancies in the armed forces, and we would not be making such redundancies had we not been handed an utterly poisonous economic legacy by Labour and, indeed, a Ministry of Defence budget that was massively overheated and incompetently run. Having said that, we are very well aware of the various consequences—social, economic and regional—of the whole question of basing. I give the right hon. Gentleman my absolute assurance that we will consider all those elements when we look at the future of Lossiemouth.
Returning to the issue raised by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), we are all rightly in awe of the men and women of our armed forces, and I welcome the commitment that the Government have given to continuing to protect the front line in Afghanistan. However, the Government have announced redundancies of 7,000 in the Army, 5,000 in the Navy and 5,000 in the RAF—17,000 in total. Will the Secretary of State therefore guarantee that no one who has served in Afghanistan will face compulsory redundancy?
It would not be possible for the Government to say that no one who had ever served in Afghanistan in any way, shape or form since 2001 would not be made redundant. I reiterate what I have said: that because we need to maintain the Afghan rotation, no one currently serving in Afghanistan, or on notice to deploy, will face compulsory redundancy.
Defence Research and Technology
12. What plans his Department has to increase the effectiveness of its defence research and technology programmes. (22173)
We are publishing a Green Paper before the House rises for the Christmas recess that will set out our intended approach to industrial policy and the closely related issues of research and technology. The result will be published in a White Paper next spring that will formalise our approach for the five years until the next strategic defence and security review
I thank the Minister. Does he agree that the Ministry of Defence’s strategy for investment in research and technology will determine the areas in which indigenous industrial capacity will thrive? Likewise, when the MOD decides not to invest but to buy in from abroad, that capacity will not thrive.
It is certainly the case that ensuring sovereignty in the use of our armed forces often requires specific industrial capabilities to be maintained in the UK. That often involves research and development. However, I must emphasise that competition in the global market remains our preferred means of acquiring equipment at the best value for money, which means buying off the shelf where possible. I freely acknowledge that the issue is complex, which is exactly why we will consult formally on it in the Green Paper to which I referred.
Could the effectiveness of defence research possibly have been enhanced if we had had a defence training college? The Minister will know of the bitter disappointment in south Wales about the announcement in the comprehensive spending review. What can he tell the House about the potential future of that development?
The hon. Gentleman is ingenious in his use of his supplementary question. That is not a matter for which I am technically responsible, but I can reassure him that we are still examining carefully the consequences of the decision. That is all I can say at present, I am afraid.
Does my hon. Friend agree that when money is tight, as it quite often seems to be, defence research and technology is an easy target for cuts because the effect is felt some way down the line? We saw that under the last Government. Can we please avoid seeing it under the current Government?
I could not agree more strongly with my right hon. Friend. The last Government’s massive slash-and-burn approach to the science budget was a major scandal and makes our task a great deal more difficult. The SDSR document makes it clear that we are maintaining our essential science and technology investment, and I can tell him that at present, we expect that budget to rise slightly in cash terms over the CSR period. That is not the ideal outcome, but it is a good one and I hope he will welcome it.
13. What consultation he plans to undertake in determining the future of RAF Marham. (22174)
It will now take some time to work out the implications of the strategic defence and security review for defence basing, as the Secretary of State made clear a few moments ago. The work is now under way, and we will fully consult all the relevant agencies and the local communities that have given so much support to our armed forces over the years.
Has the Minister made an estimate of the cost of relocating engineering and maintenance facilities from RAF Marham? It is estimated at up to £50 million, and those facilities are a third more effective and efficient than their US counterparts. Will he also take into account the relative rate of unemployment, which is 7.4% in west Norfolk compared with 4.8% in Moray in Scotland?
My hon. Friend is referring to the Tornado depth maintenance facility, which includes centralised RAF and industry component repair facilities alongside the aircraft maintenance facility at Marham. It is unlikely that any decisions on Tornado basing will be taken before next spring at the earliest, but all relevant costs, including those arising from any necessary relocations, will be given full consideration prior to any decision being taken.
Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers
14. What timetable has been agreed for the building of the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. (22175)
The strategic defence and security review was clear that we plan to deliver the carrier strike capability from around 2020. We are now working to provide the level of detail needed to decide exactly how that intention should be turned into reality. As the planning work is expected to take some months, we are not yet in a position to provide further details.
On behalf of my constituents and the greater Merseyside area, I congratulate the Minister and his Department on the decision to continue the building of two Queen Elizabeth class carriers. Will he acknowledge with me the benefits for Wirral of the manufacturing continuing at Cammell Laird?
The decision has not been without its controversy, but I am delighted to pay tribute to the work force at all the yards conducting the work on the carriers, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I have seen that work at first hand in government, and it is a remarkable tribute to them. Whatever the controversy of the past, I am sure the work force will continue to give the project their very best, as they have up to now.
Given that it will be significantly cheaper to build the “cats and traps” into the two aircraft carriers during construction, will the Minister confirm that when working up its plans, the MOD intends to work from the assumption that that is how it will be done?
The hon. Gentleman is a doughty advocate for his constituents and for this particular project. All that I can tell him at this stage is that work has begun to consider the optimum means of delivering that capability, as a result of our decision to change to the much more capable carrier variant of aircraft. That includes considering the type of system, the cost, the procurement route, the delivery date and whether both ships should be converted. We are at a very early stage, and all I can say to him is that he should carry on pressing.
Military Bases (Scotland)
17. What assessment he has made of the likely effects on the future of military bases in Scotland of the redeployment of service personnel stationed in Germany. (22178)
The strategic defence and security review has set the aim of returning half our personnel from Germany by 2015 and the remainder by 2020. We are now assessing where in the UK those personnel will be located but no decisions have yet been made.
I thank the Secretary of State for that response. Could I suggest to him that, when the troops come back from Germany, and with Scottish regiments currently garrisoned in England, it would make sense to look at Scotland as a garrison base? He knows it makes sense; it is the right thing to do.
The hon. Gentleman can take that as one of the early submissions in the basing review that is being undertaken. The review will be for the Ministry of Defence to determine what makes the most sense in terms of the structure of our armed forces, in terms of where they are based according to where they need to train and operate from and in terms of ensuring value for money for the British taxpayer.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that any takeover of RAF bases by the Army will take a number of years, so we will still see massive economic and social dislocation in Moray? What concrete assistance has the Ministry of Defence already delivered to the Moray taskforce and how much assistance is it planning to deliver in the future?
The ultimate impact, of course, will depend on the future of Lossiemouth, and no decision has yet been taken. However, I reiterate what I said to the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton): my job as Secretary of State, and the job of Ministers, is to ensure that our basing makes sound military sense. If there are other implications—regional implications or economic and employment implications—that go wider than the Ministry of Defence, that has to be taken into account by Her Majesty’s Government as a whole.
The Secretary of State and I are both Scots, and of course we would like the troops to return to Scotland, but does he not agree that RAF Lyneham has a stronger case than anywhere in Scotland?
My hon. Friend can take that as the second submission to the basing review. One of the general points that I would make to him is that when the Army comes back from Germany, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) mentioned, there will be considerable long-term savings to be made, but we will need to have accommodation, to bear in mind bases that currently have accommodation and to assess what the cost would be of upgrading that accommodation to ensure that those bases could be utilised.
Military Equipment (Exports)
18. What steps his Department is taking to increase exports of military equipment. (22179)
I thank hon. Members for that welcome.
This Government has made defence exports a priority. In the SDSR we said:
“we will…promote defence and security exports for good commercial reasons and where this will build capacity of our partners and allies, increase interoperability, potentially reduce our own defence acquisition costs, and maximise UK industry’s comparative advantage in key technologies, skills and know-how, without risking the proliferation of sensitive technologies critical to the UK’s military edge.”
All Ministers are encouraged to play their part in promoting responsible defence exports and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has led the way in that regard.
One of the ways to rebalance the economy is to promote exports of important hubs, and defence is an important industrial hub. I am very pleased to hear that the Indian Government are getting close to concluding that the Typhoon is the fighter that they want. Will the Minister say something about that order and how we are promoting further defence exports?
We are delighted to read the reports in The Sunday Telegraph—they must, therefore, be entirely accurate—that the Indian Government have found that the technical superiority of the Typhoon is overwhelming, and we of course share that view. We are doing all we can in conjunction with our partner nations to secure that order. In this case, the German Government are leading with the Indians, but I am very hopeful that when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence visits India, we can further promote the case of the Typhoon.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (22186)
My departmental responsibilities are to ensure that our country is properly defended now and in the future, that our service personnel have the right equipment and training to allow them to succeed in their military tasks and that we honour the military covenant.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the considerable concern expressed by a number of commentators about the capability that will be lost to the Royal Air Force with the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4 programme. Will he tell the House what steps will be taken to ensure that that loss of capability does not adversely affect our national security?
I must honestly say to the House that this was one of the most difficult decisions we were forced to take as a result of the mess in the national finances and the grossly overheated MOD budget that we inherited. Since the withdrawal of the Nimrod MR2 in March, the Ministry of Defence has mitigated the gap in capability through the use of other military assets, including Type 23 frigates, Merlin anti-submarine warfare helicopters and Hercules C-130 aircraft, and by relying, where appropriate, on assistance from allies and partners. That was originally assumed to be a short-term measure. We are now developing a longer-term plan to mitigate the impact of cancellation on our continuing military tasks and capabilities.
Regardless of what side of the House we are on, we are all very concerned about this weekend’s reports of the smuggling of highly enriched uranium in Georgia and other parts of the Soviet Union—[Interruption.] I mean the former Soviet Union. We know there is sometimes only one step between organised criminals and global terrorists. In the light of those reports, can the Secretary of State guarantee that any UK-funded projects to combat the proliferation of, or trade in, chemical, biological and nuclear material will have their funding protected through this spending review period?
I could not be in greater agreement with the right hon. Gentleman. It is easy to forget that there has been a great deal of nuclear material out there. Not only does that still pose a threat to global security, but the development of new nuclear weapons by countries such as North Korea and, soon, Iran, which is attempting a programme, presents us with a massive threat. It is essential that programmes that give this country protection are themselves protected.
T3. The Government are right to focus on the cyber-threat facing our nation. Fortunately, in Britain, we have many home-grown technology companies, including in my constituency. Does the Minister agree that, in the interests of our national security and our national economy, we should prioritise the use of these domestic companies to the fullest extent? (22188)
I am delighted to agree with my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour. The strategic defence and security review identified cyber-risks as one of the four tier 1 risks to national security, pledged additional funding for investment in this area of capability and said that partnership with industry will be key to ensuring value for money. It is also a theme that we are exploring in the Green Paper on defence industry and technology policy, which has been extended to include security, and I would be delighted to visit the companies in my hon. Friend’s constituency of Bromsgrove at some stage in the future, if he would find that helpful.
T2. More than two thirds of defence experts think that the defence review was a lost opportunity. Does that not prove that the review lacks strategy and was rushed to fit the needs of the spending review, rather than the needs of the armed forces? (22187)
The defence review was carried out after the National Security Council decided upon an adaptive posture. However, we inherited budgetary constraints that we would rather not have had, and had the Labour party not left us with a toxic economic legacy as well as an overspent MOD budget, we might take some lessons from Labour Members.
T6. In the light of the forthcoming NATO summit in Lisbon, can my right hon. Friend update the House on what proposals we will be putting forward to ensure that NATO is modern and fit for purpose? (22191)
As my hon. Friend would expect, given that the United Kingdom is being rigorous in making every penny count in our own defence budget, we will ensure that NATO’s coat is cut according to its cloth, and we are expecting it to do that. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been at the forefront of the campaign to reduce the number of people in NATO to about 9,000, and we hope very much that we can reduce the number of joint force command headquarters from nine to two, thereby saving money and making NATO more efficient.
T4. This morning, I dedicated a bench in a park to Trooper Ashley Smith of the Royal Dragoon Guards, who died in Afghanistan in June. He was a brave and selfless young man, and a good soldier, and I know that the Secretary of State and his Ministers will join me in offering their condolences to his family. I would like to pass on two things that his family said to me this morning: first, despite their grief, they think about the soldiers still in Afghanistan and want to ensure that they get all the equipment they need, and secondly they support the Government in their strategy to create conditions so that, within the life of this Parliament, our troops can be brought home. (22189)
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the points that he has made, and I am glad to echo the tribute to Trooper Ashley Smith. I am also grateful for the sentiments expressed by his family.
As the whole country heads towards Remembrance Sunday, this is an opportunity to remember that it is not just the sacrifices of the past that we are commemorating, but the sacrifices being made today. It is essential not only that this country supports our troops, but that we support their mission, because that is what they are asking us to do. It is important for the morale of those serving that we do so, but it is also important for the peace of mind of the families who have lost loved ones to know that their sacrifices were not in vain.
T7. I would like to thank the Secretary of State for including a UCAV programme—a programme for unmanned combat aerial vehicles—in the SDSR, which is important for jobs in my constituency. Will he say when he will be in a position to give the House more details on the UCAV programme? (22192)
There are two aspects to this. First, there is the future of the fixed-wing sector strategy, which we will be consulting on as part of the Green Paper and White Paper process. There is also the question of UK-French collaboration on unmanned combat aerial systems of the kind that my hon. Friend talks about. The declaration that accompanied the Anglo-French summit last week made it clear that we would establish a joint assessment of
“requirements and options for the next generation,”
which are expected from about 2030 onwards.
T5. Could the Secretary of State share with us his assessment of the impact of service personnel reductions on the UK’s military capability? (22190)
We have specifically tasked the armed forces with ensuring that the reductions in military numbers that we have required of them, as a result of the defence review and the budgetary pressures on us, do not impact on Britain’s military capabilities.
T8. As we approach Armistice day and pay tribute to all those who gave their lives for this country, let me say that I will be attending the opening of the redeveloped Chiswick memorial homes. What message can I give our veterans about what this Government will do for them? (22193)
It is indeed Armistice day on Thursday, and the plethora of poppies around this Chamber are not just for window-dressing, but show that people in this Chamber care about Armistice day and the sacrifice that past generations have made. The message that I would give to veterans is that we will certainly look after our ex-service personnel as best we can. We are pledged to reinvigorate the military covenant, and if my hon. Friend watches this space, as it were, she will see that happening pretty soon. Finally, I understand that the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth) will be attending the event in Chiswick, and I hope that it goes extremely well.
What estimates has the Minister made of the total financial cost of military base closures in Germany?
As I indicated to the House earlier, we are currently looking at the full implications of bringing the Army back from Germany. There will undoubtedly be some up-front costs, depending on the pace of those forces coming back, but there will be considerable savings, to be set out over the longer period. We will set those out when we conclude the basing review in six months.
T9. I thought that the Minister’s response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) was lacking in political direction and conviction. Bearing in mind that Her Majesty the Queen, as the Head of State of both Australia and New Zealand, has graciously authorised the award of a national defence medal, can we not have that in the United Kingdom for those who have served? (22194)
We are certainly never lacking in direction. What I would say is that when the Queen is dealing with matters in New Zealand and Australia, she is the Queen of New Zealand and Australia, and that does not necessarily mean that we will follow exactly what happens in New Zealand and Australia. We are reviewing matters, but as I said before, campaign medals are awarded for the deprivations of campaigns and the extra need to recognise people for their hard work on campaigns. That is not to denigrate service in barracks, but it is a very different thing, if I might say so.
The Secretary of State has talked about the difficult decisions that he has to make on cutting civilian and military jobs in his Department. In that light, can he give an assurance to the House that he has no intention of employing a photographer, stylist or personal film-maker?
T10. Aid agencies in Afghanistan have expressed concern that offering cash rewards in exchange for information puts Afghans, their families and their communities at risk from anti-Government groups. Can the Minister assure me that this practice is not being followed by British commanders? (22195)
In operations in the environment of Afghanistan, our forces must of course work in co-operation with both Afghan authorities and local people to obtain information that is essential to the security of our personnel and others working in the international security assistance force. I am aware that any form of co-operation with ISAF may put people in danger of reprisals, but clearly we rely heavily on such information.
During the second world war, many thousands of young women were conscripted into service in royal ordnance factories. There were 45 throughout the United Kingdom, and many in Scotland, the north-east of England and Wales. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet a small delegation of MPs to discuss appropriate recognition of those young women, many of whom lost their lives or suffered grievous injuries when filling explosives?
I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that one of the ministerial team will undertake such a meeting. His point is important. In any conflict in which this country finds itself, it is not only those in the military who make sacrifices, but often those in the civilian population. In Afghanistan today, we are seeing probably the highest level of civilian support for the military that we have ever seen in any conflict. I pay tribute to all those civilians who add to the national security of this country, and to their sacrifices in its name.
I have the privilege of representing RAF Honington, which is home to the RAF Regiment, and Wattisham, which is home to the Army Air Corps. Will my right hon. Friend speak to the Secretary of State for Health to ensure that more mental health provision is directed to areas of this country where the highest proportion of servicemen and women and their families live?
As part of the comprehensive spending review, we had a financial deal with the NHS to transfer NHS funding to the MOD for precisely that reason. As I told the House earlier, one of the ways that we must measure how civilised and decent a society we are is how we deal with those with mental illness, whether in the armed forces or outside. As a society, we have a lot to do to remove some of the taboos surrounding that, but if we can make a start in the armed forces, that would be great. Indeed, were we to get to the end of this Parliament and those in the NHS were crying out for the same quality of mental health care as those in the armed forces, that would indeed be a triumph.
Will the Secretary of State tell the House what assessment has been made of the outcome of the strategic defence and security review on companies and organisations that are dependent on MOD contracts? I am thinking of Remploy, but I need not go into the history of its origins. A Remploy factory in my constituency depends almost entirely on MOD contracts, and its employees have made representations to me. What assurances can he give my constituents?
I am extremely aware of the dependence of a large part of the economy on the MOD’s budget. Precisely because we are so aware of that, we will produce a consultation document in the near future, which will look at the supply chain as it relates to the MOD and its budget. The Government’s aim is that small and medium-sized enterprises are given every opportunity to help us to shape the regulatory framework and the skills base required so that we can ensure that they are given every possible help to remain in business.
From 13 December Camelot intends to change its rules, which will prevent many members of our armed forces who are serving overseas from playing the national lottery. It is a simple pleasure, and as they remain UK taxpayers, will the Secretary of State look into the matter and attempt to persuade Camelot to change its mind?
This is news to us. I assure my hon. and gallant Friend that I will certainly look into it and let him have a proper answer when I have done so.
The Secretary of State will be in Oslo this week for meetings with Nordic Defence Ministers. How will he convince them that he is serious when he has just scrapped the UK’s maritime reconnaissance fleet, is thinking of moving the joint combat aircraft away from the north of Scotland, and is considering closing both airbases closest to Norway?
I shall point out our commitment to the submarine programme and to the aircraft carrier programme, and explain how we intend to ensure that across the range of capabilities the United Kingdom is a sound and secure NATO partner. The purpose of the meeting in Norway is to ensure that we deepen our bilateral relationship with Norway, that we create a NATO entity that Finland and Sweden feel a little more comfortable with, that we give further security to article 5 in the Baltic states by being a nuclear power as part of that grouping, and that as a NATO grouping we are better able to deal with regional disputes with Russia.
The Secretary of State acknowledges that civilian redundancies might impact on personnel in Corsham in my constituency. Given their deep expertise in defence communications technology, will he consider opportunities for their redeployment as part of the Government’s programme for cyber-security?
We are indeed looking at all opportunities to improve our arrangements for cyber-security. We have for the first time created a cross-departmental cyber-budget, for example. We will be looking inside the Ministry of Defence to see how we can better prepare ourselves not for the threats of the future but for the threats that we already face, given the level of cyber-attacks already occurring in this country and in those of our allies.
Order. As usual at Question Time, demand has exceeded supply, but we must now move on.
Departmental Business Plans
With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on today’s publication of departmental business plans. When we formed the coalition in May, we committed to a programme of fundamental structural reform that would change the nature of government. Of course, I recognise that it was the aim of the Labour Government to improve public services, to get value for money and to deliver their stated aims. The problem lay in the fact that, to achieve those laudable aims, they set up a system of bureaucratic accountability in which almost everything was judged against a set of centrally mandated, politically determined performance targets. They then used a succession of short-lived bureaucratic interventions to try to make people fulfil the targets.
Alas, the evidence of the past 13 years shows that targets and short-term bureaucratic interventions simply do not work. Despite all the new learning strategies in schools, the gap in educational achievement between the richest and the poorest widened; despite all the NHS targets, cancer survival rates in Britain were among the lowest in Europe; despite all the police form-filling and bureaucracy, there were more than 100,000 incidents of antisocial behaviour every day; and, as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) has famously remarked, the money ran out.
So, we have argued for a power shift that will take power away from Whitehall and put it into the hands of people and communities, rebalancing the relationship between the citizen and the state. We recognise that Britain can make progress only if the Government establish frameworks that help people to come together to make life better. We have also argued for an horizon shift—[Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] Opposition Members will hear a lot of that term over the next four years, so they should get used to it. We have argued for an horizon shift, moving away from short-term bureaucratic interventions towards governing for the long term, establishing the right frameworks of incentives in the public services, sorting out the public finances and investing where it counts to create sustainable economic growth.
The publication of our departmental business plans is a significant part of achieving both that power shift and that horizon shift. In June, the Prime Minister launched a series of draft structural reform plans, in which Whitehall Departments publicly set out their reform priorities and the actions that they will take to achieve them, with a specified timetable. In July, August, September and October, we issued monthly reports on the draft plans, setting out the actions that had been completed or started, and giving explanations of any missed deadlines. Today, taking into account the results of the spending review, we are publishing the final departmental plans, setting out the vision, priorities and structural reforms of each Department.
These plans are a key part of our transparency agenda. They do not set out hopes for what we might achieve by micro-managing all the public services. They set out what we need to do, to manage the Government properly. That is, after all, our business, and we expect to be judged on whether we do it properly. The publication of the plans will bring about a fundamental change in how Departments are held to account for implementing policy commitments, replacing the old top-down systems of targets and central micro-management with democratic accountability. Every month, Departments will publish a simple report on their progress towards meeting their commitments—[Interruption.]
Order. In a way, it is a good thing that the House is in a jocular mood. I realise that the right hon. Gentleman is no longer a philosophy tutor, but I feel sure that he is accustomed to a slightly more cerebral response and deferential hearing than he is getting.
I am grateful, Mr Speaker, for that help, but I have to say that I had not anticipated anything better than I received, because Labour Members presided over a Government who acted like a magazine and we intend to preside over a Government who act like a Government. That is a profound difference and I recognise that it is very uncomfortable for Opposition Members.
Before I go on, I should correct myself as I believe I slipped into referring to 100,000 incidents of antisocial behaviour when I meant 10,000. I apologise to the House. That is an example of transparency and straightforwardness, which I hope will be replicated as we move forward.
In addition, the second part of each business plan explains how Government will give people unprecedented access to the data they need—in a simple, easily accessible form—to scrutinise how we are using taxpayers’ money and what progress we are making in improving society through our reforms. These transparency sections of the plans are being published in draft to allow Parliament and the wider public to say whether each Department is publishing the most useful and robust information to help people hold each Department to account.
Select Committees will, of course, play a vital role in the task of holding the Government to account. My Cabinet colleagues are therefore contacting Select Committee Chairmen to inform them of the new processes and to invite them to discuss the business plans in more detail in their Committees.
Once the reforms described in these business plans are fully implemented and the transparency reports are fully in place, we will have a real people power revolution— where people themselves are equipped with the power and information necessary to improve our country and our public services, through the mechanisms of democratic accountability, competition, choice and social action. I commend this statement to the House.
I start by welcoming the new Minister for milestones to the House. I could tell that he was the right Minister for this job when I received his statement three hours before he stood up. I thank him for that and urge the same habit on his hon. and right hon. Friends.
I also welcome the thrust of the Minister’s statement. When Labour came to power in 1997, we discovered that the Conservatives had run public services into the ground. Now, thanks to Labour’s investment—and, yes, Labour’s management—crime is now down 43%, hospitals have the shortest waiting lists on record and our schools and teachers are delivering record results for our children aged 11, 16 and 18, with 70,000 a year achieving good results.
The question was always going to be: what was the way forward after Labour’s job of repair? I am glad that the Government have seized on some of the principles set out in our White Paper, “Smarter Government”, published last year. It was described at the time as
“a radical dispersal of power to patients, parents and citizens”.
Today, however, the Minister tells us that his first step is to make departmental plans transparent. May I tell him that the only revolution he has delivered this afternoon is to make bad plans transparently bad plans? There will be no power shift if he is going to destroy the power of NHS patients to be treated within 18 weeks; the power of parents to get one-to-one tuition for their children if they are falling behind at school; the power of citizens to summon police officers to talk about issues of local concern.
I have only one question: if the Minister is serious about improving government—and I believe he is—will he review the ending of basic rights to high-quality public services across this Government? When it comes to public services, the public want guarantees, but all he has offered them this afternoon is an online gamble.
First, I should welcome the welcome. As I think the right hon. Gentleman knows, I am one of the longest-term proponents of consensus not only between members of the coalition but across the whole House. If the right hon. Gentleman is in effect saying that the Opposition will now back the general principle of having a clear timetable for actions, input measures, outputs—
No, not targets.
Mr Speaker, perhaps you will forgive me if, to avoid further confusion in the hon. Gentleman’s mind, I explain the difference between a target and a milestone. A target is an effort by a Government, of which there were many under the previous Government, to determine what the whole of the public service would achieve through micro-management. Such targets were often not met. What we are talking about are actions that lie under the direct control of Government and which it is absolutely right that we should manage ourselves.
To return to the point I was trying to make, if the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) is welcoming the idea that we should set these things out clearly and he is going to sponsor that as an approach to government, that would be in the interests of the nation, because we could continue that process over many years and that would be a huge advance.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether we can achieve a power shift if we do not do certain things, and he mentioned citizens talking about policing with police officers.
Yes, summoning police officers to talk about that. We propose something very different, which goes beyond that. Yes, we will have beat meetings, but we will also allow people to vote for police commissioners so that they actually have accountability. That is what we mean by choice and power, as opposed to the mere window dressing of the ability to talk.
May I make a suggestion? My right hon. Friend says in his statement that every month Departments will publish a simple report on the progress they have made towards meeting their commitments. On the day each month when ministerial colleagues from different Departments come to the House to answer oral questions, might they not also make a written statement that all of us can see? I confess that I find it difficult to keep my own website up to date, so watching the websites of 22 Government Departments will be quite challenging. However, we are all focused once a month on each Department’s oral questions, and a written statement coinciding with that would be very helpful.
As so often, my hon. Friend makes an extremely valuable suggestion, which I shall discuss with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and others. I see no reason whatever that we should not be able to do that to assist the House, at the same time as we assist the general public by publishing the information on the website.
Will the Minister explain what the process will be when the public disagree with a ministerial decision that changes the business plan? That question comes to mind because of the decision to cut school sports partnerships, which will affect sports provision in schools throughout the country. The public have not had the opportunity to have any say on that.
That is a very sensible question, and I am happy to explain that to the hon. Gentleman. The point of laying out these plans is so that people can see what we intend to do. Manifestly, as we move through time, external circumstances may change and decisions may be taken to change this or that—I hope not very much, but that could occur. Where it does, we are forcing ourselves to explain that, because it will become apparent—in the House in written statements, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) suggested, and also on the website—that something we said we would do by a certain date we are not doing because we are doing something instead. We will have to explain that, and Select Committees and others will be able to interrogate us on it. That is what I mean by transparency.
Is not the danger that this “Yes Minister” Sir Humphrey language of horizon shift will disguise the real need for change? We should not just publish more reports that will go straight into the waste paper bin. We should, for instance, give professionals in our schools real power to manage the schools in the way they want, in hiring and firing staff, setting the curriculum and selecting pupils if they want. That would produce real change, not just more words from Whitehall.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend that it is only by making the kinds of changes that he describes that we can really improve public services. That is why I have the good news for him that under the programme laid out in the Department for Education business plan my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education will do exactly what my hon. Friend requests. That is why we have a programme of academies and free schools which gives those kinds of powers locally to the professionals on the ground. By doing that we enable parents and pupils, by choosing the schools of their own desire, to create real competitive pressure for excellence in the system. Combining that with the efforts to create a proper pupil premium means that the least advantaged will be most advantaged in our system, and the combination of those effects will be to give excellence and improvement for all.
The Minister says that Departments will publish a simple report on their progress towards meeting their commitments. What will happen if those commitments are often not met?
What will happen is a series of things that are inconvenient for the responsible Ministers, rising to something that is rather more than inconvenient. In the first place, a report will be made, which will be available to everybody—no Minister likes to see such a thing appear in public. Secondly, the Minister involved will find himself having a discussion with my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary and me to explain what has occurred—[Interruption.] I do not know whether Labour Members want to know about this, but I am trying to explain it. The second thing that will happen is that the Minister will meet the Chief Secretary and me, and the permanent secretary will have a conversation with the head of the civil service. Finally, if the problem is still not resolved, the Secretary of State in question will have a meeting with the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister. This is a serious set of incentives; if one thinks about what it was like under the previous Government, or any previous Government, one realises that Ministers do not wish to go through that process and will therefore try to meet their objectives.
As a member of the Public Administration Committee I welcome the plans to shift some of this on to Select Committees. Will my right hon. Friend set out how the reports could be judged by those Committees and how their powers could be increased, so as to increase further the power of the legislature over the Executive?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the Select Committees play a vital role in that respect. This approach puts vastly more power in the hands of the Select Committees, because the biggest obstacle to their power is, of course, lack of information—and this approach opens the whole thing up. This is not just a question of the structural reform plans and the dates, on which of course Committees can interrogate, as they can interrogate explanations when things go wrong; it is also about the details of the input costs—what we are putting in—the things that have been achieved on the ground and the outcomes, by which I mean how good it is for the final customer. That gives a Select Committee the ability to haul the relevant Secretary of State up before it and say, “Look, you said you were going to do this.” The Committee could then say: “You did not do it”; “You did it, but at a greater cost than you said”; “You did it at the cost but it did not turn out to produce things”; or “It did produce things but the outcomes were not good enough.” That is a very powerful interrogative tool. Hon. Members may ask why we would subject ourselves to this. The answer is because we think that it is how we will produce a better Government.
A very strong partnership between central and local government, with targets and with dedicated funding, has brought about a vast reduction in the number of people killed on our roads. Does this statement mean that such a successful partnership, with its targets, will be abandoned?
No. As I think the hon. Lady knows, because she has great expertise in this area, one of the decisions that we made centrally during the spending review was to focus a very large part of total capital investment on the roads. That was done to reduce congestion, improve safety and achieve the kind of goals that she was describing. These plans are consistent with the spending review and with that focus on the need to improve our transport systems.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only way of achieving a movement of power from the top to the sharp end and a movement of the money from the Government monopoly out to the voluntary sector, which can very often deliver better value, is by very strong and transparent political direction?
Yes, my hon. Friend is of course absolutely right. Part of the purpose of these plans is to ensure that we hold ourselves to fulfilling that vision. We recognise that there will be all sorts of pressures on the Government to recentralise, to re-control and to lunge for immediate interventions that will ostensibly achieve a particular result, and we know that we need to be kept to the straight and narrow of the vision of the transfer of power in this country from the centre out to the people.
Does the Minister not agree that today’s trumpeting of the transparency agenda will ring hollow in Wales considering the actions of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on S4C? The decision to fund the channel in future via the BBC was made without informing the S4C authority, the Welsh Government or even the Secretary of State for Wales on the eve of the comprehensive spending review.
No, I do not accept that at all. This set of departmental plans will enable people to see on the face of it what we are going to do and when we are going to do it. Of course, there will be times when there are decisions involved in those plans that particular hon. Members do not like and there will be debate. We welcome that, we accept that and we are providing the means for people to have such debates.
May I welcome the opportunity for Select Committees to scrutinise the business plans? This year in particular there is a lacuna with the annual departmental reports not being published. What will be the relationship of the business plan to such annual departmental reports in future?
These business plans are a vastly superior document to the annual reports. Of course, there will continue to be the publication of the accounts of each Department, but I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me the indelicacy if I say that on some occasions the previous Government’s annual reports from particular Departments contained a load of guff. One could not tell what the thing was about. I remember in opposition desperately struggling to find out what particular Departments were doing, and all I could get was a load of jargon. In these reports, one will be able to see the information—we are going to this, we will do it by this time, and this is the effect that we expect it will have. That is a jolly useful thing.
I am afraid that the Minister will have to go back to his drawing board for me. It would appear that he is so close to the ground that his horizon is very short indeed, and he might want to raise the stakes. On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), in local government there is the power to vote people out on close-to-the-ground programmes. What has he put in this plan to give local government real power to deliver, apart from a promised freeze in their council tax?
I have such good news for the hon. Gentleman that it might lead to his crossing the Floor. Everything that he could desire is about to come in the localism Bill. We are going to give local government eye-watering increases in power that are stipulated in these proposals and that will be seen when the localism Bill is introduced. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consistently argue and vote with us as we transfer powers of competence and powers of retention of business rates, as we transfer powers over planning to local neighbourhoods, as we transfer powers to keep council tax and as we transfer a series of additional powers to new mayors. The hon. Gentleman will have a dream day when he comes to grips with the localism Bill.
In view of the fact that removing old regulations is necessary to boost economic growth, will the Minister confirm that, if a Department introduces a new regulation, it will be required to publish clearly which old regulation has been repealed?
My hon. Friend can also have an early Christmas. We have instituted from 1 October the one in, one out rule. I should explain that it is more powerful than the rule that a regulation should be eliminated when a new one is introduced—it is that a regulation of equivalent cost to business should be eliminated, or indeed a collection of them with an equivalent cost to business. I want to take this opportunity to tell my hon. Friend and the House that since we introduced the one in, one out rule, the large flow of domestic regulation that was crossing my desk and others before that has somewhat diminished. Since 1 October, there has been one proposal.
May I add my name to the list of Members who are mesmerised by the use of the language of horizon shifts? On the question of monthly reports, the Government have announced that about 500,000 public servants will lose their jobs under their plans. How many of those jobs will be saved in order to support the initiative that the Minister has announced today?
The first thing that I should say is that the Government have not made any such announcement; the Government accept the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecast about the net effect on public sector employment. That does not mean anything like that number of current employees losing their jobs—nothing of the kind. Secondly, of course, had this initiative been introduced now by a Labour Government —to judge by what the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) said it might have been, and that is a delightful prospect—it would have been accompanied by various things. Large numbers of consultants would have been hired to set up complicated websites and there would have been large reviews, huge expenditure and so on—and probably great expenditure on advertising. The total that we have spent on this exercise to date is zero. We have not employed a single consultant, we are constructing the websites ourselves and we are not advertising, because we are a Government and not a magazine.
Let me invoke the spirit of “Dragons’ Den” and ask my right hon. Friend which Department has done the best business plan?
I value far too highly my relationships with my colleagues to give any answer to my hon. Friend. All the business plans are excellent.
I welcome greater transparency in government. However, is the Minister aware that no business plan for the Law Officers’ Department is available on the transparency website, and that members of the public cannot see details of ministerial and special adviser meetings, hospitality, gifts and foreign travel for the law officers? As shadow Solicitor-General, I should like to hear why the Solicitor-General and Attorney-General appear to be exempt from such requirements?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her general welcome. I shall ask my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General to look into the declaration, which should apply universally. The reason there is no structural reform plan for the Law Officers’ Department is that we do not intend to bring about any structural reforms in the Department, because it is not possible to give its powers to someone else. It is one of the irreducible minima of Government activity, and it will continue with business as usual. These are plans not for business as usual but for fundamental structural reforms. Therefore, the hon. Lady will see no reference to the Law Officers’ Department.
Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that the greatest challenge to the coalition reforms is motivating people to behave in the right way? One of the ways in which we get people to compare and contrast how the coalition is delivering is by having this sort of transparency.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. It is all about people and the choices that they make. The fundamental failing of the method of doing business that prevailed for many years was not that it was ill-intentioned, because it was well intentioned, nor that it lacked energy, because it had a good deal of energy, but that it did not look into the reaction one can get from individuals when one does certain things in relation to them. This whole programme is founded on the presumption that when we trust people and give them power and make them accountable, they do the right thing, and that is what we are trying to do here.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement, but will he have it translated into plain English and place a copy in the Library of the House? A milestone tells someone how far they have to go to reach a target destination, even if it is on a moveable horizon.
The hon. Gentleman’s plain English is wonderful to behold. I do not think that anyone has ever accused me of being any good at speaking English [Laughter.] I do not intend to try to cure my ways now. I am trying to assist this Government to carry out the most important programme of structural reform that has happened in this country for many years so that they can improve our public services and make life better for our citizens, which matters an awful lot. The point about horizon shift is that it is serious. The previous Government caught themselves repeatedly on the hook of trying to achieve a result on Wednesday that they could show the public by Thursday. Often, the upshot was to achieve nothing whatsoever. We are saying that we will try to achieve things in the long term without trying to achieve publicity goals on the way, which is an important change.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we want to increase numeracy and literacy standards in our schools and reduce the gap in educational attainment between the rich and poor, we need to reduce bureaucracy, micro-management and targets and increase real local accountability?
My hon. Friend is completely right, and that is the plan that is set out here. It applies not just to schools, but to hospitals and many of our other public services. The only way in which we can improve such services is to give the professionals the ability to get on with the job without micro-managing them through bureaucracies, and to hold them to account for the actions that they take and the successes that they achieve.
Will the Minister explain how he squares taking power away from Whitehall and putting it in the hands of peoples and communities with the Government’s plan to increase the number of Ministers by 10% relative to the size of the legislature, which is the representative of peoples and communities? Is this not the old Tory centralist state at work?
The hon. Gentleman is clearly an apprentice of the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), because that was the most marvellous manipulation of statistics. We propose to reduce the number of Members of Parliament, but the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) describes that as an increase in the proportion of Ministers to the number of Members of Parliament. That is a very strange way of describing the situation. We are keeping the number of Ministers constant in order to ensure that we can impose political will on the machine to get the fundamental reforms that give power out to the people of this country. That goal is far more important than particular numbers of Ministers.
Following on from that question, the Minister has said several times this afternoon that he wants to increase power locally, yet the Government have just published a report on waste that implies that if they want to do something serious, they will need to recentralise powers, such as by forcing primary care trusts to act together and forcing local authorities to act together. Is there not a contradiction in those two things?
In brief, no: we are not attempting to do what the hon. Gentleman describes. We believe that by placing the power of commissioning in the hands of general practitioners, by giving GPs and patients genuine choice over where patients go, and by making hospitals accountable on those choices by transforming them into foundation trusts, we can achieve the efficiencies that are needed in our health service through the medium of competition, which leads to the excellence that can be generated when professionals are able to run their own show. We are moving in exactly the opposite direction from that which the hon. Gentleman describes.
As the only time in nature when horizons actually shift is when a tsunami is on the way, can the House and the country expect to be inundated—the Minister gave an example today—with more bureaucracy, more gobbledegook and more management-speak?
I respect the hon. Gentleman for his long work in areas such as drugs, but if he reads the plans he will find that they include serious efforts to change things for the better, such as through a payment by results-based drugs rehabilitation programme, for which, I think, he has long argued. That is not gobbledegook, bureaucracy or micro-management. It says to providers, “You know how to provide and we will pay you if you get people off drugs and back into the mainstream,” and nothing could be more important to the people of our country than that.
I think I understand what the Minister has announced: a series of tough, demanding and transparent moving-horizon, non-target, milestone reports. If he has, I fully support him, but to build on the point made by the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), may I point out that publishing those reports on 22 websites will make things almost incomprehensible to citizens who wish to hold the Government to account? It would be better to place them in a single spot—perhaps directgov, the Cabinet Office website or data.gov.uk. Will the Minister also consider placing ministerial diaries and details on special advisers’ hospitality in a single place on the same site?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his brilliant translation. Incidentally, I have no doubt that he understood everything that I said because he understands everything that anyone says—he is very clever. Unfortunately, he is not very well informed because, as a matter of fact, we will enable people to go to a single place to get hold of all this stuff. Moreover, it will be put in a format that will enable people to mash it up and easily produce their own charts, and their own comparisons and analyses of everything that we issue. I anticipate that we will make more things transparent, including contracts for Government Departments right across the board, as well as all expenditure down to £25,000—and in local authorities down to £500 per item.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Following your reporting earlier of the certificate issued by the election court in the case involving the Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency, as the case raises important questions it would be sensible for the House to pause before considering a by-election writ, for two reasons.
First, the matter is the subject of continuing legal proceedings by Mr Woolas, as you reported to the House at 2.30, and it seems only proper that the proceedings are allowed to conclude. Secondly—without wishing to stray at all into the details of the case, which we should not do because, as you have ruled, it is sub judice under the terms of the resolution passed by the House in 2001—if the judgment were to be overturned and the former Member were reinstated, but in the meantime we had held a by-election and another Member had been elected, we could end up with two Members of Parliament for one constituency, and that would hardly be desirable.
It seems to me that the prudent and practical course of action is to allow the legal process to be concluded before the House considers the writ.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He has made his points with great clarity.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker, and further to the statement that you made at 2.35, we on the Government Benches are content with the sequence of events that you outlined.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for what he said.
Further to that—
In a moment. Patience is a great virtue. I could not possibly miss the hon. Gentleman.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The House will have noted your most helpful statement concerning the finding of the court that the election result in Oldham East and Saddleworth was void. Will you confirm, for the benefit of the House, that that means that there is currently no Member elected here to serve the people of Oldham East and Saddleworth? What assurance can you give the House and the people of that constituency that they will not be denied indefinitely, by untested legal proceedings, the representation to which they are entitled?
The hon. Gentleman, for whose point of order I am grateful, essentially raises two points. The answer to his first point is yes, as indicated in my statement when I referred to the need for Mr Woolas to vacate his seat from the date of the report, 5 November 2010. The answer to his second point is that of course I attach a premium, as I am sure the House as a whole will attach a premium, to a speedy resolution of the matter in the interests of Parliament, in the interests of Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency electorate, and in the interests of the country.
It is precisely because I attach such a premium that I thought it would help the House if I caused inquiries to be made of the administrative court as to the urgency with which a judicial review application would be treated. Therefore, I reiterate both for the benefit of the hon. Gentleman and for all Members of the House that I did, indeed, cause such inquiries to be made, and I was advised that the administrative court judge has ordered an expedited hearing of the renewed application. He has done so precisely because he, too, considers it essential that the electorate of Oldham East and Saddleworth should know who is their Member of Parliament as soon as possible. I hope that is helpful to all with an interest in the matter.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker, and on a more general point, without in any way attempting—because you would rule me out of order if I did attempt—to get into the rights or wrongs of the case, massive constitutional issues are raised by it, which the House should debate. This is the first time in 99 years that a Member has been evicted. It is for the people, not the judges, to evict Members of Parliament.
My worry is that if the judgment is allowed to stand, robust debate during elections will become virtually impossible. People will be terrified of attacking their opponents. For instance, what happens if a minor candidate for the BNP attacks a major party candidate? The latter would be frightened of attacking the former back because he might be disqualified. These are enormous constitutional issues, which we should discuss in the House.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I note his point. Tomorrow he will have served 27 years and five months in the House. Throughout that time he has expressed himself with great force and conviction, and today is no exception. We are grateful to him.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am sorry that I did not catch your opening statement, but I have caught up with it since entering the Chamber. I in no way want to mention the details of the case, or defend or otherwise what is alleged, but, as you will no doubt know, the House has always been extremely reluctant to expel anyone. I know that this is not an expulsion made by a decision of this House, but the House has refused to expel Members over the years on the basis that this is not a club, despite what some people might say, and that if someone is elected it should be for the electorate to decide.
There is therefore bound to be concern about whether a court—judges—should decide, and not the electorate. From the moment I heard of the decision, I felt some concern and anxiety that the decision about whether the electorate wanted that particular Member to serve had been taken out of their hands and given to the judges. Therefore, as the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) said, the question does arise about whether in future circumstances an unsuccessful candidate will use any means to say in effect that what happened during the election was unfair, and to take the issue to the judges.
In so far as the latter part of the hon. Gentleman’s point of order appeared to be a question, I hope that he will understand if I say that I will treat it as a rhetorical question. He has essentially raised a point very similar to that of the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh), and done so in earnest. That is respected, but I do not think that I need to respond to it. It is on the record, and that is important.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The House will be aware that at the tail end of last week the Business Secretary referred the potential takeover of BSkyB to Ofcom. The reason most Members will be aware of that decision is that it was released to the media. Is it in order for that decision, although very welcome, not to be announced on the Floor of this House?