House of Commons
Thursday 9 February 2012
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport was asked—
Local Radio Franchises
1. What assessment he has made of the potential for local radio franchises and licensing; and if he will make a statement. 
We have made no assessment of the potential for radio franchises because radio licensing is a matter for Ofcom, which awards licences via a “beauty parade” mechanism, assessing individual applicants’ ability to deliver services for the local area.
I thank the Minister for that reply. News content aside—[Interruption]—should there not be more flexibility in licences and franchises to allow commercial radio to respond to market conditions?
I found it slightly difficult to hear the question, but I think my hon. Friend was asking about flexibility in content regulation. That will be an important matter for the Green Paper as we look at communications regulation in the round.
The difficulty in hearing was not attributable to the questioner but to ministerial nose-blowing, which is entirely understood.
Follow that, Mr Speaker!
BBC Radio Merseyside is the most popular radio station on Merseyside and is a lifeline for many elderly and disabled people. Rather than setting up local radio franchises, would the Government not do better to support much-loved existing local BBC radio such as Radio Merseyside?
I heard the hon. Gentleman loud and clear, and I am delighted that the chairman of the BBC Trust has made it clear that the BBC will review its original plans for BBC local radio, which is very good news.
2. What estimate he has made of the number of category B2 gaming machines in operation in the UK. 
The latest version of the Gambling Commission’s six-monthly industry statistics was published in December 2011. It showed that the number of category B2 gaming machines—fixed odds betting terminals, or FOBTs, as they are sometimes known—in operation in Great Britain as at 31 March 2011 was 32,007.
I am most grateful to the Minister for that answer. The FOBTs he refers to, through which punters can lose £100 a spin or £18,000 a year, have been described as the crack cocaine of gambling. As he said, numbers are exploding: some 32,000 such machines are in easily accessed high street betting shops, yet the evidence shows that they are causing real damage to individuals and families, including some of the poorest people in our communities. Does the Minister therefore not agree that a responsible Government should be taking urgent action to address this problem, including looking at the recommendations in early-day motion 2634, such as cutting the stakes and prize levels of these machines so that they are more akin to those in other adult centres?
I completely share my right hon. Friend’s concern about gambling addiction. Although it affects only a small number of people, it can ruin lives and is a very serious issue. Many colleagues on both sides of the House have raised it, as did Mary Portas in her recent review of the health of high streets throughout the country. However, my right hon. Friend will agree that we have to ensure that any policy or regulatory changes that might be considered are based not just on concern and anecdote, but on firm evidence and factual foundation. Therefore, my invitation to him and any other colleagues concerned about this issue—on either side of the House—is that if they can bring me hard evidence and facts, I will of course consider them extremely carefully.
Despite what the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) says, does my hon. Friend the Minister not accept that the percentage of problem gamblers using FOBTs declined from 11.2% in 2007 to 8.8% last year, and that the availability of gambling on the internet drives a coach and horses through the ridiculous limits we now have on the use of betting shop terminals? Given that people can use only one at a time—or perhaps two at best if they are particularly proficient—whether there are four, six or eight in a betting shop makes absolutely no difference at all to an individual’s problem gambling.
I accept that the causal link between FOBTs and problem gambling is poorly understood, which is why I asked for better evidence and facts to back up any suggested changes in regulation. I also agree with my hon. Friend that remote gambling is changing how people gamble. We need to make sure that such gambling is properly controlled and regulated, which is why we propose to introduce new regulations on it in due course.
3. What recent progress he has made on the roll-out of superfast broadband to rural communities. 
5. What recent progress his Department has made on the roll-out of superfast broadband; and if he will make a statement. 
6. What steps he is taking to extend broadband coverage. 
Our plans for the roll-out of superfast broadband mean that—
Order. I am very interested to hear about the plans for the roll-out of superfast broadband, but I believe I am right in saying that the Secretary of State wants to group this question with two others.
With your humble permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to take this Question with Questions 5 and 6.
I wanted to say that our plans for the roll-out of superfast broadband will mean that conditions such as the common cold, even when held by Ministers, will be able to be diagnosed online. The roll-out continues apace, and broadband plans have now been approved for a third of local authorities.
The progress on this subject is particularly welcome in rural areas, but inevitably 2%, 3% or 4% of people will fall outside the proposals. What are the Government going to do for them?
I am going to Pembrokeshire next week on holiday, when I will personally be inspecting the rural broadband facilities and mobile coverage in my hon. Friend’s constituency, although I cannot promise to do the same for all hon. Members. He makes an important point, and we have made good progress this year. Our plans for superfast broadband will cover 90% of the country, but Ofcom’s plans, as announced in January, for the 4G spectrum auctions mean that the new 4G coverage will reach 97% of the country, and that will offer a broadband signal. That still leaves 3% to go, and we must work very hard to make sure that everyone is included in the broadband revolution.
With such a massive budget deficit, we cannot rely on extra Government spending for ever more, so it seems to me that we have no choice: we have to rely on innovation—both innovative industries and the innovation of our people—to bring economic growth to every region. Today’s satellites can beam high-speed internet access to every region of Britain, instantly opening up remote areas to economic activity. Does the Secretary of State share my vision for a connected Britain in which satellites bring jobs and the power of online public services to every region of our nation?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. In the Thames Valley local enterprise partnership, which covers his constituency, the broadband plans are still at amber, rather than green, and I would be most grateful for his help in getting the three unitary authorities to work together to get those plans into a state where they can be approved. He rightly says that we need to be technology-neutral about this; fixed-line fibre will go into the ground in some areas, but for the more remote areas we will definitely need wireless solutions, be they mobile, wi-fi or satellite, and we will keep all options open.
Residents of villages such as Hockliffe, Stanbridge, Tilsworth and Eggington often have to make do with broadband speeds of only 1.5 megabits per second, which is very restrictive for local people and severely limits the ability of local businesses to grow. So when can residents in these villages expect things to get better for them?
Again, I ask for my hon. Friend’s help, because the plans for Bedfordshire are also amber-rated, rather than green-rated. We have said that we want all local authorities not only to start procurement for their broadband plans, but to complete procurement by this Christmas, otherwise we will consider taking back the funds that we have allocated and putting them in a national contract. We are very keen to ensure that roads start to be dug up and solutions actually happen by the start of next year.
What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact of YouView on the demand for broadband services?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I think that the impact will be huge. The iPlayer is already a very big source of demand for broadband, and as YouView arrives many more people will use the iPlayer and other such services. I am pleased to say that Wales is making excellent progress. Its broadband plans have been given the green light and we have had a good partnership with the Welsh Government. I hope that his constituents will benefit from that.
Following on from the Secretary of State’s report on Wales, will he update us on the situation in Northern Ireland? What discussions has he had with the Northern Ireland Executive and what progress has been made there?
We have had very good discussions. There is good news and bad news as far as Northern Ireland is concerned. The funding allocation has been quite small for Northern Ireland, but that is because it has one of the best superfast broadband networks in the UK and, in many ways, is a model for the rest of the country.
I would like to bring a little reality to this debate. My constituency covers rural Teesdale, so I know that farmers are being required to communicate online with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs even when they have no broadband. Given that the problem is in rural areas, why did the Secretary of State earmark £150 million of new money for cities? What is he going to do for people whose local authorities do not come forward with viable plans?
The hon. Lady ought to have a bit of humility, because when her Government left office, a quarter of a million homes still had no broadband whatsoever. We are going to sort that out. We have massively increased the investment in rural broadband. It is five times more than the amount that is going into urban broadband. Her party makes a big song and dance about opposing cuts, but in the interests of consistency, it might like to support increases in spending, particularly when they are much more than her Government ever promised.
Electronic Communications (Privacy)
4. What discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on the EU directive on privacy and electronic communications; and if he will make a statement. 
We are very good Europeans on the Government Benches and we are one of the first countries to have implemented the e-privacy directive. Naturally, we are engaged in ongoing discussions with our EU colleagues. Several member states, including France and Germany, have had discussions with us about the best way to implement it.
This measure contains a number of sensible dimensions, as does the related data protection directive, but does the Minister agree that we should reject the idea of a freedom to be forgotten, which is what is being proposed by the European Justice Commissioner?
We will have discussions with Ministers at the Ministry of Justice, which is the Department responsible. We will undertake a consultation and call for evidence, so that people can give us views and help our negotiations on the data protection directive.
Does the Minister agree that things such as cookies and targeted behavioural advertising are of great benefit for both businesses and consumers, and that a lot of the fear of them is based on ignorance? What is his Department doing to try to increase understanding of these technologies so that decisions can genuinely be made as a result of informed choice?
When we implemented the e-privacy directive we made sure that we worked closely with business. There is a balance to be struck between implementing the law and ensuring that business still has the freedom to innovate. The e-privacy directive is about transparency. So long as consumers know what is happening to data, they should be comfortable with what is being done with them.
Olympics (Domestic Tourism)
7. What plans VisitEngland has to promote domestic tourism during the London 2012 Olympics. 
In March VisitEngland will launch a new £4 million domestic marketing campaign to promote UK tourism throughout 2012. We are encouraging the tourism industry to sign up to a scheme that offers 20.12% off all sorts of different accommodation and attractions. The promotion will be supported by a high-profile TV campaign.
I am sure that the House will be delighted to hear the Minister’s enthusiasm, and to hear of the worldwide advertising campaign to encourage people to come to London. Will he also publicise the fact that many Olympic venues are outside London, such as the excellent white water centre in Waltham Abbey in my constituency? Will he encourage people to enjoy the wonders of the Lee valley park, the ancient town of Waltham Abbey, its beautiful church and, of course, the wonders of the beautiful Epping forest?
I would be delighted to do that. In fact, that is one of the central aims of the campaign. We will use the torch relay, which I believe will go to my hon. Friend’s constituency on 7 July, as a way of promoting the different parts of the country that it will visit and all the things that can be done there, including, in her case, the Lee valley white water centre, as well as the Waltham Abbey church and its links with King Harold.
One of the great tourist attractions for 2012 visitors to the west midlands and north Staffordshire is the Wedgwood museum. It is facing the loss of its UNESCO-listed collection because of loopholes in pension protection fund legislation. The museum has had great assistance from the arts Minister, so will the heritage Minister now commit the Government to do everything possible to save this world-class museum?
I agree completely that it is a world-class museum. I am pleased to say that my colleague the culture Minister has already had close, detailed meetings with the administrators, and I understand that the hon. Gentleman has been closely involved as well. We will continue to help in any way we can.
Will the Minister cast his eye over the availability of reasonably priced hotel rooms during the Olympics? A number of my constituents have told me that they have been unable to book rooms. There seems to be a block-booking, or blocked-out, period during which these reasonably priced rooms are unavailable. The feeling is that they will be released late and charged at great expense to the punters.
My hon. Friend is right that there has been concern. I am pleased to say that the LOCOG—London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games—block booking, which was instigated some time ago, has released a tranche of rooms so there is now more supply on the market. The marketing campaign that I just mentioned is aimed at producing good value “20.12% off or better” accommodation offers not just in London, but in the London travel-to-work area and other parts of the country, so that people can get into London to view Olympic events if they want to. If they do not want to attend the Olympics but want to visit other parts of Britain instead, there will still be great offers for them to use.
There is a big problem here, and although I welcome the Government’s £4 million to encourage domestic tourism and yield the potential £2.5 billion Olympic tourism premium, does the Minister agree that the Government should act to address this scandal of extortionate price rises in London hotels during the Olympic and Paralympic games? We could take the case of Mrs Aileen Hamer from Exeter, for example. Having to pay £1,000 a night for a room with a track hoist to be able to take a disabled daughter to the Paralympics—a room which at Easter costs £375—would represent a 167% increase. Our research shows that the increase in prices across London is averaging at 315%, so will he act on behalf of those already struggling families across the UK who want to be able to afford to come to London and enjoy the Olympic and Paralympic games?
I agree with the right hon. Lady that it is vital that we have properly accessible attractions and accommodation. Indeed, a great deal of work has been done to make sure that the important legal obligations, as well as commercial opportunities, in respect of making accommodation available to people with disabilities are well understood and the opportunity is grasped. However, it has always been the case that prices alter during the season, as is entirely natural. What has happened in London is that the LOCOG block booking—she will be aware of it, as it was part of the original Olympics deal—meant there was a restriction in supply. That has now been eased as a result of the additional rooms that LOCOG has just released.
Sport England/UK Sport
8. What progress his Department has made on his plans to merge Sport England and UK Sport; and if he will make a statement. 
The project board set up at the request of UK Sport and Sport England, which is chaired by Sir Keith Mills, has identified four key benefits: shared resources to reduce costs, co-location, increased commercial income and enhanced strategic co-ordination. We will discuss the future governance arrangements after the 2012 games.
I thank the Minister for his response. These two organisations have different articles of association and different objectives. It is almost like one of them services a Lotus and the other encourages Ford Fiestas to become Lotuses. Other than sharing back-office functions, can he say what the cost savings are?
Yes. The cost savings are considerable. The bodies both have entirely separate back-office operations, and they both live in central London offices for which they signed leases at the height of the market without any break clauses at £57 a square foot and £35 a square foot, I think. There is no co-ordination of commercial strategy to drive success at the elite end alongside the mass market and their strategies operate in completely different spheres. There are many different savings and a lot of possible synergies.
When the Secretary of State was the shadow Secretary of State he respected the different roles of UK Sport and Sport England. In a press release that is still on the Conservative website, he said he would retain
“the current split between UK Sport and Sport England”.
He said one thing before the general election and something completely different—that these organisers should merge—after it. No one opposes economies of scale such as sharing offices and back-office services, or co-ordination where it is necessary, but these two bodies serve two very different functions. UK Sport has taken us from 36th to fourth in the Olympic medal tables. Will he say something now so that we can end the speculation about a merger of governance, not dither until after the general election and allow these organisations to get on with their jobs?
Nobody has ever said that the two organisations are merging. I think the hon. Gentleman misunderstands what is on the table—probably because the briefing has led him to do so. There has never been any question but that the new body will contain two separate organisations, one of which looks after elite and high-performance sport and one that looks after community sport. I simply want central governance arrangements over the top so that we do not end up with boards all over the place. Actually, the former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, when she was in the chair, was well known for having described the organisation of British sport—she will correct me if I am wrong—as a nightmare.
Mountaineering, Hill Walking and Climbing
9. What steps his Department is taking to support increased participation in mountaineering, hill walking and climbing. 
Sport England has awarded £1.3 million under the whole sport plan to the British Mountaineering Council between 2009 and 2013 to grow and sustain participation in mountaineering, hill walking and climbing.
As one of the co-chairmen of the all-party parliamentary group on mountaineering—we like to think of it as the pinnacle of APPGs—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”]—I thank the Minister for Sport for his ongoing support of mountain-related activities and of the British climbing team. As part of the Olympic legacy, the Outdoor Industry Association, supported by the BMC, is planning to launch a major new campaign, Britain on foot, to promote outdoor activities and to get people outdoors and keep them fit and healthy. Does my hon. Friend support those objectives, and could one of the ministerial team meet the organisers in the months ahead?
I am having one of those days.
May I start by paying tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) both in the all-party group and as the parliamentary sports fellow? One of the key opportunities for mountaineering and hill walking lies in the tourism initiative launched by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and guided by the tourism Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose). Many people will want the chance not only to take part in the activity of hill walking but to see some of our fabulous countryside.
10. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the findings of the Woolf Review. 
We welcome the International Cricket Council’s commitment to an independent review of its governance. It is a key Government priority to improve the governance of all sports, including those operating internationally—it does not say FIFA in my notes but it probably ought to—so we look forward to the ICC’s response.
The Woolf review offers a damning critique of the current governance structure of cricket and, to its credit, mentions aspirations for a national one-day Twenty20 cricket side in Wales, backed by 81% of those responding to a recent Western Mail poll. Will the Minister engage with the Woolf report findings and work towards reforming the global game?
Yes, I shall certainly work towards reforming the global game. The points the hon. Gentleman makes about the structure of the ICC are indeed correct. As far as Wales is concerned—I think Wales lies under his question—it is worth recording the very real contribution that many Welshmen have made to English cricket. At a time like the present, when independence is very much the political currency, it is worth noting that one of the men most closely associated with England’s rise to the top of the test rankings is Hugh Morris, who is of course Welsh.
11. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of new financing arrangements on the editorial and operational independence of S4C. 
I agree with the assessment of the new independent chairman of S4C that financial and governance arrangements agreed between the BBC and S4C will
“safeguard the Welsh language services provided by S4C for the foreseeable future”
“allow S4C to maintain its editorial and managerial independence.”
I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, but why have he and the BBC explicitly ruled out operational independence? The cut in grant is 24% over four years, but the cut against anticipated income is some 32%, which is really challenging. Is it not important for S4C to be able to manage its own business and have operational independence?
We do want S4C to learn from what the BBC does as a much larger broadcaster—it is one of the most successful public service broadcasters in the world, if not the most successful—in how it runs its operations, because S4C has been through a very difficult period. The most important thing is editorial independence, so that there is a choice of Welsh language services and plurality of news provision in Wales. I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that the new agreement between the BBC and S4C is supported not just by peers from his party but also by Plaid Cymru in the other place.
Sport England/UK Sport
12. What assessment he has made of the effect of the merger of Sport England and UK Sport on (a) Sport Northern Ireland, (b) Sport Wales and (c) Sport Scotland. 
Ministerial and Sports Council colleagues from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been closely involved and the issue was formally discussed at the last sports cabinet. We all agree that the restructuring should be implemented in a way that maintains and improves the links that currently exist between the sports councils, and increases available funding for athletes across the UK, as a result of reduced administrative costs and increased commercial revenue. Everyone has agreed to move forward on the four key points I mentioned.
I very much welcome the Minister’s comments. We all recognise how important sport is in people’s lives, especially young people. Has he taken any specific action to ensure that young people in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland can continue to participate in school games, which are so vital to their development?
Sport in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is clearly a matter for the devolved Governments, but discussions are ongoing with those Administrations and we very much hope that all three countries will compete in the UK school games.
13. What support his Department is providing for the creative industries. 
This is my first chance to welcome the hon. Lady to the House following her by-election victory.
We are of course supporting the creative industries. We have established the Creative Industries Council, which is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. Creative England is supporting the creative industries throughout England. We have created one home for British film, with increased lottery funding, and established the film policy review, which has been widely welcomed. The computer science curriculum is being revolutionised as a result of the Livingstone-Hope review.
I thank the Minister for that answer. The global games industry is likely to see more than £50 billion a year in software sales alone by 2014. Having worked with much of Britain’s developer and publisher talent, it is clear that there is great potential for our interactive entertainment industry to provide much-needed growth to the UK economy. What assessment have the Government made of the needs of the interactive entertainment industry and how we need to respond?
The UK has a thriving video games sector; it is fair to say that we are probably the European leaders. As I mentioned earlier, we have conducted the skills review to ensure that kids can learn about computer science in school and be ready for the industry. We engage regularly with the industry on a whole range of issues.
In the last year of the Labour Government, UK television exports grew by 13%, which is further evidence of our creative industries’ global appeal and potential for jobs and growth. Can the Minister tell the House when we can expect a comprehensive strategy for increasing our international business with developing economies, especially Brazil, Russia, India and China?
We have regular discussions with the BRIC countries. I have been to Beijing to represent the creative industries and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been to Brazil. We obviously engage with India and Russia, and this week we met a delegation from Mexico to talk about the creative industries, so we are engaging around the globe on the creative industries and their huge success, which is admired around the world. As the House will be aware, last year the UK topped the US singles chart at Nos. 1, 2 and 3, more than 50% of the top albums in the UK were by British artists, and British films topped the UK box office for 20 weeks. We are doing extremely well in the creative industries, and the world recognises it, and 2012 will put the spotlight on that.
It looks like there is scope for an Adjournment debate on the matter.
Broadband (Greater Manchester)
14. What steps he is taking to speed up the roll-out of broadband in Greater Manchester. 
We are doing a great deal to promote the roll-out of broadband in Manchester, including a £100 million urban broadband fund, which has been warmly welcomed by Labour-controlled Manchester city council, if not by Opposition Front Benchers.
For residents in small villages such as Affetside in my constituency, the length and complexity of the procurement process for the delivery of high-speed broadband inevitably means that they are being prevented from enjoying the benefits of the internet that many of us take for granted. Is there anything my right hon. Friend can do to speed up the process?
Absolutely. We are doing everything we can, including insisting that all local authorities complete their broadband plans and have contracts signed by the end of this year, which is much faster than normal procurement processes. We want to ensure that we are able to deliver for my hon. Friend’s constituents well before the next election.
Football Club Licensing
15. What recent discussions he has had with the Premier League, Football Association and Football League on the licensing of football clubs. 
The Secretary of State and I have had several discussions with the Football Association, the premier league and the Football League since we published our response to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s football governance inquiry last October. The football authorities are due to respond with their proposals to the reforms that we have called for, including a new licensing model for clubs, by 29 February.
I understand that the Football Association may have other things on its mind today, but is it not important that by the end of this month it comes forward with proposals that include the role of supporters in clubs?
We will have the opportunity to debate the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s report on football governance this afternoon in Westminster Hall, although, ideally, we would have wanted to have debated the report after the FA had responded. The Minister says that he still expects the FA to respond by the end of February, but that is not our understanding, so when does he really expect a response from the football authorities?
I absolutely do expect the football authorities to respond by the end of February. That is the deadline to which we are working.
Child Protection (Internet)
16. What steps he is taking to protect children online; and if he will make a statement. 
The previous Government set up the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, which works very well in bringing together industry stakeholders to promote the safety of children online. This week we had safer internet day, and UKCCIS launched its advice on child internet safety. I am also delighted by the industry agreement to introduce active choice controls on websites.
Will the Minister look at the very good report that is out this week from the commission on stalking, of which I had the privilege of being a member? Cyber-stalking, like cyber-bullying, originates in schools, but there is not enough action to control the way in which children are exposed to danger, and if one visits schools, as I do, one finds that the number of children who are exposed to pornography, as well as to manipulation, is growing not diminishing.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and that is a very real problem. It is important that the Government work with industry and look at self-regulatory solutions first, because the answers will best come from industry, but there should be no doubt on the industry’s part that this is a very real problem, and we expect action from it to help parents to protect their children from every kind of inappropriate content, whether pornography or inappropriate behaviour, on the internet.
Order. The hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) has a topical question, so the time when we will hear from her will not be long delayed.
T2. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. 
As my Department is proudly responsible for the diamond jubilee celebrations, I wish to add my congratulations to those of the Prime Minister yesterday to Her Majesty the Queen. All Departments are of course at the disposal of Her Majesty, but this Department is at her personal disposal in order to make sure that we mark this wonderful moment for the nation in the best way possible.
Two Sundays ago I rode 45 miles around Cannock Chase in a charity bike ride known locally as the Tour de Nock, a race only slightly less famous than the Tour de France. The event was organised by a local man, John Hibbs, and sponsored by Cycle Shack, Cannock, and it raised thousands of pounds for a local charity, the Hibbs Lupus Trust, which raises funds to support people with that incurable condition. In this Olympic year, what are the Government doing to encourage more people to take up cycling as a way both of keeping fit and of raising money for good causes?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his efforts, and we are doing a great deal, but perhaps the most significant thing that we have done in terms of grass-roots sport participation is the change that we made to the lottery, meaning that over the five years that follow the Olympics an extra half a billion pounds will go into boosting grass-roots and elite sport.
May I ask the Secretary of State about women in broadcasting? I am sure he will agree that it is a sorry state of affairs when the BBC sports personality of the year shortlist failed to identify even one woman, while its woman of the year shortlist somehow managed to include a panda, but we all know that what is on the screen is a product of what goes on behind the camera. There has been progress, and now there are many fantastic women in the industry, but they still face unequal odds. When even the BBC today acknowledges that there should be more women throughout the industry, why is the Secretary of State proposing to strip Ofcom of its duty to promote gender equality? Will he drop that proposal?
First, the right hon. and learned Lady, like me, knows that it is important that we respect the BBC’s editorial independence. There is cross-party agreement on that. I am sure that she will welcome the huge progress that the BBC has made, including the clear acceptance by the director-general of the BBC today that something needs to be done to address this issue urgently. The Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) has made big efforts in this respect. We have arranged for my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) to meet the director-general to talk about this issue. I am hopeful that we will make progress without the need to resort to legislation or regulation.
T3. Each year, the Football Association raises a surplus of about £100 million, mostly from the England football team. By convention, 50% of that money goes to the professional game, where it is not needed, and not to the community and grass-roots game, where it is badly needed. I declare an interest as a director of Warrington Town football club, which badly needs the money. When will the Minister address this governance issue? 
I can tell my hon. Friend exactly when we will address the issue. There has been a Culture, Media and Sport Committee report into the entire issue and we are awaiting a response that will come by the end of February. Only when the FA board has a better governance structure will it be able to tackle such issues. At the moment, it is simply divided on the basis of the vested interests inside the game.
T4. Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) about the video games industry, given the success of the film tax credit in the UK, will the Minister reconsider introducing a tax credit for the video games industry, as per his manifesto commitment, to assist innovative businesses such as those in Dundee? 
Dundee is, of course, the home of Abertay university, which is one of the world’s leading universities for the video games industry. The tax credit for the video games industry remains a lively topic, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will direct his questions to the Treasury.
T6. Ministers will know that a group of concerned MPs and peers recently concluded a cross-party parliamentary inquiry into online child protection. Without wishing to front-run the conclusions of the report, it is clear that the current protections are failing. We know that 93% of women are extremely concerned about the ease with which online pornography can be accessed by children. The “active choice” response of the internet service providers targets only new customers and will not be rolled out fully until October. Given that 80% of British households are already ISP customers, does the Secretary of State really think that that response is enough? If he does not, what is he going to do about it? 
It is a great pleasure finally to hear from my hon. Friend. I have a great deal of sympathy for her point. She has campaigned assiduously on this issue. I do not want to pre-empt the Green Paper that we will publish shortly. I hope that that will address some of the concerns that she has raised.
T5. Will the Sport Minister give an update on the participation of a British team in the Olympic football competition? As a Welsh Member of Parliament, I recognise that the Football Association of Wales has difficulties. However, does he agree that it would be a travesty if the British team comprised only English players? 
The composition of the team is properly a matter for the selectors and, through them, the British Olympic Association. I hope that the BOA has sent out invitations to young men and women up and down the United Kingdom, and that politics will not stand in the way of their having the opportunity to represent their country in a home Olympics.
May I return the Secretary of State to the issue of rural broadband? My constituents in northern Lincolnshire, in particular in the villages of Kirmington, Croxton and Aylesby, have severe problems with their connection. That is a key issue for the rural economy. Kirmington is the home of Humberside airport and is therefore a vital area. May I wish the Secretary of State a good holiday in Pembrokeshire next week and suggest for future holidays that he might like to taste the delights of Cleethorpes?
I gratefully accept my hon. Friend’s kind invitation. As soon as the diary permits, I will race to Cleethorpes for my next family holiday. He is right that broadband is incredibly important for rural communities. That is why, unlike the previous Government, we have secured a £530 million central Government investment, through the licence fee, to transform the situation. I am pleased to say that north Lincolnshire has been at the forefront on this issue and that I have given the green light to its local broadband plan. I am optimistic that the problems that he talks about will be addressed very soon.
I note the Secretary of State’s unilateral decisions about family holidays. Whether that is a precedent that other right hon. and hon. Members will feel inclined to follow is open to speculation and doubt.
T7. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.Members will know that those who have taken civil action, which is now complete, against the News of the World have faced legal bills of some £300,000, £400,000 or £500,000, yet the most that has ever been awarded by a court in a privacy case is £60,000, and many settlements have been for much less. Given the changes to the conditional fee agreements that the Government are pushing through, may I suggest that it might be a good idea to have a small claims court for privacy and libel cases? Would the Secretary of State support that? I do not want him to say, “Let’s wait to hear what Leveson and the Justice Secretary say.” We want to know what he thinks. 
Without wishing to pre-empt what Lord Justice Leveson says, I think the hon. Gentleman’s idea may have some merit. We will look into it and see whether it is something that we can pursue.
Can the Secretary of State confirm that the fit and proper person test in relation to media ownership applies equally to companies as to individuals?
I can. We have looked into that very closely following the phone hacking and BSkyB merger issues, and it is absolutely the case that when Ofcom considers the application of the fit and proper person test, under law it must consider whether a company is a fit and proper organisation to hold a broadcast licence, because licences are held by companies.
T8. The arts Minister may well be aware that next Thursday marks the start of the Glasgow film festival, which, fortunately for me, coincides with part of the recess. Will he undertake to consider the role of film festivals, including the Glasgow one, in promoting British film? They play a vital role that is sometimes under-appreciated. 
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and part of the film policy review, so ably conducted by Lord Smith of Finsbury, highlighted the important role of film festivals in promoting film education and film culture.
I declare that I am a parliamentary fellow to the Football Association.
Does the Minister agree with the leadership of David Bernstein in recent days on matters of judgment, and will he condemn Fabio Capello’s decision to walk out on the England team with only a few months to go until Euro 2012?
The FA had absolutely no option but to strip John Terry of the captaincy, not to prejudge the court case but simply because it would have been impossible for him to discharge his responsibilities as captain of the England team with that hanging over him.
It is a very great shame that Fabio Capello has acted in the way he has. If a player in his team had behaved in the way he has behaved to the FA, he would have taken the toughest possible action. I am delighted that the FA has agreed with him that he should no longer be manager.
I am sure that the Secretary of State will share my excitement about the recently announced concert to celebrate the Queen’s diamond jubilee. How confident is he that the measures being put in place by his Department will tackle the scourge of ticket touts and prevent them from getting their hands on, and profiting from, tickets for a publicly funded celebration?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on brilliantly linking the diamond jubilee to her personal commitment to improve how tickets are sold. I commend her determination to improve the situation.
There will be more tickets to more events this year than at any time in our history, with the diamond jubilee, the Olympics, the Paralympics, the cultural Olympiad and the London 2012 festival. It will be a very good year to see whether the touting problem needs to be addressed in legislation, or whether changes in technology can do the trick.
Last week, I took part in a panel auditioning for participants in a new production of “Swindon: The Opera”. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the Janice Thompson Performance Trust on an admirable project that will help to showcase the cultural richness of Swindon?
My constituency is next door to Swindon, so I can confirm that Swindon is an area rich in cultural pleasures. It contains Wroughton, which is the storeroom of the Science museum, and a very successful football club and is the home town of Jamie Cullum.
On something slightly different, will Ministers explain how they intend to turn the enthusiasm to volunteer to help with the Olympics into long-term volunteering in our communities, given the decision to axe funding for the national volunteer service?
The answer to that is very simple. A fantastic new scheme called “Join In”, which is being promoted by the Cabinet Office, will do exactly that.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
1. What recent assessment he has made of the Government’s e-petitions website. 
2. How many e-petitions have attracted more than 100,000 signatures. 
In the six months since the launch of the site, more than 3.5 million signatures have been submitted to more than 11,000 published petitions. Those statistics underpin my view that e-petitions are connecting the Government and Parliament with a remarkable number and range of people. So far, eight e-petitions have passed the 100,000 signature threshold. They remain viewable on the site, including the Government response.
May I ask the Deputy Leader of the House for his opinion on the report from the Procedure Committee, which is chaired so ably by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight)? The report suggests that e-petitions should be debated in Westminster Hall, which would be opened up so that we have more time for such debates. I welcome that proposal, but my constituents would be very concerned if they thought all e-petitions would be shuffled off to Westminster Hall. Will the Deputy Leader of the House reassure them and me that we will still have time to debate e-petitions on the Floor of the House?
I agree with the hon. Lady. It is important that the Backbench Business Committee can choose where it holds debates, including on the Floor of the House and in some cases on a substantive motion. Last year’s debate on the release of Hillsborough papers is a good example of just such scheduling of a debate that showed the House at its best.
The Committee should also continue to be able to decide that e-petitions are not appropriate for debate, or that they have already been considered, and not schedule them for debate. Members should be free to seek Adjournment debates on e-petitions if that is felt to be the best route. I note that there will be such a debate in Westminster Hall on 22 February relating to the e-petition on the death of Kevin Williams at Hillsborough.
I am sure the Deputy Leader of the House has looked at the report of the Procedure Committee, of which I am a member. One issue that the report looks at is how expectations have been raised because the wording on the Government website suggests that every petition that gets more than 100,000 signatures will be debated on the Floor of the House. If the Committee comes up with an amended form of wording, will he undertake to look at it and to implement changes suggested by the Committee quickly?
The Government will respond in due course. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I generally support the thrust of the Committee’s report, but we will respond in the normal way, shortly after the Hansard Society seminar on e-petitions, which I welcome. That is due to take place on 6 March.
Is the Minister aware that many of us feel that the Government should be congratulated on introducing for the first time an e-petition system that can trigger a debate in Parliament? However, does he also agree that any new system needs examining, refining and improving in the light of experience? Because of that, will he try to secure a Government response to the Procedure Committee’s report as soon as possible, so that the House can debate this matter sooner rather than later?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee for their work on this matter. No system in the world is incapable of refinement and improvement by looking at it over time and I am grateful for the points he makes. I did not think there was any doubt in what we have consistently said. We have said that e-petitions are eligible for debate once they reach the threshold, not that they will necessarily be debated. The system is working well, but the Procedure Committee has made some fair points on how we can better manage the process in the House. We will certainly respond to the Committee as soon as is appropriate.
The Procedure Committee report was not only excellent; it was done in record time to ensure that we could have a timely debate and to ensure that the e-petition system works as well as it possibly can. Will the Government ensure that their response to the Committee’s e-petitions report comes before 6 March, so that we can consider it in the Hansard Society seminar?
We will do our best. The seminar to which the hon. Lady refers will help to inform the work of the Procedure Committee. The results of the seminar plus the Government’s response will—I hope—enable something to be laid before the House that will improve how we deal with e-petitions. With co-ordination and co-operation from everybody involved, we will ensure we get the right response.
I think I am right in saying that virtually every e-petition a Member has brought to the Backbench Business Committee that has reached 100,000 signatures has been debated in one way or the other. The Government should be enormously congratulated on bringing the public in line with Parliament. The Leader of the House has not had enough praise for that. Without this system, we would not have had the EU referendum debate.
I am always grateful for praise and congratulation from the hon. Gentleman. I genuinely think the e-petition system has been a great improvement. The old Downing street e-petition system, under the previous Government, had no mechanism for questions ever to get on to the Floor of the House. The most memorable thing it ever produced was a suggestion that Jeremy Clarkson be Prime Minister. I think our system works an awful lot better.
3. Whether he has provided written guidance to Ministers on ministerial statements. 
Ministers take seriously the requirement in the ministerial code that when Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance to Parliament. My hon. Friend and I do not hesitate to remind colleagues of that requirement.
I thank the Leader of the House for that, but he knows only too well that concern is all too often expressed in the House about Ministers speaking and leaking to the press. Can he assure the House—I think he can, from what he has said this morning—that he and the Deputy Leader of the House take this issue very seriously? Should he not, as a belt-and-braces exercise, issue written guidance to Ministers?
My view is that the problem has been less acute in this Parliament than in previous Parliaments, partly because the Government are making more statements to the House than previously: we are making 0.7 statements per day in this Parliament, as opposed to 0.4 statements per day in the previous Parliament. I take on board what the hon. Gentleman has said. There is already written guidance in the ministerial code, and I do not hesitate to remind my ministerial colleagues of the imperatives in the code on every appropriate occasion.
The Leader of the House will be aware that there are 18 written ministerial statements on the Order Paper today. Given that the House is now rising for recess, it will be impossible to debate them. Will he publish the policy criteria determining whether written, as opposed to oral, ministerial statements are made?
My hon. Friend asks a good question. There is a balance always to be struck between the imperative of making an oral statement and the need to preserve time for the House to debate the issues before it on that particular day. We try to strike the right balance. Today, we have an oral statement from the Foreign Secretary and an important debate thereafter on Somalia. It would have eroded the time for the statement and the debate if, on top of that, we had scheduled for oral statement some of the written ministerial statements to which my hon. Friend referred. We try to get the balance right, but we are always open to fresh suggestions.
Statutory Register of Lobbyists
4. Whether the introduction of a statutory register of lobbyists will require any changes to the Standing Orders of the House. 
5. Whether the introduction of a statutory register of lobbyists will require any changes to the Standing Orders of the House. 
The Government published our initial proposals in the form of a consultation document on 20 January. Any effects on Standing Orders would best be considered in the light of what emerges from that consultation and subsequent legislation.
Does not the fact that there are links between serving parliamentarians and certain lobbying firms imply that there would be a need to change Standing Orders in some way? Does not this exchange reinforce the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister should have made an oral statement on the Floor of the House to launch the document, rather than fobbing us off with a written statement?
I really think we need to understand that the House is not being fobbed off with a written ministerial statement, particularly when there is a consultation paper the hon. Gentleman can contribute to in the same way as every other Member. Consultation papers are there to consult, and it is perfectly appropriate to let the House be aware of a consultation paper that has been issued by issuing a written ministerial statement—a point you, Mr Speaker, have also made in recent weeks.
It took months for the consultation to be published. There is obviously a lot of dithering by the Government. When will the register of lobbyists finally be put before the House so that we can scrutinise it?
Let us make a comparison on dithering. We have brought before the House, within 18 months, firm proposals in a consultation paper with draft clauses. In 13 years, the Government that the hon. Gentleman supported did nothing whatsoever, despite being asked several times by Committees of the House to bring forward a statutory register of lobbyists. I think that we are making progress where his Government did not.
Why have the Government not been able to provide a concise definition of a lobbyist?
Because, believe it or not, it is rather a difficult thing to define, which is why the consultation paper invites responses on precisely that issue. Some people would take an all-encompassing definition, which would require every one of our constituents who comes to see us in an advice surgery to register as a lobbyist before attending. I think that that would be an over-extensive definition.
The Government’s proposals, inadequate as they are, will require primary legislation. Will the Government now commit to pre-legislative scrutiny, which might encourage Ministers to come up with more substantial proposals?
Pre-legislative scrutiny requires the publication of draft clauses, and that is what we have done. The hon. Lady might have noticed that. Of course, if, as a result of consultation, a very different proposal is put before the House, that too will be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, because it is important that we get this right. Again, though, I really cannot take seriously the hon. Lady and her colleagues, who were incapable of doing anything about this problem, now complaining that we are doing something, which we are.
The tentacles of the corrupt and semi-corrupt lobbying system have sunk deep into the body politic. If politics is to be reformed and confidence in the House and politics restored, major reform is essential. Unfortunately, the consultation document shows that instead of listening to what the Prime Minister said when in opposition, the Government have spent their time listening to lobbyists lobbying about lobbying.
That is absolute nonsense.
6. Whether he has any plans to change the order of oral answers to questions. 
The Government have shown themselves willing to make changes to the order of oral questions for the convenience of the House. For example, they responded positively to a request from the official Opposition to extend the length of questions to the Deputy Prime Minister to 40 minutes. The status of the oral questions rota is kept under review.
The Deputy Leader of the House will recall that a couple of weeks ago the Chancellor was unable to make it to Treasury questions because he was at ECOFIN, That was a perfectly reasonable and acceptable excuse, but given what is happening in the eurozone and given that ECOFIN usually meets on a Tuesday, does it mean that the Chancellor will miss future Treasury questions and should we not consider changing the time of Treasury questions, perhaps back to Thursdays, which is when they used to be a couple of years ago?
The hon. Gentleman raises a perfectly proper question. From my experience, however, the Chancellor of the Exchequer never knowingly loses an opportunity to debate matters in the House or to answer questions. He is no Macavity. He has attended 11 of the 13 Treasury oral sessions since he took office, which compares well to the previous Chancellor. The hon. Gentleman might have a point, though, and I will discuss the matter with Treasury colleagues, if there is a problem. I believe, however, that we will see the Chancellor the Exchequer regularly here answering questions on economic matters, as he would wish to do.
May I put in a plea for an extension to Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Question Time, which is still limited, despite there being so many particularly interesting matters relating to rural affairs and food?
I hear what my hon. Friend says. The trouble is that we cannot extend one Question Time without reducing another or lengthening the interval between them. I know that the House wants to hold Ministers and Departments to account and to fulfil its scrutiny role, and we have to find a balance in order to ensure that that is done efficiently and effectively, but I hear what she says.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change if he will make a statement on the Government’s reforms to feed-in tariffs.
I am sorry that the Secretary of State cannot be here today. He is in Cumbria opening the world’s largest industrial offshore wind farm—another big step forward in the deployment of renewables under this coalition Government.
The Government have today announced ambitious plans to ensure the future of the feed-in tariffs scheme and make it more predictable. The reforms will lead to a bigger scheme, providing better value. The feed-in tariffs scheme provides a subsidy, paid for by all consumers through their energy bills, to enable small-scale renewable and low-carbon technologies to compete against higher-carbon forms of electricity generation. The unprecedented surge in solar photovoltaic installations in the latter part of last year, owing to a 45% reduction in estimated installation costs since 2009, has placed a huge strain on the feed-in tariffs budget. That threatened the Government’s ability to roll out small-scale low-carbon technologies over the next few years in the numbers that we had wanted. We therefore acted as swiftly as possible to respond to the threat, through the changes we are now making to the tariffs for solar PV. Today is a turning point for the feed-in tariffs scheme.
The right hon. Lady might care to listen, because she clearly knows nothing about it. Rather than cackling, perhaps she will just listen for a change. The Opposition asked for a statement and I am giving it.
We have looked at the feed-in tariffs budget and made the most of the flexibility available under the levy control framework to ensure that we can keep the scheme going, but we want to do much more. The reforms I am announcing today are designed to make that budget go as far as possible to maximise the number of people able to benefit from feed-in tariffs. With the new reform package, we aim to give plenty of TLC—transparency, longevity and certainty, which were absent from the old scheme that we inherited from Labour. The reforms will provide greater confidence to consumers and industry investing in exciting renewable technologies, such as solar power, anaerobic digestion, micro-CHP, and wind and hydro power.
Instead of a scheme for the few, the new, improved scheme will deliver for far more people. Our plans will see almost two and a half times more installations than was planned by the Labour Administration, and that is just by 2015. That is good news for consumers and good news for the sustainable growth of the industry. We are proposing a more predictable and transparent scheme, as the costs of technologies fall. That will ensure a long-term, predictable rate of return, which will closely track changes in prices and deployment. Make no mistake: this will be a challenging package. The tariff degression mechanism that we will propose will not allow for fat profits or excessive rents, but it will show a serious ambition. Under our new plans, we believe that by 2020 we could see up to 20 GW of solar installed in the UK. That is a huge increase in our ambition for decentralised energy. This coalition wants to see a bright and vibrant future for small-scale renewables in the UK, in which each of the technologies is able to reach its potential and get to a point where it can stand on its own two feet without the need for subsidy, sooner rather than later.
In opposition, we promised a decentralised energy revolution, bringing power to the people. Today we take a huge stride forward to making that dream a reality.
I understand that the Minister was due to give a press conference at his Department at 11 am to announce his plans for feed-in tariffs. I hope that Her Majesty’s Opposition have not inconvenienced him too much by forcing him to come to this House to defend his plans. Nor will it have escaped the House’s notice that, faced with the first opportunity to deal with this chaotic policy, the new Secretary of State has ducked the challenge and gone AWOL. I do not think that is a particularly encouraging start. I received a copy of the Government’s statement only 20 minutes ago, so we shall have to look closely at the details of the announcement.
Last night, the Minister tweeted that he had an ambition for 22 GW of solar capacity to be installed by 2020. That is all very well, but not if his policies do not get us anywhere near the figure. Will he confirm that he is today proposing a further cut in the tariff level for solar power to 13.6p from July of this year? That would be a 70% cut in six months, which would be out of all proportion to the falling costs in the industry.
The Minister mentioned the analysis that his Department had commissioned, but will he confirm that the study was commissioned on 10 January and asked to report back just three days later? In those three days, how many businesses were consulted? Will he also tell us whether his plans will result in a contraction in the solar industry in the next four years and cause people to lose their jobs? The Minister tried to claim that his original plans would create an additional 1,000 to 10,000 jobs in the solar industry, but we have found out that that was the total number of jobs that the industry would support, not the additional number of jobs, which would in fact mean 15,000 to 20,000 job losses. I suppose that he will try to tell us that even deeper cuts will create even more jobs.
For months, I have warned that the Government’s plans to change the eligibility criteria would exclude nearly nine out of 10 families from having solar power. Moving the energy efficiency requirement from band C to band D is a welcome retreat, but will the Minister tell me how many people will still be excluded from having solar power, and how much they will need to spend on improving their property before they meet the revised eligibility criteria?
Finally, one of our deepest concerns with the Government’s proposals is that they will exclude everyone in social housing and community groups from having solar power. What have the Government done to enable people in social housing and community organisations to access solar power? More than 80% of the people who responded to the first consultation told the Government that they had got it wrong. The appointment of a new Secretary of State was an opportunity for them to change course. Today, we can see that they have failed to take that opportunity.
I am sorry that the right hon. Lady constantly sees the glass as being half empty, and carps at a very ambitious scheme that will be very good news for the industry. She clearly wants to invest her political capital in failure. If she looks at the consultation, she will see that we are proposing a further cut in the tariff for solar power. She mentioned one of the options, but there are actually three. The proposals for smaller schemes, which typically involve installations on the roofs of average homes, include the options for 16.5p, 15.7p and 13.6p. We will consult on those options. She clearly does not understand the big dynamic that is driving down costs. We welcome the fact that costs are coming down, and we are determined to ensure that tariffs come down with them. If she wants to stick to, and defend, the old scheme, she is welcome to do so.
I welcome the right hon. Lady’s acknowledgement that we listened to the consultation—that rarely happened under her Government—and that we are going for band D. More than 50% of homes in Britain already meet the band D criteria, and, when the green deal is launched in the last quarter of this year, everyone in the country will be able to access measures to improve their home at no up-front cost. We have also announced today that we are going to consult on a community scheme, which the Labour Government failed to introduce when they launched this programme. For us, communities are at the heart of the renewable energy revolution, and we want to do far more to encourage and enable communities to come together to generate low-carbon and renewable energy. We expect to be able to achieve exactly that under this scheme, which will be bigger and deployed to give better value for consumers and householders.
The Minister’s statement is welcome in that it restores a degree of order to a situation that had become increasingly chaotic. I am afraid that the chaos was aggravated by the nature of the consultation process on solar feed-in tariffs before Christmas. Does he agree that the new package will be judged on whether it offers more predictability for investors, thus bringing down the capital costs, and on whether it will give value for money to the consumers who are required to contribute to the development of the renewables industry?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Those two things are right at the heart of this new scheme: better value for money and greater predictability, with a regular, predictable degression, particularly for solar PV, allowing us to anticipate, and take advantage of, the falling costs of this exciting technology. I think he will see that industry broadly welcomes these measures.
I agree with the Chair of the Energy and Climate Change Committee that the previous FITs debacle has tarnished the industry, but we have not had an opportunity to discuss this new scheme; had it not been for today’s urgent question, we would not have known about it. Will the Minister print two schedules—one on the FITs that are currently available and another on those that are likely to be introduced in the future—so that business, individuals and community groups can have certainty about what they are entering into?
Earlier this morning, I placed a written statement in the Library, and I encourage the hon. Gentleman to download the full consultation document. If he does so, he will find all the proposed tariffs, with the various options, set out very clearly. We would welcome his, and all other, contributions to this discussion.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the subsidies are paid not by the Treasury but by consumers as a whole—by other electricity users—and that we must therefore strike a fair balance between the consumers who are benefiting from the subsidy and every other electricity consumer?
That is absolutely right; my hon. Friend is spot on. Under the scheme we inherited from Labour, a very small number of people were enjoying bumper returns. Our improved scheme is much fairer. Under it, there will be far more deployment and at a fairer rate, which will be better news for consumers—who, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, pay for this through their bills.
Given the shattered consumer and business confidence following the fiasco before Christmas, has the Minister conducted any analysis of how many people will take up the FITs on a 13.6p return? I am also concerned that this new scheme might exclude a lot of people who are not in a position to have loans out for a very long time and who need to get the money back more quickly.
We expect to see two and a half times more installations by 2015 than under the original scheme introduced by the Leader of the Opposition when he was Energy Secretary, and we also expect that that higher level of deployment will be delivered for far less money. We therefore believe we have struck the right balance between consumers and having a higher level of ambition. Our scheme will be predictable: it will offer greater transparency, and it will offer certainty to the industry.
I welcome the move on the eligibility of domestic properties, widening the scheme to a wider group of potential consumers, and the move to widen it to community groups. What will the Government do to ensure that community groups, and especially housing estates, are made aware of this great opportunity, and what reassurance will the Minister give to organisations that might be approaching this sector for the first time?
A couple of weeks ago, the Department launched a new project to help communities build local energy schemes and programmes, and many communities across the country have responded very positively to it. They will be ideally placed to help inform, encourage and drive forward local programmes. We take the issue of communities very seriously, which is why we are consulting on a new community tariff. We are also considering introducing a community tariff guarantee to make it easier for communities to plan ahead, recognising that it sometimes takes them a little longer to get their plans in place.
Does the Minister intend to increase the proportion of the levy cap that is provided for FITs up to the end of the spending round in 2015? If so, how much will he increase it to—and why could he not do this before the recent fiasco?
We will substantially increase the DECC resources that are made available for this scheme. We are happy to do that now because this new scheme offers much better value for money than the scheme we inherited. We expect that about £1.3 billion will be made available for this scheme over the spending period, but there will not be any increase in the cost to consumers, and the total sums will still be within the overall levy control framework. This will be achieved through better budgetary management by DECC, and our conviction that the new scheme offers better value for money than the one we inherited from Labour.
As the Minister knows, I am a patron of ONCORE—Oxford North Community Renewables Limited—a community group in my constituency that has built a photovoltaic array on a local school in partnership with community investors, a local climate group, and the school itself. I am sure he agrees that ONCORE is exactly the kind of group that we want FITs to encourage, but unfortunately under Labour’s scheme it was impossible to distinguish between community groups and businesses, and as a result it has been impossible to treat community groups differently under the review. What action is he taking to deal with that?
My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. Labour failed to discriminate in favour of community groups, as we propose. We are consulting on proposals for a special community band to ensure that we give communities the preference we believe they deserve.
The owners of Trusted Solar, a company in my constituency, contacted me this morning to say that they were appalled by the way in which the statement had been sneaked out. They told me that they had had to lay off staff, and would not be able to go ahead with their plans for jobs and growth. How will any firm be able to trust this Government—or to plan for jobs and growth—if this is the kind of action that we are going to see from them?
Issuing a written ministerial statement and a full consultation document hardly constitutes sneaking something out. Later this morning I shall meet dozens of members of the industry and all the major trade groups at a stakeholder round table at DECC, which will be extremely open and very inclusive.
The message I am receiving from those in the industry is that they welcome the predictability we are providing. They will find the tariff reductions challenging, but there is a great deal that they will be able to bank on, and invest in, as a result of the improvements we are making to Labour’s failed scheme.
I welcome the Minister’s statement, and in particular his announcement that band D properties will be eligible for solar panels. A number of older properties on Exmoor and in the Blackdown hills in my constituency have solid walls and are very expensive to insulate. Can the Minister provide any extra help for those owners of those properties?
Under the green deal and its supporting energy company obligation, a significant subsidy will be available for homes that are hard to treat, and I imagine that those cottages on Exmoor are exactly the sort of homes that would benefit from additional subsidy for solid-wall insulation.
Businesses and consumers in my constituency will assume that the Minister’s “TLC” stands for “turbulence, losses and chaos”. The Government have already spent £66,400 on fighting this case in the courts. How much more public money will they waste before they put solar energy on a sustainable footing?
The proposal we have presented today means that we are indeed putting solar energy on a sustainable footing. What we are not going to do is give up trying to save the consumer £1.5 billion, which is what it would cost if our appeal to the Supreme Court did not succeed. We think that it is right to stand up for hard-pressed consumers, and we do not think it is right to over-inflate rewards for the few people who receive unnecessarily high rewards of 43p.
Green technology leaders such as Worcester Bosch in my constituency will welcome the increased transparency and certainty and the increase in eligibility, but they will particularly welcome the increase in support for combined heat and power. Does the Minister agree that given the continuing prevalence of gas central heating in this country, CHP is a key technology in encouraging microgeneration, and will he do everything in his power to support it?
Absolutely. We are very pleased that as a result of our reforms we shall be able to increase the tariff for micro CHP. So far there has been relatively little deployment of such exciting technologies, but I hope that the industry will now grasp the opportunity with both hands and that we shall see a greatly increased uptake.
The Minister will recall that in December he met my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) and me to discuss the terrible impact of his changes on my constituents who work for Carillion, which has announced 4,500 redundancies. I hope that the measures announced today will safeguard jobs. I shall study them in more detail, but what measures will the Minister take to ensure that the uncertainty created by his actions does not spread to the green deal?
I think that people will take confidence from the fact that we are managing the budget responsibly, and introducing budgetary mechanisms that allow the available subsidy to be spread over the whole budget period. We shall no longer see the boom and bust in feed-in tariffs, and indeed in the green deal, that we saw under Labour’s scheme.
What advice can the Minister give the thousands of householders throughout the country who, as we speak, are receiving direct mail shots from the solar industry offering them the opportunity to benefit from the 43p per kWh tariff? I am not sure that that is an entirely honest way of doing business, but will the Minister advise people on how they should respond?
I think that people should be very cautious about making a decision based on a rate of 43p. What they can do is plan with certainty on the basis of a 21p rate until July, and a stable rate of return after that.
May I ask the Minister to answer the question put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), and tell us how many people will lose their jobs if the Government proceed with a further cut in the solar tariff to 13p in July?
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the statement. We are talking about growing the solar industry, and we expect a steady growth in the number of people who will be employed in the industry until 2015 and beyond.
As one who approves of local production for local consumption, I welcome the statement, but can my hon. Friend tell us what is the recommendation for the small-scale wind FIT and why any change has been made in it?
There is to be a dramatic reduction in the tariff for small-scale wind. We had to take a hard look at it on a value-for-money basis, and as a result we are having to reduce it substantially to 21p. We must make it clear that we can justify paying a significant subsidy to individual technologies only if there is a real chance that they will reach a point at which they are cost-competitive with other mainstream renewables, and indeed fossil fuels, in the relatively near future. Unfortunately, that case has not been made so far in relation to small-scale wind, but I hope that the industry will respond with proposals for innovation and plans to make its technologies more cost-competitive.
Is the Minister aware that following his chaotic stewardship in DECC, the biggest barrier to the success of the solar industry in this country is him?
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is talking absolute rubbish. We in DECC have really good engagement with the industry. The stakeholders will be in my office in about an hour and a half, and I look forward to a sensible, grown-up, constructive discussion with them.
I was grateful to the Minister for arranging a meeting just before Christmas to discuss the Harlow community scheme, which was to benefit 1,500 houses by providing them with solar panels. Will he explain how his new, revised proposals will help to ensure that the scheme continues?
I hope that my hon. Friend will contribute to our consultation on how we should define a community scheme. We obviously want to make the scheme as inclusive as possible, but the more narrowly it is defined, the greater the differentiation from other large-scale schemes we shall be able to offer. There is a balance to be struck. We are genuinely interested in receiving feedback, and I think that, as a real community champion himself, my hon. Friend will be well placed to help us.
Why do the Government move with the speed of a striking cobra when they are slashing support for essential renewable energy, but with the speed of an arthritic sloth when it comes to recognising the subsidies that will be essential for nuclear power in future?
First, we are not subsidising nuclear power. Secondly, we are introducing a very dynamic system of tariffs that I think other countries will now try to copy. I think that rather than being the slow man in Europe in renewable deployment, we shall be in the fast lane.
The Minister will be aware that in the last year of the previous Government, we were 25th out of 27 European countries in the use of renewables. I note his target of 20 GW, which seems quite heroic. Can he confirm that meeting it would put us at the top of the league and not in the relegation zone position he inherited?
The Secretary of State is in Cumbria today to open the world’s largest offshore wind farm, which will help to push us up the table, and I certainly believe that solar has the potential to push us higher still. Whether that will take us to the top—given the progress being made in Europe, and the severe disadvantage we inherited owing to Labour’s record in government—I do not know, but all I can say is that things are going to get better.
My hon. Friend knows, given the representations I have made to him, among others, about the desperate need for stability on the question of solar installations. Will he assure me that the outcome of the consultation process will represent the Government’s settled policy on this matter for the years ahead?
Absolutely. The good thing about this scheme is that, unlike the one we inherited from Labour, it will not depend on arbitrary decisions or interventions from politicians. Rather, it will clearly set out the mechanics of how we will degress tariffs not just this year or next, but for years to come, and will provide the stability and longevity that investors are crying out for.
We are very lucky today in having an urgent question answered by the greenest Member of this House; nobody here is more committed to renewable energy. The Opposition attacking the Government for not leaking in advance a written statement is also novel. However, will the Minister look into the problem with the Nene valley hydro scheme? It is an excellent scheme that I know his Department supports, but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is dragging its feet.
This package of measures is good news for hydro. We are very ambitious for the hydro sector, and I should be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to see whether we can iron out any small difficulties.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House please give us the business for next week?
The business for the week commencing 20 February will be:
Monday 20 February—Motion relating to Iran. The subject for this debate has been nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Tuesday 21 February—If necessary consideration of Lords amendments, followed by a European document relating to the remuneration of European Union staff.
The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration.
Wednesday 22 February—Opposition day (un-allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion including on the publication of the NHS risk register.
Thursday 23 February—Motions relating to the draft Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2012, the draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2012, and the draft Pensions Act 2008 (Abolition of Protected Rights) (Consequential Amendments) (No. 2) (Amendment) Order 2012.
The provisional business for the week commencing 27 February will include:
Monday 27 February—Estimates day (4th allotted day). Details will be given in the Official Report.
[The details are as follows: Funding for the Olympics and Paralympics: Oral evidence taken before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on 14 and 21 December 2010, HC689 i and ii, 17 May 2011, HC689-iii, 15 November 2011, HC689-iv, and 24 January 2012, HC689-v; Forensic Science Service: 7th Report from the Science and Technology Committee of session 2010-12, HC 855; Government Response – The Forensic Science Service, Cm 8215]
Colleagues will wish to be reminded that they will have the opportunity to pay individual tributes to Her Majesty the Queen on 7 March during the debate on the Humble Address, marking the 60th anniversary of her accession to the throne.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 23 February will be:
Thursday 23 February—Debate on cycling.
For the convenience of the House, I would like to provide additional information on the parliamentary calendar. The House will return from the conference recess on Monday 15 October. In addition to the dates already announced, the House will rise at the close of play on Tuesday 13 November and return on Monday 19 November. The House will rise at the close of play on Thursday 20 December and return on Monday 7 January 2013.
As previously announced, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will deliver his Budget statement on Wednesday 21 March. As is usual, the Budget debate will continue for a further three days. I will bring forward a motion to allow the continuation of the Budget debate on Friday 23 March. This will also facilitate the Backbench Business Committee’s usual pre-recess Adjournment debate prior to the Easter recess on Tuesday 27 March.
The House will also want to be aware that the private Members’ Bills Fridays for the next Session will be: 6 July, 13 July, 7 September, 14 September, 19 October, 26 October, 2 November, 9 November, 30 November, 18 January 2013, 25 January, 1 February and 1 March. All these dates are contained in a revised version of the calendar, now available for Members and staff from the Vote Office.
I thank the Leader of the House for his statement and for announcing yet another packed week.
The Government’s legislative incompetence has reached new heights with the announcement the Leader of the House has just made of a Friday sitting for the Budget. Did Government business managers forget to schedule the time they needed to debate the Budget, or did the Chancellor not bother to inform them when he announced the date? They certainly know how to manage the legislative factory, although I note that once again, the House is rising on a Tuesday so the Prime Minister can dodge his Question Time.
Yesterday, the Government were defeated in the Lords on day one of the Report stage of the Health and Social Care Bill. In yesterday’s Financial Times a Conservative Back Bencher was quoted as saying:
“No Tory MP knows what the point of these reforms is”.
Let me reassure Conservative Members: they are not alone. No one—with the possible exception of the Health Secretary—understands the point of these reforms. However, what doctors, nurses, the royal colleges, patients’ groups—in fact, just about anyone working in or using the health service—do understand is that this disastrous Bill is damaging our NHS. As the massive increase in the number of people waiting more than 18 weeks for treatment shows, it is patients who are suffering.
The Health Secretary may have presided over the biggest legislative shambles and policy disaster in recent history, but apparently the Prime Minister still has confidence in him. I do not imagine he feels particularly reassured, given that one No. 10 insider is quoted in The Times as saying that the Health Secretary
“should be taken out and shot”.
That was followed by a story in The Daily Telegraph with a headline saying that No. 10 does not want to shoot the Health Secretary. Given that the Prime Minister cannot even get his story straight on whether or not he wants to shoot his Ministers, is it any wonder that they have made such a mess of running the NHS? Will the Government recognise reality and finally drop the Health and Social Care Bill?
Ever willing to help the Government out, the Deputy Prime Minister briefed this week that he thought about vetoing the Health and Social Care Bill, but decided against it “for the sake of coalition unity”. So there we have it: the Liberal Democrats in government—power before principle.
The Health and Social Care Bill has become the latest Government Bill to run into trouble in the Lords. Over the period of the Labour Government, when we lost about a third of whipped Divisions in the Lords, the proportion of Labour peers reached a maximum of 30%. Representation on the Government Front Bench in the Lords is already at 39%. Will the Leader of the House therefore rule out stuffing the House of Lords any further with Government peers?
The Deputy Prime Minister also said this week that he was asking Liberal Democrats “day in, day out” to vote for things they
“wouldn’t do in a month of Sundays”
if there were a majority Liberal Democrat Government. It might have escaped his notice, but we have not been voting for legislation “day in, day out” due to the Government’s shambolic mishandling of parliamentary business in this House. The few votes we have had were clearly too much for the children’s Minister, who fled London rather than going into the Division Lobby with the Conservatives to vote for the Welfare Reform Bill. Does the Leader of the House agree with his own Back Benchers who said that the children's Minister should have the courage to vote for the Government’s business, or the guts to resign?
Labour called for the RBS chief executive not to take his bonus; it happened. Labour called for the board of Network Rail not to take their bonuses; it happened. On Tuesday, Labour initiated a debate on bankers’ bonuses and not a single Cabinet Minister could be bothered to speak for the Government. The Chancellor, speaking to the Federation of Small Businesses, even seemed to think it was anti-business to be talking about executive pay at all. Had he deigned to come to this House on Tuesday, he would have realised it is actually about fairness.
Will the Leader of the House confirm that as a result of quantitative easing, every bank in the country has benefited from taxpayer funding, and does he agree that it is not fair for the bosses of all the banks that have benefited from taxpayer support to earn in one day many times more than most people in this country earn in a lifetime? Every time I have raised this matter, the right hon. Gentleman has ducked the question. Given that Barclays is due to announce its bonus round, will the Leader of the House now send an unequivocal message to banking bosses about what the Government consider fair?
I want to pay tribute to two remarkable women. Her Majesty the Queen has reigned for 60 years, and her commitment to the nation and the Commonwealth has rightly earned respect across the country and around the world. Florence Green, who died this week at the age of 110, was the last known surviving service member from world war one. Mrs Green was one of 100,000 women to serve this country in the great war. Will the Leader of the House now agree to schedule the traditional debate to mark international women’s day, so that we can pay tribute to the service of those remarkable women and many others who enhance our public life in this country?
The Government are anxious that we should have the normal pre-Easter recess Adjournment debate, which is normally scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee, and that is why we are scheduling an additional day’s debate on the Friday after the Budget; if we did not do so, there would be a risk that that popular occasion would be squeezed out of the calendar.
The Prime Minister relishes Prime Minister’s questions—probably more than the Leader of the Opposition does. If the hon. Lady had been listening to what I said, she would have heard me announce that the House would be rising on a Thursday in December, not on a Tuesday. As for the upper House, the Labour party has more peers than any other party and if there was representation on the basis of votes at the previous general election, Labour would clearly not be entitled to that number of peers.
There are three principles in the Health and Social Care Bill: more control for patients; more power for professionals; and less bureaucracy. Those are three principles that the previous Labour Government were embarked on following when they were in power; they were establishing foundation trusts, they were promoting choice and they were promoting practice-based commissioning in the mid-2000s. We take forward that agenda. In addition, I say to the hon. Lady that it is called the “Health and Social Care Bill”—everyone agrees that social care must be linked more closely to the NHS, and the Bill promotes better financial and professional integration. As for the independent sector, I just remind her of what her manifesto said:
“We will support an active role for the independent sector working alongside the NHS in the provision of care”.
We are actually precluding the sort of arrangements that Labour promoted, whereby independent treatment centres were parachuted into the NHS with no powers for the NHS to compete.
On the point about the education Minister, the shadow Leader of the House was a Minister and she knows perfectly well that Ministers are occasionally away on ministerial business. That was the issue for my hon. Friend. If the shadow Leader of the House looks at the voting register, she will find that a large number of her colleagues did not take part in that particular vote.
On taxing the banks, the shadow Leader of the House will know that our annual levy on the banks brings in more each year than Labour’s one-off tax—that deals with that issue.
On international women’s day, that debate is one of the fixed events now allocated to the Backbench Business Committee, but I can say in response to the hon. Lady’s question that we will seek to allocate to that Committee a day so that it can hold the traditional debate on international women’s day roughly on the date when it occurs in March.
May we have a debate on the purpose of confirmatory hearings by Select Committees, particularly those into public appointments? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is very unwise for Ministers to disregard the autonomy and authority of Select Committees, particularly the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills?
I am aware of the report by the BIS Committee and what it said about the proposed appointment at the Office for Fair Access. The Government will want to reflect on that Committee’s recommendations before they come to a conclusion on any appointment.
I am sorry to say that a student present at a lecture given yesterday by a holocaust survivor has complained about the conduct during that lecture of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley). Is it not about time that the Government sorted this whole affair out by publishing the outcome of the inquiry and organising a debate on the investigation that the Prime Minister announced into the hon. Gentleman’s involvement—[Interruption.]
Order. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase will be silent—I will brook no contradiction of that point. I assume that the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) notified the hon. Member for Cannock Chase—
No, he didn’t—
Order. I require no interference from the hon. Gentleman, who will behave himself and that is the end of it. I asked the hon. Member for Dudley North for an indication of whether he contacted the hon. Gentleman in question.
My office contacted his.
Well, it is preferable that there should be direct contact—[Interruption.] Order. The hon. Member for Dudley North will finish his question, there will be an answer and we will proceed.
I attempted to phone personally, but the answerphone was on and so I asked my office to call. Is it not about time that this whole affair was sorted out, so that we can get to the bottom of the hon. Gentleman’s involvement in a party at which people chanted “Hitler, Hitler, Hitler” and toasted the Third Reich?
I have to say that that is not a matter for the Government—it is a matter for the party—and it would not be appropriate for me to respond to that question at this Dispatch Box.
When my right hon. Friend had his conversations in January with the chairman of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, was he conducting them wearing his hat as Leader of the House of Commons—in other words, on behalf of Parliament—or as a member of the Government? May we have an early debate on the issue of the separation of powers and how that fits in with the operation of IPSA?
I cannot promise a debate along the lines that my hon. Friend has requested. However, as Leader of the House, I have regular discussions with the chief executive and the chairman of IPSA, as it would be appropriate for me to do, given the responsibilities that I hold.
We have just heard mention, both from the Leader of the House and his shadow, of the fact that international women’s day falls on 8 March and St David’s day falls on 1 March. The Backbench Business Committee received bids for both of those debates on Tuesday. The Leader of the House touches on a sore point, because it is impossible for the Committee to allocate those debates without the Government allocating us time to do so. Will he commit to meet our successor Committee in the new Session to divide up those set-piece debates on events that fall on specific days every year? Alternatively—this is much more preferable—will he allocate a set day every week in the Chamber that is specifically reserved for Back-Bench time?
We will, of course, seek to accommodate this year the specific events to which the hon. Lady has referred: the St David’s day and international women’s day debates. On her second point, I am sympathetic to the idea of pre-allocating to the Backbench Business Committee a certain number of days each year and then allocating it a day in order to honour a commitment in respect of international women’s day, the pre-EU Council debates, St David’s day and other such events. I would be happy to have that particular dialogue. On the concept of a fixed day each week, the Wright Committee looked at that but did not actually recommend it. That Committee said that that there would be a risk of rigidity if we went down that road, so at the moment I say no to a fixed day but I am happy to try to accommodate her in the way that she indicated.
In 1975, five journalists died in Balibo in East Timor. In 2007, an Australian coroner’s court found that they had been deliberately killed by Indonesian troops and that this constituted a war crime. Five years on, with two British citizens having been killed in a war crime, is it not time that we had a statement from the Foreign Secretary on what our Government are going to do about it?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his concern. I will draw that matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and, of course, see whether it would be appropriate for the Government to make a statement in the light of that tragedy.
The Leader of the House will be aware of today’s report from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service—CAFCASS—highlighting a dramatic increase in the number of children being taken into care due to parental neglect. One of the most effective programmes in assisting dysfunctional and problem families is early intervention, yet these programmes are suffering across the country because of the Government’s savage cuts to local authority funding. So may we have a debate on this issue, in the hope that the Government will think again, if on the grounds not of compassion towards our children but of reducing the astronomical costs to the nation of keeping our children in care?
The Government have sought to protect the early intervention grant for precisely the reasons cited by the hon. Lady. It is indeed the case that, following the tragedy of Peter Connelly, more local authorities are taking children into care. Whether they remain in care is, of course, a matter for the courts, but we want to learn the lessons from what has happened, take advantage of the report that has been published today and see whether we can improve the quality of life of those children who are at risk.
I am extremely concerned about recent developments in the Republic of the Maldives, following the forced resignation of the former President Mohamed Nasheed, who is a close friend of mine. I have also heard worrying reports of escalating violence. As we speak, Mohamed Nasheed is awaiting arrest at his parents’ home. Will the Leader of the House urgently make time for a debate on the political situation in the Maldives and on the pressing need for judicial reform?
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. We are to have a debate on Somalia and, depending on the flexibility of whoever is in the Chair, it may be appropriate for my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to touch on the Maldives. It is a young democracy where the President has just resigned. The high commissioner is in the capital at the moment to seek to establish what is going on. We call on the new Government to demonstrate their respect for the rights of all political parties and their members, and to ensure that the constitution is upheld. The latest reports indicate no reports of unrest directly affecting tourists. If appropriate later on today, my right hon. Friend will seek to bring the House up to date.
The Leader of the House will know that Mary Portas conducted an important review of our town centres. Is it not about time that the Government helped them, in this time of recession? In particular, may we have a debate on the role of Tesco, which is ravaging our town and city centres throughout the country? It is a dangerous monopoly and it is about time that it was curbed.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. He will know that the House debated the Mary Portas report in Back-Bench time a few weeks ago. The Government are grateful to Mary Portas for her report. We will publish our response in the spring and we will take on board the hon. Gentleman’s point about the risks of too much power being vested in a number of supermarkets.
The Mayor of London will end his first term in office with 1,000 extra police officers, 1 million extra patrols on the streets and crime down by 7.6%. After three years of council tax freezes, following eight years of a Labour Mayor increasing the council tax by 152%, the welcome news is that London’s council tax will be reduced for the first time in London’s history. May we therefore have a debate on the effectiveness of local and regional government?
No one would welcome such a debate more than me, but I cannot promise my hon. Friend one in the immediate future. He makes a point. The Mayor intends for the Met to have 32,510 fully warranted police officers by the end of his first term, which is significantly more than he inherited. I pay tribute to what the Mayor of London has done in his first term.
May we have a debate on the contribution that apprentices make to their local communities? Eight young apprentices from MBDA in my constituency are about to compete against seven other teams in the Brathay challenge. They will raise money for a local charity, raise awareness of apprenticeships and take part in an outdoor challenge. This is just one of the many commendable activities in which they take part each year, and I am sure that the Leader of the House would like to join me in wishing them good luck in the challenge.
Indeed, I do wish them good luck. I also wish good luck to the more than 400,000 apprentices starting their apprenticeships this year. That is a record number and a significant contribution to tackling the problems of youth unemployment that we inherited from the outgoing Government.
Given that the forthcoming parliamentary timetable is unlikely to be overburdened with new Government Bills, may we have a debate on the merits of repealing existing legislation?
I advise my hon. Friend not to believe everything he reads in the press about a light legislative programme in the second Session, but there might be an opportunity, subject to what is in the Queen’s Speech, to make progress with the repeals of certain measures that are surplus to requirement. That is part of our deregulatory initiative, which we are anxious to pursue.
As you know, Mr Speaker, Swansea is the cultural capital of Wales. [Interruption.] In 2014, the world will celebrate the centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas—a great literary icon and a great British and Welsh brand—in Swansea. Will the Leader of the House find time to debate a programme of events throughout 2014 to support inward investment and tourism, related to the centenary celebrations for Dylan Thomas, in the United Kingdom, Wales and Swansea?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will catch your eye, Mr Speaker, during the St David’s day debate, for which I hope the Backbench Business Committee will find time. I noted some dissent from behind the hon. Gentleman when he claimed that Swansea is the cultural capital of Wales. He may have difficulty with some of his parliamentary colleagues.
As a Swansea boy, I have to agree with the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), rather than with my Government’s Front-Bench representative on this occasion, which is most unusual for me.
Oil refineries and large chemical plants have been investing in combined heat and power units, but they face the loss of certain financial exemptions, without which an oil refinery may face a loss of £7 million a year if it continues with the CHP units. If it discontinued using them, tens if not hundreds of thousands of tonnes of CO2 will be generated, with obvious environmental disadvantages. Will the Leader of the House arrange time for an urgent statement from the Department of Energy and Climate Change to show that it is aware of the unintended consequences of the change in the levy system and that it will make representations to the Treasury to make an adjustment in the Budget accordingly?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to an issue of which the Government are already aware. He might know that the Treasury has announced previously that it will introduce a relief from the carbon price floor for combined heat and power plants. We will bring forward the details in due course, and the Treasury and DECC are working closely together on the issue.
May we have a statement or a debate in Government time on the high and escalating price of fuel in Northern Ireland and the Treasury’s contribution to it? According to a National Consumer Council report published this week, the price is now the highest of any region in the EU. That will have a massive effect on the economy and on household bills. Can the Leader of the House offer any hope to the hard-pressed families and businesses of Northern Ireland?
I think we had an Opposition day debate relatively recently on the high cost of energy. I will draw the attention of my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to the particular problems referred to by the right hon. Gentleman and ask them to write to him.
Tomorrow is my constituent Gary McKinnon’s birthday, but he will not be celebrating, because this is the 10th year that he has faced extradition to the United States, which, given his mental state, is tantamount to facing execution. Will the Leader of the House ensure that we have a statement when the Home Secretary finally makes her decision?
I commend my hon. Friend for the way in which he has championed the cause of his constituent. He will know that the Home Secretary has commissioned some reports and advice on medical issues. She will need time to reflect on those. I understand that the court has directed that the Home Secretary provide Mr McKinnon’s representatives with the experts’ report by 24 February and that he will then have a further 28 days to respond. The court has also directed that a hearing should take place in July, but I will pass on what my hon. Friend has just said to the Home Secretary.
I do not know whether you have seen the front page of the business section of today’s Daily Telegraph, Mr Speaker, but it refers to Vauxhall and General Motors in Europe. Against that background, you will be able to understand the anger expressed by my constituents following the Prime Minister’s response to me yesterday on public procurement. Given that police authorities are buying foreign cars and that Governments are buying products from all over the world—the leader of the Scottish Government is buying steel from China—may we have an urgent debate about public procurement and the Government’s role in leadership on it?
The hon. Gentleman will know that it is not a matter for the Government which cars are procured by police authorities, which are independent bodies. Also, he will have seen the encouraging manufacturing output information that was published today. However, I will raise with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office the broader procurement issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised and see what further steps we can take within the confines of the fair trading laws the hon. Gentleman will be familiar with.
Last week, I attended a public meeting at which more than 100 of my constituents were protesting about the 15-year licence extension to a landfill in the constituency, which will take no waste from Warrington after 2013 but a great deal of waste from surrounding cities. May we have a debate on regional landfill strategy? Cities such as Liverpool and Manchester should be encouraged to look after their own waste and not send it to my constituency.
For reasons that my hon. Friend will understand, I cannot comment on the specific instance to which he refers, but he will know that under the Localism Act 2011 local authorities have a duty to co-operate with one another to co-ordinate the effective handling of waste to meet their communities’ needs. I hope that the provisions of that Act will give him some comfort.
May I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), particularly those about public procurement affecting local charities such as Erskine in my community, which looks after and provides jobs for disabled ex-service personnel? Unfortunately, in these austere times it is having to lay off ex-service personnel. Will the right hon. Gentleman look at public procurement through all Government Departments to explore whether there is any way they can help that organisation?
The hon. Gentleman might also want to raise this issue with the Scottish Parliament, but he may have heard my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office indicate on Wednesday that he wants more small and medium-sized enterprises and organisations such as the one to which the hon. Gentleman referred to be able to bid for public procurement. Of course I will share with my right hon. Friend the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised and see whether we can try to help the organisation threatened with a loss of jobs in his constituency.
I am sure you are aware, Mr Speaker, that it is nearly 20 years since British soldiers were deployed Bosnia, yet the political situation there, where we put so much effort and resources and where we lost so many men, is getting worse and worse. Could we possibly have a debate about what is happening in a part of the world into which we put so much effort two decades ago?
My hon. Friend raises an important issue with which he is probably more familiar than almost anyone else in the Chamber. I can only suggest that he should apply to you, Mr Speaker, for a debate in Westminster Hall or for an Adjournment debate so we can have time to focus on Bosnia, the investment we made there and the role we have to play in tackling the outstanding problems that remain.
Is it possible to have a debate on the excessive inventiveness of the Prime Minister? I am thinking in particular of yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions in which he referred to the national health service on two occasions and got his facts completely wrong.
I would deny that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister ever got any fact wrong. I heard the point of order raised by the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) at the close of play yesterday and I am sure we will want to respond regarding the issue he raised.
I hope that Mrs Bone does not mind that I have been called before my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone).
Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 2695?
[That this House believes that public procurement should be used to boost the number of British apprentices; notes that the Department for Work and Pensions' (DWP) new Apprenticeship and Skills Requirements Contract Schedule, published in July 2011, has successfully encouraged contractors to hire more than 2,000 apprentices in the Department's supply chain, on a voluntary basis and that a similar scheme has been successful in Essex County Council; estimates that if this were rolled out across the wider public sector it would instantly create 120,000 new apprenticeships at little or no cost to the taxpayer; further estimates that if the normal ratio of these apprenticeship places went to young people, youth unemployment would be cut by seven per cent.; and therefore urges every Government department to bring in similar contracts to those of the DWP and to give thousands more young Britons a fighting chance of a job, a qualification and a decent wage.]
May we have a debate on apprenticeships and public procurement? Since 2011, the DWP has successfully been encouraging suppliers to hire more than 2,000 apprentices. That is different from Labour’s proposal, as it is cost-neutral to the Treasury and is voluntary for the firms involved. If that were copied across the public sector, it could create 120,000 extra apprenticeships. Will the Leader of the House look at this proposal?
I commend the example of the organisation my hon. Friend has mentioned, which is using the supply chain to employ more apprenticeships. I understand that many public sector bodies are already doing this as a matter of good practice, but we believe that even more can be done through a non-legislative approach to promote skills through public procurement. In the light of what my hon. Friend has just said, I shall see whether the Government can give added momentum to the initiative to which he has referred.
The public do not regard a Westminster Hall debate as sufficient recognition of the level of interest shown when an e-petition reaches the 100,000 signature mark. That is especially true in the case of Kevin Williams, who died at Hillsborough. Will the Leader of the House make sure that sufficient time is given to such debates in this Chamber and not push the responsibility on to the Backbench Business Committee, which has many other pressing issues for which to find time?
I gently make the point that there would not be a Backbench Business Committee allocating any time at all had this Government not set it up. I am not sure I agree with the premise on which the hon. Gentleman’s question was based, namely that a debate in Westminster Hall is not sufficient recognition of an issue. Some of the best debates I have attended in this Session have been in Westminster Hall, including a very moving debate on Holocaust memorial day last month. I think we need to dispel the myth that because something is debated in Westminster Hall it is not important. We should do all we can to raise the public perception of debates in Westminster Hall rather than denigrate them.
The whole House will thank the Leader of the House for provisionally publishing the dates of recess and for private Members’ Bills, which is a welcome move. If the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) does not like those dates and wants to be here on Wednesdays, she can lead the Opposition through the Division Lobby and vote against it. Indeed, I might well be with her on that occasion. Would it not be much easier and help the Backbench Business Committee out enormously if the 35 days in the next Session for Back-Bench business were allocated in the calendar? They would not have to be on the same day each week and they could even be provisional, but it would help us enormously if they were allocated.
I can move some way in the direction that my hon. Friend advocates. As I said in response to the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), there are a number of set-piece debates that would normally take place on or around a certain day and I am very happy to have a dialogue to see whether we can make that time available. However, it would inject undue rigidity into the parliamentary timetable if we were to allocate in advance days for the Backbench Business Committee. Given the various events that occur during a Session and the unpredictability of many of them, it would impose undue rigidity on the business of the House if we had to pre-allocate all the Back-Bench business days right at the beginning of the Session.
May we have a debate on the definition of Government savings? The National Audit Office has said that the Cabinet Office cannot say whether the £2.6 billion comes from the reduction of public bodies or wider efficiency savings. If we cannot have a debate, will the Leader of the House kindly ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office to lay before the House a full impact assessment regarding the savings made for those public bodies that are going to be abolished or transferred under the Public Bodies Act 2011?
I understand that my right hon. Friend has already done so in the context of the Act, but I will draw the hon. Lady’s remarks to his attention. If he has not done what I think he has done, I am sure he will do it in future.
As Sir Philip Mawer has resigned his post and said that he believes he should have been the person who inquired into the Adam Werritty affair, should we not look at this again to make sure we have a thorough investigation into that affair because of the real possibility that the former Secretary of State for Defence was conducting his own private foreign policy that could lead us into a war with Iran?
I have seen the evidence that Sir Philip Mawer gave before the Select Committee on Public Administration, and I have seen the exchange with the hon. Gentleman. It would make sense to await the Committee’s report before coming to a view on this issue, but he will know that the Cabinet Secretary produced his report, which led to the resignation of my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Defence, and we regard the matter as now closed.
I am glad that the Leader of the House noted what I said in my point of order last night, because that was not an isolated incident. Increasingly, at Prime Minister’s questions we see the Prime Minister red in the face and spraying inaccurate figures about Wales around the Chamber while he attempts not to answer sensible questions.
In addition to the St David’s day debate—a tradition on which I hope the Leader of the House will deliver—may we have a debate in Government time on the NHS in Wales and England so that we can make the comparison between the Government in Wales, who are attempting to improve the service and who have the support of the people, and the Government here, who do not have a mandate and seek to bring in changes that will undermine both care and efficiency?
I listened to the right hon. Gentleman’s point of order, and even on his own figures it seemed that the NHS in Wales was not doing as well as the NHS in England. I would welcome such a debate, which would give us an opportunity to contrast the extra resources we have provided to the NHS in England and the reduced waiting times since the election with the relatively poorer performance of the Administration in Wales.
Will the Leader of the House guarantee that the Health Secretary leads for the Government in the Opposition day debate on the NHS risk register when we return? Does he agree that the handling of the Health and Social Care Bill has been an utter shambles from start to finish? Every day we see blue-on-blue briefing against the poor, downtrodden Health Secretary. Would it not better for all concerned if the Government just dropped the Bill?
In response to what the hon. Member for Wallasey said from the Opposition Front Bench, I explained why we need to make progress with the Bill. As for the hon. Gentleman’s question about the debate when we come back, the Government will put up an appropriate spokesman on any motion that the Opposition table. I refer him to what the Prime Minister said yesterday about the position of the Health Secretary being more secure than that of the Leader of the Opposition.
I know that as a serious parliamentarian the Leader of the House greatly values the independence of Select Committees, but there is clearly something fishy going on with the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee. Will he investigate to establish whether the Prime Minister and/or the Chancellor of the Exchequer were involved in the consideration by the Select Committee of the appointment of Mr Ebdon?
I have looked very quickly at the report of the BIS Committee. If the hon. Gentleman is implying that somehow members of the Committee have been nobbled by people who are not members of it, I strenuously deny any such assertion.
Further to the issues regarding the Welsh NHS raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael), may we have a debate in Government time about cross-border provision between Wales and England? It is often overlooked now that we have devolved the Welsh side and have England-only Bills on the English side. It is a serious issue. There have been serious cuts to the budget in Wales and we need a debate on their impact on my constituents and others. It would also educate the Prime Minister so that he gets his facts right in future.
The Prime Minister always gets his facts right, as I have just asserted. It may be appropriate in the debate on St David’s day to raise specific issues about cross-border trade and the NHS. I will refer the hon. Gentleman’s remarks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.
Mr Speaker, with permission I will present a quarterly review of our progress in Afghanistan since October last year, representing the combined assessment of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development.
As always, I begin by paying tribute to the brave men and women of our armed forces. They have borne the brunt of the immense difficulties and dangers that Afghanistan has presented each and every day of the last 10 years and which it still presents in so many ways today. Three hundred and ninety-seven British service personnel have lost their lives since 2001, and 14 since my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary made the previous statement on 18 October. This House and our nation will never forget the sacrifices they have made to protect Britain’s national security.
Our Government’s objective in Afghanistan is shared by the Afghan Government and all 50 nations that contribute forces to the international security assistance force. We all want an Afghanistan that is able to maintain its own security and prevent the country from being used as a safe haven for international terrorists. Our strategy is to help the Afghan Government to build capable Afghan national security forces; to make progress towards a sustainable political settlement; and to support the building of a viable Afghan state.
Central to that is the gradual handover of security responsibilities from international forces to the Afghan national security forces by the end of 2014, as we agreed at the Lisbon summit in 2010. British and ISAF troops will continue to perform combat roles until the end of 2014. Our commitment in terms of aid, trade, investment and close diplomatic ties will of course last far beyond 2014. It was reflected in the enduring strategic partnership agreement signed by the Prime Minister and President Karzai on 28 January, and will play a crucial part in securing our long-term objectives.
No one in this House should underestimate the scale of the challenges that remain, but we are confident that our strategy in Afghanistan is the right one to maintain our national security, and we are making steady progress towards our goals. In December, the National Security Council reaffirmed that strategy, and agreed our objectives for the year ahead: 2012 will be an important year to consolidate progress in Afghanistan. The NATO conference in Chicago in May and the Tokyo conference on development in July will build on pledges made at the international Afghanistan conference in Bonn last December, with the aim of securing concrete financial, development and security commitments for Afghanistan beyond 2014.
The process of transition made considerable progress last year. The House will know that this is the means by which responsibility for security across Afghanistan is progressively transferred from the international community to Afghan national security forces, up to the end of 2014 when international troops will withdraw from a combat role. Transition is based on conditions on the ground; it is phased, it is gradual and it can take up to 18 months in any one area. In December 2011, transition began in the second group of areas. Approximately half the Afghan population lives in areas now in the process of transition.
The progress made in Helmand by Afghan, UK and ISAF troops is illustrated by the inclusion of Nad Ali, alongside Lashkar Gah, early in the transition process, which began in July. The security situation in these districts is unrecognisable compared with the start of British operations in 2006. Violence levels have fallen dramatically. Afghans have freedom of movement in Lashkar Gah and in all five central Helmand districts. Pupil enrolment for both girls and boys is rising, and the Afghan Government are able to provide services to the province.
British forces continue to conduct operations in Helmand, but are supporting a growing number of Afghan-led operations. In December, more than 280 British service personnel joined forces with 550 Afghan troops on Operation Winter Success. The operation was planned and led by the Afghan national army with ISAF mentoring and support. It succeeded in clearing insurgents from the area where three Helmand districts meet—Nad Ali, Nahri Sarraj and Lashkar Gah—before building new checkpoints, manned by Afghan forces, to increase security and extend the governance and development footprint of the Afghan Government.
The success of such operations allows us gradually to focus our efforts on mentoring and training. We will help to create an Afghan national officer academy to produce the Afghan army officers of the future, and it will open its doors in 2013. It is expected to accept 1,350 recruits annually, and approximately 120 British troops will be based at the academy to provide training and related support.
At the end of December, the Afghan national police were more than 143,000 strong and the Afghan national army numbered more than 170,000. They are deploying in formed units, carrying out their own operations and planning complex security arrangements. Last year, they responded to a series of high-profile attacks promptly, professionally and increasingly independent of ISAF support.
For the first time since 2006, year on year violence levels decreased across Afghanistan in 2011. This is a good indication of progress. However, the regional picture remains varied: in the east in particular the number of security incidents rose. We cannot be complacent, as gains are fragile and not yet irreversible, but we are firmly on track for the ANSF to have lead security responsibility by mid to late 2013. The ANSF will have full security responsibility across Afghanistan by the end of 2014. This means that plans for British combat troop draw-down by the end of 2014 also remain on track. The Prime Minister has indicated that there will be a steady and measured draw-down between now and then, and that British forces will be reduced by 500 to 9,000 by the end of this year. The rate of reduction will be determined by the progress of transition on the ground.
We have also seen progress on the political track. In December, I attended the international conference in Bonn. The conference signalled that our commitment to Afghanistan will continue beyond the completion of security transition and will be reinforced at this year’s Chicago and Tokyo conferences.
The Afghan Government also made commitments at Bonn. They include further efforts to tackle corruption and improve the capacity of Afghan institutions. The Government committed themselves to upholding international human rights obligations and to protecting women’s rights as enshrined in the Afghan constitution. Respect for women’s rights is a fundamental obligation, and is important for Afghanistan’s future. We agree with the Afghan Government, and regularly impress upon them, that the rights of women must not be sacrificed as part of the political process. This was emphasised at Bonn by the Minister for Equalities, the Government’s ministerial champion for tackling violence against women and girls overseas.
Britain supports an Afghan-led political process to help to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. We know that this will take time and will require support. The Afghan Government’s approach received broad endorsement from the Loya Jirga in November 2011 and from the international community at Bonn.
There have been a number of important developments in the political process already this year. Last month, the Taliban expressed their willingness to participate in a political office in Qatar. We welcome any steps towards reconciliation but recognise that they are at an early stage and that more work will be needed to move forward. Nevertheless, the Taliban leadership have accepted the need to engage in a political process, and this is significant. If they are willing to renounce violence, break links with al-Qaeda and respect the Afghan constitution, there can be a place for them in their country’s future. A political office provides an opportunity for all Afghans to work together towards a sustainable peace, for it is only with the engagement of all Afghans that we can hope to see a durable settlement. Britain will continue to support the Afghan Government in these efforts.
In November, the International Monetary Fund agreed a new three-year programme of support with the Afghan Government, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development helped to secure. This has helped to get back on track the internationally agreed set of Afghan development and governance commitments known as the Kabul process. It also allowed donors, including Britain, to resume support to the Afghanistan reconstruction trust fund, which is helping the Government to deliver vital basic services, including education and health care.
None the less, Afghanistan remains one of the world’s poorest countries and its financial future is uncertain. A World Bank report published in November showed that the Government budget shortfall might still be $7 billion by 2021. At Bonn we agreed in principle to provide long-term financial support in line with the Afghan Government’s priorities. These plans will be discussed further at the Chicago and Tokyo conferences. We will continue to support the Afghan Government’s efforts to increase tax revenue and economic growth in order to reduce the budget shortfall and aid dependency. Our support to their Revenue Department is helping to exceed IMF revenue collection targets. In November, quarterly revenue collections increased to £322 million, an increase of 23% over the same period last year.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development launched a major new civil society programme to strengthen the capacity of Afghan civil society bodies during his visit to Afghanistan in October. This, too, will have a strong focus on women’s rights. The first call for proposals has resulted in over 200 applications, which are now being assessed.
These developments in Afghanistan are essential to the country’s future. So, too, are the actions of Afghanistan’s neighbours. At last November’s regional conference, hosted by our Turkish partners in Istanbul, Afghanistan’s neighbours gave their collective backing to the Afghan Government’s efforts to promote an inclusive political process. They also agreed to work together through a detailed set of confidence-building measures, and a follow-up meeting will be held in Kabul in June. In March, the fifth regional economic co-operation conference on Afghanistan will also take place, aiming to further economic integration. Britain will continue to support these efforts while recognising that they must be led by the region.
Finally, Pakistan has a crucial role and much to gain from improved stability in Afghanistan. It already suffers more casualties from terrorism than any other country in the world. Both countries need to work together to stem the flow of militants, who undermine the sovereignty of both democratic Governments and remain intent on killing their citizens and destabilising the region. The best way to achieve this is through regular, frank and honest dialogue. We welcome Pakistan’s participation in the Istanbul conference and its support for the commitments that were agreed. The recent visit to Kabul by the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, is a positive indication of improving relations between the two countries and signals the resumption of the Afghanistan-Pakistan dialogue. I look forward to receiving the Foreign Minister in London on 21 February, when we will discuss Afghanistan and the region as well as our strong bilateral relations.
Serious challenges remain in Afghanistan. There will undoubtedly be setbacks and difficulties ahead, but we are making steady progress. This will be an important year to consolidate this progress and to strengthen the international commitments to Afghanistan and long-term partnership with its people.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it. Of course, the context of this discussion is the number of British personnel currently serving in Afghanistan—almost 10,000—who are harnessing their professionalism and expertise to the task of securing a stable Afghanistan that will not threaten this country’s security again. Their bravery is rightly and regularly praised in the House, but each time it is a genuine and sincere reflection of the admiration on both sides of this House for the work they do on our behalf.
The Foreign Secretary knows that we supported the mission in Afghanistan in government and continue to do so in opposition. We are keen to discuss these issues in a spirit of shared support for the mission, but it is also the Opposition’s job to scrutinise, and that task is especially important when the lives of our servicemen and women are at stake. I hope that he will see my questions in that spirit.
I will divide my questions between the security situation and the diplomatic effort. On the security situation, the Foreign Secretary has just told the House:
“British and ISAF troops will continue to perform combat roles until the end of 2014.”
How is that consistent with the comments of the American Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, who only last week said:
“Hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013 we’ll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advice and assist role”?
Incidentally, that comment was confirmed by the Prime Minister’s official spokesman, but there was no statement to the House. Given the integrated nature of ISAF’s work, both in Helmand and across Afghanistan, is the Foreign Secretary seriously suggesting that British military personnel will be involved in combat operations for potentially between a year and 18 months after our American allies have transferred from combat operations to providing training, advice and assistance?
What is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the military implications of America’s decision to wind down combat operations more than a year before the previously stated deadline for withdrawal? What is his assessment of the impact on the ISAF mission’s timetable for transition of the announcement in January by the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, that French troops will now leave Afghanistan by the end of 2013?
The statement comes shortly after the publication of a leaked NATO document cataloguing the depth of links and assistance between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani security services. The report also details widespread collaboration between the insurgents and the Afghan police and military, so what is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the findings of the report, and how does he reconcile its bleak findings with his description today that
“we are making steady progress”?
The Foreign Secretary has just told the House:
“For the first time since 2006, year on year violence levels decreased across Afghanistan in 2011.”
How does he reconcile that statement with the report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan only last week that indicated that the number of civilians killed and injured has risen for the fifth year running, with the majority of deaths caused by insurgents? The report documented 3,021 civilian deaths in 2011, compared with 2,790 in 2010 and 2,412 in 2009.
The Foreign Secretary said in his statement that 120 British troops will be based at the Afghan national academy. Will he reassure the House that all necessary force protection measures will be in place for them at that time? He stated that the Afghan national army now numbers 170,000. Will he confirm how large the British Government now expect the Afghan national army to be at the time of transition in 2014 and say a little more about how these force levels are to be financed in the light of the deficits he spoke of?
Let me now turn briefly to the diplomatic effort. We have expressed our concern in the past that there was not an oral statement to the House following the Bonn conference in December and that, despite the intense effort required in these critical months, the Prime Minister has not made a statement on Afghanistan to the House for many months. It is vital that the scale of our military effort is matched by diplomatic efforts. The Foreign Secretary spoke of November’s Istanbul conference, but will he set out for the House what sustained efforts are being made to co-ordinate the regional players, such as China and Pakistan, and bind them into the work of securing a stable and durable peace?
The Foreign Secretary spoke of the Taliban’s willingness to participate in a political office in Qatar. While it is suggested that only talks about talks are now under way, what progress is being made on the broader and more inclusive political settlement needed within Afghanistan for a stable state post-2014? Specifically, will he update the House on what progress has been made by the Afghan High Peace Council, established at the London conference in 2010, on reaching a consensus on constitutional arrangements and how it is ensuring that women have a proper role in Afghanistan’s future?
Finally, given the timetable for transition, will the Foreign Secretary provide the House with the British Government’s assessment of the capacity of the Afghan state to undertake, as is planned, free and fair presidential elections during 2014?
We now have an end date in Afghanistan, but it is through urgent diplomatic work that we can also have an end state worthy of the sacrifice endured during this long decade.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. He rightly pays tribute to the bravery of our armed forces and reflects how sincere those tributes always are in this House, particularly from those of us on both sides who have travelled in Afghanistan and seen the work of our armed services and what happens in field hospitals. We recognise the extraordinary commitment of all involved. He is quite right to point out again—I am grateful to him for it—from the Opposition Benches that those operations enjoy support across the House, and I certainly take his questions in the spirit in which they are obviously intended.
The right hon. Gentleman asks about reconciling what I have said today with what the US Defence Secretary has said over the past couple of weeks. The US Defence Secretary has stressed that US forces will remain combat-capable and ready in Afghanistan to the end of 2014, and he has also said very clearly:
“We’ve got to stick to the Lisbon strategy. The United States has a very strong commitment to Lisbon and to the strategy that was laid out there.”
That strategy involves withdrawing from a combat role after the end of 2014.
Sometimes, in the reporting of different comments, there is confusion between lead responsibility and full responsibility. As I said in my statement, however, we expect Afghan forces to have lead responsibility throughout Afghanistan in mid to late 2013, and I also reflected on how they have lead responsibility for many operations now in Helmand. Full responsibility—that is, full transition to Afghan security control—is from the end of 2014, so we are not conscious of any difference between the approach of the United States, and its intentions for its armed forces, and ours; nor would we want there to be any difference. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to express alarm at the idea of such a difference, which is not something that the Government intend or would accept.
The leaked document to which he refers should not have too much importance attributed to it. It was actually a collection of the views and various opinions of Taliban detainees held in custody, and it should not be taken as a necessarily accurate reflection of the overall strategic situation. I do not accept, therefore, that a leaked document of Taliban views contradicts everything I have said in this statement about the steady progress that is being made—steady progress always qualified by my saying how fragile it is in some areas, and how the picture has been varied.
That brings me to the right hon. Gentleman’s next question, because he asks about the number of incidents. It has risen over the past year in Regional Command East and Regional Command South West, but it has gone down in Regional Command South, down particularly sharply in Helmand, our own area of responsibilities, and down on average throughout the country. It is true also, nevertheless, that some of those incidents have been considerable attacks and cost civilian lives. About 80% of civilian casualties in Afghanistan are caused by insurgent activity, and that is why the civilian casualty figures are as he cites—something, therefore, that we cannot at all be complacent about.
The right hon. Gentleman asks about the academy, and I can of course assure him that the necessary protection will be in place. The academy will be on the same site as the United States academy, and full protection will be afforded to it.
On the strength of Afghan national security forces, they will be built up, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, to a total strength of 352,000. Decisions will be made—probably at the NATO summit in Chicago, which the Secretary of State for Defence, the Prime Minister and I will attend—about the strength of Afghan national security forces in later years, and about what the international community’s financial contribution will be. We certainly expect the United Kingdom to make a significant contribution to those forces after 2014.
The right hon. Gentleman asks about oral statements, but I must gently point out that we introduced the quarterly statements on Afghanistan, having called for them for a long time during the previous Parliament, and indeed a monthly report to Parliament. We will always consider requests for further statements, but we have a great deal more statements on the matter than was the case in the previous Parliament.
On regional efforts, the Istanbul meeting was important, and the forthcoming economic co-operation conference that I mentioned will be important also in binding in the partners, but at the Bonn conference it was striking how the regional partners were committed to economic and development co-operation with Afghanistan, as well as all of us who make such a large security contribution.
It would not be fair to say that a consensus on the future, which the right hon. Gentleman quite rightly looks for in Afghanistan on constitutional arrangements, has yet been reached, but the meeting of the Loya Jirga was important progress, as is the establishment of the Taliban’s political office, although that is at an early stage. It does not indicate necessarily that they have signed up to the idea of reconciliation overall, nor that they are united on it, but it is one indication of progress.
The conduct of forthcoming elections, including the presidential one, will be a very important factor in Afghanistan’s political future and in its stability. We saw in the most recent round of elections—the presidential and parliamentary elections in Afghanistan—an improvement in the holding of free and fair elections conducted in an orderly way. We look for another improvement in the next presidential election.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. I share his approach to the draw-down of troops, which depends on the conditions on the ground, and I note that the cost of the ANSF post-2015 is still to be resolved but will, I hope, emerge after the NATO summit. Will he say a little more about the ongoing negotiations with the Taliban in Qatar? Those discussions are clearly very important. Is there anything that we can do to give them more impetus?
As I just said, it is too early to say very much about those negotiations, but the United Kingdom has, as my hon. Friend knows, for a long time supported the concept of reconciliation in Afghanistan, including the involvement of the Taliban, provided ultimately that the conditions of their breaking with al-Qaeda and accepting the constitution of Afghanistan can be met. The negotiations are at an early stage and do not necessarily indicate that the Taliban are in favour of reconciliation or have decided collectively to pursue it. It is the possible beginning of a process. We will have to see how that goes, but it is too early to say anything more than that about it at the moment.
Does the Foreign Secretary recognise that, while we pay tribute—I certainly do—to our armed forces, as I have said previously, and to all the innocent victims of war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the overwhelming majority of British people want to see an end to our combat role as quickly as possible and, we hope, before the end of 2014? All the indications are that the sentiment in Britain is shared in the United States, France and Germany.
British people do want their own—our own—national security to be secured, and, yes, they very much support our troops whenever they are sent overseas into combat operations. This country has a very strong tradition of such support, but what we are doing now—setting a clear timetable, whereby by the end of 2014 we will have withdrawn from a combat role, or from having our troops there in anything like their current numbers—is something that meets the approval of the country. But we would not be doing a service to the country or, indeed, to the sacrifices of our forces there over recent years if we indulged in a precipitate withdrawal that left a far more difficult situation than the one that we hope to leave.
I hope that my right hon. Friend will excuse me if I return to the issue of the attitude of the United States and of the French, but there is a common background. Each country is in the throes of an acrimonious presidential election, and it leads me to the conclusion that statements may be made for political rather than military reasons. If some of the predictions, based on what Mr Panetta has said and has never withdrawn, were to be fulfilled, the military position of British troops would be substantially altered. Can we be satisfied that both my right hon. Friend and the Secretary of State for Defence are aware of that and are ready to take steps if necessary to protect the interests of British forces?
I understand the anxieties in the House on this issue. The US Defence Secretary clarified any doubts, certainly to my satisfaction and that of my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary, in saying, as I quoted earlier:
“We’ve got to stick to the Lisbon strategy.”
The United States has a strong commitment to that. Of course, part of that strategy is that in 2013, Afghans will have lead responsibility across much of Afghanistan, as I indicated in my statement. Increasingly, the role of ISAF is to provide mentoring, training and support. I gave examples of that from Helmand. The United States and the United Kingdom have the same strategy, as do all the ISAF nations.
It is true that France has announced a change in its withdrawal. President Sarkozy has announced the withdrawal of French troops by the end of 2013, rather than 2014. No other ISAF partner, among the 50 nations, has announced accelerated withdrawal plans. The clear consensus at the NATO Defence Ministers’ meeting on 2 and 3 February was that we should stick to the Lisbon time lines, with staged troop draw-down up to the end of 2014.
The Foreign Secretary has referred to the crucial role of Pakistan vis-à-vis Afghanistan, and to the fact that Pakistan suffers more from terrorism than any other country. Will he give a detailed assessment of Pakistan’s current commitment in terms of tackling terrorism? What is Pakistan doing with ourselves and others to take forward the situation in Afghanistan?
Pakistani leaders are determined to tackle terrorism. We will have a detailed discussion about that when the Pakistani Foreign Minister comes here in two weeks’ time. I have seen for myself on recent visits to Pakistan how much Pakistanis mourn the loss of tens of thousands of lives to terrorism. We have to accept that Pakistan is in an almost uniquely difficult situation. Its Government are not wholly in control of all their own territory and their writ does not run in all their territory. There is a long history of terrorist activity. This is an enormous challenge for Pakistan. We work with it in many ways, and we use that work to encourage its fight against terrorism. We will continue to do so, but it will remain a difficult struggle.
Unless western forces retain some strategic reserves in one or more strategic bases in Afghanistan after the end of 2014, the highly optimistic portrait that my right hon. Friend has painted will not long survive that date. Will he confirm that America, regardless of pre-election statements, is actively considering retaining some form of significant military presence in one or more strategic bases in Afghanistan?
That is a matter to be concluded between the United States and Afghanistan. It is a pertinent question. The answer will depend on the definition that those countries together have for their future strategic partnership. Of course, the long-term presence of United States forces is a controversial subject in the region. The matter has not been settled. I stress to my hon. Friend the growing size and capability of the Afghan national security forces, which are building up to a total of 352,000. They are equipping themselves extremely well in the current conditions.
I thank the Secretary of State for his reference to the welfare and rights of women in Afghanistan. However, he will be aware of the growing concerns highlighted in The Guardian last week that improvements for women will see a reversal. Women for Women International has asked that the allies do not pull out without insisting on guarantees for women’s rights in Afghanistan. What specific commitments are the British Government and our allies calling for to ensure that the support for women’s rights is not rhetoric and that women will stay safe in Afghanistan in future?
We are continuing to press the Government of Afghanistan, who made important commitments at the Bonn conference on this matter, to deliver on their human rights commitments, including on the elimination of violence against women law and the implementation of the UN convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. As the hon. Lady will know, we are taking a lot of other action to entrench the concept of women’s rights and women’s involvement in Afghan society and leadership. We have funded a project to provide support to female parliamentary candidates and parliamentarians; supported a women’s legal aid centre in Kabul; and provided funding for the elimination of violence against women special fund and for a five-year women’s empowerment programme, implemented by the non-governmental organisation, Womankind. Across the board, the United Kingdom has a good record on this subject.
My noble Friend Lord Ashdown has written a highly critical account in the The Times this week of the international community’s record in Afghanistan over more than a decade. He concluded, with typical military bluntness, that only the poor bloody infantry, with all their courage and determination, can expect to march out of Afghanistan with their heads held high. Although I do not expect the Foreign Secretary to endorse that statement precisely, does he agree with my noble Friend that alongside the political process, it is critical that we leave behind an Afghan army that is robust, professional and non-political? Does he agree that that, and not the attempted eradication of the Taliban, is the key security objective from now on?
That is very important, as are all the things that we have talked about, such as building a viable Afghan state and creating a sustainable political process. Those things are important, as well as the security gains. Lord Ashdown is right to draw attention to the extraordinary role of our Army and other armed forces in making it possible to make progress in other areas. It is right that building up the Afghan national security forces, not only in numbers but in quality, is critical. One pleasing thing has been the literacy training programme, which 125,000 members of the security forces have passed through, greatly improving their capabilities. Such work on quality has to continue, as well as building up the size of the forces.
Now more than ever our armed forces need to know that we are supporting them. Will the Secretary of State ensure that soldiers currently serving in Afghanistan will not be made redundant as part of the latest tranche of armed forces job cuts?
Yes. Soldiers will not be made redundant while serving in Afghanistan or within six months of coming back from service in Afghanistan, as my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has indicated.
Will my right hon. Friend set out the extent of Iranian influence in Afghanistan and the support that Iran is giving to the insurgents?
My hon. Friend is assiduous in pointing out the malign influence of Iran on its neighbours in several directions. We are concerned about that in Syria at the moment, but it also applies to Afghanistan. There have been clear incidents of practical Iranian support for insurgent activity. We absolutely deplore that. Afghanistan will succeed most effectively if it is free of such influence. We have made that point to the Government of Afghanistan.
Withdrawal in contact with an enemy is most difficult and delicate, and must be extremely well planned. I am mindful that when we went into Helmand in 2006, we had difficulties and stirred up a hornets’ nest. It is possible that the same will happen as we withdraw. I ask the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary to ensure that the generals who are planning our withdrawal are meticulous about the withdrawal plan, so that we minimise the casualties. I hope that there will be none.
Of course my hon. Friend is quite right, and my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary, myself and the whole National Security Council will certainly be very conscious of that. Of course, in this case it is not the withdrawal of all forces that is ensuring that there is space for political and economic development in Afghanistan, since the Afghan national security forces are being built up all the time. That is different from a complete withdrawal, but of course we will be very conscious of his point.
The upside of saying that we will have come to a certain point by 2014 is that it concentrates the minds of all others concerned. Our experience is that when we say to the Afghans that they will take security responsibility in a particular town or province on such a date, it is a forcing mechanism to encourage them to organise themselves to take that responsibility. We have to ensure that it has the same beneficial effect across the country.
Having recently visited Afghanistan, I know that one of the key issues in the transfer of security responsibility to the ANSF is the alarmingly high churn of up to 30% in individual Afghan national army units. What plans does the Foreign Secretary have to address that, for example by ensuring that better leave arrangements are in place for ANA service personnel?
This is still an issue. The attrition rates among the Afghan national army are still too high. The average is 2.6% a month across the army, so let us get it in perspective, but it is still higher than we would like it to be. The target is 1.5%. Afghan national police attrition rates have come down to more or less the 1.5% target, but they are nevertheless still too high. They show the importance of the better training arrangements that are now in place. Better pension arrangements are also being introduced, so a range of measures are being brought forward to deal with that very problem.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. In answer to the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) in questions to the Leader of the House earlier, I may have given the impression that draft clauses had been included in the consultation paper on the registration of lobbyists. That is not so, although I repeat that it is the Government’s intention to publish legislation in draft after the consultation has been concluded. I have already apologised to the hon. Lady in private, and I now do so from the Dispatch Box. I wanted to correct the record at the earliest opportunity.
[Relevant document: The Tenth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Piracy off the coast of Somalia, HC 1318.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of how to build a stable and peaceful Somalia.
At the encouragement of Mr Speaker I shall say a word about the Maldives, at the other end of the Indian ocean, before I turn to Somalia. I know that some hon. Members have been asking about it, and I am assured by Mr Speaker that I ought to address it since there have been developments there this week and it has not been possible for colleagues to ask questions.
I wish to register our concern about developments in the Maldives, in particular the reports of attacks on members and supporters of the Maldivian Democratic party. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who is responsible for the middle east, has spoken to both former President Nasheed and the new President and expressed those concerns. It is for the new leadership to establish its legitimacy with its own people and the international community, with an independent review, we hope, of the circumstances that led to what happened earlier this week. We hope that it will demonstrate its respect for the rule of law, including peaceful demonstrations. I welcome the call for calm and order made by former President Nasheed to all his supporters. My hon. Friend will be delighted to discuss with hon. Members the situation in the Maldives, with which he is in close touch, if they wish.
As the House will well know, Somalia today is not stable or peaceful, and that is the matter that we are going to consider today. It presents the most acute symptoms of state failure seen anywhere on the globe, even relative to Afghanistan, which we have just been discussing. It has had no properly functioning central Government for 20 years now, and it is the scene of some of the worst humanitarian suffering that the modern world has known. I will say more about that shortly, but I start with the single heart-rending, staggering and deplorable fact that between 50,000 and 100,000 people starved to death in Somalia last year, half of them children. Somalia’s problems present a growing threat to its own people, its neighbours and the security of Britain and our allies around the world.
What the Foreign Secretary says about the situation in Somalia is absolutely true, and his interest in it is greatly appreciated not only in this country but, I am sure, worldwide. Will he take the opportunity to clarify the situation with regard to Somaliland, about which there is sometimes misunderstanding? As he said, there has been no effective central Government in the former Somalia for more than 20 years, but there has been a very effective Government in Somaliland, albeit that it has not been recognised as a separate state. Will he take the opportunity to acknowledge that difference between the situation in the north and the south?
Yes, of course. The right hon. Gentleman has been a great expert on, and friend of, Somaliland for a long time, and we can indeed make that distinction. I spoke to the President of Somaliland last week to encourage him to come to the London conference, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has visited Somaliland. We give it a lot of assistance in many ways and welcome the fact that it has become a more stable area within Somalia, and we will welcome its participation at the London conference. I will come back to Somaliland later. I have been giving a general introduction to Somalia as a whole, but the right hon. Gentleman is certainly right to make that distinction.
Somalia as a whole not only cries out for compassion but is a point of great weakness in the long-term security and prosperity of the wider world. The people of Somalia deserve their country to be more stable and peaceful, and we in this country need it to be so. For reasons of national interest and our common humanity, we need to help Somalia get on its feet. We need to do so to reduce our vulnerability to terrorist attacks, to maintain the free flow of trade on which our economy depends, to limit our exposure to the effects of uncontrolled migration, to increase the support that we can give to education and economic development in Somalia and to support the stability of a part of Africa where our country has a great many interests and our nationals have been shown to be vulnerable.
Nearly $1 trillion of trade to and from Europe travelled through the gulf of Aden last year. Some 20,000 British nationals live next door to Somalia in Kenya, and a further 200,000 travel there every year. They would be deeply affected if the violence in Somalia spread to its neighbours.
All those interests are undoubtedly threatened by many factors in Somalia, including piracy and terrorism. The House will be familiar with many of the risks, so I will not list them in detail, but just one aspect of the crisis in Somalia brings home the problem dramatically. Large parts of south central Somalia are still controlled by the group known as al-Shabaab, which until recently occupied Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab has publicly declared sympathy for al-Qaeda’s aims and methods, and elements of its leadership welcome foreign fighters and sympathisers from around the world who have swelled its ranks and coffers and used Somalia as a base for terrorism.
Attack planning linked to extremist networks in Somalia has been thwarted from Sweden to Australia, and the Kampala bombings of July 2010, which killed 74 people, were planned and executed by individuals with links to Somalia. Al-Shabaab’s violent tactics inflict suffering on Somalis, including through its known forced recruitment of children, and its embrace of al-Qaeda imposes a concept of global jihad and violent extremism that is alien to most Somalis, highly damaging to their country and dangerous to us.
In the face of such threats, our Government contend, as did the previous Government, that we do not have the option of disengaging from the problems of Somalia. We cannot afford simply to continue to treat the symptoms of those problems without addressing the underlying causes such as the fundamental lack of governance and security across most of Somalia. We believe that a stronger and more united international approach is needed if we are to achieve a stable and peaceful Somalia over time that combines political will with practical measures to boost security and development. We also judge that recent positive developments in Somalia mean that the time is right for a new international effort. This moment of opportunity is why, in two weeks’ time, we will host the London conference on Somalia, bringing together 50 countries and organisations.
I very much welcome the conference on Somalia, but is there a danger that the country’s humanitarian needs will be sidelined if there is too much emphasis on political and security concerns?
There would be such a danger if we constructed the conference in the wrong way. I am talking about security concerns, but the UK makes a huge contribution to addressing humanitarian concerns —we were the second-largest bilateral donor in the recent humanitarian crisis. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will host, alongside the conference, an event to discuss humanitarian needs. As I will describe, one of the conclusions that we hope for from the conference is to highlight those humanitarian needs.
This is about much more than security, as I will describe.
I very much welcome the conference in London, but how will it differ from the one that is being held in Turkey? What are the differences between the objectives of the Turkish conference and the UK-based one?
They will be integrated. I have discussed that a couple of times with my Turkish counterpart. In recognition of our conference in February, the Turks have moved their conference back a little to later in the year. Both Turkey and the UK hope that that will follow on from the progress we make in London. The conference in London is largely at Head of State level—it will be hosted by the Prime Minister, and many Heads of State and Heads of Government will be coming—and will address the whole range of issues affecting Somalia. It is therefore one of the most ambitious conferences that has been held internationally on Somalia. I believe it will help to establish momentum for all the conferences that will follow, including the one in Istanbul.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for giving way on that point and I welcome the conference and all discussions that take place on Somalia. It is past time that there was detailed involvement. Can he envisage a day when a conference on the future of Somalia will be held in Somalia, which would show real movement and a real advance?
I can envisage that day, but we are not there yet. As the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) said, there are stable areas in Somalia and some stable regional and local Governments. Based on what I saw on my visit last week, I would not say that the conditions are right to hold an international conference there yet, but the improvement has been great in the last year—I could not have visited at all a year ago. I can envisage that time if we do all the things that I shall describe.
It is because of that moment of opportunity that I mentioned that we have appointed a new ambassador to Somalia for the first time since 1991—I took him to present his credentials to the President of Somalia last week—and we are working to reopen our embassy in Mogadishu. All of that is consistent with our interests in Somalia and the increased emphasis that we place on conflict prevention as a priority in British foreign policy.
We do not take on that task lightly or without humility. The international community has not succeeded in turning Somalia around, but that is not for a lack of effort by other Governments and this one in recent years. We supported the important initiatives of the previous Labour Government, but we have not succeeded so far largely because the problems are so vast and complex, and because international policy is fragmented.
We must always be clear-sighted and realistic in setting our expectations for what we can achieve. We cannot transform any of Somalia’s problems overnight or impose a political solution on it. Britain cannot achieve any of the goals I am discussing without working with a broad range of countries across the world and Somalis themselves, but we can aim for the long-term goal of a Somalia that is more stable; that is able to meet the basic needs of its population; that can begin to build its economy with international support; that is able to govern its territory; and that can work with us to prevent terrorism flourishing on its soil. To do that we must try to change the dynamic in Somalia, from the trends of recent years of inexorable decline to an upwards trajectory of gradually increasing stability and security.
To achieve even that is an immense challenge. Our recent experiences of rebuilding states after conflict are that the international community has a tendency to set unrealistic goals that are not fulfilled, disappointing the expectations of the people we are trying to help and weakening the impact of our efforts. We must not make the same mistake with Somalia. We have a responsibility to match ambition with resources, our expectations with a good understanding of realities, and our hopes for quick results with the likely need for patient and long-term engagement.
Somalia today is a nation still at war with itself and without a sustainable peace. Its conflict has taken many forms over the past 20 years, from clan-based regional insurgencies, which overthrew the ruling regime in 1991, through warlordism, to the current violent insurgency of al-Shabaab. There have been 14 peace processes in that time, culminating in the current UN-led Djibouti peace process. Somalia’s problems are compounded and fuelled by geography, such as the fact that it has the longest coastline in Africa—it is more than 3,000 km long—and yet has no functioning coastguard or navy.
The scale of the human suffering is unimaginable and the number of victims so large as to be hard to fathom by people in this country. To put it in terms that would hit home here in Britain, more people in Somalia are dependent on emergency assistance than the entire populations of Edinburgh, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Liverpool put together; the number of people displaced in Somalia is seven times the population of Nottingham; and the average life expectancy in the 21st century is 48, which is roughly the same as life expectancy in Britain in 1880. An entire generation of children in Somalia has grown up with guns, not school books, knowing nothing other than insecurity and deprivation.
Even against that sober background, however, we can see a glimmer of hope for Somalia today. There are three compelling reasons why the time is right for a major push on Somalia, the first of which is that Mogadishu has been liberated by African Union Mission in Somalia forces, thanks to the skill and courage of the Ugandan and Burundian troops that form the backbone of the African Union contingent in Somalia. I saw that myself when I visited Mogadishu a week ago today. It was encouraging to see people going to the shops and markets. The road to the airport was crowded and some were looking forward to going to the beach on Friday. Those are semblances of normal life compared with what they have experienced in the past few years.
Nevertheless, it is hard to see many buildings that have no bullet holes in them, or that are not scarred by the effect of war. Today, almost all of Mogadishu is controlled by AMISOM and the transitional federal Government forces, and other regions are more stable, making it possible to make progress on Somali governance. Djibouti has sent troops further to strengthen AMISOM, and Sierra Leone is expected to provide a battalion in July, making further progress a possibility.
The second reason for optimism is that those operations and successful counter-terrorism work are putting pressure on al-Shabaab. We need to seize the opportunity to intensify that pressure and not allow al-Shabaab to regroup. Its guerrilla tactics inflict huge suffering on ordinary Somalis and it harbours foreign extremists, as I have described.
Related to that, the international community has made progress in diminishing the pirate activity that is a symptom of, and contributor to, Somalia’s conflict. There have been no successful hijacks in the gulf of Aden since November 2010. The number of vessels and crews currently held by pirate groups is at its lowest since 2009. Twenty-two ships were hijacked off the coast of Somalia between November 2010 and January 2011, but in the same period in the past year only two ships were hijacked.
The third reason for optimism is that there is an opportunity to create a broader and more representative political arrangement when the transitional federal Government’s mandate expires this summer. That gives an opening to launch a broader political process that embraces all Somalis, and that places emphasis on supporting regional governance as well as better and more representative government from the centre.
I pay tribute to the Governments and parties that have played a part in bringing that about; to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, who has made two visits to Somalia this year; and to staff from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, who have all played an important role.
Those changes on the ground give the international community a window of opportunity to unite behind a clear strategy; to support a new political process that has greater legitimacy in the eyes of the Somali people than the current elite does; to help people to return to Mogadishu and rebuild their lives there; to strengthen the African Union forces in Somalia; to put in place a plan to build up Somalia’s own security and justice sectors; to introduce more effective arrangements to tackle piracy and terrorism; and to work better to support the pockets of stability that are now emerging in parts of the country.
That is what the Somalia conference will aim to do. We have invited Government and multilateral organisations that are active and influential on Somalia; representatives from Somalia, including the transitional federal institutions; the Presidents of Puntland and Galmudug; and representatives of Aluh Sunnah wal Jamaah. We welcome the participation of the President of Somaliland, with the experience that Somaliland can provide of peacebuilding in the region.
We have secured senior attendance from the region, including from Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, as well as from the United States, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria, Sweden, the United Nations, the African Union and the European Union. I am delighted to say that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will attend the conference.
We hope to agree practical measures in seven key areas, all of which I discussed on my visit to Mogadishu and Kenya last week, and which are the subject of extensive discussion with our partners all around the world ahead of the conference.
On the political track, the current transitional institutions in Mogadishu run out in August. They must not be extended. The Somali political process must become broader and more representative. That might involve a constitutional assembly drawn from all of Somalia’s communities.
On security, African Union forces have pushed al-Shabaab out of Mogadishu to create political space there, and Kenyan action has put al-Shabaab on the back foot. However, African forces have insufficient funding for UN Security Council-mandated actions. We therefore hope that the conference will consider how funding can be made sustainable for African troops willing to put their lives on the line.
The success stories in Somalia are in the regions. Puntland and Galmudug have established local peace deals and set up administrations. The conference should agree a co-ordinated international package of support to Somalia’s regions that complements work on peace and stability at the national level.
Piracy off the Somali coast is the affront to the rule of international law that I described. We must break the piracy business cycle. We hope the conference will strengthen arrangements to catch, try and imprison pirates, and continue to develop regional maritime capacity in Somalia and across the region.
As one knows from the UN court in Sierra Leone, imprisoning people is quite expensive. Does my right hon. Friend or DFID have any suggestions for how the international community can ensure that sufficient prisons are built to hold these pirates and make sure they do not disappear? Secondly, and related to that, one argument put forward to explain this piracy is that too many of the fisheries have been taken. What can we do to enhance fisheries protection off Somalia?
The United Kingdom is very active on the provision of increased prison places in the country and the region. The Department for International Development is helping to fund the construction of three prisons; in fact, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has been to see the construction of one of them, so we are involved in that.
My hon. Friend is right about the fishing issue. The Minister for Africa—the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham)—and I have been engaged in encouraging the transitional federal Government in Mogadishu to claim their exclusive economic zone, and we will encourage their successors do the same, because that will give them the necessary rights to the waters off Somalia. They will, of course, then need a coastguard, naval and maritime capability of some kind to enforce those rights, but, as I mentioned earlier, that is one of the issues we also want to address. These things are therefore part of the longer-term solution to piracy, and my hon. Friend is quite right to ask about them.
I was just listing some of the aims of our conference. We intend to make it harder for terrorists to operate in and out of Somalia. We hope the conference will agree the areas we need to develop to disrupt terrorism across the region, including stopping the movement of terrorists to and from Somalia, disrupting the flow of their finances and supporting the Somali criminal justice sector so that it can detain and prosecute terrorists in a human rights-compliant manner.
There are disturbing reports that about 50 British nationals are involved with al-Shabaab. Has my right hon. Friend heard such reports, and are they justified?
Yes, they are justified. It would, of course, be difficult to put a precise number on these things, but we are concerned about foreign fighters, in general, going to Somalia, and there is certainly evidence that they include British fighters. Wherever that occurs, and wherever we are aware of it, we work in various ways with the authorities in the region, including in neighbouring countries, and with the emerging authorities in Somalia to try to contain that threat. That is why the defeat of terrorism in the area is an important national objective for the United Kingdom.
On the humanitarian front, the conference provides an opportunity to highlight the need for donors to continue to respond generously and on the basis of needs, to invest more in livelihoods and basic social services, to increase the resilience of households in Somalia to future economic shocks and to help reduce the likelihood of future famines.
We want London to be the start, not the end, of a new process—the process I have described. We want the conference to agree on how we handle Somali issues in future, on a revitalised international contact group, on UN and African leadership and on more countries deploying diplomats and staff into Somalia, not just basing themselves in Kenya, as many, including ourselves, have had to do in recent years. Those are all practical but meaningful steps that will have an impact on the ground.
We hope to emerge from the London conference with a stronger common understanding of the way forward and a renewed political commitment for the long haul. Beyond the conference itself, we will continue to be an active member of international groups on Somalia, including the international contact group on Somalia and the contact group on piracy off the coast of Somalia, and we will maintain our strong bilateral engagement.
Through the Department for International Development, Britain is providing substantial development support over the next four years, working on longer-term programmes to address the underlying causes of poverty and conflict and helping Somalis to take control of their lives and rebuild their communities and livelihoods. That involves working with local and regional governments in areas such as Puntland, which the Development Secretary visited last month, where we will help build democratic institutions that can respond to the needs of their citizens, help the police and justice systems work so that people can feel more secure, and increase access to health care, education and jobs, which are absolutely critical to Somalis and to breaking the cycle of piracy.
Will the conference look at giving people in Somalia access to humanitarian aid, which has been blocked by al-Shabaab? One million people were being supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross and others. Secondly, what steps have been taken to involve and engage the British Somali diaspora, which has many members in my constituency and elsewhere, as part of the discussions and the build-up to the conference?
Humanitarian access is a critical issue that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has pursued for a long time. Part of our objective in doing most of the things I have described is to improve humanitarian access and the ability to encourage sound development across parts of Somalia, including those that are currently under the control of al-Shabaab.
The diaspora in this country has an important role to play. Yesterday, Chatham House held an excellent conference with many leading figures from the Somali diaspora in the United Kingdom. I spoke to the conference to set out the objectives of the London conference in two weeks’ time, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa spent many hours there. The views expressed at the conference are now being fed into our preparations for the London conference. We look to Somalis in this country to assist as actively as they can with engagement with Somalia. Somalia is partly dependent on the remittances it receives from the diaspora overseas; in fact, those remittances amount to more than $1 billion a year, which is more than the total assistance from foreign Governments. The diaspora therefore plays a crucial role in the future of its country, and we recognise that in the preparations we are making for the conference.
We want to help ensure that last year’s tragic humanitarian crisis is never repeated. Britain has been one of the most generous donors to the relief effort, having provided £128 million to the relief effort across the horn of Africa since July, including £57 million for Somalia alone, in addition to our main development programme and on top of the £72 million raised by the Disasters Emergency Committee from concerned people in this country. British aid has reached more than 1 million vulnerable people, saved the lives of thousands and contributed to lifting 750,000 people out of famine and the risk of imminent death.
We are proud of the role that we play and the example we set to others. The UK also contributes 14% of all European Union spending in and on Somalia, including on development and humanitarian aid, and we actively support all three international naval operations in the waters around Somalia, including by providing the operational commander and the headquarters in Northwood near London for the EU naval mission Operation Atalanta. All that work will continue beyond the London conference on Somalia, because it is only through such a sustained and co-ordinated effort that we can play our part in helping to build a stable and peaceful Somalia.
That will be the Government’s approach. We will pursue a policy that is realistic, based on our national interests as well as our international obligations, conscious of the enormity of the problems and aware that only Somalis can resolve their political differences. It is a policy based on partnership with other nations, because it is only by working with others that we can address the scale and international dimensions of the conflict in Somalia, and it is a policy that is broad and comprehensive, that recognises that it is not enough to treat the symptoms of the problem without addressing its underlying causes, and that encompasses development, human security and the rule of law, human rights and political participation, as well as counter-terrorism and counter-piracy. That is the approach that we will urge the international community to maintain, through the London conference, and which I hope will have the full support of the House.