House of Commons
Wednesday 6 July 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—
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I believe that the House will want to pay tribute to Sir Oliver Napier, whose funeral was held yesterday. He was a founding father and leader of the Alliance party, and a member of the power-sharing Executive in 1974. He led the way towards inclusive politics, and was widely respected across the entire community. He will be much missed.
The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at severe. Despite the overwhelming community rejection of violence, the terrorist groups continue to pose an indiscriminate threat to the safety of police officers and the general public, who want their lives to be free of fear, disruption and intimidation.
The violent scenes that we have witnessed in part of east Belfast in recent days are obviously a matter of great concern. Will my right hon. Friend join me in sending our support and gratitude to the Police Service of Northern Ireland for its restraint, courage and success in combating that disorder as well as the continuing terrorist threat in Northern Ireland?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question and I wholly endorse his comments. I happily put on record the Government’s deep appreciation of the restraint and skill with which the PSNI handled the recent disturbances.
However, I would put out a public appeal to all those who are considering expressing their views over the next few days. They, too, should show restraint. I remind them that the rule of law will prevail, and that this week, significant prosecutions have resulted from charges against those who broke the law a year ago.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that close co-operation between the PSNI, the Garda, and Ministers here, in Belfast and in Dublin, is essential in combating the ongoing terrorist threat? Will he join me in congratulating the Garda on its recent discovery of an arms cache and arrests in County Louth?
It is almost impossible to stress how closely we are now working. Last week, I met Eamon Gilmore, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, and I had several discussions in the last week with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence. I also recently saw the Garda commissioner. The Garda is to be wholly congratulated on its recent raid at Hackballscross in County Louth, where a significant amount of lethal matériel was apprehended. I am delighted to confirm that the co-operation with the PSNI gets better from month to month.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that at a time of such pressure on the public finances, the exceptional deal to the give the PSNI an extra £200 million over the next four years is a clear demonstration that this Government will always stand by Northern Ireland?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the chance to remind the House that we endorsed £50 million last year and a further unprecedented £200 million over the next four years. We are absolutely determined to bear down on the current threat, and I am delighted that Matt Baggot, the Chief Constable, to whom I spoke this morning, confirmed that we
“have the resources, the resilience and…the commitment”
to meet that threat.
All of us in the House are concerned about the recent violence in east Belfast and acknowledge the challenges facing the PSNI. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a very significant role for the Northern Ireland Executive in tackling the underlying causes that fuel that violence?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for his question. The problem cannot be contained by security activity alone, however well co-ordinated and well funded by the PSNI and the Garda. Ultimately, this must be sorted out on the ground, by local politicians working with local people. That was confirmed in the Independent Monitoring Commission report that said:
“The main responsibility for dealing with these challenges rests with the Assembly, the Executive and local politicians, working in conjunction with community leaders, churches, the law enforcement and other public institutions, and ultimately, with the…whole community”.
In 2004, Jane Kennedy, the then Northern Ireland Office Minister, told the House that an inventory of all decommissioned weapons would be published when the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning had completed its work. The IICD stood down on Monday, but no inventory was published. Will the Secretary of State tell the House why that pledge was not honoured, and does he accept that that will affect public confidence?
The IICD made it clear why it did not publish an inventory. We would like to be in the position to publish this data, as the then Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, Jane Kennedy, was back in 2003-04, but the success of the IICD has been its independence, and it is for it to decide—it is entirely within its remit—where it puts this information. It is now in the hands of the US Secretary of State and cannot be divulged without the prior agreement of the Irish and British Governments.
I acknowledge the information that the Secretary of State has just given us about dissident activity, the report published by the Independent Monitoring Commission last Monday and the fact that the level of dissident activity is now higher than when it published its first report in 2004. The report stated that loyalist groups were finding it difficult to contemplate going out of business. In that context, does he agree that whatever we do to bring the paramilitary activity to a peaceful conclusion, it will not be achieved by throwing money at gang leaders, as has been suggested in east Belfast over the past few weeks?
I just quoted from the IMC report showing that these problems will not be resolved by one simple solution. They have to be resolved on the ground by working with local people at the closest level. That means down to community groups and local politicians. It is not for us to lay down the law from Westminster. That is now in local hands.
Will the Secretary of State give us some guidance on the extent to which the police and his office are getting co-operation from all communities in identifying those responsible for the ongoing terrorist activities on both sides of the divide?
I am grateful to the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. The police are conducting a review and a serious investigation into the disturbances last week, and it would be wrong to pre-empt what they discover. However, once we have the information from the police, we will make further decisions.
Tackling the deficit remains the Government’s biggest priority, and Northern Ireland has its part to play in achieving that outcome. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive to boost private sector growth and investment and to help rebalance the economy.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s interest in Northern Ireland, and I hope that it will continue. I hope also that he will join me in celebrating the jobs that the service sector in Northern Ireland has attracted. The New York stock exchange has attracted 400 new jobs; Citigroup financial services will attract 500 jobs over the next five years; and the law firm Allen and Overy has attracted 300 jobs in Belfast. To answer his question directly, I would say that Northern Ireland is a great place for the service industries. It is open and we want more investment, and I hope that he and his party will join us in making that happen.
Well that all sounds very good, but in the past 12 months, the Northern Ireland claimant count has increased by 7%. That is the biggest increase in the UK and 21 times the national average. The Minister will know that the Northern Bank/Oxford Economics survey has now dramatically downgraded economic growth forecasts in Northern Ireland to 1.1% from a previous forecast of 1.9%. The Northern Ireland economy needs help now. What is the Minister going to do?
It is regrettable that the Secretary of State is talking Northern Ireland down—[Interruption.] The independent Office for Budget Responsibility’s recent updated fiscal and economic forecasts show that the Government’s plans will deliver sustainable growth in each of the next five years with employment rising by 1.1 million by 2015 across the UK and the deficit falling. That of course includes Northern Ireland. The unemployment rate for Northern Ireland was down by 0.8% over the quarter and the number of unemployed people in Northern Ireland was estimated at 61,000—down 6,000 over the quarter. It is because of the Government’s determination to tackle the deficit and the legacy we inherited from a Government of which the right hon. Gentleman was part that these figures are good.
Regrettably, the only thing that is going down is an economic forecast from 1.9% to 1.1%. Undoubtedly the Minister will update his brief in due course. The Secretary of State proposes a change in corporation tax rates to help in the long term. I seek clarification. We know that the immediate impact of the cut in the block grant will be the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in the public sector, especially in education. However, if the policy in the medium term creates jobs, it follows that there will be additional revenue from income tax and a decrease in welfare payments. He wants the public sector, especially in education, to take the pain now, but in the future, if those benefits flow from increases in jobs and tax revenues, will the Treasury keep the money or will it go to the people of Northern Ireland?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of corporation tax. There has been widespread consultation on the issue, and all the political parties in Northern Ireland support devolving the power to Northern Ireland. We believe that it will bring growth and jobs; equally, we believe that it is important to rebalance Northern Ireland’s economy, regardless of the situation that we inherited. Like me, the right hon. Gentleman represents an English constituency, and he will be aware that Northern Ireland receives about 25% more in spend per head of the population than England. It is therefore important that we rebalance Northern Ireland’s economy and allow it to grow.
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs leads the work to crack down on fuel smuggling and fraud, working closely with the Irish authorities. The Organised Crime Task Force, which is chaired by the Northern Ireland Justice Minister, estimated in its 2011 threat assessment that there is an annual tax loss of £200 million from fuel fraud and legitimate cross-border fuel shopping.
Estimates suggest that the Government actually lose between £280 million to £300 million a year to fuel smuggling and laundering in Northern Ireland. That pushes up fuel taxes for everyone, which is deeply unfair. Does my right hon. Friend agree that extending rural fuel pilots to the new economic zones would cut smuggling and save the taxpayer an absolute fortune?
I agree that we need to save the taxpayer an absolute fortune, and I have had discussions about this issue with both the Northern Ireland Justice Minister and the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury. I recently brought to the attention of the Exchequer Secretary and the Financial Secretary to the Treasury—who is here with us today—the comments of the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), who has some ideas about various companies that can help with the traceability of fuel. However, I would also point out to my hon. Friend that the “Cross-Border Organised Crime Assessment 2010” said:
“Changes in exchange and duty rates have made this…less profitable over the past few years than it would have been previously.”
We have just heard about the amount of money that Her Majesty’s Government are losing in revenue to fuel smuggling and laundering. The Minister will be aware of recent findings of large amounts of fuel on the border. Can he please update us on the fuel duty escalator and the possible introduction of a pilot scheme in Northern Ireland?
I think that I have just answered that question, which was not dissimilar to that asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). In direct answer to the point about co-operation across the border, relations are extremely good, as is true for all our relations with the Republic of Ireland, not least with the Garda. We are working in close co-operation, hence the success of the Organised Crime Task Force and HMRC in driving down fuel smuggling.
Northern Ireland has enormous attractions for tourists and we strongly support efforts to encourage them to visit. The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) raised the issue of VAT rates at a recent meeting with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but these matters are not our direct responsibility.
The Minister of State should be aware that as of last week, VAT in the tourism sector in the south of Ireland has been reduced to 9% for 18 months. Similar steps have been taken in France and Germany. Will he and the Secretary of State use their standing with their colleagues in the Treasury to commend a sectorally targeted VAT cut for tourism throughout the UK?
The hon. Gentleman knows that the EU average for VAT is 20.8%, whereas VAT in the UK is 20%. Germany’s lower rate is simply a mechanism to redistribute money from the centre to the Länder, as Germany has many local tourist—or “bed”—taxes. We would all like lower taxation and we would all like the deficit to be addressed, which is what we are seeking to do, but this is not just about the rates of VAT. London hotels are doing better than they have done for some time, there are more tourist visitors to Northern Ireland than there have been for some time and the hon. Gentleman’s city of Londonderry will be city of culture in 2013. We need to offer people value for money and good hospitality—that I am sure we can do—and the issue of VAT will then become secondary.
On future taxation policy, will the Secretary of State tell us whether the electricity White Paper that is soon to be published will contain proposals to address the fact that Northern Ireland has a single electricity market, linked with the Republic of Ireland? Will it address the implications of those arrangements for providers and users of energy in Northern Ireland, in that they could influence the market disproportionately?
The Government utterly condemn all those involved in the localised violence in part of east Belfast a fortnight ago. It would be unwise for me to comment on the role played by specific groups while the police investigation is ongoing, but I know that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is determined to bring those responsible to justice.
I am happy to concur wholeheartedly with the hon. Lady’s comment. Northern Ireland has moved on by a huge distance, and everyone can now express their legitimate political aims and pursue them by democratic means. There is absolutely no place for political violence in Northern Ireland today.
On behalf of the whole House, may I congratulate the Minister of State on his upgrading of my right hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Mr Woodward) to his new role of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? I am not entirely sure whether that was a prediction, but it is certainly one that we would support. Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon), the Secretary of State will be aware that even below the most placid surface, dark cold undercurrents flow, and that we have to address the issue of the sectarian legacy. What is he doing to support groups such as Co-operation Ireland and other peace-builders?
I am grateful to the shadow Minister, who is on perky form this morning. I have regular meetings with the chairman of Co-operation Ireland; I am actually seeing him again today. However, dealing with community groups is very much in local hands. I have had recent discussions with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and I am seeing both of them again tomorrow. This is very much a local issue to be sorted out on the ground according to local circumstances. [Interruption.]
Given the ease with which guns were produced at the Short Strand interface, does the Secretary of State understand the annoyance and anger at the fact that the inventory of the weapons destroyed by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning was not made known? Does he agree that the people of Northern Ireland have a right to know the full extent of the destruction of weaponry that has taken place? The Conservatives and Labour have agreed on that, and the inventory has also been lodged in Washington.
I am fully aware of the concerns behind the hon. Gentleman’s question, but we have to take the advice of those very experienced independent professionals, who have pulled off an extraordinary task. I pay tribute to General de Chastelain and his colleagues for what they did, and if it is their professional opinion today that it would not be helpful to publish that inventory, we have to take that advice seriously, as do the Irish Government. That is why the inventory has been placed with the American Secretary of State, where it will rest. No one will see it until the British and Irish Governments together decide that the time is appropriate.
Public Expenditure Reductions
As I said earlier to the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), tackling the deficit has to be the Government’s biggest priority, and Northern Ireland must play its part. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are working with Northern Ireland Ministers to attract growth and investment and to help rebalance the economy.
Northern Bank’s quarterly economic forecast states that Northern Ireland’s construction sector has hit a new low and is facing its fourth year of decline. It has already suffered some of the worst job losses anywhere in the country. Do the 10,000 people who could now lose their jobs, on top of those who have already done so, have any cause for optimism, given the complacency that the Minister showed in his earlier answer?
I do not think that I showed complacency in my earlier answer. We are fully aware of the effect of the recession on the construction industry not only in Northern Ireland but in the whole of the United Kingdom. It has had a real effect in many of the border areas where people used to go down to the building sites of Dublin and earn their money that way. That is a serious issue for all kinds of reasons. The fact that we came to the aid of the Republic of Ireland has allowed us to have far greater involvement in its investment decisions affecting Northern Ireland, not least those of the banks, as well as in other issues of mutual interest.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, there has been a consultation process on air passenger duty, which is continuing, and we have discussed the issue with the Finance Minister at Stormont. These are issues that we take very seriously, not least in respect of what I describe as the economic umbilical cord—the link to New York by Continental airlines. We are keen to see that continue. A number of companies, including the New York stock exchange, came to invest in Northern Ireland because of that air route. As I say, we are taking this extremely seriously and we are batting for Northern Ireland.
Data on the exact level of cross-border trafficking is not available, but there is clearly a cross-border element in many cases. I spoke yesterday to the Northern Ireland justice Minister and I know that he has been working closely with authorities in the Republic of Ireland to tackle this despicable crime.
I thank the Minister for his response. People are being trafficked across the border with bogus papers. Unfortunately, they are being trafficked from this country into the Republic of Ireland. The Republic of Ireland is discovering trafficked people whose papers are so obviously bogus that they should never have been admitted to the United Kingdom in the first place. This is an issue that we really need to look at.
My hon. Friend is, of course, absolutely right. The Minister for Immigration is working closely with his counterparts in the Irish Republic to ensure that we jointly strengthen our external borders against threats such as human trafficking gangs. I would like briefly to pay tribute, if I may, to my hon. Friend’s work on the all-party group and, indeed, to that of our former colleague, Anthony Steen and the Human Trafficking Foundation, which I hope to accompany to Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend has much to add to the debate. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The ease with which cross-border trafficking between Northern Ireland and the Republic can occur is quite obvious and apparent to everyone. Will the Minister ensure that liaison with the Republic of Ireland’s authorities is stepped up to ensure that those who are being trafficked can be helped, given the problems that they are facing?
We all want to hear the hon. Gentleman—I hope others heard him better than I did. The little that I heard was about cross-border co-operation. I can assure him that we have had some recent successes in Northern Ireland, as he will have seen from the newspapers. We work extremely closely with the authorities in the Republic. This is an issue that affects us all. It is a despicable thing, and I draw the attention of all Members to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s report “Forced labour in Northern Ireland”, which has recently come out and bears reading.
Northern Ireland is an excellent place to do business and enjoys world-class aerospace, engineering and health technology companies, but the Northern Ireland economy is still too over-reliant on the public sector, so we are working together with the Northern Ireland Executive to help rebalance it and to boost private sector growth.
I am delighted to report that the consultation, which ends on Friday, has received the overwhelming endorsement of all five political parties. The leaders in the Executive came to Kelvatek for the launch of that very successful consultation. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have been to Northern Ireland to see what is happening for themselves—as has my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary, who is going again tomorrow—and we will respond in the autumn.
Does the Secretary of State agree that if the Northern Ireland economy is to be helped through the devolution of corporation tax, that must come at a fair, reasonable and acceptable price rather than a price that is detrimental to economic growth?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Treasury document makes it clear that every 2.5% reduction in corporation tax requires a £60 million to £90 million reduction in the block grant. That constitutes 0.5% of the block grant, which many economists and businesses consider to be a very modest investment.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Highlander Scott McLaren of The Highlanders, 4th Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland. This week I witnessed at first hand the sacrifice of our soldiers. I pay tribute to the bravery and dedication of this particular soldier, who was lost in such tragic circumstances. Our thoughts will rightly be with his family and his friends at this very sad time, but we pay tribute to him and all those like him who serve our country so magnificently in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I echo the sentiments that the Prime Minister has expressed. As a father whose son is serving in the Royal Marines and doing his duty in Afghanistan, I can tell the House that those in my position dread the knock on the door saying that their son has been lost in action. Our sympathies obviously go to Scott’s father, mother and family at this time.
Is it right that yesterday we gave £10 billion to the bail-out of the banks in Greece, that we gave £7 billion to the bail-out in Ireland, and that we—the British taxpayers—give £100 billion a year to the banks in this country for insurance and other purposes? Why does the Prime Minister not get on his bike, go down to see his friends in the City, and sack a few spivs and speculators and bankers—
Let me say first that it is this Government who have imposed a levy on the banks so that they pay more every year than they paid in bankers’ bonus tax under the last Government. As for Greece, I kept us out of a European bail-out, and as for Ireland, its economy is so close and so integrated with ours that it is right for us to give it support. That, I think, is the right approach, but this Government are being tough in ensuring that the banks pay their fair share.
Q2. Severe droughts, conflicts and food prices have combined viciously in the horn of Africa, creating desperate hunger and threatening the lives of millions. Given that aid agencies are short of funds, what are the Government doing to help? (63870)
As ever, the Department for International Development is being extremely effective. It is working very quickly to try to help in this appalling crisis, in which 10 million people face the threat of starvation. That demonstrates once again that we are right to maintain and increase our spending in this area, difficult as the arguments sometimes are. Our difficulties here and elsewhere in Europe are nothing in comparison with what is being experienced by people who face starvation and death unless we help them.
May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Highlander Scott McLaren of The Highlanders, 4th Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland? He was a young man who was serving our country, and died in the most horrific circumstances. I am sure the thoughts of the whole House are with his family and friends.
The whole country has been appalled by the disclosures about phone hacking: the 7/7 victims, the parents of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, and, of course, the phone of Milly Dowler. That anyone could hack into her phone, listen to her family’s frantic messages and delete them, giving false hope to the parents, is immoral and a disgrace. Given the gravity of what has occurred, will the Prime Minister support the calls for a full, independent public inquiry to take place as soon as practical into the culture and practices of British newspapers?
Let me be very clear: yes, we do need to have an inquiry—possibly inquiries—into what has happened. We are no longer talking about politicians and celebrities; we are talking about murder victims—potentially terrorist victims—having their phones hacked into. What has taken place is absolutely disgusting, and I think everyone in this House, and indeed this country, will be revolted by what they have heard and seen on their television screens.
Let me make a couple of points. First—people need to know this—a major police investigation is under way. It is one of the biggest police investigations currently under way in our country, and crucially—I hope Opposition Members will listen to this—it does not involve police officers who were involved in the original investigation that so clearly did not get to the truth. It is important that we have inquiries: inquiries that are public; inquiries that are independent; and inquiries that have public confidence.
It seems to me that there are two vital issues that we need to look into. The first is the original police inquiry and why that did not get to the bottom of what has happened, and the second is the behaviour of individual people and individual media organisations and, as the right hon. Gentleman says, a wider look into media practices and ethics in this country. Clearly, as he says, we cannot start that sort of inquiry immediately because we must not jeopardise the police investigation, but it may be possible to start some of that work earlier. I am very happy to discuss this with him, with other party leaders, and with the Attorney-General and the Cabinet Secretary, to make sure that we get this right and lessons are learned from what has become a disgraceful episode.
Let me say to the Prime Minister that I am encouraged that he does now recognise the need for a full public inquiry into what happened. He is right to say that it can be fully completed only after the police investigation has taken its course, but, as he also said, that may take some years. It is possible, as I think he implied, for the Prime Minister to start the process now, so may I make some suggestions in that context? He should immediately appoint a senior figure, potentially a judge, to lead this inquiry, make it clear that it will have the power to call witnesses under oath, and establish clear terms of reference covering a number of key issues: the culture and practices of the industry; the nature of regulation, which is absolutely crucial; and the relationship between the police and the media. I wonder whether he can respond on those points.
I want to respond positively, and let me do so. First, on the two issues I mentioned—the conduct of the earlier police inquiry and the broader lessons about ethics in the media—I do not think it is possible to start any form of investigation into the former until the police investigation is completed, because I think there would be a danger of jeopardising the current police inquiry. Responding positively to what the right hon. Gentleman said, I do think it may be possible to make a start on other elements, and, as I have said, I do not want us to rush this decision; I want us to get it right, having discussed it with other party leaders, the Attorney-General and the Cabinet Secretary. All too often, these sorts of inquiries can be set up too quickly without thinking through what actually needs to be done.
I think the Prime Minister is implying that this can start moving now, and I think it is very important that it does so; just because we cannot do everything does not mean we cannot do anything. It is very important that we act. A year ago to the day, the Prime Minister appointed the Gibson inquiry to look into the treatment of detainees by the intelligence services, with criminal cases still pending.
Let me ask the Prime Minister about what happens in the meantime, pending this public inquiry. We have consistently said that the BSkyB bid should be referred to the Competition Commission and not dealt with in the way the Culture Secretary has done. The Prime Minister must realise that the public will react with disbelief if next week the decision is taken to go ahead with this deal at a time when News International is subject to a major criminal investigation and we do not yet know who charges will be laid against. Does the Prime Minister agree that the BSkyB bid should now be referred to the Competition Commission, to provide the breathing space that is required?
First, let me answer the right hon. Gentleman’s point about Gibson, because this is a good and fair point. We established the Gibson inquiry but it has not been able to make much progress until criminal proceedings have been brought to an end. There is a good reason for this; clearly you do not want to jeopardise a police operation, and you do so if you start questioning witnesses through a public inquiry process at the same time as they are being questioned through a police process. That is the reason for doing this, but, believe me, I want us to get on with this issue, and the faster we can set up other elements of an inquiry, the happier I will be.
On the issue of BSkyB, what we have done is follow, absolutely to the letter, the correct legal processes. That is what the Government have to do. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport has a quasi-judicial role and he has to follow that. I note that the leader of the Labour party said yesterday that the issue of competition and plurality is “a separate issue” from the very important issue we are discussing today. What I would say is that these processes must be followed properly, including by Ofcom, and it is Ofcom that has the duty to make a recommendation about a “fit and proper person”. Those are the right processes; this Government will behave in a proper way.
I am afraid that that answer was out of touch with millions of people up and down this country. The public will not accept the idea that, with this scandal engulfing the News of the World and News International, the Government should, in the coming days be making a decision outside the normal processes, for them to take control of one of the biggest media organisations in the country. I know that this is difficult for the Prime Minister, but I strongly urge him to think again and send this decision to the proper authorities—the Competition Commission. As I say, this would provide breathing space for legitimacy and for the proper decisions to be made.
I would say to the right hon. Gentleman that the decision making has been through the proper processes, that it is right that the Government act legally in every way and that that is what they have done. One of these is an issue about morality and ethics, and a police investigation that needs to be carried out in the proper way—they have total independence and must do that. The other is an issue about plurality and competition, where we have to act under the law. Those are the words he used yesterday and, in just 24 hours, he has done a U-turn in order to try to look good in the Commons.
This is not the time for technicalities or low blows. We have said consistently, throughout this process, that this bid should be referred to the Competition Commission—that is the right way forward. The Prime Minister, instead of engaging in technicalities, should speak for the country on this issue, because this is what people want him to do. I hope that he will go off from this Question Time and think again, because it is in the interests of the media industry and the British public that this is properly referred to the Competition Commission in the way that all other bids are dealt with.
What we also know, as well as that we need a public inquiry and that we need the BSkyB bid referred to the Competition Commission, is that these were not the actions of a rogue individual or a rogue reporter, but part of a wider, systematic pattern of abuses. The public see a major news organisation in this country where no one appears prepared to take responsibility for what happens. Nobody is denying that Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked and nobody is denying that it happened on the watch of the current chief executive of News International, who was editor of the newspaper at the time. Will the Prime Minister join me—if he believes in people taking responsibility—in saying that she should take responsibility and consider her position?
First, let me deal with the issue of technicalities. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that when you are dealing with the law, you have to look at the technicalities because there is something called due process that you have to follow. That is necessary for any Government and I am sure that he understands that. As for News International, everyone at News International must ask themselves some pretty searching questions and everyone at News International is subject to one of the largest police investigations under way in this country. I think that we should let the police do their work. They must follow the evidence wherever it leads and if they find people guilty of wrongdoing, they should have no hesitation in ensuring that they are prosecuted.
I do not know from that answer whether the Prime Minister says that the chief executive of News International should stand down or not. I am clear: she should take responsibility and stand down. These events show a systematic set of abuses that demonstrates the use of power without responsibility in our country and it is in the interests of our democracy and the public that such issues are sorted out. With the biggest press scandal in modern times getting worse by the day, I am afraid the Prime Minister has not shown the necessary leadership today. He has not shown the necessary leadership on BSkyB or on News International. Is it not the case that if the public are to have confidence in him, he must do the thing that is most difficult and accept that he made a catastrophic judgment in bringing Andy Coulson into the heart of his Downing street machine? [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I take full responsibility for everyone I employ and everyone I appoint and I take responsibility for everything my Government do. What this Government are doing is making sure—the public and I feel appalled by what has happened, and the fact that murder victims and terrorist victims have had their phones hacked is quite disgraceful. That is why it is important that there is a full police investigation with all the powers the police need. That is why it is important that we have those inquiries to get to the bottom of what went wrong and the lessons that need to be learned. That is why we also need to inquire as to how we can improve the ethics and morals of the press in this country and ensure that they improve for the future. That is what needs to be done, that is what the Government are doing and we do not need to take lectures from the right hon. Gentleman about it.
Q3. Year 9 pupils at Limehurst high school in my constituency have joined hundreds of other pupils to work on the “Send my Sister to School” campaign. Will the Prime Minister add his support to this cause and should not this campaign remind us that good education, here or overseas, transforms children’s lives and their life chances? (63871)
I am delighted to welcome the campaign that my hon. Friend mentions and her personal support for it. The fact is that across our world 39 million girls are out of school and even if they are in school, the gender gaps we still see are appalling. We in the UK, through our aid budget, are securing schooling for 11 million children by 2015. That is more than we educate in the UK, but we will be able to do it at 2.5% of the cost. This is a good investment for Britain and for British taxpayers that will ensure that we reduce inequality in our world.
Q4. Will the Prime Minister explain whether he thinks that the cost of his NHS reforms, which are set to rise even further—as we now know thanks to the revelation that a new super-quango will be created in the NHS—might be partly responsible for the funding squeeze affecting health services in Harrow? That has put at particular risk services at the popular Alexandra avenue polyclinic in my constituency. (63872)
What we have seen since this Government have taken office is more than 2,000 more doctors but 4,000 fewer managers. We are cutting bureaucracy by a third—[Interruption.] I know they do not like to hear it, but if we had followed their plans and cut NHS spending, the number of doctors, nurses and operations would be going down. Just this morning, we have seen the figures for the number of diagnostic tests in the UK going up. That is because of the investment that is going in under this Government.
Q6. The Prime Minister will be aware of the news this morning that Portugal’s debt has been downgraded to junk status. Does he not agree that it is a warning to every Member of this House that we cannot put off difficult decisions and that the only plan B is bankruptcy? (63874)
Q7. Does the Prime Minister agree that the maximum sentence for the offence of dangerous driving does not properly reflect the potential harm caused to victims, some of whom are left paralysed and brain-damaged? Will he support me and Labour Front Benchers in moves to increase the maximum sentence to seven years? (63875)
I know that the hon. Gentleman speaks with great personal knowledge about this not just because of a constituency case that he wrote to me about but because of his work as a barrister before he came to this place. I do believe there is a problem when there is a high sentence, rightly, for causing death by dangerous driving, but only this two-year sentence in cases such as the one he brought to my attention in which someone was damaged permanently for life, and yet the maximum sentence was two years. In our Sentencing (Reform) Bill we are looking at this issue and we hope to make some progress.
Does the Prime Minister agree with me that the alleged bail-out mentioned by the Opposition of £10 billion is not that and that if we are not in the IMF we will not be a global player? Does he also agree that the Opposition need reminding that in the 1970s the IMF bailed out their Government?
I absolutely agree with what my hon. Friend said. It was remarkable yesterday that the Labour party put itself in the position of opposing our involvement in the IMF. Britain is a serious global economy and we should take responsibility for serious global issues, including through the IMF.
Q8. Does the Prime Minister agree that details of all the weapons and explosives decommissioned in Northern Ireland should be made public as promised? Will he agree to have negotiations with the Irish Government to move forward to the Americans to see that that happens? (63877)
The point is that the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning did not provide us with an inventory. It was an independent body and that was a decision for it to take—difficult as I know that is. It stated:
“We would not wish, inadvertently, to discourage future decommissioning events by groups that are actively engaged today, nor to deter groups that have decommissioned their arms from handing over any arms that may subsequently come to light”.
This is difficult and we are all having to do difficult things, in Northern Ireland as elsewhere in the world, in order to bring conflict to an end and keep conflict at an end. That is what the independent commission’s report was doing.
Is not the real issue about delaying an inquiry that the public have little confidence in the Metropolitan police where investigations concerning News International are concerned? May I remind the Prime Minister of the question I asked him on 27 April about whether he would have
“a full judicial inquiry and, in particular, look at the relationship between the Metropolitan police and News International?”—[Official Report, 27 April 2011; Vol. 527, c. 168.]
Clearly, this is a very important issue. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has discussed it with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner this morning and they want to continue with the investigation that is under way. But let me try to reassure the House and the hon. Gentleman about this because even before we get to the point about independent and public inquiries, what the public need to know is that the police are going to go about their job properly in this investigation, so they do need to know that this is an investigation completely separate from the previous investigation. As it stands today, it is one of the largest police investigations going on anywhere in our country.
Q9. Victims of knife crime in London have increased by more than 8% in the past three months. On the streets of London we have children carrying knives and other children afraid of the journey to and from school. Last Friday, on a busy shopping parade, a 16-year-old constituent of mine was stabbed to death. Two children have been arrested in connection with that. What will the Prime Minister do to ensure that the Mayor of London gets a grip on this problem, which was one of both the Mayor’s and the Prime Minister’s election promises? (63878)
The case that the hon. Lady raises is an absolutely tragic one and there are still too many victims of knife crime, particularly among young people in our cities and particularly in London. What we are doing is creating a new offence with a mandatory prison sentence to send a very clear message to those who carry knives. The offence will apply to those with a knife who threaten and endanger others in a public place. That will send a clear message to those who possess a knife that if they threaten anyone, they will go to jail.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that those who pay back early their student loans are doing the right thing and should be encouraged? If so, how is that consistent with the Government’s policy, which is apparently one of discouraging people from paying back early, and indeed of penalising them for early repayment of student loans?
I urge my hon. Friend to look carefully at the detail of our proposals. We want a progressive system in which people who earn more pay back more, which is why nobody pays anything until they earn £21,000, and people do not start to pay back in full until they earn £35,000. We propose that people who pay back, say, £3,000 a year in earnings should not be discouraged, because in many ways that is the right thing to do.
Q10. In opposition, the Prime Minister made it clear that Hizb ut-Tahrir should be banned, but last week he fell back on exactly the same explanations that he refused to accept when they were given to him by the previous Prime Minister. What has changed? (63879)
We have banned the Tehrik-e-Taliban—we have taken action. As my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor will hastily testify, it is endlessly frustrating that we are subject to so many legal requirements, but I am afraid that we have to be a Government under the law. [Interruption.]
Q11. Thank you, Mr Speaker. Given that the Olympics and the diamond jubilee will take place next year, is the Prime Minister aware that immigration and special branch officers at Stansted airport are concerned that the common travel area channel in its current form allows illegal migrants, Islamists and terrorists into the country without their passports being checked? Will he take urgent steps to close that loophole immediately? (63880)
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Passport-free travel between the UK, the Crown dependencies and the Republic of Ireland has been in place for many years, and it offers real economic and social benefits. I accept that those routes can be open to abuse, and we are determined to resolve that. The UK Border Agency is working closely with Ireland and others to make sure that that happens, but we want to try to do so without disadvantaging people who have been able to take advantage of that common travel area up to now.
Q12. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions have both said that British employers should employ British workers, so will the Prime Minister stop the Department for Work and Pensions offshoring existing jobs in North Tyneside to Bangalore? (63881)
We need to make sure that our welfare reforms encourage those people who sit on welfare and who could work actually to go out to work. Under the Labour Government, yes, we had economic growth, but there were 5 million working-age people living on benefits. That is not good enough, and we are going to change it.
Q13. Does the Prime Minister agree that birthing centres in rural areas provide a valuable and irreplaceable service to the local community, and every effort should be made to retain them—a message that hundreds of my constituents and I are sending to Derbyshire County NHS as it considers the future of the Corbar birthing centre in my constituency of High Peak? (63882)
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We want to see maternity networks so that mums can make a choice about where they give birth, whether in a community setting, midwife-led, or whether in a district general hospital with all the paraphernalia of consultants and the rest of it. It should be a choice made by them with their GP and others on what is right for their needs.
Is the Prime Minister aware that yesterday, when Bombardier had to announce the redundancy, among others, of skilled engineers and designers, the company made public for the first time the fact that it had offered to establish a new academy in this country for the design and manufacture of cars for the next generation of high-speed trains for the UK and across the world—a global centre of excellence, providing more jobs and jobs with even higher skills. He will not have had time to familiarise himself with the details, but will he undertake to look into that with care to give substance to the commitment that he made in my constituency to British manufacturers?
I will look carefully at what the right hon. Lady has said about this issue. I want to see more British jobs in manufacturing as, indeed, we are seeing across the country. In the case of the Bombardier train contract, the procurement process was designed and initiated by the Government of whom she was a member. We are bound by the criteria that they set out, so we have to continue with the decision that has been made according to those criteria. Separately, we are setting out to ask what more we can do under the rules to make sure that we boost manufacturing and not have situations like this in future.
Q14. Twelve days ago a young constituent of mine was the victim of a vicious knife attack. Last weekend another 16-year-old young man was also the victim of a knife attack. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning this upsurge in gang-related violence and confirm that those who carry knives will face a custodial sentence if apprehended? (63883)
As I said to the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce), it is important that we send a clear message about this. We are doing that with the new offence which carries a mandatory sentence. That is a signal to anyone who is contemplating carrying a knife, but we should be frank with ourselves in the House and in the country that purely looking at the issue from a criminal justice perspective is not the answer. We have to ask ourselves why so many young children are joining gangs, and why our families and communities are not doing more to keep them close and prevent the carrying of knives. That is something that runs right across Government and across our society as well.
It is simply not the case, as the Prime Minister claimed earlier, that the Government have followed the normal process in relation to the News Corp takeover of BSkyB. Why does he believe that the assurances that News Corp executives have given are any more credible than the assurances they gave over phone hacking?
The point is that we have followed the correct legal processes. If you do not follow the correct legal processes, you will be judicially reviewed, and all the decisions that you would like to make from a political point of view will be struck down in the courts. You would look pretty for a day, but useless for a week. [Interruption.]
Last Friday I visited Grangetown school in my constituency, which is the 17th most deprived primary school in the country. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the school and community on their work to convert an area of demolished houses into a school playing field, and will he ensure that the Government continue their pupil premium policy to support the school’s excellent work?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the support that he is showing to his local primary schools. I believe that the pupil premium, which will pump billions extra into education, particularly for the most deprived children in the most deprived parts of our country—[Interruption.] It will make a huge difference to our schools. For all the noise from the Opposition, they had 13 years to introduce a pupil premium. What did we get? Absolutely nothing.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Afghanistan.
From the outset this Government have sought to take a more hard-headed, more security-based approach to our mission. As I have said, we are not there to build a perfect democracy, still less a model society. Yes, we will help with the establishment of democratic institutions. Yes, we can improve infrastructure, develop education, encourage development. But we are in Afghanistan for one overriding reason: to ensure our own national security by helping the Afghans to take control of theirs.
This means building up the Afghan security forces so we can draw down British combat forces, with the Afghans themselves able to prevent al-Qaeda from returning and posing a threat to us and to our allies around the world. This is particularly poignant today, on the eve of the sixth anniversary of 7/7—an attack that was inspired by al-Qaeda and executed by extremists following the same perverted ideology that underpinned the 11 September attack in 2001.
Three hundred and seventy-five British servicemen and women have died fighting in Afghanistan to help strengthen that country and keep Britons and Britain safe from another 9/11 or 7/7. Thousands more, including many civilians, have risked their lives, and hundreds have been injured fighting for the security of our nation. They have been part of an international coalition involving 48 countries with a specific UN mandate, working at the invitation of a democratically elected Government. Though there have been many, many difficult times, we should be clear about what has been achieved.
In 2009, my predecessor as Prime Minister told the House that some three quarters of the most serious terrorist plots against Britain had links to Afghanistan and Pakistan. We must always be on our guard, but I am advised that the figure is now significantly reduced. International forces have been bearing down on al-Qaeda and their former hosts, the Taliban, in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Pakistan, Osama bin Laden has been killed and al-Qaeda significantly weakened. In Afghanistan, British and international forces have driven al-Qaeda from its bases and, although it is too early to tell for certain, initial evidence suggests that we have halted the momentum of the Taliban insurgency in its heartland in Helmand province.
We are now entering a new phase in which the Afghan forces will do more of the fighting and patrolling, and our forces more training and mentoring. As President Obama said in his address last month, the mission is changing from “combat to support.” When we arrived there was no one to hand over to—no proper army, no police force. In many places across the country the Afghan security forces now stand ready to begin the process of taking over security responsibility.
Success in Afghanistan requires a number of critical steps. The first is to ensure that Afghan security forces are able to secure their own territory. There have been well-known problems, especially with the Afghan police, but there has been real progress in the past two years. General Petraeus went out of his way to praise the recent performance of Afghan forces in a number of complex and dangerous operations. The Afghan forces are growing rapidly and are ahead of schedule to meet the current target of having 171,600 in the Afghan army and 134,000 in the Afghan police by the end of October this year. They are now deploying in formed units and carrying out their own operations.
There have been some real successes. Afghan national security forces have prevented insurgents from reaching many of their targets, and just eight days ago, when a major hotel was attacked in Kabul, they dealt with the situation. This was a major, sophisticated attack. They dealt with it professionally and speedily, calling in assistance from a NATO helicopter only to deal with insurgents on the roof. As General Petraeus stressed to me, they acquitted themselves extremely well. It is this growing strength and capability that will allow us over time to hand over control of security to Afghan forces and draw down our own numbers.
We remain committed to the objective, shared by President Karzai and the whole of NATO, that the Afghans should assume lead security responsibility across the whole country by the end of 2014. Last month President Obama announced that the US will withdraw 10,000 of its forces from Afghanistan by the end of this year and complete the removal of the US surge—some 33,000—by the end of next summer. At the time of the US surge, the UK increased its core force levels by an extra 500. For our part, I have already said that we will withdraw 426 UK military personnel by February 2012. Today I can announce that the UK will be able to reduce its force levels by a further 500, from 9,500 to 9,000, by the end of 2012. This decision has been agreed by the National Security Council on the advice of our military commanders.
These reductions reflect the progress being made in building up the Afghan national security forces. Indeed, it is worth noting that for every US soldier who leaves as the surge is removed, two Afghans will take their place. This marks the start of a process that will ensure that by the end of 2014 there will be nothing like the number of British troops who are there now, and they will not be serving in a combat role. This is the commitment I have made, and this is the commitment we will stick to.
Having taken such a huge share of the burden and performed so magnificently for a decade, this country needs to know that there is an end-point to the level of our current commitment and to combat operations. This decision is right not only for Britain but for Afghanistan. It has given the Afghans a clear deadline against which to plan and has injected a sense of urgency into their efforts.
Although there is a clear end-point to our military combat role, after 2014 the UK will continue to have a major strategic relationship with Afghanistan: a development relationship, a diplomatic relationship and a trade relationship. Above all, we have a vital national security interest in preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for international terror, so although our forces will no longer be present in a combat role we will have a continuing military relationship.
We will continue to train Afghan security forces. In Afghanistan I announced plans for a new officer training academy, which President Karzai specifically asked me for, and which I am proud Britain is able to deliver. We intend to lead the academy from 2013, in addition to maintaining our current role in the officer candidate school, which is due to merge with the academy in 2017. We will continue our efforts to help Afghanistan build a viable state, but our support cannot be unconditional.
In my meeting with President Karzai, I made clear the Afghan Government’s responsibility to ensure that British taxpayers’ money is spent well and spent wisely. I emphasised to President Karzai just how important it is that he personally grips the problems with the Kabul bank and the need for a new International Monetary Fund programme. I also urged him to support due democratic process and to tackle corruption, and I made it very clear that, although Britain wants to stand by Afghanistan beyond the end of our combat mission, we can do so only on the basis that Afghanistan must help itself, too.
Almost all insurgencies have ended with a combination of military pressure and political settlement, and there is no reason why Afghanistan should prove any different. As we strengthen the Afghan Government and security forces, so we will back President Karzai’s efforts to work towards an Afghan-led political settlement. The death of bin Laden presents the Taliban with a moment of real choice. Al-Qaeda are weakened; their leader is dead.
Last month, the United Nations adopted two separate sanctions regimes, creating a clear distinction that separates the Taliban from al-Qaeda. Local peace councils have now been established in almost all of Afghanistan’s provinces. These have already allowed more than 1,800 people from 17 provinces to be enrolled on the scheme for reintegration, so we should take this opportunity to send a clear message to the Taliban: now is the time to break decisively from al-Qaeda and to participate in a peaceful political process.
In this task, we need Pakistan’s assistance. As I discussed with President Zardari last week, that process is now as much in Pakistan’s interests as Britain’s or Afghanistan’s, because the Taliban pose a mortal threat to the state of Pakistan as well.
There is no reason why Afghanistan should be destined to remain a broken country. It has abundant mineral wealth and fertile agricultural land, and it stands at the crossroads of Asia’s great trading highway. It has succeeded in the past when not wracked by conflict, but Afghanistan still has many challenges ahead.
There are real security issues and a lack of Government capacity, but 10 years ago Afghanistan was in the grip of a regime that banned young girls from schools, hanged people in football stadiums for minor misdemeanours and banished radios and any form of entertainment—while all the time incubating the terrorists who struck on 9/11 and elsewhere.
Afghanistan, for all its imperfections, has come a long way. Today, it is no longer a haven for global terror, its economy is growing and it has a Parliament, a developing legal system, provincial and district governors and the basic building blocks of what could be a successful democracy.
In Helmand province, which with Kandahar, we should remember, was a stronghold of the Taliban and the insurgency, there is now a growing economy, falling poppy cultivation and many more effective district governors. The fact that President Karzai has been able to choose Lashkar Gah as one of the areas to include in the first phase of transition is a sign of the transformation that we have helped to bring about there.
As we enter this new phase of transition, I am sure the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to our servicemen and women who have made such incredible sacrifices to defend our national security. While we have been going about our daily lives, they have been out there day and night, fighting in the heat and the dust and giving up the things that we all take for granted.
That is the true character of the British Army, and it is why we are so incredibly proud of all our forces and the families who support them, and why we are so grateful for everything that they do for us. I commend this statement to the House.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to our forces, who serve with such dedication and such heroism in Afghanistan, and let me just say to him that, whatever differences separate us on other issues, I commend the substance and the tone of his statement today and, indeed, his approach to the issue of Afghanistan.
As we prepare to remember tomorrow the victims of the attacks of 7/7, we are all reminded of why we are engaged in Afghanistan: to secure our security at home. That is why Opposition Members continue to support our forces in Afghanistan. We continue to support also the Prime Minister’s intention to end the British combat role in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. It is right that we make it clear to the Afghan Government and their security forces that they need to step up and take responsibility for the future of the country, and it is right that we make it clear to the British people that this is not a war without end.
This year and next we must maintain the combination of military pressure, the accelerated build-up of the Afghan security forces and the work on basic governance and justice. I support the Prime Minister’s plan to maintain British troop levels above 9,000, as they have been for the past two years, for this fighting season and the next. That will give our forces the best chance of consolidating the situation before the process of transition to Afghan control accelerates in 2012 and 2013, when our forces can start to come home in greater numbers.
May I first ask the Prime Minister about our troop commitments? Will he assure the House that if our reductions go slower than those of other countries—in particular, America—that will not cause British forces to take on a disproportionate share of the burden in Helmand? Can he assure the House that detailed plans for troop draw-down will always be based on military advice and conditions on the ground? I am sure that he can give that assurance. We ask our troops to do a difficult job in testing circumstances. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that our armed forces will continue to receive all the equipment they need in the months ahead, including the 12 Chinooks he promised but for which the order has still not been placed?
The bravery and professionalism of our armed forces deserve to be given the best chance of success. As the Prime Minister said in his statement, that will be realised only if we see political progress in Afghanistan. The political track is as important as the decisions on troop numbers and military strategy. As I understand it, there are still talks about talks. I am sure the Prime Minister will agree that much work needs to be done between now and the Bonn conference in December, and indeed after it, if we are to make the most of this opportunity. I have some specific questions on that issue.
First, to build on the excellent work of Stefan di Mistura, the UN special representative, will the Prime Minister press for the Security Council to appoint a senior figure, perhaps Mr di Mistura or someone from the Muslim world, to be empowered to mediate between the Afghan Government, ISAF and those members of the Taliban who renounce violence? Such a figure could help to secure the commitment of countries in the region to support a new political settlement, reflecting their shared interest in long-term stability in Afghanistan.
Secondly, although it must remain a red line that the Taliban and others must commit to a peaceful political process, the constitution need not be set in stone. Will the Prime Minister press the Afghan High Peace Council to consider constitutional reform, including a more devolved Afghan state, which I believe is one demand that could unite people with political differences? Those steps need to be taken now so that by the time of the Bonn conference in December the ground has been prepared and real progress can be made.
As we look to a stronger Afghanistan, we all recognise that there are issues of governance and the rule of law. Will the Prime Minister say more about the ongoing scandal over the Kabul bank? I welcome that he raised the issue with President Karzai. Does he agree that this problem symbolises the inability of the Afghan Government at times to distance themselves from practices that threaten to undermine the Afghan economy and international development assistance? Will he tell us more about the role that Britain is playing to get the Afghan Government to take the necessary steps to tackle the crisis in the Kabul bank and allow the International Monetary Fund to resume its proper support?
Finally, I turn to Pakistan. We all accept that long-term stability in Afghanistan depends on stability in Pakistan. When I met President Zardari last week, I commended the hard work and sacrifice of the Pakistan security forces in tackling violent extremism in the north-west of the country. As the Prime Minister said in his statement, the situation in Pakistan continues to be serious. There is a danger that the bringing to justice of Osama bin Laden, which should be welcomed on all sides, will not have that effect in Pakistan. What steps is the Prime Minister taking to put British support for counter-terrorism in Pakistan at the heart of our relationship with the Pakistan Government?
We all want to see British troops come home at the earliest opportunity, not least the family and friends of those who are currently serving in Afghanistan. However, we also want the campaign to be concluded in a way that ensures that their service and sacrifice has not been in vain, and that Afghanistan and the wider region move into a stable future, rather than once again posing a serious threat to our security and that of other countries. I welcome today’s statement as a step along that path. I say to the Prime Minister that I will continue to work with him on Afghanistan so that we can redouble our efforts on the military and political fronts to give Afghanistan the stability it needs for the future.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his response to the statement and for the very good cross-party support not only for the mission but for how we are proposing to draw down and bring it to an end. He is right to say that the combination of military pressure, the build-up of the ANSF and a political process can enable us to meet our objective.
The right hon. Gentleman asked some specific questions, the first of which was on troop commitments. Yes, we are withdrawing troops more slowly than the US, but of course the US had a surge of about 33,000 troops. Its enduring number is more like 70,000, so obviously it makes sense for our draw-down to be proportionately smaller. It is important for us to have the draw-down in the way I have said.
The right hon. Gentleman said, quite rightly, that we must be careful as the draw-down takes place that we do not put a disproportionate burden on the remaining British troops. I am very clear that we must not enter into large new operational areas. We should continue the excellent work that we are doing in Helmand province, handing over progressively to the Afghans. Indeed, we are seeing the transition of Lashkar Gah and it might well be possible to transition other parts of Helmand province in a very effective way before the end of the process.
On the issue of equipment, one thing that struck me on the visit from which I have just returned, and indeed on visits over the past couple of years, is that there is now a real sense among our troops that they have the equipment they need. The body armour is much improved, as is the quality of vehicles, such as Mastiffs. There is no use of Snatch Land Rovers outside bases any more, and what has taken place is very positive. Obviously some of that action was initiated under the previous Government, and it has been continued under this Government. Funding the urgent operational requirements in Afghanistan is working well. Clearly we need to ensure that we have helicopter capacity and that Chinooks and the rest go ahead.
On talks, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the need for a new international figure. I feel that perhaps the time for that has passed. I think that we now need an Afghan-led process. There are now much more effective discussions taking place between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with a much more positive attitude on both sides. We should do what we can to give that every possible support.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the High Peace Council. I met former President Rabbani, and I think he is doing extremely good work in that process. We should not be completely hung up on every element of the current Afghan constitution, but it is important to give a reassurance to the Government, Parliament and people of Afghanistan that there is not some secret agenda to carve their country up. There is not. We want to see a strong and stable Afghanistan, with everyone within it playing a part in its future.
On the Kabul bank, we are very clear about what is necessary. We need a forensic audit of what went wrong and what happened, and we need the recapitalisation of the central bank so that the financial system is properly supported. The UK is massively involved in that process, and we are working for a positive outcome. We need it, because otherwise funds cannot flow into organisations in Afghanistan in the way that they need to.
The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right to commend the Pakistani security forces for what they have done in the north-west frontier and elsewhere. On the British relationship with Pakistan, what is important at a time when it is clearly under huge challenge is obviously to talk about our counter-terrorism relationship, but also to stress all the parts of our relationship and explain that we are there for a democratic and peaceful Pakistan for the long term, just as we want to have a long-term relationship with Afghanistan. Both those countries fear, and have good evidence from the past, that some in the west will walk away. We must convince them that our long-term interests are to be with them and stand with them.
May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the magnificent performance of the men and women of all three services and all those who support them in Afghanistan? May I particularly commend the decision that he has pushed forward to have an officer training school in Afghanistan and provide the personnel to be instructors? The British Army is brilliant at that and will do it very well. May I suggest that he might also consider whether our resources might extend to doing the same thing to provide help in training civil servants?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I misspoke—I referred to the spirit of the British Army, but I should have talked about all the British armed services. It is very striking when one is there just how many RAF personnel, and indeed how many Navy personnel, are in Afghanistan, not least the Marines. I had the great pleasure of being able to speak to both the UK Royal Marines and the US Marine Corps—an odd thing to do on Independence day, but I struggled through none the less.
My hon. Friend is right to mention what we are calling “Sandhurst in the sand”, which I think is the right proposal for British involvement in the future. Clearly there is also a case for doing more on civil service training, and we will look at that as well.
May I beseech the Prime Minister to reconsider his rejection of the idea of a UN mediator? His own arguments about the record of the Afghan Government, and indeed its present activities, show why an independent figure from the Muslim world needs to be engaged there, with the Afghan Government as a party but also with western nations and neighbours as parties.
Secondly, will the Prime Minister pick up the idea of a council of regional stability? Although he is right to mention Pakistan, the truth is that stability in Afghanistan requires the engagement of all its neighbours, not just the Pakistanis. The dangers in Afghanistan relate not just to the presence of the Taliban in the political system but to some of the northern and other groups. A council of regional stability is essential to provide the type of support for a stable Afghanistan that we all want to see.
I listen carefully to the right hon. Gentleman, who has considerable experience in this. I agree very much about ensuring that Afghanistan’s neighbours are fully involved. One point I would make, though, is that from what I have seen there is no shortage of ideas for new processes to wrap around that. The problem is a lack of commitment. We need to see real commitment from the Afghans to work with the Pakistanis and real commitment from the Pakistanis to work with the Afghans.
President Karzai made the very reasonable point to the Pakistanis when he visited recently that there must be an ability to allow Taliban who want to talk to go to talk, but that those Taliban who do not want to talk must be arrested and confronted by the Pakistanis. It seems to me that it is about commitment. We can wrap all the processes in the world around it, and I will certainly look at what the right hon. Gentleman says, but in the end what we should be about is encouraging real commitment to make the peace process work.
May I endorse the points that have just been made about the need for regional involvement in stability? The Prime Minister went to some lengths to explain what the United Kingdom would do after the withdrawal of combat forces. What confidence does he have that other countries—for example, members of NATO or the European Union—will be willing to contribute in a similar way?
I think there is good evidence that there is a real commitment in NATO. Many NATO partners say that we joined this together and should leave together. There is a growing understanding that what needs to be done in cases such as this is to have an enduring relationship rather than just a short-term relationship. That argument is well understood, and the commitment that other NATO members have made to the training positions in Afghanistan is a pretty positive story.
As someone who takes a somewhat different view on Afghanistan, may I make it quite clear that I pay tribute, as I have previously, to the British troops involved for their bravery?
Will the Prime Minister continue to reject the arguments of those who oppose ending the British combat role in the next four years? As far as I am concerned, I would like to see it done earlier. Is there not a very strong feeling in this country that, after 10 years, the British people want out?
I think what the British people want is some certainty about the length of the mission and what it involves. My belief is that because we have been in Afghanistan since 2001 and in Helmand province since 2006, it is reasonable to say to people that we are going to be there until the end of 2014 in large numbers and in a combat role, but that after that the numbers will be lower and we will not be in a combat role. That gives people in our own country some certainty, but it also puts some pressure on the Afghans to ensure that they have really worked out how they need to take their responsibilities. The advice that I receive from our military commanders is that this is doable. Yes, it is challenging, but it is on track to be achieved.
I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about the modest withdrawal of troops next year, and, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames), I also particularly welcome what the Prime Minister said about the officer training academy in Afghanistan. Will the military relationship after 2015 extend beyond that academy to training, mentoring, logistics and other support?
Yes, it will. Let us look at the numbers—we are talking about roughly 120 British personnel for the training academy, supplemented by other countries’ personnel. Indeed, the US has agreed to put, I think, $38 million into the training academy. Clearly we want to do more over and above that, and the National Security Council will discuss precisely how much we should commit and how much we will spend. Yes, of course we will be going over and above that as part of an important relationship to help Afghanistan build and maintain its capacity.
May I join the Prime Minister in expressing my condolences to the family of Scott McLaren, who was killed in such tragic circumstances earlier this week? He came from Edinburgh. His loss of life is a reminder to us of the sacrifice being made in Afghanistan by so many young people from this country.
When the Prime Minister spoke of drawing down troop levels next year, I think I am right in saying that he meant reducing our troops to the numbers that we had at about the beginning of 2009. However, I was unclear about what will happen after 2014. Are we talking about maintaining such a significant presence after that time? I appreciate that the troops will be in a different role and doing different things, but the House will want to have some idea whether we are talking about maintaining such a significant presence, and also of where other countries stand on that.
The right hon. Gentleman asks a totally appropriate and legitimate question. What I have said is that the numbers are going down to 9,000 by the end of 2012. We must then work out the right number for 2013 and into 2014. I have said that after that, we will not be in Afghanistan in anything like the same number, nor in a combat role. I am not in a position now to give a figure for, as it were, the enduring commitment, through 2015 and beyond and the training role, which involves the officer training academy and other training work. We are not in a position yet to put a figure on that, but it will obviously be way down from the figures that we talk about today.
The Prime Minister reaffirmed today that the stated policy objective in Afghanistan is to deny al-Qaeda a base from which it can attack the UK and other British interests. From that, it is fair to assume that he continues to receive intelligence that al-Qaeda remains a threat in Afghanistan. I know that this is difficult, but will he consider how that information and intelligence can be shared with the House?
Obviously, the whole process of sharing intelligence is a difficult vexed issue, and there are some difficult recent historical connotations. What I said in my statement is that there was a time when the lion’s share of plots that threatened people in UK came from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. The number of such plots has come down significantly since then. Clearly, al-Qaeda has been absolutely hammered in Pakistan—it has lost a huge number of its senior leaders—and it has nothing like the presence in Afghanistan that it had when it was hosted by the Taliban in 2001. Our aim should be not just to exclude al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, but to ensure that the Afghans can go on ensuring that exclusion without the support of foreign troops. That is our real enduring aim.
I express my admiration for the service personnel, including the men and women of York’s 2 Signal Regiment, whom I met in Afghanistan when I went with the NATO Parliamentary Assembly three weeks ago. As our troops come home we will, thanks to the NATO training mission, leave behind very strong, and very well-trained and armed, Afghan national security forces. However, at the current rate of progress we will also leave behind fragmented politics. Given the history of military dictatorship and authoritarian states in the region, I believe that Afghanistan could go the same way. What are our Government doing to try to prevent that from being the medium-term outcome?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. The more mechanical task of training the Afghan army and police is now going very well. There were errors and mistakes in the early days, but I think that they have been ironed out. I was very struck by what General Petraeus and Lieutenant-General Rodriguez said about the quality of the Afghan army. Clearly, the long pole in the tent—as they like to call it—is how strong, sustainable and vigorous is the quality of Afghan governance and democracy. The moment there is a stand-off between the Executive on the one hand and the Parliament in the other, we must settle those issues.
As I said, I do not think that we will achieve perfection—Afghanistan is a country without a long-standing democratic history—but we must help to put in place basic democratic institutions and functioning government. The British effort is hugely geared towards that task.
Given that for many years our Government negotiated with the Provisional IRA while we were still fighting, I suspect that at some level, we will be negotiating with the Taliban. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that one of the most important things that we must put forward in any negotiations with the Taliban is that al-Qaeda should never become part of Afghanistan if the Taliban were ever to form a Government, or part of a Government, in that country?
My hon. Friend is right. Let me make two points. First, this must be an Afghan-led process. This is about the Afghans trying to bring together in their country all the elements that should form a part of its future. Clearly, if the Taliban separate themselves from al-Qaeda, and if they are prepared to give up violence and accept the basic tenets of the Afghan constitutions, those are end conditions. If they can do that, there is the potential for a political process that can speed the end of this conflict. Clearly, we must go ahead on the basis that we are building the Afghan army and continuing with very tough operations to take out Taliban insurgents, but that there is also the opportunity for a political integration process at the low level, and a reconciliation process at the high level, that can speed the end of the conflict, and we can end up with a more stable and peaceful Afghanistan.
The Prime Minister referred to the recent attacks on the hotel in Kabul, which is well inside several security rings. Are there not worrying indications that the Taliban are infiltrating parts of Afghanistan where they previously had not been? How confident can we be that the Afghan authorities and President Karzai will be a in a position of complete control over the internal security of Afghanistan by the end of 2014?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the capacity of the Afghan Government and the scale of the Afghan security forces, which is improving all the time. The point I would make is that there has been rather unfair press about the hotel. In fact, the Afghan security forces were able to clear it of insurgents rapidly. There was of course a regrettable loss of life, but the operation was fast and effective. They drove the insurgents on to the roof, where they were effectively taken out with the assistance of NATO. We saw a similar attack on a hotel in Mumbai, and we have seen suicide attacks in other countries. All I can say is that people who are pretty tough nuts, such as General Petraeus and Lieutenant-General Rodriguez, were very impressed by what the Afghan security forces did. We should be talking that up, not talking it down.
Although my right hon. Friend, and indeed President Obama, are under all kinds of pressures to speed up the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and although that would be the wrong reason to withdraw, may I commend my right hon. Friend on setting a timetable, because that is how to accelerate the political process in Kabul and make President Karzai sit up and engage in the some of the talks that are already taking place? I also agree with my right hon. Friend that it would be quite wrong to internationalise that process. It must be done through the tribal structures and Loya Jirgas in Afghanistan, by and for Afghans. It is not something that we can supervise from the UN.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question; perhaps I can adjudicate between the two poles in the House. The process must be Afghan led. We do not want a bad, tribal, poorly thought-through carve-up that will lead to future instability. Clearly, there must be a proper reconciliation process, but what I have seen—a timetable has perhaps assisted with this—is a very positive engagement from Afghanistan in Pakistan on their shared future. We can push, encourage and work with those two countries, but in the end they must make decisions together on how they will be more secure.
Everybody would welcome the fact that peace negotiations are seriously under way. May I ask the Prime Minister for assurances that the rights of women will not be sold down the river? Those rights have been hard fought for. We do not want to see women once again imprisoned in their homes, and children—girls—not allowed to go to school. Will he ask the President to include women in his negotiating team? Many women are fearful of what will happen in Afghanistan in future, and they deserve such assurances.
The right hon. Lady makes a very good point. I would stress that prominent Afghan women are involved in that reconciliation process through the high peace council, which is run by former President Rabbani. Clearly, nobody wants a return to the days of the Talibanisation of Afghanistan, but we must accept that if we want a speedier end to the insurgency and long-term stability in Afghanistan, what President Karzai has referred to as his “lost cousins”—those who have lost their way—must be brought back into the body of Afghanistan. We found that fantastically difficult with Irish republican terrorists, but none the less, people who were previously committed to violence, maiming and bombing people are now sitting in government in Stormont. The same process must happen in Afghanistan, difficult though it is.
May I press the Prime Minister again on the importance of talks with the Taliban being non-conditional? Non-conditional talks with the IRA helped to bring about peace in Northern Ireland, and I suggest that the US wish for al-Qaeda and the Taliban to sever all ties should be part of a settlement rather than a precondition.
My hon. Friend is right, in that what matters is the end of the process. If we can get into a political process in Afghanistan with people who have separated from al-Qaeda, given up violence and accepted the basic tenets of the Afghan constitution, that will be a success. However, we cannot shade or fudge the idea of letting armed terrorists into government. We need to have some red lines in our minds about what is possible and appropriate, otherwise we will not end up with stability or any form of functioning state.
The Prime Minister will know of increasing concern about the use of drones in Afghanistan and elsewhere, particularly about the risk that they will strike civilians. Just yesterday it was confirmed that a drone had killed four Afghan civilians and injured two others. Given that military officials are saying that almost one third of the Royal Air Force could be made up of drones within the next 20 years, will he review the use of this policy?
Of course it matters hugely that we avoid civilian casualties, whether in Afghanistan or in Libya. However, I do not think that the answer is to turn our face away from the modern technology that can now pinpoint people who are doing us harm. The technology being used in Afghanistan, including drones and other aerial ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—cameras, has been hugely effective in driving back the Taliban insurgency and taking out people who are doing us harm.
16 Air Assault Brigade recently returned from its fourth deployment to Afghanistan, much good having been achieved. I urge caution over the speed of the withdrawal of British troops in case all that good work comes to nothing. In particular, I draw the Prime Minister’s attention to what happened in the summer of 2008, when the four battalions of the Parachute Regiment joined forces to transport a turbine to the Kajaki dam. Three years later, it still has not been connected up.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I do not want us to jeopardise the success achieved so far. From my many conversations with our service personnel, many of whom are going back to Afghanistan for a second, third or, as he said, even a fourth time, it seems to me that morale is extremely high, and that there is a sense that we are achieving good things in Afghanistan. However, I think that we need to focus on what is effective. One problem has been that we should have applied earlier the effective measures of counter-insurgency that we are now pursuing—protecting the larger population centres and ensuring that the main transport routes are open. Some of what we have done in years gone by might have had important symbolism for Afghans, but the real symbolism lies in protecting large population centres so that people can go about their daily lives.
Does the Prime Minister support the campaign by his own constituents and many families of the bereaved for the processions that bring the bodies of the fallen back to this country to be rerouted through urban areas so that local people can publicly express their respect, the families can express their grief and the country can be reminded of the true cost of war?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised this issue. Obviously, as the constituency MP, I take a close interest in it. I have tried to allow for the greatest possible consultation with the armed forces, the MOD and local councils in Carterton town and across West Oxfordshire district council. I believe that we have arrived at a sensible route with a far better centre for families within the airbase. Money is also being spent on a proper memorial garden where families will be able to show their respects to their loved ones. A lot of thought has gone into this, and of course we must keep it under review and ensure that it is done in the right way. However, there is sometimes a great danger—whether it is the local MP or the Prime Minister—of stepping in without allowing people to determine what is a good outcome that will be well done. Let us see how it works in practice before we jump to conclusions here.
If we are to achieve a political settlement involving the Taliban, there must be an incentive for the Taliban to negotiate. At the moment, however, there is no such incentive. Has the Prime Minister received any indication from our American allies that they are contemplating the preservation of a long-term strategic base and bridgehead area in the region that would demonstrate to the Taliban, in any future Government in which they participate, that the return of al-Qaeda or other international terrorist organisations would not be tolerated and could easily be punished?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. However, I think that there is an incentive to join a political process, because Taliban mid and high-level leaders are being killed in ever larger numbers. Actually, we are now seeing, in some cases, lowering morale among the Taliban within Afghanistan because their “brave” mid and high-level leaders are cowering over the border in Pakistan. That is what has happened, and we need to keep up that pressure. Of course we need to work with the Afghans so that they have the long-term capability to go on dealing with the insurgency, if it continues—even in a minor way—along the lines that he suggests. However, no one should think that the Taliban are not under pressure; they are under huge pressure because of the surge and the effectiveness of the operations in which we are also engaged.
Obviously it is hugely important that we secure those who work in our embassy. I had the great good fortune of meeting many people who work in the Kabul embassy, which is now one of our biggest embassies. They have to make huge compromises to work in such a difficult location, and their security needs to be absolutely at the top of our agenda.
It takes wisdom to set a date for withdrawal, but it takes enormous courage to stick to that date. Will the Prime Minister reassure us that no amount of guilt at lost lives, over-optimistic promises from generals or fear of lack of progress will ever shake his resolve that Britain will be entirely out of combat operations by the end of 2014 at the very latest?
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance because it is important to give people a sense of an end time to these combat operations. As he said, it is always difficult to change the lay-down of British armed forces. I think that the early decision I made to focus on central Helmand and to get out of Sangin has been hugely important in ensuring that we have the right concentration of forces on the ground to do the job that we need to do. It is always difficult to come out of somewhere, but it is an important measure to make us more effective. That does not mean that lives have been lost in vain, however, and the Americans continue to do excellent work in Sangin. Nevertheless, we have to make hard-headed and difficult decisions for the long-term good of our armed forces and country.
In his discussions with President Karzai, did the Prime Minister raise the issue of the exodus of thousands of Afghanis from Afghanistan? As he knows, I have raised this matter in the House before. Fifty thousand Afghanis crossed the border between Turkey and Greece last year. Although he accepts that the threat from al-Qaeda is receding in Afghanistan, it is increasing in Yemen. What are we going to do about country shopping by al-Qaeda?
The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right. One of the roles of the National Security Council is to sit down and look at the scale of the threat that we face, and where that threat is coming from. Clearly the threat picture is changing, in that the number of threats coming out of the Pakistan-Afghanistan area is receding, and the number coming from Yemen and Somalia is growing. The nation has to work out how smart we can be in combating that threat. That means learning lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan about how best to combat extremism and violence in those countries. I am determined—with the good advice of the Home Affairs Committee, I am sure—to learn those lessons.
I welcome today’s statement, and in particular the Prime Minister’s reminder to President Karzai that his Government must be responsible for ensuring that British taxpayers’ money is spent wisely and well. Can the Prime Minister reassure British taxpayers that measures are in place to ensure that that happens?
I can give that assurance, but clearly not everything has been satisfactory up to now. The situation with the Kabul bank has been appalling, but we now have it moving towards a solution, because there will be a forensic audit and recapitalisation of the bank. However, we need to put in place procedures within the Afghan Government so that there is not the level of corruption and wasted money that there has been.
I fully accept the Prime Minister’s argument that he cannot be entirely precise about how many of our troops will be in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. However, I am somewhat surprised that he can be so certain that they will be there in a non-combat role. If the progress made over the next few years is not as positive as he anticipates, surely he would not allow our troops there to be placed in a situation where security could not be secured, and which might require them still to have a limited combat role.
Let me turn the hon. Lady’s question the other way round. If we are still in Afghanistan in 2014 in our current numbers and still in a combat role, clearly there would be something fundamentally wrong with the strategy that we would be pursuing. The point is that we have a programme and a plan. It involves the build-up of the Afghan national security forces, which is going well, it involves working with our allies, which is going well, and it involves close co-operation between us and the Afghans, all of which can be done. That is what we should focus on, and that is the programme that we will deliver.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement. Does he agree that a key element in achieving long-term stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be providing good quality basic education, which will give people hope and opportunities, and lead them away from entering into sectarian and ethnic violence?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. If we look at the huge population growth in Pakistan in particular, and the fact that more than 10 million children are now out of school, we have to ask what sort of future will they grow up into and what sort of extremism will they be prey to. That is why, in spite of the frustration sometimes felt at Afghanistan being unable to do more on education itself, we are right to have the targeted programme that we do, in order to put more Pakistani children through school.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, and pay tribute to the bravery and dedication of our soldiers and security personnel in Afghanistan. Will he ensure, however, that we will withdraw from Afghanistan at a time when we have achieved our overriding goal of ensuring our national security, as he has stated in the House today?
The answer to that is yes. Our goal is that Afghanistan can secure itself from al-Qaeda and terrorist bases without the need for British or other forces. That is the goal, and that is why building up Afghanistan’s security apparatus is so central. All the other things that we have talked about today—schooling, development, education—are important, but security is the absolute key.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s focus on an Afghan-led political solution, but in honour of the 375 brave British service personnel who have died in Afghanistan, that solution must include the rights of women, rights for other minorities, religious freedom and a commitment to developing democracy. Can he assure me that in detailed talks, those will be some of his red lines with the Taliban?
Those things are guaranteed through the Afghan constitution, and Afghanistan has made huge steps forward. Knowing President Karzai as I do, I know that he would not agree to an Afghanistan that was miles away from the sort of human rights and development goals that my hon. Friend wants to see progressed. However, we have to have a hierarchy, as it were, and the hierarchy of need from the UK’s point of view is to focus on security and the Afghan Government’s capacity to secure their own country. Other things have to take their place behind that.
Britain can help to achieve peace and stability in Afghanistan by leaving a lasting long-term legacy. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement today about the officer training school, but does he not agree that for education for all, especially young girls, is also important?
I do agree: if we want to see long-term stability in Afghanistan, that cannot be possible by excluding half the population from being educated. Indeed, if we look right across north Africa and the middle east, the empowerment and education of women is important not just for human rights, but for economic development and for peace and progress.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement to the House today. Back in March, round about St Patrick’s day, several hon. Members, including me, had the opportunity to visit Afghanistan, and in particular Lashkar Gah. At that time, we met some of the people from the police training college. One could not fail to be impressed by their energy, enthusiasm and commitment. However, they needed a $6 million new college, yet they told us that there was no start date or completion date for it. If there is to be a handover of security, the police will need training. Can the Prime Minister give us a commitment on the start and completion dates of the police training college in Lashkar Gah?
I shall make two points to the hon. Gentleman. First, the police training college in Lashkar Gah is up and running, and it is working. I have visited it myself, and it is taking huge steps forward. One of the tragedies of the situation is that police training was the responsibility of other countries. Britain has had to take on some of those responsibilities directly, and we have done so very well. He will be interested to know that Lashkar Gah town will be one of the first places in Afghanistan to effect a transition. It is imminent: indeed, already today, security in Lashkar Gah is basically provided by Afghans for Afghans. Having been to Lashkar Gah many times over the last five years, I find that fact pretty staggering and pretty encouraging, and I think others should too.
Given that the raw material for such a high proportion of the illegal drugs on Britain’s streets starts in Afghanistan, what progress is being made on getting farmers to grow something other than poppy, and is the Prime Minister confident that the Afghan Government will continue that work once we have left?
We are seeing progress on that, and Britain has invested in the wheat seed distribution project in Helmand. However, one of the lessons that I have learned from going to Afghanistan repeatedly over the last five years is that we can talk all we like about destroying crops and the rest of it, but if we want to do something about poppy cultivation the real key is building roads, because we have to enable the Afghans to get their produce to market. If they do not have legitimate produce to get to a legitimate market, the drug dealers will prey on them, give them their poppy seed and collect their poppy at the end of the harvest, and the job is done. This is about roads and government capacity as much as it is about the criminal justice system.
Given the Prime Minister’s remarks about the need to build Afghanistan’s political structures, he will have seen today’s media reports, so can he confirm whether the UK is considering sending senior civil servants or senior Officers of this House to Kabul on either a permanent or a temporary basis?
I had the great honour of meeting the Speaker of the Afghan Parliament. As I understand it, there will be good and strong relations between this Parliament and the Afghan Parliament, which is beginning to establish itself—but I will leave decisions on what Mr Speaker wants to do to Mr Speaker.
The hon. Gentleman asks a good question. I shall write to him with the specific figures for the number of Afghans in school in Helmand province and elsewhere. I think that he will see very good progress, but I will write to him with the exact details.
Sunday Trading (Amendment)
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 require the Secretary of State to permit local authorities to vary restrictions on Sunday trading on a temporary basis; and for connected purposes.
The objective of this measure is to provide a temporary and modest economic stimulus during the period of the Olympic games. This will be an exceptional period. Britain has invested billions in the games, and we must maximise the revenue opportunities from the hundreds of thousands of new tourists who will come into Britain at the time. My desire is therefore to help to offset the huge cost of the event by ensuring that every opportunity is taken to boost the economy during those six weeks or so.
I support Sunday opening. Large stores are restricted to opening for six hours, between 10 am and 6 pm; smaller shops are allowed to open for longer. Scotland has complete deregulation. This is about showing that England and Wales are open for business. We need to create a provision for events such as the Olympics, and we need to offset the financial costs involved. I am a supporter of the games, which will bring hundreds of thousands of international tourists and global opinion formers into the United Kingdom.
I want to make it clear from the start that the effects of this measure would be temporary in nature, as it would apply to only about half a dozen Sundays. This would be a small adjustment that could make a huge difference to thousands in the retail trade. This is not a partisan issue; I know that many Members on both sides of the House support this common-sense proposal.
Many of my colleagues will have been to the Olympic park and seen the enormous amount of redevelopment there. Some of the largest regeneration projects in the UK have been undertaken in the run-up to London 2012. They include the construction of Europe’s largest urban shopping centre. As the Prime Minister has said, we must utilise the potential that such a place provides for the country as a whole, by providing opportunities for the unemployed.
Millions of people will be visiting Britain in 2012; it will be the year to showcase our country to the world. We have an incredible opportunity to demonstrate what Britain is capable of, and this opportunity, not just for London but for the whole of the UK, is one that we must get right. I am also mindful of my own north-west. It is imperative that visitors are encouraged to return. Let us make allowances for people: for the shop workers who are desperate for overtime, for the ordinary worker, for the unemployed and for the consumer who wants more convenient shopping hours.
The preparation for the Olympics has already shown that we are able to adapt to the pace of change necessary to meet the big demands of a major international event. The royal wedding was a prime example of Britain at its best. So far, the major construction work has been on time and on budget, but it is also crucial to get the small things right. In the run-up to the 2012 games, London has no choice but to adjust. Allowances have already been made for Olympic car lanes, alterations to supermarket deliveries and changes to meet carbon emission targets. Let us make allowances for people: for the shop worker who is desperate for overtime during this exceptional period; for the employer who wants to adapt to cope with the millions of extra customers and a different pattern of trade; and for the average consumer who will want flexible shopping so that they can fully enjoy the games.
Certain areas of Britain, such as Oxford street in London, and Blackpool and the Lake district are tourist attractions in themselves. We must utilise the opportunity that the Olympics offer by giving businesses the chance to extend opening hours to consumers on the Sundays up to and during these exciting events. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to showcase the best of the UK’s culture, creativity and industry. It is anticipated that Britain will receive hundreds of thousands of extra visitors per day. They will include 14,700 athletes, alongside the 20,000 accredited journalists. Tens of thousands of global opinion formers will be visiting our country. Scotland already has freer Sunday trading hours. England and Wales therefore need to be prepared for the challenges that these additional visitors will place on the country.
As the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has said, we must
“boost national self-confidence, enhance the UK’s reputation abroad”
“attract high value inward investment.”
It is vital that we have the necessary services and facilities for the largest number of visitors that Britain will ever have seen. Olympic events will be going on at all times of the day. What a missed opportunity it would be if tourists with money in their pockets leaving an event late on a Sunday afternoon were to find the shops closed. The Olympic games also coincide with the annual summer holidays for schools and universities in England and Wales. Those young people will fill the temporary jobs that will be created during the Olympic games, not to mention the numerous temporary jobs created by local businesses. This is a fantastic opportunity to encourage our young people into work, and to improve their future employment prospects.
The Olympic games will bring benefits to areas across the UK. These include Old Trafford in my own north-west, a world famous football stadium that will be used to host nine football matches during the games. It is situated next to the Trafford Centre, a hugely popular shopping venue. During the passage of my Bill, we can deal with the powers for the Welsh Assembly and local authorities that might not choose to take advantage of this temporary measure. I do not wish to compel local authorities to have additional Sunday trading hours that they do not want.
Britain is a nation of many sporting events. The football and rugby Saturday and the summer Wimbledon are just some examples of the many events that attract thousands of visitors to the UK from across the globe. It is important that communities should be able to provide the flexibility for such events, so as to maximise economic gain. It makes little economic sense to make basic amenities unavailable to tourists and citizens alike during the games. At a time when the Government must focus on rebuilding the economy, creating jobs and boosting the disposable income of our people, we must not waste the unique opportunities that this major event will provide. What more powerful legacy could there be than creating opportunities for people to get jobs and earn some money?
With the retail sector booming in central London, having been boosted by foreign tourists, we must ensure that all our shops are able to deal with the increased demand. We must adjust their hours to cope with the fact that many people will stay at home and watch television because they wish to maximise the hours on a summer Sunday evening. I wish to give similar opportunities to my constituents in the north-west. One reason for this measure is the increase in tourism. The London Olympics are set to be worth at least £100 million in extra revenues to the UK retail sector, and we must meet this demand. We are not the first nation to face this issue. The French Parliament recently passed a measure to give local authorities in popular tourist destinations the power to extend Sunday trading hours. This is an example of how Sunday trading legislation can adapt to meet local demands.
I am committed to preserving the tradition of Sunday as a family day and ensuring the rights of shop workers. Having worked in the retail sector all my life, I am a champion of the primary legislation that sets in stone those rights, and it is rightly sacrosanct. No worker should ever be put in a position of having to work on a Sunday against their wishes. I believe that there is a real need for this temporary economic boost, however, and that we therefore need to reassess the current provisions. It makes little sense to impose Sunday trading limits on shop workers and the retail industry when transport, pubs and restaurants can be responsive when demand arises.
This measure is not a radical change. It is a practical, temporary tweaking of the common-sense provisions that have already been accepted by Parliament in 1994. It is an economic stimulus measure. Certain occasions demand that shops open for longer on a Sunday. Scotland has been sensible in this regard for many years, and this provision will have only positive benefits for our local economies. This move comes at a significant time in the history of our country with the coming of the Olympic games in 2012. England and Wales have demonstrated that they can adapt to the challenges that major events pose. Let us send a message that Britain is open for business and let us use this opportunity to maximise revenues from tourists. We have shown that we can get the big things right; let us not make the mistake of ignoring the smaller details.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak against the Bill, Mr Speaker. I recognise that the House is keen to move on to the next subject, however, so I shall not press the motion to a Division.
It is perhaps unusual to hear a speech from a woman opposing a proposal for more time to shop. I suggest, however, that the Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) is introducing would have unintended consequences. He started to make a convincing case for extending Sunday hours generally, and I am not sure why he is trying to restrict his proposal to the Olympics if he believes that it would be helpful as an economic stimulus. He also said that only the larger stores are currently restricted. I encourage him to think again about his measure, so that we can once again reinforce the role of small, independent stores or smaller high street stores in boosting economic activity.
My hon. Friend suggested that the provisions would have only a temporary application. I am rather nervous about that, because such provisions usually set us on the road to permanent change. He also mentioned new employment opportunities, but stores in the Westfield shopping centre and similar places will not take on extra shop workers just to deal with an extra 24 hours of work spread across six Sundays.
I believe that my hon. Friend’s Bill sends out the wrong message. The Olympics will be a once-in-a-generation—perhaps once-in-a-lifetime—opportunity for everyone in this country to participate in and enjoy. He said that people could not be compelled to work on a Sunday, but I think he will find that that is no longer true. I will not press the motion to a vote today, but I give him notice that I will oppose the Bill as it passes through its parliamentary stages.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mark Menzies, Conor Burns, Rehman Chishti, Philip Davies, Thomas Docherty, Stephen Gilbert, Daniel Kawczynski, Chris Kelly, Andrew Rosindell, Iain Stewart, James Wharton and Priti Patel present the Bill.
Mark Menzies accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 25 November 2011, and to be printed (Bill 217).
Business of the House (Today)
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That Standing Order No. 54 (Consideration of estimates) be applied to proceedings at this day’s sitting as if paragraph (2) were omitted.—(Sir George Young.)
Will the Leader of the House confirm that, because the following motion will reduce the time available for the estimates debates tabled by Select Committees, an opportunity will be provided to debate the Prevent strategy—likely to be the one squeezed out today—at a later date?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that question and I can give him that assurance. He is entitled to injury time and it will be provided.
Question put and agreed to.
Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
We come now to the emergency debate on phone hacking at the News of the World. The House will observe that in light of the level of interest, I have, at this stage, imposed a seven-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions which is scheduled to take effect after the contributions from the Front Bench—from the Minister and the shadow Minister—and obviously after the opening contribution of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). I simply make the point that that limit will be reviewable depending upon the length of early contributions to the debate.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of whether there should be a public inquiry into the phone hacking at the News of the World; and the conduct of the Metropolitan Police Service between 2006 and 2011.
At 8.50 am tomorrow, it will be six years since the London bombings, which saw 52 people murdered and 700 injured. Today we hear that the police are investigating whether the mobile phones of several of those who lost family members in those attacks were hacked by the News of the World. One such family member spoke—very movingly, I thought—on the “Today” programme this morning. Another has been in touch with me and there may be several others. In addition, I am told that the police are looking not just at Milly Dowler’s phone and the phones of the families of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, but at the case of Madeleine McCann and of 15-year-old Danielle Jones, who was abducted and murdered in Essex in 2001 by her uncle, Stuart Campbell.
The charge sheet is even longer, unfortunately. I am told that the News of the World also hacked the phones of police officers, including those investigating the still unsolved murder of Daniel Morgan. This is particularly worrying considering the collapse of the long-delayed trial of the private investigator, Jonathan Rees, who also worked for newspapers, earlier this year. Scandalously, it also seems that the News of the World targeted some of those police officers who were, at various times, in charge of the investigation into the News of the World itself. We can only speculate, Mr Speaker, on why they would want to do that.
These are not just the amoral actions of some lone private investigator tied to a rogue News of the World reporter; they are the immoral and almost certainly criminal deeds of an organisation that was appallingly led and had completely lost sight of any idea of decency or shared humanity. The private voicemail messages of victims of crime should never, ever have become a commodity to be traded between journalists and private investigators for a cheap story and a quick sale, and I know that the vast majority of journalists in this country would agree with that.
If we want to understand the complete moral failure here, we need only listen to the words of Mr Glenn Mulcaire himself:
“Working for the News of the World was never easy. There was relentless pressure. There was a constant demand for results. I knew what we did pushed the limits ethically. But, at the time, I didn’t understand that I had broken the law at all”.
To be honest, the ethics are the big issue here, just as much as whether the law was broken. The journalists and the private investigators should be ashamed of what happened. But so, too, should those who ran the newspaper. It is simply no excuse to say they did not know what was going on. Managerial and executive negligence is tantamount to complicity in this case. I believe that if Rebekah Brooks had a single shred of decency, she would now resign. God knows, if a Minister were in the spotlight at the moment, she would be demanding their head on a plate.
Let me be clear, though. The News of the World is not the only magician practising the dark arts. In 2006, the Information Commissioner produced a devastating report, “What price privacy now?”, which detailed literally hundreds—in fact, thousands—of dubious or criminal acts by journalists or agents of national newspapers: illegally obtaining driving licence details, illegal criminal records or vehicle registration searches, telephone reverse traces and mobile telephone conversions. He listed 1,218 instances at the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday alone, 802 at The People and—I say sadly as a Labour Member—681 at the Daily Mirror. Earlier this year, the new Information Commissioner revealed that many patients’ records held by the NHS are far from secure from the prying eyes of journalists. That is the most private information possible about members of the public.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that I share with him—indeed, I have debated it with him across the Floor of the House—an appreciation of the Information Commissioner’s excellent report, “What price privacy now?”? Does he also agree that, regardless of party politics, it is shameful that the Government of the day did not take action when that report was published in the first place?
I will come on later to make some remarks, with which I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree, about how we have all failed in this process. I believe that the whole political system has failed in this. I take my own share of the blame for that. I asked Rebekah Wade questions about this a long time ago, but in the end the whole of the political system in this country did not take action. Now is our chance to do so.
I am not keen to give way too often, as I am aware that many others want to speak.
This issue is not just about what went on at the News of the World; it is also about the behaviour of the Metropolitan police. In the course of the limited investigation of 2006, which led to the conviction of Glenn Mulcaire and Clive Goodman, the police secured a vast amount of information. They could have—and, I believe, should have—interrogated that information so that it became evidence. They could have approached all those affected. They could have contacted the mobile phone companies to ensure their customers were better protected. Unfortunately, they did none of those things.
My hon. Friend may recall that as Police Minister at the time, I answered an urgent question on 9 July 2009, and put down a written ministerial statement on 14 July and again on 21 July in good faith. Included in one of the ministerial statements was this comment made by the Metropolitan police:
“The Metropolitan Police has also confirmed that it does not consider that there is anything else substantive in relation to additional evidence or information that would justify it re-opening the original investigation.”—[Official Report, 14 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 11WS.]
Uncomfortable though that might be for the police—and, possibly, for myself and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), who was Home Secretary at the time—does that not justify having an investigation of the police performance at that time?
It pains me to say this as well, but the honest truth is that a lot of lies have been told to a lot of people. When police officers tell lies or at least half-truths to Ministers of the Crown so that Parliament ends up being misled, I think it amounts to a major constitutional issue for us to face. I hope that there will end up being a full investigation into that element and that we will come to the truth, but at the moment what hangs around is a very dirty smell. We need the Metropolitan police to be trusted—not just in London but across the whole of the United Kingdom. That is why we need to fight on this issue.
Did the reason that nothing happened have anything to do with the closeness between the Metropolitan police and the News of the World? After all, we know for a fact that Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman, who was in charge of the investigation into the News of the World, now works for News International. We know that senior officers were wined and dined by senior News of the World executives at the very time, and occasionally on the very day, when they were making key decisions about whether any further investigation should proceed against that organisation. And we know that the News of the World paid police officers for information.
I say that categorically because, on 11 March 2003, in the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, I asked Rebekah Wade, as she then was—Rebekah Brooks, as she now is—whether she had paid police officers for information. She said:
“We have paid the police for information in the past.”
“And will you do it in the future?”
She replied: “It depends.” Andy Coulson, who was sitting next to her, said:
“We operate within the code and within the law and if there is a clear public interest then we will.”
“It is illegal for police officers to receive payments.”
Mr Coulson said:
“No. I just said, within the law.”
I do not believe that it is possible to pay police officers “within the law.” That is suborning police officers, it is corruption, and it should stop.
In April this year, Rebekah Brooks was asked by the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs to clarify exactly what she had meant. She replied:
“As can be seen from the transcript, I was responding to a specific line of questioning on how newspapers get information. My intention was simply to comment generally on the widely-held belief that payments had been made in the past to police officers. If, in doing so, I gave the impression that I had knowledge of any specific cases, I can assure you that this was not my intention.”
[Laughter.] I see that the Attorney-General himself is smiling.
Even more worryingly, as we discovered only last night, News International has handed over copies of documents that appear to show that former editor Andy Coulson authorised a series of payments to police officers running into tens of thousands of pounds. That is News International saying, “Yeah but no but yeah but…” . The truth is, however, that News International was doing it, and cannot be allowed to get away with it. I know that the News of the World seems to be hanging Andy Coulson out to dry, but surely the buck stops at the top, and that is the chief executive.
As I shall try to prove in my next few remarks, I think that that is absolutely essential. My hope is that people who committed criminality at the News of the World will end up going to prison. The last thing I want is for the debate, or any inquiry, to hamper the police investigation or any possible prosecution. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about that.
I will not, if Members do not mind. Many others wish to speak.
I know that there are those who argue that there cannot be a public inquiry during an ongoing investigation—and I noted the Prime Minister’s earlier comments, when he seemed to vacillate in relation to when that process could or could not start—but I think they are wrong. Indeed, I consider it vital for the police investigation to be supplemented by a public inquiry. First, some of the issues that need to be addressed may not be criminal, but they do strike at the heart of what an ethical code for the media should look like in this country. Secondly, although I have confidence in the officers who are conducting the Weeting investigation, I fear that the rug could be pulled from under their feet at any moment, and there is no certainty about when their investigations will be completed. By the time they are done, many of those involved may have left the scene or, more worryingly, shredded the evidence—or, of course, discovered selective amnesia.
That is why it is vital that an inquiry be set up as soon as possible and as soon as practicable, led by a judge with full powers to summon witnesses who must give evidence under oath. Of course the inquiry should not sit in public until the investigations are complete—I hope that that answers the question asked by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith)—but an astute judge can easily manage the relationship between a police investigation and an inquiry, prepare evidence, and secure witnesses without compromising any criminal investigation or prosecution.
I am confident that the Prime Minister agrees with that. After all—as was mentioned earlier—a year ago today he announced an inquiry, to be led by Sir Peter Gibson, into allegations of the torture of detainees. He appointed two other members to it, and said that he hoped it would start by the end of last year and be completed within a year. Indeed, he expressly pointed out that he was setting up the inquiry despite the fact that criminal investigations were still ongoing. My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), the former Lord Chancellor—and Foreign Secretary, and holder of many other posts besides—has received a letter about the Gibson inquiry which makes the position very clear. It states:
“The Inquiry has not yet started as we are still awaiting the conclusion of two related police investigations into the Security Service and SIS.”
None the less, says the letter, “preparatory matters” are in hand. That is precisely what I believe should happen in this case.
The inquiry into the torture allegations, led by Sir Peter Gibson—himself a former senior judge—has already been able to do a huge amount of work in private, so that if and when the police investigations and any proceedings that follow it are completed, the public part of the inquiry can start immediately.