House of Commons
Monday 5 September 2011
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Business Rates (Local Retention)
The Government have published proposals to allow local retention of business rates and are seeking views by 24 October. The plans give councils a strong financial incentive to drive economic growth, as well as providing protections for places in need of additional support. Subject to the outcome of the consultation, we intend to introduce business rates retention by April 2013.
There is significant concern in cities such as Liverpool that councils will lose money after the first year if they cannot adjust quickly enough to the changes. We have had reassurances from Ministers that councils will get that support in the first year, but will the Secretary of State guarantee that they will get that additional support in years 2, 3 and 4?
Had the provisions been in place over the past few years, Liverpool would have done particularly well out of the system. I am confident that the leadership of Liverpool will respond to this, because it puts Liverpool very much in the driving seat. My opinion is that Liverpool is an extremely good place to invest.
Following the riots, the viability of high streets is a priority. For my local shops, the priority is reform of business rates, which they see as too high and lacking any real connection with local services and local decision makers. Can the Minister hasten the day when business rates are not an issue for his Department?
I certainly hope so. We recognise the burden of rates on small businesses. That is why we are doubling small business rate relief until the end of September 2012. Approximately a third of a million business rate payers, including small shopkeepers, will pay no rates at all for this period, and through the Localism Bill we are giving authorities powers to grant business rates discounts as they see fit.
In my constituency, the local enterprise partnership is moving swiftly to create business growth across both Warwickshire and Coventry. Can the Secretary of State explain which mechanisms will allow LEPs to receive funding from business rates where they, working with the local authority or alone, have been responsible for economic growth in the area?
LEPs are a partnership between local authorities and business, and we will be encouraging, though we will not be prescribing, local authorities to pool the business rates. I know that a number of authorities around Greater Manchester, west Yorkshire and particularly London are actively considering pooling arrangements, which has the advantage that poorer areas can benefit from richer areas.
Barnsley council has estimated that, had the arrangements been in place last year, it would have seen a cut of more than £40 million last year. Does the Secretary of State think it is fair that poorer areas such as Barnsley may face pressures in delivering vital local public services, whereas wealthier areas may see their business rates receipts go through the roof?
If business rates go through the roof, they will be caught by the “disproportionate” rule and those sums will be taken away and distributed to poorer areas. This was designed to help councils such as Barnsley to retain local growth. The figures that I have seen—we received some figures from Barnsley during the recent settlement—did not appear to be entirely accurate. I am happy to work with the hon. Gentleman to get the best possible deal for Barnsley.
Ministers—[Interruption]—have already made savage front-loaded cuts to council budgets, and now they want to top-slice the proceeds of business rate growth which they promised to local councils. Localising business rate growth should give local authorities an incentive to grow their business base and to create jobs. Will the Minister explain just how central Government’s top-slicing of business rate growth can provide that proper incentive? Is it not just another hit on local government finance?
The hon. Lady was clearly missed by Members on her side of the House, and indeed by those on ours, judging by that welcome.
The only top-slicing that will take place is with regard to disproportionate gains, and I am pretty confident that Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster councils will see enormous increases in their rates. It is only right that we take that money away and see that it is distributed to other parts of the country, such as to Barnsley. I would have thought that she would support that.
High Streets (Planning)
It is a devolved matter for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, but the Government are committed to the “town centre first” approach, which prefers to site new retail developments on the high street.
I thank the Minister for his reply. The new planning system framework calls for a presumption in favour of sustainable development. Today, however, the Financial Times describes that phrase as “vaguely defined”. Will the Minister please take this opportunity to offer us a precise definition?
It is the same definition that the previous Government and Governments before them applied. In fact, it is the classic definition. It is that development that takes place should not be at the expense of the interests of future generations—and that is defined economically, socially and environmentally.
The national planning policy framework has a welcome heading on promoting the vitality and viability of town centres, but the Minister was reluctant to make an addition to the Localism Bill concerning district centres and the important relevant hierarchy. What protection will he give to local neighbourhoods in the control of uses and in keeping local district shopping centres viable and vital?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. The Localism Bill, through neighbourhood planning, provides precisely such a basis to protect and, indeed, promote the future of district high streets, and we have already funded a number of areas, especially on high streets, in order to demonstrate their ability to capture the importance of regional high streets as well as of city centres.
One of the most successful policies of the previous Conservative Government was their change to the planning guidance in the mid-’90s to ensure that priority was given to retail development in district or city centres or adjacent to them. Will the Minister now give an assurance that his proposed changes to the planning system will not water that down in any way and lead to an increase in stand-alone retail developments at the expense of our city and town centres?
Local communities, such as Chippenham, which choose to bring forward neighbourhood plans to facilitate redevelopment of their town centres may at the same time wish to restrict development of out-of-town and edge-of-town developments. Will neighbourhood planners have the authority to do that?
Not only will they have the authority do so, but national policy will continue to be clear that retail developments should be in town centres first. That is crystal clear. It has been a very successful policy, which was first introduced by John Gummer when he was Secretary of State.
The Government have weakened protection for the high street in the national planning policy framework and rejected Labour’s call for local people to have the powers to plan their high streets, instead setting up a review and a retail summit. Does the Minister not recognise that what the high street needs is real action and real shops if we are to put the heart back into Britain’s hard-hit high streets?
There is no dilution of the importance of town centres—of putting high streets first. In fact, over and above the planning system, we have relaxed parking standards so that people are able to drive and park in town centres—crucial, if they are to compete fairly with out-of-town centres. It repeals something that the previous Government introduced, sadly, which was blighting town centres. We reversed that.
Local Government Expenditure
The most important thing that the Government are doing is to return power to local authorities, because they are the people who are best placed to manage their resources in a way that meets local priorities, but specifically we are also supporting a raft of initiatives, such as the local government procurement programme.
Recently, I met a local business, Colan Ltd, which was concerned about the way that local authorities procure goods and services. My constituent stated that local authorities have conflicting policies that are costing small companies such as his and in some cases are wasting public money. Will the Minister detail what work is being done to put in place more joined-up procurement across local authorities to support small businesses and ensure better use of public money?
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. The estimate is that some 20% could be saved on the £50 billion that local authorities spend on third parties, which is about £452 per family a year. To that end, the Government are working with the Local Government Group on behalf of the sector to identify short and longer term savings through the local productivity programme.
On spending efficiency, my local housing association tells me that a lone parent with a spare room might be moved from housing association accommodation into private rented accommodation at a cost of £40 more under the new housing allowance. Is that an example of Government ideology or just of stupidity?
Transparency in Local Government
Following public consultation earlier this year, I will shortly publish a code of recommended practice on transparency, setting out the principles and minimum standards that authorities should follow. That will ensure that councils can be held fully accountable to the people they serve.
The Localism Bill will indeed do that. Perhaps the most notable of its provisions is on the transparency of chief executive and senior salaries, which will have to go through a vote of the whole council. I am sure my hon. Friend understands that the Localism Bill is just part of the move towards transparency, which might better be described as ensuring that the public are kept informed.
How transparent is it for Ministers to mask the real cuts in local government spending, such as the 16% cut for Nottingham city council, by dreaming up a statistical methodology that they call spending power and spinning it as a cut of just 8%? Why do they not just come clean about the cuts to the poorest areas in the country?
The body that thought up the spending power recommendation was the Local Government Association. Indeed, immediately before we announced it, the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), who is sat on the Labour Front Bench, endorsed it as the way we should go.
The Government have authorised 22 enterprise zones. We do not have plans to appoint any more. However, local enterprise partnerships can confer many of the advantages of enterprise zones without reference to central Government.
I warmly welcome the £20 million that the Government are giving to the Mayor of London to support enterprise in Tottenham and Croydon in lieu of the designation of an enterprise zone. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that that money will not be ring-fenced in any way? Will he meet a delegation from the Mayor’s office and Croydon council to discuss how else the Government can support the regeneration of Croydon in the light of what happened a month ago?
First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the leadership he has shown in the community of Croydon in the wake of the riots. I am pleased to give him the assurance he seeks. The money will be unring-fenced and can be spent in the way that the people of Croydon think best. I am happy to meet such a delegation and I think that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be visiting Croydon this week.
When asked on BBC Radio Stoke why Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire was not selected as an enterprise zone in round 1, the Prime Minister, standing in Stoke-on-Trent, said:
“Look, you’re not missing out on an enterprise zone, there will be an enterprise zone within the Stoke and Staffordshire Local Enterprise Partnership…and there will be one in this area and we’ll be advised by the Local Enterprise Partnership about where it should go.”
The local enterprise partnership did advise, but we were not on the list. The map boundaries have not changed, and we are not part of the black country. What support will the Government now give to provide the enterprise investment that is needed, and will the Minister look again at our being included?
I understand the hon. Lady’s disappointment that that particular bid was not approved, and I would be very happy to meet her to explain why. However, there is some consolation in the fact that 90% of the black country’s enterprise zone is located in the Stoke and Staffordshire area, so there is some good news for the regeneration of her area.
Our ambition is to make the whole country an enterprise zone, but we go one step at a time. The answer to my hon. Friend’s question is that the decision was made by the local enterprise partnership. Unlike the previous round of enterprise zones, these ones were not picked in Whitehall. It was for the local enterprise partnership to designate where it thought the zone would work best.
There were two areas in London bidding for an enterprise zone prior to the riots: Tottenham and Croydon. Neither was granted enterprise zone status, but we were given a £20 million fund, for which I am grateful. However, it cannot be right that of Tottenham’s £10 million fund, £8 million should go to Tottenham Hotspur football club. I want to support the football club, but we will need far more regeneration in Tottenham if we are to see the kind of turnaround that we need in the poorest area in London. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can move forward?
Having paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) for his leadership in Tottenham. He knows that the funding is available to Tottenham, as indeed it is to Croydon, and I would be very happy to meet him to discuss how it is going to be spent.
Housing (Armed Forces Personnel)
I am determined to ensure that those who have served or are serving in the military and armed forces get all the help and assistance possible with purchasing a home, and indeed in the Government’s affordable home programmes.
I thank the Minister for that reply, but may I draw his attention to today’s Daily Mail, which highlights the rather shocking disparity in the housing accommodation offered to asylum seekers and to ex-members of the armed forces such as Private Alex Stringer, a triple amputee? Can the Minister assure us that the Government will bring forward schemes to prioritise housing for ex-servicemen and women? I believe that those who have recently fought for their country deserve better accommodation than those who have merely recently arrived here.
I say to my hon. and, I believe, gallant Friend that I entirely agree that it is essential that people who have been through armed service for this country should expect not just to have the disadvantages removed of having been away, such as perhaps a lost connection with the local area, but to be positively advantaged. I reassure him that that is exactly what our policy is intended to do. I can tell the House that just this weekend the very first recipients under the Government’s new Firstbuy scheme, in which we aim to ensure that service personnel benefit, were Mr and Mrs Ferguson of Telford, who have just moved into a four-bed home. He was a military policeman in the Army.
The Housing Act 2004 requires local authorities to review the operation of selective licensing designations, and I certainly encourage them to do so. The Department has therefore not carried out an assessment itself of the effectiveness of those areas.
The main problem with selective licensing, of course, is that it does not deal with stock condition, and we see many properties in selective licensing areas that are squalid. Can the Minister assure local communities that the Government will allow councils to include the most recent decent homes standard as a licence condition?
I know that the hon. Gentleman has been very active on this issue, and I know that he has a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government next week, at which I am sure he will make that point very strongly. Licensing conditions are matters for local authorities when they draw up their proposals.
With more than 1 million people living in substandard privately rented accommodation, and with massive front-loaded cuts to council budgets making it harder to tackle slum landlords, the Housing and Local Government Minister is clearly failing in his responsibilities. However, as Henry Ford once said:
“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”
Will the Minister therefore adopt a more intelligent approach and abandon his laissez-faire attitude to regulation, which is creating a charter for slum landlords, by implementing the light-touch licensing system recommended by the Rugg review, adopted by Labour and welcomed by the National Landlords Association and the Association of Residential Lettings Agents?
I am happy to tell the House that 14 local authorities have accepted selective licensing areas—they have approved them and put them in place. That is the way to go. Local authorities should have the power and the responsibility to do that; they should not have the obligation to do it.
11. What steps his Department is taking to reduce the number of empty homes. (69929)
We have put in place powerful tools and incentives to support local communities in tackling empty homes. Particularly through the new homes bonus, communities will receive a direct financial reward for bringing an empty home back into use, and, of course, we are investing £100 million in tackling empty homes directly.
With more than 2,000 empty homes across the Blackpool and Wyre boroughs covering my constituency, does the Minister agree that tackling the relatively simple issue of filling empty homes in urban areas would reduce pressure on existing greenfield and green belt sites?
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is a scandal that we have in this country 300,000 homes that have been empty for longer than six months. In Blackpool and Wyre, the number of empty homes actually fell last year, and I want to give credit to the work of Blackpool council’s working group, which is working with other agencies to reduce that number. However, the investment that we will announce later this month will make a big difference to the figures nationally, and, I hope, in his area.
I draw the House’s attention to my previous declarations of an indirect interest, which are a matter of record.
Although I welcome all attempts to bring empty homes back into use—I saw some excellent examples during the recess of self-help schemes that do just that, including in Leeds and Hull—homelessness and rent have increased, as the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), admitted over the weekend. It was therefore surprising that his colleague, the Housing and Local Government Minister, wrote to me during the recess to seek my guidance and ideas from Labour’s policy thinking. That was from a man who pointed out that the shadow Minister was going to—
I just thought that that would be an interesting point, Mr Speaker.
Even with the net addition of empty homes being brought back into use, can the Minister tell us when he expects house building under his Government to exceed the 207,000 net additions achieved under Labour in the year before the recession hit?
What I will say is that our investment in social housing, which we announced in the comprehensive spending review with the aim of delivering 150,000 homes, will in fact deliver 170,000 homes. That is a massive success which will increase the stock of social housing above and beyond Labour’s targets.
In the five years that empty homes management orders have been in force—they were introduced in 2006—only 46 have been made by local authorities across the country. That contrasts with the 300,000 empty homes, but they are the back-stop. I am happy to say that a lot of good work is done by many local authorities and other agencies to bring homes back into use. I intend to accelerate that process dramatically.
I would like to encourage the Minister to pursue with vigour and enthusiasm the points made by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). There are too many empty houses, and if we can get them occupied, there would be a lot less pressure on the open countryside.
I and my officials have met representatives from English Heritage and other heritage bodies several times to improve the neighbourhood planning aspects of the Localism Bill. I am pleased to say that that has resulted in several helpful amendments that have enjoyed cross-party support.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his reply. Would he now like to take the opportunity to apologise to the 3.6 million members of the National Trust, whose concerns over the Government’s charter for sprawl were dismissed by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), as a left-wing smear campaign? Before the right hon. Gentleman explains whether Sir Simon Jenkins is a Tankie or a Trot, would he not agree that this is just further proof that the Conservatives cannot be trusted with the British countryside?
I noticed that my hon. Friend described some of the leaders of some of these organisations as “left wing”. If it is untrue, it is a great insult; and if it is true, it is a great shame. The hon. Gentleman is a passionate defender of the historic environment, but so too are we on the Government Benches, and we are determined to preserve the character of middle England—but young England needs a roof over its head too.
As has already been said, there has been considerable concern across the country that the Government are trying to steamroller through policy affecting future planning decisions. We were promised that the draft NPPF would be published alongside the Localism Bill. It did not happen. Then we were told that it would be published in Committee. That did not happen either. Then we were assured that it would definitely be published before the summer recess, but that did not happen either. Does the Minister recognise that by trying to bypass Parliament and dismiss legitimate concerns, he has undermined efforts to reach consensus on future planning policy?
That is total nonsense. The commitment was to publish the NPPF by the end of July, and we did that. On not showing it to Parliament, I should say that I was looking at the record of the previous Government, and I noticed that there was a press release on 6 August 2009 about a new Government consultation on planning regional strategies. The idea, then, that the way we have done this is not in accordance with practice is for the birds. It is nonsense.
I am afraid that that answer was not very helpful. I hoped that we could have a constructive discussion. It is in all our interests to have a planning system that can provide jobs, homes and growth in a sustainable way, and we want to work with the Government to put this situation right and reach consensus. In order to move forward, therefore, will he extend the consultation period on the NPPF, hold a debate on it in Government time and allow a vote on the final document, so that Parliament and the country can debate the reforms properly?
We have put in place extensive consultation arrangements: we put out a call for evidence in January; we invited a practitioners group to publish its suggested draft a few months ago; and we have had the standard consultation period. The right hon. Lady will also know that I have committed to holding a debate here, and have asked the Chairman of the Communities and Local Government Committee to look into the matter. It is very clear—I am completely open about this—that we want to have the fullest possible debate. I welcome her constructive approach. It is much needed because we have a crisis in housing and growth in this country that needs to be addressed by reforming the planning system in order to provide those things.
Under the strategic housing land assessment process started by the previous Government, developers can nominate potential sites to go on a list in a way that does not seem to engage heritage organisations or heritage issues. Given the presumption in favour of development, does that mean that heritage issues cannot be brought to bear as reasons for refusing applications on sites on that list?
It is not for central Government to assess local plans. Our planning reforms make it clear that it is for local councils to assess their local needs and to plan to meet those needs in a way that reflects local priorities.
I am grateful for that reply. What steps is the Department taking to provide guidance to support investment in brownfield and inner-city locations to generate much needed employment and reduce the damaging impact on the environment caused by developing greenfield sites? Will the Minister also look again at counting windfall sites in the five-year plan?
It is certainly proper for local planning authorities to take into account windfall sites, but it is also necessary for every planning authority to ensure that it has sound evidence-based proposals for housing in particular, as well as for other development. I know that my hon. Friend is particularly concerned about the situation in Leeds, and it is really for Leeds to develop its evidence base so that plans can go forward in a sensible and sustainable way.
Kirkstall Forge in Leeds West is a brownfield site that has planning permission for 1,000 new homes. However, if they are going to get built, the Department for Transport needs to invest in a new railway station, which, as things currently stand, is on hold. Is there any joined-up thinking in this Government to ensure that such developments get the go-ahead and deliver much needed new homes?
The hon. Lady has made her point, so let me make mine, which is that it is very much for the planning authority approving a development to see what the associated infrastructure should be and how to create the investment force that can deliver it. The new homes bonus will deliver a substantial amount of additional money to Leeds, which can borrow against it in advance to develop the infrastructure that it needs.
We are simplifying the national planning policy framework, as some Members may have noticed. Through the Localism Bill, we are also abolishing the regional strategies, which have placed top-down burdens on every authority in the country.
The cost of developing a neighbourhood plan will depend on how detailed the plan being executed is. However, we are providing support for every neighbourhood that wants to produce a neighbourhood plan. We have ensured that support will be available even before the Bill is introduced, so that every community that wants to have a neighbourhood plan can get on with it.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised that question because it enables me to say categorically: no, the answer is that it does not. What the presumption says is that when a local plan is absent or silent, there will be an assessment of whether a development should go ahead, the test of which will be whether it is sustainable, which is absolutely crucial. I have been campaigning for the environment for my entire political career, and I will continue to do so.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and this is the situation that we have arrived at, because people quite rightly resist the imposition from above of targets and policies that take no account of local opinion or local needs. By stripping away those impositions from above, we will have plans that represent the views and aspirations of local communities. That will start making people in favour of development, whereas the previous Government set them against it.
If the Minister’s plans are to support local government, what powers will he give it when developers do not deliver? The Westfield shopping centre in Bradford has taken 10 years to happen, and the local authority has no powers to get the developers to deliver. Has he considered such powers in his new proposals?
I visited the development site that the hon. Gentleman mentions last month. It is right in the centre of Bradford, and I can see that there is a problem at the moment and that the site needs to be brought back into use. I agreed to work with the leadership of the council to explore ways of doing that, but he will know, as an experienced Minister, that we cannot force a developer to act if it does not have the necessary funds in place to do so.
Local Authority Service Provision
Local government is best placed to assess and decide on local priorities, not Whitehall. This Government have given councils the power and flexibility to take decisions locally on how to deliver the savings needed, and I hope that they will do so by reducing back-office inefficiencies and high senior salary levels, rather than cutting the front-line services that matter most.
Youth workers in Oxfordshire, like others up and down the country, were instructed to work on the streets during the recent disturbances, but they are now all being made redundant. Youth work is clearly a front-line service, so what is the Minister going to do to stop this destruction? I do hope that he is not going to reiterate the nonsense that savings can be made by cutting executive pay and merging back-room functions.
I am sorry that, in her otherwise serious point, the hon. Lady suggests that efficiency is nonsense; I do not think that it is. In answer to her specific point, the British Youth Council, the National Youth Agency and the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services have all condemned the disorder that we saw on the streets and they are working well with the Government. I hope that she will support the Government’s initiative for national citizen service, which is being piloted in the Bolton lads and girls club in her area. There’s youth service in action!
The latest planning statistics show that in the year to March 2011, local planning authorities granted 37,500 residential planning permissions; that is up 8% on 2009-10.
May I draw the House’s attention to my interests?
Will the Minister admit that the figures for the second quarter—the latest available—show that the number of planning consents for residential development were down 23% on last year? That is the second lowest level ever recorded, and less than half the level necessary to provide for housing needs. Will he also now admit that the Government’s maladroit tampering with the planning system has created the near impossible—namely, achieving the lowest level of housing planning permissions at the same time as infuriating the National Trust and other countryside groups by the prospect of indiscriminate growth?
The right hon. Gentleman was the architect of many of the policies that led to the lowest level of house building since the 1920s. When we rip up the regional spatial strategies, cancel his top-down targets and put local people in charge, we can see the results, not measured over one little quarter that he plucks out of the air but over the entire first year of this new Government. Those results show that there were just 88,500 house building starts in the last year of his Government, and that the number had risen to 103,500 in the first year of this Government. That is a rise of 17%.
17. What plans he has to increase the powers of local authorities in dealing with unauthorised development. (69937)
Local authorities already have strong powers to act against unauthorised development which apply to everyone who ignores planning controls. In the Localism Bill, we have taken action to restrict retrospective planning applications, to ensure that people do not get away with flouting the system.
It is right and proper that we should respect the lifestyle choices of the Travelling community, but that does not give them particular rights over other citizens, particularly among the settled community. This Government will introduce special rules to ensure that authorities that provide pitches for Travellers receive a top-up against the new homes bonus, but the planning rules must be blind to a person’s ethnic background.
I can confirm that, yes, councils will be able to use unimplemented consents in their five-year supply.
I am grateful for that reply, but I urge the Minister to work closely with councils on publishing more guidance and setting out how to build a strong evidence base in order to include windfall sites, so that Leeds city council can stand up in the planning courts and use the 2.3 years of windfall supply as part of the current five-year supply, because at the moment, it is losing on every appeal.
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. As he knows, I visited Leeds in recent days, and I believe he was returning from his honeymoon, on which all Members will, I am sure, wish to congratulate him. I understand the situation he outlines: having the ability to use these unimplemented consents will be a start, and I would be happy to meet him, now that he is back in such fine form, to continue the discussion.
I have today laid a written statement outlining the work of my Department over the recess. We have been promoting economic growth, promoting local shops and firms, and giving new incentives for councils to create jobs and businesses. We have increased freedoms to local councils, cut Whitehall red tape and boosted transparency in government. We have taken the lead in helping local communities get back to business after the August riots. I would like to pay tribute to local councils that provided leadership to their communities during that period, to the firefighters who bravely tackled arson in the face of violence and, above all, to local residents who literally picked up their brooms to clean up and reclaim the streets after the mess.
Can the Secretary of State guarantee that, unlike the previous Government’s disastrous regional spatial strategy under which 10,000 houses were planned to be built on the Kingswood green belt, the national planning policy framework will retain all current green belt protections?
There was a time when I was a frequent visitor to my hon. Friend’s constituency, so I know the strength of local feeling about the green belt. Let me give him a clear and unequivocal assurance that the green belt will be protected under this coalition Government, unlike under the previous Labour Government, who promised to build on it.
T10. The Aspes road-Leyfield lane footpath in my constituency is little used by local people, yet it has become a focus for crime and antisocial behaviour. Will the Secretary of State look at the rules and bureaucracy that make it very difficult for local communities to secure the closure of such footpaths? (69953)
T2. At a time when the whole country is working hard to help pay down the last Government’s deficit and public sector workers are experiencing a two-year pay freeze, it appears that some council chief executives are still finding elaborate ways to hike their pay. Will my right hon. Friend join me in urging overpaid council chief executives to do the right thing and take a pay cut? (69945)
I certainly hope that chief executives will do the right thing. Above all, this issue is not just about money, but a question of leadership. It is about looking other council workers in the eye, particularly those who might face voluntary redundancy or early retirement. That is why chief executives should make some kind of sacrifice. Frankly, it is no good making a big song and dance about taking a cut and then bumping up expenses in private.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision, in the aftermath of the riots, to give the extra £20 million to Tottenham and Croydon. Does he agree that this should be focused on the businesses that have been burnt out and devastated and the citizens who were the major victims of the devastation? Will he be clear that he never intended £8.5 million of that riot money to be given to a very rich premiership football club, namely Tottenham Hotspur?
I shall be visiting Croydon very soon to discuss the possibilities. However, it is important to understand that the extra money made available was intended not to deal with riot damage or to get businesses up and running again, but to deal with some of Croydon’s long-term structural problems. I noted carefully what the right hon. Gentleman said about the football club, and will be happy to discuss with him elsewhere what should be done next.
T3. A recent independent report on the use of section 106 moneys by Labour-run Reading borough council concluded, among other things, that it was “difficult to categorically state that officers or members in position of power have not abused their position”.What advice can the Minister offer concerned council tax payers who want to see the full and exhaustive investigation that Labour in Reading is refusing to initiate? (69946)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important point. As I am sure he will appreciate, I must be careful not to say too much about the individual case because I understand that a reference may be made to the district auditor, but I can say more generally that both the report and his question highlight the problem that has arisen as a result of the opacity and lack of transparency of section 106 agreements. The Government inherited that problem, but we are committed to reforming section 106 agreements, and have made proposals to do so.
Does the ministerial team agree that one way of making local government more efficient would be to make the people who work in it feel valued, and feel that they do a good job for their communities? Is it not about time that Ministers spoke up with one voice about what a good job those people do throughout our communities?
I entirely agree, and I think that if there was ever an example of that, it could be seen in the aftermath of the riots. I spoke to just about every council leader affected, and was immensely impressed by their determination to ensure that their communities recovered very quickly. I cannot praise their efforts highly enough.
T4. Many of my constituents are totally perplexed about why Labour-run Kirklees council is trying to steamroller through big housing developments in parts of the countryside such as Lindley Moor and the northern gateway area while there are hundreds of empty homes throughout the district. Does the Minister agree that the number of empty homes in Kirklees should be a material consideration in the council’s local plan? (69947)
Yes, I do agree, and it will be entirely possible for the empty homes in my hon. Friend’s authority to be considered as part of the contribution to the total.
I am not sure that the Minister entirely succeeded in convincing the House earlier with his answer to the question about the definition of the phrase
“a presumption in favour of sustainable development”.
Given that the interpretation of that phrase will be central to the Government’s ambition to improve the planning process, will the Secretary of State consider providing a clearer definition and placing it in the Library of the House?
As I said before, we have adopted exactly the same definition that applied under the last Government. I have made it clear that if there are discussions to be held on ensuring that everyone understands precisely what is meant, I shall be very open to that, but what is crucial is that we reform planning policy in order to unlock jobs and create homes for the next generation of young people.
T5. Under the coalition Government, house building statistics in England are 22% higher than those during the comparative period under the last Government. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must never again see circumstances in which council tax bills double yet results are so poor? (69948)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important to allow communities to grow and allow local people to have a stake in that growth, which is why we will ensure—both through the new homes bonus and through reformed business rates—that an ambitious local authority can improve the lot of people who live in their area, who, for the first time, will have a stake in the future.
In response to the question from the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) said that we were facing a crisis of growth. What does it say about the policies of the present Government that after the abolition of the regional development agencies and six months after the budget for growth, a Minister has come to the House and admitted that there is a crisis of growth?
The crisis of growth that I was referring to was that bequeathed to us by the previous Labour Government. We noticed that the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) has decided not to say what she thinks of the reforms that we are enacting. She has spent six weeks failing to give a view on that. A few weeks ago, the leader of her party said that
“the promise of a better life for the next generation is under threat…How are they going to buy their first home?”
Does she support our simplified planning system or not? She did not answer.
T6. Does the Minister agree that we need to keep our high streets healthy and diverse and support independent shops? Will he therefore support the Cambridge amendment 153AKC, tabled by Lord Greaves, to the Localism Bill, which gives local people the power to support their high streets in that way? (69949)
The health of the high street is a fundamental characteristic of a healthy community and we are strongly promoting that through the national policy planning framework—or the other way around even. We will look hard at the proposals that come from our noble Friends in the Lords and give careful consideration to them.
It is clear from an earlier answer that the Minister sees the current planning framework as a burden. Is he so blinkered to the concern that his changes could signal the return to the 1980s planning free-for-all, undermining the established sequential test—brownfield, open space—and town centre policies along the way?
I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman that that is not the case. If he takes the specific example of brownfield sites, he will find that paragraph 165 of the framework sets out clearly that land of the least environmental value should be brought forward first. That is another way of saying brownfield land first.
To address housing need, we need to build more than 200,000 properties, but according to the statistics that are coming out, it is unlikely that we will complete half that number in the coming year. The Government have already massively cut support for affordable housing and made a complete botch of the planning system. What will they do to address the coming housing crisis?
The hon. Gentleman has rightly defined the problem of the legacy that this Government inherited, with the lowest house building since the ’20s, but I am pleased to be able to report that, compared with the comparative period when Labour was in power, since the election, housing building starts are up 22%. I hope he will join me in welcoming those statistics.
T8. If the Prime Minister were to give the Secretary of State an additional role, I doubt he would ask for more money to do it, so does he agree that council chief executives who double as returning officers and already earn more than he does should not receive an additional fee for overseeing elections? (69951)
This is something very close to all our hearts in this Chamber. That, of course, is a matter for the Secretary of State for Justice, but to me this seems common sense. I have not come across many chief executives who do the count and organise the postal votes; that is often done by the deputy returning officer. I know that a number of returning officers ensure that the extra money is shared among staff. I think that that is the right course, but if chief executives are pocketing that money, they should feel ashamed.
Local authority-run closed circuit television played a vital role in investigating many of the riots in our high streets only a month ago, yet the Protection of Freedoms Bill will make it more difficult and bureaucratic for local authorities to install CCTV. Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to reflect on that, and consult local authorities and police before we go ahead with the measures in the Bill?
Of course we will reflect on those matters, but it is important that these important intrusions into people’s private lives are regulated, and the Bill intends to regulate them, but if the hon. Gentleman has a specific point, we will be happy to look into it.
The West Midlands fire service is proposing to merge two fire stations in my constituency, which will significantly reduce the level of fire cover, reducing the number of fire engines from two to one. Will the Minister responsible commit to meet me and the chief of the West Midlands fire service to review those proposals and to ensure that the same level of fire cover is retained in my constituency?
Of course I am happy to discuss the matter with my hon. Friend, but I must point out that these are local decisions for the fire authority, which must at all times act in accordance with its integrated risk management plan and its statutory obligations under fire services legislation.
What is the Secretary of State doing in conjunction with other Departments to promote awareness among uninsured local businesses affected by last month’s riots that under the Riot (Damages) Act 1886 the deadline for making compensation claims will fall imminently—this week, I think?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, we extended the normal period within which claims can be made. We have put out a simplified form—or, rather, we have worked with local authorities to put out a simplified form. It is available on our website. I am not aware that there are many businesses that have suffered an uninsured loss that have not come forward, but we do intend to use this money to get those businesses back into business, so that the community can continue to thrive.
May I congratulate the whole ministerial team on being bold on planning reform? Whatever the rights and wrongs of individual planning decisions, it cannot be right that the planning process itself costs 10 times more in central London than in central Paris or central Brussels. I therefore urge the Secretary of State to ensure that we pare down the costs of the planning process so that we can contribute to the country’s economic growth.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Reform of the planning process is a crucial part of “The Plan for Growth”. We have inherited a situation from the previous Government whereby the centralisation of the economy has led to depressed levels of growth. We are turning that around through fundamental reforms, and I welcome my hon. Friend’s support.
Last year, Nottingham city council, which serves some of the most deprived communities in the country, was subjected to the biggest cuts in funding, while rural shire counties were protected. Will the Secretary of State look again at this year’s settlement and get a fairer deal for my constituents?
We had to put in place protection for Nottingham because the Labour party withdrew the working neighbourhoods fund; we had to protect Nottingham from Labour cuts. My advice to Nottingham is that if it wants to get favourable treatment from the Government, it should publish its expenditure online: publish and be damned!
With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on Libya.
When we met here on that Friday in March, Gaddafi’s tanks bore down on Benghazi, his air force had already begun strikes against his people, and his army had smashed through Zawiyah, with a grave loss of life. Gaddafi had vowed to hunt down his own people like rats, using the full might of his armed forces, backed up by mercenaries. I did not think Britain should stand by as Gaddafi slaughtered his people. Nor could we allow a failed pariah state festering on Europe’s southern border, with the potential to threaten our own security.
The Libyan opposition and the Arab League both called for NATO to protect the civilian population, so, together with the US and France, we secured agreement for UN Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973 and, with this clear legal mandate, this House voted by a majority of 544 in favour of military action. Today, the Libyan people have taken their country back.
I am grateful for the support that all parts of this House have given over the last six months, and I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the incredible dedication and professionalism of our pilots, sailors, ground crew and everyone in our armed forces who has been involved in this mission.
But we should also pay a full tribute to the bravery and resilience of the Libyan people themselves. This has been their revolution and none of it could have happened without them. Ordinary Libyans from all walks of life came together and rose up against Gaddafi. From the villages of the Nafusa mountains to the tower blocks of Misrata, the alleyways of Zawiyah and the streets of Benghazi, the Libyan people fought with incredible courage. Many paid with their lives. Others have been seriously injured, and the struggle is not over. They still face forces loyal to a dictator who last week threatened to turn Libya “into a hell”.
The long work of building a new Libya is just beginning, but what is clear is that the future of Libya belongs to its people. The task of the international community now is to support them as they build that future. That means helping to finish the job, ensuring security, addressing the immediate humanitarian needs and supporting the longer-term process of reconstruction and political transition to democracy. Let me address each in turn.
First, on finishing the job, Britain has been at the forefront of the military operation to protect the Libyan people. Our aircraft have made over 2,400 sorties across Libya, carrying out one fifth of all NATO airstrikes, against some 900 targets in Gaddafi’s war machine. Our warships have supported this effort, helping to enforce the UN arms embargo and bringing aid to those in need. At its peak, some 2,300 British servicemen and women were deployed on Operation Ellamy, with 36 aircraft including 16 Tornados, six Typhoons, five attack helicopters, tankers and specialist surveillance aircraft and helicopters. These were supported over the course of the operation by eight warships and a hunter-killer submarine.
But the job is not over. As we stand, the free Libya forces have liberated Tripoli and control Libya’s key population centres, but pro-Gaddafi forces still pose a threat and, in particular, control the towns of Bani Walid, Sirte, and Sabha in the south of the country. The national transitional council has been working to negotiate a peaceful outcome, but its leaders have explicitly requested that NATO continue its operations to protect civilians until that is achieved. Over the weekend, RAF Tornados struck eight military command and control installations south-west of Waddan and nine weapons and ammunition stores near Sirte.
For as long as Gaddafi remains at large, the safety and the security of the Libyan people remain under threat. So let me be clear: we will not let up until the job is done. First, Britain and its NATO allies will continue to implement UN Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973 for as long as we are needed to protect civilian life. Those thinking that NATO will somehow pull out or pull back must think again. We are ready to extend the NATO mandate for as long as is necessary.
Secondly, we will support the Libyan people in bringing Gaddafi to justice. This is a man whose crimes are becoming ever more apparent every day and who is wanted by the International Criminal Court. There must be no bolthole; no pampered hiding place from justice. He must face the consequences of his actions, under international and Libyan law.
Turning to security, the early signs have been encouraging. There has been some disorder, but it has been focused on symbols of the former regime. The national transitional council is moving to stand down fighters from outside Tripoli. The police are returning to the streets, and the council leaders have been clear and consistent in cautioning against disorder and, crucially, against reprisals. Britain and its international partners are helping, too, working closely with the national transitional council in securing chemical weapons sites and supporting mine clearance in Misrata, Benghazi and other affected areas.
On the humanitarian situation, Britain has played a leading role from the outset. The priorities today are health, water, food and fuel. On health, our humanitarian partners report that hospitals and clinics in Tripoli are now functioning well, and staff are returning to work. Britain is providing additional support through the International Committee of the Red Cross, including surgical teams and medicines to treat up to 5,000 war-wounded patients.
On water, substantial numbers of people in Tripoli are still without running water. However, UNICEF is procuring 11 million litres of bottled water, and the Libyan authorities are working to repair the water systems. The NTC reports that 100 wells are back online, representing 20% of capacity.
On fuel, there remain significant shortages but the situation is improving, and the World Food Programme shipment is supporting the national transitional council with the procurement of 250,000 litres of fuel.
Let me turn to reconstruction. Libya is a country of 6.5 million people. It is one of the richest in Africa. Its proven oil reserves are the ninth largest in the world. Libya is fully capable of paying for its own reconstruction. Of course there is a role for foreign advice, help and support, but I do not think we want to see an army of foreign consultants driving around in 4x4s, giving the impression that this is something being done to the Libyans, rather than something that is being done by them.
What the Libyans need above all is their frozen assets back. A week ago, Britain got Security Council agreement to release £1 billion-worth of dinars back to the Central Bank of Libya, and RAF planes have already flown in hundreds of millions of dinars of these banknotes. At the summit in Paris last Thursday, the international community committed to unfreezing $15 billion of Libyan assets, and for their part—vitally—we expect the new Libyan authorities to meet their pledge of ensuring transparent and accountable financial systems.
Next, on political transition, some people warned, as Gaddafi himself did, that the Libyan people could not be trusted with freedom—that without Gaddafi there would be chaos. What is emerging now, despite years of repression, and the trauma of recent months, is impressive and encouraging. In a far-reaching road map and constitutional declaration, the new authorities have set out a clear vision and a process for a new democratic Libya. This is not being imposed from above; it is being shaped by the Libyan people. At the Paris summit, chairman Abdul-Jalil spoke of his determination to build a society of tolerance and forgiveness, with respect for the rule of law. A national conference will bring together all the tribes—civil society; men and women, from east and west—united to shape this political transition. They are planning for a new constitution and elections within 20 months.
Britain is also in discussions in New York about a new UN Security Council resolution to reflect the new situation. The new Libyan authorities must now be able to represent their country at the United Nations, as they did last week at the Arab League. I also look forward to building our bilateral relationship with the new Libyan authority. We have close relations with the NTC through our mission in Benghazi, and today the UK’s special representative is going to Tripoli to re-establish our full diplomatic presence in that city.
Our relationship with the new Libya must, of course, deal with a series of problems from the past. On Megrahi, this is obviously a matter for the Scottish Executive. I have made my position clear: I believe that he should never have been sent back to Libya in the first place. On WPC Yvonne Fletcher, I want to see justice for her family. There is an ongoing police investigation, and the House will wish to know that Prime Minister Jabril has assured me of the new Libyan authority’s intention to co-operate fully.
Finally, significant accusations have been reported today that under the last Government relations between the British and Libyan security services became too close, particularly in 2003. It was because of accusations of potential complicity by the British security services in the mistreatment of detainees overseas, including rendition, that I took steps in July last year to try to sort this whole problem out. As the House will remember, we acted to bring to an end the large number of court cases being brought against the Government by former inmates of Guantanamo; we have issued new guidance to security and intelligence services personnel on how to deal with detainees held by other countries; and we have asked retired judge Sir Peter Gibson to examine issues around the detention and treatment of terrorist suspects overseas. This inquiry has already said that it will look at these latest accusations very carefully. My concern throughout has been not only to remove any stain on Britain’s reputation, but to deal with these accusations of malpractice so as to enable our security services to get on with the vital work that they do. Because they cannot speak for themselves, let me put on the record, once again, our enormous gratitude for all they do to keep our country safe.
The achievement of the Libyan people gives hope to those across the wider region who want a job, a voice and a stake in how their country is run. On Syria, Britain will continue to lead the argument for a UN resolution to build on the EU’s oil embargo, which is now in place. The message to President Assad must be clear: he has lost all legitimacy and can no longer claim to lead Syria, the violence must end and he should step aside for the good of his country.
It is the Libyan people who have liberated their country; there was no foreign occupying army. This has been a Libyan-led process, assisted by the international community. Many cynics proclaimed stalemate and asserted that Gaddafi would never be defeated—the Libyan people proved them wrong. It was a unique set of circumstances and not something that we can or would wish to repeat all over the world, but I have never accepted the argument that because you can’t do everything, you shouldn’t do anything. Removing Gaddafi from power was a major achievement. Although the work is not yet done, the Libyan people can be proud of what they have achieved and we can be proud of what we have done to help them. I commend this statement to the House.
May I start by thanking the Prime Minister for his statement? Let me join him in paying tribute to the courage of the Libyan people, because this was their uprising. They knew the price that might be paid if they rose up against the regime to claim a better future and yet they found the courage to do so and to win through. We on the Opposition Benches salute their bravery and sacrifice, but change in Libya would not have come about without action from the international community. Let me therefore commend the role played by the Prime Minister and the British Government in making it happen. The initiative of pressing for UN resolutions 1970 and 1973 made the action to protect civilians possible. It was a risk and it was the right thing to do. For our part, we supported it at the time, we have remained steadfast in our support and we support it now.
If we had not acted, we would have spent recent months not talking about the progress of our action in Libya but wringing our hands over slaughter in Benghazi, as we did after Bosnia. This time, however, the international community did not stand by—it acted through and with the authority of the United Nations. Once again, as the Prime Minister said, it was to our brave British servicemen and women that we turned and as always, they have risen to the challenge. They represent the best of our country and again we owe them a debt of gratitude.
I want to ask a number of questions about the security situation, economic stabilisation, the political settlement now required and some of the wider lessons, but let me first say that I agree with the Prime Minister that the Gibson inquiry must get to the bottom of the allegations we have seen about the involvement of the security services in relation to Libya. No part of the British state should ever be complicit in torture.
Let me turn first to the security situation. The Prime Minister is right to say that there should be no artificial deadlines for the end of NATO action. We are in Libya to enforce a Security Council resolution and we should be engaged in action for no more and no less than the time it takes to ensure that the UN mandate for the protection of civilians is fulfilled. Given the symbolic and substantive importance of the national transitional council’s taking up its place in government in Tripoli, will the Prime Minister give us a sense from the Paris conference about when we might expect that to happen, as that will speak to the security situation in Tripoli?
We know from past conflicts that security matters but that essential to a successful transition is economic and social reconstruction, and we all agree that that must be Libyan-owned. I welcome the extra assistance that the Government have announced to help provide medicine and food and to reunite families who have been affected by the fighting. The Prime Minister will agree that the role of the UN will be very important in co-ordinating that help, so will he say what discussions he has had with UN special envoy al-Khatib and how prepared he believes the UN is to provide the necessary help to the Libyan people? Will he also share with the House his thoughts on how the new UN resolution he talked about, which will provide recognition for a new Government, will also provide a mandate for a longer-term UN mission to support the Libyan Government?
The Prime Minister is right that the oil wealth of Libya offers huge potential for its people. Given that the legitimacy of the popular uprising was based around the fact that the Libyans themselves were clearly in the lead, that also needs to be true of the oil resources. Does he agree that we should learn the lessons of the period following past conflicts and ensure that the role of private companies working in Libya is to operate transparently and in a way that clearly benefits the Libyan people?
On the politics, I join the Prime Minister in welcoming the NTC’s commitment to establishing a new constitution and holding elections within 18 months. On the former members of the regime, we agree that we should provide full support to the Libyan people and their new Government in bringing Colonel Gaddafi and the leadership to justice either through the ICC or the Libyan courts, but we have also learned from past conflicts the need for a broad based and inclusive political process of reconciliation —indeed, the Prime Minister talked about that in his statement—as well as for the vital work of maintaining Government services. Will the Prime Minister share with the House his understanding of how the NTC will continue to use officials from the lower level of government to keep basic services running?
We also know that democracy takes root not just through the formal process of the ballot box but through a strong, vibrant civil society. Will the Prime Minister tell us what specific plans there are for direct relationships between Libya and organisations such as the BBC World Service, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the British Council, which can play an important role in helping to build up civil society?
Let me finally ask about the lessons of this conflict for Britain and for the international community. The Arab spring was clearly not envisaged at the time of the strategic defence and security review and has meant a call on some resources that were due to become obsolete. May I ask the Prime Minister whether he sees the case that I see for there to be gain in formally looking afresh at the SDSR in the light of events in Libya and the Arab spring?
For the international community as a whole, the lesson is of the effectiveness it can have when it comes together through the UN and speaks with one voice. No two situations are the same, as the Prime Minister has said. Of course, the situation in Syria is different for a number of reasons, not least practical issues, in relation to the idea of military intervention and, indeed, the lack of support for it. We support the use of all non-military means at our disposal in relation to Syria. I have heard the Prime Minister’s remarks about President Assad and I share his view. He talked about the need for a new UN resolution, but will he tell us how he assesses the chances of getting that resolution and what further steps he believes can be taken against the Assad regime in the absence of a resolution?
Let me end on this thought: the Arab spring has seen the overthrow of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. It is right that Britain has been on the side of those who are fighting to enjoy the basic social, economic and political rights that we take for granted. Let me end by agreeing with the Prime Minister that we should take pride in the role we have played in protecting the Libyan people as they claim a better future. We should now help them as they enter the next phase—moving from popular revolt to stable, democratic government.
First, may I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks in response to my statement? He is right to pose the alternative and ask what would have happened had we stood back and done nothing—what would we have been discussing today? Of course, he is also right to praise our brave service personnel. I note what he said about backing the Gibson inquiry and the important work that it needs to do in looking at all the accusations of complicity.
On the three issues of security, stabilisation and politics let me try to answer the right hon. Gentleman’s questions. First, on security, he is right that there should be no artificial deadline for NATO. We must continue until the job is done. On the NTC’s move from Benghazi to Tripoli, that is already under way. Parts of the NTC have moved and it is very important that it should move as a whole. We should not try to second-guess everything it does. I have been very struck through this process by the fact that the NTC often gets criticised. Calls are made for it to do this and that, and in the end it always seems to rise to the challenge. I think it has been effective and we should not underestimate the people working in it.
On stabilisation, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the UN’s role. It is important to differentiate between the role of Mr al-Khatib, who was trying to look at ways of finding a peace process before this conflict resulted in the fall of Tripoli, and the role of Ian Martin, who is specifically drawing up the plans for a UN mission to Libya. I think those plans are well under way and it is very important that we focus on the things that the Libyans want rather than on the things we think they might want. It was quite interesting, in Paris, to hear the specific things they cared about most. Clearly, one role that the UN can play is to make sure that the elections, when they come, are properly observed and are free and fair. The point that the right hon. Gentleman makes about private companies is a good one and we should learn all the lessons from past conflicts as he says.
In terms of the process of reconciliation and maintaining Government services, one thing that the NTC has been trying to do—again, quite effectively, I think; we have been advising and helping where we can—is make sure that there is no de-Ba’athification process and that relatively junior officials in departments are encouraged to go back to work. These are very early days and there are going to be huge problems at the end of a conflict like this, but the signs are that things such as rubbish collection, hospital services and getting the police back on the streets seem to be working.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about longer-term relationships with the British Council and others. Clearly, once the security situation is in a better state, those relationships can be built from a very strong basis.
On the strategic defence review, I would argue, having followed this very closely through the National Security Council on Libya, which met sometimes daily through this conflict, that the case for what we are doing in the review has been proved. It has been proved that it was the right decision to keep the Tornado aircraft with the Storm Shadow capability, which performed magnificently over the skies of Libya. Typhoon has in many ways come of age. One of the things that became clear in the conflict was the need for greater ISTAR—greater eyes in the sky, greater technical capabilities—and that is provided for in the strategic defence review. Of course, after any such conflict and an intense period of military, Government and humanitarian activity, it is right to learn the lessons. Sir Peter Ricketts, my national security adviser, will be leading a lessons-learned exercise on how the Whitehall machine operated and what lessons we can learn. That should include the operation of the oil cell, which I think did a very good job of trying to help deny oil to the regime and to make sure that the rebels, who were not getting oil products, got them.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the UN resolution on Syria. We will continue to work for a strong resolution. It has obviously been difficult to get agreement to date. The EU oil embargo is an important step forward and has a real effect. Above all, I want to thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said. I agree with him that we can take pride in what British forces and British officials have done on this occasion.
I join in the praise from the Prime Minister for the magnificent performance of the British armed forces and for the courage and resolution of the Libyan people. Does my right hon. Friend agree that matters are inevitably about to become a little messy in Libya in the months ahead, and that it will be important for Britain to continue to offer what help it can in a spirit of general co-operation and humility?
That is absolutely right. It is very important that when people are looking at the humanitarian plan, the reconstruction plan and the plan for political progress in Libya, we recognise that this is something that the Libyans are doing themselves. We are there to help and to assist, but it is their plan, not our plan. Humility on this occasion is right.
I endorse the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) in praising the leadership that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers have shown during the whole of this period. There is no doubt that that was decisive in securing international co-operation and in following it through.
On the allegations that have been made overnight, as Foreign Secretary at the time, may I say two things? First, as the Prime Minister knows, it was the consistent policy of the previous Government, as it is of his, to be wholly opposed to any complicity in torture, ill treatment or unlawful rendition. Secondly, given the serious nature of the allegations, it is entirely right that they should be examined in every detail by the inquiry under Sir Peter Gibson.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he says about me, the Foreign Secretary and others. On the issue that he raises, it is right that Sir Peter Gibson can look at the whole area. It is important that nobody rushes to judgment. We have to remember that in 2003, two years after 9/11, there was a Libyan terrorist group that was allied to al-Qaeda. At all times our security services and intelligence services are trying to work for the good of the country to keep us safe, so it is important to remember the circumstances at the time. Nobody should rush to judgment, but it is the right hon. Gentleman’s view, my view and the view of the entire House that Britain should never be complicit in torture or in extraordinary rendition, and it is very important that we make sure that that is the case.
My right hon. Friend has been circumspect in his references to the documents which have recently emerged, and with good reason, but does he agree that there is one lesson that can be learned at this stage—that particularly when dealing with unsavoury regimes in the shadowy world of intelligence, it is necessary to maintain both fastidiousness and distance so as to avoid accusations of impropriety or illegality?
My right hon. and learned Friend is entirely right. As I put it in my statement, the accusation is that after Libya came in from the cold and gave up the weapons of mass destruction, the relationship almost became too close at times. There was a degree of credulity. I think that is the accusation. It is important to put on record our thanks to the security services for what they do. What I have tried to do and what the Government have tried to do is put in place a new set of arrangements—proper guidance to intelligence and security services personnel to clear out these Guantanamo Bay cases that were going to drag through our courts and bring our security services and our country down, to deal with them properly, and then to have an inquiry, so that we get to the bottom of what happened and if there was any malpractice, we deal with it. It is important that we clear up the issue once and for all, and I believe the steps that we have taken will do that.
I, too, commend the Prime Minister on the role that he has played this year, but I urge him to use the same dedication when it comes to Syria, because many of us—all of us, I suspect—are scandalised by what we have seen throughout these summer months. He is visiting Moscow, as I understand it, next week. I hope that he will make it absolutely clear to the Russian Government—both sides of the Government; the President and the Prime Minister—that thus far their protection of the Syrian Government has been wholly abhorrent to those of us who hate the human rights abuses in such countries.
I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in loathing the human rights abuses that are taking place in Syria. What we have seen happening is simply appalling—the loss of life, the damage and terror that the President has been inflicting on his own people.
On Russia, one of the encouraging things is that the Russians came to the Paris conference, were one of the 63 countries represented there and supported the statement that came out of it about NATO continuing its work and making sure that we complete the job in Libya—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is right then to say from a sedentary position, “What about Syria?” I think that the whole international community can learn the lesson of some success in Libya and apply that elsewhere in terms of the unity that we need to see in the UN Security Council to put pressure on Syria.
As someone who had reservations about the principle of intervention, may I congratulate the Prime Minister on a successful outcome in Libya? It was largely achieved by two aspects: first, it was legal; and secondly, it had the support of the Libyan people. Further to the previous question, however, will my right hon. Friend now use it as an illustration to persuade permanent members of the Security Council, such as Russia and China, that a well conducted intervention can be successfully used to restrain autocrats in countries such as Syria?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says. Everyone should have misgivings about such operations, and one should never have the naive belief that they are easy or that everything is going to go to plan. That very rarely happens, and we should always be hard-headed and careful about such things. We should also respect the fact that this is not done—this is not completed yet.
Also, I think that we should be very cautious about trying to draw up a new doctrine, because it seems to me that as soon as a new doctrine is established, a case comes up that flies completely in its face, but I do hope that other members of the Security Council will see that there has been success in removing a dictator, and in giving that country a chance of peaceful and democratic progress, which will be good for the world.
Will the inquiry conducted by Sir Peter Gibson be held entirely in public? Will it have access to all the documents that have been discovered in Libya which, apparently, are now under the control of the national transitional council? Will it look at the question of British military involvement with Libya up until March and what lessons can be learned from that?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. On Sir Peter Gibson’s inquiry, some of it will be held in public and some of it by necessity—because of the very sensitive nature of what he will be looking at—will be held in private.
On the documentation, Sir Peter will have access to all the paperwork he wants to see. Clearly, what has come out of Libya in recent days is relevant to him, and I think he has already announced that he is looking forward to seeing that information.
On Britain’s relationship with Libya, as I have said, it is entirely understandable that it was the previous Government’s wish to have with Libya a new relationship after getting rid of weapons of mass destruction. In some instances, it was too credulous—I have mentioned particularly Megrahi—and, obviously, we need to think carefully about our security, our military involvement and our sales to all regimes. That is why at the start of the Arab spring we reviewed our practices, and we should keep them under review.
One should treat all these reports with concern, and we should obviously always look carefully at who we are dealing with, but one of the long-term answers to Islamic extremism is the successful development of democracy in the Arab world.
This is a three-part play: part one is getting rid of bin Laden; part two is greater democracy throughout the middle east; and part three is a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. To think that supporting such dictators helped us to deal with Islamic extremism is to be profoundly wrong. We find that many of the Islamic extremists whom we are fighting or dealing with in Pakistan or, even, in Afghanistan come out of countries such as Libya and Syria, and we should ask Why.
The Italians and Maltese are extremely keen that people should return and there is now every reason that they can. I have been impressed by the members of the Libyan diaspora in London who have been in and out of Libya even while the conflict has been going on. The pressure can be great, particularly on small countries such as Malta. As the hon. Lady knows, we have a relationship with Malta through which we will use our embassies elsewhere in the world to help it with this issue.
As well as the Gibson inquiry, does the Prime Minister see a role for the Intelligence and Security Committee in investigating the allegation, which if true would be shameful and shocking, that Britain had a part in handing suspects over to the Gaddafi regime, even in the context of 2003?
It is absolutely a matter for the Intelligence and Security Committee what it examines, but I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) will want to look closely at those allegations. As I say, I do not think that any of us should rush to judgment. We have to remember the situation that the world and this country were in post 9/11, when there was a real concern about people who wanted to damage our country. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group was allied with al-Qaeda. It is not any more and has separated itself from that organisation. Let us allow the inquiries to take their course and not rush to judgment.
May I join in the tributes to the courage of our servicemen and women in their action over Libya, to the Libyan people, and to the political leadership of the Prime Minister and his colleagues during this time? The Prime Minister rightly talked about the issue of legacy, and he referred to Megrahi and WPC Yvonne Fletcher. He said that Libya must deal with the series of problems from the past. Among those will be the issue of compensation and justice for the many hundreds of victims of Libyan-sponsored IRA terrorism. Can I seek an assurance from the Prime Minister that he continues to back the case for justice, and that he will do what he can to secure compensation from the new regime?
I certainly will do that and it is a vital issue. There is no doubt that the Libyan provision of Semtex to the IRA was immensely damaging over many years, and it possibly still is today. We need to be clear that this will be an important bilateral issue between Britain and the new Libyan authorities. Clearly we have to let this Government get their feet under the desk, but this is very high up my list of items.
After the liberation of Kuwait, in which Britain also played a significant part, the financial costs of our contribution were fully reimbursed, largely by Kuwait itself. Does my right hon. Friend intend to seek a similar contribution from the Libyan authorities once oil begins to flow?
That is not a consideration that we have gone into so far. Clearly there have been costs to the UK from this operation, which are in the region of £120 million, excluding munitions. Obviously, that has been funded from outside the defence budget through the reserve, so it will not impact on other defence spending. My right hon. Friend makes an important point that we can bear in mind.
The Prime Minister rightly said that we would urge that there be no de-Ba’athification process in Libya. However, the reality is that the institutions across Libya are corrupted and weak. In particular, the courts, which are central to a functioning modern democratic society, have Gaddafi’s placemen in position. Is Britain, perhaps with the European Union, prepared to put real effort into supporting the development of those civil structures?
We will certainly make available our advice on those issues if it is wanted. In Paris, Chairman Jalil and Prime Minister Jibril talked specifically about the importance of police training and of ensuring that their police are properly independent. It was encouraging to hear them say that. Of course, having a strong, independent justice system is part of any free and democratic society, so we stand by to help in any way that we can.
I welcome the progress of the Libyan people and the success of the United Nations’ principle of the responsibility to protect. The catalyst of the uprising was the 15 February protest by the widows, mothers and sisters of the victims of the Abu Selim massacre. Women played a crucial role in the revolution and are a vital resource for the tough task ahead of rebuilding Libya, so what can our Government do to encourage the involvement of women at all levels of the decision-making processes in the NTC and the national conference, in line with not only United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 but the wishes of Libyan civil society organisations such as Women for Libya?
The hon. Lady makes an important point, and I think one of the best ways to do that is to work with the non-governmental organisations that have particular expertise in that area. I repeat that this is not the same as Iraq, where basically an intervention knocked over a Government, and there was then a de-Ba’athification process and we had to try to put back in place what had gone. Here, we are trying to work with the Libyans, who are putting things in place themselves. I absolutely agree that a much stronger society will emerge if there is a proper and appropriate role for women, which tragically there is not in so many societies. I think going through non-governmental organisations is probably the right answer.
May I join others in commending the Prime Minister’s role in these issues? He will know that there are 8,000 Libyan students studying in the United Kingdom at the moment, 2,000 of whom are state-sponsored. The funds for those students are being held by the British Arab Commercial Bank, which cannot release them without the approval of the NTC. Will he use his good offices to ensure that this matter is resolved so that the students can complete their studies and return to rebuild their country?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he says and for his kind comments. My understanding is that the money is now being released, but if there are any problems, we will certainly try to help secure it. I think there will be a welter of problems in dealing with unfrozen assets of people who have got stuck in a different country and all the rest of it, and we will have to work through each of those problems in turn.
May I commend my right hon. Friend for acting in a way that vindicates his policy of Britain acting as an effective global power? May I also commend him for not rushing to a new doctrine or going back to an old one such as liberal interventionism? Does the situation not demonstrate the importance of maintaining armed forces with global reach, so that we can influence global events and project our interests?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. What I would say about doctrine is that if you overdo your belief in a particular doctrine, you will find that the next problem that confronts you will fall completely outside it and you will have to spend a lot of time inventing a new doctrine to deal with it. I am a practical—[Interruption.] Members say that I am a Conservative, and that is right. I am a practical, liberal Conservative—that is what I believe, and I think this was a practical, liberal, Conservative intervention. [Hon. Members: “A new doctrine.”] It is a way of thinking.
On what my hon. Friend says about armed forces being able to project our reach and power, I absolutely agree with him, and we cannot maintain that reach and power by not having a defence review and by sticking with massed battle tanks in Europe. What we need to do is modernise our armed forces and make sure that we have the reach for the challenges of the future. I repeat what I said: far from disproving the strategic defence review, I think Libya proved the case for the sort of changes that we are making.
No one will be sorry to see the end of Gaddafi’s criminal regime, which was deeply involved in international terrorism, but is there not some hypocrisy in all this? Is it not a fact that up to this year, Britain was selling the Gaddafi regime sniper rifles and crowd control equipment? Now we learn that there was a close collaboration between some western countries—not only Britain—and the Gaddafi regime, in which terror suspects were actually sent to Gaddafi’s torture chamber.
Far be it from me to join the hon. Gentleman in attacking the last Government. To be fair, I think it was right to have a new relationship with Libya when we could persuade it to get rid of its weapons of mass destruction, discontinue its nuclear programme and try to take a different path. I have my criticisms of the last Government, as I think they were then too gullible and went too far in that direction. Specifically, when we had the O’Donnell report into Megrahi it found that the last Government were trying to facilitate his release, but I do not criticise the general intent of wanting a new relationship. What really changed was the treatment by Gaddafi of his own people. That was the moment for the world to act, and I am proud of the fact that the world did so.
The most impressive aspect of this intervention is the Libyan pride in what Libyans see as a Libyan event. Will the Prime Minister reassure the House that he will do all he can to restrain the irresistible desire of the international community to micro-manage and over-intervene? We should remember that in this kind of intervention, less is more.
I know that my hon. Friend speaks with considerable knowledge, not least because rather against my will, he spent two days last week in Tripoli. He has seen for himself that the Libyans are managing the transition quite effectively, but what he says about trying to make sure that we understand our role as backing a Libyan plan rather than substituting our judgment for theirs is the right way ahead.
Has the Prime Minister reviewed Cabinet Office papers to ascertain whether Tony Blair personally authorised the co-operation with the Libyan intelligence services that led to Abu Munthir’s detention and removal to Tripoli in 2003? Will he revise the terms of reference of the Gibson review, so that the nine human rights agencies that currently do not feel that they can co-operate with it, because it is not up to the standards of international human rights, can co-operate, so that the review will be open and transparent, and so that we can get to the bottom of those questions?
First, let me put the hon. Lady right on one thing: there is a rule that Ministers cannot, willy-nilly, see the papers provided to a previous Government, not least because Governments would probably spend their entire time doing that rather than governing the country, which is what they are supposed to do. That is why there is an inquiry, which is being carried out by an independent judge. We should allow Sir Peter Gibson to get to the bottom of what happened in that case, and indeed to the bottom of any decisions that Ministers of that time made, for which they will have to answer. I believe that that is the right approach, and it is the one that we will follow.
I very much welcome the Prime Minister’s statement. Many of our constituents have probably said over the last few months something along the lines of, “We don’t want another Iraq,” and the post-conflict stage is obviously on people’s minds. Will the Prime Minister give a little more detail on how the lessons of immediately post-conflict Iraq are being applied in this situation?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that a lot of people have said, “We don’t want another Iraq,” but we should also listen to those people who said, “We don’t want another Bosnia.” The prevention of a massacre was very important in these circumstances.
On the difference between Libya and Iraq, I would say this: because the Libya operation has not involved an occupying force or an invading army, the Libyan people rightly feel that they have done this largely by themselves. Yes, they have had NATO assistance, for which they are grateful, but just as they own the end of Gadaffi, so they are owning the transition to democracy and all the problems of disorder and crime that there will be in the interim. However, from what I can see, they are dealing with those problems well, and we should be with them, but helping rather than telling them what to do.
May I follow the point on migration raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart)? One thing that became clear during the previous regime was that many of the people who have ended up in Lampedusa and Malta originated not in Libya, but from other countries, sponsored by an illegal criminal network in which Gadaffi no doubt had a role. That means that such places have huge numbers of cases that are difficult to manage. How will the Prime Minister manage that situation, and will he assure the House that he will open a dialogue with the NTC to ensure that those criminal routes are closed down straight away?
I certainly will do that. First, it is important to get this into perspective: we should bear it in mind that we still get more asylum claims from the countries of northern Europe than we get from the countries of southern Europe. Secondly, we have a relationship with Malta. Clearly, it cannot afford to have embassies all over the world, and we use our embassies in countries such as Niger, Mali and elsewhere to try to help the Maltese to return people to their country of origin. As the hon. Gentleman says, many people coming through Libya are not from Libya.
For the new constitution of Libya to be legitimate, and indeed sustainable, is it not the case that freedom of speech and religion should be included? In particular, should it not give protection to the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Greek Orthodox Church?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and we have seen, particularly in Egypt, the importance of protecting Coptic Christians and others. I am heartened by what Chairman Jalil has said about respect for human rights and tolerance, and I am sure that he will want to follow those things through.
I do not have an estimation, but it is in Libya’s interests that the production of oil gets back to normal as fast as possible. Some people say, though, that it could take up to three years to get back to full capacity. The encouraging thing is that a lot of the refineries and other oil installations, such as the ones in Ras Lanuf, Brega, Zawiyah and elsewhere, have not been badly damaged, so there is no reason this should not happen as rapidly as possible.
Like other Members, I would like to congratulate the Prime Minister on the leadership he has shown in supporting the will of the Libyan people over the past few months. Will he tell the House what role is envisaged for the Arab League and other Arab nations in the post-conflict reconstruction in Libya in the months ahead?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments. I think that there will be a big role for the Arab League. As I said in my statement—this is one area where we can learn the lessons of the past—I do not think that Libyans want huge numbers of people driving around in 4x4s telling them what to do. Arab assistance can play a huge role in helping Libyans to get back on their feet. However, they seem very keen to do a lot of this on their own.
The Prime Minister is absolutely right to stress that the political future of Libya needs to be determined by the Libyan people, not by outsiders. Can he cast any light on the statements coming from the African Union about its concerns that the transitional arrangements are not fully inclusive? What discussions is he or the Foreign Secretary having with key African leaders to ensure that any future UN resolution gets African buy-in?
I was very encouraged that at the Paris meeting there were a number of African leaders strongly supportive of the NTC and democratic transition in Libya. Frankly, the African Union has not always been as clear as I would have liked about the importance of democracy, freedom, human rights and progress in Libya. I hope now that all the countries of the African Union will get behind the new Libyan authorities and give them the support and help that they need.
I think that the whole House will be celebrating the end of the monstrous Gaddafi regime. Will the Prime Minister assure us that he will continue to put pressure on the new Libyan Government to ensure that the killers of PC Yvonne Fletcher are brought to justice?