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Commons Chamber

Volume 550: debated on Monday 17 September 2012

House of Commons

Monday 17 September 2012

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business before questions

Queen’s Speech (Answer to Address)

The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported to the House, That Her Majesty, having been attended with its Address of 17th May, was pleased to receive the same very graciously and give the following Answer:

I have received with great satisfaction the dutiful and loyal expression of your thanks for the speech with which I opened the present Session of Parliament.

Electoral Commission (Answer to Address)

I have received your Humble Address praying that I should reappoint the Right Honourable Sir George Newlands Reid to be an Electoral Commissioner with effect from 1st October 2012, for the period ending 30th September 2014. I will comply with your request.

I have received your Humble Address praying that I should reappoint John McCormick to be an Electoral Commissioner with effect from 1st January 2013, for the period ending on 31st December 2016. I will comply with your request.

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Green-belt Land

The green belt is an important protection against urban sprawl, providing a green lung around towns and cities. The national planning policy framework delivers the coalition’s agreement to safeguard the green belt. Inappropriate development should not be approved in the green belt, and boundaries should be altered only in exceptional circumstances.

As we all know, Rochdale is surrounded by some of the most beautiful countryside in the United Kingdom—[Interruption.] Can the Secretary of State assure me and residents of Rochdale that we will not have to swap some of our green-belt land for house building?

For a moment I thought the hon. Gentleman was going to put that to the vote; I would have been on his side.

The Planning Inspectorate looked at Rochdale metropolitan borough council’s core strategy, and as the hon. Gentleman will know, consultation ends next Monday. It was extended to allow consideration of the proposed release of 55 hectares of green-belt land on the South Heywood development, but that has now been excluded from the core strategy. The inspector looked at the proposed removal of that area from the green belt, tested the council and found that plans for making such an exception were not sufficiently robust. If hon. Members have any doubts about the importance of the green belt, they should see the hon. Gentleman, who can testify to the policy’s stringent nature.

As the Secretary of State will be aware, on 2 September the Chancellor said that local authorities should swap parts of green-belt land for other land to encourage housing development. In light of what the Secretary of State has said today, will he clear up the confusion about what is and is not green-belt land by firmly repudiating what the Chancellor said on 2 September?

What I have said is absolutely compatible with what the Chancellor said; there is no difference between my views and those of my right hon. Friend. We have said from the Dispatch Box that a proportion of the green belt is former brownfield land—a disused quarry, for example, or a scrap yard—and the national planning policy framework envisaged careful consideration of those boundaries. Does it not make sense to get those kinds of sites back under development, and protect and enhance the green belt?

I understand that the Government want to legislate further to streamline planning as part of their economic growth strategy. Elmbridge in my constituency is 57% green-belt land. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the proposed legislation will not contain any new proposals that might weaken protection of green-belt land, and, critically, that planning inspectors will have no right to trump local democratic decision making?

I have good news for my hon. Friend. Based on calculations, it is not 57% green belt, but 60%.

It is as the right hon. Gentleman says.

Of course we are not looking to affect my hon. Friend’s constituency. The green belt is immensely important. It is a green lung and prevents major conurbations from bumping into one another.

Will my right hon. Friend take steps to diminish planning inspectors’ powers over those who are democratically elected?

My hon. Friend must have come across some grumpy planning inspectors. By and large, they are there to introduce the national planning policy framework, and to ensure that decisions are made in accordance with it. Local democratically elected representatives have a duty to look to the well-being of their constituents not only now, but in future. There must always be a balance, but the green belt remains very safe.

North Leeds, too, has some of the most beautiful green belt, which is hugely important to the whole city. I welcome the Secretary of State’s clear statement today, but does he acknowledge that developers continue to target attractive greenfield sites while brownfield sites exist that are desperate for development, and that that needs to be addressed?

My hon. Friend will recall the national planning policy framework, which makes it clear that previously developed areas should be given development priority.

High Streets

In response to the Portas review, the Government are taking positive action to help our high streets. That includes strengthening local civic leadership through town team partners and business improvement districts, revitalising local markets and backing small businesses.

My local high street in Dartford has successfully applied to become a Portas town, which has encouraged a large number of organisations such as NCR to consider putting help and expertise into Dartford. Does the Minister agree that such a proactive response, particularly from local councils, will help to ensure a successful future for our high streets?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that strong civic and local business leadership is vital. That is why we are enabling more than 300 towns to form town team partners. I hope right hon. and hon. Members will support their local town team partners so we can ensure that our high streets can compete in future.

The Lowestoft town team are getting to work on implementing the plans set out in their successful Portas pilot bid. The town centre was enhanced in the summer by Lowestoft college’s short-term lease of an empty shop. Does the Minister plan to encourage landlords to carry out more lettings of that nature?

Absolutely; we need to encourage that kind of innovation, and I commend what has happened in respect of Lowestoft college. That is why we have a £10 million high street innovation fund to help those with the highest vacancy rates. We need to get those empty shops back into use, whether as pop-up shops or as in my hon. Friend’s example. It is very important to tackle that aspect of the problem.

Does the Minister accept that as long as local authorities charge excessively for car parking, customers will simply choose to shop out of town and our town centres will continue to die? What can he do to encourage them in these difficult financial years not to charge for short-term car parking?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight this issue. That is why we have removed the floor that underpinned the minimum charging for car parking. We encourage local authorities in his constituency and elsewhere to think carefully about the rate of charges so that our high streets can compete with out-of-town shopping centres and others.

Thriving street markets offering local produce and community and specialist stalls attract shoppers to town centres and high streets, and encourage independent retailers to start new businesses. Does the Minister agree that it is important that councils remember the important contribution that markets make and include them in any future town centre initiatives?

I agree entirely with the hon. Lady. I am a big fan of local markets—they are where we can get fresh produce and where our small start-ups can begin—so I endorse entirely what she says. In the summer, of course, we tried to revive our markets locally, and we will continue that work. I hope that all hon. Members will play a part in that.

Shirley town centre partnership in my constituency was unsuccessful in bidding for the first tranche of funding to be a town team partner. I am ever hopeful, however, that it will win an award under the second tranche. What really impressed me was the ingenuity and quality of the ideas that Shirley and—I am sure—other town centre partnerships have come up with. Could the scheme be extended, should beleaguered high streets that have put forward these great ideas miss out on the second tranche?

I can see that there is no better advocate for Shirley than the hon. Lady. I encourage her to continue her work. There are opportunities available, including the high street innovation fund—the £10 million fund to help high streets themselves change—and I encourage her to get more involved.

One of the major obstacles to the development of high streets and the surrounding areas are the derelict buildings that were once local landmarks but which are now simply eyesores. I am thinking of buildings such as the Church Inn and the Tatton Arms in Northenden in my constituency. Some of these buildings are in such a poor state that the owners no longer have to pay business rates. Will the Minister consider introducing a derelict premises tax levied at 150% of business rates and payable until the owner brings forward proposals for development?

There is a far better way of doing that. The £10 million high street innovation fund is deliberately designed to bring empty homes back into use. That is what a number of local authorities are doing. I am afraid that wanting yet more taxes is the sort of knee-jerk reaction that we can expect from the Labour party.

Unauthorised Development

3. What plans he has to increase the powers of local authorities to tackle unauthorised development. (120885)

19. What plans he has to increase the powers of local authorities to tackle unauthorised development. (120904)

The Government take the problem of unauthorised development very seriously. In August, I issued new guidance to local authorities that set out the strong powers councils and landlords have to remove illegal and unauthorised encampments, such as Traveller sites, protest camps and squatter sites, from both public and private land. Provisions in the Localism Act 2011 that came into force on 6 April this year have strengthened councils’ powers to tackle unauthorised development.

I welcome the Government’s stance on unauthorised development, which will help to strengthen the protection of areas such as the Kingswood green belt, after Labour’s regional spatial strategy aimed to build 10,000 houses on it. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will honour their commitment, as set out in the national planning policy framework, to protect and preserve the Kingswood green belt, and assure my constituents that the green belt is safe?

We strengthened the green belt provisions regarding unauthorised development when we issued the changes to the Travellers guidance. I can assure my hon. Friend that we regard the buffer between Bristol and Bath as extremely important, which is also how we regard the co-operation between authorities to ensure adequate housing provision.

The Secretary of State will know that between 2000 and 2009, the number of unauthorised Traveller camps built on Travellers’ own land but tolerated by local authorities increased fourfold. What are the Government doing to tackle that soft-touch approach by some town halls and to protect the people forced to live next to them?

It is often a question of local authorities not entirely understanding the powers they have. That is why I hope that my hon. Friend will welcome the guidance that we issued last month explaining a range of measures, including pre-emptive injunctions to protect vulnerable land; possession orders; police powers to remove unauthorised camps; temporary stop notices; powers of entry, planning contravention notices; licensing rules; and enforcement notices to remedy breaches of planning rules. Everybody in this country should be treated equally. It is unacceptable that planning authorities readily take enforcement action against the settled population but have been reluctant to do so against Travellers.

Will the Secretary of State clear something up? A lot of people in my constituency and up and down the country now believe that what used to be unauthorised development will become authorised, in the sense that anyone will be able to build a hideous extension to the house next door, abutting their property, and not have to go through planning, which could blight many people’s homes up and down the country. Can he clear that up?

I certainly can. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, when faced with such ignorance, will say that there are existing powers to prevent neighbours from doing such things. There is a 2-metre limit and rules on taking up no more than half the garden. It seems to me that he is simply scoffing at the aspirations of ordinary people.

I welcome the new planning Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), to his post. I understand from comments that he has made that he is in favour of “chaos” in place of a properly functioning planning system. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether that is now Government planning policy and, if so, how they plan to tackle unauthorised building, welcome much-needed development and deal with green-belt issues?

I feel like Bertie Wooster asking someone to look at Jeeves, saying, “Look at that noble forehead. Look at that cranium. All that thinking that took place for all those years.” It is not surprising that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is bursting with ideas, and he now has an opportunity to deliver the national planning policy framework.

As part of dealing with unauthorised development, will the Secretary of State consider narrowing the number of occasions when authorisation is needed, where it is safe to do so? Specifically, in his response to the consultation on allowing hotels to convert to residential use without planning permission, will he bear it in mind that many people in the hospitality sector would relish the extra flexibility and freedom that that would bring? It would free up investment and clear the way for faster and more vigorous regeneration of high-quality, good-value hotel stock.

We have indeed been looking at ways in which we can ease up the use classes to ensure that development takes place. It is our aim to see vibrant buildings that enhance the community, not ones that are rotting and left for no purpose.

Council Tax Support

4. What assessment he has made of the effect on people in employment of plans by local councils to implement the localisation of council tax support. (120886)

An impact assessment is on my Department’s website. These welfare reforms will create stronger incentives for councils to get people back into work and to play a part in clearing the budget deficit.

Will the Government give an assessment of how many more working people they expect to borrow from legal loan sharks as a result of these changes?

None; every local authority is responsible for delivering growth in its area. With this plan, we have given local authorities the tools and the power to be part of driving economic growth, getting more people into work and ensuring that work pays.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his new position. Will he clarify in further detail the guidance to councils that have high numbers of pensioners in their communities?

I thank my hon. Friend. He is right to highlight the issue of pensioners. We are protecting all their current rights.

I welcome the Minister to his new post. As councils begin to consult on their schemes, it is clear that poor working families will have to pay between 15% and 30% of council tax, when previously they paid nothing, leaving many with a choice between paying the bill and buying food. Is that what he meant when he said on his blog:

“This government is rewarding those who work”?

Does it not say all we need to know about this Government that they are introducing a tax rise for the poorest working people on the same day that they are introducing a tax cut for millionaires?

The hon. Lady seems to be making a spending commitment of about half a billion pounds. I am not sure whether that has been approved by the shadow Chancellor. We are ensuring that local authorities have real choices over how they manage the reduction. They can look at a range of areas, including providing more efficient services to the front line. We are looking to ensure that local authorities play their part in economic growth and in getting more people into work in their communities.

If the Minister will not listen to us, perhaps he will listen to his own Tory councillors. Surrey councillors say that the scheme penalises claimants who go out to work. The Secretary of State’s county council says that it has major implications for some of the most vulnerable members of the community; the Foreign Secretary’s council says that the scheme is unfair; and the Prime Minister’s council thinks it is so bad that it is refusing to implement it at all. Is that not because they know that this is Pickles’s poll tax and it is heading for disaster?

The simple fact is that the scheme is giving local authorities the power to have local decision making over their budgets. Through the consultation, we will see a range of different options, which we will receive towards the end of this month. The scheme is making local councils part of their economic growth programmes, so that we see more people into work and ensure that it always pays to work.

First-time Buyers

The Government strongly support home ownership. That is why we are now investing an extra £280 million in the Firstbuy scheme. That will help another 16,500 first-time buyers, and is in addition to our Newbuy programme and the reinvigorated right to buy.

I welcome that response. What advice can the Minister give to my constituents in Stafford who are looking to buy their first home about accessing cheaper finance through the funding for lending scheme?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to increase the availability of funding, and that is what the funding for lending scheme does, in terms of both availability and cost. We all need to encourage people to look again at the mortgage market, both through that scheme and through the Firstbuy scheme and the new home programmes. This is real help for home buyers.

In some areas owner-occupation is declining as a tenure. One factor in that decline is the thousands of working-class people forced to sell their homes to pay for long-term care. When will the Government face up to the fact that if they want to sustain owner-occupation, they will have to do something about paying for long-term care as well?

It is true to say that home ownership fell to a record low under the last Labour Government. That is a record that the Opposition need to bear in mind. The long-term funding question that the hon. Gentleman raises is important. However, the money we are putting in—the £10 billion for new rented homes and the £19.5 billion for affordable homes—is something that, sadly, we did not see when the last Labour Government were in office.

Will Ministers look at the idea of helping first-time buyers by allowing local authorities, particularly in cities including London, to designate areas where people should not be allowed to buy residential housing unless it is for their personal use?

We are keen to ensure that we see new building—in terms of new buy, rented, private and social—and I would be happy to have a further conversation with the right hon. Gentleman to understand the point he has raised in a little more detail.

Inappropriate Development (Gardens)

7. What steps he has taken to allow local authorities to tackle inappropriate development on gardens. (120889)

15. What steps he has taken to allow local authorities to tackle inappropriate development on gardens. (120899)

This Government acted immediately in June 2010 to scrap the guidance that classified gardens as brownfield land and encouraged developers to build on them. The new national planning policy framework enables local authorities to resist garden grabbing.

I thank the Minister for his response and welcome him to his new position.

In the rural areas of York Outer, garden grabbing has caused great concern, with communities feeling that they have no say over this form of development. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will continue to empower local residents to stand up for their areas?

Yes; the Government have already taken important steps to empower local people, through neighbourhood plans and the community right to buy. I hope that some of the communities that my hon. Friend represents so ably in and around York will take advantage of them.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his new place.

Garden grabbing has been a scourge across the country over a number of years, eroding the character of many local communities against the wishes of local people. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that local communities are involved in the planning process at the earliest possible opportunity and that neighbourhood planning is an important way to ensure that communities develop in line with the views of local people?

I share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for neighbourhood planning. It is a matter of regret that Nuneaton and Bedworth council, which is of course Labour controlled, has not yet taken the opportunity to give people in his constituency a real say over the future of their communities.

May I draw the House’s attention to my interests in the register?

I welcome the Minister to his new post. Will he explain how the recently announced relaxation of planning consent for back garden extensions, which will allow individuals to build on up to 50% of their gardens without having to secure planning consent, is compatible with the objective of preventing inappropriate and undesirable development in gardens?

I have the greatest possible respect for the right hon. Gentleman, who was a diligent Housing Minister, but he will understand the difference between allowing developers to build blocks of flats on gardens and allowing property owners to extend their property because their children are getting older or because their old mum has come to live with them. It is a classic position of his party that it completely fails to understand —and, indeed, sneers at—the aspirations of normal people who just want to put a little bit extra on their house.

Will the Minister have a word with the Secretary of State and ask him to get on a train that will take him from his constituency through Shenfield to Ilford, so that he can see how the Tory-Liberal council in Redbridge is not enforcing the existing legislation preventing people from having unauthorised development in their back gardens?

The hon. Gentleman has done a fantastic job of drawing that matter to the attention of the House and of the nation, and I am sure that he will be able to put pressure on his local authority to follow the law.

Brownfield Sites

8. What plans he has to require that all brownfield sites within a local authority should be developed before planning permission is granted to build on green belt land. (120891)

11. What plans his Department has to bring forward proposals to encourage commercial development on brownfield sites. (120894)

The national planning policy framework encourages local authorities to reuse brownfield land that is not of high environmental value. It also maintains strong protections for the green belt, making it clear that most forms of new development are inappropriate in the green belt.

I welcome the Minister to his new position.

My constituents are concerned about the threat to the green belt, particularly as councils seek to fight the five-year land supply provisions. Additionally, we are seeing an unprecedented number of applications for development of land classified as “protected area of search”—PAS—land and greenfield land, as developers take advantage of that period. What support can the Government give to residents in my constituency who are trying to save those sites and who want the brownfield sites to be developed? As this is the Minister’s first Question Time at the Dispatch Box, may I invite him to come to my constituency to see how important that land is, and to meet members of my residents groups?

I would be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency. I know that he has worked tremendously hard with the Rawdon Billing Action Group and with Save Kirklees Knoll to ensure that those precious green spaces are not developed in the future. I can assure him, for now, that there is nothing to stop Leeds city council maintaining the protection of green-belt land in its local plan.

York has some important brownfield developments, including part of the Nestlé factory site that is surplus to requirements, as well as a former British Sugar factory site and York Central, a huge site next to the station. What are the Government doing to ensure that Growing Places money is delivered to help to develop that kind of site?

We have allocated £330 million to this, but I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that his city council has not had a formally adopted local plan for 40 years. I hope that he will join me in pressing his colleagues on York city council to get on with it and to draw up such a plan, because that would give his constituents much more influence over the development in their area.

Will the Minister accept a simple truth—namely, that when offered the choice between building on a greenfield site or a brownfield site, a developer will always go for the former? Counties such as Wiltshire have no green belt as such, but they nevertheless have some of the finest rural countryside in England. That countryside has no official protection. Will my hon. Friend confirm to the House that this Government stand for protecting areas such as Wiltshire against unreasonable development?

This Government want to protect the most beautiful countryside in Wiltshire and across the country, but we also believe that it is for local people, through local authorities, to decide exactly which sites should be developed. I am absolutely sure that my hon. Friend, through his local authority, will be able to protect the green spaces that his constituents enjoy.

If the Minister is serious about this, he needs to stand up to his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has said that he is opposed to the development of 1,500 homes in the so-called Wilmslow Vision in his constituency, while being quite content for large-scale development of the green belt to take place in the rest of the country. Does the Minister think that the Chancellor is a nimby?

I hope you will forgive me, Mr Speaker, if I duck that last question, but I am very happy to clarify the position. It is indeed very simple—there are certain sites within the green belt that are currently brownfield, and it is important and right for local authorities to try to bring them forward for development. Not all the green belt is beautiful green fields. Some of it is, as was said earlier, a quarry or has some other brownfield use. It is important to focus on bringing those sites forward first before thinking of anything further.

Council Tax (Band D)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his new position. Does he agree that this enormous increase in council tax has not yet corresponded with improvements in services under previous Governments? Is that not just another example of an inefficient Labour Government heaping taxes on people yet giving them very little in return?

My hon. Friend is correct to say that this is one of the taxes that the previous Government forced up while still running up record debts and deficit for this country. I am pleased to say that over the last couple of years, this Government have overseen council tax freezes that have led to a fall of 4.4% in real terms.

Surely the Minister will have noticed the difference. Under the last Government, the poorest people of working age paid lower increases in council tax because of the operation of the council tax benefit system. Under this Government, the poorest people of working age will pay the highest increases in council tax because of this Government’s changes to the council tax benefit system. How can the Minister possibly describe this Pickles tax as fair?

Under the previous Government, welfare under the council tax benefit system rose from £2 billion to almost £4.5 billion—more than the amount spent on health, education and defence. It was right to do something about that and to fix the economic mess left by the previous Government.

Outdoor Play Facilities

12. What steps he is taking to assist local authorities to make provision for children's outdoor play facilities. (120895)

It is for local communities and their representatives to provide local play facilities, which should be based—according to our national planning policy framework—on an up-to-date assessment of need. Increased flexibilities given to local councils will help in delivery.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position. He obviously does not know about Fair Play for Children’s survey of local authorities, which has shown that spending on children’s play has fallen by 50% more than spending on adult leisure services. That is deeply unfair and is not good for children’s health. Will the Minister take some action to improve the situation?

The previous Government introduced a scheme and, notwithstanding the financial difficulties created by their economic policies, we were able to continue that scheme until the deadline imposed by the hon. Lady’s Government. She will also welcome, I very much hope, the new flexibilities for local councils, the new designation of green space, the way in which local councils will be able to use the flexibilities for playing field protection, the new right to bid and, of course, the £2 million given to Play England.

Children’s outdoor play facilities are indeed essential, as is the provision of usable open space for Jumpers for Goalposts —all too often compromised by the last Government’s high-density housing rules. What measures is the Minister taking to ensure adequate provision in new developments?

The national planning policy framework provides very robust protection for playing fields. We have also introduced the new designation for green spaces. Both those measures will, I think, help my hon. Friend.

Surely the Minister should be aware that many local authorities made great use of section 106 agreements in order to secure capital investment in children’s play facilities. Why is he making it more difficult for councils to do that?

The most important thing is to get this country’s economy running again so that local councils can have more funds to provide these facilities. The changes in regulations relating to section 106 will bring forward much-needed new development to help get the economy going again—something the hon. Gentleman’s Government failed to do.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his deserved appointment. We share a birthday, and it is good to know that experience can triumph over the cult of youth. As is customary on these occasions, may I ask whether the Minister will visit my constituency?

I look forward to visiting my hon. Friend’s fabulous constituency when an opportunity arises, and I thank him for his kind remarks.

Community Infrastructure Levy

13. What assessment he has made of the effect of the introduction of the community infrastructure levy. (120896)

It is early days for the implementation of the levy, which is currently being charged by only six councils. We have asked developers and local councils to report on how it is operating, and to suggest how it might be refined and improved.

Under Labour, tax on development was only for developments of 15 properties or more. Under this Government, single properties are being taxed twice, which means that the CIL alone is over £20,000 per property in the north of England, and three or four times that in the south. What is it about aspiration, and people wanting to buy a plot of land and build a house, that this Government are so much against?

Regulations were drawn up to stop councils using section 106 and the community infrastructure levy to take two bites at the cherry, but we are aware of concern about the position. I know that the hon. Gentleman is better at harrying Ministers than almost anyone else in the House, and I have no doubt that he will continue to harry me, and my officials, to ensure that the CIL supports growth and the infrastructure that underpins it.

Council Tax Benefit

16. What recent representations he has received from local authorities on his plans for the localisation of council tax benefit. (120900)

Earlier this year the Government consulted on funding distribution, and we are currently consulting on arrangements for local precepting authorities. We intend to respond to the outcome of both consultations in the autumn.

(Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, nearly 50% of adults receiving council tax benefit are also receiving a disability-related benefit. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that councils take account of the public sector equality duty in devising localised systems?

The Government have given some guidelines to local authorities. I shall be happy to provide the hon. Lady with a copy, but obviously we are ensuring that local authorities have the power to decide locally what is right for their communities.

Can the Minister reassure me that under the localisation plans, old-age pensioners will be protected from any discount or other changed arrangement involving their council tax benefit?

I welcome the Minister to his post. I am sure he is aware that local government leaders say that this policy is inefficient, bureaucratic, unjust and unworkable, and I can confirm that many are referring to it as “Pickles’s poll tax”. The Conservative chairman of the Local Government Association has said that councils

“can either cease helping the working poor, or continue to support them by taking money from other services or putting up council tax.”

What does the Minister think councils should do?

I think it important for councils to realise that they are part of the economy of their area, to do what they can to inspire economic growth in order to get more people into work, and to make decisions for their local communities that are right for those communities.

New Homes Bonus (Warrington)

For the period 2011-13, Warrington is receiving nearly £2.4 million of new homes bonus funding. It recognises increases in the housing stock of over 1,000 new build and conversions, and the fact that more than 170 empty properties have been brought back into use.

The Minister will be aware that many councils, such as Warrington, are under severe pressure as they do their bit to reduce the legacy of debt that we have inherited, but does he agree that the bonus represents a valid way of taking money into the town hall and preventing cuts in other areas?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. In contrast to the Labour party’s top-down approach, the new homes bonus rewards areas as new homes are built. That means that it enables councils and communities to invest in things that matter to them, rather than Whitehall’s imposing on them what we think that they ought to have. There is a big contrast between the last Government and this one.

Council Housing

We have clear plans to increase the supply of affordable housing, including that provided by councils. We are investing a total of £19.5 billion of public and private money in an affordable homes programme, to deliver 170,000 new affordable homes through registered providers, including local authorities. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in welcoming our announcement of a further £300 million, combined with our loan guarantees, to deliver a further 15,000 affordable homes and bring an additional 5,000 empty properties back into use.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating my own local authority and other Labour-controlled authorities that have managed to build council housing at the present time? Will he also recognise that until now, council tenancies have been the most secure form of tenancy in the country and have provided a stable home for many families, and that that is the best way out of the housing crisis? Will he stop using the word “affordable” and start talking about council housing at fair rents?

What I will do is tell the hon. Gentleman that during the last three years of the Labour Government, the number of social houses fell by 421,000. I hope that he is delighted that the number of completions of social houses in his constituency has gone up significantly in the last 12 months, and that he will welcome the additional funds we are making available—funding that his local authority failed to join in with when the Homes and Communities Agency offered it.[Official Report, 16 October 2012, Vol. 551, c. 1MC.]

Bournemouth council’s policy of allocating its limited accommodation to those with a link with the community is being undermined by landlords being directly approached by London councils that are effectively outsourcing their own waiting lists to Bournemouth. Many such people arrive with a lot of antisocial problems. Does the Minister think that this growing practice is right?

No, I do not, and we have put in place a number of measures that we hope will provide protection, but the crucial thing to remember is that the powers relating to affordable social homes have now been given to the Mayor of London, who is very clear that over the next few years he will deliver at least 55,000 additional properties, which I hope will ease the situation.

Topical Questions

I have laid before the House a statement on the work of my Department over the summer recess. Today, we announced to the House that £25 million will be made available for local enterprise partnerships. Over the last week, integration has been at the forefront of my diary, including backing the Holocaust memorial appeal and its work in organising student visits to Auschwitz; speaking to the Faiths Forum For London, which brings together different faiths and creeds; and visiting Hampshire to see how the Government’s funding is helping Gurkha veterans and their families, supporting those who have fought for Queen and country and who are proud to call Britain home.

I draw the House’s attention to my indirect interests, as are previously on record.

Sadly, it appears that the Secretary of State is paying little more than lip service to the statement he made on planning last week. Can he explain why my constituents, who are now going to have to live 150 metres away from a waste to energy plant, are being treated differently from those in Norfolk? The Secretary of State has called in a waste to energy plant in Norfolk; he has not called in the one in Plymouth, despite the fact that it covers three authorities and should therefore be of regional importance.

I looked very carefully at the hon. Lady’s representation, but we call in only where there are national and regional implications. None of the statutory undertakers has requested that it be called in. Ultimately, this issue should be dealt with by local people.

T2. The Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership has done a truly excellent job, but the small team running it faces an uphill battle accessing funding streams and preparing bids in time. Clearly, the Secretary of State has anticipated my question because he has given a partial answer, but can he provide some more detail? What assurances can he give me that those LEPs will receive the support they need moving forward to enable them to become successful? (120909)

I pay tribute to the work my hon. Friend has done through the all-party group, which produced an excellent report. I am sure she will be pleased that we are releasing £25 million. We are making some initial money available, but we need to be absolutely clear that LEPs are there to enable local authorities to come together and to share powers and sovereignty, so the majority of this money will be on the basis of match funding. We are not going to fund LEPs if local people do not value them, but if they do and they are prepared to put resources in, we will match that funding.

May I join others in welcoming the new ministerial team to their positions? Local decisions about planning have been the foundation of our system for at least two generations, but on 6 September the Secretary of State, the only survivor of the reshuffle, astonished everyone when he announced legislation to hand over this power to the Planning Inspectorate in cases where he thinks local councils’ decisions are not up to scratch. We all want speed, but when it comes to quality why does he think that he should decide what good decisions are, rather than locally elected councillors?

I have to say that that was an extraordinary intervention from a former Minister who looked to build 10 eco-towns right in the middle of our green belt and gave a number of powers to someone in my position to intervene in the running of local authorities. Our approach builds on a basic right—an applicant has a right to appeal on the basis of non-determination; it simply builds on that and is there to help local authorities. In most cases, this is about where local authorities simply cannot cope, which is why we are urging mergers with adjoining authorities’ planning departments and why they will always find a friend to local planning in myself.

That was, if I may say so, not an example of muscular localism, but rather a lot of waffle. The truth is that the Secretary of State cannot explain how this legislation will work—I suspect that that is because No. 10 has only just thought about it; he has not yet clarified whether it will apply to planning applications for housing, and Government Members might like to ask that question. His Conservative colleague, the Local Government Association leader, Sir Merrick Cockell has called the plans

“a blow to local democracy”.

Is it not the case that the Secretary of State is no longer in control of planning policy? Are not a lot of local communities up and down the country going to be very angry when they discover that he has taken away from them the power to decide on planning applications locally?

Again, I admire the right hon. Gentleman’s pizzazz on this matter. However, we are not imposing eco-towns on the green belt and we are getting rid of the spatial strategies, subject, of course, to a proper review of the environmental assessment, which seems to be inconsistent with the position he sets out. We are there to simply help local authorities. If he is worried about me imposing something on the green belt of Essex, let me assure him that Stansgate abbey is absolutely safe.

T4. Given that the Department’s figures show that almost 1 million houses in England are either empty or have planning position but are not yet built, does the Minister agree that there is absolutely no need for any councils to be building on green belt or greenfield, or in flood-risk areas? (120911)

There is, in the new national planning policy framework—a phrase I find extremely hard to say—a clear instruction or suggestion that local authorities should prioritise brownfield sites. There are also very clear protections for the most special green space. It is, of course, for local people, through their local authorities, to decide what balance to strike between development and protection. However, the national policy has not changed and is very clear.

T3. I welcome the new fire services Minister to his place. He follows a class act in that role—the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). Will the new Minister reassure us that he will continue the good work being done with the Department for Education to reduce the number of fires in schools and, specifically, to promote the introduction of fire sprinklers in new schools and their retrofitting in old ones? (120910)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and I fully endorse his comments about my predecessor, who did an excellent job. I am fortunate to follow in the footsteps of someone who did such great work in moving this issue forward. The hon. Gentleman rightly says that education about fire and fire safety is hugely important, and it is an area in which I intend to continue the good work of his good self and my predecessor.

T7. Does the Housing Minister agree not only that Firstbuy has enabled 16,500 more first-time buyers to own a home but that it underlines our commitment to the aspiration to home ownership—an aspiration that the Labour party, when in government, treated with total contempt? (120914)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Labour Government sought to strangle schemes such as right to buy; indeed, I understand the TUC has now voted to remove that right for council tenants. I trust that when the shadow Housing Minister responds, he will be able to tell us whether he agrees with his ex-friends. The Government are absolutely committed to supporting home ownership through Firstbuy and NewBuy. We are proud of that; it is a commitment that will last.

T5. The bedroom tax is forcing many people to apply for much smaller council houses. What is the Department doing to ensure that local authorities such as North East Derbyshire have the money to build smaller homes? (120912)

We are of course, together with others, putting some £19.5 billion into the affordable housing programme. However, we need to bear in mind the other side of the coin, namely people who face overcrowding while others live on their own in three or four-bedroom properties. I have no problem with the new size criteria; indeed, there are choices, such as taking in a lodger, that could actually help people to maintain their property.

May I highlight the installation of temporary telecommunication masts on an emergency basis? In the Tettenhall area of my constituency, one of those masts has been put in on an emergency basis, with no consultation and no notice, which has caused unnecessary distress, unease and concern among residents and my constituents.

There is provision for local authorities to erect mobile phone masts in an emergency where existing coverage has been threatened, but of course they will want to give adequate notice to local people of anything they are doing so that people are not too surprised by developments on their doorstep.

T6. Hartlepool borough council derives 17% of its business rates from a single company—the nuclear power station. From April 2013, the safety net threshold will be insufficient to match the financial risk, which will increase as the station comes to the end of its operational life. Will the Secretary of State look at the issue urgently to ensure that Hartlepool does not yet again miss out financially? (120913)

The Secretary of State has already assured the House that additional permitted development rights for home owners will be restricted in conservation and other sensitive areas. Can he assure me that sensitive areas will include those subject to article 4 directions, and also those where family housing has come under attack from insensitive over-development of houses in multiple occupation?

I think we can do better than that. We are going to be consulting on the matter, and my hon. Friend will get an opportunity to make a contribution.

T8. Given that homelessness increased by 26% in the past year, why did Ministers think that the right policy response was to increase conservatory building and reduce the amount of affordable housing by changing the section 106 agreements? (120915)

I think the hon. Lady—I hope not deliberately—misunderstands what we are trying to do on 106. It can be a great help in delivering housing, and in some parts of the country that is exactly what it does, but in other parts it is actually a hindrance to delivering social housing, because unrealistic targets mean that if there is a 50% target, 50% of nothing remains nothing. That is why we have been so successful in dealing with progressive local authorities to renegotiate deals and deliver social housing.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the role of Highways Agency holding objections in holding up growth? The beautiful market town of Wyndham in my constituency is threatened with a wave of inappropriate applications because just up the road the Highways Agency has sat for more than a year on a holding objection for 1,200 homes in Hethersett. Will my right hon. Friend agree to look into that for me?

T9. The Government recently announced that they would allow developers effectively to plead poverty in their section 106 agreements in order to get out of building affordable homes. Can the Secretary of State tell me how many affordable homes will not be built as a result of those changes, bearing in mind that the National Housing Federation estimates that 35,000 new affordable homes are built through the process each year? (120916)

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has pointed out, if we do not take these steps many of the developments will not take place. Nevertheless, if we go ahead with the schemes, as we hope to do, we estimate that around 10,000 affordable homes might be lost through section 106 agreements, which is why we have put in place a funding scheme that will provide more than 15,000 additional properties and bring a further 5,000 empty properties back into use. We will get double what was going to be lost.

Is the Secretary of State aware that Newark and Sherwood Homes in my constituency is threatening its tenants with eviction for displaying a poster requesting not to have election literature delivered? Is it not unprecedented for a housing authority to step into the democratic process like that, and will he talk with the Electoral Commission about the matter?

That seems to me to be treating tenants as some 19th century mill owner might have treated his workers. It is entirely inappropriate that tenants should be refused their democratic right to display a poster. I urge the returning officer to look into the injustice immediately.

There are 18,500 families on the council waiting list in my borough, but they cannot afford to buy the new homes that the Minister wishes to put on the brownfield sites in my constituency. He ought to understand what an insult it is to my constituents that the section 106 agreements, which could have brought community gain, will not be in place in Lewisham.

I hope that the right hon. Lady understands that if that development does not take place, she will get no social housing at all. Part of the problem she has is that she thinks that, just because an agreement has been reached, houses will be built. She needs to be realistic and understand that under her Government, nearly 500,000 social houses were lost, and that is a disgrace.

I thank the Secretary of State and the planning inspector for upholding Bradford council’s decision to reject a wholly inappropriate development in Micklethwaite in my constituency, but will the planning Minister explain on what basis the Secretary of State, who had not visited the site, disagreed with some of the points for rejecting the developer’s appeal against the planning inspector, who had visited the site?

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Secretary of State and the planning Minister act in a quasi-judicial capacity when making these decisions, so I am afraid that I cannot comment on the individual case, but I will be happy to talk with him separately to understand the background to it.

Afghanistan (Force Protection)

Order. I apologise for interrupting the right hon. Gentleman, but at this stage all he has to do—we look forward to hearing his mellifluous tones erelong—is request a statement on this important matter. We will not have to wait long to hear his views.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the security of UK soldiers in Afghanistan.

I know that the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the bravery of those who have been killed in action over the past few days in Afghanistan: Lance Corporal Duane Groom of 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, who was killed in action on Friday 14 September by an improvised explosive device; and Sergeant Gareth Thursby and Private Thomas Wroe of 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, who were killed in action on Saturday 15 September 2012. I know that the House will also want to send its collective best wishes to those who were wounded in the actions over the weekend.

The security of our deployed forces in Afghanistan, or anywhere in the world, remains a defence priority. The safety of our service personnel is an issue that all in the Government and the military chain of command take extremely seriously. In recent days, we have again been reminded of the difficult and challenging environment in which our armed forces operate.

Our servicemen and women are doing vital work protecting the UK from the threat of international terrorism. Our strategy is clear. We are mentoring and training the Afghan army and police to deliver security to their own people. This will allow our forces first to withdraw into a support role and then to come home. The Taliban hate this strategy and seek to wreck it through insider attacks. They aim to disrupt the collaboration with Afghan forces, which is at the heart of our strategy. We cannot and will not allow the process to be derailed.

Our partnering with the Afghan national security forces involves risk, but it is essential to success. At 15.45 local time on 15 September, an Afghan local police patrol returned to their checkpoint in Nar-e Saraj from an independent patrol, with an extra trooper who they apparently believed belonged to a neighbouring checkpoint. The UK “guardian angel” conducting overwatch at the checkpoint stopped the extra man, who claimed to have injured his foot and requested medical assistance. A medic was duly called. Unfortunately, the ALP trooper then fired a burst of small-arms fire, resulting in the two UK personnel killed in action. All our losses in Afghanistan are tragic, but the pain feels all the more raw when the incident undermines the trust our forces have built with the Afghans as they work towards our common goal.

I was in Afghanistan last week, and the insider threat was at the top of my agenda in meetings with Afghan leaders and with UK and international security assistance force commanders. I recognise that we cannot eliminate the risk entirely, but I was reassured that President Karzai and the rest of the Afghan Government and military hierarchy clearly recognise that confronting and defeating this threat is pivotal to the future success of the campaign. The Afghan Government, ISAF and the UK national contingent commander have taken significant steps to tackle the threat. We are all united in the view that we cannot let these few terrible incidents derail the steady progress in preparing the Afghans to take responsibility for their own security and thus secure our long-term objectives.

The weekend also saw a significant and well co-ordinated attack on Camp Bastion. The base is one of ISAF’s main sites in southern Afghanistan and acts as the main UK operating base in Helmand. It is a base the size of Reading with a perimeter fence nearly 40 km long. It is difficult to defend a site of this size—a challenge made all the harder when faced with a suicidal enemy. The attack began just after 10 pm local time on Friday night, when approximately 15 insurgents penetrated the camp at one point of the perimeter fence to the eastern side of the main runway. They were dressed in US army uniforms and armed with automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and suicide vests. They attacked coalition fixed and rotary-wing aircraft parked on the flight line, aircraft hangars and other buildings. Six US Marine Corps Harrier jets were destroyed and two were significantly damaged. However, at no stage did the attackers get near to the accommodation areas where the vast majority of the international forces reside.

UK and US forces responded to the incident. The UK Force Protection Wing quick reaction force, which is made up from 51 Squadron the RAF regiment, deployed immediately and engaged the insurgents, killing 14 and wounding one, who has been taken into custody. Two US Marine Corps service members were killed and 13 coalition personnel—12 military and one civilian—were wounded in the attack. None of the injuries is considered life-threatening. There is no denying that this is a significant incident. Immediate measures have been taken to enhance protection of the base and a full investigation is under way, led by the deputy commander of ISAF, UK General Adrian Bradshaw, to ensure that lessons are learned and that such a perimeter breach does not happen again.

Our force protection posture, including the protection of our bases, is routinely assessed and kept under constant review by military commanders to reflect the situation on the ground. I am sure the House will understand that for operational reasons I am unable to discuss force protection measures in fine detail.

Order. There is understandably much interest in this urgent question, but the House will be conscious also that there is a statement by the Secretary of State for Education to follow, and I have to take account of the likely level of interest in that and in the subsequent business. I intend to run the urgent question for approximately half an hour from now, but there will be a premium on brevity from Back Benchers and Front Benchers alike.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, which has allowed the Secretary of State to make a full statement. Since last the House met, as the Secretary of State has recorded—I exchanged some words with him about my question before asking it—two men from the Yorkshire Regiment and one from the Grenadier Guards have died.

My question is simple: why, why, why are we still allowing our soldiers to be sacrificed to no evident purpose? Just after the Prime Minister entered No. 10, he went to Afghanistan and reported to the House. I urged him then, and I think he agreed, that elected Ministers had to take back command and control from the unelected military-Ministry of Defence nexus that had dictated policy. Since then, 146 British soldiers have died, more than one for every week for which he has been in office. They have died in an unwinnable conflict for an unattainable end, to no strategic benefit for our country. It does no honour at all to those who have sacrificed their lives to heap more bodies on the funeral pyre. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori—or pro Britannia mori—is, again, the old, old lie.

I am not urging scuttle. I am urging a drawback to a position in which our men will no longer be killed before they can come home. We have done all the good that we can do. It is time to say, “It’s over.” Frankly, if any more of our brave young boys of barely 20 die, their mothers, fathers and families will ask, “Why, why, why?” The Secretary of State is an honourable man, as are my Front-Bench colleagues. None of us wants to be where we are, but it is over, and we will have no answer if any more of our people are sacrificed.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question and for the measured way in which he has made his point. I remind him that we went into Afghanistan to protect our own national security and ensure that the territory of Afghanistan could not be used by international terrorists to mount attacks on our towns and cities and those of our allies and partner nations. We have announced our intention to end our combat role in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, but to protect our legacy and ensure the continued achievement of our goal of denying the territory of Afghanistan to international terrorists, it is essential that we complete the task of training the Afghan national security forces and increasing their capability so that they can take over the burden of combat as we withdraw. That is what we intend to do, and we will not be deterred from it by these attacks.

It has been a terrible weekend indeed, and all our hearts go out to the families and comrades of the people who have been killed. None the less, I stood in mourning as 300 bodies were carried down the high street of Royal Wootton Bassett in my constituency, and it seems to me that we would dishonour their memory if we were simply to say that because of this terrible weekend, we must now pull out somehow or other. We have been sent there to do a job, and we must do that job and leave with our heads held high.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I think none of us disagrees with the proposition that we now need to extract ourselves from the combat role in Afghanistan. We have set out a timetable for doing that and a clear strategy for replacing the role that our forces play with ever more competent and capable Afghan national security forces. That is the strategy, and we will continue to deliver it.

I begin by joining the Secretary of State in paying tribute to Sergeant Gareth Thursby and Private Thomas Wroe, both of 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, and Lance Corporal Duane Groom of 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards. Our thoughts and prayers are also with those who were wounded over the weekend. Although we in this House take decisions concerning national security, it is the actions and bravery of such people that determine the safety of our country.

Labour Members have been consistent in our support for the mission in Afghanistan, and we will ensure that the best course of action is taken for our forces and for the stability of Afghanistan. The increasing frequency of green-on-blue attacks demands a response of proportionate strength. I start by saying, then, that we welcome the measures that have already been announced regarding recruitment and vetting, and agree that Britain’s resolve should not be shaken by recent events. Green-on-blue attacks are not new, and it is a concern that additional measures were not put in place earlier. When the issue was raised in March, the then Minister for the Armed Forces, the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), said that

“we have changed our procedures in the light of events”.—[Official Report, 26 March 2012; Vol. 542, c. 1148.]

Events have proved that any changes that were made were clearly insufficient. I therefore invite the Secretary of State to confirm that he has confidence in the new measures, and that they are making a lasting difference.

What does the Secretary of State consider to be the principal motivation behind the attacks? To what extent does he believe that they are co-ordinated by the Taliban? That is not to be taken as a given, but it should be taken into consideration as we advance the political process. Do recent events change the Secretary of State’s view that it may be possible to draw down further troops in 2013, as he articulated in recent press articles? When will he be in a position to give the House the details of those withdrawals?

The House will want to know if there has been an assessment of the security lapse at Camp Bastion, and the measures that have been taken to enhance security there and at bases throughout Afghanistan.

As ever, we offer our support to our armed forces and the Government’s mission, which remains a national priority.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the Opposition’s continuing, unstinting support for the strategic objectives in Afghanistan, which are very much in the UK’s national interest.

I should make it clear that, as we understand it at the moment, the attack on Camp Bastion was not an example of a green-on-blue attack. Our current understanding is that Taliban operatives dressed in US army uniforms were responsible, so that attack should be distinguished from the earlier attack, which killed the two members of the Yorkshire Regiment at the Afghan local police base.

The hon. Gentleman asked about my confidence in the new measures that have been taken. I have confidence in them, but they will not all have an immediate impact. The ANSF has grown quickly and it is clear, with the benefit of hindsight, that some of the vetting processes that were used during that fast expansion phase may not have been entirely adequate, so a re-vetting process is now being carried out. Sixty individuals have already been expelled from the Afghan national army, and hundreds more are under investigation.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the motivation for the attacks. I believe that there are four groups of attack motivators. Infiltrations, which the Taliban organise, are certainly going on. There is radicalisation, and last week’s events, with the distribution of the inflammatory video across the Muslim world, did not help. Some attacks are clearly motivated by personal or cultural factors in a society where relatively petty disputes are routinely resolved by resort to violence. Some of the attacks are by Taliban operatives, who have stolen or obtained uniforms.

The hon. Gentleman asked about my comments in Afghanistan about draw-down profile. Military commanders on the ground are telling me, in sharp contradistinction to what I was hearing from them only four or five months ago, that they now believe that their force requirements during 2013 will allow scope for draw-down from current numbers in 2013 on our way to our objective of complete draw-down by the end of 2014.

Several immediate actions have of course been taken on Bastion security: increase of patrols in depth outside the wire; full manning of all watchtowers; increased patrolling inside the base; and additional deployment of intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance assets. Notice has also been given to a number of settlements that have grown up close to the wire that they will be removed so that we have a clearer field of fire outside the base perimeter.

Order. To accommodate the maximum number of colleagues, I appeal to hon. Members to put single, short supplementary questions, preferably without preamble.

I shall try to meet your stricture, Mr Speaker.

My right hon. Friend has painted a sombre picture. Vigilance will obviously be extremely important in endeavouring to prevent such issues from arising again. Will he give the House an assurance that, if extra resources are necessary, those, too, will be provided?

If additional equipment is required, commanders will ask for it; they are never backward in coming forward when they think they require additional equipment. My initial assessment is that the issue is not one of resources but about rethinking our posture to deal with the enemy’s change in tactics, which is itself a response to the success of the partnering programme with Afghan forces.

Does not this terrible tragedy reveal a central fault line in the Government’s strategy, the same one that was apparent in the Government whom I served—namely, the inability to engage beyond President Karzai’s Government to the wider fiefdoms at local and regional level, and to the Taliban themselves? Until that is done—until a political strategy is successfully pursued—our forces will continue to be attacked, killed and maimed in this fashion, and that cannot be right.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the long-term solution to the problem in Afghanistan must involve a political solution, and the pressure is very much on Afghan political leaders, and those in neighbouring countries, to bring that progress about. In the meantime, our task is to ensure that Afghan national security forces provide the security envelope within which any such political settlement can be deployed.

Given the extensive training that is already carried out over several years, why not end combat duties for our troops now, let the Afghans learn the remaining lessons by experience, and get most of our troops home for Christmas?

My right hon. Friend is ignoring the realities of the situation on the ground. UK trainers and mentors have a dual role with Afghan forces. Not only do they enhance the preparedness of those forces, they act as a bridge to enablers such as indirect fire, and helicopter and medical support, which are still necessarily provided by ISAF forces. We have a clear plan to draw down our engagement over two years, and we are steadily withdrawing from combat. To give my right hon. Friend an example, at the beginning of the current six-month tour, we operated 81 separate patrol bases, checkpoints and forward operating bases in Helmand province. That number is now down to 34. We are withdrawing quite quickly from the combat role, but we have a job to do and we will carry on doing it.

Is this not an example of the folly of giving the enemy notice of when we are going to withdraw before reaching a political solution? I have a specific question for the Secretary of State: was there any evidence of inside help for the insurgents who attacked Camp Bastion, particularly from Afghan nationals?

There is no evidence of inside support, but the insurgents clearly had knowledge of the lay-out of Camp Bastion and its flight line area, and that will be one of the key issues that the inquiry under General Bradshaw will be pursuing.

I thank the Secretary of State for his kind words about my constituent Sergeant Gareth Thursby. Does he agree that his widow, Louise, and children, Joshua and Ruby, can be proud of the work done by Gareth Thursby and his colleagues to protect our national security?

Indeed they can. As I said, our work in partnering, training and mentoring Afghan forces necessarily involves risk. Those brave servicemen put themselves in harm’s way in order to carry out that vital work, and we will be eternally grateful to them for that sacrifice.

The soldiers are indeed brave and I pay tribute to those who died. Is the Secretary of State aware that hardly any Members on either side of the House believe that the security of our country depends on military involvement in Afghanistan? It is an unwinnable war. The Taliban will not be defeated and the troops should come home as quickly as possible.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s analysis. When we end our combat role in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, it is likely that it will not be an entirely peaceable country. The point, however, is that ISAF and Afghan national security forces are containing the insurgency and, critically, denying the use of Afghan territory to international terrorists. That is the bottom line for the UK’s national security. If we turn the clock back 10 years, Afghanistan was the principal base for international terrorists who sought ungoverned space from which to plan their attacks on the west.

Last Thursday, in a statement on Afghanistan by the Secretary of State for International Development, the importance of nation building was stressed. When visiting troops in Afghanistan, the Secretary of State for Defence rightly made the point that our troops’ lives should be put in danger not for the sake of nation building, but only to protect British security interests. Which is the Government view? The importance of the distinction is that the first requires defeat of the Taliban, whereas the second does not.

I am not sure I agree with the last part of my hon. Friend’s analysis. Building the capacity of the Afghan state is and has been an important part of winning the overall battle. Afghans in Helmand in particular are now enjoying substantially better health, education and transport services, and access to justice, than they enjoyed a couple of years ago. There is lots of evidence to show that that reinforces their tendency to support the Government and diminishes their tendency to support the insurgency. It is clear to me that building the capacity of the Afghan Government is an important part of the overall equation, but our forces are there to protect our national security. That is their principal task and the basis on which we should judge the wisdom of their engagement.

Given the number and increasing incidence of green-on-blue attacks, is the Secretary of State confident about the security of our troops post-2015, when they will be in Afghanistan in non-combat roles?

The hon. Lady will know that we have not yet made any commitment beyond the commitment to lead the Afghan national officers academy just outside Kabul. We have made no further commitment to troops beyond 2014. The National Security Council and the Cabinet will reach that decision in due course. There is no need for us to make a decision at this time.

I should also say that there are a significant number of green-on-green incidents as well as green-on-blue incidents. Afghan national security forces—this is partly a cultural issue—regularly turn their guns on one another. It is not clear that this is entirely about ISAF forces being singled out; a cultural issue is asserting itself.

The Secretary of State knows my concern that, after the end of the combat role, any mentoring teams left in Afghanistan will become top targets for the enemy. Is this vulnerability one of the reasons that the US is beginning to take seriously the idea of long-term containment using strategic bases? Will our Government begin to take that idea seriously too?

Clearly, the US is looking at long-term containment using strategic bases precisely because it recognises the importance of denying Afghan territory to international terrorists. As I said in reply to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), we have made no decision yet on a post-2014 presence in Afghanistan. Clearly, one factor that will influence us is decisions taken by other ISAF member states.

Congratulations to the Minister, who is saying that there is no way we can allow our soldiers to risk their lives when there is no British interest involved. That is the situation since al-Qaeda was defeated in Afghanistan. When our soldiers are killed by their allies, it is not warfare, but murder. We should take the decision to bring our troops home, as the Canadian and Dutch Parliaments have—their troops have been home for two years. The French are going home early, as are the New Zealanders. There is absolutely no reason we should not do what the country wants and bring our brave soldiers home by Christmas.

There are lots of reasons we should not and could not bring our brave soldiers home by Christmas. We have a legacy in Afghanistan, and it has been won at a great cost. Four hundred and thirty British service personnel have given their lives, and we intend to protect that legacy—[Interruption.] We intend to protect that legacy by ensuring that the UK’s national security interests are protected in future by training and mentoring the Afghan national security forces to take over the role we are currently playing—[Interruption.]

Order. Hon. Members should not shout, but I look to a very senior figure on the Treasury Bench not to get over-excited. I knew the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) when he was a very calm and rational 23-year-old. Now he is 48 he should be even more calm and rational. That is what we want to see.

Can we not just be calm and rational, and concentrate on our national interest, which is our own defence? Given that the old Liberal Imperialist dream of making Afghanistan safe for democracy is dead and that, after 2014, the Taliban will be in control of large areas of the country, why do we not concentrate on our national security, on the use of special forces and drone attacks to keep the heads of the Taliban down, and not pretend that we are in there to fulfil our national destiny of promoting democracy in Afghanistan? It will not happen.

I have said very clearly that the role of British forces there is to protect Britain’s national security interests. In my judgment, and that of the Government and the military command, that will best be achieved by ensuring the capability of what is now a substantial Afghan security force to hold the ground after 2014, and to contain the insurgency—I do not live in a world where I imagine the insurgency will be defeated by military means—and to create the space for an inclusive, or semi-inclusive, political solution.

I send my condolences to the families of the fallen soldiers from the 3 Yorks.

Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that all possible measures are in place to ensure the most effective vetting of those who seek to serve in the Afghan national security forces? I appreciate the difficulties and complexities of this specialised work but seek his assurance that sufficient resource has been made available to ensure that, where possible, those intent on causing our soldiers harm are not given the opportunity to do so.

I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. The Afghan Government have doubled the number of National Directorate of Security investigators assigned to the Afghan national army and introduced processes of re-vetting Afghan soldiers returning after going AWOL and of re-vetting soldiers when they return from prolonged periods of leave. Our commanders in theatre tell me that, on every occasion, they have accepted concerns expressed by allied commanders about individuals and have, without hesitation, detained them and begun an investigation. We are satisfied that the Afghans are doing everything that needs to be done on their side; we are taking further measures on ours.

In his statement, the Secretary of State suggested that we were rethinking our posture. Could we rethink our posture towards those responsible for the mentoring, reduce the number of young officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers at the front line involved in mentoring, and restrict it to command and control at kandak—battalion—level? That would, at least, stop some of our men being put into danger?

I understand my hon. Friend’s point. One of the issues that will be considered is the appropriate level at which to do it. At the moment, we are mentoring at kandak and tolay company level. We certainly keep these issues under constant review. I remind him, however, that we are not only mentoring army units; Afghan local police units also have to be trained. The Afghan local police and uniformed police units constitute an extraordinarily effective force against the Taliban. He has my assurance, however, that we keep these matters under constant review.

Can we do more to protect those working with British forces? Twenty one Afghani interpreters have been killed in the past five years, and 90 seriously injured. Can we better protect not only those in Afghanistan but those who come to this country, such as Mr Hottak, a constituent of mine, who should not have to wait a year and a half for his asylum claim to be considered?

We have a programme for the protection of Afghans working for UK forces, particularly interpreters, and are working on a programme to ensure their protection post-2014, when we withdraw from our combat role.

The coalition’s path towards handover to the Afghan forces is right. One of the most important contributions that the Afghan forces can make is to counter-intelligence. Has the Secretary of State received any assurances from Mr Karzai and his Government that effective Afghan counter-intelligence is being developed?

The Afghans are developing capabilities such as counter-intelligence, but they are still, at this stage, heavily dependent on ISAF support for technical advice and technical enablement. The strategic plan envisages that that support will continue for another two years as we draw down from the combat role.

The attack on Camp Bastion showed a new level of sophistication and skill on behalf of the Taliban. May we have an assurance that there will be close monitoring of Taliban infiltration of our security forces, so that access to uniforms, for example, is protected in order to prevent this sort of attack from taking place in the future?

The attack was a sophisticated one, but I have to say to the hon. Lady that it is not that difficult for someone to cut through a fence and attack what is on the other side of it when they have absolutely no intention of getting out alive. Most of the sophisticated operations that we are involved in are based on protecting our own forces. All these people clearly expected to die; there was clearly no plan for extracting them after the attack.

On the question of uniforms, I believe that the people involved in the attack on Friday night were wearing US army uniforms. It is probably fanciful to suggest that we can create a situation whereby US army uniforms or a passable imitation of them are not fairly freely available.

Eighteen-year-old Private Thomas Wroe attended the high school in my home village of Honley, and I pass on my sincerest sympathies to his family and to that of his Yorkshire Regiment colleague, Sergeant Gareth Thursby. Will my right hon. Friend assure me and all the families that everything is being done within the Afghan high command to change its recruitment procedures in order to eradicate these cowardly insider attacks on our forces?

As I have said, we believe that the Afghans are doing everything that is appropriate. They have done everything we suggested that they should do, so we have no complaints at all. I can tell my hon. Friend that President Karzai has made it clear at the highest level to his military commanders and his Cabinet that this is a pivotal issue and that they have to resolve it and step up to the plate.

Is it not the case that in every military campaign where the departure of troops has been preannounced, it has been as dangerous to leave as it was to arrive in the first place? Will the Defence Secretary make it absolutely clear to military leaders in the field that they need to do everything in their power to ensure force protection as we leave?

Of course. Our military commanders are absolutely clear that force protection is our No. 1 priority and that it will remain so during the draw-down. As the hon. Gentleman rightly suggests, during the draw-down of a force there is a very careful balance to be struck between the speed of extraction and maintaining adequate force protection. Much of the debate taking place inside the military about the trajectory of draw-down is about how to maintain adequate force protection during that period.

Our military are doing an incredible job, which is being made all the more difficult by these insider attacks, which have increased from three ISAF deaths in 2008 to 51 this year. Will the Secretary of State comment on reports that suggest that the policeman who killed the two British soldiers was actually related to a Taliban leader? What is being done by the Afghan recruitment process to make sure that this does not happen in the future?

I have seen no intelligence myself to suggest that the policeman in question, who was killed, was related to a Taliban leader. I am afraid that the facts of life in Afghanistan, with its huge extended families, mean that we will often find that members of the security force are distantly related to people who are on the other side of this fight. That is just the nature of the country.

The Secretary of State referred to the need to hold the ground after the combat role has ended. Is he really confident that the Afghan national forces will be able to hold the ground in the Pashtun-populated areas, including Helmand, once we have left?

The indications are that the Afghan strategic plan is to hold the ground in the crucial areas—the major towns, the major routes of communication and the major economic areas, including the Helmand valley. The assessment of our military commanders on the ground—I have no better information than that—is that they are likely to be able to do so, with some compromises at the margins.

I can understand hon. Members wanting to bring our troops home, but does the Secretary of State agree that those who have given their lives have not done so in vain? They have protected our national security, as is their prime purpose, and enabled an entire generation to access education for the first time, giving that country the best chance of peace and prosperity. Given its history, that is in our national interest.

The presence of our troops over a prolonged period has done two things. It has stopped international terrorists using Afghanistan, and has thereby protected our homeland security. It has also created the space in which the Afghan Government have begun to deliver the kind of services that a civil Government are expected to deliver in the 21st century. Helmandis have enjoyed better health care, better transport systems, better justice and better education. That is a major step forward and will stand Afghanistan in good stead for the future.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I associate myself and my party with the expressions of sympathy for the families who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan. Early indications show that the weapons used by the terrorist insurgents were proximate to the fence that surrounds Camp Bastion. Will the additional measures that he mentioned include the introduction of CCTV cameras, so that security can be improved around Camp Bastion?

A number of sophisticated surveillance devices are in operation and additional surveillance capabilities have been deployed over the weekend. I cannot comment, for obvious reasons, on the detailed nature of those surveillance methods, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that additional surveillance of the perimeter fence is now in place.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the use of drone strikes, which has killed many civilians, needs to be reviewed?

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles to conduct strikes is always the subject of careful scrutiny before it is authorised. There are circumstances in which that is the most appropriate way of executing a target in Afghanistan. I agree that it is better to use manned aircraft or ground forces when it is practical and can be done without undue risk to coalition forces.

On 26 March this year, my constituent, Lance Corporal Michael Foley, was killed in a so-called green-on-blue incident in Helmand. I was observing a training exercise with British troops over the weekend when the latest tragic news broke. Although public respect and support for our armed forces are possibly at an all-time high, many soldiers feel that there is a lack of understanding among the public of the dangers that they still face. Will the Secretary of State say what he is doing to increase public understanding of the varied and vital role that our armed forces are still performing in Afghanistan, especially as we move away from combat operations?

My hon. Friend is right. My contribution, I hope, is to talk about it at every available opportunity, including in this House.

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