House of Commons
Wednesday 11 May 2011
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Council Tax Benefit
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have had discussions with Cabinet colleagues and Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on a range of issues, including welfare reform.
As the Minister may know, there is a great deal of concern that people in Wales will struggle to get council tax benefit if the Welsh Assembly refuses to devolve the benefit to local authorities in Wales, as the Government are doing in England. Will he work with the Welsh Assembly Government and the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that council tax benefit is devolved to either all local authorities across the UK or none?
Localisation of council tax benefit is part of the wider package of reform set out in the Welfare Reform Bill, which will ensure that work always pays. We are indeed committed to full consultation with the Welsh Assembly Government on the devolved implications of the reforms. The Assembly Government will no doubt wish to consult when they have developed their own policy options, but ultimately it is for them to decide how the delivery arrangements are put in place in Wales.
Following the yes vote in the referendum on further powers, we have started to consider the scope and form of such a process. Now that the elections to the National Assembly have taken place I intend to discuss the process with other stakeholders and the First Minister. May I also take this opportunity while I am at the Dispatch Box to offer our congratulations to Carwyn Jones, who is currently considering forming the Welsh Assembly Government and has the largest party in the Welsh Assembly?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. There is indeed a body of thought that believes that with the power to spend public money should come accountability, and this is certainly a matter that we will be looking at. However, this is not something that should be entered into in haste, and I intend to engage fully with the Welsh Assembly Government on the matter.
The national border between north-east Wales and Chester is almost unique in that it passes through an urban area, with large numbers of people travelling in both directions every day for health care, education and employment. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the remit of the review specifically includes looking at the impact of devolution on such cross-border services?
I thank my hon. Friend that question too, because he knows that we in the Wales Office have been concerned about cross-border issues and their impact on health in particular. I cannot guarantee that that will fall within the scope of the Calman-like process, but I assure him that I will take into consideration any representations that he or any other Member wishes to make to the Wales Office.
The Government’s commitment to a wider review of the Barnett formula is clear, but stabilisation of the public finances comes first. I think we all recognise that the Barnett formula is coming to the end of its life, but we will consider a change to the system only once we have put the public finances in order. There was a good reason why the predecessor Government to this one made no changes to the Barnett formula in 13 years. It is not something that can be achieved in haste, only to be regretted at leisure.
May I ask the Secretary of State to take great care when she deals with these issues? As she knows, there is really no appetite in Wales for tax-varying or tax-raising powers—the resource base is not there—and even if there were, we would have to have a referendum in Wales for such powers, as happened in Scotland.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, because I always remember sitting and listening to him give evidence to, I believe, a House of Lords Committee looking at the Barnett formula. He said that there was no case for reviewing it because it had served well. The fact that the last Government repeatedly ruled out reforming the Barnett formula means that any reforms must be looked at carefully. He is quite right that giving tax-raising powers would involve another referendum, which is something that this Government would look at carefully, because I am not sure whether Wales has an appetite at the moment for another referendum.
The Calman process in Scotland had a wider remit than merely to consider funding arrangements. Given the Labour party’s opposition to decoupling Westminster and National Assembly constituency boundaries, would it not make sense to base the make-up of the fifth National Assembly on 30 regional and 30 constituency Assembly Members?
That is a very interesting thought. Hon. Members are well aware that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 broke the link between Assembly constituencies and parliamentary constituencies. I have agreed that we need to look carefully at the implications of having constituency boundaries relating to different areas and regions for UK and Assembly elections in Wales. I am taking the hon. Gentleman’s question as a recommendation that we have 30 first-past-the-post seats and 30 elected on a list system, and I will look seriously at that suggestion.
Does the Secretary of State think that the Calman process will be as beneficial for the Tories in Wales as it was in Scotland last Thursday? Will she also congratulate Carwyn Jones on polling Labour’s highest ever Welsh Assembly vote, which included taking Cardiff North—about the safest Conservative seat in Wales—and beating the Liberal Democrats in Cardiff Central and Plaid Cymru in Llanelli? Will she ensure that if any financial concessions or flexibilities are offered to Scotland by her Government, as is now being suggested, Wales will receive equivalent benefits to compensate for the horrendous cuts that the Government are imposing on Welsh citizens?
The right hon. Gentleman is on dangerous ground here. I do not want to engage in any sort of triumphalism or tribalism, to use the words of Carwyn Jones. The right hon. Gentleman will note that I came to the Dispatch Box to congratulate Carwyn, because I have worked well with him over the past 12 months. May I just remind him that the Conservative vote went up to 25% in Wales and the number of our seats went up to 14? We are now the second largest party in the Assembly, and the right hon. Gentleman had better think again before he starts taking us on.
I know that the hon. Members for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) and for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) will disagree with the Secretary of State on that, because Labour won the Assembly seats in their constituencies with thumping majorities. If, as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury suggested yesterday, Alex Salmond is to get the borrowing powers that he is demanding, as well as the ability to reduce corporation tax, how will increasing borrowing fit with her Government’s preoccupation with reducing the deficit at all costs? Furthermore, is not her Conservative-led Government playing into the hands of separatists by promoting separate economies?
I would never play into the hands of separatists; I am a devoted Unionist, as I hope the right hon. Gentleman is. Before the Assembly elections, he and his party consistently boasted that they would win a majority in Wales, and I consider failing to do so a significant failure for him and his leader. On the question of separatism, however, he will know that my door is always open, and I would hope that we could join in common cause on this matter. He and I, and his party, support the United Kingdom and I want to ensure that all steps taken by the Wales Office will reinforce the United Kingdom. I see him nodding, and I am grateful for his acknowledgement that he would join me in that cause. I am sure that we can work well together on that.
Departmental Efficiency Savings
Since taking office, we have explored a number of ways to find efficiency savings and we have achieved significant savings, particularly on rail travel and hotel accommodation.
We are certainly moving in that direction. Since taking office, we have introduced a rule that no Minister or official should travel first class. That has saved us nearly £92,000 and more than halved our rail costs this year. We have achieved 36% savings under a new Government contract for booking hotel accommodation, and we have halved the number of ministerial cars. From this month, we will no longer have the Jaguar in Wales that the Secretary of State’s predecessor ordered.
Big Society Initiatives
I have discussed a range of issues concerning the big society in Wales with the Minister for civil society, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) and the Welsh Assembly Government Minister for social justice. I am due to have a further discussion concerning the big society bank with my hon. Friend next week.
We are certainly moving in that direction. My hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for civil society announced this week that the big society bank is being established; £200 million of moneys in that bank will be available on a wholesale basis for charities in Wales.
Many women in Wales who are approaching state pension age are presumably part of the Government’s big society in that they have reduced their hours to undertake caring responsibility for elderly parents and grandchildren. They now find themselves having to work up to two years longer with little time to prepare. Does the Minister understand how betrayed these women feel by this dereliction of public duty?
I am sure that the hon. Lady will also recognise that the economic legacy we inherited from Labour means that it is absolutely necessary that everybody should play their part in contributing to economic recovery. That means, sadly, that there will have to be an extension of the retirement age. I hope that she will explain that to her constituents.
I have discussed improving broadband infrastructure across Wales with ministerial colleagues and Welsh Assembly Government Ministers. Indeed, I arranged and hosted a meeting between the broadband Minister and the former Deputy First Minister to discuss joint working.
I would like to congratulate my right hon. Friend on the important work she is doing in this vital area. Many studies, including those by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the OECD and the World Bank, have highlighted how broadband immeasurably enhances economic growth. In my own local authority of Cheshire East, faster broadband is a key element in the economic development of rural communities. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what assessment has been made of the economic benefit of enhanced broadband access in rural Wales?
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I know that he has a great deal of expertise in this area. An independent estimate in 2009 projected that superfast broadband in the UK could create up to 600,000 jobs and add £18 billion to GDP. We are working closely with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Welsh Assembly Government to ensure that Wales benefits fully. Based on the population share, we estimate up to 30,000 new jobs being created and a possible £900 million of additional wealth being generated in Wales.
I am sure the Secretary of State will join me in congratulating Virgin Media on rolling out in Swansea this week the fastest broadband speeds in the UK. It is not just a rural problem. We have heard about the economic case. How quickly can we roll out these speeds to other parts the Principality?
I was particularly pleased that we were able to announce on 10 February £10 million of funding to support the extension of superfast broadband to Pwllheli. I know from working with colleagues in the DCMS and the Welsh Assembly Government that more announcements on this front will be made later this year. The hon. Lady is quite right on this issue, and I am particularly keen because broadband take-up in Wales is at 64% in comparison with 71% in the rest of the UK. Broadband take-up in rural Wales, however, is in excess of that in urban Wales, so I am very pleased to welcome Virgin Media’s announcement.
The Secretary of State will be aware not only that rural areas have slower and less reliable broadband, but that our constituents in those areas have to pay a lot more for it. Ofcom is currently investigating lowering the price that BT can charge internet service providers for wholesale broadband because it feels that prices are too high in rural areas. Will she make representations to Ofcom on behalf of people in rural areas to ensure that they, as well those in urban areas, secure a fair deal?
I had some difficulty in hearing the whole of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I should be happy to meet him to discuss the problems of rural broadband. He has always been a well-known champion of rural areas, and I am sure that if anyone can help me to make a case for bringing down costs in those areas, it will be him.
Order. I remind the Secretary of State that she must face the Chair. However, she was not alone in her difficulty. Far too many noisy private conversations are taking place in the Chamber in which I have no interest whatsoever. I must tell the hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) that I want to hear Mr Hywel Williams.
Health and Social Care Bill
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have discussed the Health and Social Care Bill with ministerial colleagues and with Welsh Assembly Ministers.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the problem has existed for some time. I remember sharing a platform with him to discuss the issue of the Walton centre. Decisions affecting the NHS in Wales are rightly a matter for the Welsh Assembly, but this Government are committed to working with Ministers in Cardiff and Whitehall when health care provision for Welsh patients is under discussion.
Many of my constituents depend on services commissioned from Hereford hospital for the meeting of their medical needs. Will the Minister meet me, and a representative of the Department of Health, to establish how that commissioning will proceed in future?
The Minister will be aware that one of the other destabilising effects of the Health and Social Care Bill is the abolition of the National Patient Safety Agency, whose job was to monitor patient safety in England and Wales. In England its job will be taken over by the national commissioning board, but what provision has been made for transferring its responsibilities in Wales to ensure patient safety? If the job is given to the National Assembly, will extra funds be made available for the purpose?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the existing cross-border protocol is supported by an annual transfer of funds—currently £5.9 million—to the Assembly Government, and an additional payment of some £12 million was made in the last two financial years. These matters will have to be discussed with Welsh Ministers once the new Assembly Government has been established.
Great Western Main Line
The electrification of the Great Western main line will create thousands of job opportunities in the UK manufacturing and service supply chains, and Welsh companies will be well placed to take advantage of those opportunities.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the project will be good for jobs, not just in Wales but throughout the United Kingdom? Will she make contracts available to the many first-class English construction and engineering firms, such as those in Harlow, many of which are small businesses?
I was very pleased when we were able to announce the electrification, which will indeed help to provide jobs not only in Wales but in other parts of the United Kingdom. I hope that there will be many opportunities for businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency, as well as throughout Wales, to be involved in the process. Certainly the Wales Office will do all that it can to facilitate that.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, we identified electrification of the valley lines as a key priority as part of the development of the business case for electrification. As he will also know, I have said that I stand ready to work with the new Welsh Assembly Government and the Department for Transport to facilitate the electrification of those lines. I shall certainly examine the case for electrification of the Ebbw Vale line, which he has made to me before.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have met representatives of the Welsh Tourism Alliance and North Wales Tourism to discuss a range of issues affecting the tourism industry, and we have both visited a number of tourism-related businesses across Wales in the last year.
As the Minister will know, the tourism sector in Wales is extremely important for the economy of Wales. He will also know that a large part of the sector comprises small and medium-sized enterprises—such firms employ about 90% of the people of Wales. What initiatives is he pursuing to expand this all-important sector?
The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right. The Welsh tourism industry is worth some £3.5 billion to the Welsh economy. Responsibility for promoting tourism in Wales resides with the Welsh Assembly Government, of course, but VisitBritain has established a new £100 million overseas tourism marketing fund, with £50 million being provided by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. That marketing programme is due to launch to consumers this month and aims to deliver an extra 4 million visitors to the UK, many of whom will, of course, visit Wales.
I thank the Minister for that reply, but may I press him on one point? He and the Secretary of State were lobbied on the need for a cut in value added tax on tourism services so that we can compete fairly with our friends in Ireland and France, for example. Please will they engage with the Treasury on this matter?
Nuclear energy is an important component of our future energy security and carbon reduction plans. It will therefore continue to have a future in the UK’s energy policy, and I hope that a new build at Wylfa will play a key role in creating new jobs in Wales.
That is an easy question for me to answer. I welcome the work that has been done to enable Wylfa to continue generating low-carbon electricity for a further two years, and I am delighted that the site has been chosen as a future new site for generation. [Interruption.]
In light of the comments of the Committee on Climate Change, which has said that nuclear represents the most cost-effective way of delivering carbon-free electricity, will the Secretary of State support the plant in Anglesey as a means of protecting future generations of homo sapiens?
Once again, this is a very easy question to answer, but I nevertheless thank my hon. Friend for asking it. There is now a growing consensus of opinion right across the board in Wales that Wylfa in Anglesey would be an excellent site for future nuclear generation.
The hon. Lady knows that throughout the years when I have been both shadow Secretary of State and now Secretary of State for Wales, I have been very supportive of all the work that has been done, particularly on tidal lagoons, as well as in examining the case for the Severn barrage, which has, of course, been put to one side for the time being. I can assure her, businesses in her constituency and our research institutes that we will always consider that option for future generation in and around the Welsh coast.
In addition to the fear of a Welsh Fukushima, the cost of new nuclear is such that the only new nuclear power station in the world is already three years late and £2 billion over budget. Why does the Secretary of State not concentrate on the immense power of the tides in Wales, including the second highest rise and fall of tide in the world, and give us energy that is clean, safe and eternal?
The hon. Gentleman has been consistent, but he has asked questions on this matter of the Minister with responsibility for energy, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), and of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and he knows very well that the Government’s view is that tidal energy has a part to play in our energy programmes of the future, but so, too, has nuclear.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that everyone across the House of Commons will want to join me in paying tribute to David Cairns, the Member of Parliament for Inverclyde, who, very sadly, died on Monday, aged just 44. I will always remember him as someone who was very quick-witted and sharply intelligent, and as someone who was an extremely kind and compassionate man. Not many people can claim to have come to this House only because legislation was passed to allow them to come here, but as a former Catholic priest that had to happen in his case, and the House was better off for that happening. I am sure that everyone will join me in sending our deepest condolences to his partner, his family and his many friends, and I know that his constituents, like many others, will miss his tireless work very much indeed.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others and, in addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks? David Cairns was a great parliamentarian and a good friend.
On 10 February, this House voted overwhelmingly, by a majority of 10:1, to continue the ban on giving prisoners the vote, since which time the European Court of Human Rights has effectively ignored the will of this House. It still insists that the law be changed and has given the Government until October to bring forward proposals. Will Her Majesty’s Government bend their knee to the European Court or will they stand up and insist that on this issue Britain will not budge?
My hon. Friend is absolutely clear that the House of Commons has given a very clear view that prisoners should not have the vote and my own view is that prisoners should not have the vote. I think that we should do two things. First, we should be trying to reform the European Court, as we are doing; my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary is leading this charge to make sure that it does pay more attention to national judgments and national Parliaments. But at the same time we will have to consider our response to this issue, and I want it to be as close as possible to the clearly expressed will of the House of Commons.
I want to start by paying tribute to our much-loved colleague David Cairns. His death is a tragedy at such a young age, and we send our deepest condolences to his partner, Dermot, and to the whole of his family. He was what any Member of Parliament would aspire to be in this House: he was warm, principled and independent-minded, even if that was not always comfortable for the leadership of our party. He fought for the causes that he believed in, he was Labour through and through, he will be missed throughout the labour movement, and I know that he will be missed throughout this House as well.
A year into his Government, how would the Prime Minister rate his handling of the NHS?
I think that the most important thing we have done is increase spending on the NHS, which is something that has happened only because of the commitment we made at the last election. So an extra £11.6 billion will be going into the NHS because of the decisions we have taken. In addition, there is a £200 million cancer drugs fund, so that people get the drugs they need and, for the first time in a long time, the number of doctors is growing very quickly and the number of bureaucrats is actually falling.
In case the Prime Minister did not realise, it takes seven years to train a doctor, so I would like to thank him for his congratulations on our record on the NHS. I have to say to him, if it is all going so well, why have we seen the number of people waiting for diagnosis rising again this morning? More than 10,000 people are waiting to get their tests, three times the number it was a year ago. I also noticed that he did not mention his top-down reorganisation when he talked about his handling of the NHS. Let me remind him of what he said just a month ago. He said:
“I’ve been involved in designing these changes way back into opposition with Andrew Lansley”.
Will he therefore confirm that the failing NHS plans are not the Health Secretary’s fault, but his?
The Leader of the Opposition himself has said that no change is not an option. We are seeing the usual empty opposition. I am glad that he mentioned waiting times, because, two weeks ago, at that Dispatch Box, he said that waiting times
“have risen month on month under this Government”.—[Official Report, 27 April 2011; Vol. 527, c. 169.]
That is not true. The figures, which he had at the time, show that in-patient waiting times fell from 9.1 to 9 weeks. For out-patients, they went down from 4.8 weeks to 3.5 weeks, the lowest for a year. It is important when we come to this House and make statements that are inaccurate that we correct the record at the first available opportunity.
No, waiting times are rising. I notice that the Prime Minister did not even take the opportunity to take responsibility for the health policy. Where is the Health Secretary, after all? Where is he? It is becoming a pattern with this Prime Minister. This morning, in the papers, we saw the Universities Minister being dumped on for his tuition fees policy; we see the Schools Secretary being dumped on for his free schools policy; and the poor Deputy Prime Minister just gets dumped on every day of the week. The Prime Minister must believe that something has gone wrong with his health policy, because he has launched his so-called listening exercise. Can he reassure doctors, nurses and patients that it is a genuine exercise?
Of course it is a genuine exercise. Let me be clear: the right hon. Gentleman is wrong on the waiting times. The figures are clear and I shall place them in the Library of the House of Commons. Waiting times went down last month and he ought to have the guts and the courage to correct the record when he gets it wrong. He asks about my Health Secretary, and perhaps I can remind him of what his health spokesman has said. He said it this week. He said the general aims of the reform are sound. That is what he said. He said earlier, “I have no problem with the broad aim of the changes,” and went on to praise them. When I look at this, it all reminds me of Labour 30 years ago. They had a leader with the ratings of Michael Foot and he was being undermined by someone called Healey, as well.
We read in the papers about a PMQs makeover, but I have to say that it did not last very long. Flashman is back. Of course, the thing is that Flashman does not answer the questions, so let me ask the right hon. Gentleman again. Can he explain why the chief executive of the NHS, Sir David Nicholson, wrote to NHS staff on 13 April, after the Prime Minister’s so-called pause had begun, and said that they should “press on with implementation” of the plans? That does not sound like a pause to me.
I can absolutely guarantee that there will be significant and substantial changes to the reforms because we want to get them right and because we want to guarantee an NHS that is free at the point of use and available based on need rather than the ability to pay. Unlike the Labour party, which is now cutting the NHS in Wales, this Government will put more money into the NHS.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about what is in the newspapers today, but he ought to be looking at the GPs representing 7 million patients who wrote to the papers today to say that this is evolution, not revolution, that it is good for patients, and that it will help some of the “most vulnerable” people in our community. I have to accept that some of the recent cultural references—Michael Winner, Benny Hill—are all a little out of date, but I must say that when I look at the right hon. Gentleman, who told us that the fight back would start in Scotland before going down to a massive defeat, he rather reminds me of Eddie the Eagle.
Let me congratulate the Prime Minister on getting 42 GPs to write to The Daily Telegraph supporting his plans. The Royal College of General Practitioners represents 42,000 GPs and it says—the Prime Minister said that he would protect the NHS, so I would have thought he would be embarrassed by this—that his plans will cause “irreparable damage” to the core values of the NHS. I do not know whether he even knows about the letter that David Nicholson sent, but the truth is that the Prime Minister’s pause is nothing more than a sham.
Why does not the right hon. Gentleman for once in his life actually deal with the substance of the reform? The truth of the matter is that he has said, quite rightly, that no change is not an option. We believe that no change is not an option and that is what the overwhelming amount of people in the NHS feel. Let us look at the elements of the reform: GP fundholding started under Labour and is now being improved under this coalition; foundation hospitals started under Labour and are now being taken forward by this coalition; payment by results—so that we make sure that we get good value for money in the NHS—started under Labour and is now being carried forward under this coalition. That is the point. He should be seriously engaging in how we make sure we have a strong NHS for all our people for the future. Instead, we have empty opposition, which got him absolutely nowhere last week.
In a phrase that the Prime Minister is familiar with, “Calm down, dear.” Calm down. Does not his mess on the NHS tell us all we need to know about this Prime Minister? He breaks his promises, he does not think things through and when the going gets tough, he dumps on his colleagues. On a day when waiting lists are rising, this confirms what we always knew about the Tories—you cannot trust the Tories on the NHS.
What we have seen is just the product of empty opposition and weak leadership. It is this Government who are putting more money into the NHS; it is this Government who are putting money into the cancer drugs fund; it is this Government who are seeing the number of doctors and nurses grow while the number of bureaucrats shrinks. It is this party that is defending the NHS and it is Labour in Wales that is cutting the NHS. That is the truth. There is only one party you can trust on the NHS and it is the one that I lead.
Q2. I have a slightly calmer question, Mr Speaker. I am sure that the Prime Minister is aware that the fatal and incurable human brain disease variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is transferred through prions, blood products and surgical instruments. Recently, Professor Collinge and others at the Medical Research Council prion unit have produced an effective prion-deactivation instrument soak and a blood test for variant CJD, both of which could and should protect the public. Unfortunately, there has been a small financial hiccup in progressing those breakthroughs. Does the Prime Minister accept the importance of preventing this despicable disease, particularly for future generations, and will he meet me and Professor Collinge to discuss potential progress? (54957)
My hon. Friend raises an important point about a very dangerous disease and I would certainly be happy to arrange a meeting, probably between him and Professor Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, to discuss this. He will know that there have been various research studies into the impact of variant CJD on the population. We do not yet have all the answers that we need. Since 1990, there has been funding of the national CJD research and surveillance unit to the tune of £18 million, and through the Medical Research Council we have committed to providing £32 million to the national prion unit between 2010 and 2014. That should be the money that gets the answers that he so badly wants.
The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 has served its purpose well over the years, but recently there has been a huge increase in incidents of cyber-stalking, sometimes with devastating consequences. Will the Prime Minister, in due course, meet me and a small delegation of Members from across the House who are concerned about the issue?
I am happy to hold that meeting with the right hon. Gentleman. We are trying to make sure that right across the board we take cybercrime seriously because there is a huge growth in it. Often it is about trying to take people’s money or about espionage, but the point that he makes about harassment is also important. We need to make sure that the strategy dealing with cyber takes full account of what he says.
Q3. The Labour Government took Britain to the brink of bankruptcy. The gap between rich and poor widened, and nearly 4 million children were left living below the poverty line. Last month, the coalition Government cut income tax, liberally helping millions of people, but I have to ask the Prime Minister this: if we are all in this together, what is he going to do about the obscenity of 1,000 multimillionaires boosting their personal wealth by 18% in the past year? (54958)
One of the things we absolutely will do—and we have put in the money to make sure it happens—is crack down on the tax evasion that takes place so widely in our country. The Treasury has put money into that campaign to make sure it happens. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Because of our coalition Government, we have lifted 1 million people out of income tax and, at the same time over the past year, we see exports up, private sector jobs up, the economy growing and borrowing down—all radically different from what would have happened if we had listened to the recipe from the Labour party.
On the subject of empty opposition, the Prime Minister castigated his predecessor for not proscribing the radical Islamist organisation, Hizb ut-Tahrir, when the previous Prime Minister had been in post for a week. The right hon. Gentleman has now been in post for a year. I would like to give him the opportunity to castigate himself.
It is very kind of the right hon. Gentleman to give me that opportunity. We are clear that we must target groups that promote extremism, not just violent extremism. We have proscribed one or two groups. I would like to see action taken against Hizb ut-Tahrir, and that review is under way.
In its history the CBI has not always supported action to tackle deficits and to get on top of bad public finances, but on this occasion it is four-square behind the action that the Government have taken. When asked what would have happened if we had followed the ideas of the Labour party, the CBI said:
“The economy would be weaker because of the impact of a loss of confidence in the markets.
If we did not have a clear programme to reduce the deficit over this parliament we would have seen a significant rise in our interest rates, and growth would have been eroded rather more than it has been”.
That is the view of the CBI—the experts at the heart of British industry, who say that one cannot trust Labour with the economy.
Last week we had an excellent result in Wales for the Labour party. Given the Prime Minister’s general election manifesto commitment, and the commitment of the Liberal Democrats, what progress has he made so far on reforming the Barnett formula as it applies to Wales?
We will look closely at a Calman-like approach for Wales. If those results are the hon. Gentleman’s definition of success, I suppose he will be a happy man. He should spend a little time studying what his colleague, the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris), said about Labour’s performance in Scotland:
“Labour deserved to lose. We insulted the intelligence of our voters by peddling a myth”.
That is what happened. I know the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) does not want to hear about Scotland, but he ought to think about it.
Q5. Conservative-controlled Shropshire council has managed to make savings of £30 million while protecting front-line services. That has been achieved partly by a reduction in salaries for councillors and senior managers. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Shropshire council on this achievement, and is it not a shining example for other councils up and down the country to follow? (54960)
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, which is that up and down the country councils have been able to reduce back-office costs, bureaucracy and the pay of chief executives and crack down on council allowances and all those things in order to protect front-line services. It has happened in Shropshire and many other parts of the country and it is an example that should be followed.
The Prime Minister told me that the hacking inquiry should go where the evidence leads. It leads to the parents of the Soham children and to rogue intelligence officers. He knows of more sinister forms of cybercrime. Lord Fowler is calling for a judicial inquiry. Will the Prime Minister please order one now, before the avalanche of new evidence forces him to do so?
I think there is a real problem with interfering, which that would effectively do, with the criminal investigations that are taking place. The most important thing is to allow the criminal investigation to take place and, as I have said to the hon. Gentleman before, make sure that the police and the prosecuting authorities can follow the evidence wherever it leads. That is the most important thing that needs to happen.
Q6. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the story of Robin Hood has parallels with a Government who are taxing bankers to build the big society, City fat cats to fund tax cuts for lower earners and oil barons to cut fuel prices? Will he invite disaffected Opposition Members to join a Government who help the poor and take away from the rich? (54961)
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It was this Government who introduced a bank levy and used the money to help some of the poorest in our country. It is this Government who have taxed the oil companies at a time when the oil price is so high in order to cut petrol duties and help millions of people in our country. What a contrast with the Labour party; the action it took against the banks was to give Fred Goodwin a knighthood.
The Prime Minister knows about the real pressures faced by London’s emergency services, including those they will face in the run-up to the Olympics next year. What risk assessment has he made of the London ambulance service’s decision to cut 20% of its work force, including 560 front-line NHS staff?
I have discussed with London’s emergency services some of the challenges they face, not least the Olympics and the terrorist threat. All organisations in this country are having to make savings and efficiencies and try to concentrate on the front line. That is what is happening in the police and elsewhere. The point about ambulance services and the NHS is that we are protecting spending on the NHS. There was, frankly, only one party that proposed that at the last election. If we had not proposed that, it would not be happening. We listened to the Labour party, including the former health spokesman, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), who spoke earlier, and they were going to cut the NHS. That would have affected the London ambulance service like everything else.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. For months the Opposition have been telling us that we should follow the American approach. It now emerges that the Obama deficit reduction programme will go exactly as fast, as quick and as deep as the proposals in the UK, so one of the planks of the good ship Balls has been completely holed below the waterline.
Q8. May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s tribute to David Cairns? David served with distinction as a Minister in Northern Ireland during the period of direct rule, and many people there have great respect for the work he did in Northern Ireland.The UK’s contribution to the bail-out for eurozone countries that find themselves in financial difficulties amounts to half the savings made in the deficit reduction plan in the UK this year, a fact that will stagger and appal many people in this country. Can the Prime Minister give an assurance that the UK will make no further contributions to the bail-out of those countries that have got into financial difficulties— (54963)
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his re-election last week to the Northern Irish Assembly. The point that I would make is this: the only money that Britain has lent directly is to the Republic of Ireland, and I think it is actually in our national interest and, I would say, in the interests of Northern Ireland that we do not see a collapse in the economy in the Republic. That was a difficult decision but the right decision to make.
The other contingent liabilities on Britain flow through the finance mechanism in Europe, which we did not support the establishment of and have negotiated to get rid of when the new arrangements come in in 2013, and we will do everything that we can to safeguard Britain’s finances.
Q9. Can the Prime Minister confirm that, if any part of the United Kingdom decided to leave the Union, although part of the national debt would follow them, a continuation of subsidy from the remaining British taxpayers would not? (54964)
Of course I can confirm that, but I believe that everyone in this House who believes in the United Kingdom and the future of the United Kingdom should join together and make sure that we fight off the threat of the idea of breaking up our United Kingdom. I do not believe that we will achieve that by threats, or by saying that small countries cannot make it; I believe that the way we will make that argument is by saying that being part of the United Kingdom is good for Scotland, and that Scotland being part of the United Kingdom is good for the rest of the United Kingdom. I want us to make an uplifting and optimistic case for why we are better off together. That is what all of us who support our Union should do, and I for one will certainly play my part.
Q10. Now that the referendum is out the way—incidentally, nobody asked for it and nobody wanted it, except for the Liberals, or Bob, Rag and Ragtail here—[Interruption.] I did not want it—[Interruption.] I did not want it. Yet, Prime Minister, a survey done a few weeks ago said that 70% of the British people wanted a referendum on Europe. It is in the Liberal manifesto, although that does not mean much, and more than half your Back Benchers want a referendum as well. When are the people going to get the referendum on Europe? (54965)
The hon. Gentleman says that the referendum on the alternative vote was something nobody wanted, but I have to remind him that it was in his manifesto. I know that it was a pretty turgid document, and he might want to have a word with the author about how to improve things next time, but I would recommend reading the manifesto before you stand for the party.
Q15. Given the high demand from the public to attend the consultation events on the future of children’s cardiac services in Southampton, will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in calling for additional events so that the maximum number of people in the wider Southampton area can participate? (54970)
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend, and in the review of child cardiac services—this affects my constituency as well as hers, and people are talking about how Southampton and Oxford should work together—I think that there should be as many events as people want to go to, as much transparency as possible and, if specialisation is necessary, as much explanation as possible about why it is necessary and why it is good for patients. In the end that must be the test of everything we do in the NHS.
Q11. We know what a number of the right hon. Gentleman’s Ministers think about the adoption of the fourth budget proposed by the Committee on Climate Change, but what does he think about it? Will he press for the adoption of that budget when the Cabinet meets to discuss it, as we are reliably informed it will? (54966)
We will respond in full to the House on the fourth carbon budget. It is very important that we get that right. We have strict timetables and targets laid out in terms of our carbon reduction, and this Government are committed to making sure that we meet those.
Computer Sciences Corporation
Q12. What discussions he has had with the Minister for the Cabinet Office and the Secretary of State for Health on the performance of Computer Sciences Corporation in installing Lorenzo software within the national programme for IT in the NHS. (54967)
We are very concerned that the NHS IT projects that we inherited were of poor value for money, an issue we raised repeatedly in opposition. According to the National Audit Office, even in 2008, delivery of the care records system was likely to take four years more than planned. Since coming into government, we have reviewed the projects with the intention of making the best of what we have inherited. In part, as a result of our work, the Government have cut £1.3 billion from the cost of the national programme for IT in the NHS, including planned savings of at least £500 million from Computer Sciences Corporation.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the NHS IT programme will never deliver its early promise, that in particular CSC has failed with Lorenzo and that, rather than squandering £4.7 billion that is still unspent, the solution is to negotiate a way forward that frees up billions of pounds for the benefit of patients?
I agree with my hon. Friend that we are absolutely determined to achieve better value for money. Let me reassure him that there are no plans to sign any new contract with Computer Sciences Corporation until the National Audit Office report has been reviewed and until the Public Accounts Committee meetings and the Major Projects Authority reviews have taken place. The Department of Health and the Cabinet Office will examine all the available options under the current contract, including the option of terminating some of, or indeed all of, the contract.
While I accept that the figure the hon. Lady gives for the lead number of voluntary bodies is right, if she looks at the details of who in Scotland is going to be providing the voluntary sector projects—the subcontracting arrangements—I think she will see bigger and better opportunities for the voluntary sector. If she is saying that we should be doing even more to open up public services to voluntary and other providers, then absolutely yes—and perhaps she can persuade her Front Benchers to make it Labour policy too.
One year on after the coalition was formed, would the Prime Minister like to update the House on the progress that has been made in tackling the economic and financial wasteland that was left to us by the previous Government?
The fact is, Mr Speaker, that Labour Members do not want to hear what this Government have achieved over the last year, because it is this Government who have cut the deficit, who capped immigration, who froze the council tax, who have linked the pension back to earnings, who have taken a million people out of income tax, who have reformed welfare, and who have created more academy schools in 12 months than that lot managed in 12 years. That is a record, with much more to do, that I think the coalition can be proud of.
Q14. Last week the widow of Captain Mark Hale, who died serving in Afghanistan, was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly as a member of the strengthened Democratic Unionist party team. Brenda is a leading campaigner to have the military covenant enshrined in law. Will the Prime Minister recognise the public support for the campaign by Brenda and other folks, and will he give our heroes the support that they deserve? (54969)
First, I congratulate Brenda Hale on her election. It is excellent that someone who is going to speak up for the military and for their families is going to have a seat in the Northern Irish Assembly, particularly when Ireland, both north and south, has given so much to Britain’s armed forces over so many years. I do want to see a very strong armed forces covenant set out clearly, debated in this House, and clearly referenced in law. I want to see us make bigger steps forward on the things we do to help our armed forces’ families. We have made some steps over this last year, doubling the operational allowance, giving more money to schools where forces children go, and helping in ways including health and scholarships for those whose parents have sadly fallen in battle. But I believe there is more we can do, and this Government will not let up in making sure that we have an armed forces covenant we can be proud of.
Future Diplomatic Network
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on Britain’s future diplomatic network.
Our embassies and high commissions are the essential infrastructure of our country’s influence overseas and of our economic recovery. They provide an early warning system for threats to our security and to wider peace, and assist British nationals in times of crisis. They support our economy and help British businesses to access markets abroad. They promote our values of democracy and political freedom across the world, and help to craft vital international agreements from nuclear proliferation to climate change. We could not do without them for a single day.
I promised in our first week in office as the coalition Government that there would be no strategic shrinkage of Britain’s diplomatic influence overseas under this Government, and that instead we would strengthen Britain’s diplomatic network. Today I want to set out how we will achieve this while saving money overall.
The spending review settlement for the Foreign Office requires a 10% real-terms reduction in the budget. That is, of course, on top of years of unplanned cuts after the last Government stripped the Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget, more than half of which is spent in foreign currencies, of its protection against exchange rate fluctuations in 2007, just before the sharp fall of sterling. In the last two years before the general election, the Foreign Office experienced a 14% real-terms reduction in its budget, resulting in the sudden loss of personnel and training in many embassies. The Foreign Affairs Committee has done much to sound a warning about these matters, and I have been unable to find any other major Foreign Ministry in the world that raises and reduces its diplomatic activity on the basis of movements in exchange rates. I promised to put an end to that ludicrous situation, and the protection is now being restored under a new foreign currency mechanism agreed with the Treasury. That means that the Foreign Office can once again plan properly for the future.
Fortified by that ability to plan, we will find £100 million per year of administrative savings by the end of the Parliament, on a carefully planned basis. We will save over £30 million by simplifying procedures, removing bureaucracy and ensuring that administrative work overseas is done by locally recruited staff or in regional centres. We will save over £34 million a year from our annual estates and security costs, for instance by moving to a single site in London. We will reduce our annual staff costs by £30 million a year by 2014 by reducing to a minimum the number of junior staff posted overseas from London, by removing or reorganising their positions or recruiting locally. We will do so in consultation with staff to mitigate the impact on individuals and their careers. Those savings are not easy but they are essential. They will allow us to live within the necessary financial constraints and to provide the diplomatic network we need for the future.
We will now reverse the previous Government’s policy of closing embassies and reducing our diplomatic presence in key parts of the world, as a result of which 45 UK posts were closed after 1997, including six in Africa, seven in Latin America and eight in Asia, and the overall number of UK posts in the world fell by more than 30.
We will embark on a substantial reinvigoration of the diplomatic network to make it ready for the 21st century, to expand our connections with the emerging powers of the world, and to signal that where Britain was retreating, it is now advancing. The case for a strengthened network is utterly compelling. The only way to increase our national prosperity and secure growth for our economy is through trade, and our embassies play a vital role in supporting British business. The emerging powers are expanding their diplomatic networks. Turkey is opening many new posts and Brazil already has more posts in more countries in Africa than Britain has. Given that political influence will follow economic trends in the world and increasingly shift to the countries of the south and east over the long term, we need to plan ahead and create the right network for the future.
Although we are working closely with the new European External Action Service and ensuring that talented British candidates enter it, there is not and will never be any substitute for a strong British diplomatic service that advances the interests of the United Kingdom. We can never rely on anyone else to do that.
We will therefore significantly increase our presence in India and China, the world’s two emerging superpowers. We will strengthen our front-line staff in China by up to 50 officials and in India by 30, and will work to transform Britain’s relationship with their fastest growing cities and regions. We will also expand substantially our diplomatic strength in Brazil, Turkey, Mexico and Indonesia. We will add diplomatic staff in the following countries and places: Thailand, Burma, South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, Mongolia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Angola, Botswana, Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Panama, Peru, Pakistan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
We will maintain the strength of our delegations to multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations in New York and Geneva, NATO, and the European Union in Brussels, all of whom have done an outstanding job in recent months. We will maintain our active and substantial embassy in Washington and our network of consulates general across the United States, which remains our indispensable ally in defence, security, foreign policy and commerce.
We have a strong network in the middle east and north Africa, on which the demands have been so great in recent months. Although there is no need to open new posts there, we have frequently and substantially reinforced our diplomats there in recent months and have sent a special mission to Benghazi. Over the coming months, we will review the need for additional deployments.
This expansion does come at a price. In Europe, there have already been significant savings in our diplomatic network. I am determined not to hollow out our embassies there, but we will need to find further savings in recognition of the fact that only three of the world’s 30 richest cities in total gross domestic product terms are in Europe, and the fact that our embassies there still cost more than elsewhere. So although we will fully maintain our embassy network across Europe, we will also find additional resource for our expansion elsewhere in the world from the network of subordinate posts in Europe outside capital cities. We will withdraw diplomatic staff from some subordinate posts, while retaining UK Trade & Investment and consular staff in many cases. That will lead to there being fewer subordinate posts in European countries.
With those additional resources we will be able to open new British embassies, including in places where they had previously been closed. We will reopen the embassy in El Salvador, closed in 2003, as part of a major diplomatic advance in Latin America after years of retreat. We will open a new consulate general in Brazil at Recife, which will be one of approximately seven new consulates general that we will open in the emerging powers. We will open a new embassy in strategically important Kyrgyzstan, and another in July in the new nation of South Sudan.
I always doubted the last Government’s decision to close the embassy in Madagascar, to which I know many Members of all parties objected. I am delighted to say that we will reopen that embassy as soon as the local political situation is right. I will also consider upgrading our political office in Côte d’Ivoire to a full embassy. I have made provision within our budget to open a new embassy in Somalia when the security situation has improved sufficiently. It is vital for our security that we are present in the horn of Africa, so I have made that decision now so that we will be ready to open the new embassy as soon as possible.
In addition to those new embassies, I give the House a commitment today that whereas the previous Government shut 17 sovereign posts in their time in office, we intend to retain all 140 existing British embassies and high commissions throughout the life of this Parliament. Other savings will be found as we reduce, over time, our diplomatic footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is very large relative to the rest of the network. As the nature of the UK military involvement in Afghanistan changes, we will redeploy staff elsewhere.
The strength of our embassies is a signal to the world of our engagement and our role in international peace and security. They are the platform for the strong bilateral relations that are increasingly vital in a networked world, and indispensable to success in multilateral diplomacy. Our decisions will mean that our reach when British companies need assistance or British nationals are in danger will go further and be stronger. That is why the maintenance, extension and strengthening of our global diplomatic network is a central objective of this Government and will be a priority for the use of Foreign and Commonwealth Office funds over the coming years.
Although I have increased programme funding in the FCO to £139 million this year, our financial constraints and the priority that I am placing on retaining and improving our diplomatic network for the future mean that it will have to fall in future years, although it will remain above £100 million. I am sure it is right to give priority to long-term relations and the reversal of Britain’s strategic shrinkage.
This development of our network should be seen alongside the diplomatic excellence initiative that I have instigated in the FCO, which began six months ago. That places a renewed emphasis on policy creativity, in-depth knowledge of other nations, geographic and linguistic expertise and the enhancement of traditional diplomatic skills in a manner suitable for the modern world. A combination of strict savings in administrative spending, reductions in our subordinate posts in Europe and the other savings that I have set out will allow us, for the first time in many years, to mount a diplomatic advance. For the first time in decades, our diplomatic reach will be extended, not reduced. That is the right use of public money, and it is the right course for Britain in this century.
This Government will work to build up Britain’s influence in the world, to forge stronger bilateral relations with emerging giants and some old allies that have been neglected for too long, and to seize opportunities for prosperity and advance democratic values. We will maintain and enhance the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as a central Department of State leading an ambitious and distinctive British foreign policy, and we will expand and use Britain’s diplomatic network to the very full, in the interests of the United Kingdom and in support of the wider peace and security of the world.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for advance sight of his statement. I first join him, of course, in paying tribute to the work of all Britain’s diplomats around the world. Their work often goes unrecognised here at home, but Britain’s prosperity and influence would be hugely diminished were it not for their considerable efforts.
The Government are right to assess where best to deploy the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s finite resources. In particular, I welcome the decision to expand Britain’s diplomatic presence in China. UK exports to China were worth £5.5 billion in 2007—by 2009, that had grown by more than 40% in cash terms—and 17,000 British nationals are permanently resident in China. Next week, I will visit Britain’s embassy in Beijing. I am conscious that it is playing a hugely valuable role in supporting the promotion of Britain’s values and interests in the world’s most populous country.
The FCO should not, of course, be exempt from the need to reduce the deficit, but in making cuts to a relatively small budget that has a global impact, there is a need for particular care and clarity. The Foreign Secretary spent a great deal of time in his statement criticising Foreign Office expenditure decisions under the previous Government. Will he therefore confirm that it was under his leadership of the FCO that it was fined £20 million by the Treasury for its attitude to
“getting money out of the door”
before the end of the financial year?
The Foreign Secretary placed a great deal of emphasis on trade in his statement, but will he set out in greater detail the position on the headcount and resourcing of UKTI in the years ahead?
The Foreign Secretary briefly mentioned cuts in programme expenditure from the current level of £139 million to a figure, he said, that would be retained above £100 million. Perhaps, in the spirit of candour, he will share a little more of his thinking on which programmes he is contemplating cutting to make the reduction of which he spoke. He has already announced real-terms reductions in programme spending on counter-terrorism, and a £2 million cash reduction in spending on counter-narcotics and rule-of-law programmes in Afghanistan. Will he therefore confirm that the decisions announced today will mean no reduction in the levels of staffing dedicated to counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics, either in Afghanistan or across the whole diplomatic network?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the fact that as we draw down our forces from Afghanistan, greater resources will be freed up. However, given the repeated and urgent calls from both sides of the House for a diplomatic surge to match the military effort, will he set out precisely what will happen and when in relation to FCO staffing in Afghanistan for the remainder of this Parliament?
There is much to study in today’s announcement, and the Opposition will scrutinise in detail the specific changes in each country. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s re-announcement of his commitment to ensuring that there is no strategic shrinkage of Britain’s influence under this Government, but such shrinkage cannot be prevented through diplomats alone. Many commentators saw the Government’s initial plan—to step back from foreign affairs and ensure that a quiet period on the world stage took place, reinforcing a domestic austerity agenda—as a profound error. Perhaps for the pre-Tahrir square era, such a plan seemed appropriate, but the Government’s passivity and lack of ambition for a bilateral, mercantilist approach to foreign policy has been found badly wanting by recent events in north Africa.
Will the Foreign Secretary therefore provide the House with more detail on Britain’s staffing of those multilateral institutions of which he spoke so warmly? Ours is the one country that can operate simultaneously through the EU, the Security Council, NATO and the Commonwealth. Will he therefore clarify what will happen to staffing in each of those institutions?
Is the Foreign Secretary really telling the House that, after the seismic political changes that have swept north Africa and the middle east in recent months, with protests from Morocco in the west to Iran in the east, the review makes no fundamental changes to the diplomatic distribution of assets in the region? That is what the Opposition heard him say, but many will think that that is unsustainable. I suggest that he commits now to a more fundamental review of diplomatic coverage in the region in the months ahead.
The review must not be a means by which the Government once again choose bilateralism over multilateralism, and trade over wider influence, and thereby, however inadvertently, sleepwalk into strategic shrinkage.
I welcome some of the right hon. Gentleman’s comments, including his tribute to the diplomats who serve all Governments loyally and well, as, of course, they will continue to do in the future. I also welcome his welcome for the expansion of our presence in China; it is the largest of all these expansions of our diplomatic presence in the world. Relations with China have been built up and improved under successive Governments, and I welcome the fact that he is visiting it next week. This trend has been continued across parties.
I wish, however, that the right hon. Gentleman had felt able to welcome some of our changes to the previous Government’s policies, particularly the reopening of embassies they closed. The embassy in Côte d’Ivoire was closed not only under the previous Government, but while he was a Foreign Office Minister. Trade offices in Brazil were closed, which I hope Labour Members will now recognise was a short-sighted mistake given the expansion of the Brazilian economy, and posts were withdrawn from Latin America, which was a mistake he chose not to dwell on in his questions. Furthermore, consulates general were closed in Frankfurt, Stuttgart and elsewhere across Europe. Taken together, the closure of more than 30 posts under the previous Government was a fundamentally mistaken policy that we are now changing. The withdrawal of the overseas pricing mechanism, which led to so many unplanned and rather chaotic Foreign Office spending reductions, was also a mistake, and it is time that Opposition spokesmen acknowledged that and said, as I said when I was in opposition, that in the future there will be no changes to the Foreign Office budget according to exchange rate fluctuations.
All those things were missing from the right hon. Gentleman’s response to my statement. He asked about various other details this year. The Treasury has not fined the Foreign Office, which now has a much better relationship with the Treasury than it did under the previous Government. Last night my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary and I launched the new UK Trade & Investment strategy and the FCO charter for business. Like all parts of government, UKTI has to manage with expenditure reductions and will have to produce more for its budget, which, like that of the Foreign Office over time, will fall by 17%. However, it will be able to do more with its budget by running it well.
Our programme spending decisions this year have already been set out in detail, but obviously what happens in future years will depend on how the situation develops. I am simply sounding a cautionary note today that some of those programmes may have to be reduced. However, it is far too early to make decisions about that. Furthermore, reductions in Afghanistan are not immediate. I am merely foreshadowing changes, given that we have said that by 2015, our troops will not be engaged in combat operations, or in anything like the numbers they are now. It follows that there will be diplomatic changes as well.
The strength of our diplomatic presence in multilateral institutions will not be affected. As I said in my statement, our diplomatic team have done a great job. However, it is also time for the right hon. Gentleman to recognise that success in multilateral institutions often comes from strong bilateral relations, as well as a great diplomatic team in those multilateral institutions, which is one reason why we place such emphasis on bilateral relations with many of the leading world powers. In many cases, those relations need to be restored. I do not know where he got the idea that the Government planned to step back from foreign affairs and think the world peaceful, or that we planned to be passive. After all, I keep finding myself going to countries that no Foreign Secretary visited during the entire 13 years of the previous Government, whether they be rather troublesome spots such as Yemen or old allies such as Australia. The passivity was in the previous Administration, rather than the current one.
Neither the Australians nor anyone here thought that the hon. Gentleman was the Foreign Secretary, even if he thought so.
Of course we will have to keep under review our diplomatic strength in the middle east, but our diplomats have done a great job. We often reinforce them, as we have done in recent months, and we will need to do so again in the coming months. However, we have sovereign posts in the key nations concerned, so it is not necessary to introduce new ones in the countries directly affected so far by the Arab spring. Ours is a real plan for engagement in the world, with the right level of resources and the right arrangements with the Treasury, and with a vision of where we need a diplomatic presence in the future. There was no evidence of any of those things under the previous Government.
May I give a warm welcome to every aspect of this statement? To be opening new embassies now is highly symbolic and sends an important signal to the rest of the world. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that in the focus on trade and consular activity, there will be equal emphasis on diplomatic skills, which many feel have shrunk in recent years, and which he seems to be addressing in the diplomatic excellence initiative? On a more practical note, what percentage of the extra overseas posts will be recruited locally?
As my hon. Friend knows, some of what I announced reflected the work and opinions of him and his colleagues on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and concerns expressed by the Committee under his chairmanship and that of the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes). Those have been well-founded concerns, such as over the loss of the exchange protection and so on. My hon. Friend is right that alongside and accompanying our emphasis on trade goes the important diplomatic skills that I feel have been undervalued in recent years in the Foreign Office. It is important for diplomats to have in-depth knowledge of their countries, geographic and historical expertise built up over time and the diplomatic skills of influencing events in other nations, not just of internal management. Those things are all being attended to in the diplomatic excellence initiative launched by the Foreign Office. I shall illustrate the proportion of UK-based and locally engaged staff: I envisage, for instance, that about one third of the additional staff in China will be UK-based, and that about half in the emerging powers outside China and India—in countries such as Brazil, Turkey, Mexico and Indonesia—will be UK-based.
In welcoming the Foreign Secretary’s statement, may I say that it would have been all the stronger had he not found it necessary to parody and seek comprehensively to trash the record of the previous Government? I accept that the budget under the previous Government was insufficient. I also accept, and thought at the time, that the Treasury’s decision in 2007 to impose this foreign exchange regulator was utterly irrational, verging on the mad—[Interruption.]
No, I was Leader of the House—just so that we are clear.
I am delighted, therefore, that the Foreign Secretary has restored that protection. However, I hope that on reflection he thinks about some of his other criticisms, which were wholly misplaced, including the suggestion that we—I and other previous Labour Foreign Secretaries, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander)—were not as committed as him to the quality of traditional diplomacy, which is of fundamental importance. On that I hope that there is a bipartisan approach. What more is he doing to ensure that the posts and the work of the Department for International Development are brought under the broad umbrella of our overall diplomatic effort? Will he also comment on reports of a request to increase the budget of the European External Action Service, which, at a time of spending restraint across Europe, is unlikely to be justified?
Some interesting confessions are being produced by this statement. I am delighted to hear that the right hon. Gentleman objected to the previous Government’s withdrawal of the Foreign Office exchange rate protection—although he might have wanted to say that at the time. However, I am grateful that he is now well ahead of his Front-Bench team in agreeing with me that it was a mistake. It is time for the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander) to say the same and dissociate himself from this foolish policy of the previous Government.
That has got me back on to that partisan theme again that the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) does not like—he must forgive me. I am not a very partisan—in the party sense—Foreign Secretary, but on this issue I think that the previous Government made some serious mistakes, so I make no apology for going on about it. The closure of embassies and the chaotic state in which Foreign Office finances were left were mistakes—they were messed up by the previous Government—and I want to make it clear that under the coalition there is a very different approach. Today, therefore, I will be a little partisan, although of course I always have great respect for him.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s other questions, the EAS should not get the proposed budget increase. We are all having to manage within budgetary constraints, and so should it, which is why the proposal in recent days is unacceptable, as the United Kingdom will make clear.
We are working closely with the Department for International Development. Together with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development we are bringing about a cultural change in relations between the FCO and DFID, which has always been difficult in the past. We are co-locating more and the teams in each country are working together well. My right hon. Friend and I are in daily consultation about the policies that we are pursuing—an approach that is working much better.
The Secretary of State put emphasis on UKTI, saying that, in effect, it would be able to do more with less. May I suggest that he could achieve that outcome by ensuring that more people with genuine business experience are involved with UKTI? If he agrees with that premise, will he tell us how he might proceed towards achieving that objective?
My hon. Friend is quite right that we need people with good business experience working for and with UKTI, but in a way we have gone above and beyond that. The Prime Minister has appointed Lord Green—Stephen Green—as the new Minister for Trade and Investment working in both the Foreign Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. He comes with enormous business experience and has put together the new strategy for UKTI, which is very impressive and will set many new and demanding targets. Right at the head of that strategy will be somebody who is steeped in business experience and the private sector.
Just for the avoidance of doubt, I am thoroughly aware that I was not the Foreign Secretary, because nobody ever listened to a word I ever said. I am sure that people listen to everything that the Foreign Secretary says, and act upon it.
May I ask the right hon. Gentleman about an omission in his statement? There may be others, but one country that he made no mention of at all was Russia. We closed a post in Russia, but that was because the Russian Government insisted that we do so, because of the relations between our two Governments and, I believe, the harassment and corruption in the Russian system. I wonder whether he can update us on relations with Russia. I believe that he will be visiting soon, so will he ensure that he always underlines human rights and the need for doing away with corruption in the Russian system?
We are much reassured to know that the hon. Gentleman did not think that he was the Foreign Secretary. We are also reassured to know that nobody took any notice of what he was saying. That is an enormous relief to us.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have a strong diplomatic presence in Russia, with one of our major embassies in the world in Moscow. I do not think that it is necessary either to increase the size of that embassy from the current level of activity or to reduce it. That is why the embassy did not feature in the statement. Given that we have 260 posts altogether, there are many nations around the world that I did not mention in the statement. I am highlighting changes today.
Relations with Russia have improved in recent months, and we have made an effort to improve them. I visited Russia last October and my counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, came here in February. The Prime Minister intends to visit Russia later in the year. Both sides have been working at improvements in relations, but I do not think that we are at the point yet where we can reverse decisions that were taken under the previous Government about this. I make no criticism of the previous Administration on this issue, because the difficult relations with Russia were not their fault. [Interruption.] Yes, that is very generous of me, isn’t it? We will always continue to raise the difficult issues that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
I welcome the statement’s much needed strategic vision of a diplomatic network that is stronger in a changed world, and the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to working closely with the European External Action Service. Does he agree that working in close collaboration with the External Action Service and supporting it offers a cost-effective and efficient way to strengthen our diplomatic connections, to protect more Britons abroad and to increase Britain’s voice in world affairs?
I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman’s warm welcome for the statement and the input from him and his colleagues among Liberal Democrat Back Benchers, which has been valuable. We must work with the European External Action Service and have good people going into it. I am afraid that I am going to offend the Opposition again, but that will be part of rectifying something else that went awry under the last Government, which is that the number of British people going into European institutions was too low. We are putting that right, including in the External Action Service. It is right that it can be an extension of our influence in the world, but it is not a substitute for it, as I made clear in my statement. The External Action Service does not mean that we do not need British diplomatic posts or a British diplomatic presence, which are the only way to be sure of advancing the interests of the United Kingdom.
I warmly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement, especially the increase in diplomatic activity in India and Pakistan. I am on record as being delighted that the right hon. Gentleman was the first Foreign Secretary ever to visit Yemen—although he did not manage to get to the city of my birth. As he knows, the embassy in Sana’a has been closed since 2010. There is limited consular access, visas are not really being granted, and unfortunately the previous Government closed our consulate in Aden. Does he have the flexibility where necessary to increase diplomatic staff in areas that need attention, and will he be able to reopen the consulate in Aden once matters are resolved?
The right hon. Gentleman has been a long-standing champion of the interests of this House in Yemen. I am sorry that I did not get to the place of his birth—where I presume there is a statue and all kinds of other tributes to him; I look forward to seeing that one day. I might have misheard him, but I think he said that the embassy in Sana’a had closed. I can assure him that it has not closed; it is functioning. I visited it in February and it was working, albeit in difficult security conditions—there is no doubt about that. As he knows, two attempts were made last year on the lives of our diplomatic staff in Sana’a. The embassy works in the most difficult security conditions of any of our embassies abroad, but it is still functioning and has an important influence on events in Yemen. In the current security situation it is not possible to open additional diplomatic posts in Yemen. However, we have the flexibility in our plans to open further consulates and reinforce our presence in the middle east. That remains a live issue for the future.
I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on strengthening our diplomatic network at a time of such economic austerity. I strongly agree with his view that embassies play a vital role in world trade. In that context, I congratulate our embassy in Japan on its sterling work on behalf of British business, which I observed on a recent visit to Tokyo last November. Could he advise the House on the workings of his Department with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which is essential to our country’s ability to maximise trade opportunities in the newer markets that he mentioned?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s reference to the great work of our embassy in Japan. At the UKTI strategy launch last night I met someone from a very innovative new business who was immensely enthusiastic about the support that it had received from our embassy in Japan, so I can absolutely confirm what my hon. Friend says—[Interruption]—although I have slightly forgotten her other point.
Relations are very good. As I have said, the Business Secretary and I launched our UKTI strategy together last night. Lord Green works equally—half and half—in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to ensure that we are absolutely in step on pursuing the strategy, and he is already doing a great job.
The Secretary of State has announced that an embassy will open in South Sudan when it becomes an independent state shortly, joining the international community of nations in the United Nations and the African Union. Will he confirm that Whitehall has the most experience of any capital in the world when dealing with independence issues? The normal procedure is: recognition of the right of self-determination; the acceptance of independence referendum results; the establishment of diplomatic relations; and the maintenance of close co-operation between friendly sovereign nations.
Of course Whitehall has experience in all those matters, but the hon. Gentleman will also see from my statement that running the necessary network of sovereign posts and consulates around the world is very expensive for any Government. Any newly independent nation with any hope of maintaining its diplomatic strength in the world would have to come up with the several hundred million pounds in additional costs that would be necessary.
The Foreign Secretary makes an excellent case for bilateral relations. I am sure he will understand if I point out that under the Lisbon treaty, the External Action Service creates circumstances in which there could be conflict between our own national interests and those promoted by the European Union. Does he therefore accept that it would be far better if we were to retrench, and abolish the External Action Service by renegotiating the Lisbon treaty?
I think that if my hon. Friend had his way, all our relations in Europe would be bilateral. He and I both opposed the Lisbon treaty and the creation of the External Action Service, but we have to work with what we have. As we are in this situation, and as we respect the fact that we are a coalition Government, our approach is to make the best of this and to ensure that there are British people working in the External Action Service. I hope that we shall not reach a point of conflict, as my hon. Friend puts it, between the External Action Service and the United Kingdom’s approach to foreign affairs, because decisions on foreign policy are taken by unanimity in the European Union, and in the event of a direct conflict arising, the British Foreign Secretary would be able to veto any such proposal in the EU.
May I ask the Foreign Secretary to look carefully at any proposals to reduce the number of staff at our embassy in Iraq, because I believe that we have a certain responsibility towards Iraq? There is no dedicated human rights officer at the embassy. A human rights report was recently produced by Amnesty International about conditions in detention there. I always said that we should not hand over the detained prisoners until the Iraqis had the capacity to deal with them, which they do not have. It is therefore vital that we continue to have a considerable presence in Iraq, possibly with a dedicated human rights officer.
I will look at the point that the right hon. Lady raises about a human rights officer. I can certainly reassure her that we will retain a very considerable presence in Iraq; there is no doubt about that. I should point out that it is one of our most expensive diplomatic operations, partly because of the security that is still required. The embassy in Baghdad and its associated posts amount to one of our five most expensive embassies in the world. At the moment, that is out of proportion with the strategic and economic importance of Iraq, although that remains considerable. That is why we have to look for savings there, but I fully take the right hon. Lady’s point and we will retain a very considerable presence.
I am delighted to hear that our growing diplomatic network is committed to playing such an important part in promoting UK business. Can my right hon. Friend advise me on how small and medium-sized enterprises, especially those in my constituency, can make the best of that commitment?
The new strategy of UKTI, which Lord Green has taken the leading role in putting together, places the greatest emphasis on small and medium-sized enterprises. Only one in five of the SMEs in this country are exporters on any significant scale. If we could raise that to one in four, which is the European average, the extra exports from Britain would more than cancel out the trade deficits that we have experienced in recent years. This is a central goal, and UKTI’s work in the United Kingdom will reach out to those businesses in particular over the coming months and years. I will write to my hon. Friend with the details of what we announced last night.
The Foreign Secretary has already referred to the reports produced by the Foreign Affairs Committee in the last Parliament and in this one. He will be aware that just before the general election the Committee made a number of serious recommendations. I congratulate him on announcing the implementation of several of them in the statement today, particularly those relating to the embassy in Kyrgyzstan and to the scrapping of the overseas price mechanism to bring back some form of stability. Will he take a similar attitude to the Select Committee reports produced during this Parliament, and particularly to our recommendation that he reverse the cuts in the BBC World Service?
As the hon. Gentleman can see from the statement, I always attach great importance to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s reports and to its work. I thank him for his support for some of the decisions that I have announced today. We have discussed the World Service on other occasions, and we will be able to discuss it further. I will just point out that the reduction in the World Service’s funding over the period from 2007 to 2014 is roughly the same as the reduction that will have taken place in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as a whole, yet the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, through administrative savings and the changes that I have set out, is able to expand its network. That is not to make a direct analogy with what can be done with the World Service, but it is necessary for all public sector organisations to work out how to do more with less funding.
I echo the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) in welcoming the announcement of an additional 30 diplomats for the network in India. They will play a valuable part in creating the enhanced partnership that the two countries are seeking, and in reversing the decline in our trading relationships that we witnessed under the previous Government. In 1999 the UK was India’s fourth most important source of imports, but by 2009 we were its 22nd most important. I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that the 30 new diplomats put trade representation at the top of their priorities.
As my hon. Friend knows, we already afford great importance to the links with India. In July last year the Prime Minister led our largest ever ministerial and trade delegation to India, and we are continuing to build up those links. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome for the additional staff in India. I hope that that addition will allow us to open new consulates general at various locations, although we have to discuss that matter with the Indian Government to ensure that they are happy with the locations.
May I press the Foreign Secretary further on the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes)? The arguments that the Foreign Secretary has presented for the expansion and maintenance of the diplomatic network seem pretty sound, but do not many of the same arguments apply to the BBC World Service, especially in the light of the events in the various Arab nations? Will he look at that matter again?
The argument is that all parts of the public sector have to make the best possible use of reduced resources. I hope that the way in which we are now running the Foreign Office budget is a good example of that, and that it can be used as an example to other organisations, including the World Service. None of us enjoys making reductions anywhere, but it would clearly be impossible to do all the other things that we are committed to doing if we had maintained the World Service’s budget at exactly the level that it was before. We are putting the World Service on a long-term sustainable footing by moving it so that its funding comes from the BBC licence fee and enabling it to work together with the development of BBC World television. For the medium to long-term future, the World Service is on a much sounder, more sustainable footing.
The Foreign Secretary’s statement is very welcome, and I particularly welcome the expansion of our missions in countries whose citizens are represented in large numbers here as students, residents and business people. Those include China, India, Turkey and the countries of Latin America. Will he also assure us that in parts of the world where there are tensions and conflicts—where he also wants us to be properly represented—the work of conflict prevention and the upholding of human rights is a key priority in all our missions, just as it is in the United Nations, where we have international responsibilities?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. The work that we are doing in Yemen is conflict prevention. In particular, the very active work undertaken by the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development in Sudan during the referendum there earlier this year has so far made a material difference in preventing new conflict. That is part of the rationale for establishing a new embassy promptly in South Sudan. Conflict prevention saves many lives, and it is much cheaper and much more effective than having to intervene in conflicts when they arise. That will remain an important plank of our policies.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement about additional diplomatic staff. I have visited a few British embassies around the world, and I recently visited our embassy in Pakistan and met the staff there, including the high commissioner, Adam Thomson. I was incredibly impressed by the work that they, and our diplomatic service in general, do. In extending the number of posts and members of staff, will the Foreign Secretary consider sending people from different backgrounds out to those missions? There is still a tendency for many of the people who work for the Foreign Office and the diplomatic service to come from certain backgrounds and certain universities. Is it perhaps time to open this up and to allow a much wider variety of people to serve as our diplomats?
The hon. Lady is right about the outstanding work of our high commissioner and his staff in Pakistan, and I will relay what she said to him. I agree that our staff should come from many backgrounds, speaking as a Foreign Secretary who went to a comprehensive school—and there have not been many of those before.
I did not say that there were not any; I said that there had not been that many before. If the hon. Lady had met the new intake of graduates into the Foreign Office, as I did a few months ago, she would have seen a great diversity, and been completely reassured. I think we are set on the right course for the future, but we are always ready to do more.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement, particularly his emphasis on upgrading and developing diplomatic skills. Does he agree that Britain’s national interest in the future will be highly dependent on our ability to build relationships with emerging economies, so that we need to develop the appropriate diplomatic skills to achieve that?
I absolutely agree. That is what the diplomatic excellence initiative is all about. It is the main subject we discussed at the FCO leadership conference taking place this week for all our ambassadors and high commissioners from around the world. It is necessary to know countries in detail—to know them geographically, to know personally their leaders and potential leaders, to know their languages and to understand their history—in order to be able to influence events. Those skills now need accentuating again. That is the clear and constant signal that I am sending out from the Foreign Office.
I very much welcome today’s announcement, particularly the comments about Russia. I would like to move on to other European countries and our representation in them, and ask my right hon. Friend to reflect on the fact that not all capital cities in Europe are the centres of commerce and industry. When he is thinking about our representation, will he consult British businesses—our trade with Europe will remain vital in the years to come—to ensure that we have the right representation in the right places?
Yes, my hon. Friend makes a very important point. One commitment in the FCO charter for business that I published last night is to consult business about the work of UK Trade & Investment. That will, of course, continue. Let me reassure her that the changes I am announcing for Europe do not necessarily mean changes to UKTI deployments and consular work around Europe. We believe that it is possible for diplomatic work in European countries to be centred on those nations’ capitals, but it will also be important in many cases to retain our commercial functions and presence in many other parts of those countries.
I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on this truly internationalist statement, especially on the significant expansion of the UK’s diplomatic presence in Latin America—a region of great potential, where we have many friends. Will my right hon. Friend comment a little more on the opportunities for UK business in that region and the extent to which any expansion of our presence will be focused on promoting trade?
Trade is an important part of it. We need to be aware that the whole of Latin America is an economy bigger than China, and that it is growing at very substantial rates. That is why it is important to strengthen our diplomatic presence. In many Latin American countries the trading opportunities are, as my hon. Friend says, enormous. Making the most of the trading opportunities is important not just for economic reasons, because in the long term this also bolsters our relations with those countries and helps to improve our security and our influence in the world. I do not view it as a choice between trade and other aspects of our foreign policy goals, as advancing trade helps us to advance our other goals as well.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement and ask him for clarification. Where countries have shown high levels of brutality and oppression—this applies to Syria, and not just now, because in the 1980s President Assad senior killed thousands during a similar uprising—will our diplomatic relations be kept to the bare minimum?
Our views on such outrages will be very clear across the House. This country stands for human rights, for respect for minorities and for democratic developments, and we have made our views about Syria very clear in recent days. I would, however, depart from the thrust of my hon. Friend’s question in one respect, in that it is sometimes necessary to have an enhanced diplomatic presence even for countries with which we have difficult relations—in order to do more work with them, to try to influence them more effectively and to understand what is going on more fully. Diplomacy is about talking to people with whom we disagree, as well as about developing good relations with friends. That is why North Korea appeared in the list of countries for which I announced an increase in the number of our diplomats. Despite the difficulties of our relationship with that country—in fact, because of those difficulties—we need to do more in order to influence what is happening there.
I am very impressed by the approach my right hon. Friend has articulated today to the European External Action Service and the need to encourage British candidates not only to participate in that service but to get more widely involved in European institutions. Apart from simply promoting British applications, could he do more, for example, by expanding the number of time-limited secondments as a special initiative? It is very important that the skills acquired are then brought back to bear on the bilateral relations about which he has said so much today.
Yes, we are reintroducing the European fast stream for UK civil servants so that they can experience working in European institutions and then bring that experience back with them. The fast stream was discontinued—for about 10 years, I believe—after eastern and central European countries joined the European Union and the opportunities were reduced. Now that there can be more of an equilibrium in the intake into the EU, it is time to encourage the fast stream again. We are restarting it, and British civil servants will be able to spend part of their careers in European institutions.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
The shadow Foreign Secretary said earlier that he was grateful to the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of the statement. Unfortunately, however, the whole House, and indeed the whole country, had advance sight of it because it appeared in The Guardian this morning. In some respects, the newspaper provided greater detail than appeared in the Foreign Secretary’s statement. Furthermore, the Secretary of State for Transport’s announcements in a written statement were all broadcast on Radio 4’s “Today” programme this morning. I understand that everyone thinks that this happens all the time, and that it also happened under the Labour Government and all the rest of it, but I urge you, Mr Speaker, to take action. It is not enough to say every time this issue is raised that you deplore it and you want it to stop. Action needs to be taken to find out how frequently Ministers ignore the House and make announcements in other places before they make them here.
The Procedure Committee has been looking into the matter, and its thoughts will be shared more widely with the House. I accept the importance of the point that hon. Gentleman has made. At this stage, I would point out that the Foreign Secretary is here and is free to respond if he so wishes. Also, it can be difficult to identify a specific breach. Where such a breach is identified, culprits have been asked to apologise to the House, so it is not just a question of making general denunciations. Specific requirements have been imposed on Ministers. Before I hear the Foreign Secretary, let me say that I know of no parliamentarian or member of the Government who has greater respect for the House than him. I believe we will hear from him.
Further to that point of order, I hope that you think, Mr Speaker, that the Foreign Office does a good job on the whole of making sure that announcements are made to this House. I have lost count of the number of times I have resisted the temptation to appear on the media before making a statement here. In this case it was necessary, because of the staffing implications, to make announcements about these changes yesterday at a private meeting of our ambassadors and high commissioners. That might have affected the media coverage.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I apologise for not giving you notice of it, but the matter has arisen literally since I left the Chamber a few moments ago.
Yesterday, Mr Speaker, you gave a very clear indication of your view when my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) raised a matter concerning my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws) and an inquiry by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, after reports concerning the commissioner’s report had appeared in a national newspaper and on one of the television channels.
In the last hour, Sky News has reported on not just what appears to be the commissioner’s report, but a meeting of the relevant Committee of Members of the House of Commons. That is clearly in breach of rulings that you, Sir, have made in the past, and of all the principles guarding both the confidentiality of and respect for the proceedings of, in particular, our very important Committees. May I not just alert you to what has happened, Mr Speaker, but ask you to state—as you have on previous occasions, in the most strident terms—that it is clearly a breach of the rules of the House, and that everyone who has breached the rules must understand the implications of that when the matter is examined both by you and by the relevant Committees?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I hope that I made clear in the most uncompromising terms, on behalf of the House, my view of unauthorised disclosures in response to the point of order raised yesterday by the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell). On that occasion I made the point—which I must reiterate today—that at this juncture what has been raised is not specifically a matter for me, but a matter for the Committee itself to investigate.
The Committee may wish to establish how this came about, because I think that all Members who care about this place would unite in deprecating it in the strongest terms, because of the unfairness to the Member concerned and the rank discourtesy to the institution of the House of Commons.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wish to raise with you the extraordinary conduct of 10 Downing street in relation to correspondence from Members of Parliament.
On 26 April, I wrote to the Prime Minister at the request of a constituent. During the last half hour I have received a reply from 10 Downing street, signed “Mrs E Adams, Direct Communications Unit”, saying that my letter has been diverted to receive a response from a Minister in the Treasury.
When I telephoned Mrs Adams to ask why the diversion had taken place, I was first transferred to someone in the correspondence unit, who told me that Mrs Adams did not speak on the telephone. I said that as she had written to me, I assumed that she was capable of speaking to me on the telephone. I was then transferred to someone who described herself as “head of the correspondence unit”, who said that Mrs Adams did not exist and that hers was a computer-generated name. Presumably, hers is also a computer-generated bogus signature.
It so happens that I have been a Member of the House of Commons for nearly 41 years, and that in the past whenever I wrote to a Prime Minister, that Prime Minister replied to me personally, whichever party was in office and whether I was a Back Bencher or a Front Bencher. During the past year, this Prime Minister has not once replied directly to any letters that I have sent him, but has diverted them to other Departments.
I ask for your guidance, Mr Speaker. Can you tell me first why the present Prime Minister does not answer letters as his predecessors have, and secondly what extraordinary events are taking place in 10 Downing street as a result of which it sends letters from someone who does not exist and expects people to accept that?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. First, I must confess that during my 14 years in the House it has not always been my experience, having written to a Prime Minister, to receive a reply from that Prime Minister. Sometimes it happens, and sometimes it does not. Secondly, let me say that in general—as Members will understand—the way in which letters are dealt with by Departments is principally a matter for those Departments. Thirdly, let me say to the right hon. Gentleman and to the House as a whole that I consider it to be of the utmost importance for Members to be treated with courtesy by the Departments or agencies to which they write.
It seems peculiarly unfortunate that the right hon. Gentleman’s inquiry has been handled in this way. If it is possible to imagine a Member who would take such treatment lying down, that Member is certainly not the right hon. Gentleman.
If there are no further points of order, I think we will leave it there for today. Let us proceed to the ten-minute rule motion, for which the hon. Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) has been waiting very patiently.
Planning (Grade 1 Agricultural Land Protection)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit local authorities granting planning permission involving the development of Grade 1 agricultural land other than in exceptional circumstances; and for connected purposes.
The Bill aims to reinstate the protection that was in place when food production was one of our national security considerations and was seen as a strategic asset. Although there is guidance on development on agricultural land, it does not provide a sufficiently robust defence of what I believe is a national asset. However, the Government have an excellent opportunity to include the objectives of my Bill in the forthcoming national policy planning frameworks. I hope that, unlike the previous Government, this Government do not see the countryside as merely a public amenity space or an aesthetic experience for urban dwellers to enjoy. Grade 1 agricultural land is important and has strategic implications for all our constituents, urban and rural.
Let us be clear that once highly productive land has been built on, there is no going back—it has gone for ever. Some might ask, “Who cares?” The reason why food production should be of interest to everyone is that we are increasingly vulnerable to global food price rises that have an impact on each and every one of our constituents. International protectionism, climate change and increased global population are all resulting in significant volatility in the food sector. We must therefore do what we are doing in the energy sector, and regard national food production as part of our national security agenda. An essential part of that agenda is ensuring that we do not reduce our ability to produce food domestically, and land use is at the heart of the issue.
Agriculture, food production and land use are distant concepts to many of our constituents. I myself was brought up in London, far from anything to do with the world of farming. Do the majority of our constituents worry about whether a farm is turned into a golf course or whether some fields are sold for development? That does not affect us, and if we gain a new business park or some new houses and the farmer can retire to the Caribbean on the proceeds, good for him.
Our lack of appreciation of food production is due to the fact that our capacity to produce food is not seen as a strategic asset. It is no longer considered to be important to our economy and the well-being of our population. As a result, the amount of arable land in the United Kingdom has decreased by 30% and food imports have increased to 47% over the past 20 years—of course, no one has been on the streets protesting.
The ideal combination of globally sourced food and reasonable prices was shaken in 2008. There was a perfect storm of bad weather conditions, crop failures, a change in global consumption patterns, a 50% leap in the cost of a barrel of oil and some speculation, and commodity prices rocketed by 66%. The food price spike was further compounded by a new phenomenon, food protectionism. Global variations in food prices fluctuated dramatically. Countries that withheld exports, such as Indonesia, were able to keep their domestic prices down, but those that did not experienced a much higher rate of food inflation, which created real political instability. Unfortunately, that experience revealed the short-term benefits of protectionism, and it has created a new political and economic reality that might lead to further protectionism and exacerbate food volatility. Much of this has passed us by, however. Food security and food prices are rarely, if ever, raised in the House, and few of our constituents are particularly concerned so long as the supermarket shelves are full of what they want to buy at a price that they are prepared to pay.
The price of food should be making the future of productive land an important concern for us all. The Foresight report on food security stresses that
“the past century of low food prices is at an end.”
Agricultural production will become a much more important industry sector, and at this time when food production is so important, we have no restrictions in place to stop developers tarmacing over our own highly productive food-producing land.
Price is starting to impact on my constituents. In my constituency, the average wage is just £17,000 and therefore more money as a percentage of income is spent on food than in many other areas. My constituents are noticing prices. I had a gentleman in my surgery this weekend who said that he had had a heart attack and was told by his doctor that good fresh food was essential to his health. As he is on jobseeker’s allowance, he cannot afford to eat good food and is now reverting to buying cheap junk food.
Supermarkets are extending their promotional offers, as they know more than anyone the extent to which prices are rising, but for how long will they be able to resist passing on the increased commodity costs to the consumer? Prices are increasing, nutritional standards will fall, the vulnerable in our constituencies will have to revert to the cheapest food possible, and—following on from those who have protested about fuel price increases—we will receive more post from people on the subject of food prices. There is a good reason for that. Commodity prices in April were 4.7% higher than in the same period last year. I hope the Treasury is looking into the impact that that will have on economic growth and inflation; the Bank of England certainly is. Kraft Foods has announced that it will be raising its food prices, which will hit every one of our constituents. The cost of food is also increasing, because of the high reliance on energy in agriculture, while the British Chamber of Shipping calculates that sea transport costs are increasing due to piracy, and the degradation of land due to droughts, flooding or urbanisation will put further stresses on existing productive land, yet we have no statutory defence against those who might want to build on our most productive land.
We must start to approach food security with the same zeal that we approach energy security. Domestic energy supply is seen as critical to our long-term energy security. We seem to understand that reliance on volatile suppliers of energy is bad for economic growth, stability and consumers, and for food security, too, we need to start to put in place the measures that will give us further certainty in terms of price, production and vulnerability of supply.
As the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), will know, according to the Campaign to Protect Rural England, by 2030 Kent will lose 10% of its productive land due to sea level rises, so we will be losing productive land in any case due to climate change and sea level rises. It would be mad at the same time to lose additional productive land when we have the powers to stop that happening.
I urge the Minister to take on board the genuine importance of this Bill for wider economic and social needs, to recognise that the protection it offers grade 1 agricultural land must be incorporated into the national policy planning frameworks, and to ensure that food production is seen as an increasingly important part of our domestic security. I realise that protecting grade 1 agricultural land is not the sole answer to food insecurity and price increases, and I am not proposing food sovereignty, but land use protection is one of the mechanisms that we must put in place in order to reduce our exposure to the volatility of the international market. Therefore, we must, at the very least, not lose more productive land than we have lost to date.
Question put and agreed to.
That Laura Sandys, Zac Goldsmith, Mr Tim Yeo, Mr Roger Gale, Caroline Lucas, Rebecca Harris, Bill Esterson, Elizabeth Truss, Richard Drax, Priti Patel and Mr Dominic Raab present the Bill.
Laura Sandys accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 14 October, and to be printed (Bill 187).
Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee.
New Clause 20
Financing of pupil referral units
‘(1) Section 45 of SSFA 1998 (financing of maintained schools: maintained schools to have budget shares) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (1A), omit “or” at the end of paragraph (b), and after paragraph (c) insert “, or
(d) a pupil referral unit in England.”
(3) In subsection (3)—
(a) in paragraph (a), after “pupil referral units” insert “in Wales”;
(b) after paragraph (a) insert—
“(aa) references to the governing body of a maintained school or of a school maintained by a local authority shall be read, in relation to a pupil referral unit in England, as references to the management committee for the unit (in spite of paragraph 1 of Schedule 1 to the Education Act 1996);
(ab) references to governors shall be read, in relation to a pupil referral unit in England, as references to the members of the management committee for the unit;”.’.—(Mr Gibb.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government new clause 21—Charges at boarding Academies.
New clause 1—Tackling educational underachievement—
‘(1) The Secretary of State may, by order, in circumstances where an existing school has for the preceding two years or for three of the preceding five years failed to meet or exceed the “National Floor Standards”, disapply any provisions of the Academies Act 2010 to facilitate the making of an academy under section 4 of the Academies Act 2010 (Academy orders).
(2) For the purposes of this clause the term “National Floor Standards” means standards of educational attainment and progress of pupils established from time to time by the Secretary of State and in place at the time of the order and which may be applied retrospectively for the purposes of this section.’.
New clause 13—Schools Causing Concern and disapplication of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006—
‘(1) The Academies Act 2010 shall be amended as follows.
(2) In section 4, at end insert— “The Secretary of State may by order disapply the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 when making an academy order under this section if the school is eligible for intervention (within the meaning of Part 4 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006).”’.
New clause 19—Purchase by academies of places for pupils aged 14 at a private school—
‘(1) An Academy may apply its funds for the purpose of purchasing a place at a private school for a relevant pupil for the whole or part of the pupil’s remaining school career.
(2) For the purposes of this section, a relevant pupil—
(a) is a pupil on the school roll of the Academy; and
(b) is aged 14.’.
Government amendments 34, 35, 38 and 39.
Yes, and innovative sittings.
New clause 20 seeks to give pupil referral units in England greater autonomy, to enable them to provide vulnerable children with high-quality education and support. In the schools White Paper, “The Importance of Teaching”, we announced that we would give PRUs control over their budgets and staffing. We had intended to use PRU regulations to achieve the financial control aspect of that objective, but although we could do that, the regulations would become very complex and difficult to understand and use. The easiest and clearest way to achieve the objective is to amend section 45 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, so that the provisions on school finances apply to PRU management committees. That is what new clause 20 does.
This is a small change, but its effect will be significant, and we believe that it will be an important driver for further improvement in the PRU sector. In common with our other education reforms, it is based on the trust that we place in the teaching profession and our desire to give schools of all kinds the freedom and autonomy to run their own affairs.
The finance regulations will apply to PRUs in the same way that they apply to maintained schools, and, of course, we are currently consulting on the entire school funding arrangements.
The purpose of new clause 21 is to ensure that rights enjoyed by pupils in boarding academies are the same as those in maintained state boarding schools. Under section 458 of the Education Act 1996, local authorities are required to remit boarding fees for pupils from their area who are attending state boarding schools in certain circumstances. Those provisions apply solely to maintained schools. When section 458 was enacted, there were no academies, and as a number of boarding schools are taking the opportunity to convert to become academies, we want to ensure that the pupils at those boarding academies continue to have their right to be considered for a remission of boarding fees safeguarded. So the new clause mirrors the provisions in section 458, with the exception that we are not mirroring subsection (1), which enables local authorities to charge fees for boarding. That provision is unnecessary in the case of academies, because the funding agreement allows academies to charge boarding fees. It must be right that on the remission of boarding fees we have a level playing field in our treatment of pupils at maintained and academy boarding schools.
Government amendments 34 and 35 are being introduced so that some of the pupils who would most benefit from good alternative provision—AP—can be referred to AP academies.