House of Commons
Wednesday 13 June 2012
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Government Estate (Savings)
The moratorium on new leases and on passing over breaks in existing leases has helped us across central Government to save the taxpayer some £278 million from property in just the first 10 months of the coalition Government’s time in office. To date, central Government have got out of more than 900 leases and released freeholds, and last year alone the size of the estate fell by 6%.
That is exactly our approach. Far too much of the freehold estate is under-occupied and far too many expensive leasehold properties are occupied in a very inefficient way. In Bristol alone we discovered that central Government, in their different forms, occupied 115 separate addresses, which is very inefficient and not at all conducive to joined-up government.
As you know, Mr Speaker, we should always watch what Ministers do, rather than simply listening to what they say. The problem with this Minister is that he promised millions of pounds of savings from other Departments while sneakily building up his own empire. In truth, his Department’s agencies had 23,000 square metres of office space when he came to office, but that figure has more than doubled to a staggering 56,000 square metres. Squeezing others while fattening up his own Department is hardly a policy that will incentivise colleagues to reduce their estate. When will he deliver the savings, and not just mythical ones?
The hon. Gentleman ought to look a little more carefully at the facts. He will see that the National School of Government and the Central Office of Information, which had been part of quangoland under the previous Government, have been brought in-house and so have been closed down.
I am confident that, under my hon. Friend’s benign guidance, Wellingborough is an incredibly good place for people to work. The size of the civil service is falling to its smallest since the second world war and we are reducing the number of people who need to be in central London, but if the opportunity to relocate people out of London arises, I am sure that Wellingborough will have a very good case to make.
When it comes to making savings for the public purse, a constituent of mine has written to me: she works for the civil service and is travelling two to three times a week from Nottinghamshire to London to attend meetings that last about an hour. Is that not a ridiculous waste of money, and what are Ministers doing about it?
Big Society Capital
Big Society Capital exists to make it easier for charities and social enterprises across the UK to access capital. It has two measures of success: growth in social investment and the social impact of its investments. It is required to report annually on both the social and financial performance of those investments.
I thank the Minister for that response. Cathy Pharoah of the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy has said that Big Society Capital is likely to be biased in favour of safe lending. How will the Minister ensure that smaller projects with higher-risk clients have access to it?
Big Society Capital is a fundraising organisation with a social mission and exists to correct a market failure. It will support innovation and grow the new social investment market and will invest across a range of products. All we have asked it to do is ensure that it secures a sufficient return to cover its costs.
In a written answer to me on 11 June, the Minister stated:
“The Investment and Contract Readiness Fund applies to England only.”—[Official Report, 11 June 2012; Vol. 546, c. 218W.]
Given that Big Society Capital is for the whole United Kingdom, how will companies in other parts of the country be able to secure the same assistance?
Ultimately, that is a matter for the devolved Administrations, but the hon. Lady is right: Big Society Capital has been set up to be available to charities and social enterprises throughout the UK. The investment and contract readiness fund—£10 million of grants—is available to charities and social enterprises in England which want to make themselves more investment-ready, but the policy area is devolved and therefore a matter for the devolved Administrations.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, which is particularly relevant and valid in small charities week. He is entirely right. Access to capital affects smaller charities more than larger ones, and that is one reason why within two years we have developed and established the world’s first social investment institution, Big Society Capital, which exists to make such capital much easier to access.
In measuring the impact of Big Society Capital, will the Minister assure the House that the resource will tackle deprivation in hard-to-reach communities, particularly in Northern Ireland, where there are isolated rural communities and 35 scientifically measured areas of disadvantage?
I have been to Northern Ireland myself to make the point that Big Society Capital is available to charities and social enterprises there. The honest answer to the hon. Lady’s question is that any outcome depends on the quality of the investment proposition that intermediaries take to Big Society Capital, but we are very keen to engage with charities and social enterprises in Northern Ireland in order to make sure that the measure is as accessible to Northern Ireland as we say we want it to be.
Civil Servants (Redundancy)
All Departments are rightly required to maximise opportunities for redeployment within the Government and to make all reasonable efforts to avoid compulsory redundancies. All Departments also have in place appropriate support for those employees affected, including retraining, career coaching and advice, and help with CV writing.
As I said a little earlier, the size of the civil service has already fallen to its smallest since the second world war, and there will be further downsizing, as we have made clear. The resignation rate of senior civil servants is stable: there is no higher turnover than before.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that next week the Government are going to publish their civil service reform plan, and that this issue may be one that the plan addresses as the Government try to set out a clear change programme for the whole of government?
It is our aim and aspiration that by the end of this Parliament 25% of central Government spend with outside providers should be with small and medium-sized enterprises. We have launched a series of radical measures to simplify the procurement process in order to make it easier and cheaper for all companies to see the business available with the Government and to bid and compete effectively. Our direct spend with SMEs since the Labour party left office is already on track to double.
By looking at the Contracts Finder website, which is the main source of Government contracts over £100,000. That is the place where they should look, and I hope that they will, but since February 2011, when we announced our new approach, about a third of new contracts have already been awarded to SMEs.
I will look into that, but the hon. Gentleman might like to bring some of those suppliers to me to talk through the difficulties, because we want to make the process as easy as possible. Suppliers tell me that bidding for public sector contracts costs them typically four times as much as bidding for private sector contracts. The changes that we are making will radically reduce that, but we want to make sure that the process works, so I should be grateful for his help.
According to the Federation of Small Businesses, 40% of businesses still say that the tendering process is too complex. There are some very good messages in the procurement pledge on the website that the Minister mentioned. What steps is he taking to encourage people to adopt the principles of the pledge?
That is policy within central Government, and it should happen, although I am not for a moment claiming that it is universal yet. We want to hear about procurements that are not being done in the right way. In the wider public sector, we can do no more than exhort and encourage, and we will do so. However, it remains the case that if we are alerted to procurements being done in the old-fashioned way, which is very antagonistic to small businesses, we will intervene. We have got a number of those changed for the better.
The latest official figures continue to show that the proportion of procurement spend going to SMEs is decreasing in the majority of Government Departments. A recent survey by the FSB found that 40% of SMEs believe that the tendering process is too complicated, while 37% believe that they are being “sidelined” by the Government. Does the Minister agree with Mark Thompson, an adviser to his own Department, who said:
“The reality is, government has very little idea of how to deal with SMEs and has very little in the way in terms of concrete plans here”?
The main change is that for the first time there are official figures for this spend—the previous Government did not even bother to count it—and the numbers are going up. Obviously within each Department there will not necessarily be an even progress all the time—I would have thought that even the hon. Gentleman ought to be able to understand that—but across the whole of Government spend with SMEs has doubled. I would hope that he would enthusiastically welcome that.
We want to make it much easier to volunteer, so we are implementing most of the recommendations in Lord Hodgson’s excellent report, “Unshackling Good Neighbours”. To identify any remaining burdens, we have launched the civil society red tape challenge and have urged the sector and the public to contribute by visiting the challenge website.
That is a frustration felt in many constituencies. My hon. Friend will be aware that changes are under way. There are two major thrusts of change: many fewer people will require checks; and those who do will find it much easier to carry those checks around the system—the portability for which people have been asking for some time. Those changes will largely be in place by next spring, and I am sure that they will be as welcome in Sherwood as they will in Ruislip.
This issue has come up repeatedly. Does the Minister accept that in the coming years the red tape challenge will be judged on the numbers of people who are involved in volunteering and the verdict of those who want to volunteer?
All I know is that it is incumbent on Government to get out of the way as much as they can. Many areas of regulation are too intrusive and take up too much time and money that could be better used. I think that there is cross-party support for wanting to encourage more people to get involved, and if the Government can get out of the way, then we should.
Civil Service Pensions
We are committed to ensuring that the reform of public sector pensions means that public servants will continue to receive pensions that are among the very best available. These now provide a fair deal for public service workers while being an affordable deal for the taxpayer and a good deal for the country that is sustainable in the long term. We have spent months negotiating a new scheme that was put to the civil service unions some months ago. I am pleased that four unions have now accepted the proposals.
I am sure that the 85% of the work force in my constituency who work in the private sector will welcome that response given that their pensions are, on average, far less generous than those available in the public sector, which they are also expected to fund. Will my right hon. Friend give the House an estimate of the sum that the taxpayer would be expected to pay for public sector pensions over the next 25 years if these reforms did not take place?
It is perfectly clear that the reforms that we put in place across the public sector will save the taxpayer tens of billions of pounds over coming decades. The Office for Budget Responsibility will make a more precise calculation in its next long-term outlook.
We liaise regularly with other Departments in the development of our agenda to encourage more giving of both time and money.
Research from New Philanthropy Capital has revealed that 65% of charities are being forced to cut front-line services. In addition, after the way in which the tax relief proposal was handled, the expert Alana Lowe-Patraske said:
“It remains to be seen if donors and charities trust this government on philanthropy”.
Will the Minister update the House on how the Government will repair their relationships with charities?
I think the hon. Lady will find that most people in the sector and most commentators recognise and welcome the Chancellor’s change of mind on that. They also recognise that this is a Government absolutely committed to creating the conditions for charities and social enterprises to do more. That includes supporting more giving of time and money through initiatives such as the social action fund, through various match funding and through some generous tax incentives—
I commend the Government for their actions following the consultations on taxation and charitable donations, but may I urge the Minister to look again at the gift aid structure, and perhaps to consider a transfer to a system whereby individuals can deduct their charitable donations from their tax directly?
Gift aid and all matters relating to tax are a Treasury matter. My hon. Friend will be aware that gift aid is under constant review, and in the 2011 Budget some welcome initiatives were brought in to make gift aid easier to claim for small charities and small donations.
Behavioural Insights Team
The team is headed by a steering board which is chaired by the Cabinet Secretary. In September 2011 the team published an annual update of its first year, and a two-year sunset review will be conducted by the board in summer 2012.
The team does some very interesting work on encouraging behaviour to change in cost-effective ways. If my hon. Friend looks at the annual report, she will see some good examples. For instance, by slightly changing the wording in letters sent out by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to self-assessment taxpayers who owed money, the team increased payment rates from 68% to 83%, which is estimated to lead to savings of £30 million a year in administrative and court costs if rolled out across the country.
Government Policy (Delivery)
10. What steps he has taken to ensure clarity and efficiency in the delivery of policy across Government. (110361)
On 31 May we published business plans for 17 Government Departments, which clearly set out the actions that Departments will take to implement the Government’s reform priorities and by when. The No. 10 website publishes monthly updates on which actions have been completed and which are overdue.
We are committed to tackling fraud and error in all areas of Government business, including public procurement. We believe that we can save the taxpayer billions of pounds a year by doing that across Government. Every central Government body will carry out a spend recovery audit by the end of next year, which should generate savings of between £50 million and £100 million. The Home Office and the Department for Transport have already recovered significant amounts by doing this.
In welcoming the greater efficiencies and economies of scale that come from centralised procurement, does my right hon. Friend recognise the danger that centralised procurement can, in effect, throw up barriers to entry for smaller suppliers? Might this not help to explain why small and medium-sized enterprises are not always getting their fair share?
As I said earlier, SMEs are increasing their share of Government business. It has doubled since the election and is set to continue further. I point my hon. Friend to what happened with the Government’s aggregated travel contract when we brought it together: one of the two contracts for travel across the whole of Government was won by a small business, which is rapidly becoming a bigger one.
My responsibilities are the public sector Efficiency and Reform Group, civil service issues, the industrial relations strategy in the public sector, government transparency, civil contingencies, civil society and cyber security.
In March, Ministers confirmed in this place that the Department was conducting a review into the long-term funding challenges facing the charity advice sector, as was promised to me by the Prime Minister last October. Will the Minister tell the House and the busy advisers, such as those at Wiltshire’s citizens advice bureau, what conclusions he has reached?
Advice providers, like other parts of the voluntary sector, are facing a difficult funding situation. In the Budget, the Chancellor made £20 million available in each of the next two years to support the not-for-profit advice sector as it adapts. Our transition fund also provides support to 45 CABs and 17 law centres, and the Ministry of Justice is increasing funding for mediation services by £15 million to encourage greater use of mediation in disputes.
Twelve months ago, the Minister for the Cabinet Office gave the Work programme as an example of the big society in action. A year on, some of the charities that signed up originally have gone bust and almost 100 have withdrawn their welfare-to-work expertise from the programme completely. Is this yet another example of the lack of leadership from Cabinet Office Ministers for charities across Whitehall, or can we finally expect some action to sort this mess out?
I do not know from that question whether the hon. Gentleman believes it is right for social enterprises to play a major role in the provision of public services. We do, and more than 500 social enterprises and voluntary organisations are involved in the supply chain. I would have thought that he welcomed that.
T6. I am sure that the Minister will join me in applauding the work of the Archway Foundation, which for 30 years has been combating loneliness in my constituency. Like many charities, it is struggling increasingly with excessive regulation. What steps is he taking to combat red tape to let charities do what they do best, which is to help those who are most in need in our communities? (110369)
I am delighted to congratulate the Archway Foundation on its work. My hon. Friend is right that there is too much that gets in the way of charities and voluntary organisations in doing their work. That is why we are undertaking what is probably the most comprehensive review of the regulation and legislation that affects the sector.
T2. The Department for Work and Pensions has no right to data. Absurdly, its Ministers have banned Work programme providers from publishing any data on their performance. That is the opposite of this Minister’s open data policy. What is he doing about it? (110365)
Independent research has shown that more than 8,000 teenagers committed almost 250,000 hours of service to their communities last year, that the customer satisfaction rating among the teenagers who took part was 93%, and that the benefit-cost ratio was 2:1. That was a good start and I encourage all colleagues of all parties to get involved with the NCS in their constituencies this summer. It is a fantastic opportunity for their young constituents.
T3. The Government came to power promising a bonfire of the quangos. Will the Minister confirm, however, that the Health and Social Care Act 2012 creates more quangos than the Public Bodies Act 2011 abolished? (110366)
T9. The Minister for the Cabinet Office must be praised for his efforts in driving forward the open data agenda, through which dusty Government datasets are beginning to provide the jobs and economic growth that the country so desperately needs. What further measures does he have in mind to open up such dusty public sector datasets? (110373)
My hon. Friend has been a formidable, expert and passionate advocate of the open data agenda. Open data are the new raw material and can drive a huge amount of business growth. The Government are already the world leader in opening up data, but there is more to come. [Interruption.]
T4. The Government have sold off 250 freeholds of the nation’s buildings and land. If they are going to continue to do that, will the Minister ensure that there is a covenant in the conveyancing to ensure that the public have access to public land? (110367)
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the servicemen who have fallen since the House last met, Captain Stephen Healey and Corporal Michael Thacker of 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh and Private Gregg Stone of 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment. They were talented, dedicated soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for the safety of our nation. Our deepest condolences are with their families, their friends and their colleagues. We will always remember them.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meetings later today.
I am sure all Members will wish to associate themselves with the Prime Minister’s tribute.
Can the Prime Minister reassure my constituents that for as long as he is the Prime Minister, there will be no policy shift at all in relation to the third runway at Heathrow, and that this Government will focus their attention on improving Heathrow’s hub status by expanding links between London airports and displacing some of the short-haul and less valuable slots elsewhere?
I know that this is not just a constituency campaign for my hon. Friend but something he feels very powerfully about. I can tell him that the coalition position has not changed, but clearly we must not be blind to two important considerations: how we expand airport capacity overall, and how we ensure that Heathrow operates better and that we welcome people to our country better than we are at the moment. A lot of progress has been made on that agenda, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on the extra resources and people that have been put into doing that important job.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Captain Stephen Healey and Corporal Michael Thacker of 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh and Private Gregg Stone of 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment. They served their country with dignity and bravery, and the condolences of the whole House go to their family and friends.
Can the Prime Minister tell us why he referred Baroness Warsi to the independent adviser on ministerial interests but not the Culture Secretary?
Yes; I think there is a very significant difference between the two cases. In the case of Baroness Warsi, there has not been a judge-led inquiry, with witnesses taking evidence under oath, to get to all the factual information behind her case. That is why I have asked Sir Alex Allan to look at the case and establish some of the facts. I have to say, I am entirely happy with the explanation that I have been given by Baroness Warsi. She admits to breaking the ministerial code and has apologised for it, and I think that is a very important point.
The Prime Minister refers to the Leveson inquiry, but can he confirm that, in his appearance there, the Culture Secretary was quite properly—it is not the remit of the Leveson inquiry—not asked a single question about whether he misled this House and thereby broke the ministerial code?
The right hon. Gentleman asks specifically why I have not referred the case to Sir Alex Allan. As he knows, I have not done that, but I have asked Sir Alex Allan for his advice on future guidance on, for instance, quasi-judicial decision making, which the right hon. Gentleman discussed at the Leveson inquiry and which I will discuss tomorrow as well. Sir Alex Allan has replied to my letter. I will put a copy of both letters in the Library of the House, but the House might want to know what he said:
“I note your decision in relation to Jeremy Hunt’s adherence to the Ministerial Code which is of course a matter for you.”
He went on:
“The fact that there is an on-going judicial inquiry probing and taking evidence under oath means that I do not believe I could usefully add to the facts in this case”.
He went on to say that he remains available if circumstances should change, but those are the views of Sir Alex Allan.
The key issue is who makes the judgment on whether there has been a breach of the ministerial code. This is what Lord Leveson said on 10 May:
“I will not be making a judgment on whether there has been a breach of it, that is simply not my job”.
In other words, it is the job of Sir Alex Allan.
Let us take one of the issues that was—[Interruption.] I can see that Conservative Members have been well whipped today. They obviously got the memo from the Prime Minister’s aide, who is sending memos round. The last one began: “Comrades”—[Laughter.] I like the sound of that. “We need a protective wall of sound. Last week we rather dried up. Please show sufficient stamina for the full half hour.”
Let us take one of the issues that was not raised at the Leveson inquiry. On 25 April, the Culture Secretary told the House: “I made absolutely”—[Interruption.] There is no point in the part-time Chancellor trying to give the Prime Minister the answer before I have asked the question. The Culture Secretary told the House:
“I made absolutely no interventions”
in “a quasi-judicial” process
“that was at that time the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Business”,
yet we now know that he wrote a memo to the Prime Minister that said:
“If we block it our media sector will suffer for years.”
Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Culture Secretary, in his answer from 25 April, was not straight with this House of Commons?
Let me first explain that, on the Government side of the House, “comrades” is a term of endearment, not an official title—[Interruption.] Liberal Democrat Members are also comrades.
The point is that it is the job of the Prime Minister to make the judgment about ministerial code. I have made that judgment. I have quoted what Sir Alex Allan has said. He was very clear that he could not
“usefully add to the facts in this case”.
I am sorry that the political strategy behind the right hon. Gentleman’s Opposition motion has collapsed, but that is the fact of the case.
The right hon. Gentleman asked specifically about the note that the Culture Secretary sent to me on 19 November, in which he specifically says that it would be completely wrong to go against the proper regulatory procedures. The truth of what has happened in recent days is that the Culture Secretary gave a very full account of his actions to the Leveson inquiry, and demonstrated that, when it came to the BSkyB bid, he took independent advice at every part of the process and followed independent advice at every stage of the process, which is a complete contrast to how the previous Government behaved.
Let us be clear about what the Prime Minister is claiming. The Culture Secretary told the House:
“I made absolutely no interventions seeking to influence a quasi-judicial decision”.—[Official Report, 25 April 2012; Vol. 973, c. 543.]
The Prime Minister is claiming that a memo to the Prime Minister is somehow an insignificant document in relation to a decision that the Government must make. It is the first time in political history that that is the case.
If the Prime Minister’s case is so strong, why is the Deputy Prime Minister not supporting him?
Let me read exactly what the note from the Culture Secretary from 19 November states:
“It would be totally wrong for the government to get involved in a competition issue which has to be decided at arm’s length.”
When he got responsibility for the dossier, he behaved in exactly that way.
By the way, the whole reason we are discussing this takeover is that the previous Government changed the law to allow a foreign company to own a British broadcasting licence. Labour Members conveniently forget that point.
The Leader of the Opposition asked specifically about the Deputy Prime Minister. Let me be frank: we are talking about the relationships that Conservative politicians and Labour politicians have had over the past 20 years with News Corporation, News International and all the rest of it. To be fair to the Liberal Democrats, they did not have that relationship. Their abstention tonight will make that point. I understand that: it is politics—[Interruption.]
I have to say that the right hon. Gentleman has reached a new state of delusion—really and truly. He just wants to talk about the past—he was the future once. The Deputy Prime Minister says that the decision should go to the independent adviser, the Conservative chair of the Select Committee on Public Administration says it should be referred and the former chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life says that it should be referred—is it not the truth that the reason the Prime Minister will not refer the Culture Secretary to the independent adviser is that he is scared that the Culture Secretary will not be cleared?
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The right hon. Gentleman says that we are talking about the past, but some elements of the Leveson inquiry and the relationship between politicians and the press are about the past. We had a little insight into that when the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), gave evidence. In an extraordinary moment, he said that
“the one thing I can say”—
the one thing—
“definitely is that nobody in my position would have instructed…briefing against a senior minister”.
Perhaps the victims could put their hands up. Any takers? I do not need Sir Alex Allan to adjudicate on that one.
The reality is that everyone knows that it was the Prime Minister who decided to appoint the Culture Secretary to oversee the bid and it is the Prime Minister who is clinging on to him now in the face of all the evidence. Does he not realise that it is no longer about the Culture Secretary’s judgment but about the Prime Minister’s, which is so badly flawed that even his deputy will not support him?
I hope that the England football team is better at putting the ball in the back of the net. The point is that it is for the adviser on ministerial standards to discover the facts and for the Prime Minister to make the judgment. My judgment is that we should let the Culture Secretary get on with organising the most important event, which is the Olympics. As we are on the Olympics, let us consider this: if there was an Olympic medal for double standards and rank hypocrisy, the Labour party would be well in the running.
Q2. As we remember those who fell 30 years ago during the Falklands war, Argentina continues to dispute British sovereignty over those islands yet continues to receive loans worth billions of pounds from the World Bank, in which British taxpayers are a major shareholder. Will the Prime Minister join President Obama in instructing his officials to vote against any more such loans to Argentina? (110300)
My hon. Friend makes an important point. No British taxpayers’ money is spent on World Bank loans to Argentina, and I think that that is an important point, but what is even more important is what happened yesterday. The Falkland islanders have decided that they will hold a referendum to demonstrate that they believe in self-determination. That is important because Argentina continues to try to hide the argument and to pretend that the views of the Falkland islanders do not matter. They do matter; I hope that they will speak loudly and clearly and that Argentina will listen.
Q3. The Prime Minister just said that he believes that the Leveson inquiry dealt with all the relevant issues regarding the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, but it did not deal with section 118 of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, which deals with market abuse and the passing of information to one party that is not available to others in a market situation. Given the hundreds of texts, e-mails and memos in this case, will he ask the Financial Services Authority to examine the evidence and see whether there has been a breach of section 118 or any part of that Act? (110301)
Clearly there are very strict rules, including the stock exchange code and the Act that the right hon. Gentleman mentions, governing all of these areas. The point I would make to him is that there is no doubt that the special adviser did behave wrongly. That is why he offered his resignation and that is why it was accepted.
Q4. I am sure that all hon. Members will congratulate the volunteers who raised £6.5 million to recognise the contribution and sacrifice by Bomber Command personnel in the second world war. The memorial will be opened by Her Majesty the Queen on 28 June, but the costs for security on the day have risen sharply. Despite necessary constraints on all Government expenditure, will my right hon. Friend consider financial support from the Government to ensure that veterans and their relations are properly looked after? (110302)
My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. Many people served in Bomber Command during the second world war and many lost their lives, so it is right that there will be this splendid memorial, unveiled by Her Majesty the Queen. These memorials tend to be paid for by public subscription and that is what has happened in this case, but I will look carefully at what my hon. Friend says. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport does have the ability to intervene, especially when monuments and other things are done on a national basis for a national purpose. I am sure that the Culture Secretary will have listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said.
Q5. Because of top-down Government health cuts, South Tees hospitals such as the Friarage and Guisborough hospitals in my constituency have had reduced services, leaving both hospitals uncertain of their future. Therefore, will the Prime Minister support his Foreign Secretary, who said to a crowd of 4,000 people that the Government NHS cuts are “unacceptable”? (110303)
I would point out that the increase in health spending for the hon. Gentleman’s primary care trust is 2.9%, a £8.2 million increase for the current year—[Interruption.] That is what is happening. The only reason more money is going into the health service in his constituency is because this coalition Government decided to invest in our NHS, against the advice that we received from the Opposition, who think that increases in health spending are “irresponsible”.
Cabinet Meeting (Kettering)
As my hon. Friend knows, Cabinet meetings are occasionally held outside London, not least so that we can get Cabinet Ministers to different parts of the country to meet all sorts of different organisations. The Cabinet has so far met in Bradford, Derby, Ipswich, Cardiff and the Olympic park. Locations for future meetings—including, I hope, the east midlands—will be announced in due course.
Were the Cabinet to come to Kettering, it would be able to congratulate Kettering borough council on its pledge to freeze its council tax for the next five years, and to celebrate the £210 million funding from the Department for Transport for the widening of the Kettering A14 bypass. But will my right hon. Friend also commit to upgrade and electrify the midland main line, a project that enjoys cross-party support and that would make a big difference to the Kettering economy?
I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating his borough council. That commitment on council tax is remarkable and shows what value-for-money services Conservative councils can provide. We are committed to electrifying more than 300 miles of railway routes, which compares with just nine miles that were electrified in the 13 years of the last Labour Government. There is a large amount of support for the midland main line electrification and the decision will depend on whether it is affordable and on assessing competing priorities, but I will listen very carefully—as I know the Treasury will too—to what he says.
Given that the purpose of the Leveson inquiry is to get at the unvarnished truth about the unhealthy relationship between some politicians and the media, why do Government Ministers, including the Prime Minister, need to be briefed and coached by lawyers before attending to give evidence?
What Ministers, I am sure, are doing, as I have done, is refamiliarise themselves with a huge amount of evidence going back over seven years. For instance, I have provided to the Leveson inquiry all the evidence I can find of meetings with press editors, proprietors and the rest going back to December 2005. There is a huge amount of information preparation, which I think is entirely appropriate.
Q7. My constituency has a high recycling rate—the best in the north-west—so does the Prime Minister believe it right for a huge waste-burning incinerator to be built there? The incinerator was rejected by the local planning board, is overwhelmingly opposed by my constituents in Middlewich and would involve transporting lorry-loads of waste hundreds of miles across the country. Will he do what he can to prevent an inappropriate development that surely cannot be called environmentally sustainable or an example of true localism? (110305)
I completely understand my hon. Friend’s concern; she is right to raise this issue and I can understand her disappointment that the local planning board’s decision was appealed against. As she knows, however, appeals against a decision on such a planning application can be made to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. She can make her views clear. It would be inappropriate to prejudge any decision that he might take, but obviously there is a need to take into account the size and scale of any proposed development and to consider the potential effect on any local community. I am sure that she will want to make those points.
Q15. The Prime Minister will be aware of the latest British social attitudes survey showing a record fall in public satisfaction with the NHS. I would like to know—I would appreciate an answer because his Health Secretary would not give me one yesterday—whether the Prime Minister will intervene to stop the scandal of the NHS having to reply on charitable donations to fund the purchase of the latest advanced radiotherapy equipment in regions such as mine, the north-east, and throughout the country? (110313)
The Government are putting record sums into the health service—we are increasing the money going into the health service—but if the hon. Gentleman wants me to stand here and criticise the volunteers, the charities and the big society, which provide so many scanners and great machines for our health service, I certainly will not. It adds to our health service. He raised, in particular, the survey. There is a 2011 survey of people who have actually used the health service, rather than one that asks people about their perceptions, and it found that 92% of in-patients rated their overall experience as good, very good or excellent. That is what is happening in our health service, and we should be proud of it.
I am grateful for that enthusiastic endorsement. I believe that we should go ahead with HS2. It is important for the country’s economy, and it is important that we get on board this high-speed rail revolution. It links to the question asked by my hon. Friend’s neighbour, as it were, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), about Heathrow. Many flights could be avoided if we had a network of high-speed rail in our country, and I am keen to press ahead.
Q9. Before the last general election, the Prime Minister made an important speech condemning crony capitalism, “with money buying power, power fishing for money, and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest.”Is that not a pitch-perfect description of the undignified courting of News Corporation by the Culture Secretary? When will the Prime Minister show some judgment on this? (110307)
Q10. In 44 days, the Olympics and Paralympics come to London, and millions of people will be coming to London to enjoy the games. Most of them will be totally dependent on public transport to reach the venues. Will my right hon. Friend condemn the Unite union for calling bus strikes, and does not the silence from the Labour party on this subject speak volumes about their attitude to Londoners? (110308)
My hon. Friend is entirely right. If we want an example of crony politics, frankly, it is the fact that the party opposite gets £5 million from the Unite union, and when it comes to this strike, which could disrupt the Olympics, we have had absolute silence—not a word of condemnation. It is not surprising, because the Unite union does not just give the Labour party the money; it picks its leader as well.
The patient satisfaction survey results have shown the greatest reduction in patient satisfaction in the history of the national health service. What will the Prime Minister do to turn around perceptions of the failure of the NHS under his Government?
The King’s Fund, which carried out this survey, says:
“There is no evidence of a real decline in service quality or performance”.
That is what the King’s Fund says about its own survey. Frankly, I would put more weight on a survey of people who have actually been using the NHS. As I said, of the users of the NHS, 92% of in-patients and 95% of out-patients rated their overall experience as good, very good or excellent. I do not think that is surprising, because since the election there are 4,000 more doctors, mixed-sex accommodation is down 96%, hospital infections are at their lowest levels since surveillance began, the number of people waiting more than 18 weeks is also at its lowest since records began, and average waiting times are down as well. The health service is performing extremely well and we should praise all those who have delivered that performance.
Q11. As a constituency MP, the Prime Minister will be aware of the current shortage in primary school places across our country. It is particularly acute in Winchester right now, where temporary classrooms are the order of the day, to accommodate reception year pupils for this September. May I ask the Prime Minister what the Government are doing to help councils in this bulge year, and whether he is confident that enough is being done to prevent a repeat performance when those pupils reach secondary school in six years’ time? (110309)
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I know that in certain constituencies this is becoming an issue. What the Department for Education has done is put aside £1.4 billion of schools capital for 2011-12 and a further £1.4 billion for the subsequent year. There is also the opportunity, through free schools, to have excellent new schools established in hon. Members’ constituencies, so that we get not only new capacity, but the competition and choice that I believe will help to drive up standards.
The use of food banks in Plymouth has gone up, from 790 food banks to nearly 4,000 in a year. Is the Prime Minister proud of the fact that it is his changes to benefit arrangements which are causing this to happen—there is no doubt about that—and is he therefore going to stand up and say, “Yes, that’s fine; food banks are lovely”? Yes, they are lovely, and the people of Plymouth are magnificent in the way they feed in to those, but will he pass the buck on this, and go for a gold medal in passing the buck, as he has over the Culture Secretary—
First, let me join the hon. Lady in praising people in Plymouth, who obviously do a huge amount for their neighbours and members of their community. That is all to the good. What I would say is yes, we have had to make difficult decisions, but we have actually protected tax credits for the least well-off and we have protected benefits for the least well-off. However, I have to say that the biggest welfare reform that we have made is to put a cap on welfare, where we have said that people should not be able to get on welfare more than the average family gets in work, which is £26,500 a year. However, when we put that forward, the Labour party voted against it.
Q12. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House how much it would have cost this country to take part in the bail-out of Spain’s banks this week if he had not stood up for Britain and got us out of the previous Government’s commitments? (110310)
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Before this Government came to power, bail-outs were carried out with Britain playing a full part—often by as much as 14% of the total—so in a €100 billion bail-out of Spain, Britain could have been paying as much as €14 billion, or £10 billion. That money has been saved because this Government, unlike the last one, stand up for Britain in Europe.
Prime Minister, an omnishambles of Budget that you claimed you had read line by line; a double-dip recession that you made in Downing street; and a Tory-led Committee reporting that the coalition “lacks strategic direction”—evidence, if ever it was needed, that men can multi-task. It is just, obviously, that some are not very good at it. Prime Minister, have you now run out of steam, or is the job just too big for you?
Order. What is rude is for people to continue shouting when they have been asked not to do so. I know that the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) is exceptionally well behaved, and I know that he will sit in his usual quiet, respectful fashion.
Q13. The Prime Minister has called for compassion for my constituent, Gary McKinnon, who doctors report is likely to take his life if he is extradited. The Deputy Prime Minister has also said that it would be cruel to extradite him. Will the Government be true to their word and stop the extradition and, finally, after 10 years, give Gary McKinnon his life back? (110311)
I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned long and hard on this issue. As he knows, the Home Secretary is carefully considering a wide range of material before making her decision. She has instructed two independent medical experts to view the various reports that have been submitted in this case. She will make her decision as quickly as possible, but this is not an easy case. A number of difficult issues have to be considered before she makes that announcement.
It is certainly not because the money in the NHS is being cut, because it is not being cut. The money in the NHS is being increased. If we had followed the hon. Lady’s advice, however, the money would be going down. What matters is that the money in the NHS is spent to deliver better health outcomes, and I think that that is a decision that needs to be taken locally.
Q14. Given the fascinating evidence that was presented by his predecessor to the Leveson inquiry, does the Prime Minister agree that it would be overwhelmingly in the public interest to publish the Downing street phone records, so that we can finally establish what conversations took place between his predecessor and Rupert Murdoch? (110312)
The Prime Minister will probably not be aware that a firm in my constituency, Niche Drinks, produces cream liqueurs and other intermediate alcohol products. I do not know whether he ever chillaxes with such commodities. The company has recently planned a £10 million investment, and more than 40% of its exports are outside the EU. However, it and other similar firms on this island are worried that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is reinterpreting how to treat their products for duty purposes, under pressure from the European Commission following its erroneous interpretation of a European Court of Justice ruling in 2009. Will the Prime Minister ensure that a competent Treasury Minister meets me and other interested MPs to ensure that common sense and consistency prevail?
I have not tried one of those delicious-sounding beverages. If it is all right with the hon. Gentleman, I will wait until after tomorrow before doing so. I understand that there is an issue with HMRC, and I would be very happy to arrange a meeting between him and a Treasury Minister so that they can look carefully at this issue.
Unprecedented levels of flooding hit the north Ceredigion communities at the weekend, causing untold damage to households, businesses and infrastructure. I thank the Prime Minister for his words of support to my constituents, and I know that he is aware of the speed with which Ceredigion county council, the emergency services and many in the local community rallied to ensure that there was no loss of life. Will he urge all the insurance companies to act on this matter now, with renewed speed, so that we can get the communities back on their feet as quickly as possible?
I certainly join my hon. Friend in praising the emergency services, which did a superb job at the weekend. I asked the Secretary of State for Wales and the Welsh First Minister to pass on my best wishes for the work that the emergency services had done. It was remarkable work. In all these flood situations, there is a rescue and emergency part, followed by a recovery phase. In many ways, the most difficult phase to get right is when people are going back into soaked homes with peeling plaster and all the other problems. That is when we need to ensure that they get swift action in the form of help from their district council and, above all, from the insurance companies. I will certainly work with my hon. Friend to ensure that that happens in this case.
Falkland Islands Referendum
With permission, I wish to inform the House that the Government of the Falkland Islands announced their intention yesterday to hold a referendum on the political status of the islands. This decision, which was taken by the Falkland Islanders themselves through their elected representatives, has the full support of the British Government. The referendum will be organised by the Falkland Islands Government and will take place in the first half of 2013. Independent international observers will be invited to observe the process.
In the past, the Falkland Islanders have made it clear that they wish to remain a self-governing British overseas territory, and to continue living in the same peaceful and neighbourly manner that has characterised their long history on the islands, stretching back some nine generations. They have no interest in becoming a province of Argentina.
Regrettably, however, not everyone has been willing to accept this reality. The Argentine Defence Minister recently accused the UK military of holding the islanders as hostages, while Argentina’s ambassador to this country has claimed that the islanders would be quite happy living under Argentine rule, apparently on the basis that some of them have been on holidays to Argentina.
The islanders regularly rebut these baseless allegations and have recently embarked on an extensive campaign of public diplomacy around Latin America and more widely to ensure that their views are better known. The Foreign Office has offered extensive support to the islanders in doing so. Despite this, the Argentine Government continue either to misrepresent the views of the Falklanders or to dismiss them as irrelevant.
Elsewhere in the region, the islanders have often been surprised by the lack of understanding about their wishes and their outlook on life. It is because of this that the islanders have decided to hold a referendum to eliminate any possible doubt in the eyes of the world as to what future they want. That will provide a legal, fair and decisive means for the people of the Falkland Islands to express their views.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), who is responsible for the Falklands, is in Port Stanley today and has discussed the matter in detail with the islanders’ elected representatives. They are excited about the prospect of showing the region and, indeed, the whole world what future they want for their islands.
As the House will be aware, tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of the liberation of the Falkland Islands by British forces. Events will be held both on the islands themselves and here in the UK to commemorate the extraordinary series of events that unfolded 30 years ago. We will remember all those who paid the ultimate price in defence of basic freedoms. For the Falkland Islanders, tomorrow will bring mixed emotions: thankfulness to those who fought and won; sorrow for those whose lives were lost; and anger that an attempt should ever have been made to invade their home and deny their most basic rights.
It is fitting that around the anniversary of their freedoms and rights being restored, the islanders should announce their intention to give these freedoms further expression through a referendum. In a region that advocates democracy and human rights, it is entirely appropriate that the Falkland Islanders should express this fundamental right. The principle of self-determination is a key part of the United Nations charter, as we and the islanders have repeatedly made clear and will continue to make clear.
While the current Argentine Government insist that they will seek to recover the islands only via peaceful means, their behaviour towards the islanders remains aggressive in many other ways. Argentina has placed a ban on charter flights through Argentine airspace to the islands. It has banned Falkland Islands-flagged vessels from its ports and prevented cruise ships that have visited the Falklands from docking in Argentina. It has introduced domestic legislation to penalise companies who wish to do business with the Falkland Islands. It has sent threatening letters to those engaged in the wholly legitimate business of hydrocarbons exploration around the islands, and it has recently attempted to politicise the Olympic games by screening a deeply offensive television advert showing images of an Argentine athlete training on a war memorial on the islands. Those actions, directed by the Argentine Government towards an innocent population of 3,000 people, are not the actions of a responsible power on the world stage.
While the Argentine Government have offered threats and misleading rhetoric, the islanders themselves have responded with dignity and determination. For our part, the British Government will continue to offer unequivocal support to the islanders by maintaining a defensive military posture on the islands, by supporting their growing economy, and by protecting their rights and wishes today just as we did 30 years ago.
I believe that the forthcoming referendum will provide further evidence that the islanders alone will decide their future, and that it will offer a simple but powerful expression of democracy. I hope that Argentina, and indeed all in the international community, will take note of the islanders’ freely expressed democratic views. Further details will be announced by the Falkland Islands Government in due course, and I shall keep the House informed of developments.
I commend the statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for his statement, and also for allowing me early sight of it, which was a clear indication of his natural courtesy. As he said, it has been plain to all but the most obdurate that it is the will of the Falkland Islanders to remain a self-governing British overseas territory, especially as the economic picture for the Falklands is improving, with both fishing and oil exploration prominent. He rightly highlighted the outrageous aggressive actions of the Argentine Government. Will he tell the House what action we are taking in international bodies to overcome them?
As the Minister said, the Argentine Government still quite wrongly claim that the islanders would be happy to live under Argentine rule. A referendum with international observers would put that claim to rest once and for all. Will the Minister reassure us on the clear legal authority under which the referendum will be held, and can he assure us that the conduct and the question will meet appropriate standards so that there is a clear and unequivocal outcome?
Today we also need to send a clear message of reassurance to the Falkland Islanders, and a warning to the Argentine authorities that our resolve in support of the Falkland Islands remains as firm as it was 30 years ago. Then, we faced an unprincipled and cowardly attack by the vicious Argentine military junta, an action that ultimately and fortunately led to the end of that regime. Our military responded heroically and successfully, and it is in honour of their memory as well that the House, on behalf of the country, should signal our continuing resolve. We welcome the assistance given by the Ministry of Defence to enabling veterans to attend the ceremonies in the Falklands. However, that resolve must also be backed by capability. The Minister rightly spoke of
“maintaining a defensive military posture on the islands”,
but can he reassure us that the cuts in the armed forces have not undermined our ability to deter any rash and irresponsible action? Aircraft carriers without aircraft do not send the right signal.
We greatly fear that the stepping up of the aggressive rhetoric and actions of the Argentines which the Minister described is part of a wider campaign by an Administration who face considerable domestic problems. That pattern, unfortunately, is not unprecedented in a country blessed with great resources, fine people and, too often, dysfunctional politics.
It will be no consolation to the Falkland Islanders to know that they are not alone in facing this attack. Spain is incensed by the forcible nationalisation of the Spanish stake in the oil company Repsol. We welcome the robust response from not only the Spanish Government but—as the Minister will be well aware form his portfolio—the EU foreign policy representative, Baroness Ashton, who rightly said that this created
“legal insecurity for all European Union and foreign firms in the country.”
She also said that the EU was considering “All possible options”.
Can the Minister tell us what discussions have taken place with Spain and our other EU partners on how they will ensure that the Argentine authorities uphold their international commitments and obligations? What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with Baroness Ashton about the co-ordination of the European response across international forums? Although Repsol has indicated that it plans to take its case to the World Bank arbitrations court, it is reported that Spain may also raise the issue at the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and other international bodies. What support will we be giving it in those bodies? In that context, we welcome the crucial support for Spain’s case from the United States and urge the Foreign Secretary to work closely with Secretary of State Clinton to bring this sorry episode to a successful conclusion. This issue is crucially linked to the Falklands question, because those who show cavalier disregard for the norms of international behaviour in one area will behave badly elsewhere. What will the Foreign Office be doing to make clear the link between these issues?
In conclusion, as I have said, the Minister for Europe is a thoroughly likeable and decent Minister, but the future of the Falklands is of huge concern not only to the Falkland Islanders but to this country and, frankly, this statement should have been made by the Foreign Secretary, or by the Minister with responsibility for south America, who on this important occasion is actually—and properly—in the Falklands, along with the Opposition spokesman on south America. Surely it would have been better to await his return to give a report from the ground, or to have the Foreign Secretary give the strategic overview?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his broad overall support for the statement and the Government’s policy on the Falklands and the Falkland Islanders. Thirty years ago the official position of the Labour party was to support Margaret Thatcher and her Government in standing up to Argentine aggression, and I know that the right hon. Gentleman personally represents the best of the Labour party’s patriotic tradition today. I shall chide him slightly for his final remarks, however. As I said in my statement, the timing of the announcement and the decision to hold a referendum were the responsibility of the Falklands Islands Government. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is on an important visit concerning vital British security interests abroad. He would have liked to have given this statement in person, but we felt—and he felt—that the correct thing to do was for Parliament to be informed as soon as possible after the Falkland Islands Government had made their announcement about the referendum that they have decided to hold. I make no apology for the fact that I have come to the House today. I fear the Opposition would have criticised the Government had we held off a statement on the referendum.
Let me try to respond to some of the more detailed points the right hon. Gentleman raised. Yes, we are confident in the legal authority of the Falkland Islands Government to carry out the referendum. We want it to be conducted to the highest possible standards, and we will be encouraging the Falkland Islands Government to look at things like our own Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 in order to see what best practice can offer. As I said in my statement, the Falklands Government, with our support, intend to invite independent foreign observers to ensure that the world can see that this election is being carried out to those high standards.
In regard to military capability, I reassure the right hon. Gentleman and the House that all our analysis tells us that we have the right mix of military assets in the Falklands and the surrounding area and, critically, that they can if necessary be reinforced rapidly. The state of our military preparedness was reviewed by senior Ministers earlier this year, and their conclusion was that the right things are being done to ensure we can defend the Falklands in the way the House would expect.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about Spain and the Repsol case. We have made our position very clear to Spain; my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary did so when he met Spanish Foreign Minister Garcia-Margallo a couple of weeks ago. We support its stance in protesting against Argentina’s action against Repsol, and we will continue to give Spain diplomatic support both bilaterally and in the appropriate international forums.
The right hon. Gentleman asked what representations we have made and what actions we have taken on behalf of the Falkland Islands through international bodies and more generally. We have made, and we will continue to make, all appropriate representations. For example, at the time of the controversy over access to ports in the region, we talked to Governments of other countries, particularly Chile, Brazil and Uruguay, which have all continued to allow into their ports vessels flying the red ensign. Trade is continuing normally, and countries in the region have made it clear to us that they have no wish to take part in any kind of trade boycott or blockade of the Falkland Islands.
Both Front Benchers have rightly paid tribute to the magnificent efforts of our armed services 30 years ago. Will my right hon. Friend remember something without which the Falkland Islands would not have been liberated—the steely determination and, at a time when the Conservative party was languishing at 16% in the polls, the sheer political guts of my right hon. Friend Baroness Thatcher?
I am grateful to the Minister for advance sight of his statement. We pay tribute to all military personnel in the Falklands, including Keith Brown, who served with the Royal Marines and who is currently in the Falklands representing the Scottish Government as the Minister responsible for veterans affairs in the commemorations. We are delighted that the UK Government have recognised the right to self-determination. Will the Minister confirm that the referendum and its timing are a matter for local authorities, and that the UK Government will respect that?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. It is entirely appropriate that Keith Brown, as a Falklands veteran as well as a Minister in the Scottish Government, should be present in the islands at this historic moment. I salute the bravery of Mr Brown and the bravery of his colleagues in all three armed services who fought, 255 of whom made the ultimate sacrifice in that war.
I rather expected from the hon. Gentleman a question that took us slightly wider than the south Atlantic. The Falkland Islands is a British overseas territory that, under the law and constitutional arrangements governing British overseas territories, has the right to decide whether to hold a referendum and the terms of that referendum. The case of Scotland is not comparable: the United Kingdom Government is intent on facilitating a referendum, as the Scottish Government have asked, but it must take place in proper, legal form in accordance with UK law on referendums.
Tomorrow, there will be commemorations to mark the 30th anniversary of the liberation of the Falklands, including a service in Colchester for the Parachute Regiment, which excelled in that conflict. Yesterday, the Ministry of Defence announced 4,100 redundancies in the Army, Navy and Air Force. I invite Ministers to read the military history of the 20th century to see how the Government of the day performed with the nation’s defence interests.
The Falklands are not the only islands in the south Atlantic. Without Ascension Island, and without 30 years of loyal support from the citizens of St Helena—both islands are overseas territories—the Falklands could not prosper. Put all three islands together economically.
The arrangements under which the Falklands, Ascension, South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands are separate overseas territories work well. I assure my hon. Friend that when the National Security Council, which includes Ministers from both coalition parties, considered the Falklands’ security and defence earlier in the year, it looked at that not just in the context of the forces stationed on the islands but in the broader context of logistics, supply and reinforcement, and took into account all the points that concern my hon. Friend.
A few weeks ago, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) and I were guests at the unveiling of the Falklands memorial at the national arboretum, which again brought home to us the sacrifice made by our armed forces personnel.
The Government and Parliament have been robust on the issue of self-determination, and will back it up with military might if necessary. Will the Minister ensure that the Government continue to give those strong messages so that there is no chink of light anywhere for the Argentines?
Having visited the Falkland Islands, may I pay sincere tribute to the Falkland Islanders for their stoicism, patience and resilience in the face, as my right hon. Friend said, of bullying and commercial aggression from the Argentines? Will he do all that he can to persuade the Argentines and, indeed, all the countries in the region, to respect the outcome of the freely given wishes of the people of the Falkland Islands?
We shall certainly do so. It is a cause of sadness that, in an age in which democracy and human rights are part of the standard political culture in south America, the right to self-determination for the Falkland Islanders should be determinedly ignored by the Government of Argentina. We hope that they will listen and take proper account of the democratic wishes of the people of the Falklands.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the whole House is united in support of the right of the people of the Falkland Islands to remain British as long as they wish to do so, and will he make it clear to the predatory idiots in Buenos Aires that any aggressive act, whether military, diplomatic or trading, will be met by similar measures from this country? He referred to best practice in referendums, and may I remind him that not long ago, the people of Gibraltar held such a referendum? I led the supervisory team to make sure that it was totally valid, which it was. Will he tell the Spaniards to lay off Gibraltar?
We have made our views on Gibraltar clear on many occasions, and our support for the right of the people of Gibraltar to stay British remains a matter of record and firm Government policy. I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman is putting in a bid to visit Port Stanley as an election observer, but I welcome his support for the statement.
It is very sad that 30 years on, the Argentine Government are still sabre-rattling. Hopefully, the referendum will be the final word, demonstrating the intention of the people of the Falkland Islands to continue to be part of the United Kingdom’s overseas territories. To that end, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Inter-Parliamentary Union provides as many parliamentary observers as possible from different parts of the world so that parliamentarians from every corner of the globe can witness the fact that the referendum is carried out in a full and proper way?
As someone who has always argued for self-determination, like many of my Labour colleagues—not incidentally, a unanimous view in years gone by—may I ask whether the Minister accepts that if one believes in self-determination one should respect the view of those people in the Falklands, which is probably unanimous, who want to retain their links with Britain? That view, which no doubt will be reflected in the referendum, should be respected not just by us but by the international community at large.
This Government can be commended for their engagement with Latin America, which was marked by the Foreign Secretary’s Canning House speech in November 2010. The Minister will know that the Argentine Government’s and President Kirchner’s diplomatic campaign has been ongoing for many years. With that in mind, will he have a gentle word with his colleagues in the US State Department and remind them that their policy positions and use of language are extremely important to the persuasiveness of the British case?
As my hon. Friend knows, the position of the United States Government for many years has been that they recognise the de facto British administration of the Falkland Islands but do not take a position on sovereignty. I can assure him that the United States Administration, at the highest levels, are well aware of our position and determination regarding the Falklands, and I believe that the principle that self-determination and democratic consent are required for constitutional change is something that ought to be very appealing to American politicians and the American people.
I, too, pay tribute to our armed forces who fought so valiantly to free the Falkland Islands from Argentine occupation 30 years ago. I warmly welcome the referendum because it will send a strong signal to Argentina and the wider world on where the people of the Falkland Islands stand. We need a referendum in the Falklands, we are going to have one in Scotland, and possibly one on the EU, but the good news from Northern Ireland, where legislation requires a referendum on its future status only if it appears that there might be a majority to take it out of the United Kingdom, is that in a poll yesterday only 7% of people there, including those who traditionally describe themselves as nationalist, said that they would vote for a united Ireland, so the Union is strong and enduring as far as Northern Ireland is concerned.
Ten years ago I had the honour of accompanying the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) as an observer of the referendum that took place in Gibraltar, which has been very important to its subsequent development. May I endorse the request made by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) that steps should be taken to ensure that observers are available from many countries of the world so that the result of the democratically organised referendum in the Falklands can be spread far and wide and no one can argue with its result?
The Minister will know that his statement is warmly welcomed not just across the House, but throughout the United Kingdom, which stands full square behind the right of the Falkland Islands to self-determination. Will he give an assurance that not a single penny of British taxpayers’ money will go to Argentina while it adopts this aggressive position on the Falkland Islands?
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the House a short while ago, British taxpayers’ money is not going to Argentina through World Bank loans. Our position is that any bid by any country for a World Bank loan must be considered on a case-by-case basis, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, who leads on such policy decisions, will have careful regard to the hon. Lady’s comments.
As a number of Members have mentioned, the Government of Argentina will inevitably try to portray the result of the referendum as somehow rigged. May I say, in support of the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), that in addition to having representatives from Latin America look at the elections, we should focus on observers from Commonwealth countries, a large number of which have not been fully supportive of the position of the Falkland Islands, because that will send a firm, credible message to the world?
I, too, fully stand behind the Falkland Islanders’ right to self-determination, and I do so as a former Minister who had responsibility for them, but I have to say that the referendum in Gibraltar changed not one whit the view of the Spanish Government and we would be extremely naive if we were to think that we would change President Kirchner’s view by having the referendum. However, there are Argentine senators and members of Parliament, including Peronists, who simply laugh at their President’s position because they know that it is there for party political advantage and nothing else. Will the Minister confirm that calm and resolute negotiations with Argentina not on the basis of our holding the Falklands, but on other matters, is a better way than sabre-rattling?
One of the great sadnesses when reflecting on the situation in the south Atlantic over the past 10 years is the change in Argentine politics. Argentina has moved from what had appeared to be a policy of gradual accommodation and reconciliation towards the much more aggressive stance that President Kirchner has taken. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important that the United Kingdom continues to make it clear that we want a mutually beneficial, friendly relationship with Argentina but that that will not come at the price of selling out the democratic rights of the Falkland Islanders. That remains our position.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning outright the Argentine navy’s recent attempts to intervene on, and even on occasion board, European fishing vessels operating under licence from the Falklands, which is exactly the sort of intimidation and bullying that the Falklanders have to face up to on a regular basis?
Like many Members, I have visited the Falklands—I went last November—and so particularly welcome the referendum, which will re-establish the will of the islanders. I urge the Minister to ensure that, with regard to expertise, sufficient support is giving to the Falkland Islands regional government and, in particular, the young people, who are so keen to play their part in the future of the islands and their economic development.
I certainly give the hon. Lady that assurance. We will give all possible help and support to the Falkland Islands Government in their preparations for the referendum. She makes a good point about the young people of the Falkland Islands. Tomorrow the President of Argentina is due to appear before the United Nations special committee on decolonisation. I understand that the Falkland Islands legislators who will represent the views of the islanders at that meeting will bring with them some of the young men and women from the Falklands who can make it clear that they, too, see themselves as British and wish to remain so.
I thank the Minister for his commitment to a referendum for the people of the Falklands. Oil has recently been discovered off the Falkland Islands. Will he assure the House that full protection will be given to any of the companies exploring for oil, that the benefit of any oil revenue will go to the people of the Falkland Islands and that any aggression from Argentina will be seen off?
The revenues from any successful oil and gas development will indeed accrue to the Falkland Islands Government. They have voluntarily said that they would want to share some of that revenue with the United Kingdom to offset the cost of our defence expenditure towards the islands. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will do everything necessary to protect the legal right of the Falkland Islands to continue with hydrocarbon development.
Almost 10 years ago I was fortunate enough to visit the Falkland Islands, somewhat unusually on my honeymoon, so they hold a very special place in my heart—I am still married. I was struck by the dignity and pride of the islanders during my visit. In relation to the referendum, which I welcome, can my right hon. Friend give any more clarity on its terms, particularly who will be eligible to vote, because that might have an impact on its legitimacy across international boundaries?
It will ultimately be a matter for the Falkland Islands Government to determine. Our working assumption of the most likely arrangement is that those people who are on the current electoral roll of the Falkland Islands, about 1,500 people, will be the ones entitled to vote, but as I say it is a matter for the Falkland Islands Government.
I have been fortunate enough to visit the Falkland Islands twice, most recently with the Defence Committee, and this House should commend the Falkland Islanders on the huge commitment and support that they give on an ongoing basis, generously and freely to veterans who served in the Falklands, whom they continue to welcome back and to host in the most amazing way. But we also met the chamber of commerce, with which I have had ongoing communication, and it is still having difficulties with Latin American countries blocking trade, transport and tourism. Will the Minister continue to look at that and ensure that international monitors from Latin America visit so that they can see that the rhetoric from Argentina is not having any impact and does not represent the view of the Falkland Islanders?
Having Latin American monitors is a sensible and creative idea, and, if the hon. Lady would like to share with my Department the particular instances that she knows about in terms of the obstruction of trade and so on, we will be happy to look into it further.
May I congratulate this House on sending a firm message about how important the Falkland Islands are? May I also suggest that in the future White Paper on the British dependent territories my right hon. Friend considers offering them an opportunity to vote for a Member of the House of Lords, when it is eventually reformed, so that whether to Spain or to Argentina we can send the very clear message, “Hands off the British dependent territories”?
I welcome the fact that there is going to be a referendum, and I am confident that the people of the Falkland Islands will want to remain British—and I am proud of that, too. This country’s reserve forces have played a significant role in providing security on the islands, and we need to pay tribute to them. Has the Minister had any dialogue—I am sure he has—with his colleagues at the Ministry of Defence about ensuring that the reserve forces are kept at a sustainable level on the Falkland Islands?
I am very happy to join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to those members of the reserve forces who have served, and continue to serve, in defence of the Falkland Islanders, and I can assure him that there have been the conversations that he hopes for between the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. He will know that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth), is sitting beside me on the Government Front Bench, and the reserve forces will certainly continue to play an important role in the defence of the islands.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the President of Argentina should respect the principle of self-determination as a fundamental right, honour the outcome of the referendum and turn her attention to domestic challenges, rather than continuing her aggressive posturing towards the Falkland Islands?
I hope that President Kirchner, even now, will reflect on the fact that Argentina is a signatory to the United Nations charter, article 1.2 of which talks of members developing
“friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples”.
That right of self-determination applies to the people of the Falkland Islands as much as to people anywhere else.
The economy of the Falkland Islands is almost entirely reliant on the fishing of squid, and a lot of exported squid goes to Spain. What discussions is the Minister having with other EU countries and, in particular, with Spain about keeping such trade channels open, despite the pressure from the Argentine Government?
So far as I am aware, all the evidence is that trade is continuing normally, despite the various pressures exerted by Argentina. Where there is evidence of interference with trade having been, or threatening to become, effective, we are always willing to intervene with the Governments concerned to ensure that we are able to explain and reassert the legal rights of the Falklanders to the resources within their waters, and to ensure that trade patterns resume as normal.
Much as we all love referendums and rightly remain absolutely committed to the principle of self-determination in the case of the Falklands, is it nevertheless part of the Government’s strategy, once these important and emotionally charged anniversaries are over, to rebuild relations with what should be a friendly democracy in Argentina?
We have never sought to shift away from a friendly and constructive relationship with Argentina, whether political or commercial. It is Argentina, under its current leadership, that has chosen to walk away from the prospect of a fruitful relationship with the United Kingdom. We will be only too willing to have the sort of warm relationship with Argentina which ought to exist, but in order to seek that we are not prepared to sacrifice or to put at risk the self-determination of the people of the Falklands.
We are in frequent contact, at both official and ministerial level, with other countries in the region. Although most countries of south America support the Argentine claim to sovereignty, they also make it clear that they do not want to be participants in any trade boycott or effort to bully the people of the Falkland Islands.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Recently the Argentine Government have accused us, the British, of militarising the south Atlantic. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the reason why we have strong, effective and deterrent armed forces on the Falkland Islands is that Argentina continues to make threats that might turn to military ones?
[1st Allotted Day]
Ministerial Code (Culture Secretary)
[Relevant document: The Twenty Second Report from the Public Administration Select Committee, Session 2010-12, on The Prime Minister’s Adviser on Ministers’ Interests: independent or not?, HC 1761.]
I beg to move,
That this House believes that the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport should be referred to the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests to investigate whether he breached paragraph 1.2c (giving accurate and truthful information to Parliament) and paragraph 3.3 (responsibility for his special adviser) of the Ministerial Code.
This debate takes place while the Leveson inquiry is doing its work, but I make it clear that the motion before the House is not about the issues that are the subject of the inquiry; today’s motion is about the rights of the House and the ministerial code, issues that Lord Justice Leveson made clear he is not going to consider and report on. Indeed, he cannot consider those matters, because article 9 of the Bill of Rights prevents him from so doing.
It was right to establish the Leveson inquiry. Its work is of huge importance and, after Lord Justice Leveson has reported, we will need to place great weight on his proposals and to give them deep consideration. We have, arising out of his inquiry, an historic opportunity to create a better settlement for the future, and I look forward to us all working together to achieve that, but that is not what the motion before us is about.
This debate is about protecting the rights of this House so that we can do the job we were elected to do—of holding Ministers to account and ensuring high standards in ministerial office, as set out in the ministerial code.
The ministerial code is not just a matter for the Prime Minister; it is a matter for this House. The motion before the House asks that the Secretary of State be referred to the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests, and nothing in Sir Alex Allan’s reply to the Prime Minister today changes that. There are two issues at stake here: misleading the House and failing to take responsibility for his special adviser.
Sir Alex Allan’s response clearly said—[Interruption.] I am reading from the letter that was placed in the Library of the House, which clearly states:
“I do not believe that I could usefully add to the facts in the case”.
Does not that undermine the statements that the right hon. and learned Lady has just made?
Will the hon. Gentleman just let me finish?
It is for the independent adviser to make a judgment on whether the ministerial code has been breached so that he can advise the Prime Minister on whether, in his view, there has been such a breach. That is due process. When there are facts out there that tend to indicate a breach of the code, the process is to have the independent adviser able not only to hear the argument from the person in respect of whom a breach has been alleged but to look at the facts that are out there. That is the process by which the Prime Minister can then make his decision.
It is very telling that the Prime Minister is doing everything he can to stop that process taking place. That is why—
Sir Alex Allan is described as the independent adviser. Is it not suspicious that the letter to him from the Prime Minister that the Prime Minister used to defend himself today at Prime Minister’s questions was dated 13 June—today—and that he received his reply on 13 June, also today? Does not this question the position of Sir Alex Allan and call into question his independence?