House of Commons
Monday 28 February 2011
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Spending decisions are a matter for local councils, but no council will see its spending power fall by more than 8.8% next year. Councils face difficult decisions owing to a fiscal crisis that was not of their making or of ours. The best councils are expanding the opportunities for the voluntary sector to help them to make savings. The worst-run councils are targeting the sector for disproportionate cuts. We are requiring all councils to be transparent in their actions.
Next year, my local authority is cutting more than 20% of its running grants for voluntary and community organisations, which means that organisations such as the citizens advice bureau, the council for voluntary service and advice services generally will find it almost impossible to continue to support the volunteers they have supported over the past year. Does the Minister think that authorities such as Southampton will rue the day they did that, or is he rueing the day that he enabled his Department to acquiesce so readily in the cuts to local government funding that he has endorsed?
I have made it very clear that councils should not cut disproportionately. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take the opportunity to meet his local council. I understand that the leader of the council has invited every voluntary organisation to come to see what other opportunities there are for them within the council. I also hope that if he does go to the council, he will reflect on the fact that every Conservative and Liberal member has taken a 5% cut in their allowances, but Labour members have refused. When he is in city hall, I hope that he will get his friends there to make their contribution to the voluntary sector.
The Government have completely cut the grant to vinolved—a youth volunteering project—cut the grant settlement to Bolton council by £60 million, which will amount to 25%, and last year cut £1.3 million from Bolton’s grant to the voluntary and community sector. Bolton council is prioritising funding to the voluntary and community sector, but cannot work miracles with no money. Why is the Minister not listening to and supporting the voluntary and community sector?
I do not know whether the hon. Lady listened to the debate in the Bolton council chamber on Wednesday—it was its budget meeting—but I did. I listened to it live on the internet, and it was fascinating. Two things emerged: first, the director of finance warned two years ago that the council should get its house in order, but was overruled by Labour members; and secondly—and disgracefully—a motion by the Conservative group to provide a fund to protect voluntary organisations was voted down by her Labour colleagues. She pipes up in this House, but can she pluck up the courage to talk to her colleagues in Bolton?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is now more important than ever that local councils maintain and strengthen their links to community and voluntary groups, because these very groups can lead to innovative ways of delivering very high quality public services?
They can indeed, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Reading council, for example, has taken the opportunity to increase funding to the voluntary sector, knowing that actually it helps it to change its services and make some of the savings it is required to make.
Does my right hon. Friend recognise the need to bring forward legislation to strengthen the ability of charities to come together to get the expertise to procure and gain contracts from local authorities that all too often set the rules in ways that do not enable charities to provide the services in their local communities that they really want to provide?
My hon. Friend is exactly right, and that is why he will know that in the Localism Bill we are establishing rights for every voluntary organisation in the country not to be rebuffed by local authorities but to make a challenge to provide services, if they can demonstrate that they can do it better. That is the right approach, but it did not happen during the 13 years of Labour party rule.
We all know that local councils are the largest providers of public funding to the voluntary sector, which has grown over the past 10 years, particularly through the partnerships that operate so successfully up and down the country. What was the Department’s estimate of the number of jobs that would be lost in the voluntary sector as a result of the front-loaded cuts the Government have imposed on councils, and will the Minister confirm that the Government’s transition fund, which was meant to help charities that have lost funding, was closed to bids on 21 January, before most councils had even finalised their budgets?
I welcome the right hon. Lady to the debate; I had thought that her silence on matters concerning the voluntary sector might be terminal. We have made it very clear that councils should not cut disproportionately, but she has been absolutely silent, as have her Front-Bench colleagues, about Labour councils that are taking their cuts out on the voluntary sector. We have provided £100 million of transition funding, which is now being taken up. The first grants have been paid this week. I look forward to the right hon. Lady writing to members of Labour councils up and down the country and joining us in making it clear that they should not cut services.
Labour has always celebrated the partnership between local government and the voluntary sector, and under a Labour Administration we saw those partnerships grow. We saw local voluntary groups taking over some of the services that councils had traditionally run. The fact is that it is not only we who are raising concerns about the threat to the voluntary sector: 88 Liberal Democrat council leaders have made a public statement about their concern, and we know from a freedom of information request that Tory council leaders have also raised concerns about the front-loading of the cuts that they are facing, so the Minister should not make any party political points on this. However much he might pretend otherwise, is it not the truth that every Home-Start that goes to the wall, every over-60s club that closes and every domestic violence shelter that shuts—
I wish the right hon. Lady was more vocal when she talked to the Labour councils that are making disproportionate cuts up and down the country. The fact is that they are having to make those cuts as a result of the policies of the previous Government, who left a completely unsustainable legacy. Our spending on debt interest is almost twice the amount that the council tax raises. Labour politicians got local authorities into this mess, and they are not playing their part in helping the voluntary sector. They should be saying very clearly, as we are doing, that councils should not make disproportionate cuts.
Sustainable Rural Development
The Government are committed to integrating national planning policy on the rural economy and housing in the streamlined national planning policy framework, which will include a presumption in favour of sustainable development. Through neighbourhood planning, we will also enable local authorities to have greater control over the delivery of the services, jobs and homes that their areas need.
After a decade of neglect under the previous Government, large swathes of rural Britain have suffered as post offices, pubs and small businesses have closed. Is it not key to rural communities to get jobs and small housing developments back into our rural villages, and will not the excellent Localism Bill help us to change the sustainability rules introduced by Labour that have made that impossible?
The Bill will introduce neighbourhood planning measures and the community right to build, which will enable the incremental growth of villages. This will empower local communities, particularly in rural areas. Also, as I have said, we are revising the whole national planning priority framework, which will enable us to ensure that we have genuine sustainability—the right development in the right places to meet the right needs—while removing the top-down targets that have often resulted in inappropriate development being foisted on rural areas.
Local Authority Employment
No estimate has been made of the change in aggregate employment levels among local authorities in the next four years. It is for individual councils to make their own decisions about how their local work forces are organised and managed to ensure the efficient delivery of services for local taxpayers.
I think there should have been such an estimate. The Office for Budget Responsibility has projected a net loss of 40,000 in public sector employment in the next financial year, yet the Conservative-led Local Government Association says that 100,000 jobs will be lost in local government alone in the coming financial year. How have the Government got this calculation so badly wrong?
It is precisely because it is down to local authorities to configure their work forces to meet local needs and priorities that the Government have not sought to make a calculation and therefore cannot get any such calculation wrong. The right hon. Gentleman might also like to reflect on the fact that some of the figures being bandied about relate not to actual reductions in jobs but to consultations on potential changes that might not come to pass.
Will the Minister join me in congratulating Hammersmith and Fulham council, which, in four years of Conservative control, has reduced its staff by a third, from 4,087 to 2,787, with almost no redundancies? It has cut the communications staff by half and reduced the human resources headcount from 100 to 47, all at a time when its services are rated among the highest in the country.
Following a detailed survey of 202 councils, the Local Government Association has confirmed that, because of the scale and speed of the cuts imposed on local government, it stands by its prediction that 140,000 jobs will be lost. This was dismissed by the Secretary of State as a calculation on the back of a fag packet. The calculation includes Tory Hampshire, with 1,200 job losses; Tory Norfolk, with 1,500; and Birmingham, with 2,700 losses in next year alone. Sadly, the LGA got it right and the Secretary of State got it wrong. Will he now apologise?
There is nothing to apologise for, because the error lies with those—including the GMB—who have calculated these scaremongering figures on the basis of HR1 forms, which relate to consultations on possible deletions of vacant posts, changes in work force patterns and voluntary redundancies. They bear no relation at all to compulsory job reductions; the hon. Gentleman should know better.
Local Authority Funding
Authorities in the most deprived areas will, thanks to the banded floors, receive a smaller reduction in formula grant than others. We have given greater weight to relative needs in the formula grant, and our new transition grant will make sure that no council has a spending power reduction of more than 8.8%.
If fairness is at the heart of this Government’s decision making, as clearly stated in the coalition agreement, why are the most deprived areas being hit the hardest? Given that the Minister wrongly stated that the most deprived area—Liverpool—did not receive a 30% cut to Supporting People funding, when can Liverpool expect to see a recalculation based on the 1% national average, which would result in an £11 million improvement in its settlement?
Here is something for Labour Members to take into account: one cannot take money away from authorities that are not getting it in the first place. Of course, the biggest spenders, even if we use percentages in the same region, are going to feel the impact in a different way. Liverpool, for example, still receives £764 a head, whereas my authority, by contrast, receives £229 a head.
Will the Minister congratulate Liverpool city council, which is making £100 million-worth of efficiency savings? Does he agree with the independent efficiency expert Colm Reilly of PA Consulting who said that, given the huge cuts in Government funding, the council cannot make the scale of savings necessary without affecting front-line services?
As I have said from the Dispatch Box before, nobody says that this is going to be easy. The deficit—the size of the debt—left to the country by Labour makes these reductions inevitable. However, Liverpool is latterly doing something about it; the problem is that it did not plan for this far enough in advance. Had it done so, it would have been in the same position as Trafford and other local authorities that are carrying out these reductions without some of the pain now experienced in Liverpool.
I used to be a councillor in Trafford, and I think the Minister should reflect on the fact that the deprivation there is nothing like it is in Liverpool, Manchester and Salford—there is no comparison. The areas I have mentioned have higher levels of poverty and unemployment and much greater inequalities in health than other areas. Despite that, Ministers have chosen to inflict the deepest, the most swingeing and front-loaded cuts on those deprived areas. Will the Minister comment on the letters from 131 Labour council leaders and 88 Liberal Democrat leaders, many from deprived areas, who are united in their anger at the unfairness of the cuts and at the constant political attacks on them by Ministers, which we have heard again today?
The hon. Lady refers to Trafford, where she used to be a councillor, but that council receives much less money from the Government than do other councils, including Liverpool. The idea that they are in the same position is untrue. In addition, the hon. Lady should know that we have protected the level of reduction for some of the most needy councils by having banded floors, which means far smaller reductions in the most needy areas, while the transition grant means that no area can be affected by more than 8.8%. A range of other measures, including an increase in the deprivation index from 73% to 83%, also apply.
Antisocial Behaviour (Social Housing)
I recently announced a package of proposals to strengthen the hands of social landlords and tenants, so that they can take swift and effective action to tackle antisocial behaviour.
All too often, the rights of very badly behaved social tenants seem to be given more weight by the courts than the alarm and distress that their poor behaviour causes to fellow tenants in the wider community. Will the Minister agree to meet representatives of Kettering borough council, of which I am a member, to discuss how the problem can be tackled?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue, of which I am aware. The amount of time that it takes to evict antisocial tenants is a severe problem, which is why the measures that I announced on 11 January included a proposal for mandatory grounds for evictions when a case has occurred before. I should be happy to meet my hon. Friend.
Let me first draw attention to my interests, as declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
It is quite right for the Government—and all of us—to take action to protect tenants against antisocial behaviour on the part of those who make their lives a misery, but do the Government not recognise that their imposition of harsh housing benefit cuts and steep increases in rents for social housing, and their termination of security of tenure for new social lettings, will inflict misery and insecurity on many more tenants in the future?
That is an entirely inaccurate portrayal of what is happening. For one thing, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, the rent policy was set by the last Government in a deliberate attempt to merge housing association and council rents. Ministers in past Governments, including some in the last Government, recognised that the lazy consensus that houses should be given to people for ever, even if their circumstances changed, was long past its sell-by date. It is ironic that so many Opposition Members are prepared to fight and die in a ditch for a policy of lifetime tenures that was introduced by Margaret Thatcher.
Antisocial behaviour is not confined to those in social housing. Neighbours from hell may also be owner-occupiers. What action can be taken to deal with the many landlords of buy-to-let properties who do not care a damn about their tenants, let alone their neighbours?
The big difference between the public and private rented sectors is that because private sector leases tend to be for six months or more, it is much easier for landlords to terminate them. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the difficulty experienced in the private sector, and I am keen for the Government to assist in any way they can.
Community Budget Schemes
Authorities in many of the 16 first-phase areas, and in a number of other places, are interested in developing community budgets in relation to a variety of local priorities, and we are discussing the possibilities with a range of Departments. The number of areas involved is constantly evolving.
May I press the Secretary of State a little further? Given the demonstrable advantages of community budgeting—value for money, local delivery, and bringing people closer to the political process—what further action is the Department taking to increase the number of projects?
I know that my hon. Friend has taken a great interest in the issue, and that he recently made a number of important points about it to the Select Committee. We are encountering some resistance locally, but we must be vigilant and push local authorities into making decisions, because the future lies in a system that enables us to bring together locally all the funds from the various Departments.
I welcome the commitment made by the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark)—who is responsible for decentralisation—to look favourably on any further proposals for community budgets from local authorities, but does the Secretary of State not agree that Departments have an obligation to become more involved and proactive in this regard? Does he understand my disappointment that at a recent meeting of the Select Committee, Ministers from the Department for Work and Pensions, the Home Office and the Department of Health could not between them cite a single proposal for further decentralisation measures? Is it not time that the Government as a whole got their act together?
The short answer is yes, of course. As I said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery), this is a very important Government policy, and much of the reluctance arises in Departments, on the ground. I look to the hon. Gentleman, the Select Committee and my Department—which is taking a considerable lead—to deliver on the policy. I believe that if we do so, we shall be delivering something much better.
I beg your pardon, Mr Speaker, but I have not the remotest idea where I am.
So I am.
The Government announced in the spending review that we intend to make £650 million per annum available for the next four years to help principal local authorities, including police and fire authorities, deliver a council tax freeze in England in 2011-12. If an authority increases its basic rate of council tax by any amount, it will not be eligible for the freeze grant.
Now that the Secretary of State is back with us, may I thank him for that answer? Under Labour, since 1997 the council tax for the average home in Reading rose by 116%. This year, the new Conservative-led coalition will freeze council tax for the first time ever. On the day that the Leader of the Opposition talks of a cost of living crisis as standing up for families in the middle, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Labour party should begin by apologising for clobbering families in Reading—
The Secretary of State seems to have delayed the inquiry into the localisation of business rates. If it went ahead, Westminster would gain £1 billion and Durham would lose £80 million. What is he going to do to mitigate that, or is that in fact his intention?
Of course, there is going to be considerable equalisation, but it seems to me that:
“Local business concerns are critical to good local government. There are sound democratic reasons why, in principle, the business rate should be set locally, not nationally.”
That expresses the point best, and I would have thought there would be consensus on it right across the Chamber as, after all, those are the very words of the Labour party’s 1997 manifesto.
Housing (North Wiltshire)
Local authorities and communities should plan for sustainable development in their area, taking a visionary and strategic approach to be responsive to the market using robust evidence of the number of homes required.
Across England, developers seem to be taking advantage of what they believe to be a policy vacuum to press ahead with large-scale planning applications. In my area for example, there are applications for 5,000 homes around Chippenham, the whole of Swindon seems to be moving westward to engulf some of the villages there, and there are applications for 280 homes in Malmesbury. Does the Minister agree that local people should decide how many houses they want and where they should be, taking account of homelessness and all that of course, but looking in areas such as mine at preserving the green belt, the countryside and our way of life?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, of course: taking account of the housing needs survey so that homelessness and affordable housing are addressed, the numbers should be set through a process of local decision making. The days of top-down targets, which led to the lowest rate of house building since 1923, are over. That is official, because I can tell Opposition Members that just a couple of days ago the National House-Building Council announced that there had been an 18% jump in the number of home starts—the applications to start building homes. Bottom-up is starting to work.
My constituents have a keen interest in house building in the North Wiltshire constituency. The Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), referred to “incremental” growth, which would certainly be more welcome to them than the urban extensions we have experienced in years past. Will the Minister confirm that decisions on house building should be based on meeting local housing need rather than catering for population movements from elsewhere in the country?
The idea that Ministers can sit in Whitehall and somehow dictate these tractor-like targets on five and 10-year plans has finally ended, I am pleased to say. My hon. Friend will be relieved to know that deciding where housing should go will now be an entirely local decision, prompted by the new homes bonus and other mechanisms.
In January, I announced a £13 million programme to address under-occupation by offering support to tenants who wish to move. Our radical social housing reforms will also involve introducing for the first time a national home swap programme.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. In my constituency there are a large number of families in overcrowded and cramped housing waiting for a suitably sized home, and the wait for larger homes can be several years. All the while, of course, there are people living in oversized social housing that is no longer needed. Apart from the better home swap scheme that he mentioned, what more can be done to encourage those who are reluctant to downsize, in order to free up that housing?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is an extraordinary 430,000 people living in homes with two or more spare bedrooms, while nearly a quarter of a million people are living in overcrowded circumstances. None of this makes sense, and we have just announced a scheme whereby people are helped to move where they want to. There is no question of anyone being required to move, but assistance with utility bills and bank accounts being moved, for example, turns out to be one of the most useful things available, particularly for elderly people who are interested in moving home.
On reflection, would the Housing Minister like to withdraw his comment that social tenants are “given” their homes? In fact, social tenants enter into a contractual relationship and pay their rent like any other tenants. Does that not show the contempt the Tory party has for them, particularly as he was given his seat by Lord Ashcroft?
On reflection, the answer is no. The truth of the matter is that homes are allocated to people who are in need because they are in need. The idea that just because at one point in their life they were in need, they should continue to have that home and be able to hand it on to another generation, lives, I am afraid, with a past generation. Even the shadow Secretary of State, when she was in my position, accepted the point that housing reform was greatly overdue.
Departmental Administration (Spending)
We are developing an efficiency and reform plan and restructuring the Department to make it smaller and stronger and focused on coalition priorities. We have outlined a new thrift campaign, implementing ideas to remove unnecessary spending on estates, ICT, hospitality and procurement.
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he regret the fact that in 2008 and 2009, the Standards Board for England spent £5,570.54 on just nine chairs? Has he put an end to such shocking waste, not just in his Department but in agencies such as the Audit Commission for which he has responsibility?
Indeed, and perhaps I should thank my hon. Friend for his excellent report on procurement and the improvement of efficiency in local government. It has been a colossal shock to discover how public expenditure was simply allowed to be wasted under the previous Government. I believe that there was an atmosphere in which the view was, “It’s not our money and we can spend it as we like.” We have reduced all manner of expenditure, ensuring that we reduce the number of printers and the amount of colour printing, that we cancel a number of non-essential subscriptions, and make increased use of video conferences and the like. Those all add up and all make a significant difference.
New Homes Bonus (Charnwood)
A provisional allocation was made to Charnwood borough council the week before last, which I announced, of £644,387 under the new homes bonus.
The great thing with the new homes bonus is that it is a lot more flexible regarding the type of housing required. It will pay more where the homes are family-sized and therefore attract a higher council tax band; but in addition—I am sure that Opposition Members will welcome this—every affordable home built will receive a flat addition of £350 per year, the equivalent to about a third extra over and above the new homes bonus on other houses.
I should start by declaring my indirect interests, in line with those already mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford).
I am sure that the people of Charnwood listened with interest to the Minister’s response, but they will not have heard him admit that Kensington and Chelsea get 52% more in funding per new home than the constituency of the hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), and 91% more than Hull. He also conveniently forgot to mention that the council’s revenue support grant would have to be cut to fund the new homes bonus, with money transferring from deprived areas to wealthy ones. So those areas with the greatest need for housing will not get it, while green fields in affluent areas will. Will the Minister tell us by how much Charnwood council’s and other councils’ funding will be cut to fund this policy in years 4, 5 and 6?
I am afraid that the hon. Lady may have misunderstood the way this policy operates, despite the fact that I published it the week before last. The amount that each area gets per home is exactly the same—in fact, I have equalised it across the country—so just because council tax is higher in Kensington and Chelsea there is no question of it being any different from Charnwood or anywhere else; the funding is based on the average in each different area. In point of fact, nearly £1 billion of funding has been provided for the new homes bonus which is not top-sliced off the other sums. In later years, when the money is indeed top-sliced from the formula grant, the bonus will be a positive incentive to get on and build homes—the Labour party used to encourage that.
Local Authority Funding
We have given councils much greater financial freedom and flexibility to manage the more than £7 billion of funding from 2011-12 which is moving into formula grant, is being un-ring-fenced or is new funding for the settlement. This will enable them better to meet local communities’ needs. If councils share back-office services, join forces to get better value from their buying power, cut out excessive chief executive pay, and root out overspending and waste, they can protect key front-line services.
I am not sure that that answer related to my question at all. Within weeks of this Government coming to power last May, Lewisham council had half a million pounds slashed from its Connexions budget and half a million pounds cut from employment and enterprise support schemes, and, as we all know, time was called on the future jobs fund. With youth unemployment nearing 1 million, what action will the Secretary of State take to ensure that local authorities can do more, not less, to help young people into work?
I have checked the question and I think that what I said answers it exactly. I must say to the hon. Lady that her local council has £58 million available to it in non-school reserves and that youth unemployment continued to rise under Labour in the good times and the bad. We have given the flexibilities I described and it is about time that ladies and gentlemen on the Benches opposite woke up and accepted their responsibility for the financial state of the nation—the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) laughs at the idea because it is someone else’s money. Labour councils are cutting back more than Conservative councils and the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) has done nothing about it.
Northamptonshire county council, East Northamptonshire district council and Wellingborough borough council have all frozen their council tax this year and they are all Conservative controlled. Is it not the case that Conservative councils cost you less and deliver more?
What a wonderful slogan. I wonder who first thought of it. [Interruption.] It is indeed mine and what it says has proved to be the case. There is a really strange thing about this whole process. If we match up councils authority by authority, we see that Liberal Democrat and Conservative authorities are protecting the front line, but under Labour authorities the front line is the first one to go, the voluntary sector is the first one to go and the most swingeing cuts are the first thing to happen. It is time that the right hon. Member for Don Valley accepted some responsibility for that.
Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the community groups, Save Levenshulme Baths and Friends of Levenshulme, on the success of their campaign, which was announced officially in Manchester town hall this morning by Councillors Amesbury and Reid? Levenshulme baths are to be rebuilt and are to reopen in two years and, in the meantime, the existing baths will stay open. Is this not a victory for community action, unlike the whingeing from the Liberal Democrats on Manchester city council?
When a council has made a significant cut to a front-line service, such as by withdrawing support from 20 libraries, would it be possible to require that council to publish on its website the measures that it has taken to try to protect the service? Such measures could include working with other local authorities, as the Secretary of State has suggested.
The great thing about transparency is that a number of citizens are looking at their local council and asking it questions if it is closing down swimming baths or libraries while spending on things that do not relate to front-line services. I think that transparency is a very good thing. If people are closing down valuable community assets, they should make a very strong case for doing so.
As part of the local government settlement for 2011-12 and the provisional settlement for 2012-13, an assessment of the reduction in spending power for individual, single-purpose fire and rescue authorities was published and is available in the Library.
Since 2004, Lancashire fire authority has successfully reduced expenditure without jeopardising public safety—incidents of arson and fire casualties have been reduced by more than a quarter. Lancashire faces cuts of 4% next year and there are fears that the back-loaded cuts at the end of the comprehensive spending review period will mean a 15% reduction. What reassurances can the Minister give to my constituents and firefighters that those latest cuts will not jeopardise or threaten their safety?
Bearing in mind that the formula grant amounts to some 50% of the income of single-purpose fire and rescue authorities, which therefore have other sources of income through council tax or reserves, the reduction in spending power for Lancashire in the current year is 1%, and next year it will see an increase in spending power of 0.1%.
It strikes me as a bit bonkers that many communities have separate fire, ambulance and police stations, many of which have been built recently. What is the Minister doing to encourage emergency services to work together to cut costs and to get rid of three lots of electricity bills and the such like? Also, what is he doing to ensure that they work together so that when one service is pressed, another can help and support it?
In fairness, a good deal of work is already being done at local level on closer collaboration and joint working between fire authorities and other emergency services, and I commend that. At the time of the settlement, I wrote to the chairmen of all fire and rescue authorities and their chief officers to set out the way in which closer joint working, collaboration, better procurement and the stripping out of back-office services could save money that could be made available to the front line.
The Minister knows that I have surveyed every fire and rescue service in the country about the impact of this year’s financial settlement. Fire chiefs have told me that his cuts to their budgets will result in fire stations being closed, fire appliances being taken out of service and more than 1,000 firefighters losing their jobs in the next 12 months alone. Is he confident that his cuts will not compromise public safety? Will he accept that the feedback from fire chiefs proves that he has singularly failed to deliver on his commitment to give some protection to fire and rescue services? Will he come clean and admit that his cuts—
I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s proposition at all. The fire service is protected because its reduction in spending power is 2.2% in the current year and 0.5% in the next year. I have pointed out exactly the measures that many local authorities are taking to save money in the back office and to concentrate on the front line, and I hope that he will encourage authorities to do the same and that he will not engage in scaremongering.
Planning Law Reform
16. What plans he has to take into account work completed on existing local development frameworks in his proposals for the reform of planning law. (42500)
Work that has been completed by councils on their development plans remains valid, provided it is based on up-to-date evidence. The reforms set out in the Localism Bill do not contain any measures that will invalidate work on existing plans, but we have included changes to make the process easier and more flexible.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. I recently had the good fortune to attend a village meeting in Caythorpe in my constituency, where local people were concerned that their views should be listened to, as they were not listened to in the context of planning under the previous Government. What assurances can he give me that the views of local people, particularly in rural communities, will for the first time be listened to when it comes to planning?
I am grateful for my hon. and learned Friend’s question. He will know that the Localism Bill will give communities the right to be heard and to set out a vision for their community in future. They have not had that before and when the Bill gets Royal Assent, they will have it for ever.
Transparency in Local Government
I want transparency to underpin everything that councils do. All council business should be open to public scrutiny—whether it is expenditure, senior pay, council expenses or voluntary sector funding. I am consulting on a code of recommended practice to enshrine the principles of data transparency and to set out the minimum data that should be published.
Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating and recognising the Vale of Glamorgan council, which is one of two authorities in Wales that have chosen to publish all invoices in excess of £500? The other authority is another Conservative-led council, Newport city council. What influence can my right hon. Friend bring to bear on the Welsh Local Government Minister to force Labour-run and independent-run authorities across Wales to follow their lead and do the same?
I am sure my hon. Friend has done more than enough to demonstrate to the people of Wales the desirability of transparency. It is gratifying that every local authority, with the exception of Labour-controlled Nottingham, now trusts the local population with that vital information.
First, I commend the work of my officials, led by the chief fire and rescue adviser, who have been working closely with the West Midlands fire and rescue service which is leading the co-ordination, search and rescue efforts following the earthquake in Christchurch. Our thoughts are with the people of New Zealand at this difficult time.
Increased transparency and accountability have been the key tasks of Ministers in recent weeks. We have introduced honesty into the rough sleeper counts. New counting methods reveal that rough sleeping was four times higher than Labour Ministers admitted, with councils such as Labour-run Manchester refusing to report any figures. The plight of the vulnerable will no longer be ignored by the Government. We are also giving local citizens the right to report their local council chamber by blogging, tweeting and online filming. This builds on Margaret Thatcher’s private Member’s Bill in 1960 and the right granted in a local government Act in 1908. It is Liberal Democrat and Conservative local government that is championing openness in government.
My hon. Friend is pushing at an interesting point. It will be for democracy at a local level to decide what happens. His constituents can rely on him and their own wherewithal to decide to vote for the party that will provide the right level of housing rather than overdevelopment.
T3. Earlier this morning we heard that HSBC is paying its top banker £5 million. By chance, that is exactly the amount of money needed in my constituency to complete the Decent Homes programme. Will the Minister for Housing meet me to discuss how we might make that happen, so that 1,000 people can live in decent homes? (42512)
T2. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in a diverse area such as South East Cornwall where we have everything from vibrant seasonal coastal car parks, to town centres that need the support of low car parking charges, to small villages that were built before the car and where residents rely on community car parks to park their vehicles, that community ownership and management is better than a holistic one-size-fits-all charging system imposed by a council and covering the whole county? (42511)
In a place as diverse as Cornwall we look for a variety of ways in which council and other car parks are charged. We have removed much of the pressure on local authorities to increase the charges. That is something that the previous Government were keen on, as a way of using the motorist as a cash machine. Local charging best takes account of local conditions.
Under the Localism Bill, local people will have the right to prevail in future. Once the Bill has received Royal Assent, every community will have the right to a local plan that will then govern decisions made in future.
T5. Conservative-controlled Devon county council has reduced chief executive pay and slimmed down middle and senior management, and it will reduce back-office expenditure by £14 million in 2011-12. Will my right hon. Friend join me in commending its efficiency savings? Does he agree that responsible councils should take such actions in order to protect front-line services? (42514)
I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating that council. He lays out a valuable lesson. One thing we are discovering in those authorities that are cutting libraries, Sure Start and all front-line services is that none of them has attempted any of the things that his local council has so excellently done.
T6. The severe cuts to the road maintenance budget have led councils throughout the country to warn that in the years ahead they face a pothole nightmare, notwithstanding the announcement of an emergency £100 million, which the harsh winter has made necessary. Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that those councils have a case, or does he think that they should stop “bleating” for more money, as the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) disgracefully said at the weekend? (42515)
The hon. Gentleman has to understand that we are in this position because of the way in which the Labour party left our national finances. The Labour party is apparently happy for us to continue to pay vast sums of money to foreign bankers by way of interest, but we have simply arrived at the point where the country is boracic, and that is a direct consequence of Opposition ladies and gentlemen’s neglect of the economy.
T7. In my constituency I have Brent Cross Cricklewood, the largest regeneration scheme outside of the Olympic park. Can the Minister confirm that, when council tenants or arm’s length management organisation tenants move into regeneration projects, their tenancies will continue unbroken? (42516)
I have already indicated to the right hon. Gentleman that it is for local authorities to decide how best they configure their work force. Let us see what eventually happens. It is important to remember that some of the figures that have been quoted do not bear in mind the fact that the HR1 forms, which are necessary for the purposes of consultation, do not result in job losses. Furthermore, job reconfiguration takes place by many other means that do not result in the figures suggested.
T8. I welcome the scrapping of the previous Government’s top-down housing targets, which caused so much inappropriate development, particularly in my constituency. As the Localism Bill goes through Parliament, however, some developers are land-banking brownfield sites so that they can gain planning permission successfully at appeal on greenfield sites. What are the Government doing to protect such sites in this interim period? Will they consider re-introducing the sequential approach to planning? (42517)
My hon. Friend is right. The mixture of top-down regional targets, together with the removal of a specific reference to a sequential test in planning policy statement 3, did put pressure on greenfield sites. The Government have already changed the definition of brownfield sites to exclude gardens, and in the Localism Bill we have introduced proposals to abolish top-down targets from the regional strategies. The fact that that Bill is making progress through the Commons is a material consideration for developers to bear in mind.
Does the Minister think that having to make a total of £185,000 in cuts to the voluntary sector and £106,000 in cuts to various youth services, as well as having to lose up to 170 posts by March, all because of Government-imposed efficiencies of £15.9 million, are more likely to change and, in fact, reduce the provision of services by North Tyneside council?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. I hope that she recognises that different councils are doing things in different ways. With a maximum cut of 8.8%, there is no reason for any council disproportionately to cut the voluntary sector. I hope that she will look at the examples of positive councils such as Reading, Thurrock, Lancaster, Ipswich, Watford, Stafford, Rugby, Redditch, Crawley and Wolverhampton—10 councils that are either maintaining or increasing their support to the voluntary sector at this time. She should look at them, and go back to her constituency and talk to her councillors.
I recently submitted to the House a petition of more than 2,500 constituents calling on the Government to help to protect the local Kingswood green belt, which is still being threatened by the previous Government’s disastrous regional spatial strategy. What reassurance can the Minister give to my constituents, who are rightly concerned and wish to protect our local green belt?
I warmly commend my hon. Friend for that petition and the work that he has done to protect the green belt in his constituency. As I said in response to earlier questions, the Government propose to remove the top-down pressure of the regional spatial strategies and will maintain statutory green belt protection. Such decisions should be taken by local people to reflect the local needs of their communities.
Today, a bus full of Nottingham people has travelled down to Westminster to highlight the devastating impact that cuts to local authority funding will have on them, their families, their communities and our city. Will the Minister or a member of his team come and meet them in Committee Room 5 after questions to explain how it is fair that a city such as ours with a high level of need is suffering some of the largest reductions in funding?
No doubt it is essential for the people of Nottingham to get into a coach and travel all this way down here, because Nottingham councillors are so frightened of transparency and the truth that they have refused to publish on their website items costing over £500. It is the only council in the country to treat its electorate with such contempt.
In Cumbria and elsewhere, local charities are finding it very difficult to compete with big national charities for council contracts. What steps will the Minister take to allow local charities, which know more and can often do more, to compete fairly?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He is a great champion of the local voluntary sector. He will know that the Localism Bill will establish a right to challenge, which I expect to be taken up especially by local community and voluntary groups to enable them to do what they do best, which is to know their local community and provide a better way of doing things than what has been required so far.
The Secretary of State will be aware that as a result of his policies and funding settlement, Hartlepool borough council is cutting much-needed local services and making 89 people redundant, but its chief executive has taken an £11,000 increase in his salary, making his pay £168,000. I have written to the chief executive asking him, in the current climate, to waive that salary increase in back pay, but I have received an unrepentant and defiant response from him saying that
“mob rule seems to have been the order of the day”.
What can the Secretary of State do to curb such an arrogant sense of entitlement from some senior executives in local government with regard to pay?
As I was quoted in the hon. Gentleman’s paper as well, he and I clearly make a fairly large mob. In the Localism Bill, we are proposing to require local authorities to set out a senior pay policy statement that will have to be debated and approved by the full council meeting so that every individual member of the authority must tell the public what their policy is on how much people are going to be paid, and why, and must put their names to it and then be accountable for it.
My constituents around Burbage and Hinckley have serious concerns about planning applications that have gone to appeal regarding green wedges around the towns. What reassurances can my hon. Friend give me that the Localism Bill will help to protect green wedges?
This is yet another instance in which the pressures of the top-down regional spatial strategies have threatened green areas, be they green belt or green wedge, as it is sometimes called around towns. The removal of those top-down targets through the Localism Bill and the abolition of the regional spatial strategies will place back in the hands of local, democratically accountable authorities the power to decide the spatial future of their areas.
What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the chairman of the London fire authority about the 27 missing fire pumps, which the chairman nicked from across Greater London? Will the Secretary of State explain to him that he is putting lives in danger by stealing fire pumps, and tell him to return them straight away?
The hon. Gentleman knows about these matters and therefore really should know better. The 27 pumps were kept by the fire authority as part of a contingency reserve at the time of industrial action by the London fire brigade. I am glad that that action has now been settled.
Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Conservative-run East Sussex county council, which, after a disappointing grant from the Department for Education, has stepped in with £12 million of capital that it had not planned to give to ensure that the St Leonards academy is rebuilt to provide better education in Hastings?
Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning Labour-run Brent council, which at tonight’s budget meeting proposes to close six libraries and all its day care centres, introduce fortnightly refuse collections, and hammer street cleansing and the voluntary sector, while taking the £2.5 million grant that was meant to freeze council tax and applying it to balances?
Libya and the Middle East
I would like to update the House on the evacuation of British nationals from Libya, the actions we are pursuing against Colonel Gaddafi and his Administration, and developments in the wider region.
On evacuation, we have been working intensively to get our people out. As of now, we have successfully removed about 600 British nationals from Libya. The evacuation has centred on three locations: Tripoli airport, the port at Benghazi and the desert oilfields. At Tripoli airport, a series of six aircraft organised by the Foreign Office and an RAF C-130 Hercules flight have brought out more than 380 British nationals and a similar number of foreign citizens. At Benghazi, HMS Cumberland has carried out two evacuations from the port, bringing out 119 British nationals and 303 foreign citizens from more than 30 countries. The first of those evacuations took place in difficult sea conditions, and the second arrived in Malta earlier today. The evacuations were assisted on the ground by five rapid deployment teams. In total, nearly 30 extra staff from the Foreign Office helped to marshal British citizens in the midst of chaotic scenes in and around the airports and ports.
Clearly, the most challenging part of the evacuation has involved those British nationals scattered across more than 20 locations in the oilfields deep in the desert. On Friday evening, I authorised a military operation to bring as many of them as possible out of the desert. On Saturday, two RAF C-130 aircraft flew into the eastern desert and picked up 74 British nationals and 102 foreign nationals at three different locations. A second mission took place yesterday, bringing out a further 21 British nationals and 168 foreign nationals. One of the aircraft involved in the second mission suffered minor damage from small arms fire. That underlines the challenging environment in which the aircraft were operating.
Britain has now taken a leading role in co-ordinating the international evacuation effort. Our airborne warning and control system aircraft are directing international aircraft that are involved. Brigadier Bashall, who is commanding the UK operation, has established a temporary joint headquarters in Malta to help to co-ordinate the efforts of many countries. I have thanked the Maltese Prime Minister personally on behalf of the country. Not for the first time in our history, we should pay tribute to Malta and her people for the role that they are playing.
The number of British citizens remaining in Libya is of course difficult to ascertain precisely, given the situation on the ground. Many of them will be dual nationals, and not all of them will want to leave. I asked for urgent work to be done on accurate numbers in both categories—those who wish to leave and those who currently do not. Our current indications are that, as of today, there are fewer than 150 British citizens remaining in Libya, of whom only a very small proportion wish to leave. Clearly, that can change at any time, and we will keep the House regularly updated.
We will continue to do all we can to ensure that those who wish to leave can do so. HMS Cumberland will remain in the area, together with HMS York, which also stands ready off Tripoli to assist. We also have military aircraft, including C-130s and a BAe 146, in Malta ready to fly in at very short notice.
The Government will continue to focus on ensuring that our citizens are safe. Cobra has met regularly to co-ordinate the effort, and I personally chaired three meetings over the weekend. The National Security Council is looking at the overall strategic picture, and it met last Friday and again today, not least to look at other risks to British citizens in countries in the wider region. As I said last week, there will be lessons that we will wish to learn from this evacuation, including in respect of the hiring of charter aircraft, the use of defence assets and the need for greater redundancy.
Clearly, an important decision was when to extract our embassy. That decision was taken at the Cobra meeting on Friday and carried out on Saturday, after the remaining civilians had been extracted from Tripoli airport and in parallel with the start of the desert operations, which were of course planned from Malta. Our judgment throughout has been that the risk to British citizens, including our embassy, has been growing, and the Americans, French and Germans have similarly suspended the operations of their embassies. Britain retains a consul in Tripoli and a consular warden in Benghazi, and we have arranged that Turkey, which still has several thousand of its own citizens in Libya, will look after British interests while our embassy’s operations remain suspended.
I am sure the whole House will want to put on record its thanks to all those who have made the rescue effort possible—to the RAF pilots, the Royal Navy crews and all those involved from all three armed services for their skill; to our diplomatic service; and to all those who put themselves in harm’s way to help our people leave safely.
I turn to the pressure that we are now putting on Gaddafi’s regime. We should be clear that for the future of Libya and its people, Colonel Gaddafi’s regime must end and he must leave. To that end, we are taking every possible step to isolate the Gaddafi regime, to deprive it of money, to shrink its power and to ensure that anyone responsible for abuses in Libya will be held to account. With respect to all those actions, Britain is taking a lead.
Over the weekend, we secured agreement for a UN Security Council resolution that we had drafted, which is unusually strong, unanimous and includes all our proposals. It condemns Gaddafi’s actions and imposes a travel ban and asset freeze on those at the top of his murderous regime. It demands an immediate end to the violence and the killing of protesters, access for international human rights monitors, the lifting of restrictions on the internet and media and an end to the intimidation and detention of journalists. It also refers Libya’s current leaders to the International Criminal Court to face the justice they deserve. We were also the driving force behind a special session of the UN Human Rights Council on Friday, which started work to eject Libya from the council, and the Foreign Secretary is in Geneva today, along with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to see that work through.
With our European partners, we have today secured agreement on freezing the assets of a wider group of individuals and banning them from entering the European Union, and on imposing a wider arms embargo on the Libyan regime. Britain is also leading in implementing those direct measures against the regime. A special Privy Council session was held yesterday, as a result of which we have frozen the assets of Gaddafi, five of his family members, people acting for them or on their behalf, and entities that are owned or controlled by them. The Treasury has stepped in to block a shipment of some £900 million of banknotes destined for Libya. The Government have revoked Colonel Gaddafi’s immunity as Head of State, so neither he nor his family may enter the UK. We have also revoked the visas of a number of Libyans linked to the regime, who are now on immigration watch lists.
We will look at each and every way of stepping up pressure on this regime, such as further isolation by expelling it from international organisations and further use of asset freezes and travel bans, to give the clearest possible message to those on the fringes of the regime that now is the time to desert it.
In addition, we do not in any way rule out the use of military assets. We must not tolerate this regime using military force against its own people. In that context, I have asked the Ministry of Defence and the Chief of the Defence Staff to work with our allies on plans for a military no-fly zone. It is clear that this is an illegitimate regime that has lost the consent of its people, and our message to Colonel Gaddafi is simple: go now.
Everyone hopes that the situation will be resolved quickly, but there is a real danger now of a humanitarian crisis inside Libya. We have dispatched technical Department for International Development teams to be in place at both the Tunisian and Egyptian borders. Currently, the most pressing need is to assist the large numbers of migrant workers into Egypt and Tunisia to get them home. The International Development Secretary will visit the region later this week to assess the situation on the ground for himself, but in the meantime Britain will fly in tents and blankets from our stocks in Dubai for use at the Tunisian border.
North Africa and the wider middle east are now at the epicentre of momentous events. History is sweeping through this region. Yes, we must deal with the immediate consequences, especially for British citizens caught up in these developments, but we must also be clear about what these developments mean and how Britain and the west in general should respond.
In many parts of the Arab world, hopes and aspirations that have been smothered for decades are stirring. People—especially young people—are seeking their rights, and in the vast majority of cases they are doing so peacefully and bravely. The parallels with what happened in Europe in 1989 are not, of course, precise, and there have been many disappointments in the past, but those of us who believe in democracy and open society should be clear that this is a precious moment of opportunity.
While it is not for us to dictate how each country should meet the aspirations of its people, we must not remain silent in our belief that freedom and the rule of law are what best guarantee human progress and economic success. Freedom of expression, a free press, freedom of assembly and the right to demonstrate peacefully are basic rights—they are as much the rights of people in Tahrir square as they are of people in Trafalgar square. They are not British or western values, but the values of human beings everywhere.
We therefore need to take this opportunity to look again at our entire relationship with this region—at the billions of euros of EU funds, at our trade relationships, and at our cultural ties. We need to be much clearer and tougher in linking our development assistance to real progress in promoting more open and plural societies, and we need to dispense once and for all with the outdated notion that democracy has no place in the Arab world. Too often in the past, we have made a false choice between so-called stability on the one hand and reform and openness on the other. As recent events have confirmed, denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability, rather the reverse.
We should be clear too that now is not the time to park the middle east peace process—quite the opposite. In short, reform, not repression, is the way to lasting stability. No one pretends that democracy and open societies can be built overnight. Democracy is the work of patient craftsmanship, and it takes time, as we know from our own history, to put its building blocks in place. However, what is happening in the wider middle east is one of those once-in-a-generation opportunities—a moment when history turns a page. The next page may not be written, and it falls to us to seize this chance to fashion a better future for the region, to build a better relationship between our peoples, and to make a new start.
As the inspiring opposition leaders whom I met in Tahrir square said to me last week, we now have the opportunity of achieving freedoms that people in Britain take for granted. I am determined that we should not let them down, and I commend this statement to the House.
May I thank the Prime Minister for his statement? I should like to ask him about the four areas he covered—the immediate safety of British nationals, the future of the Libyan regime and the wider middle east, and the lessons learned from this crisis—but may I first join him in expressing deep and abiding gratitude to members of the British armed forces, who have succeeded with such extraordinary courage and professionalism in evacuating so many of our citizens and those of many other countries from Libya over the last week? Those brave men and women are a credit to our nation. May I also add my thanks to the Foreign Office staff on the ground in Libya for their efforts?
As the Prime Minister said, our first concern must always be the safety of our own people. For obvious operational and security reasons, I would not expect the Prime Minister to discuss future operations, but will he reassure the House that all contingencies continue to be looked at in relation to any remaining UK citizens stranded in Libya? Given the closure of the British embassy on Saturday—I understand the reasons for that—will he assure us that everything continues to be done to keep in close contact with those citizens who remain, and tell us what means of communication are available to them?
On the question of Libya’s political future, I think that the whole House will endorse the Prime Minister’s view that the only acceptable future is one without Colonel Gaddafi and his regime. We welcome what the Prime Minister said about a possible no-fly zone. We also welcome the international isolation of Libya expressed in UN Security Council resolution 1970, including sanctions and an arms embargo, and the decision to refer the killing of protesters to the International Criminal Court.
The resolution imposes travel bans on 17 Gaddafi loyalists and asset freezes on a number of other individuals. Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether he thinks that those asset freezes go wide enough and cover all those beyond Colonel Gaddafi’s immediate family who have decided to stand with him? Will the Prime Minister reassure the House that the Government will make full use of the provision in paragraph 23 of the resolution to nominate additional regime members who should be targeted by travel bans and asset freezes? On the human rights situation, there is clearly a growing humanitarian crisis on the Tunisian border and I welcome the steps that will be taken, which the Prime Minister talked about.
Let me turn to events beyond Libya, in the wider region. The events unfolding across the middle east—the Prime Minister reflected this in his statement—are as significant as the revolutions that liberated eastern Europe in 1989. As he says, our response to them needs to be equally ambitious. There is a popular will in many of those countries for democratic reform, and that movement is in line with the values that we share.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the way to approach this situation is to build a strategic response, including closer economic ties, support for civil society and institution-building in those countries? Will he concede that, although there is much that we can and should do bilaterally, real progress will require sustained will and effort at a multilateral level, including at the level of the European Union? May I also share the sentiment that he expressed that it will be a tragedy if, in this moment of change, the opportunity were not grasped to make progress on the Israel-Palestine issue? May I therefore support his calls for the rapid resumption of talks between Israel and the Palestinians and his decision to support the recent UN Security Council resolution on settlements? What steps will the UK take to get negotiations moving again?
Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government will work with EU partners to strengthen both the guidelines and the operation of the rules on arms sales?
May I ask about the lessons to be learned from the immediate crisis response last week? Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have in recent days been dealing with constituents who are deeply anxious about family members stranded in Libya. Does the Prime Minister accept that the Foreign Office should have done more, as other countries did, to ensure that planes were on the ground in Libya on Tuesday, rather than late on Wednesday night, to evacuate our citizens? Will he explain why that was not the case? Given the scale of the emergency and the transparent need for co-ordination across Government, does the Prime Minister now agree that the emergency committee, Cobra, should have been convened earlier than Thursday? Again, will he explain why that did not happen?
Will the Prime Minister share with the House the wider lessons that he personally learned about the running of his Government? I think that the whole country has now, thankfully, seen the scale of response that can be mobilised to help our citizens, but will he promise that British nationals abroad will not be let down in future, as they were by the chaos and incompetence that we saw last week? I am surprised that he has not taken the opportunity of his statement to apologise to the House for the handling of the crisis last week. I hope that, in his reply, he will take the opportunity to do so.
When the inquiry is completed, will the Prime Minister promise that there will be an oral statement to report its findings to the House, along with the conclusions on the lessons that need to be learned?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his praise of our armed forces. They have done a magnificent job, as they always do. As he says, we should also thank the Foreign Office staff and those in the Foreign Office crisis centre, which I visited, which is manning the phones round the clock and doing an extremely difficult job.
On future operations, it is difficult to say much more in the House, but obviously I have given the new figures on the number of British citizens we believe are still in Libya and the number who want to leave. It is a very small number at the moment who still want to leave. Obviously, that can change and, as I explained, we have the assets in place to help where appropriate.
In terms of what replaces our embassy, as I explained, we are going to have a consul in Tripoli, but we will be working with the Turkish Government, who still have thousands of nationals in-country, and I have spoken to the Turkish Prime Minister as well as to many other people.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the travel bans and the asset freezes go wide enough, which is a very important point. Right now, what we want to do is isolate and target the key members of the Libyan regime, with a clear warning that those close to the regime have a choice—they can desert it or leave it, but if they stay with it there is a chance that they will be hit by travel bans and asset freezes, too. That is all part of turning up the pressure.
As for the wider region, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about institution-building and, indeed, making sure that the European Union sharpens its act on its neighbourhood policy. I think that there is room, yes, for multilateral action, but I hope that in this country we can do more in terms of political relations and on building party-to-party relations to try to help to build up the building blocks of democracy in those countries.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about Israel-Palestine. I am proud of the fact that we backed the Security Council resolution. That was the right decision, although it meant a disagreement with our oldest and strongest ally, the United States. On arms sales, I agree that the guidelines need to be clear and need to be adhered to.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked some questions about lessons to be learned. As I said, I think that there are lessons to learn. What worked in Egypt—a combination of scheduled and charter flights—did not work as well in Libya. Lessons need to be learned, including about the use of military assets, but I would make the point that it is not as easy as some people say. The more you rely on charters earlier, the more the scheduled airlines collapse, and you can leave yourself with a bigger problem.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about learning lessons in the wider running of government. Of course, there are always lessons to learn, and perhaps, if apologies are in order, he should think about one for the appalling dodgy dealing with Libya under the last Government.
I agree with the Prime Minister that, in view of the complete chaos that has engulfed Libya, there is a real opportunity, together with our European partners, to expedite the downfall of the present regime and create a post-Gaddafi structure in the vacuum. However, does he agree that, given Libya’s appalling record on human rights, it was a complete misjudgment to enter into a defence co-operation agreement with it?
I do think that there are lessons to learn from the deal in the desert. The previous Government were correct to encourage the giving up of weapons of mass destruction, but more parameters should have been put on the relationship, particularly— I have made the point before—regarding the release of al-Megrahi. It should not have been the British Government’s position to try to facilitate that. Lessons need to be learned more broadly about that, and I am sure that there will be an opportunity to do so.
I echo the commendations of our forces and diplomatic and other staff who have worked hard to provide an adequate service for British citizens and others stranded in Libya. I commend the other actions that the Government are now taking, but may I ask the Prime Minister to expand on the point he made in his statement about what he described as greater redundancy for responding to future crises, by which I assume he meant greater resilience and greater resources. Does he accept that cutting Foreign Office staff by 450 to save £30 million at a time when its budgets are flat cannot do other than significantly undermine its ability to respond adequately and promptly when the next crisis occurs?
I obviously listen to the right hon. Gentleman, given his experience. The cuts to the Foreign Office are much less severe than cuts to other Departments, so I do not think that that has had a material impact. As for the issue of redundancy, clearly in the case of Egypt, the combination of scheduled flights and adding in charter flights meant that we led the pack in getting people out. In Libya, the situation was different and more difficult, and we need to learn the lessons about what extra capacity we need to put in place. As I have said, it is not as simple as some people think, because if capacity is added too quickly, scheduled flights collapse—bmi and BA both fly to Libya—and you land yourself with a bigger problem. The lessons should be learned. The only point that I would make now is that, as we stand today, Britain is doing a huge amount to help other countries out of Libya, and is helping more than 32 nationalities.
It is strange, is it not, that when we have a defence review, we are told that we are no longer a world power and do not need the Royal Navy, yet as we saw last week we need one more than ever? How ironic it was that the only ship that we could find to send was one on the way to the scrapyard. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that as long as he is on the bridge of state, there will be no further cuts in the Royal Navy?
We are exceptionally well served by our Royal Navy, and it is good that not only HMS Cumberland but HMS York have been on hand to help in Libya. We are making a reduction in the number of frigates, but we do have the Type 45s coming onstream. In all cases, however, a mixture of military and civilian assets needs to be brought to bear to ensure that we can get people out of countries such as Libya.
The Prime Minister has my strong support for the vote that his Government cast at the UN Security Council on 17 February. The previous Government cast a similar vote in January 2009 with cross-party support. However, does he agree that the lessons of the past decade are that the Israelis and Palestinians will not of their own volition negotiate a solution between themselves, that the international community needs to force the pace on the terms and timing of a resolution to that terrible dispute, and that that needs to be led from the UN Security Council?
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and it is good to see him in his place. I am trying to ensure that there is a real combination effort between Britain, France, Germany and the United States to try to provide that backing. The only problem is—he will be aware of this—that it is difficult for us to want a solution more than the parties want one. However, we should apply all the available pressure we can, and we should be making the argument right now that the awakening of democracy in the middle east is not a threat to the peace process, but could be an opportunity.
President Mahmoud Abbas has called for elections to the Palestinian Authority. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that Hamas, whose electoral mandate has expired, is refusing to allow such elections to take place in Gaza?
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. The key thing in our engagement should be to ask those on the Palestinian side to accept the key principles of recognising the state of Israel and former agreements. Then it will be possible to go forward and hold proper negotiations. However, we need that to happen in order to get both parties around the table properly and to hammer out the solution that I think everybody knows is there.
In his conversations with President Obama, has the Prime Minister emphasised the urgency of the situation and the opportunity that events in the middle east provide to make progress on Israel-Palestine, and has he also expressed disappointment at the American veto of the resolution?
I have had very frank conversations with President Obama about this. I believe in the special relationship—it is an incredibly close and important relationship—but I also believe that when we disagree, we should be frank in saying so, and on this issue Britain and America do not agree. We think that the resolution, although not ideally drafted, was basically right, which is why we voted for it, and we are very disappointed that it was vetoed. Obviously, we have to persuade the Americans that further investment in the peace process is absolutely worth it, not just for its own sake, but for the wider peace of the region and to remove a great cause of instability and extremism in our world.
The Government have been absolutely right to support the forces of democratic change, but, further to his statement, does my right hon. Friend think that this support will have any effect on future relationships with our other autocratic friends in the region?
As I hope my hon. Friend will have noticed, I have just completed a trip to the Gulf region, and I was quite struck by the fact that a number of our very strong and old allies, such as Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, are in favour of taking further steps towards democracy and more open societies. Far from being dismayed by our very clear reaction that democracy, freedom and that sort of progress are good things, they were fully in support of them.
When he was in Kuwait, as well as promoting arms sales and exports, did the Prime Minister have an opportunity to discuss with John Major, the former Prime Minister, the fact that 20 years ago, a no-fly zone was imposed without a Security Council resolution? Is it not time that the European Union NATO members worked more urgently to ensure that Gaddafi’s regime cannot use helicopters and aircraft to crush resistance to him?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It was a pleasure being in Kuwait with Sir John Major, because it was an opportunity to commemorate the action that he led, as Prime Minister, in liberating that country from Saddam Hussein. To those who question whether it is right to take defence companies on a visit to Kuwait, I would say that 20 years ago we risked the lives of our service personnel to free that country. It seems to me an odd argument, therefore, to say that Kuwait should not have the means of its own defence. On a no-fly zone, of course we must comply with international law, but my argument is that we need to do the preparation and planning now, because no one can be sure what Colonel Gaddafi will do to his own people. If he starts taking that sort of action, we might need to have a no-fly zone in place very quickly.
The Prime Minister is right to praise the bravery of UK forces and staff in evacuating UK citizens. However, many international companies have lucrative business operations in Libya, working in high-risk environments such as desert oilfields in a country with an oppressive regime. Is he satisfied that those companies have adequate emergency evacuation plans in place, or does business also need to learn some lessons about the safeguarding of employees?
The hon. Lady makes an extremely good point. We should be having this conversation with oil companies. Yes, of course, they have security and transport arrangements, and it is important to work with them when we are trying to get our people out, to ensure that they are playing their part in delivering that. I am sure that there are lessons to learn, and there is probably more that they could have done, rather than being quite so reliant on us.
May I tell the Prime Minister what a great pleasure it is to see him in his place today, because I have spent the past week trying to speak to a Foreign Office Minister with no success? On the substantive issue of Libya, the fact that the International Criminal Court has been invoked has been a welcome development, but will the right hon. Gentleman make it quite clear from the Dispatch Box that this will apply not only to Colonel Gaddafi and his immediate family but to anyone in Libya who chooses to side with his regime in any future atrocities?
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. The reach of the International Criminal Court and of international law applies not only to people in the Gaddafi regime and those in the armed forces who commit atrocities but to any mercenary who goes to Libya and takes part in those activities. As I have said, the reach of international law is very long, and its memory is also very long, and quite right too.
The Prime Minister has described a very fluid series of events. If we step back from them, we can see that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to encourage democracy to spread across the middle east. He gave a robust message to Colonel Gaddafi. Does he have an equally robust message for the other dictators in Africa who have chosen not to support democracy but to send mercenaries to support Colonel Gaddafi’s dictatorship?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. This is a test for everyone. It is a test for NATO, for the European Union, for the Arab League and, yes, for the African Union as well. The Arab League has, commendably, suspended Libya’s membership, and we should be looking to the African Union to take robust action as well. My hon. Friend’s point about mercenaries is certainly well made, and we should be making that very clear to African armies and leaders who are contemplating that sort of measure.
Should we be pleased, given Gaddafi’s history, that Britain took part in an arms fair in Libya last November at which all kinds of crowd control equipment and sniper rifles were sold to the regime there? Frankly, Prime Minister, is it not time that this country—whichever Government are in office—stopped selling arms to murdering bastards who terrorise their own people?
I would make the point—I think it is a cross-party point—that this country now has some of the toughest arms control legislation in the world. This Government immediately revoked about 30 licences, covering a whole range of products, to that regime and others in the region, and I think that that was right, but are there further lessons to be learned? I am quite clear that we should be looking at this and seeing what more can be done.
My hon. Friend makes the important point that we now need to plan for every eventuality. That is why I mentioned in my statement the importance of planning for a potential humanitarian crisis. We also need to plan for what might happen should the regime fall, or—something we do not want to happen—should it embed itself for a long time, resulting effectively in civil war in Libya. We have to prepare for every eventuality and work with the international community to ensure that we are ready for them.
Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick), may I point out to the Prime Minister that the end user certificate scheme is broken? It does not work. Since the first half of last year, £31 million worth of armaments have been sold to Libya, including water cannon, stun guns, smoke grenades and tear gas—in other words, a panoply of equipment that can be used against civilians, rather than to defend the state against aggression by another.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. If we look at the whole terms of the deal done in the desert, we need to ask ourselves some serious questions about how widely it went and what sort of equipment was involved. Frankly, I am pleased that we have put in place the revocation of these licences, but there are lessons to learn about what was intended by what was agreed several years ago.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the unanimous decision by the Security Council to refer Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court is of great importance because it demonstrates incontrovertibly for the first time that if Heads of State and Heads of Government commit human rights offences, they will be liable to prosecution?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. When Britain—and it was Britain—drafted the text of this resolution, the advice I was given suggested that it would take days or possibly weeks to get through the UN Security Council. It is remarkable that the Security Council has adopted this resolution unanimously with no votes against and that all countries—without naming them—backed it. It is a very positive sign, which I hope means that when we come forward with fresh Security Council resolutions to tighten further the screw on this dreadful regime, we will gain similar support.
The hon. Lady makes an important point. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has discussed with NATO today a range of issues, including the one she mentions and military planning for no-fly zones. Although there have been bilateral efforts by countries such as Britain to get into areas such as the desert to rescue our own people, there has also been a huge amount of co-ordination in Malta—I pay tribute to Brigadier Bashall for leading this process—to make sure that, whether the planes are German, British or Canadian, we take each other’s nationals out. I have had a range of conversations with different Prime Ministers and Presidents to make sure that we all help each other in this regard. That is what is being co-ordinated from Malta.
Is my right hon. Friend concerned about the prospect of Gaddafi unleashing his significant war machine against the people of Libya? Will he reflect on properly arming those who are resisting Gaddafi, if necessary, in order to ensure that they are not wiped out, as happened in Srebrenica and Sarajevo?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are trying to establish better contact with the opposition in Libya and to learn more about them and their intentions. What we want—I would argue it is in our interest and in that of the whole world, including the Libyan people—is the swift removal of Colonel Gaddafi from his position. If helping the opposition in Libya would help to bring that about, it is certainly something we should consider.
Will the Prime Minister confirm that there is nothing new or peculiarly Labour about dodgy relations between the British Government and the murderous Libyan regime? Will he confirm that when Metropolitan Police Constable Yvonne Fletcher was shot dead from the Libyan embassy in April 1984, the Thatcher Government humiliated the Commissioner of the Metropolitan police by requiring him to provide policemen to escort the murderer to the airport so that he could get back safely to Libya?
That is a somewhat tortured way of making a political point, and I would make one in return. [Interruption.] We have to comply with international rules, but let me make one simple point. During the last Parliament there was a choice about whether to support the release of al-Megrahi: one party decided that it was the right thing to do, and I am proud to say that my party did not.
My grandfather was one of thousands of Jews who had to leave Libya because of Gaddafi’s appropriation of Jewish businesses and homes, and he came to this country because of its democracy. He would have been shocked to have seen not only the close relations between the last Government and Gaddafi, but the acceptance by our distinguished universities, particularly the London School of Economics, of more than £1 million from Gaddafi. Will my right hon. Friend take steps to ensure that such a scandal never happens again?
My hon. Friend speaks with great power. What I have said about relations with Libya is that, while of course it was right to try to bring that country in from the cold, the question is whether parameters should have been put on the relationship. I think that it is for everyone to ask what agreements they reached. I heard the head of the London School of Economics on the radio this morning trying to justify one such agreement. Let us hope that at least the money that the LSE has can be put to a good use.
Given the circumstances that the Prime Minister has described, is it not increasingly difficult to explain the behaviour of the UK Trade & Investment special trade ambassador, who is not only a very close friend of Saif Gaddafi but a close friend of the convicted Libyan gun smuggler Tarek Kaituni? Is it not time that we dispensed with the services of the Duke of York?
I am not aware of the particular connections that the hon. Gentleman chooses to make, although I am happy to look into them. However, if we are to disqualify friends of Saif Gaddafi from public life, I think that he will be saying goodbye to one or two of his old friends.
Order. I am extremely grateful to the Prime Minister for his reply, but may I just say, for future reference, that references to members of the royal family should be very rare, very sparing and very respectful? [Interruption.] Order. We have to be very careful in our handling of these matters, and I hope that we will be.
I thank and congratulate the brave young airmen and women of RAF Lyneham, which is still in my constituency and whose C-130J Hercules played such a crucial role in the evacuation. Does the Prime Minister agree that in future a much greater role could be played by contractors who at present have fairly scant plans for evacuations? If they expanded their own plans, we would lessen the risk to young service lives.
My hon. Friend has made a good point. Obviously there needs to be a deeper conversation and greater planning between companies and the Government. Of course, companies have played an important role, but I feel that we need to ensure that we get this right for the future. Trying to bring people out of the desert across 20 or more platforms is extremely complicated, and I am sure that we can learn some lessons about how to do it better in future.
I think that we all wish to record our tremendous admiration for the courage and tenacity of the Libyan people—men, women and children—who are fighting the dictator with their bare hands. As for learning lessons, we should bear in mind what happened when a no-fly zone was provided for the Kurds of Iraq. That was John Major’s move, and it meant that thousands of Kurds were protected. Obviously there is not a great deal that we can do immediately, but we should consider that as a matter of great importance. I believe that it might save thousands of lives, if Gaddafi were to bomb his own people from the air.
The right hon. Lady always speaks about these issues with great passion. I think that she is right to draw attention to what people are doing in Libya, where they are showing extraordinary bravery. As we have seen across north Africa and the middle east, this is not an Islamist revolution but a people’s revolution. People want the sort of freedoms that we take for granted in this country.
I have to tell the right hon. Lady that introducing a no-fly zone is not without its difficulties and problems. Libya is an enormous country. We would be trying to cover a vast area, and a serious amount of military assets would be required to achieve that. Furthermore, it would not necessarily stop all oppression of the Libyan people, because there are ways of carrying that out other than through helicopter gunships and planes. However, I think that it is one thing that we need to look at urgently and plan for, in case we find—as we may well do—that Colonel Gaddafi is taking further appalling steps to oppress his people. That is why the conversations are taking place today.
It has been good to hear more muscular liberalism this afternoon. The Prime Minister rightly called Gaddafi’s rule an illegitimate regime that has lost the consent of its people. When does he consider that it was last anything other than that?
I have never supported Colonel Gaddafi or his regime, and I think that his regime is illegitimate. Clearly that prompts the question of how long we are going to go on recognising it in any way, which is why I have requested another urgently needed piece of work. We must ensure that we do everything that we can to isolate it. We must cut off money, cut off supply and cut off oxygen from the regime, so that it falls as fast as it possibly can.
You will recall, Mr Speaker, that 10 days ago, in an urgent question, I begged the Foreign Secretary to suspend arms sales to the region and to gear up the Foreign Office response. I am very glad that the Prime Minister has got a grip on that.
I welcomed the last part of the Prime Minister’s statement about building on what is being done to create a new approach to democracy. Would he consider creating a British foundation for democracy development? It would include businesses, non-governmental organisations, the media, judges and trade unions. Its work would be similar to the work of the know-how fund, and the work that was done to support people in eastern Europe after 1989 and in the Iberian peninsula in the 1970s. Could some development money be spent on that? If so, we would be able to create something that could help everyone in the future rather than recriminating about the past.
I am not always in complete agreement with the right hon. Gentleman, but this is one such occasion. I very much support the whole idea of greater party-to-party contacts and political contacts, and building up what I call the building blocks of democracy in terms of civil society and political parties. This is an area in which Britain has expertise and excellence. We have the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, of course, so we need to ask whether there is more we can do with that, or whether we need to build a new mechanism. I am, however, glad to see cross-party support for something that Britain could play a unique part in helping to build.
Given the capability gap that we have had to accept under the strategic defence and security review until we have the carrier strike force and the Type 26 combat ship, and given that on Thursday US journalists were pressing State Department officials to explain why the US was not able to match British evacuation efforts, is the Prime Minister confident that in future years we can rely on the United States to deliver for us and for others we wish to help?
My hon. Friend asks a good question about the capability gap. I argue, however, that recent events demonstrate the importance of flexibility and the necessity of having a good range of military assets and transport aircraft—as we will have with the future A400M—and large numbers of highly trained special forces, of which we will have more under the defence review. It has also demonstrated that it is necessary to have—as we do in Malta, Sicily and elsewhere—basing rights and the right to overfly. People will put the question about carriers, of course, but although the US has about 12 aircraft carriers, not one of them is currently in the Mediterranean, so it seems to me that flexibility of forces and the ability to get people in and out quickly is more important than obsessing about particular platforms.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and the reconvening of the UN Human Rights Council, which I hope will take centre stage in future developments. However, is he not concerned that in every country in the region—Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen—the security forces that have used weapons against civilians, and that have killed young people demonstrating for their rights and jobs, are using equipment made in Britain, Europe or the United States? We must look to such relationships and our sales of arms that have been used to carry out the carnage against wholly innocent civilians trying to demand what we want for ourselves.
I shall make two points to the hon. Gentleman. First, we have revoked a large number of licences, including to some of the countries that he has mentioned. I also argue the broader point that those countries that have met those aspirations with reform have a chance of success and progress, whereas those that have met them with repression are finding that that is not the answer. I think that we are going to see that that is the case right across the region.
Order. Many hon. Members are still seeking to contribute, but there is pressure on time as we also have a heavily subscribed debate under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. Therefore, if I am to accommodate most colleagues, extreme brevity is now required.
Returning to the question asked by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on close relations with Colonel Gaddafi’s son Saif, was the Prime Minister as surprised as I was to learn that Saif Gaddafi also had many meetings with the previous Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, and described the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, as a “close personal friend”?
In congratulating the right hon. Gentleman on the vote cast by the United Kingdom at the Security Council on Israeli settlements, may I ask whether he, like Chancellor Merkel, received a reproachful telephone call from Netanyahu, and if so did he, like Chancellor Merkel, reply that he—Netanyahu—is the principal obstacle to negotiations and that he must get on and negotiate?
As it happens, I did not, on this occasion, get a reproachful phone call from Prime Minister Netanyahu. But if I had done, I am, for once, in full agreement with the right hon. Gentleman, and I am sure that I would have responded robustly in the way that he has suggested.
Does the Prime Minister think that the relative inability of the west to offer moral leadership to those seeking greater freedom in the middle east owes something to the disastrous policy of regime change by military means, implemented by President Bush and Prime Minister Blair eight years ago?