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Commons Chamber

Volume 542: debated on Monday 12 March 2012

House of Commons

Monday 12 March 2012

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Council Tax

Under the last Government, council tax more than doubled. This Government are working with councils to freeze council tax for two years. A recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy indicates that council tax bills this April will go up by only 0.3%. I would have preferred that amount to be zero, but it is a real-terms reduction for hard-working families and pensioners.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. What does he make of City of York council’s decision to reject a £1.8 million grant from the Government, and instead to raise council tax needlessly instead by 2.9%, thus increasing financial pressures on York residents?

I would certainly be willing to take an away-day trip to York, if only to listen on the doorstep while a canvasser explains why getting an additional sum of £294,000 justifies rejecting a £1.8 million grant from the Government. This is clearly not in the interests of York; the council has not protected its council tax payers. I am afraid that, unlike the 300-odd authorities throughout the country that have taken the freeze, this council is going to find itself in a very difficult position.

What would the Secretary of State say to constituents of mine in Westminster such as the 90-year-old gentleman with glaucoma who is blind in one eye and unable to walk, and a gentleman I met last weekend with Parkinson’s disease, who have had their taxi cards removed by Westminster city council and correspondingly have to pay £40 for every single journey they make? As they point out, the amount for every single journey is twice the saving they make from the council tax freeze.

I do not know the precise circumstances of the hon. Lady’s constituents, but if she would care to write to me with the details, I would happily take up the matter with Westminster council.

Local Suppliers

2. If he will encourage local authorities to increase their use of local suppliers in the provision of goods and services. (98953)

It is clear that there is significant scope for major savings in local authority procurement from the £62 billion spent each year. By making these savings, we can enhance front-line services, save taxpayers’ money and help to pay off the deficit. To encourage that, we are cutting red tape to open up procurement, especially to small and medium-sized firms. While it is up to a local area to decide from whom to procure, local authorities clearly have significant spending power, which should be used to help drive local growth.

Leeds city council has the charter for procuring community benefits, which encourages all current or potential council suppliers to commit to providing added benefit to the local community, particularly in disadvantaged parts of the city. What action will the Minister take to encourage local authorities to take up schemes such as that seen in Leeds to encourage buyers to use local businesses? That would certainly benefit the towns and villages in my area and businesses in West Lancashire.

The Government have supported the local productivity programme, which has been developed by the local government sector, led by the Local Government Association. We are looking at ways to improve access to tenders and procurement, especially for small and medium-sized firms, including promoting greater use of the online contract finder tool, which is a potential benefit for local British firms.

The supply of phonic books for Her Majesty’s Government is a 95% monopoly of the Oxford University Press and Pearson between them. Does the Minister agree that there would be positive merit in encouraging remaining companies such as Phonic Books Ltd in my constituency to be able to compete with those huge quasi-monopolies by physically seeking to assist them to do so?

I agree with my hon. Friend. To that end, the Government have been cutting unnecessary procurement red tape—for example, by removing the pre-qualification questionnaires for procurements below £100,000, as I know those requirements have considerably discouraged small businesses from tendering. I hope that councils will follow that lead and will continue to look to other sizes of contracts to improve procurement.

I was recently reading ConservativeHome, as one does. I noticed that the Secretary of State uses it to advise councils to make the best use of taxpayers’ money, so what assessment has his Department made of the amount by which council tax payers could benefit from increased local procurement, which could create local jobs and support local businesses?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her reading—I was about to say bedtime reading, but I do not know what time she looked at ConservativeHome, although I am sure that the experience was encouraging and enjoyable.

As I have said, we are working on a raft of schemes. We have introduced a new code of recommended practice on data transparency, we are introducing new checks and balances on procurement cards, we are working with the local government sector to encourage initiatives such as the Welland procurement unit in the east midlands, and our Spend Pro analysis can identify areas of comparative spend and areas for efficiencies and savings.

Universal Credit (Housing)

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on direct payments to tenants for the housing element of universal credit. (98954)

We are working with the Department for Work and Pensions, local authorities and housing associations on direct payment demonstration projects, and developing a successful process for paying universal credit directly to tenants which will encourage tenants to manage their own budgets.

There are 23,000 local authority-owned homes in my borough of Dudley, and the local authority is extremely concerned about the resources that will be required for the collection of payments once housing benefit is paid directly to tenants. Will my hon. Friend seek guidance from the Department for Work and Pensions on what help can be given to authorities?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that the pilot projects are designed precisely to establish whether those concerns are justified or not. Members representing the five areas involved will have received a letter about the projects from the Department for Work and Pensions. Paying tenants directly eases the transition into work, and is already happening in most cases in the private rented sector.

I believe that some 20,000 local authority employees are currently involved in the delivery of housing benefit. What will happen to them when housing benefit is absorbed into universal credit in 18 months’ time?

In October 2013 a start will be made on the transfer with new claimants, and there will then be a progressive integration until 2017. There will be a series of steps as claimants move to universal credit. The demonstration projects will assess all aspects of the delivery of the scheme, and will be reported on to the House in due course.

Is the Minister aware that registered social landlords are already threatened with an increase in borrowing costs as a result of arrears and the cost of collection of the direct payments?

As my hon. Friend will know, housing benefit expenditure has been rising rapidly, from £14 billion 10 years ago to £21 billion now. The reform of that benefit is included in the social security measures that have just been approved by the House.

It is not just Dudley borough council and the black country that are concerned. So is Birmingham city council, which is the largest authority in Europe. Given that the Minister is running pilots, can he tell us how he will define success?

The pilots are taking place in five different local authorities, including both urban and rural authorities. The purpose of the demonstrations is to ensure that we get the mechanisms, support and financial tools right, so that landlords’ financial position is protected and tenants receive the right support.

Unauthorised Development

11. What plans he has to increase the powers of local authorities to tackle unauthorised development. (98964)

The Government take the problem of unauthorised development very seriously. Strong powers already exist to enable local planning authorities to take action. Provisions in the Localism Act 2011 will strengthen local planning authorities’ powers to tackle the issue, and will come into force on 6 April this year.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Planning appeals are costly and bureaucratic, which does not encourage the local planning authority to pursue breaches, and the process frustrates both the community and elected representatives alike. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to address this problem?

The new Localism Act makes five substantial changes. The first, and most obvious, is that it will no longer be possible to appeal an enforcement and make a retrospective planning application at the same time. Secondly, the issue of permission being granted when there has been concealment beyond the normal period will be addressed, so that, for instance, if somebody builds a bungalow behind a haystack, the fact that it has been there for longer than three years will make no difference in respect of enforcement. We will also be able to offer letters of comfort to landowners who are not involved in unauthorised action, and we are increasing penalties—and we are increasing penalties with regard to fly-posting and unauthorised advertising, too.

We in South Staffordshire have to deal with the problem of illegal Gypsy and Traveller sites. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that these powers will help local councils such as mine deal more effectively and quickly with such sites?

Certainly, these powers will help, along with the new planning guidance on Gypsy and Traveller sites, but it is important to understand that the new measures will help not only the planning authority, but Gypsies and Travellers, the vast majority of whom are on legal sites, obey the law and do their best to integrate with their neighbours. Unfortunately, however, a small minority have abused the system, and I get complaints about that from both sides of the House. From 6 April, these new powers will help, and it is to be hoped that we can once again have a much more level playing field.

I have always believed in the right to protest, but does my right hon. Friend agree that nobody should have the right to set up permanent squats, such as those we have seen in Parliament square and at St Paul’s over recent years?

My hon. Friend makes a very reasonable point. As he will be aware, we recently amended legislation to give councils stronger powers to use byelaws to tackle tent encampments such as those that blighted Parliament square. I am engaged in discussions with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and am actively looking into other ways in which councils and police practice and powers can be strengthened.

In Bristol, the problem is not so much that the planning department lacks the powers; rather, it is that it lacks the willpower to take enforcement action. Many constituents come to me utterly frustrated that dwelling houses are being built in people’s back gardens, clearly by flaunting the planning guidance. What can be done to address this problem?

The hon. Lady makes a very reasonable point about these so-called beds in sheds. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government recently had a meeting with a number of local authorities to look into ways in which the problem might be effectively dealt with. The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that there are more than adequate existing powers to deal with it, and as she rightly points out, the issue has been a lack of willpower. One authority—I shall not name it—has, frankly, let this get out of hand in a two-year process, so that the problem is now very difficult indeed to deal with.

Can the Secretary of State update the House on when we will receive version two of the national planning policy framework, so that we in this Chamber can enjoy the massive, copper-bottomed 180° U-turn at the same time as the press?

What comfort can the Secretary of State give my constituents, who, like those in Bristol, are affected by a blizzard of small extensions that the local authority never seems to be able to deal with? Surely there must be powers at the centre to get local authorities to take this matter seriously?

The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) was referring to the new phenomenon of sheds in people’s back gardens, whereby people are often paying over the odds for substandard accommodation in very cramped conditions, and are largely being exploited by their landlords. There is permitted development for some extensions. If the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) feels that there are developments in his constituency that exceed what is permitted, perhaps we could have a word about them outside the Chamber.

Private Rented Sector

5. What assessment he has made of the (a) affordability, (b) length of tenure and (c) standards of housing afforded to tenants in the private rented sector. (98957)

10. What assessment he has made of the (a) affordability, (b) length of tenure and (c) standards of housing afforded to tenants in the private rented sector. (98963)

The latest report of the English housing survey was published on 9 February. It shows that rents in the private sector have reduced in real terms, that standards have improved and that only 8% of tenancies are terminated before the tenants so choose.

Leaving aside the report, may I ask the Minister what he is doing to drive up standards in the private sector, particularly in relation to rogue landlords?

As was indicated in the previous exchange with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I have just held a meeting with the interested parties about rogue landlords. They are a matter of considerable concern, and I will be pulling together all the powers and issuing a booklet on that shortly. The hon. Gentleman rightly asks about the standards, and I can tell him that the number of non-decent homes in the private rented sector has fallen from 47% in 2006 to 37%.

Given what the Minister has just said, why do his Government seem intent on removing further protections from private tenants, who, in my constituency in particular, are at the mercy of rogue landlords? Should he not be protecting those hard-working tenants and driving up standards in the private rented sector?

Although he speaks with great passion, the hon. Gentleman is fundamentally wrong, because I am not removing any of the protections from landlords or tenants in the private rented sector. It is worth remembering that actual measures consistently show that people are happier in the private rented sector than in the social sector, which might surprise him. I can also tell him that 90% of tenancies are ended by the tenant, not by the landlord.

Both the Housing Minister and the Prime Minister, out of touch with reality, have asserted on the Floor of the House of Commons that rents are falling in the private rented sector. An analysis conducted by the House of Commons Library reveals that in 90% of local authorities in England, in all nine regions, rents are rising or staying the same. Will the Housing Minister now admit to the 1.1 million families struggling to pay their rent that he got it wrong?

The LSL survey shows that in the three months through to January rents actually fell, but we do not have to believe LSL—[Interruption.] There was rightly some scepticism there—LSL measures only buy to let—so let us instead look at the absolutely authoritative figures recently produced by the English housing survey, which show that in real terms rents have fallen in the past year.

Council Tax Benefit Localisation (Stretford and Urmston)

6. What assessment he has made of the effect of council tax benefit localisation on families in Stretford and Urmston constituency. (98959)

An impact assessment is on my Department’s website. These reforms will create stronger incentives for councils to get people back into work and will help to pay off the budget deficit we inherited from the previous Administration. This Government are committed to supporting the most vulnerable in society. We have made it clear that pensioners should be protected and that any changes should help to support work incentives.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, the budget for council tax benefit is being cut by 10% from 2013-14, so how can he guarantee that every hour of work will pay for the working poor in my constituency and that they will not be impacted by this budget cut?

I have made it clear that we intend to protect the most vulnerable, but, equally, the hon. Lady has to recognise that spending on council tax benefit more than doubled between 1997 and 2010. That needs to be reduced as part of the strategy to lower the deficit that we inherited, in order to get the country back on track. We intend to do that in a proportionate and measured fashion, to protect the most vulnerable.

Is the Minister prepared to apologise to the more than 10,000 people in the local authority area of my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), many of whom are families with children, whose council tax will rise as a direct result of his policy? Given that families in Stretford and Urmston will, like other families, lose an average of £580 a year as a result of changes to be introduced in April, and that, scandalously, 930 adults in that constituency alone risk losing all their tax credits if they cannot find extra hours of work, is it not about time the Government abandoned this tax increase for the poorest families, instead of obsessing about cutting tax for those on more than £150,000 a year?

The apology should come from those who created the record deficit in the first place. The hon. Lady might also like to apologise for the inconsistency in standing at the last general election on a manifesto that promised to cut housing benefit when she says nothing now about how she would make reductions and nothing about how one can reform housing benefit without reforming council tax benefit, which goes hand in hand with it.

Order. I point out to the Chair of the Select Committee that the question relates exclusively to Stretford and Urmston, from which Sheffield South East is a little distant. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member and I am sure that he will tailor his question accordingly.

I am sure that the Minister will be aware that his proposals on council tax benefits potentially affect Stretford and Urmston and other constituencies up and down the country. The Minister is aware that Capita wrote to local authorities on 12 January, saying it had real concerns about its ability to deliver IT systems in time to meet the changes proposed for April next year. Is the Minister not aware that authorities could end up with a real risk of system failure, affecting tens of thousands of low-income families? Is not the real answer to delay these measures for at least 12 months?

I have in front of me the letter that Capita sent to all local authorities in the country, and it points out that the reforms are deliverable if we can bring forward the regulations and detailed schemes in time. To that end, we have set up an officer-level working group to discuss these matters with officials from the local government sector.

Private Rented Sector (Young Homebuyers)

8. What assessment he has made of the effect of the number of properties in the private rented sector on young people attempting to purchase a home. (98961)

In 2011, in terms of value, buy-to-let mortgages accounted for just 8% of total loans for home purchases. The biggest barrier to home ownership for many young people is not that, but the need to raise a deposit. That is why I know that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the NewBuy scheme, which we launched this morning.

Obviously, I am aware that over the weekend the Government announced the home buy scheme for new build, which is a shadow of the sub-prime lending that went on previously, so I advise caution. The private rented sector, however, has added about 6% to the value of properties. Does the Minister agree that the issue is rising house prices and the cost of housing, not the availability of mortgages?

Just to clarify one point, sub-prime lending happened when people who could not afford to pay a mortgage back were lent money, sometimes as much as 120% of the value of the property. That is nothing to do with today’s NewBuy scheme. I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in the private rented sector in particular. He makes a lot of very good and serious points about it and I can inform him that this Friday I intend to come and see him in his constituency to see the problems for myself.

I wonder what will shake the Housing Minister out of his complacency. Surveys show that 90% of private sector tenants would prefer to be living under another form of tenure, but his policies are trapping more and more people in private rented accommodation, paying ever-increasing rents. Despite his rhetoric, the Housing Minister is failing those tenants and failing to achieve his claims that this Government would build more homes than Labour achieved. When will he get a grip on this housing crisis and stop making empty announcements that fail to live up to expectations?

I have certainly been shaken out of any sense of complacency by that question, given that it came from a member of a party under whose government we saw house building crash to its lowest level since the 1920s. I can report to the House this afternoon that in the past year alone house building starts in England went up by 25% compared with those in 2009.

Empty Homes

Last week we announced £70 million of funding that will bring more than 5,600 homes back into use as affordable housing. That is part of our wider strategy for bringing empty homes back into use, which was set out in the Government’s housing strategy for England last autumn.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. The housing department of Waveney district council is doing great work with limited resources, working with the private sector to bring empty homes back into occupation. Will my hon. Friend meet the department and me to find out more about that scheme with a view to its being rolled out across the country?

According to the reports from Waveney district council to the Department, it currently has 983 long-term empty homes, so it certainly has work to do. I would be delighted to meet council representatives in due course to see what they are doing. I encourage every local authority to take full advantage of the new homes bonus that is available for bringing empty homes back into use and of the funding streams of £70 million and a further £50 million that we have announced, details of which will be announced shortly.

Although I welcome the £120 million that my hon. Friend has just mentioned, he will know that there are 10,000 empty properties in Cornwall, 40% of which have been empty for more than six months. Will he meet me and a representative of Cornwall council to make sure that local and national Government can work together to tackle this scandal in Cornwall?

It looks as though I am in for a few journeys to different corners of the country. I would be delighted to go to Cornwall—or for the hon. Gentleman to bring representatives here. Cornwall has 3,800 long-term empty homes and I very much hope that Cornwall council will take advantage of the incentives that we are offering and that we propose to offer through the empty homes premium.

Your Homes Newcastle tells me that of the 4,000 properties standing empty across the city, 99% are in the private sector. Private landlords often prefer to let them stand empty rather than let them to local families at lower rates than they have demanded from students. Constituents raise this with me all the time; how do I explain to them why the Government have decided to extend to two years the period before which local authorities can take action?

The system for empty dwellings management orders remains in place and they can be brought into effect after two years, but there has been limited use of them so far. However, there are other incentives and penalties that we believe will be more effective more quickly. There is certainly an incentive for local authorities to work hard to bring empty homes into use because they will get a new homes bonus for that. If the consultation we are carrying out moves ahead in the right direction, the empty homes premium will be a strong incentive for home owners to bring their homes into use rather than paying that premium.

Local High Streets

The independent Portas review covered many issues affecting high streets. We will publish our response in the spring, but in the meantime we have introduced measures to support high streets through business rate relief, and local authorities have new powers to levy business rate discounts.

As in many town centres across the country, retailers in Coalville in my constituency have struggled in recent years to compete with out-of-town shopping centres. To tackle that decline the North West Leicestershire chamber of commerce has been established to breathe new life into the town. Does my right hon. Friend have any advice or help from central Government for such groups to aid them in their worthy task?

That is an excellent undertaking. We sometimes forget that shopping centres are what makes home and are what communities tend to gather around. We have set up a competition to select pilot areas to bring new life into town centres and I hope that my hon. Friend’s authority will apply.

Tenby and Pembroke in my constituency are absolutely critical to the economic recovery in the area but do not always have access to the Government initiatives that are available in England, particularly the Portas pilots. Is the Minister working with the Welsh Assembly to make sure that Welsh high streets are not left behind English high streets?

Yes, indeed we are working with the Welsh Assembly and there is a reasonable indication that the Welsh authorities might take up the scheme.

The Secretary of State will recognise that Mary Portas recommended changing the planning use category for betting shops. There is a mini-Las Vegas appearing across our cities, with teenagers ending up in our betting shops. Will the right hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to do something about it?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. We had an opportunity to walk down the high street together, where he showed me the problem. We are taking action. We are currently consulting on user class and I hope he will take the opportunity to make a powerful case.

Stockport is bidding to become one of the Portas pilots. I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that, with its ancient market and other historic heritage sites, it is uniquely placed to develop a new offer to shoppers, so may I urge him to give his fullest consideration to Stockport’s bid?

Stockport is indeed close to my heart. It is the very gem of the north-west and I hope it puts up a very good bid, as nothing would give me greater pleasure than to grant that status to this magnificent town.

The Minister can also expect an enthusiastic bid to be a Portas pilot from Chippenham in my constituency. In order to maintain the creative momentum from the Portas review, what plans does he have to reinvest in town centres and high streets more of the business rates that they earn?

Chippenham is the apple of my eye, a wonderful town. My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. Although the Portas review will help, we are giving local authorities the chance to be in the driving seat, to see that where they generate income they will be able to apply that locally. Increasingly, the Government have demonstrated localism, not just by words but by deeds, by shifting the power and particularly by shifting the finance closer to the people.

House Building

The Government do not make forecasts of house building, but we look carefully at what has happened in the past. In 2007 there were 178,000 housing starts. By 2009, the last full year of the previous Government, that had crashed to 78,340. In 2011, the first full year of the coalition Government, it had risen to 98,250—a rise of 25%.

I thank the Minister for that array of facts, but the Housing Minister said that the gold standard by which this Government would be judged was building more houses than Labour, yet, according to the recorded figures, in the first 18 months of this Government new housing completions are down 11% compared with the last 18 months of the Labour Government. Has the Minister devalued his own gold standard?

In 2011 the figure included 1,500 local authority starts. Interestingly, in 2009 there were only 150 local authority housing starts. Since September the Homes and Communities Agency has completed agreements on 112 social and affordable housing projects worth £1.6 billion. The first of the homes will start on site in April.

New Homes Bonus

16. What assessment he has made of the difference between the number of (a) new homes being built and (b) units qualifying for the new homes bonus; and if he will make a statement. [R] (98969)

The new homes bonus is calculated in respect of net additions to the effective housing stock, including new build, conversions and empty homes brought back into use.

I draw attention to my interests in the register. I am glad the Minister is beginning to look at the discrepancy in his figures. According to the written answer he gave me on 29 February, in nine local authority areas in England the number of homes qualifying in 2011 for the affordable housing component of the new homes bonus exceeded the total number of homes for which new homes bonus was awarded. As this is clearly total nonsense, will the Minister explain what is going on? Were his statisticians having an off day, or is this another case of the Government not having a clue what they are doing?

Unless the right hon. Gentleman is accusing local authorities of being misleading in the paperwork they return, the new homes bonus must surely be, through the council tax base form, the single most accurate way of knowing how many new dwellings there are in this country. I know that he insists that it is something to do with D to H band homes being deregistered and then reregistered as smaller homes, so I have checked the figures and can tell him that they have been falling; the number of deregistrations has gone from 19,000 to 16,000 to 15,000-plus in each of the past three years, categorically disproving his theory once and for all.

Right to Buy

I have today announced that we will increase the maximum right-to-buy discount cap for tenants to £75,000 across England from 2 April this year, subject to parliamentary approval. The Government are on the side of those who aspire to own their own homes.

The previous shadow Secretary of State slammed home ownership as “the English disease”, which is probably one of the reasons right-to-buy sales fell significantly under the previous Government. Does my right hon. Friend agree that home ownership, whether stimulated by the NewBuy guarantee or the right to buy, is not a disease but something that fosters pride and aspiration in our communities?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to explain that the right to buy was savagely cut under the previous Administration, to the point where very few sales went through each year. Today, the coalition Government are reinvigorating and rebooting the right to buy, which will now help up to 100,000 people purchase their own home, with discounts of up to £75,000, and with the money being used to replace those sold with new homes on a one-for-one basis. That, together with the NewBuy guarantee, will ensure that a further 100,000 people will be able to buy their own home. We are on the side of aspirant people who wish to buy the roof over their heads.

Will the Minister explain and clarify his recent announcement on the £75,000 cap? He spoke today of replacement on a one-for-one basis. Does that mean that he does not mean like-for-like replacement in the same area?

Where local authorities can provide the new homes in the same area, we will certainly look to keep the money locally and build in the area. The hon. Lady, as a previous shadow housing Minister—one of the eight I have faced—knows that the money will be used for the affordable rent programme, which will enable us to build 170,000 affordable homes for rent, and this will give us another 100,000 on top of that—far more than the previous Administration built over 13 years.

Order. The hon. Gentleman has already asked a question. He cannot have forgotten the fact, because I certainly have not.

Economic Growth

18. What steps he has taken to encourage local authorities to promote business and economic growth. (98971)

Local authorities have a key role in supporting local economic growth and promoting business in their areas. We have ensured that local places will receive the benefits of growth with the retention of business rates from April 2013. We will also pay £432 million to local authorities through the new homes bonus in 2012-13. We have also established 39 local enterprise partnerships, in which local authorities work with businesses to promote economic growth.

I thank the Secretary of State for that encouraging set of policies. Does he agree that local authorities must make planning decisions connected with business development quickly, and that they should be underpinned by rigorous and timely economic analysis?

My hon. Friend makes a very reasonable point. Local authorities will now be able to apply the proceeds of that growth, so their local populations will expect them to make timely decisions. Now that power has moved closer to local authorities, they have much greater responsibility to deliver these decisions on time.

The Mary Portas review will help with business growth. In my constituency, Formby has a parish council and Maghull has a town council. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether parish and town councils will qualify as accountable bodies for funding bids under the Portas review, or will the bids have to go through the borough or district councils?

I am afraid to say that, despite Formby being the apple of my eye and a wonderful place to invest, the process will be at borough level.

Social Housing

We have set out proposals to give social landlords the tools to identify and recover properties that have been subject to fraudulent activity via sub-letting.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his answer. What support can his Department give to local authorities to stop the abusive activity of illegal sub-letting and of those who over-occupy their social tenancy homes, perhaps with friends or family?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point to the scale of the problem, which is enormous, perhaps a multi-billion pound per annum scandal, and this Government are absolutely determined to crack down on it. I introduced a consultation on sub-letting, stating that our preferred option is to criminalise the activity. We intend to do exactly what is outlined in the consultation and, in doing so, to end the scandal that means that such homes do not go to the people who rightly need them.

Onshore Wind Farms

21. What guidance his Department has issued to the Planning Inspectorate on planning appeals concerning onshore wind farms. (98974)

The Planning Inspectorate has received the same advice as local authorities: the Government’s commitment to abolish the regional spatial strategies, including the targets for renewable energy, can be taken into account as a material consideration in planning decisions.

Has the Planning Inspectorate been instructed to take into account the views of local residents, campaign groups and communities during the appeal process?

As I suggested, the Localism Act 2011 abolishes top-down imposition and releases local communities to have their say, and with the new planning framework it will be unambiguously clear that it is local communities that do things their way.

Topical Questions

Last week we announced that the abolition of the Audit Commission will save councils £250 million over the next five years in lower audit fees, so cutting quangos does save money; we have finally abolished Labour’s ports tax, which threatened to scupper England’s export trade, so cutting taxes saves jobs; and, finally, we have welcomed more than 3,500 applications so far for diamond jubilee street parties, promoting our guide to organising a street party, so it shows that cutting red tape allows more bunting to be put up.

I thank the Minister for that welcome news, but as part of his duties as Secretary of State will he defend the right of Christian local authority workers discreetly to wear crosses or crucifixes at work, just as he would I hope defend the right of Sikhs to wear the turban, given a pending European judgment?

It is certainly my view that, provided any object does not get in the way of someone doing their job, a discreet display of their religion is something that we should welcome.

Given the great public interest in the national planning policy framework, we would all like to know which construction and property companies the Secretary of State and Communities and Local Government Ministers have met in the past few months, especially as the Electoral Commission revealed that firms in the sector gave just over £500,000 to the Conservative party between July and December last year. The public unfortunately cannot find out that information because no details of meetings between CLG Ministers and others have been published since June 2011. May I ask the Secretary of State, who is responsible for publication, why that is?

All matters will be published in due course. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), the Minister responsible for planning and decentralisation, made clear the persons who are members of the practitioners group and with whom we openly consulted. Nothing is hidden, and I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman chooses to bark up such a completely fictitious tree.

That will not really do, and I am sorry that the Secretary of State has once again ducked answering a question, because he is very keen to lecture people on transparency but, it seems, not so keen on it himself. The Housing Minister promised the House a month ago that the information was about to appear, but as of midday today—nine months on from the previous disclosure—there was still no sign of it on the Department’s website, even though the ministerial code clearly states that such information must be published “at least quarterly”. When is the Secretary of State going to start practising what he preaches, especially on something as important as the future of our towns and countryside?

I have consulted my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and information on the matter will be published very shortly. I point out that this Department was the first to publish online all spend over £500, so our record bears comparison with anyone’s.

T2. The Department is currently consulting on changes to building regulations. In order to help to reduce energy costs for home owners and to create a proper market in renewables, will the Minister consider making solar panels compulsory for all new builds? (98976)

I share my hon. Friend’s desire to make sure that homes are more energy-efficient and that energy bills fall. We have already raised building standards by 25%, and we are consulting on the next step; I hope that he will contribute to the consultation. If we implement the proposals in the consultation, we will need people to use renewable energy sources in building schemes, and that will go a long way towards what he is seeking to achieve.

We all want house building to get moving again and first-time buyers to get on to the housing ladder, but is it not true that 95%, and even higher, mortgages were what went wrong with the housing market in the first place? Will not any attempt artificially to prop up house building with Government subsidy come back and bite us at some point?

As I said earlier, the problem with the housing market was sub-prime lending, or lending to people who could not afford to pay back the mortgages, not 95% mortgages, which operated perfectly well in this country for many decades. The criteria for lending are now much stricter, and nobody will get a mortgage who is not properly able to pay it, not only with today’s low interest rates but with interest rates that are clearly likely to rise at some point in future.

T3. With the London elections on the horizon, should Londoners elect a Mayor who has frozen the Greater London authority’s share of council tax, keeping more money in people’s pockets, or a man who is more concerned with finding ways of dodging paying his own taxes while increasing everybody else’s taxes? (98978)

Personally, I am backing Boris. I was very shocked to find out about Ken Livingstone’s tax arrangements. It seems very odd for somebody who is standing for Mayor to have a way of avoiding paying tax. In particular, I hope that he has a reasonable explanation about the two people he employed and why those matters were not properly reported to the Electoral Commission.

T9. Some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in Wolverhampton live in appalling conditions in the private rented sector. Self-regulation is not working, and the Housing Minister’s booklet is unlikely to change anything. When are the Government going to recognise that this sector needs regulating, with, in particular, a compulsory national register of landlords? (98984)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to be concerned about the conditions that people live in, and I share that concern very strongly. It is interesting that Labour never introduced a compulsory register in 13 years. It is also interesting that when I came into office and asked to see the sum of work that had been done by my predecessors, the answer was none. There are good reasons why private registers would not work. There are 1.5 million landlords, many of whom are, for example, private individuals letting out one or two rooms. It would be an unworkable system requiring an enormous quango. The answer is to use the existing legislation properly. I will help to advise the hon. Lady’s local authority on precisely how to do that if that is helpful.

T4. Since the reign of Mary Tudor and throughout the vicissitudes of history, Banbury council has started all its meetings with prayer and a recitation of the 84th Psalm. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the general power of competence he has granted local councils will enable those that wish to continue to start their meetings with prayer to do so? (98979)

My hon. Friend is a very distinguished man, and perhaps only someone of his greatly distinguished nature could regard the reign of Mary Tudor as topical. Nevertheless, he makes a good point. We enjoy the power of prayer in this Chamber under the Bill of Rights 1688, and what is good enough for us should be good enough for councils. That is why I was pleased to introduce the general power of competence. The authorities that do not qualify will make arrangements very soon.

I believe that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), the Minister with responsibility for fire and rescue services, is an eminently reasonable man. In the Adjournment debate last week, he will have heard the strength of feeling expressed on behalf of metropolitan fire and rescue authorities. The grant for Greater Manchester has been cut by 12.5%, whereas the grant for Cheshire has increased by 2%, when Greater Manchester has more fires, more deprivation and more poverty. I believe that settlement to be grossly unfair. Will the Minister, as a reasonable man, change the settlement for years three and four to protect people in metropolitan areas?

It is impossible for me to approach the right hon. Lady other than in a spirit of reason. I gently point out to her that the funding results come from the application of a formula that essentially we inherited from the previous Government. It assigns significantly more money to metropolitan fire and rescue authorities than to those in the counties, and we have adjusted it to give greater weight to density, which advantages urban areas. We are looking to make further reforms when we bring in business rate retention, which will fund all fire authorities.

T5. Communities across north Yorkshire are being hassled, bullied and, in some cases, bribed by wind developers that are carrying out scoping exercises. Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), will the Minister confirm that the revised national planning policy framework will give communities, such as those in north Yorkshire, the absolute final say on where wind farms should be situated? (98980)

The problem at the moment is that there is imposition from the regional strategies. We are getting rid of that. We take the view that if communities are involved in decisions, there can be a far better outcome than if planning decisions descend on them from above.

Erskine is a charitable organisation in my constituency that provides work for and looks after disabled ex-service personnel. Unfortunately, due to the current financial difficulties, it is struggling to compete with the private sector. Will the Secretary of State meet representatives from Erskine to explore how local or central government procurement processes could be used to help these poor soldiers?

I will certainly organise meetings for the hon. Gentleman with the Local Government Association. Of course, 80% of charities receive no money from the state. I have noticed that the top five authorities for extending their funding for charities are Conservative authorities and that no Labour authority appears in the top 20. [Interruption.] I say to the hon. Gentleman that if they are not looking for money, the meeting will be even quicker.

T6. I welcome what the Secretary of State said about unauthorised development by Travellers on green-belt land. May I press him a little further? In the village of Normandy and the surrounding area in my constituency, a spate of temporary permissions have been given on appeal to unauthorised development on green-belt land. Will his new rules ensure that the land is returned to green belt in due course? (98981)

The old planning guidance gave Gypsies and Travellers certain exemptions with regard to the green belt. It is our intention to repeal those exemptions.

Will the Minister help me with the problems facing private tenants in my constituency? Almost a third of my constituents are private tenants who pay very high rents in flats and houses that are expensive to heat and often badly maintained. Does he not think that it is time that we had much tougher regulation of the private rented sector, including rent regulation, because rents are astonishingly high for people who are unable to save or to move on from the private rented sector?

I had a lot of sympathy with the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question. He and I have discussed this matter before. If we introduce rent controls, which seems to be what he and other Opposition Members are calling for, we know exactly what will happen. Rent controls were introduced after the war and the private rented sector shrunk from 50% of the market to just 8%. When rent controls were removed, that doubled to 16%. The latest figures from the English housing survey show that it is on its way up from there. Rent controls would restrict the market and make it more expensive for exactly the constituents whom the hon. Gentleman is trying to protect.

T8. As a result of poor contractual arrangements set up by the Labour Government, the East of England Development Agency has received bonuses of more than £250,000, despite it being scrapped. Does the Minister agree that local enterprise partnerships are already showing that not only are they less bureaucratic, but they give a much better return on public investment? (98983)

They certainly are. The local enterprise partnership in my hon. Friend’s constituency is chaired by Andy Wood of Adnams who, without any bonus, gives fantastic leadership from the private sector to a very successful local enterprise partnership.

Everybody knows that Rochdale is the birthplace of co-operation and has been at the forefront of retail innovation. Once again, it has the potential to create a fantastic town centre. Does the Secretary of State agree that Rochdale is right to work towards being a Mary Portas pioneer?

The Rochdale pioneers were of course immensely important in retailing. If I may confide in the hon. Gentleman, I can tell him that Rochdale is the apple of my eye in the north-west. I hope, if only for the sake of romance, that it can put up a very good case. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to award the pilot scheme to Rochdale.

Residents of Westbury avenue in Bury St Edmunds want to hold a jubilee street party, but local council officers have told them that road signs will have to be erected in that very quiet suburban road at a cost of £396. Will the Secretary of State please assure me that he will do everything to slash such pointless pettifogging bureaucracy?

I can assure my hon. Friend that those regulations have gone. The bunting police have gone, and there is no need to put up expensive signs or do a traffic survey. Why to goodness cannot we simply get on with celebrating the Queen’s diamond jubilee and recognising that such roads can be closed with the minimum of disruption? Let us just enjoy the day.

We now know that black and minority ethnic groups are being disproportionately affected by the flatlining economy. According to the Office for National Statistics, the unemployment level for young black men now stands at more than 56%. Will the Secretary of State explain how his integration strategy and programmes such as the big lunch and community music days will address that?

The integration strategy is far wider than that. I point the hon. Lady to the Government’s social mobility and equality strategies and the Youth United project, and I remind her that important announcements are coming about ensuring that every young person, regardless of their ethnic background, has access to education or employment.

Further to Questions 13 and 14, which were about Government support for town centres, will the Secretary of State take under his wing corner shops and neighbourhood shopping parades by lowering business rates and offsetting that through a levy on out-of-town retail stores’ car parks?

We have indeed reduced business rates and, as the hon. Gentleman will know, there is a discount available for small businesses. In the Localism Act 2011, we have given local authorities the ability to offer a discount and removed car parking restrictions. In case he is in any doubt, I should say that Colchester is the apple of my eye.

Do Ministers agree that spending £80,000 on changing a logo, as Conservative-controlled Nottinghamshire county council has, is an irresponsible use of cash when money is so tight?

The good thing about Nottingham county council is that we can see what it is spending. It is a shame that the same cannot be said of Nottingham city council, the only council in the country that refuses to publish its expenditure.

Afghanistan (Civilian Killings)

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on what discussions he has had with his US counterpart over the killing of civilians in Afghanistan.

The hon. Gentleman is of course referring to the very regrettable events in Kandahar on Sunday morning. We are all deeply shocked and saddened by the killing and wounding of Afghan civilians in Kandahar province. It was undoubtedly an appalling tragedy, and I know the House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the victims and their families. We support the investigation into the attack.

The Secretary of State is currently overseas on official business but has regular contact with a number of Defence counterparts, including Secretary Panetta in the United States. The Secretary of State last spoke to the US Defence Secretary on Saturday about other matters, prior to this incident.

At this tragic time, I can only echo the words of General Allen, commander of the international security assistance force, and inform the House that the attack

“in no way represents the values of ISAF and coalition troops or the abiding respect we feel for the Afghan people.”

These have been a difficult few weeks in Afghanistan, with the Koran-burning, the tragic loss of six of our own soldiers in a Warrior and now this. I was able to see for myself the week before last the progress that we are making, and that the UK and ISAF remain resolute in our purpose.

As the Minister says, we are all deeply shocked and horrified by the news that an American soldier—a staff sergeant, I believe—went out in the night and murdered 16 innocent civilians in cold blood. Is it the case that the murders were in fact carried out in the night, and that the victims were asleep in their beds? Of the casualties—the victims of this mass murder—will the Minister confirm that nine were children and three were women? It has been reported—perhaps the Minister has the latest information—that some of the children were no older than two or three years of age. Were the bodies burned by the murderer? Perhaps we could have information on that too.

Obviously, as the Minister has said, all hon. Members are deeply saddened and send our sympathy to the families of the victims. I accept entirely that this is not in any way the policy of the NATO forces and certainly not that of the United States. Nevertheless, as he said, this follows other incidents and tragedies in which civilians have been killed by US troops, and US troops have urinated on dead Afghans and burned the Koran. That was a despicable act in itself, but it also took the lives of other innocent people who were killed by the Taliban in revenge.

Will the Minister accept—he mentioned the six brave British soldiers who died last week—that, overall, there is a growing feeling in this country, and no doubt in the United States, that this is an unwinnable war? People certainly no longer accept the official line that our security depends on our military continuing its military role in Afghanistan.

President Obama and the Prime Minister meet this week. Would it not be wise for them to accept the strong feeling that this war has gone on for more than 10 years and is not winnable? Apart from the tragic incidents that we are referring to, the need is for the Afghans themselves to find a solution to their political and military problems. After 10 years, outside military intervention is much more the problem than the solution.

I again make the point that so many people, including me—I do not know how many in the House of Commons feel the same, but I suppose I am not alone—simply no longer accept the official line, which I accept was also the previous Government’s official line, that our security depends on British troops fighting in Afghanistan. That will not help the fight against terrorism; it perhaps even helps the terrorists.

In answer to some of the factual questions the hon. Gentleman asked at the beginning, ISAF has confirmed that 13 Afghan citizens were killed in the attack. However, open source reports indicate that up to 16 may have been killed. As he said, I understand that nine children were killed in the attack. I have no further information on the age of those children. It is understood that a further five civilians were wounded and are being treated in the military hospital at Kandahar.

On the broader points that the hon. Gentleman makes, at the Lisbon summit ISAF drew up a time scale for the remainder of the combat operation in Afghanistan, which was reconfirmed at the NATO ministerial meeting two weeks ago. I believe that that is a realistic timetable for the remainder of our operation in Afghanistan.

The progress that is being made in building up the Afghan national security forces is impressive—not only in scale but in their competence. They are developing a culture of leadership and planning more of the operations in which they are involved. The process of transition from ISAF security lead to ANSF security lead is progressing well so far. I believe, therefore, that we are on the right course and have the right security strategy. I think what the hon. Gentleman is getting at, though, is the widely held view that we need to find a political solution to the future of Afghanistan. Although progress on that has been disappointingly slow, there are now encouraging signs, and there is a realistic prospect that a political process will be under way within the time scale I am talking about.

These are devastating events for the victims and their families which may well have long-term implications for ISAF between now and 2014. Does my hon. Friend accept that these events remind us of the fact that we ask our young men and women to be deployed to circumstances that are difficult, dangerous and stressful? In our recruitment, we lay great stress on physical attributes, but is he satisfied that we are equally searching when it comes to the psychological component of recruitment? If not, is it not time for a review?

My right hon. and learned Friend is right to say that we demand exacting standards from our new military recruits, and they certainly have to pass physical tests, among others. We are always on the lookout for signs of people suffering psychological stress—that occurs at every point—and considerable progress has been made in recent years on removing some of the stigma that attaches to anybody in those very exacting circumstances suffering from the effects of stress. There should never be any shame attached to that. We are making progress in identifying it, in extending a sympathetic arm to those suffering from stress and in improving the long-term assistance given to them when they return to the UK, because the sorts of incidents that some of them will have witnessed will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

The killing of 16 innocent civilians in Afghanistan yesterday was an appalling act, and I join the Minister in rightly sending our thoughts to the families of the victims of this incident. The information we have so far is that it was the act of an isolated individual outside the chain of command, and it is important that we do not draw any wider conclusions about the conduct of US or other ISAF forces, who act with unparalleled bravery and professionalism in the conduct of their mission in Afghanistan.

We have all heard the warnings from the Taliban of reprisal attacks on coalition forces. In the light of that, may I ask the Minister what assessment the Government have made of the increased threat posed to UK armed forces and civilian personnel working in Afghanistan? Have any operational changes been made—notably on ending the use of night raids—and has additional security been put in place to protect diplomatic and civilian staff working on behalf of the UK Government?

The influence of ISAF forces in stabilising Afghanistan depends on the trust of the Afghan people. This act has clearly put that trust, carefully built over the past 10 years, in jeopardy. Will the Minister say what discussions the Government have had with ISAF counterparts on measures that can be put in place to build trust in the light of this appalling incident? The post-2014 planning will determine the success of our mission in Afghanistan, so will he say a little more about what early assessment ISAF has made of the impact of these events on negotiations over ISAF’s presence post 2014?

Although the tragedy is undoubtedly a blow to the ISAF mission, what about the UK’s mission and British public opinion? Will the Minister tell the country more clearly what the UK’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan will be and what type of nation he expects to leave when the draw-down takes place post 2014?

We have always approached the issue of Afghanistan from a bipartisan standpoint, which it is important to do while we have our forces in harm’s way there. We welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to raise the issue of Afghanistan at his meeting in Washington with President Obama this week, and we look forward to seeing greater details of the plans for post 2014.

It is important to stress that there is a US and Afghan investigation now under way into exactly what happened. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this would appear to be the action of one isolated individual, completely outwith the control of the chain of command, and he is also absolutely right that it is in no way indicative of the behaviour of the rest of the ISAF forces who are there.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about force protection. We were already operating on an enhanced set-up for force protection in the light of the Koran-burning incident; following this incident, vigilance will be even greater, and at a local level, commanders on the ground will be making whatever sensible arrangements they think are necessary. Operations in the night are increasingly led by Afghan forces, and I think this is likely to be the case even more so in the foreseeable future.

The hon. Gentleman quite rightly raised the issue of trust. It is absolutely essential to what we are doing that there is trust between the international forces, and the Afghan authorities and the Afghan people. There is no doubt whatever that that trust will have been tested severely by the incidents of the last few weeks. Of course, this is not one-way traffic, because we have seen incidents where both British and French troops have been killed by Afghan troops they were mentoring. These are delicate relationships, but I was impressed when I was there two weeks ago that the commander of ISAF took this aspect of his work extremely seriously and had been very quick to get on the front foot and go to President Karzai and the Afghan authorities to apologise and make clear the profound regret that he and the west felt for the incidents that have happened.

As for the post-2014 situation, it is important that everybody understands—both in the west and in Afghanistan—that the end of western troops being in Afghanistan in a combat role does not mean the international community walking away from Afghanistan. It is certainly the case that we will continue to have troops stationed in Afghanistan, providing training and mentoring for Afghan troops. Specifically, we have made a commitment, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, to take the lead internationally in running the officer training programme from 2013 onwards. However, as we begin and continue the process of transition, we expect to see a greater number of international partners coming in and helping Afghanistan to build up, in terms of both aid and, increasingly, ordinary trade and economics. We cannot allow the setbacks of the last few weeks to put us off that overall objective, which in my view, notwithstanding all the pressures, remains on course.

We have got two years and about nine months left of combat operations in Afghanistan, and we have lost 404 soldiers so far. The idea that we can start challenging the plan to withdraw early worries me a great deal, because soldiers need certainty. It is needed for the officers to plan and for the soldiers to get used to it. It is going to be increasingly challenging for our soldiers over the next two years, as we move towards withdrawing from combat operations. Does the Minister agree with that assessment? We have got to support our soldiers utterly and completely. The plan is set and must now remain set.

Let me assure my hon. Friend that the internationally agreed plan remains firmly in place. It was reiterated two weeks ago at the NATO ministerial conference. It is important for all those who are engaged in the operations in Afghanistan to understand that the plan remains in place and that there is no question whatever of our cutting and running early because of these events or any others. Two out of five phases of transition—area by area, district by district—have so far taken place, and both appear broadly to have gone off very well. The three remaining phases will take us through this year and into next year. Within the time frame between now and 2014, the nature of the work that our troops are doing will increasingly shift to a supportive role, but they will still be there bearing arms until the end of 2014. It is important, particularly for those who grieve for the losses that we have suffered, that they should not believe that those losses have been in vain. We are not going to give up; we are going to see this through and finish the job off according to the internationally agreed plan.

May I return the Minister to the question of a political strategy, which he rightly says is the key to ending any insurgency? The Defence Secretary wrote in The Daily Telegraph last week that a political strategy could not succeed until the Afghan Government had established a position of strength. May I put it to the Minister that the difficulty with that is that the Afghan Government are seen by many Afghans as a significant part of the problem, and that the search for a position of strength defies the logic of a counter-insurgency, which is that one can achieve tactical advances in one part of a country while the insurgency strikes back elsewhere? Does he acknowledge that the best approach would be for the international community to appoint an international mediator with United Nations Security Council backing who could talk to those on all sides and frame the political strategy, both internal and regional, that is so desperately needed? Does he also acknowledge that, if we do not start working on that now, every day that passes will weaken the chances of establishing a stable Afghanistan that we can leave?

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s stress on the need for a political solution. During his time as Foreign Secretary, he did his best to promote such processes, but unfortunately he did not meet with a great deal of appetite elsewhere for getting them under way. Frankly, it has remained pretty tough going until relatively recently. Thankfully, some of the key stakeholders now seem to be showing a greater appetite for sitting down and participating in a political process. The Afghan Government are certainly more willing to do so than they have been in the past, and it looks as though the Pakistan Government might also be more willing to engage in such a process. The proposal to open a Taliban office in Qatar has served as a catalyst to focus people’s minds. The right hon. Gentleman was paraphrasing the Defence Secretary slightly; I do not think a political process has to await a situation in which the Afghan Government achieve a position of strength. Applying military pressure to the Taliban has probably made it more likely that they will be willing to sit down and join a political process, but any such process must be inclusive of all the elements in Afghanistan who need to buy into a long-term settlement, as well as all the elements in the region who will be vital to the delivery of peace on the ground in the years to come. We are a long way from achieving that, but progress is at last being made.

Order. Accommodating the level of interest in this subject, given that there is important time-limited Back-Bench business to follow, will necessitate brevity, which will now be exemplified by Dr Julian Lewis.

I thought you might pick me for that, Mr Speaker.

The Afghan Government and the Afghan people are rightly outraged by this atrocity, but does the Minister agree that the one bunch of people who have no right to promise revenge are the Taliban? It was their hosting of an international terrorist organisation that murdered thousands of men, women and children that led to the invasion of Afghanistan in the first place.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. In addition to their past atrocities, the Taliban are also responsible for the great majority of civilian deaths in Afghanistan—77% in the past year.

Two years and nine months is half the length of the second world war, and a plan that cannot be changed in the light of circumstances is barely worth the paper it is written on. The Minister has a hard job, and we are not here to criticise, but these incidents and atrocities are typical of the end of an occupation or a conflict. We cannot justify British soldiers dying between now and withdrawal. Does the Minister agree that we should honour the sacrifice of our men by ensuring that no more are sacrificed?

Nobody has said that we are adhering to a plan that cannot be changed. The point I have been at pains to make is that the plan has not been changed as yet. Of course we follow closely, as do the ISAF commanders, the situation on the ground. The plans will reflect the realities as we go forward. This is a process of transition. I said that we have gone through two of the five phases of transition—and it is broadly working. I have to say that the rate of casualties on our side has come down markedly. I simply do not think that the right hon. Gentleman is right: if we were to pack up and leave now, it would make a mockery of everything that has been done to date.

History has a way of repeating itself. Not only did six British soldiers die last week within miles of where 1,000 perished in 1880, but the garrison of Kandahar in the same year also carried out a series of isolated unpleasantnesses against the civilian population. Armies reflect society. Regrettably, we have to expect more of these sorts of isolated instances. Will the Minister therefore comment on the rumour that this incident is related to alcohol—exactly as it was with the incidents in 1880—and on what is being done in respect of our Muslim allies and on how we will control the consumption of alcohol among allied troops?

The hon. Gentleman raises some interesting historical points, but asks me specifically whether we know of any connection between this incident and alcohol. I know of absolutely no such connection. It is, of course, the case that our forces in Afghanistan operate entirely dry; alcohol is not provided for them. I have no knowledge of alcohol having anything at all to do with this appalling incident.

The whole House is shocked by this terrible event, as are members of the British Afghani community, thousands of whom have settled in my Leicester constituency. This is the slaughter of the innocents. I understand that the father and son of this family survived these atrocities. In our discussions with the Americans over the next few days, we should urge on them the importance of supporting those who remain and the community they come from. I know there is going to be an investigation, but before that happens we need to do something to help this local community.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point—that the sense of grief that will grip communities in Kandahar will, of course, be felt by the diaspora of Afghan and Pashtun people, not least here in the UK. He is absolutely right that there is no need to await an investigation of exactly what happened before we begin to repair relations with those communities as far as we possibly can and to offer every possible support to the families and those grieving in the wake of this appalling incident. It is certainly the case that we will urge our allies to crack on and do that.

The Minister will be aware that a minority of the House, including myself, voted for withdrawal some time ago.

In an asymmetric conflict, emotions are very important in driving people’s behaviour. Will the Minister agree to review the current strategy to identify whether that fact in itself could make it harder rather than easier to achieve our objectives in the long term?

The ISAF strategy is kept under constant review. I can reassure my hon. Friend that it will continue to be so, but I do not think it would make sense for us to be in a great hurry this week, in the aftermath of these incidents, to spring into some fundamental review. I can assure him, however, that the temperature is read constantly and that progress is assessed all the time. We will take stock of everything that happens as we continue to plan on an international basis what we will do for the remaining two and a half years.

This is a terrible tragedy. It is not the first, and it will probably not be the last. Equal tragedies—such as the killing of wedding parties by drone aircraft, and so many others—compound the results of this the 11th year of the war. As neither the Minister nor his Secretary of State is able to say what success would be in Afghanistan, is it not time to bring forward the date of withdrawal, and to recognise that this has not been a profitable or a successful operation?

We are able to say what success would be. Success would be an orderly and successful handover of security to a competent and able Afghan national security force by the end of 2014. Many challenges will face us between now and then if we are to achieve what remains an ambitious target, but that is what success would look like, and that is the strategic goal in security terms towards which we are working. However, I repeat the point made by the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband): if there is to be a lasting peace in that part of the world, a political process is needed alongside the security strategy. Unless we have both, we will not secure the lasting peace that I think everyone in the House wants to see.

I share the horror felt by Members in all parts of the House at this ghastly incident, and endorse the policy supported by both Government and Opposition. Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the show of solidarity by Angela Merkel at a time when her Government are suffering from a number of other pressures?

It is important for us to retain an international view. The ISAF strategy is one that we have drawn up together, so expressions of support from the German Government are of course very welcome. Essentially, the conclusion that was reached at the Lisbon conference was that we had gone in together and should come out together. That is what I mean when I say that we will agree with our ISAF partners exactly what the strategy and the timelines should be, and that we will act together according to our collective judgment of the progress that we are making.

Does not the recent tragedy demonstrate that we need to speed up the process of transferring as much of Afghanistan as we can to Afghan control? Will the Minister give some indication of how many Pashtun soldiers will be in charge of Pashtun areas once the takeover has happened?

I do not think that the lesson to be drawn from this is that we should speed up a process which is moving as fast as it possibly can already. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that the Afghan national security forces are being grown from a cold start. I think that the progress they have made is remarkable: they have grown in number, but, far more impressively, they have grown in competence, in their quality of leadership, and in their ability to plan and execute operations. I think that hurrying the process at this stage, or passing the baton to them prematurely, would undermine all the progress that has been made. We are pushing the process of handover as fast as we possibly can, and if we were to cut and run now, we would risk undoing the progress that we have made.

I echo what has been said about the improvements to the Afghan national army. We should not forget that that is due not just to British forces, but to the American forces who have trained them. We should also not forget that this was an isolated incident, and that more than 2,000 Americans have been killed. There will be some who call for urgent withdrawal, but I stress what has already been said by Members on both sides of the House. This is not just about security; it is also about governance, and I hope that that will be discussed at the forthcoming summit in Chicago.

The Chicago summit will provide an opportunity for the international community to make long-term commitments both to the future security of Afghanistan after the combat role has ended and to its future prosperity. We will look to countries around the world—countries that have been involved in ISAF, but also many others that have not—to come forward and make commitments to Afghanistan’s long-term future. We want all stakeholders in the equation to understand that the international community remain committed to the future of Afghanistan, and that simply ending a combat role at the end of 2014 does not mean in any sense that we are walking away or leaving them to it.

Apart from the horror of the latest incidents, by which we have all been rightly shocked, a number of other issues have been raised during these exchanges about the conduct of our combat mission during the remaining period in which we will deploy a combat role in Afghanistan. They are difficult issues, and I wonder whether it would be sensible for the House to have the opportunity to take part in a full and serious debate on the conduct of our mission. I see that the Leader of the House is present, and I wonder whether the Minister might recommend an early debate on the subject.

The right hon. Gentleman should, perhaps, raise that issue at business questions. I agree that it is important that we debate these matters, which is why the Government make quarterly statements on progress in Afghanistan and why, in between them, we have monthly written statements. If the House wishes to debate these issues further, we would welcome that, and I have no doubt whatever that there will be an opportunity to do so before too long.

At morale-sapping moments such as these, our troops need to know that the standard operating procedures, and the checks on those whom they fight alongside, are as good as they possibly can be. Will the Minister assure the House that the lessons learned will be shared fully with the UK, and that we will be able to reflect upon the report on this terrible tragedy as soon as possible?

My hon. Friend’s constituency has been in the eye of the storm in the last couple of weeks, and it will feel more acutely than anywhere else the pain of the six losses we took in the earlier Warrior incident. He is right that there are broader issues at stake in the incident under discussion. We have a very open relationship with the Americans and the other ISAF allies, and we have the opportunity to reflect upon everything that happens and to learn from that. I assure my hon. Friend that everybody in ISAF is absolutely determined to learn from these incidents, and to ensure, to the extent that we can, that nothing like this happens again.

Given the differences that there are between the Taliban and al-Qaeda and the increasing amounts of intelligence suggesting that very few al-Qaeda remain in Afghanistan, if we are to remain true to our original mission, does not this incident underline that the Americans, as the lead force, should open non-conditional talks with the Taliban in order to explore possible common ground, particularly given that the Taliban have recently sent signals that they are willing to talk?

Many more parties in addition to the Americans and the Taliban will need to be party to any lasting political settlement. There are other elements within Afghanistan who might not be at all comfortable with a simple two-way arrangement between the Taliban and the Americans. I believe that on all sides there is a genuine and growing openness to the idea of having a political dialogue, and I believe that that will begin to happen in time. However, I have to say that the way to ensure that al-Qaeda does not come back into Afghanistan and become an element in the future is for us to ensure that the future Afghan forces are able to look after their own security, including their own borders.

Although this was an appalling atrocity, does the Minister agree that, in recognition of what has been achieved by Her Majesty’s armed forces—those who have served, those who are currently serving and those who will serve—we should make it clear that it is in neither Britain’s nor Afghanistan’s best interests to follow the line argued by the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick), who tabled the urgent question?

I could not agree more that the extraordinary investment that has been made in Afghanistan over the past decade—the money, the time, the patience, the bloodshed and everything that everybody who has gone out there and served so bravely and so valiantly has done—would be wasted if we were to cut and run now, when we can clearly see the remainder of the task that stretches out before us and we know what needs to be done to finish the job.

This incident raises broader questions about the general responsibility to the civilian population. Will the Minister confirm that infinite care is taken to ensure that everyone in the British Army—from the most senior commander to the most junior private soldier—is fully aware of their duties, responsibilities and obligations under the law of war? This is, perhaps, more relevant now than at any time since we have had a standing army, and there are probably currently more members of the army legal services advising throughout the British Army than there have ever been at any time in military history.

My hon. Friend makes some very good points. I would like to reassure him that, as part of the pre-operation training before going to Afghanistan, British troops are indeed given detailed tuition in the legal and moral aspects of warfare. I wish to put his mind at rest on the fact that they understand exactly where their obligations lie. Every time I visit Afghanistan, I am struck by the extraordinarily thoughtful way in which our troops go about their operations. If one has any sort of discussion with them, particularly with officers who plan and execute operations, one finds that there is nothing remotely gung-ho about what they do; it is all extremely thoughtful and it is always conducted with a keen appreciation of the legal and moral framework in which they operate.

Despite the terrible events of the weekend, does the Minister agree that it is more imperative than ever that we stick the course in Afghanistan to produce the stable country that we all need and want?

I entirely agree. We will still face many challenges in the remaining period of combat operations in Afghanistan, but we have identified a clear strategy and it is essential that we stick to it and create the space within which a political dialogue of the sort we have been discussing can take place.

Three of the six British servicemen who died last week were constituents of mine. Over the weekend, I met the parents of Corporal Jake Hartley and the grandparents of Private Anthony Frampton—Private Danny Wilford was the third of my constituents. Many other constituents have legitimately been asking me this weekend why we do not just withdraw now, so that there are no more young losses. However, after their deaths and those of their colleagues from the Yorkshire Regiment and the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, and after these horrific killings of innocent civilians, it is important that we do not let their deaths be in vain and that we withdraw in an orderly and calm way, as we had planned with ISAF forces.

I commend my hon. Friend’s words, as he is absolutely right in what he says, and I know from the contact we have had with other bereaved families that that is exactly their view, too. They feel that the sacrifice that has been made and the valour that has been shown will be rewarded only if we stick at the task and finish the job that we can see clearly before us. That is what we are determined to do.

This was a terrible incident, but the whole House will be aware that our young men and women put their lives at risk every day to protect Afghan civilians. There is a group of people in this country who are always worried about those people overseas: their family and friends. Given the heightened danger that our troops must be in at the moment, what reassurance can we give to those people?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to pay tribute to the personal commitment made by all those whom we ask to go out to serve on our behalf, and of course we must recognise the stress and worry that this puts on their families behind them. We will continue to do everything we can to support them, and I know that everyone in this House is very proud of what they do, no matter what our policy differences might be. It is right that, after we have had casualties of our own, we grieve and acknowledge the sacrifice that has been made, but of course the reason why we have had this question this afternoon is to recognise also that the Afghan civilian population is making a terrible sacrifice. Our thoughts and our prayers remain with those Afghan villages and the families there, who have been on the wrong end of an appalling tragedy, which I know we all profoundly regret.

Personal Statement

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Hon. Members will be aware of the events in the Strangers Bar on 22 February, during which the standard of my conduct fell egregiously below what is required of a Member of this House or, indeed, of anyone, anywhere. I am grateful for this opportunity to apologise without reservation to the House, and, in particular, to the hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson), the hon. Members for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) and for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), Councillors Luke Mackenzie and Ben Maney, police officers on the night and, indeed, everyone else affected by my actions that evening; clearly that will not be an exhaustive list. They have all shown considerable grace in their public comment, for which I am very grateful. I do, of course, have other apologies to make, including to my constituents, and I will take other opportunities outside this place to do so at greater length.

Sir, I would like to express my thanks to Members on both sides of the House, and indeed the other place, who have contacted me to express concern, however undeserved it is on my part. Clearly, I have a number of personal issues to address and you can be assured that this will take place. In the meantime, Members will know that certain short-term constraints have been quite rightly placed on me by the court. I will, of course, observe them strictly within the parliamentary precincts as well as elsewhere.

I would also like to inform the House that I have today tendered my resignation as a member of the Labour party to my party leader. Thank you, Sir.

Backbench Business Committee

Before I call the Deputy Leader of the House to move the motion, I should inform the House that I have selected amendments (a), (b) and (c) in the name of Natascha Engel and amendments (g) and (h) to amendments (a) and (b) in the name of Mr John Hemming. I have also selected amendments (d), (e) and (f) in the name of Mr Peter Bone. The amendments will be debated together with the main motion and the Questions necessary to dispose of the motion will be put at the end of the debate.

I beg to move,


(1) this House endorses the principle that parties should elect members of the Backbench Business Committee each Session and thereafter when a vacancy arises in a secret ballot of all Members of that party by whichever transparent and democratic method they choose.

(2) Standing Order No. 122D (Election of Backbench Business Committee) shall be amended as follows—

(a) line 7, at end, insert—

‘(ba) No Member may be a candidate for the chair of the committee if that Member’s party is represented in Her Majesty’s Government.’;

(b) in line 12, leave out from second ‘of’ to end of line 14 and insert ‘a party represented in Her Majesty’s Government and no fewer than ten shall be members of a party not so represented or of no party’;

(c) line 28, leave out paragraph (2);

(d) line 64, leave out sub-paragraph (b); and

(e) in the Title, after the word ‘of’, insert ‘chair of’.

(3) Standing Order No. 152J (Backbench Business Committee) shall be amended as follows—

(a) line 7, leave out paragraph (3) and insert—

‘(3) The chair of the committee shall continue as chair for the remainder of the Session in which that person is elected as chair unless the chair is declared vacant by the Speaker under the provisions of Standing Order No. 122C (Resignation or removal of chairs of select committees) as applied by paragraph (3) of Standing Order No. 122D (Election of Backbench Business Committee).’;

(b) in line 12, leave out ‘and members’;

(c) line 21, at end, insert—

‘(6A) The Committee shall have power to invite Members of the House who are not members of the Committee and who are of a party not represented on the Committee or of no party to attend its meetings and, at the discretion of the chair, take part in its proceedings, but—

(a) no more than one Member may be so invited to attend in respect of the same meeting;

(b) a Member so invited shall not move any motion or amendment to any motion, vote or be counted in the quorum.’.

As the House will be aware, the Select Committee on Procedure, which is chaired with such distinction by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight), is conducting a review of the Backbench Business Committee. The Government look forward to contributing to that review and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House looks forward to giving oral evidence. I am sure that the whole House will look forward to the conclusions set out in the review and the Government will certainly consider any recommendations very carefully.

I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for his preamble. In the light of what he has said, why do the Government consider it inappropriate to leave this motion until after the Procedure Committee has reported?

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that question. Having already said what a splendid fellow he is, I am happy to address the issue that he raises. We expect the Procedure Committee’s conclusions to be of great value, as they have been on a number of other topics. I want to emphasise that today’s motion is not intended to pre-empt the review—[Interruption.] Well, it simply does not. It makes three changes that need to be made this Session in order to take effect before the next elections for members of the Backbench Business Committee and therefore before the completion of the review. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, those changes arise in part from points made in evidence to the Procedure Committee’s inquiry into the 2010 elections and that Committee itself envisaged changes as regards minority parties being made in advance of the review.

I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for giving way and I apologise as I am chairing a Committee upstairs at 4.30 pm and will therefore be unable to stay and listen to the end of his remarks. As a member of the Procedure Committee, I thought I would raise the notion that the question of whether the Committee should be elected on a party basis is a difficult matter that I shall be considering very carefully during the forthcoming proceedings of the Procedure Committee. In the meantime, given that he is proposing to make that change without such consideration having taken place, I have no option other than to vote against the Government this evening.

I am sorry to hear that, obviously, but it is for the House to make that decision in the light of today’s debate. There would be very little point in our determining that we should have made a change to the process of election after the elections had been held for the next Session. It seems appropriate to me that the House should have the opportunity, as it does today, to consider the matter and come to a conclusion. The will of the House on whether it wishes to make the suggested changes will then prevail.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is for the House to make its decision as this concerns House of Commons business. Will he tell us whether Government members and parliamentary private secretaries are being whipped on this business, and if so why?

The right hon. Gentleman will have to ask his right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary about the position on whipping. There are motions on the Order Paper for debate later today that very much reflect the Government’s position on the conduct of business. On those matters, it is quite clear that right hon. and hon. Members who are members of the Government will be whipped to support the Government view, and they are of course here as a consequence.

Given what the hon. Gentleman has just said, it is perfectly possible that the Government will get this motion through, without any of the amendments that have been tabled, on the back of a payroll vote. Will he undertake that if that does happen and the Procedure Committee then decides that it wants to take the House down a slightly different route, he will table motions to allow that to happen in the next Session?

I have already indicated that we will want to see the Procedure Committee’s conclusions. It has been the practice of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and myself to bring forward motions to allow the House to consider the Procedure Committee’s recommendations. I do not think we have anything to be ashamed of in that respect as we have been very careful to ensure that the House has opportunities, where possible, to determine these matters. Obviously, we shall have to wait and see what emerges from the Committee in due course.

My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way but he still has yet to explain why he and the Government are pre-empting the Procedure Committee’s findings, particularly given one of its last known findings, at paragraph 59 of its latest report, which stated:

“We have received no adverse comments on the arrangements for the elections to the Backbench Business Committee”.

Can the Government justify their position?

There was limited scope for complaints about elections to the Backbench Business Committee because, certainly on the Government side of the House, there were no elections: the Members who serve on the Committee were elected unopposed. However, the Procedure Committee proposed that we needed to consider the position of minority parties and I assured Members from the minority parties when we first debated this matter that we would look into this and come back with proposals. I think we would be deficient in our response to the House if we were not to have that debate before the opportunity arises to vote again on the Backbench Business Committee.