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Westminster Hall

Volume 555: debated on Tuesday 11 December 2012

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 11 December 2012

[Dr William McCrea in the Chair]

Overseas Territories (Governance)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Simmonds.)

It is very good to be here under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea, as I recall that you were the first representative of Northern Ireland in my time as Chairman of Ways and Means to join the Panel of Chairs. You have clearly relished that appointment, and I know how much time you devote to it.

The debate is timely, in that it is taking place shortly after the UK and overseas territories joint ministerial council. The debate provides an opportunity for parliamentarians to offer their perspective on the relationship between the United Kingdom and the overseas territories and, indeed, the relationship of the overseas territories to the Commonwealth as a whole. I do not think that it needs stressing that there is great good will in this Parliament and, I guess, in the country as a whole towards our overseas territories. I dare say that if people in general were asked, “Which are the overseas territories?” not everyone would be able to name them for sure, but there is a feeling that by their very nature they have a close relationship with this country, so they must be a good thing. I hope that the debate will further underline that friendship and the support that exists at Westminster for the territories. I recognise that that may not be without criticism from time to time, but friendship is devalued if there cannot occasionally be plain speaking.

My hon. Friend the Minister and probably other colleagues will be pleased to know that I will not attempt a tour d’horizon. To do so would represent the most enormous cheek on my part, because, of the 14 overseas territories, I have only as yet visited one, and that was 40 years ago. Admittedly, it was one of the most inaccessible—St Helena. I was there with a Labour colleague, Ray Carter, the then Member for Birmingham, Northfield, and our recommendation on returning was that the island needed an airport. That has not happened quickly, but it is very satisfying that there is now a commitment to seeing an airport constructed. I hope that I shall be blessed with a long enough parliamentary life to be able to make a return visit to that splendid island.

However, I am hoping, in the course of 2013, to up my score with direct knowledge of the overseas territories, in that I am expecting to attend the British Islands and Mediterranean region conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which will be held in the Falkland Islands; the executive committee of the CPA is due to meet in 2013 in the Cayman Islands; and I also hope to schedule at some point in that year a visit to Gibraltar.

I currently wear two hats that provide me with some credentials to initiate the debate, being the chairman of the UK branch of the CPA and the chairperson of the international executive committee of the CPA. My starting point—my theme—is the wording in the June 2012 Foreign and Commonwealth Office report on the overseas territories, which declares:

“We would welcome greater engagement between the UK Parliament and the elected bodies of the Territories.”

From the CPA’s point of view, that seems exactly right. We can be an instrument to ensure that that engagement takes place. I would widen it to suggest that there could be greater engagement between the Commonwealth as a whole and the territories. The report to which I have referred suggested that our Government should seek a form of observer status for overseas territories within the Commonwealth. At the moment, they are only members through the UK’s membership. There may be some difficulties about that, but the fact is that they are very much part of the Commonwealth family and I believe that they should be given some form of status that underlines the value that we see in their membership.

It is a widely shared belief and one that is certainly at the core of CPA activities that good governance is the key to advancing the well-being of any jurisdiction, large or small. We believe in the CPA that we can play a key role. The CPA exists not just to promote better relationships, but specifically to enhance knowledge and understanding of democratic governance. Eight out of the 14 overseas territories are branches of the CPA in their own right. The UK branch undertakes, on behalf of this Parliament, parliamentary diplomacy and parliamentary strengthening activities. It involves Members of Parliament and our officials, because our expert Clerks are able to give guidance to those in the overseas territories who are seeking to set up their own arrangements. There is a constant need for that engagement, because a consequence of democratic elections is that there is sometimes quite a large turnover of elected members, so someone will come into a Parliament or legislative assembly and suddenly say, “That’s great, but now what do I do? How can I be an effective member of this body?” Sometimes there is a need to be able to reach out and talk to someone else. Those people need not be exclusively from the UK by any means, but the ability to have that guidance can be very useful.

As I said, eight of the 14 overseas territories are branches of the CPA. Anguilla, the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Montserrat and the British Virgin Islands come under the Caribbean, Americas and Atlantic region. The Falklands, Gibraltar and St Helena come under the British Islands and Mediterranean region. I think that we ought to promote as standard the idea that there should be available to the territories, first, the possibility of election observation missions and, secondly, post-election seminars. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), who has been closely involved in that type of work, will probably wish to expand on that if he seeks to catch your eye, Dr McCrea. Both those types of activity ought to be seen as core activities. We should not be entirely satisfied if that is not a service that is universally available to the overseas territories. It was therefore rather disappointing—I do not know whether the Minister will be able to comment on this—that the Bermudian Government in the end decided that they did not wish to take up that possibility. It ought to be seen as a non-threatening exercise that is of positive value in the territories involved.

My right hon. Friend refers to the situation in Bermuda. Is the issue the fact that it did not take election observers from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association or the United Kingdom, or that there was no independent election monitoring during the elections or will not be in the elections coming up?

We are certainly not trying to impose; it is a matter of finding the right composition for any mission of that kind, whether during or after an election. The composition should be constructed according to what seems most appropriate. In fact, some Crown dependencies—the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey—have shown a willingness to offer, from the perspective of themselves as small jurisdictions, the kind of assistance that might be valuable to our overseas territories. I want to emphasise that it is not about the United Kingdom knowing best; there is wider experience that can be drawn upon, as demonstrated by the mission to the Turks and Caicos Islands.

The CPA could also play a bigger part internationally. At present, the nature of the CPA, and one of its complications, is that it is not an association simply of states; provinces and states within a federal Government arrangement can all be individual branch members, as can overseas territories, small countries and so on. We have nearly 180 branches in membership.

The small branches conference, which takes place every year, organised by the CPA, is a great experience for our overseas territories. Not only do they meet with an agenda expressly about the needs of smaller jurisdictions—they have some issues in common, but also issues peculiar to them—but there are topics relevant to branches with populations smaller than 500,000. Providing an arena in which they can realise that they are not alone and that others around the Commonwealth and across the oceans have similar issues is one of the valuable services that the CPA provides. We should intensify the efforts to help many such small jurisdictions.

Apart from what might be described as steady, perhaps unspectacular, continuing work, how else might we turn the warm words, which we frequently use when we speak of the overseas territories, into solid action? There are calls for closer integration between the overseas territories and this country. Some other countries are very closely integrated with their overseas territories, which have direct representation in their legislatures and so on. That may be a more difficult question for the UK, but to illustrate to the overseas territories how seriously we take them, something more than an all-party group—presided over with great vigour by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell)—might be appropriate.

Returning to the island of St Helena, let me say that there are parts of the world with which we have an historical association that deserve solid support. I mentioned that I came back from the island absolutely convinced of the need for better communication to give that small territory a fair chance for its population, because the opportunities for work and wealth creation are limited by the enormous difficulties in getting in and out of the island. It has taken a long time, but I am delighted that there is a real prospect of air communication with the island.

Another thing I came away with—and from the anecdotes I hear from colleagues, I suspect that it is true—is the belief that there are tremendously warm feelings and a tremendous sense of loyalty towards this country in our overseas territories, which we have not perhaps rewarded as generously as we should. My visit to St Helena was a long time ago, but I doubt whether much has changed in that particular. It was very difficult to find a household on the island, however lowly or grand, in which there was not a portrait of Her Majesty the Queen or her father on the wall. I do not think that one could say that of our country. We take our loyalty to the Crown for granted, but they were very proud to display it. We ought to remember that enormous good will in our dealings with our overseas territories, to see whether we can give them an enhanced sense that we are thinking about them and are ready to do the right things to support them.

There is one specific that it would be wrong of me to overlook: air passenger duty. It impacts particularly hard on some of the island territories. I was one of a group of colleagues who sought to persuade the Government to review the present banding arrangement, which was perverse in its effect, particularly on territories in the Caribbean. In the end, the review disappointingly led to no change. There are special links between the territories and ourselves. APD should be looked at again.

I cannot for the life of me believe there is no way to help specifically. If we identify certain territories as considerably dependent upon us, cannot they be ring-fenced as a group, so that there could be some concession on the amount of APD that applies? I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister might start to exercise a little discourse between his office and the Treasury to see whether, in pursuit of demonstrating stronger support for the overseas territories, a concession on APD might be found.

If we are honest, the relationship between this country and the overseas territories, despite the warm words I have used on this occasion, is not without its hiccups, but we need to be aware that underlying loyalty and support generally emanates from them towards this country. As I have tried to emphasise, we owe them more and we should look for every way to intensify the closer engagement that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office professes to want to encourage. We should do everything we can to intensify that to our mutual advantage.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak in the debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Dr McCrea. I was trying to recall the last time that I had the pleasure, and I think it was when you were artfully chairing the Committee on the Budget Responsibility and National Audit Bill. You did so with some aplomb and I am sure you will bring the same chairing ability to today’s debate.

I suspect that one or two observers will be slightly confused, as they may have been expecting a debate on unmanned aerial vehicles. For the benefit of any observers who are confused, that will be this afternoon at 2.30 pm. The Minister has a diary commitment this afternoon to give evidence to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on, I think, overseas territories. I am grateful that he has been able to move things around to attend the debate today.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst). I have the pleasure and privilege of serving under his chairmanship on the Administration Committee and as a member of the executive committee of the UK branch of the CPA. He eloquently set out the role of the CPA and the high regard in which overseas territories are held by the Foreign Office and Parliament.

I also pay tribute to the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham). His work was appreciated on both sides of the House and, indeed, in the overseas territories. He served with distinction for two and a half years as the Minister with responsibility for the overseas territories. One of the great debates about Ministers is whether they are the Minister for the overseas territories or the Minister to them. I am sure that in his new role the Minister will navigate skilfully through those rocky waters, making both us and the overseas territories believe that he is “our” Minister. I look forward to hearing his priorities when he responds.

Parliamentarian that you are, Dr McCrea, you will be aware that the CPA is a unique institution. It is more than 100 years old, having been founded in 1911 as the Empire Parliamentary Association, with six founder members. They were the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and—curiously—Newfoundland. I was not aware that until after the second world war, Newfoundland was a separate dominion from the rest of Canada; I will not digress on the long history of how that came to be.

As the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden mentioned, the CPA is now a much larger organisation, comprising the Parliaments and Assemblies of not only members of the Commonwealth, but devolved institutions at state and regional level around the world from Canada to the Seychelles, from Pakistan to Scotland and, indeed, Dr McCrea, the Northern Ireland Assembly, which is a full and active member of the CPA. You will also be familiar with the story that at last year’s CPA conference, I confused Mr Basil McCrea with your son; they are both Members of the Legislative Assembly.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, one of the CPA’s strengths is that it provides a unique platform for the overseas territories. It is the only Commonwealth institution that recognises them in a formal capacity. From having spoken to several of those from the overseas territories last week, when they were here for the joint ministerial council, one thing they are keen for—perhaps the Minister will reflect on this—is a more formal status within the Commonwealth, perhaps as associate or observer members. At the moment, their only voice is Members of the House and of the other place, plus the CPA. I know that the premiers and chief ministers would like a more formal opportunity, an issue which may be appropriate for this debate.

The CPA, and of course the Commonwealth as a whole, is linked by a common and shared identity. It is not simply the fact that we have a common Head of State—we all have Her Majesty the Queen as head of the Commonwealth—but a shared history. When the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) and I were in Turks and Caicos on an election mission, we jointly had the great honour and privilege of laying a wreath on behalf of the CPA on Remembrance Sunday. It is worth reflecting on the fact that when the United Kingdom sent out the call to arms in two world wars, the overseas territories played a full role in answering that call, just as your constituents, Dr McCrea, and mine did, as well as other dominions and territories in the Commonwealth. It is perhaps unfortunate that the overseas territories do not always get the recognition that they deserve for the full role they enjoy playing in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.

I have had the privilege of undertaking two observer missions—one to the British Virgin Islands in November last year, and one to the Turks and Caicos, with the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East, last month. Observer missions are vital to any vibrant democracy for the purposes of transparency, for providing comfort to all those participating, and, indeed, those watching around the world, and sharing best practice. As hon. Members will know, the itinerary of an observer mission includes, in the build-up to an election, meeting all the political parties privately to give them the opportunity to talk about their experiences of the election. We obviously seek reassurances that they are comfortable that the election is free and fair. As someone who has stood for elected office, I think it useful to have such meetings before the election. From my experience, if there is a favourable result, we have a slightly more favourable view of the whole process than if there is an unfavourable one. It is therefore vital that those discussions take place before election day, rather than afterwards.

We also take the opportunity to meet the governors—I will return to their role later—and election officials to understand election ordinances and rules, and to see their processes. Like the proverbial swan, although elections always appear to move serenely over the surface of the water, underneath a vast amount of paddling, often to some purpose, is going on in the build-up. We undertake press and media monitoring. On our most recent mission, the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East and I observed a political party rally in the Turks and Caicos Islands. That was an experience in itself; as he will recall, it was difficult to get the PNP—the Progressive National party—tune out of one’s head, because it was played over and over again.

I pay tribute to the Westminster Foundation for Democracy for its work in various countries, for example in the build-up to the restoration of local democracy in Turks and Caicos. It visited several times to help build election ordinances and confidence in the process, and to put an electoral system in place. One very simple thing was done there—or at least I would say that it was simple. Previously, political parties could treat voters by supplying them with free alcohol and food both at rallies during the build-up and on polling day. Westminster Foundation for Democracy helpfully made the proposal, which was certainly taken up with enthusiasm by party treasurers, to prohibit giving alcohol to potential voters on polling day. In the United Kingdom, we look with some bemusement at the idea that we could, in effect, treat voters, but it was standard practice for 30 or 40 years in the Turks and Caicos Islands. That is a simple example of how engagement by other Commonwealth parliamentarians can help improve the democratic electoral process.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his work in relation to the Turks and Caicos Islands and more broadly. Does he agree that we have as much to learn from some of the territories about governance as they have to learn from us? I remember coming back from an election at which people queued up for hours, because they were so passionate about voting, and the turnout was 95%, to a United Kingdom election at which people told me on the doorstep that they could not be bothered to vote and turnout was 15% to 20%.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who was a pleasure to work with on the mission. He is right that turnout was 80% or above. People queued for an hour before polls opened, and for three or four hours after they had officially closed, to take part in the democratic process, which is a tribute to them and their commitment to democracy. As the hon. Gentleman will recall, I recounted to an election official that in my constituency if somebody was asked to wait for two minutes, they would probably turn tail and go home. I cannot imagine such enthusiasm in the United Kingdom, so he is absolutely right.

I want to pay particular tribute to Ms Juliette Penn, who is the returning officer for the British Virgin Islands. She is a formidable woman, who organises her elections with some efficiency. I regret to say that my local returning officer could learn quite a lot from her about producing a result efficiently and with confidence. I press the Minister to consider what more we can do to partner and work with electoral registration officers in the overseas territories and those in other Parliaments and Assemblies, whether the Crown dependencies, the devolved Administrations or local government. The hon. Gentleman is entirely right; it would be incredibly patronising and foolhardy to think that this was a one-way process of the UK teaching the overseas territories how to do things. Quite often, it is the reverse.

That leads me nicely to the on-the-day observing that we do. It is our goal to visit all polling stations on polling day, which in some places can be a logistical challenge. In some territories, there are a very small number of electors on very small islands. One of our observers spent a day—I imagine not an unpleasant day—on an island that had 30 voters. He had to take a good book with him to get through the 12 hours while the polls were open. However, there is a serious point. We are clear about what we are looking for; we want to ensure that no treating of voters takes place and that no undue influence is placed on voters in the vicinity of the polling stations. As the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East will recall, we heard some fascinating tales from around the world. For example, in recent years, voters were taking their mobile phones, which now have cameras, into the polling booth when they cast their vote. They photographed their ballot paper, which they duly took to the polling clerk and put in the box. They then went outside to a gentleman sitting in a car about 100 feet away from the polling station, showed the picture of their ballot paper and received $100 or £100 in the local currency. Things that we would find absolutely astonishing have been common practice in some parts of the Commonwealth.

When we reviewed the last election in the Turks and Caicos Islands, it was clear that such things were not happening, because robust processes had been put place. I pay tribute to the Governor’s office, the local police and election officials for the work they have done with the parties to stamp out such behaviour. However, it is not an uncommon problem in some parts of the world, which is why our missions are so important.

We also attend the counts and, in some cases, the recounts. This is an area where there is still room for improvement. It was heartening to talk to the new Premier of the Turks and Caicos Islands, Dr Rufus Ewing, about the matter; I know the Minister will want to welcome him to his new role. On the island I mentioned, where there were only 30 voters, electoral officers took two hours to count the ballot papers—even my returning officer would not take two hours to count 30 voters’ choices. There is perhaps some room for a more efficient system to be introduced. The count is a vital part of the whole process. It is critical that the voters feel, and can see, that their democratic choices are reflected in the results. Although I may joke that the process is slow, there was no real dispute that it was fair. There was no indication that anything untoward had happened to the ballot papers between the close of the poll and counting.

Clearly, there are differences in approach. For example, rather than bringing all the ballot boxes to one polling station or to one count, the territories often count the votes in situ. They close their polling station at, say, 6 o’clock and go straight to a count, and I can see the advantage in that. In a new democracy, or one that is establishing its confidence, there is a strong argument that there should be as little movement as possible of ballot papers. To be fair, it makes for a long day for election officials and campaign workers. Dr McCrea, you and I have fought enough elections to know that our day does not begin when the polls open and end when the polls shut; there is a little bit before and a little bit after.

The CPA missions produce a report. If anyone is interested, they are publicly available from the Foreign Office. Both our report on the BVI and our preliminary report on the Turks and Caicos, which I think the Minister has had an opportunity to look at, said that the process was fair and transparent and that the people’s will had been adequately reflected in the results. While we recognise that some efficiencies can be introduced, it is fundamentally a robust system.

That leads me to the ways we can help some of the overseas territories strengthen their democratic processes. As the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden has mentioned, there are a number of overseas territories in the Caribbean. I will not list them all because I am bound to forget one, which would be a terrible offence. It strikes me that we can do more, through the governors, to encourage election officials to share good practice, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views. It is surely not beyond the wit of the Foreign Office to bring together the EROs for all the overseas territories to share common practice. Perhaps the Minister can outline what steps he is considering to encourage the returning officers from the BVI, the TCI and the Anguillas to observe the build-up to the Cayman elections that are taking place next year and to offer suggestions. In that way, they can build an informal network so that as each election comes round, the returning officers learn from each other.

The Minister will be aware of the role of the Crown dependencies within the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. On our mission last year to the British Virgin Islands, we were delighted to be joined by representatives from the Isle of Man and Guernsey. It struck me that on a practical level, they have more in common with the overseas territories. Like many of our Crown dependencies, their strength lies in shipping registries, tourism and financial services. They also have relatively small numbers of legislators in their Assemblies and Parliaments.

Earlier, the hon. Gentleman made the point that he would encourage the Minister for, or of, overseas territories—hopefully both—to look at EROs regionally becoming more involved in the process. Does he agree that one of the strengths of our mission was that it was chaired not by a politician from the United Kingdom Parliament, but by Joe Bossano, a Minister from the Gibraltarian Parliament? It would be constructive to have a cadre of politicians who were regionally involved in peer-to-peer assessment of the elections, rather than simply relying on people to travel over from Gibraltar or the United Kingdom, which is not the most economic thing to do. Furthermore, we do not have the same degree of expertise and the same understanding of those territories.

The hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly powerful and valid point. He is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to Joe Bossano for the way he led the observer mission; he spoke very eloquently, and with some credibility, about the role of overseas territories, which, of course, include Gibraltar. We need to encourage not just EROs but the overseas territories’ politicians to work together where appropriate. Clearly, it is slightly more challenging logistically for Members from the Falkland Islands to go to BVI, which, by my count, involves five stops or changes, plus a train journey from Brize Norton to Heathrow. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should be encouraging the territories of, say, the Caribbean and Bermuda to work together as parliamentarians, especially as many of the territories have slightly different electoral systems. Some have not just districts but at-large, all-island systems which we do not have in the UK Parliament, although our colleagues in Scotland and Wales do to an extent. The different electoral systems are one of the things that we UK politicians must get our heads around. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that encouraging that involvement will be a slightly more economical use of the FCO’s pound.

I am very keen that within the British Isles and Mediterranean region branch of the CPA we have a group of parliamentarians who develop their skills, know what they are looking for and know how to write their reports. We are seeing the Minister next week and he is aware that one of the issues I am keen to talk to him about is how we develop skill-sets within this Parliament, so that we have a group of colleagues who are able to go to elections, whether in overseas territories, in Africa—if we are invited—or in Australia.

It is worth bearing in mind that having election missions is now the norm rather than the exception. Just last month, the United States had a delegation from overseas, including at least one Member of the House of Commons, my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mark Hendrick). I know that the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East has taken a great interest in Africa, and many African countries have such delegations. Territories and nations that do not have election observers from elsewhere run the risk of opening themselves up to questions such as, “What is it they have to hide?” Perhaps the Minister can enlighten me, but I think that there are very few countries in the world that do not have election observers; North Korea springs to mind. Perhaps he can think of a slightly more exhaustive list, but I think it would be a very small list of countries. Any electorate that has elections coming up should ask why they do not have election observers coming into their country or territory.

I want to touch briefly on the role of governors. I pay tribute to the two governors I had the privilege of working with during elections: His Excellency Governor Boyd McCleary of the British Virgin Islands; and His Excellency Governor Rick Todd in the Turks and Caicos. Can I press the Minister to say a little bit about the role of governors in helping to build the democratic processes? I particularly want to press him to say something about Governor Todd. He will be aware, as I am, that there has been a petition, which no one seems to be taking ownership of, criticising the Governor. I would be grateful if the Minister would place on record whether the Governor still has the full confidence of Her Majesty’s Government. Hopefully, he can put an end to the speculation that has started up in some quarters in parts of the Turks and Caicos.

In the remaining time, I will move away from talking about the Caribbean specifically. I hope that the Foreign Office will look at the CPA as a useful ally and partner in building the governance arrangements of the overseas territories. As I said, the CPA is a unique organisation. There is no other organisation in the world with a common identity and common history that brings together such an eclectic mix of assemblies and Parliaments, from sovereign nations through to Crown dependencies, devolved Parliaments and assemblies, and overseas territories. I would be grateful if the Minister could set out what he thinks the CPA can bring as a partner to strengthening the democratic processes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) will be setting out the Opposition’s position on the territories shortly. In closing, I will just say that on the issue of air passenger duty there is genuine concern among our overseas territories that they are being discriminated against. I am sure you would agree, Dr McCrea, that it is a slightly bizarre situation that because we measure by distance to a capital, if someone flies to Honolulu they will pay far less in APD than if they fly to an overseas territory in the Caribbean or to Kingston or to any other Commonwealth country.

When the Minister met the premiers and chief ministers of the UK’s overseas territories last week the issue of APD was raised, so I would be grateful if he could set out how he found his first joint ministerial council—indeed, the first JMC. Perhaps he could say a little about what his priorities are for the coming 12 months and how he will evaluate success. I hope that he will also set out how we go forward with the White Paper, which was relatively uncontroversial, as far as a Government White Paper can be uncontroversial—I say that in the nicest possible way. I would be very interested to hear how he intends to take forward the ideas in the White Paper and the submissions from the CPA and others.

Finally, I wish the Minister all the best in his role. I know that he will find it deeply stimulating and challenging, and we look forward to working with him in the months ahead.

Thank you, Dr McCrea, for calling me to speak. It is a real pleasure to appear under your chairmanship; I think I am doing so for the first time.

I welcome the new Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds). I think that this is the first time we have had the opportunity to debate with each other; I suspect that the topic of today’s debate will not be the most controversial topic that we will address.

It has been a real pleasure to attend this debate, and I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) for securing it. He has kept me in order on many occasions in the past and it is a pleasure to hear him on the other side of the fence, talking about this important issue. We have had a very interesting debate.

I am a great fan of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which is a tremendous institution in Parliament. My own constituency of Wrexham has benefited massively from the CPA, because we have developed a very strong link with Lesotho in southern Africa as a direct result of a visit that I paid there in 2005. It led to very close links between schools in my constituency and in Lesotho, which is a developing country. As a direct result of the CPA visit that I made, Wrexham hosted the Lesotho Olympic team. That sort of link, which is between not only parliamentarians but constituencies and institutions within constituencies, is what we should be working to try to achieve with the overseas territories.

One of the real challenges of modern parliamentary life is that the focus of MPs is very much on their own constituencies or their own constituency work; sometimes that work does not extend beyond the borders of the constituency, let alone of the United Kingdom. We all know that the overseas territories are an intrinsic and central part of our history. That has been very evident in this debate—they are part of what makes the United Kingdom, and it is absolutely imperative that we recognise that and continue to have a strong and developing relationship with them.

We have heard today about how those links are carried forward through the CPA and, of course, through other avenues. However, it is also the case that, because of the disparate nature of the overseas territories and their geographical spread, it is very difficult for the overseas territories and those developing knowledge of democratic institutions to secure regular experience of elections of the type that we have. We have secured our experience in a country of 60 million people.

It is very important indeed that we work with the overseas territories to share our experience of elections. I think it was the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden who made the point that we can also learn from the overseas territories, and my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) made the same point. In an era of turnouts of 12% or 15% in some UK elections, we must not think that we are in a state of grace as far as dealing with elections is concerned. The enthusiasm of a novel election process, as we saw all those years ago in South Africa and as we see today in other places, tells us and the people of the UK that democracy is an important process, which needs to develop. We also need to bring that experience from other places to the UK.

What we as parliamentarians can offer is the benefit of our experience, and I strongly agree with my hon. Friend’s point about electoral registration officers. In an era when communication is becoming easier because of the development of the internet, it is possible to maintain relations that might not have been possible 40 years ago. When the right hon. Gentleman visited St Helena, the prospect of maintaining contact with individuals there was so remote as to have been virtually impossible, but that is now possible once a connection is made. I would like relations to be extended to not only parliamentarians but the communities they represent in the UK, so that we can pool our resources and secure the relationships that are so necessary to building good governance and democracy in the overseas territories.

It is important that parliamentarians should be involved. Increasingly, under the European Union, electoral observation tends to focus on European institutions rather than Parliament. One theme I want to pursue with the Minister is that I would like more parliamentarians to take part in electoral observation missions to Commonwealth countries and the overseas territories. Elected politicians bring a substantial benefit to the observation process, and it is essential in a multi-party democracy that they play a role, although not an exclusive one, in electoral observation missions. It is unfortunate that that role has diminished in recent years, and while civil servants from a particular institution often go on missions, politicians are sometimes excluded.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one key advantage politicians have is not only that we can talk candidly, face to face, with fellow politicians, but that we have extensive experience as campaign workers before we are elected and during the process of being elected? We can therefore see what the wider political party is looking for from a process.

That is absolutely right. Elections in a democracy are about competition between parties. Campaigning is incredibly important, and politicians are much more familiar with that skill than even the most experienced electoral registration officer. It is therefore important that communication takes place, although the far-flung nature of the overseas territories makes it difficult for them to have the interactions that we have developed over the years. We should build strongly on our experience in that respect.

The other relevant issue—to be slightly more controversial —is financial transparency; I was pleased that it played an important part in the Foreign Office White Paper “The Overseas Territories: Security, Success and Sustainability”. The Government were clear about the importance of financial transparency, which is of great importance at present to my constituents and others across the country.

As democracy develops in the overseas territories, we must ensure that the transparency that goes with a well functioning democracy is also evident in their financial and taxation affairs. When we work with the overseas territories, and the British taxpayer makes a contribution to assist them, we cannot have a situation in which businesses and individual UK citizens might use them to avoid paying tax. We need to work with them to ensure that international principles on fair dealing in taxation matters are a central part of their developing democracy.

It is hugely important that the connection that the CPA has developed through visits over a number of years should continue. We should try to encourage more Members of Parliament to take part in such visits. There are many new Members, some of whom have arrived here only in the past month or so, and they need to know the importance of engaging with the overseas territories and with other countries beyond the UK and the important role that parliamentarians play in ensuring that good governance is spread across the world.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend for their hard work, for which they are not thanked often enough. There is huge respect abroad for the work of the CPA and the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and our colleagues abroad value the commitment of this Parliament—the mother of Parliaments—to developing institutions in countries that are building a level of democracy that we want to encourage.

I am pleased to support the thrust of the White Paper, which was published earlier this year. Clearly, it builds on the 1999 White Paper published by the then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, under the previous Government. The Opposition have noted the commitments made to the overseas territories, and we strongly support applying the principle of self-determination to them. We want to ensure that they have a close link with this country, but we also want, in an age of devolution, to ensure that they have sufficient autonomy to deal with their individual circumstances and to build a democratic system appropriate to them.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. Does he agree that the serious discussion we are having gives the lie to the general mockery that occurs in the press whenever Members of Parliament try to improve relations with, and democracy in, other parts of the world—particularly those closely associated with us?

That is certainly the case. That work is often unseen; it is demanding and difficult and involves much discussion and thought. Much assistance is given to overseas territories, which have the difficult task of designing government—something that has taken 1,000 years in this place. It is hugely important to share our experience.

My hon. Friend is setting out a compelling argument. Does he agree that lending our expertise to promote local development is about not just political expertise but civil service expertise? I am thinking, for example, of the work the Department of Energy and Climate Change can do to help the Falkland Islands as they prepare for hydrocarbon exploration, and the work the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs can do to help protect the fisheries and the natural environment in the Caribbean.

The White Paper uses the word “partnership”, which is something that we need to build on. Owing to the size of our country and our experience, we have resources and expertise that the overseas territories cannot draw on; given our historical relationship and our links, it is important to share that expertise and work with them. We need to build a strong relationship that will endure, although it will change as democracy and good governance develop. The Opposition are committed to the continuing relationship with the overseas territories, to building good governance, to developing institutions and representation appropriate to each individual territory, and to working with the Government in taking that important agenda forward.

It is a pleasure to serve under your guidance this morning, Dr McCrea. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on securing the debate and generously allowing the time to be changed, and on the informed and articulate way in which he introduced it. I was keen to hear of his prescient and visionary visit to St Helena all those years ago. He will be delighted, as I think the whole House is, that the airport is predicted to open in 2016. I know from his remarks that he is ambitious to visit many of the other territories, but I hope that he will find time to return to St Helena to benefit from the airport, once it is open. I also congratulate the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which does an enormous amount of significant work. In particular, I congratulate Andrew Tuggey on his professional and detailed work to ensure that the CPA is such a success in building relationships and sharing knowledge between Parliaments. Long may that continue.

I thank the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), who, sadly, is no longer in his place, for the work that they have done recently, particularly in the Turks and Caicos Islands. I look forward to discussing with them the report, which I have seen, and how to pursue the lessons that they think can be learned. I also thank the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) for his positive and thoughtful contribution.

I want to respond to specific points made in the debate, but also to take the opportunity, if Members will bear with me, to respond to comments by the hon. Members for Dunfermline and West Fife and for Wrexham about the projection made at the joint ministerial council last week. The JMC builds on the White Paper published in June, which sets out a strong and positive vision for the territories to build on their excellent facilities and ensure that, where appropriate, they can proudly retain their links with the UK for present and future generations. The White Paper sets out clearly the benefits and responsibilities of the relationship for the territories and the United Kingdom. As the hon. Member for Wrexham pointed out, it builds on work done by the previous Government as well, but we thought it important to set out in a White Paper the UK Government’s fundamental responsibilities and objectives to ensure the security and good governance of the territories and their peoples.

I want to say a little about the priorities for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in driving UK Government apparatus to support the development of the overseas territories. We should focus on three areas: building stronger links with the UK; getting the territories the support they need; and working together on good governance, financial management and economic planning, where necessary. My priority in the first strand of the work is to encourage more trade and investment to benefit both the territories and the UK. I have already had the opportunity in my time as the relevant Minister to visit the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla and the Turks and Caicos Islands. That allowed me to see for myself what opportunities exist. Those are not just in the sectors where some of the territories are already strong; there may be opportunities to assist them in diversifying their economic base, whether by expanding financial services, assisting with UK investment in tourism, or using UK companies to help build and develop infrastructure. To that end, Lord Green, the Minister for Trade and Investment, and I discussed those issues with territory leaders and a selection of business representatives last Monday in the Foreign Office, and that meeting has the potential to be significantly productive.

The point that I want to emphasise is that building stronger links with the territories is not just down to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but is a cross-Whitehall effort. Every Department has written a paper setting out how it can help. Eight of my ministerial colleagues met the territory leaders last week. The Department for International Development is doing particularly valuable and significant work, particularly in St Helena, Montserrat and Pitcairn, and through its temporary assistance in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Another important area of work is the strengthening of political links with territory leaders. That was the thrust of the JMC last week. We have upgraded the meeting to make it our annual summit, which enabled us to discuss a substantive and significant agenda and to agree for the first time a detailed communiqué setting out an ambitious programme of joint working for the year ahead. If colleagues have not seen that joint communiqué I would urge them to look at it, because it responds to the sensible and correct point made by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife about the action points and work streams that will flow from the JMC towards the next one, across a range of areas. I see the focus of the UK Government in the year ahead as assisting the territories with their priorities, rather than what we think their priorities should be. I took territory leaders to No. 10 Downing street to meet the Prime Minister—I understand that it was the first time that a British Prime Minister has met all the overseas territory leaders collectively—and the event was very well received and a positive time in all our diaries.

The second goal in my list of priorities is to make sure that the territories have the support they need. That was a common theme in the speeches this morning. We already provide significant development support, of which perhaps the most obvious example is the £350 million that we have provided for Montserrat since the volcanic crisis of 1995 to 1997, which destroyed the capital and economy; also, £247 million has gone to St Helena to build the airport, and for other aspects of its development.

In the context of supporting the territories to develop, a key element is making links with the Commonwealth. My right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden will be pleased to hear that that is a significant thrust of our efforts, set out in the White Paper. As part of that approach, the secretary-general of the Commonwealth came to the JMC and made a presentation. He received questions and responded to points that were made, and said that he greatly valued the part played in the life of the Commonwealth by the overseas territories. I can reassure him that we are working with the secretariat to explore what more can be done. The territories already participate in some areas—not just the CPA, important though that is. Some of them have participated in events aimed at supporting small island states, which have been particularly valuable as the territories have many challenges in common with other small island states elsewhere in the world, including some governance challenges. We continue to encourage the secretariat to invite the overseas territories to participate in Commonwealth meetings.

It might help if I explained why we are in the situation we are in. We very much agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden and the Foreign Affairs Committee that there should be a more formal tie between the overseas territories and the Commonwealth family, in the form of observer or some other status but, as Members will know, membership of the Commonwealth has to be agreed by a consensus of all Commonwealth Heads of Government, and the membership category is that of “sovereign state as full member”. In 2007, the Heads of Government endorsed the recommendation of the Commonwealth committee on membership not to establish any other status.

Officials have discussed different categories of membership with Commonwealth members, and it will come as no surprise that at the joint ministerial council last week territory leaders raised the matter with me, with other colleagues who were there and with the secretary-general. I have spoken to the Minister of State at the Foreign Office who has responsibility for the Commonwealth to see if we can work together to find a solution. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary told the Foreign Affairs Committee back in 2011:

“We are exploring the possibility of creating observer or associate member status of the Commonwealth, from which many overseas territories would benefit. We are still continuing to explore that possibility.”

I am sure that the territories will be heartened by that. It would, however, be remiss of me not ask whether that was seen to be for Crown dependences as well as for territories.

The constitutional relationships with overseas territories and with Crown dependences are very different, but the ongoing discussions should certainly involve both.

I want to move on to important issues that some Members have raised: good governance, financial management and economic planning. We take very seriously the responsibilities for the security and good governance of the territories, and we believe that what is good enough for the UK should be good enough for the overseas territories as well. One key aspect of the White Paper was the commitment to strengthen training and exchanges between the public services in the territories and the UK. Our jubilee programme, which is worth £500,000, will fund some of the exchanges, with UK civil servants going to overseas territories to assist in building capacity and in training public servants through the civil service learning service, and overseas territories public servants being facilitated to come to the UK.

On 16 October, I opened the first meeting, in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, of the heads of public services, one purpose of which was to exchange best practice across a range of important areas for further work including procurement, codes of conduct for Ministers, parliamentarians and public services, and e-government—an area in which we think we can do significantly more together. However, as the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife rightly said, it is not just about overseas territories learning from us; there are things we can learn from them.

Democracy is flourishing in most overseas territories, and I am delighted that the new Turks and Caicos premier, Dr Rufus Ewing, was able to attend the joint ministerial council last week. He was extremely warmly welcomed, and he made a significant contribution to all our debates. It is an excellent and positive development that democracy has returned to the islands after a difficult period. It is important also to recognise that all overseas territory constitutions are different. They have developed over time, most of them have been updated and they are not necessarily set in stone; they need to be debated and discussed over the coming years.

All Members who contributed to the debate mentioned election observers. We rightly encourage observers to monitor elections all over the world, to promote internationally accepted standards, and we encourage other confident and open democracies, including the territories, to welcome observers.

I have to say that we are slightly disappointed that Bermuda has not recognised the need for election observers. The Governor of Bermuda has suggested to the Premier that as a sign of a mature, advanced and open democracy the country might invite an external independent team—perhaps a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association group—to observe its elections, but unfortunately the Government have decided not to do so. I raised the issue with the Bermudan Attorney-General and Minister of Justice last week, and she assured me that she would reflect our views to the Premier. Interestingly, the example I gave her was the comparison with North Korea, which the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife mentioned earlier. It is a positive sign, rather than a negative one, to accept external election observers.

The hon. Member for Wrexham is absolutely right about the need for more elected politicians to be involved as election observers. Although civil servants play a significant and important role, politicians can often bring a slightly different perspective—perhaps over a longer period, including during the campaigning before the election and what may or may not happen immediately afterwards, depending on whether it has been successful. I support the hon. Gentleman’s train of thought in that area.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife talked about the electoral registration officers—EROs—in the overseas territories, and particularly in the Turks and Caicos Islands. We have included a partnership in TCI, and elsewhere, with an experienced UK election official. In TCI, the official supported the practical planning for the preparation of the new electoral roll, the training of election officials, and an arrangement for the counting and announcement of results.

As I mentioned, we have set up the jubilee programme to support training and exchanges between public servants in the territories and the UK, and a priority is to foster and support networks of professionals across the territories. I think that we will commend to the overseas territories the idea of a network of EROs, so that lessons can be learned and best practice put in place for future elections.

The hon. Member for Wrexham was absolutely right to speak about transparency in all financial matters. He will notice that in the White Paper there are two or three strands to that. The first is to ensure that overseas territories have in place proper legislation for appropriate and prudent fiscal and financial management. The Turks and Caicos Islands and the British Virgin Islands have that, as now do the Cayman Islands. The second strand is to ensure that we have proper, transparent, competitive tendering for procurement, so that there is no longer any opportunity for shenanigans. The UK Government have played a significant role in building capacity and in providing advice and training to enable that to happen.

I turn to the specific point about responsible fiscal and tax arrangements. Given the discussions held last week, previous actions relating to the overseas territories and the detail set out in the communiqué, both the UK and the overseas territories’ Governments accept the requirements to comply with international standards on tax transparency and financial regulation.

Tackling financial crime is important, as was set out at the JMC. Bermuda, the BVI and Cayman have tax information exchange agreements with the UK. The OECD, a global forum, says that the overseas territories meet tax transparency standards. I have met on a couple of occasions the impressive team that regulates the financial services sector in the British Virgin Islands, and there is a real desire in that sector to ensure that it keeps up to speed with international standards, which is what it is doing.

Overseas territories’ tax rates, of course, are their responsibility; individual territories have the right to set the tax rates appropriate for them. On secrecy, which the hon. Member for Wrexham alluded to, I would argue that they are at least as compliant as major financial centres in meeting international standards. We also have to be clear that revenues from the financial services sector make a huge contribution to ensuring that those overseas territories are self-funding, self-supporting and self-reliant.

Finally, the significance and importance of the relationship between the UK and the overseas territories has never been higher up the political agenda.

The Minister is doing an excellent job of setting out in some detail the Government’s position on a range of matters. I appreciate that he has to cover a large number of issues, but before he finishes may I press him to confirm that the Government have full confidence in Governor Todd? The Minister will be aware that there has been media interest in the Turks and Caicos about the work that Governor Todd continues to do.

As the hon. Gentleman may have picked up in his visits to the TCI and, to a lesser extent, to the BVI and elsewhere, there are always tensions between elected representatives and the Governors both in terms of who has responsibility for what and the perception—sometimes incorrect—that the UK Government are not always on the side of the elected representatives in a particular territory.

In a spirit of partnership and friendship, we should be listening to each other, but that does not always necessarily mean that we will agree. I have full confidence in all the Governors currently in place, and I said so forcefully at the JMC last week. Governor Todd in particular has done a significant job in running the interim Government who were put in place after the elected territorial Government were suspended, back in August 2009. On 9 November when the elections took place, he put the TCI in a significantly stronger place, across a whole range of areas, than the one in which they were in 2009.

Finally, I confirm that this significant area of policy will become increasingly important as we develop the workstreams highlighted in the communiqué. I am delighted that colleagues have expressed their positive desire to remain engaged and to make intelligent suggestions as to how we may develop the partnership even further.

Before my hon. Friend concludes, will he say whether he will take away the comments on air passenger duty, which has a particularly perverse impact on the smallest territories?

I apologise to my right hon. Friend. I was not avoiding air passenger duty; I just did not see the piece of paper I had written it on.

My right hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that I was lobbied vociferously both by the leaders of overseas territories in the Caribbean last week and by the wider Caribbean community. He will also be aware not only that there was a review of the operation of APD but that there was a meeting fairly recently, between representatives of the Caribbean high commissioners here in London and a Treasury Minister, to discuss APD further and to understand the issues.

I suggested to both the territories’ leaders and to those elsewhere in the Caribbean that there had already been significant discourse between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Treasury, and that discourse continues. Those Caribbean leaders need to provide us with evidence of the negative impact of APD, particularly on the tourist industry. Mixed messages and mixed evidence are coming through so far.

The Minister may not be aware that the Eastern Caribbean economic union has seen a 20% drop in passengers from the UK since APD was introduced. In comparison, there has been a 1% drop in passengers going to the east coast of the United States, although I might be wrong. There is clearly evidence that the Caribbean is being disproportionately hit by the current APD arrangements.

That is interesting, because it is not uniformly the case. There was a drop back in 2009, but that has not remained consistent, nor is it consistent across the board. There are countries in which tourism has gone back up, which is why it is a complex issue to analyse. We are aware of the issue, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden is right to put it in the way that he did. We are still in listening mode.

Sitting suspended.

Mowden Hall, Darlington (DfE Jobs)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) and for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) for supporting me in preparing for this debate.

Mowden Hall is the workplace of more than 400 civil servants who support the education and well-being of children and families across the country. On 13 November, I received a letter from the Department for Education describing Mowden Hall as being in poor condition and requiring significant investment to remain in use. The letter said that the Department would be selling the site and searching for an alternative in either Darlington or Newcastle, which came as a surprise although not as a bolt from the blue.

Before 2010, the Department had secured funding and planning permission to build new offices in the centre of Darlington. The relocation would have brought jobs into the centre of town, providing public transport access and much-needed trade. The coalition Government cancelled the project almost immediately after taking office, saying that they were committed to remaining at Mowden Hall. All seemed relatively well at the time, but it did not ring true to me, given that the feasibility study for the new building highlighted the poor condition of Mowden Hall. It seemed pretty clear that at some point, the Department would either have to move from Mowden or invest heavily in it.

To be helpful to the Department, I arranged for a discussion between officials and a local developer, John Orchard of Marchday, which owns Lingfield Point in Darlington. The Lingfield Point site was built immediately after the second world war to house a wool factory by Patons and Baldwins, a leading British manufacturer of knitting yarn. At 2 million square feet, the site became the largest wool factory in the world. It is now one of the largest employment bases in the Tees valley, employing more than 2,000 people. The award-winning site is also home to the offices of significant north-eastern organisations including Darlington borough council, the NHS, the Student Loans Company, NFU Mutual and the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes. It is a stone’s throw from the Independent Safeguarding Authority and can truly be described as a public sector employment hub. The business park even runs its own bus service to and from the town centre every half hour, alongside local bus services running to the site every 10 minutes.

In March 2011, discussions with the then permanent secretary and his officials to assess the possibility of a move to Lingfield Point were positive. Shortly afterwards, however, it became clear that any move was on hold and that the Department’s strategy, at least for the time being, was to stay put at the deteriorating Mowden Hall. It is not my intention to argue that the Department should retain Mowden Hall; a move is clearly justified. Nevertheless, the surprising element of the letter I received on 13 November was not that the Department had decided to move from Mowden Hall, but that it was considering moving its 480 staff members to Newcastle instead.

About 60% of the work force at Mowden Hall live in Darlington. The rest commute from neighbouring Teesside, Durham and North Yorkshire. The Minister, being familiar with the geography of the north-east, will know that Newcastle is 40 miles north of Darlington along a busy stretch of motorway. To reach the centre, staff would either have to drive past the Metro centre, which is legendary locally as a congestion hot spot, or travel via the Tyne tunnel, which has lengthy queues at peak travel times. Increased regional congestion and carbon emissions would be the unwelcome consequence of a move away from Darlington. Alternatively, staff could take a packed train, but the journey time—about half an hour, in addition to travel time into and out of Darlington and Newcastle town centres—would add about two hours to their working day. Other travel options from Darlington to, for example, Longbenton in Newcastle and back include two hours and 20 minutes on the train, four hours on the bus or two hours and 20 minutes driving.

Those travel times would make family friendly working impossible. Parents would find it harder to fit their hours around existing child care arrangements, which would increase their costs dramatically. According to Tees Valley Unlimited, our local enterprise partnership, the older, highly experienced work force would be less likely to commute to Longbenton and less likely to find alternative employment locally.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on gaining the debate. My constituency takes in part of the borough of Darlington as well as part of south-east Durham. The issue is important not just for the town of Darlington but for local and surrounding areas. I receive letters and e-mails from people who work at Mowden Hall and places such as Newton Aycliffe. They say that if Mowden Hall is moved to Newcastle, there is no way that they will be able to get there and have a family life. I agree with the point that she is making.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. People who live in outlying areas of Darlington such as Newton Aycliffe would have to get into Darlington to catch the train. An hour and 10 minutes would be an optimistic travel time for someone in that situation.

I understand that the Department will be responsible for the relocation travel expenses of staff commuting to an alternative workplace in Newcastle. What provisions has the Minister made to cover those costs? I hear that the Department may be required to cover staff travel costs for some years. Can she confirm that that is the case?

Staff at Mowden Hall make a substantial contribution to my local economy. The most recent information that I have been able to obtain from Tees Valley Unlimited suggests that nine are senior civil servants, 60 work at senior management grades 6 and 7, 58 work in operational management, 240 are executive grade and 80 work at administrative level. Those are senior posts providing expertise to the education sector across the UK.

Darlington is an attractive area principally because of its low cost base and highly skilled work force. In addition, the town has an excellent quality of life and an easy commute to work. Its main advantage is a stable work force and very low staff turnover, allowing for continuity of the specialist knowledge that makes a difference to children’s education throughout the country. The expertise at Mowden Hall has been built up over decades and includes school formation and investment, improvement and performance, school standards, school resources, early years, extended schools, special needs, safeguarding, international adoption, audit and free schools and academies. I understand that a free school is to be created at the old Mowden Hall, which I support and look forward to.

Mowden Hall has a talented, motivated and dedicated work force with skills that cannot be acquired quickly. A move from Darlington resulting in large-scale staff departures would damage the Department’s ability to continue its business. Schools and children’s services departments across the country rely on those skills. They are not easily, quickly or cheaply replaceable, and they should be highly prized by the Department. It is particularly worrying that the current uncertainty surrounding the future location of the Department’s offices is causing some highly skilled staff members to consider departing from the service sooner than they otherwise would have. I would be grateful for an assurance from the Minister that staff at Mowden Hall will not be required to make decisions about early exit before gaining certainty about where they will have to work.

I am grateful to the permanent secretary for meeting me and representatives from Darlington, including council leader Bill Dixon and the leader of the Conservative group, Heather Scott. Ministers and officials understand the pitfalls of a move away from Darlington, and I know that they will be mindful of the potentially damaging impact of a move on the Department’s performance. I know from those discussions that business continuity is a key concern of the Department in considering where to move the jobs. Staff turnover at Mowden Hall is low. The site has played a leading role in Government initiatives, such as free schools and academies, and we are keen that that role continues in Darlington.

In addition to the 480 DfE jobs at Mowden Hall, there are a small number of Ministry of Justice and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills staff. Will the Minister say something about the future of those posts? Some 500 staff at Mowden Hall are employed by Capita, servicing a DfE contract. Can the Minister say what discussions she has had with Capita about its future accommodation needs?

My principal arguments for keeping the Department’s jobs in Darlington centre on the unnecessary costs of relocation and the potential loss of skills to the Department. Also of huge concern is the impact on the local economy of the loss of such a large number of highly skilled jobs.

Although it is more of an issue for me, as the local representative, than for the Minister, it is worth outlining that Tees Valley Unlimited’s economic model forecasts that the economic impact for Darlington is direct employees plus indirect employees times the median wage of £19,000 per annum, giving an annual economic impact figure for Darlington of up to £21 million. It is estimated that around 70% of that sum is spent in the local economy.

Darlington’s unemployment rate is historically and currently higher than other potential locations in Newcastle. The decision to leave Mowden Hall is the most important issue facing Darlington today. There is cross-party support to keep the jobs in the town. We are not making party political points about this. We have support from the borough council and the local business community, the Public and Commercial Services Union and all political parties. The foremost regional newspaper in the country, The Northern Echo, with its proud history as a campaigning title, has lent its support to the campaign to keep jobs at Mowden Hall. Its Save Our Jobs petition has already attracted more than 1,000 signatures. There is no doubt that the task of persuading the Department to stay in Darlington is a whole-town effort, undertaken with confidence in what we have to offer and an understanding that these jobs are critical to the future economic success of our area.

The case for remaining in Darlington is persuasive. There are at least two high-quality alternatives in Darlington. This is a critical decision for our town. For business continuity, integration with Capita, retention of skills and the sake of the local economy, I trust that the Department will decide to keep these jobs in Darlington.

I thank the hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) for her excellent, insightful contributions to the debate and for tabling it. She made a persuasive case, not just in relation to the specific roles in the Department for Education, but for all employers to locate their operations in Darlington because of the cost-effective nature of the location and the high level of skills in the local work force. I hope that message about the value of Darlington is heard more widely by other potential employers who might think about locating in the north-east.

I note the hon. Lady’s points about the specific skills of Department for Education officials in Darlington. I pay tribute to the staff who work at Mowden Hall in Darlington for the contribution they make to the efforts of the Department. She outlined well how many different areas are supported from the Darlington office, including free schools, academies and early years, which is of particular interest to me.

The Secretary of State said that he wants the Department for Education to be the best Department in Government and to be a place where the best, most talented people want to work. I agree that that is an important objective. Given the general economic climate, we need to ensure that we are getting value for money and that we have a highly motivated and highly skilled work force. That is a key objective for the Department. The DfE review considered how we can achieve that and proposed fundamental changes to our ways of working, designed to make the Department the best it can be. Those changes include greater flexibility in how we structure and manage teams—I use video conferencing a lot to communicate with Department officials located in other parts of the country—and focusing on outputs rather than processing things internally, which is what we want the Department to do and what we are asking schools and children’s services to do.

I am fortunate to work with excellent civil servants on the many areas of policy that I cover. Over the past two years, the Department has achieved a great deal in terms of the reform agenda. We are also working on reforms to early years and right across children’s services and education. We in the Department need to set ourselves similarly high standards to those we ask of schools and children’s services throughout the country.

Many of the changes I have outlined will be welcomed by staff, because everybody, whatever job they do in whatever walk of life, wants to know that they are having a positive impact on the real thing that they do, which in our case is helping children in education and in the adoption process or in care. Staff will welcome the opportunity to spend more time on important front-line work. I recognise that other changes will be difficult, for instance, site closures and headcount reductions, but as a Department we have a duty to look for ways to secure value for money for the taxpayer.

As we outlined in our letter, Mowden Hall is no longer fit for purpose; it is old and would require substantial investment to upgrade. The hon. Lady confirmed that she agrees, so we all agree. I welcome her support for the proposed free school on the Mowden Hall site.

As the permanent secretary outlined, we are committed to a presence in the north-east of England. We announced plans to identify a new site in the area on 13 November. We are searching for a new location and are considering the following criteria. Ideally, the site should be an existing Government property. If that is not possible, it should be new leasehold or should share premises with another Department or a local council. It must be affordable and be well connected with transport, relating to the hon. Lady’s well-made point about how staff are expected to get to and from work and the travel difficulties that people in the Darlington area may face. It must have good quality facilities, and it must be available within reasonable time scales. We will do everything we can to minimise impact on staff and local areas. I took on board the hon. Lady’s points, which I will feed into our process and provide to the permanent secretary, about the impact on local employment and the area’s economy.

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s positive, constructive approach in helping to establish a working group to identify potential sites in Darlington. Her positive engagement is welcome. I have spoken to the permanent secretary about this matter and he wants to continue the dialogue to ensure that she and other interested parties are involved in ongoing discussions, so that the decision does not just come out of the air, and people who represent staff and residents in Darlington are involved in the decision-making process and able to add value to it.

The Department expects to develop a shortlist of available property options in the region from January. I hope that the Darlington working group will be able to field a proposal for inclusion among the options to be considered. The hon. Lady made suggestions about two locations, which in her view are high quality and should be considered by the Department. I hope that she has raised those suggestions with the permanent secretary or will do so in a forthcoming meeting with him, to ensure that he is aware of them.

Once a shortlist of options is available, staff will be consulted about the effect of a move on them individually, and support will be put in place to help staff with a move if necessary. I hope that answers the hon. Lady’s question about whether staff are being asked: they will only be asked to consider what they want to do once a decision about a site has been made. If that is wrong, I shall write to her to confirm otherwise, but I believe that to be the case.

On the hon. Lady’s other questions, we will consult on such things as travel costs and how staff travel costs will be paid for, enabling us to determine the Department’s relocation costs and, therefore, to put together an overall budget. At present, we do not know exactly what travel costs will be entailed. We will evaluate the costs of all the different locations, once we are down to our final decisions, so travel costs will come into the final decision about the most appropriate site for relocation.

The hon. Lady also asked about others with a role. I have not had a discussion with Capita—in reply to her specific question—but I can certainly follow things up with the permanent secretary and get her an answer. Nor do I have any information specifically about the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills jobs, as my responsibility is for roles connected with the Department for Education. We are keen to ensure that the Department is using its resources as efficiently as possible, but we are clear about not wanting to lose expertise that has contributed to the Department’s success and that might be located in diverse geographical areas throughout the country, which is why we are anxious to maintain a presence in the north-east.

Once we have gone through the process and know where we are relocating, we will work with unions to develop a support offer for staff. The move will affect staff differently; some might live closer than others to the new site and some might have disabilities or be carers or part-time workers, so we need to take that into account. Our support offer will be responsive to individual circumstances and could, for instance, include elements such as flexible working arrangements. As I have already said, our Department is pretty forward-looking with such arrangements; we are very much focused on what people contribute, because that is a more effective approach to work, rather than encouraging presenteeism. We will continue that approach when we put our new proposals into place.

To conclude, I hope that the hon. Member for Darlington continues her discussions with the permanent secretary and the working group. Her input has already been extremely valuable, and her concerns are being listened to in the Department. To be clear, vital departmental functions and knowledgeable hard-working staff are based in Darlington, and I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her assistance in finding a suitable building to which the Department could relocate.

Sitting suspended.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

[Mr Edward Leigh in the Chair]

It is a pleasure, Mr Leigh, to take part in this debate, not least because Westminster Hall is not quite as cold as elsewhere. I thank The Times for pointing out what the two Front Benchers will say in the debate: apparently, the Labour spokesman will ask for new rules of engagement, and the Minister will not entirely agree with the notion that our pilots are not sufficiently trained. I leave it to them to say their piece, but there are some areas I will not touch on because nothing is to be gained from repetition.

I want to start by defining the parameters of this debate. The Library helpfully says that unmanned aerial vehicles—UAVs—are used by the UK armed forces and are

“more commonly known as drones. These are remotely piloted aircraft that range from simple, hand-operated systems to high altitude, long endurance systems similar in operation to small aircraft.

UAVs are primarily used to gather intelligence and provide a surveillance and reconnaissance function for the armed forces. Only a handful of systems are capable of carrying weapons. The only armed UAV used by the UK Armed Forces is the Reaper and it is only used in Afghanistan.”

It is important to remind ourselves of those distinctions and limited use. The Library continues:

“Remotely piloted aircraft operate on the same rules of engagement as manned aircraft. However the growth in the use of armed UAVs, particularly by the United States, raises a number of moral, ethical and legal issues.”

It is the moral, ethical and legal issues that I want to examine more closely.

We can see in Hansard some of the questions that are being asked, and that the debate is about collateral damage and loss of life, which some people find difficult to explain. A wider argument is that if a country has armed forces, it uses lethal force, and it does so for a benevolent purpose: defence. We have not had much chance to talk about that, and I thought that such a debate would be suitable in Westminster Hall.

To put the matter into context, I understand that, depending on who is counting, between 76 and 80 countries have UAVs, but only three—the United Kingdom, the USA and Israel—use armed drones in military operations. The Minister will be more aware than I am that this country is investing extensively in that area, whether it is in the provision of specially designed headquarters for the Reaper station here or the Anglo-French initiative for Scavenger long-endurance UAVs, so there will be even further development.

That is combined with the strange situation that almost no one in this country under the age of 30 has a defined sense of who or what the enemy is. During the cold war, it was easy to define the enemy, which was another nation state. We now face warfare in which the enemy is no longer a nation state, but a group of individuals who are far away. The process is geographically remote, and some of the warfare engagement is physically remote. That creates problems.

Lethal force is a process by which we license to kill. Curiously, in this country that phrase is associated with James Bond more than with what our armed forces are doing. Politicians should spend more time thinking about the use of lethal force, and when it is appropriate. We need to take the public with us, and it has been clear, particularly when reading newspaper reports on the use of drones in Afghanistan, that in many ways we have not taken the public with us. In areas such as Pakistan, there is an argument that the fallout is greater than the benefits.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. On the use of drones in Afghanistan, does she agree that we need clarity from the Government on whether they are sharing location intelligence with the United States on drone strikes in Pakistan? If we want to win the hearts and minds of the public, we must carry them with us, but when they see hundreds of lives lost in drone strikes, they turn against the west and pose a danger to our national security.

That is an argument, but I do not want to go down that road. The hon. Gentleman has had an Adjournment debate on that matter, which I read with great interest, but I want to take in new territory. Parliament must explain why it does certain things, and take the public with it. The 1868 St Petersburg declaration refers to the requirement

“to conciliate the necessities of war with the laws of humanity.”

How to get that right is an ever-enduring struggle, and I am not sure whether we have debated that sufficiently here. That is why I am pleased to have this debate. We have become casualty-averse, and there is a debate to be had about moral equivalence, and whether it is morally superior to deal with threats remotely instead of in hand-to-hand battle. I want so spend some time discussing targeted killing, which is the area of the drone debate that causes greatest concern about whether it is right.

A defence research paper on the ethics of targeted killing defines it as

“a pre-mediated state sanctioned killing of a named individual beyond the territorial and jurisdictional control of that state, in an international or non-international armed conflict or hostilities against terrorist or non-state groups.”

In other words, we are not talking about assassination or illegal killing for purely political purposes, and that is what people find most difficult to get their head round.

Some people argue that military historians may view 19 January 2010 as being as significant as August 1945, when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, because technology suddenly allowed a move to something that was not sufficiently explained or spelled out in the ethical framework under which we operate. Two things happened: one was the killing in Dubai; the other, much more importantly, was in Pakistan where a US unmanned aerial vehicle killed six alleged militants in North Waziristan. That takes us to the legal and ethical dilemma that we must examine more closely.

On the history of lethal force, it may be worth reading “My Early Life” by Winston Churchill in which he describes a moment during a cavalry charge:

“Suddenly in the midst of the troop up sprung a Dervish. How he got there I do not know. He must have leaped out of some scrub or hole. All the troopers turned upon him thrusting with their lances: but he darted to and fro causing for the moment a frantic commotion. Wounded several times, he staggered towards me raising his spear. I shot him at less than a yard. He fell on the sand, and lay there dead. How easy to kill a man! But I did not worry about it. I found that I had fired the whole magazine of my Mauser pistol, so I put in a new clip of ten cartridges before thinking of anything else.”

The question these days is about the moral position of asking a man, or giving him the legal authority, to kill another within a framework that we find acceptable, because some people seem to think that if it is hand-to-hand combat, it has a greater moral force or value than if it is remote. I would argue that technology takes us to an ethical area where the framework might have to be configured slightly differently, but what the state is asking of the individual has, in many ways, not changed much. People are worried about remoteness, and it is worth remembering some experiments that were done in the 1960s in America, in the wake of the Adolf Eichmann trial, about the perils of obedience. Individuals were tested on how much pain they were willing to inflict on someone just because they were ordered to do so. In a military context, it is very important that we continue to keep that in mind.

The United Kingdom has always been clear that the chain of command, when it comes to killing or the use of lethal force, has always been retained within the military, whereas the United States and the CIA, as I understand it, are much more prepared to use civilian intelligence as part of that chain of command. That causes its own legal and ethical problems, because there is an argument about whether the civilians in that chain relinquish their right not to be targeted under international humanitarian law.

On targeted killing and drones, the United Nations rapporteur, Christof Heyns, is now looking into extra-judicial killing in relation to the use of drones by the United States. Does the hon. Lady also think that that needs to be extended to see whether it can be applied to where the United Kingdom uses its drones?

I do not yet know, because I do not know what the outcome is, but to my mind, it is very significant that in the United Kingdom it is within the military chain, whereas in the United States it is not.

I am not trying to get us to ask today, “Is that particular application right or wrong?”. In the context of defence and us as parliamentarians, who are asking an Army and a public to order the use of lethal force, I want us to debate what the framework should be, rather than concluding whether it is right or wrong. I am also worried that the further away in the globe something happens, the easier it is—and the happier we seem to be—to jump to conclusions one way or another.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again. My final point is with regard to the policy and the criteria. Drones were operated by the United Kingdom on 7 October 2007 in Afghanistan, so it is for many years that we have not had the criteria, policy, rules and restrictions, whether under a different Government or this Government. I absolutely agree, therefore, that it is vital for us to get it right.

Until we get that right, perhaps we all ought to become a little more articulate and explicit about where and when we are prepared to say that something is right or wrong. One point that I was trying to make at the beginning of my speech is that for those over the age of 30 who grew up during the cold war, the enemy was very visible—it was another nation state, very close to home—and the space of theoretical ethical argument tended to be much narrower than it is now, when the war is happening on the other side of the globe. We should face up to that, and given that the Government are intending to spend extraordinary amounts of money on future investment, and that we have international co-operation, this place needs to be aware of what the rules are.

I want, therefore, to draw the Minister further on a number of parliamentary questions that have been asked. First, am I right in assuming that the United Kingdom has no plan to change the operational kill chain, as it is called, to be anything other than within the military? If that is so, does he agree that that ethical dimension must play an enormously important part, as an institution of the military, in their continued training, and will he give a commitment on that? Secondly, the Minister was asked when Watchkeeper will see active service, and the answer was that it will be at some stage or another, but we cannot yet tell. He said:

“The Ministry of Defence remains committed to deploying it to Afghanistan at the earliest opportunity.”—[Official Report, 29 November 2012; Vol. 554, c. 461W.]

It would be helpful to hear how early the earliest opportunity is.

Thirdly, there was a question about unmanned aerial vehicles from the new aircraft carrier for surveillance purposes. I know that there has been a string of questions about whether that is within the remit, and the latest I heard from the Minister was:

“Although not all would be suitable for carrier operations, the UK has previously conducted trials with a Scan Eagle UAV flown from a frigate and is currently considering another such concept demonstration.” —[Official Report, 26 November 2012; Vol. 554, c. 30W.]

Has there been any progress on that?

Above all, I would like to hear whether the Minister is contemplating any changes to the ethical rules, and if he does so, at what level will that happen? Will it just be within the military, and does he have any concept of a time scale? Will it go in tandem with the greater investment? As unpopular a view as this may be, I think this is a technological development in warfare that—if used within the right constraints and controls—is with us, and we had better make the best of it.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing this important debate. As a member of the Select Committee on Defence, she has considerable knowledge of such matters and it is interesting to hear her views on the issue.

Unmanned aerial vehicles can play a crucial role in keeping our servicemen and women on the front line safe. We know that the military operate in a hostile environment on the front line in Afghanistan, and convoys provide a target for rebels and improvised explosive devices. However, with the ability to scout their route with surveillance drones, commanders on the ground can avoid potential hazards quickly. Drones can also take the place of human pilots when carrying out dull, dangerous or dirty jobs, such as repetitive reconnaissance work, surveillance in hostile territory, or flying through areas where chemical or biological weapons have been used.

We can acknowledge that drones save the lives of many in our armed forces, but we must accept, as others have said, that there are civilian casualties and deaths from drones. That is principally an issue in Pakistan, and as “Panorama” reported yesterday, it affects real people, young and old, and has an indelible and devastating effect on their families and local communities. Therefore, drones must be used in accordance with international law, with every effort made to minimise civilian casualties.

I point to the Medact report that was launched a few months ago in the House of Commons—I was involved in that—which says that the weapon is not damage-free for users. We now have significant medical evidence from monitoring the psychological effects of drones on those who are engaged in their use. Although it initially appears to have no effect, it undermines psychological well-being.

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. More research must be done in this field. It could be very important.

Like regular manned aircraft, drones come in many shapes and sizes. I understand that the Global Hawk has a wingspan of 116 feet, while the technology is developing so quickly that we may soon see drones the size of insects. What is going on is incredible. Things are moving very quickly. The US air force now has more flight hours with drones than with manned aircraft. This innovation will see all branches of the armed forces benefiting from the technology. It has been reported that the Royal Navy is investigating the development of marine drones to detect mines in important shipping routes.

Developments in the military sphere can also lead to changes in routine or unpleasant jobs in civilian life. We read that old silos in Sellafield that were sealed off and left undisturbed since the 1950s are finally being examined by scientists using drone technology. Who knows what we could learn from those important investigations? Difficult or repetitive tasks, such as patrolling borders or monitoring weather patterns, could also be made easier.

With important work being done on the front line and potentially life-saving developments in the pipeline, this technology offers significant capability and may soon offer a range of important domestic applications, so it is essential that we have an open debate about both the ethics of drones and their practical deployment. This is an important debate, and I am glad that we are starting to have it.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) for having missed the first few moments of her very interesting remarks. I was held up elsewhere. I apologise for that to her and to the House. I also apologise to Mr Speaker because I did not intend to speak in the debate and therefore did not write to him on the subject. However, having heard the very interesting contributions from the hon. Lady and from the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), I hope that the House will forgive me for expressing a few ill formed thoughts. That may not take up much time, and we have plenty of time available.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on raising the issue. She is right to say that discussion about the ethics and morals surrounding the use of unmanned air vehicles is as great as or greater than discussion about the ethics and morals associated with armaments or any warfare that exists. It is a huge ethical problem and one that needs to be addressed. She is right to say that so far we have addressed it too little in this place, so I congratulate her on raising it. I listened carefully to her and I commend the extremely subtle and intelligent way in which she approached the issue. I agree very much with every aspect of what she said.

None the less, there is a series of misunderstandings in the world about the use of UAVs. The word “drones” itself often brings into people’s minds an image of something that is almost by definition worse than any other kind of warfare. If we asked people out in the street, “What do you think of the use of drones—unmanned vehicles firing weapons at civilians in Pakistan, for example?”, they would say, “That is absolutely disgraceful. It is scandalous. We must stop it. It is wicked. It is wrong.” There is a significant degree of misunderstanding in the public domain about the use of these vehicles. Therefore, it is right that we in this place should try as best we can to correct it.

There are two aspects to the ethical considerations. First, there are those who say that the use of any weapon of this kind at all is illegal and wicked and should not be allowed. That was said by perfectly good pacifists in this building for many hundreds of years. They would say that any weapon that potentially kills people is a bad thing and should not be allowed, and we should disarm and turn our weapons into ploughshares, or words to that general effect. That is a perfectly legitimate, although in my view incorrect, stance.

The motto of my regiment, the Honourable Artillery Company, is “Arma pacis fulcra”, which is of course the Latin for arms are the balance of peace. I have always held very strongly to that. We won the cold war not because we disarmed, but because Margaret Thatcher took a tough line by arming the United Kingdom and supporting the United States in our nuclear deterrence. That is why the Soviet Union fell. Arms were very much the balance of peace in that context.

Therefore, to those who say that in any conditions UAVs are by definition a bad thing, I simply say that the same could apply to almost any weapon or piece of warfare that they care to mention. Of course, the tragedy is that people are killed in wars. An even greater tragedy is that civilians are killed in wars. That is an unacceptable and unforgivable thing, but unfortunately it does happen. Therefore, one of the important things that we must do in considering warfare is to work out ways in which civilian casualties—collateral damage, as it is rather heartlessly called—can be minimised. We must find ways of minimising the damage to civilians and those who are not involved in the conflict.

In addition to the belief that all weapons are a bad thing, there is a strange piece of psychology that people seem to have in their minds. The hon. Lady touched on it in her interesting tale about Winston Churchill in a cavalry charge at, I think, Mafeking. Is shooting a man from a foot or two feet away more or less ethical than firing a weapon in Nevada that kills people in Afghanistan? Most people would say that Churchill was courageous: he galloped into the teeth of the enemy and fired. He fought a person: he looked him in the eye and shot him. That is courageous. However, a technician fiddling with a computer in Nevada, who will potentially kill hundreds of people, is somehow being cowardly. He is hiding behind technology and saying, “We want no part of that; I’m doing it remotely.”

It was interesting to hear the intervention from the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on the psychological effect that there may be on people who are firing these weapons at remote distances. Of course they are aware of what they are doing and of course they will be affected by it for the rest of their lives. The notion that because they are in a bunker in Nevada, they are somehow less affected by it than the chap on the front line is incorrect. The hon. Gentleman made an interesting point on that subject.

I am very grateful that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that point, because that is where the institutional ethics of the training of our military come in to ensure that there is awareness that on the other end of every piece of machinery there is a human being and that therefore the relationship and the ethical considerations must remain the same. It is a constant battle of vigilance to ensure that that is never lost.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is terribly important that we train all our people in the military and working in foreign affairs and elsewhere that there are human beings at the end of the weapon, whether that weapon is a knife used on the front line or a UAV from which a missile is fired remotely.

On a recent visit to Afghanistan, I was chilled by the conversation I had with a 19-year-old sniper in The Rifles. I said to him, “How many kills have you had?”, and he said, “Thirty-seven confirmed kills, sir, and about 40 or 50 others unconfirmed.” There was a young man of 19 who knew that he had killed 37 people—I think it was 37—and had probably killed 70 or 80. Is the psychological effect on him any greater or any less than the psychological effect on the man sitting in the bunker in Nevada or wherever it may be who is called on to press the switch that finally fires the weapon from the UAV?

There are two elements of concern. One is about the use of weapons themselves, which I think is a perfectly reasonable concern, although not one to which I would subscribe. The second is the question whether a remote killing is somehow less brave or less ethically supportable than an immediate killing. Again, I would not support that particular angle.

That leads me away from the negatives that people might raise on the subject of UAVs to the positives. As I said, it is terribly important that in all our warfare, whatever we are doing, whether it involves planes, bombs or UAVs, we seek to minimise civilian casualties. The use of UAVs and this extremely complex high technology is precisely the thing that will reduce collateral damage. We can, by using these things, spot a particular person from a very great height and track his movements. We know precisely who he is and can kill him very precisely, very technically, and minimise damage to civilians who may be nearby. That contrasts sharply with the use of artillery, for example. One round takes out a good square—1,000 metres by 1,000 metres—and who knows what is in that good square? It contrasts sharply with the use of bombs of all kinds, which also involves very substantial collateral damage. The use of these weapons is very particular and very precise and for that reason must be supported.

There is a problem with mythologising drones by saying that they are precision weapons that can target individuals and not have an impact on innocent civilians. We now know, from more detailed research, that in Pakistan, for example, at least 3,225 civilians have been killed as a result of the use of drones. Therefore, it is also important not to exaggerate the clinical effect of these weapons.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct; every single civilian death that has occurred as a result of the use of drones, or through any other act of warfare, is to be regretted. He mentioned that 3,000 civilians have been killed through the use of drones in Pakistan, but many times that number of civilians have been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and many other theatres of war across the world—collateral damage—by bombs and conventional warfare of one kind or another. The deaths are questionable, and I will come on to how UAVs are being used in Pakistan, in particular, across the border from the theatre of war.

Every death is regrettable. As the technology develops, it becomes more accurate and more reliable, so the risk of collateral damage lessens, whereas conventional weapons of warfare are no more accurate than they ever were. Indeed, one could argue that because such weapons are covering bigger areas, they are becoming less accurate, so the likelihood of collateral damage is greater.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington brings me to where and how such weapons should be used. Most are used for surveillance, not as weapons. They are not armed. They provide a fantastic resource for our forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere, with their ability to see what is happening on the ground over a large area for an extended period. They can hover for significant periods over an area, which a plane or helicopter could not do. Their value as surveillance machines is incredible, even if they are not armed. We must be extremely proud of the development of such technology and encourage it in every possible way.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that if we were to look at a battlefield 50 years from now, we would be likely to see a significant part of it dominated by UAVs. They will be used extensively in battlefields in future, which I welcome for several allied reasons. The first reason is accuracy, which may not exist at the moment, but I hope such weapons will become increasingly accurate in future. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston mentioned, war is no longer nice and easy, state on state warfare—invade that country and we can sort them out. It was nice and easy to do in the Falklands war and nice and easy to do in Gulf one, but warfare like that no longer exists. Civilians and all kinds of people are now mixed up in it. Wicked people often use civilians as shields. Accuracy is terribly important.

Secondly, maximising the effect while minimising the cost is terribly important. Of course, we can pile in tens of thousands of foot soldiers, who will slog around large parts of the theatre of war—often without ever seeing the enemy at all—but it costs an enormous amount of money. Of course, we can use conventional weapons of one sort or another, but they cost an enormous amount of money. By comparison, UAVs cost remarkably little because they can fly for a very long time and never fire anything, or if they do fire, the weapons need not be as expensive as conventional weapons often are.

Thirdly, there is no question about it; they are much safer for our own forces than most conventional warfare. If we send soldiers into the theatre of war to fire a tank or an artillery piece, take part in an infantry attack or, as Churchill did, gallop against the whirling Dervishes at the battle of Mafeking—I think it was the Dervishes—we are putting our own troops in significant danger. The worst that can possibly happen with UAVs is that they will be shot out of the sky. Not a single person will be killed if they are disabled, but that does not apply to any other type of warfare. There are huge benefits to be gained from the standpoint of the security and safety of our troops.

I shall make my final point briefly. The hon. Lady is absolutely correct: such weapons in the wrong hands or used incorrectly could become terrible weapons of war. We should never allow that to occur. It is vital that we know precisely who is allowed to use them and under what conditions. What are the rules of engagement? What is the chain of command? Who has the authority to use them and who does not? Is their use purely military or could other Government agencies use them in future? If so, who will authorise that use? What uses are they authorised for? Are they to be used entirely against military targets? Are there conditions under which they could be used against a civilian target? If we knew that a terrible dictator was driving along in his car, for example, would it be right to use a military UAV to kill him? Possibly. Possibly not. We need to know precisely.

The debate that the hon. Lady has opened is extremely important. UAVs are potentially enormously powerful and important weapons and vehicles. They could be of huge benefit to Britain as a war-going nation, but could be of huge disbenefit if they fell into the wrong hands or were used incorrectly. She is right that now is the time to initiate a widespread, deep and ongoing debate about precisely what these things are, what they should be used for, what the rules of engagement are and who should be allowed to use them. If we do that, this afternoon will have been well spent.

The battle of Omdurman was in Sudan. Mafeking is in South Africa. I am glad the hon. Gentleman is not driving a drone at the moment.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh—for the first time, I think—if only because you have given the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) a history lesson.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing this important debate. She has brought to it the same level of expertise and knowledge that we are lucky enough to draw on in the Defence Committee, where she is also a voice of moderation and reason.

The history of warfare is one of innovation and, some would argue, progress, although I am not sure that the latter view is always valid. No one is clear about which of the city states was the first to deploy ballistic weapons, but it is fair to say that those were first used to great effect by the Romans in defeating the Greek hoplite phalanxes between 300 BC and 100 BC; it was the first time that stand-off weapons were used on a large scale. To pick up the point eloquently made by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire, at that point stand-off weapons were still limited by the kinetic capacity of the thrower or archer.

The first recorded use of gunpowder on the battlefield was in the 13th century. It was used in—I will try to pronounce this correctly, Mr Leigh; I am sure that you will correct me if I get it wrong—Ain Jalut in south-east Galilee by the Egyptian Mamluks against the Mongols; my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) was there at the time and will correct me if I am wrong. The Chinese are known to have invented gunpowder, although we do not have an earlier record of their use of it on the battlefield.

The Mamluks in Ain Jalut represent the first recorded use of hand cannons, and they were the first to cause the Mongol horsemen to turn back on their ride westwards. That is significant because it is the first recorded indication that the capacity for ballistic weapon use need not be limited by the human kinetic ability to pull or throw.

We then go forward to the 16th century and the decline in the use of pikes and halberds. Until the middle of the 17th century—probably the end of the civil wars in the British Isles and slightly later in continental Europe—the pike is still the weapon of choice for generals for turning the tide of battle. By the middle of the 17th century, pikes are in decline and there is the rise of the musketmen.

I will not come between blue-on-blue discussions. I think a similar gesture was offered to the Prime Minister at last night’s 1922 committee discussion on gay marriage.

My hon. Friend is right to mention archers; he is thinking particularly of 1415 and the battle of Agincourt. Archery was an extension of the ballistic weapons used in ancient times, but he is right to mention it. The archers were underpinned by the cavalry charge, at the end of the battle, by King Harry’s noble British troops—many were Scots and Welshmen who, as ever, came to his rescue—who defeated the French.

Let me talk a bit more about warfare between the French and the British.

We are, although I hope you will bear with me, Mr Leigh.

If we go forward to 1745, we find the Duke of Cumberland fighting in the battle of Fontenoy, during the war of the Austrian succession. Despite the use of ballistic weapons, he invited his French counterparts to fire first, although it is worth noting—this is the key point—that he had moved some distance back before inviting them to fire on his troops. As ever, the general was not in the firing line.

Moving forward to the 21st century, we see that UAVs are a logical extension of the use of such stand-off ordnance, which the hon. Member for North Wiltshire so eloquently discussed. As he said, if we look at the history of warfare, it is difficult to see a coherent argument pointing to a significant difference between the use of armed UAVs—it is important to note that the debate is about UAVs, not armed UAVs, although it has inevitably turned into a debate about armed UAVs—and the archers of Agincourt, the artillery of Fontenoy, the Mamluk gunners of Ain Jalut or the Roman archers of the 2nd century BC. However, in the modern world, our values mean that our sense of moral repugnance at the death of any civilian or military personnel has come a long way since the Duke of Cumberland so graciously invited the French to fire first on his British forces.

It is worth talking about not only armed UAVs but the important role played by unarmed UAVs. In an answer given on 30 October, Lord Astor said that only one of the five types of UAV that we currently deploy in Afghanistan is armed. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I think that, of the 5,000 sorties that have been carried out in the past 12 months, only a handful have been carried out by the Reaper; the vast majority have been reconnaissance missions, using the ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—UAV, which is there to support our troops.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire, who organised the all-party group on the armed forces welcome for our brave men and women returning from Afghanistan and Libya. It is worth placing on the record not only our thanks for the courageous work that our personnel do in Afghanistan, but the fact that we remain committed to giving them the best support we can in their operations. I challenge any Member of the House honestly to tell me that the support our armed forces have when they are under fire would be enhanced if we removed the UAV capability from the field of operations.

The Minister with responsibility for procurement is here, and I welcome him to his post; this is the first chance we have had to debate. I hope he will not mind my saying that his predecessor is sorely missed by the British defence industry and all of us who are interested in it; he had a real passion for, and a real knowledge of, the field. However, I look forward to working with the current Minister in the remaining two and a half years before the general election.

Perhaps the Minister can answer a few questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston raised in her opening remarks and which I will reiterate. As the Queen Elizabeth class carriers—the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales—come into service at the end of this decade and the start of the next one, what provisions will be made to supply them with UAV maritime capabilities? We also have the Type 26, which the Minister is currently developing with the support of BAE Systems and the Chief of Defence Matériel. What capabilities does he envisage it, or indeed the Type 45, having in the next decade or two decades?

How does the Ministry of Defence intend to support British industry on this issue? We have a long and inglorious tradition, as you will recall, Mr Leigh, of developing absolutely first-rate aviation capabilities and then allowing them to wither on the vine. The example I think of most often is the Hawker Siddeley Harrier, which was first developed by Britain in the early 1960s as the successor to the Kestrel programme and which is now flown by the United States Marine Corps and the Spanish Navy. However, it is no longer used by the UK armed forces—that is probably a debate for another day—and the latter versions are not even developed by British companies; I think that Boeing developed the latter Marine Corps version.

How will the Ministry of Defence support British companies that are assisting in the development of the next generation of UAVs, so that we do not repeat the mistakes that we have made far too often in the past? What role does the Minister see for UAVs as a replacement for RAF pilots? Those of us on the Defence Committee regularly discuss the issue with Sir Stephen Dalton and other leading members of the RAF, and so does the all-party group. To what extent does the Ministry of Defence believe that, as we move through this century, the fast-jet pilot will become obsolete, in much the same way as we went from having bombers such as the Vulcan and the Victor, with crews of five or seven, to the modern Typhoon, with just one pilot?

As technology improves, to what extent will the UAV be an all-weather, all-year-round weapon? Current UAVs are severely limited in their ability to operate; when there is a severe gust, quite a lot of them struggle. Their payloads are also severely limited in terms of reconnaissance and ordnance. How does the Minister see the long-term future in that respect?

I am conscious that my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham will be setting out the Opposition’s official position, so I will close by reminding Members that when we talk about drones or UAVs, we are not talking about some sci-fi technology, with the weapons thinking for themselves. These weapons are no different from a Paveway or a Brimstone; it is just that, rather than being dropped off a Typhoon or a Tornado on a stand-off by a fast-jet pilot, they are being flown under the command of a living, breathing, serving member of Her Majesty’s armed forces.

It will help the debate if we avoid wild flights of fancy—Members will pardon the dreadful pun—and remember that we are talking, I hope, about well-trained members of the British armed forces, who have, and will continue to have, overall control of these vehicles.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing the debate.

Any debate on the deployability of UAVs should be determined by military requirements, by the ethics of the conflict and, above all, by facts. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) that some of the supposed facts that are being circulated are getting in the way of the proper debate that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston initiated.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) mentioned Afghanistan, and I would like to put on record our admiration for, and thanks to, the members of our armed forces who are serving there.

Today’s technology and security issues are changing at an ever more rapid pace. The technology that has been developed was unforeseen a matter of years ago, but so too were the threats and dangers that we now face as a nation. Any threat that we face must be put in context, and the context and objectives for deploying force must involve a number of criteria: the maximum strategic advantage over our enemy, protecting UK service personnel and—quite rightly—minimising civilian casualties and acting at all times within humanitarian and international law. Also, we should make sure that deployment is in line with our national interest and our right, as a nation, to self-defence.

My hon. Friend makes a strong case for the use of UAVs, but does he accept that the continuing criticism of and controversy about the misuse, sometimes, of drones, particularly in parts of Pakistan, where there are high levels of civilian casualties, undermine the rightful case for UAVs when they are in our strategic interest?

I shall refer to Pakistan later, but having been there, and having been a Defence Minister, I accept that there is a big gulf between those who are democratically elected in Pakistan, and the military. I do not accept that some of the actions being taken in northern Pakistan are being done without the knowledge of the Pakistan military. I accept that that creates tensions in Pakistan, but not the idea that some of those things are being done without any knowledge on the part of people in authority there. Having spoken to politicians on my last visit to Pakistan I know that they find that situation difficult; however, that is a debate within the context of the democratic accountability of the armed forces in Pakistan. I assure my hon. Friend that some intelligence and other targeting involve co-operation with the Pakistan military.

In the context that I have outlined, our judgment is that the UK’s current position on deployment of UAVs seems to meet the criteria I have specified. However, we should keep that issue under constant review. It has already been said that it is important to distinguish the deployment of the UK’s UAVs from the deployment of those of our allies. I understand that at present some 76 nations operate UAVs and, as has already been described, the UK deploys four types in Afghanistan. However, only one of those, the Reaper, has an armed capacity. The main focus for our UAV technology in Afghanistan is surveillance and support of our operations, and I have seen at first hand the tremendous job it does in protecting convoys and intelligence gathering, which is vital for the security of our and our allies’ armed forces personnel.

As a matter of technology, UAVs can be more cost-effective in carrying out surveillance and other forms of projecting power. If we did not use their surveillance capacity in relation to convoy protection we would have many more casualties in Afghanistan. I do not accept the argument that UAVs are more indiscriminate, when used in a kinetic role, than conventional aircraft. Their ability to loiter for a long period gives more information to those who are deciding the targeting than is available to a manned aircraft. It would be wrong to give the impression that UAVs are a magic solution to all our defence needs; but they are very important in the defence of the country. The Opposition’s policy is clear. We support unmanned technology as an important element of military capability that complements our manned aerial capability, but with a desire to ensure that it is used in the right context.

The UK does not work on operations in isolation; it works with allies—and not only on operations, but, as has been mentioned, in co-operation on development. It would be interesting to hear what stage of development has been reached after the new Anglo-French agreement on co-operating on the next generation of UAVs. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston and other hon. Members mentioned, the use of UAVs by our most important strategic partner, the United States, has caused public controversy. It is important to distinguish the UK’s use of UAVs from that of the United States. My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife made the important point that most of our UAV deployment in Afghanistan is for surveillance and is not armed, and that deployment of UAVs is only within the borders of Afghanistan. However, we must all recognise the threat that we, the United States and our other allies face from concerted Islamic terrorism and groups who seek to undermine our way of life and destabilise Afghanistan and other parts of the world.

A lot has been written and said about civilian casualties, and all civilian casualties are a matter of great sadness and deep regret. It is difficult to get the true picture and figures. I do not want to talk in statistics, because one life lost means a family is mourning a loved one. Our major aim should be to do anything that can be done to minimise civilian casualties, whether from a strike by a UAV or by any other conventional weaponry. I know from my time in the Ministry of Defence that the military take that very seriously. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) mentioned artillery rounds and other things that are far more indiscriminate than some of the technology.

My hon. Friend is setting out an eloquent and articulate argument. He mentioned minimising casualties, and the families left to mourn. Does he agree that without the use of UAVs in Afghanistan the number of families of British service personnel mourning a loved one would undoubtedly increase?

With respect to the use of UAVs for intelligence gathering and protection of convoys I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. That brings me to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston and the hon. Member for North Wiltshire raised. To people who are against war, we must be honest and say that war is not a pleasant thing; people die in wars. There are individuals and groups active in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan who are bent on undermining not only the way of life of the United States but the one that we take for granted. It is important that any use of force should be a proportionate response.

There has been a lot of talk about the United States and whether the UAV strikes in northern Pakistan are legal. They were authorised post the 11 September authorisation of the use of military forces and have been reinforced by the Obama Administration. When I was at the Ministry of Defence there was a big debate about whether they would continue when President Obama took over, and clearly they have. Article 51 of the United Nations charter, on a nation’s right to self-defence, is also relevant. We must remember that the individuals in question are not sitting around discussing philosophy; they are planning terrorist strikes and atrocities across the world. In the debate about whether we use force to counter those individuals, I am comfortable about recognising the existence of a threat: that has led to disruption of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, and it would not have happened without that type of action.

We support the move by the United States to codify the use of UAVs, which relates to the points made about new technology. It is partly because of the controversy that we need to do something. It is important that the UK examine whether we should have a code covering the contexts and limitations of usage, the process for internal Government oversight of deployments, command and control structures, and acceptable levels of automation. I accept that there is now someone at the end of a UAV, but the next generation of UAVs may be completely autonomous, and we must ensure that such a change is within a legal envelope.

One important point is that I am in no way criticising the Government by saying that no laws are in place. I am well aware of the legal constraints on the selection of targets, and that the same rules of engagement are used as for manned flights. We should however explain UAVs to the public. With the new technology, trying to codify their use and explaining to individuals exactly how targets are selected, for example, and how UAVs are used for both surveillance and military purposes would be a great step forward.

UAVs could be used for piracy patrols on the east coast of Africa and for fishing enforcement. Those two examples would clearly show that drones can have acceptable roles. I agree about their acceptability, and I believe that other people can be persuaded to have the same opinion.

The hon. Gentleman is correct. Certainly, if we can have unmanned vehicles in the UK—once agreement is reached with the Civil Aviation Authority—there may be many uses, as he says, including for security.

It would be helpful if we codified the operations. Am I arguing that no laws currently govern the situation? No, I am not. The rules are based on the Ministry of Defence joint doctrine note 2/11 on “The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems”, but the MOD sometimes has a tendency not to answer questions and to think that it has to shroud such things in secrecy. Whether or not what is being said is true—in many cases, I do not think it is—the perception is that the technology is used indiscriminately and without control. Some type of code would go a long way towards reassuring people that there is a chain of command, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston said, for the individual who takes the decision.

There is also a perception that people sitting in Nevada or Florida are killing indiscriminately with no thought of the consequences of what they are doing. I do not accept that. Anyone who has met members of the armed forces of this country or other countries knows that the decision to fire—whether that is Winston Churchill with his revolver, a UAV operator or a pilot dropping munition—is not taken lightly. It is important that people know the full legal background. Unless someone has been involved in operations, they think it is strange that there is a legal context before targetings happen. If we explained that in a codified system, it would help the debate on the use of a new and developing technology.

The Opposition support the use of UAVs. The technology is important in relation not only to military capability, but to the development of our industry and technology in that area. We are developing technologies that will have applications other than military use. As has already been demonstrated in Afghanistan, the technology helps to protect and support our armed forces.

In conclusion, I accept that some of the information about what has happened in northern Pakistan is alarming. The important thing is to understand the context and how the deaths of some individuals have disrupted terrorist networks that were bringing danger not only to parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan but to the streets of London and the capitals of our allies. In terms of the general debate started by my hon. Friend, the use of weapons will never be something that people take lightly, and nor should they. If we can debate the use of UAVs as no different from the use of any other military weapons and we put that into some kind of code, which we could be open about, not secretive, it would do a lot to ensure not only that we in this country are moral leaders in the use of weapons, but that the public have full confidence, as they should, in the existing military chain of command.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh, in a different capacity from when you chaired the Public Accounts Committee, on which I was privileged to sit.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing the debate. As all speakers have said, it demonstrates the increasing interest among not only Members of the House but the public at large about the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, as currently deployed in Afghanistan and as might be deployed in the future. As she said, only last month I responded to a similar debate, which had been secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti). He made a brief intervention during the hon. Lady’s speech, and I am sorry that he is not with us to hear mine, because I will try to cover many of the issues raised in this debate and since the previous one in early November.

I start by setting out the context of how, where and why the UK armed forces employ remotely piloted aircraft systems, or UAVs as they are regularly referred to. In this debate, I shall use the term RPAS—remotely piloted aircraft systems—as the more accurate description of their capability, not only because that is what they are, but because that is how they are commonly referred to by the armed forces, particularly the RAF. Although the vehicles are unmanned, the system is guided by a whole team of highly trained and skilled people. Pilots, sensor operators and analysts all make decisions in real time, just like the crew of a manned aircraft. Defence remains a human endeavour. As the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) said, humans have taken stand-off weapons development through the generations and the centuries, but there has always been human involvement.

Does the Minister agree that there are also lawyers in the chain of that decision-making process, who ensure that the targets selected fall within legal parameters?

I will explain how the UK armed forces use rules of engagement that are clearly defined and informed by legal opinion, as the hon. Gentleman indicates.

RPAS technology is principally required and used by our armed forces for surveillance and reconnaissance tasks, as several Members mentioned, providing vital intelligence in support of our forces on the ground. While the utility of sensors is broadly similar to those aboard conventionally manned aircraft, RPAS have the ability to loiter for longer, building an intelligence picture that significantly enhances the situational awareness of commanders, forces on the ground and air crew.

RPAS surveillance and reconnaissance capability and the requirement for ever better intelligence, precision and situational awareness are such that they are now vital to mission success, as has been clearly demonstrated in theatre in Afghanistan. The UK currently only deploys RPAS for support of operations in Afghanistan. With the progress of technology and increasing appreciation of their military utility, the number deployed in Afghanistan has continued to increase, with further task lines of Reaper due to become operational next year.

To deliver operational RPAS capability for our forces in Afghanistan, a number of UK RPAS are being used for development trials and training in the UK and in a number of our partner nations. I confirm again that currently the operational deployment for RPAS is for the purposes of operations in Afghanistan, and that UK RPAS are saving the lives of both British and coalition service personnel and Afghan civilians on a daily basis. In that respect, RPAS are no different from other aircraft. The same rules that govern the use of conventional military aircraft apply to RPAS. As I said, UK RPAS are anything but unmanned.

Just for clarity, can the Minister tell us whether there are plans to use RPAS against pirate actions off the coast of Somalia? At the moment, he seems to be stressing that we are looking at the system in terms of Afghanistan and not further.

I was not intending to get into the wider deployment of RPAS, but it is the case that we are about to embark on a concept-of-use demonstration trial to see whether, for surveillance purposes, a maritime system could be deployed in the future, which relates to a question that was raised by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife. It is not at present beyond the demonstration phase.

The Minister shows his skill by guessing what I am going to press him to say. As part of the procurement work for the T-26 and the development of the QE class, is it the intention of the Ministry of Defence that it will in the future be using RPAS?

The hon. Gentleman is seeking to jump some way ahead. The aircraft carrier will not be deployed in its full air strike capability until 2020. The main gate decision on the T-26 is not until the middle of the decade, so he is asking me to foresee military capability several years away. He may not be surprised that we are at least contemplating trialling some capability for future use at some stage. I will not be pressed further on that point, but I will address some of the issues that the hon. Lady mentioned. I want to continue setting the scene for a few more minutes.

The Reaper system, which is the UK’s only armed RPAS, is flown by professional pilots who remain in full control of the aircraft at all times; they follow the law of armed conflict and the UK rules of engagement in exactly the same way as pilots of manned aircraft. Reaper, as with other forms of RPAS, is primarily used for intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, but through technological advance it has been enabled to be armed with precision-guided weapons, thereby meeting a secondary military requirement.

The decision-making process leading to the identification and engagement of a target by one of the two weapons systems available to UK Reapers is identical to that of conventionally manned aircraft, but the greater access to information through a combination of the aircraft’s onboard sensors, ability to access off-board information and duration of missions enables them to be deployed before engagement. Reaper pilots are, arguably, the best informed and connected of all air crew in this operating environment. They are well placed to provide battle-winning surveillance and engagement capability to meet UK ground forces’ needs.

The Reaper was fielded in 2007 and as of 1 December, despite more than 42,000 hours flown over Afghanistan, it has fired only 360 weapons—52 laser-guided bombs and 308 laser-guided Hellfire missiles. Of those precision-guided weapons on Reaper, the type employed is carefully selected in every engagement, which ensures that the most appropriate munition is used to deliver the required effect, in a proportional manner, thus minimising the risk to civilians and their property. The sophistication of the weapons also provides the ability remotely to change the course of the weapon post release, which is another example of the many steps taken by RPAS to avoid civilian casualties as collateral damage.

I am aware of only one incident where civilians have been killed by weapons deployed from a UK Reaper. As I mentioned last month, on 25 March 2011, there was a strike on two pick-up trucks in Afghanistan carrying a significant quantity of explosives, which resulted in the death of two insurgents and four Afghan civilians. That incident was highly regrettable. The subsequent report did, however, confirm that the actions of the Reaper crew had been in accordance with extant procedures and UK rules of engagement. Every weapon released by the UK’s RPAS is under the command of a professional pilot bound by the UK rules of engagement.

Touching on a point raised by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) about the psychological considerations of operating the Reaper, the experience thus far suggests that far from being detached from the reality of the situation, Reaper air crew are just as connected to the situation on the ground as operators of other aircraft types. They have increased information available to them, a longer time to study the information and the ability to abort the mission even after they have fired the weapon. The increasing specialisation of the role of flying RPAS is being considered by the RAF for recognition as a distinct skill within the flying service.

Of course Reaper is not the only RPAS operated in Afghanistan. To correct the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), there are in fact five types—not four—of unmanned aircraft systems in operation. As I have already mentioned, Reaper is the only armed version, but we have also deployed the Hermes 450, which has already flown 65,000 hours for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance purposes. It will be replaced by the more modern Watchkeeper, which again is for surveillance purposes and is not armed. In response to the question put by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston about Watchkeeper, training is already under way and we expect the system to replace Hermes during 2013. These and other smaller deployed tactical systems being operated by Army units in Afghanistan form part of a mix of airborne ISR capabilities, of which they are but one, albeit increasingly important, component. They complement the more traditional manned surveillance capabilities provided by our other aircraft types. Looking further ahead, technological advances are likely to increase the level of automation in some systems, just as in other non-military equipment, but I stress the point that the Government have no intention of developing systems that operate without human intervention in the weapon command and control chain.

Let me turn to the other specific points mentioned by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston. On the main thrust of her remarks on the moral and ethical considerations, it would be instructive for her to look at the joint doctrine note 2/11, if she has not done so already, to which the hon. Member for North Durham referred. It was published in March 2011 by the Government, and was the first Government sponsored document to go into the UK’s approach to unmanned aircraft systems. It has a specific section on moral and ethical considerations, which inform the rules of engagement and the operations in which we are engaged at present.

The Minister has quite rightly outlined the moral and ethical use of drones by the UK Government. What discussions have we had with our allies to ensure that they are applying the same principles?

As is standard procedure, I am here to answer for the UK Government use of unmanned air vehicles. Other countries that use such systems have their own rules of engagement, as is the case for the UK. We do not publish rules of engagement for the sensible reason that to do so would risk prejudicing the capability, effectiveness or operational security of our armed forces, and that is also the doctrine applied by other countries.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston asked about the military chain of command and whether it would be retained. We have no plans in the Ministry of Defence to operate any of our facilities outside the military chain of command. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife referred to potential civil uses in the future for airborne surveillance equipment; the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred to offshore fishing. It is conceivable that in due course other Departments might find other uses for the technology, but I am not aware that it is something that the MOD is engaged in at present.

On Government thinking and working across Departments, can I press the Minister to say a bit more about what role he sees for UK companies in developing RPAS, and how the UK Government, through their various Departments, are supporting that procurement process?

Indeed, a number of Opposition Members asked about that issue. The extent to which the Government are supporting UK industrial investment in this technology is demonstrated by the commitments that we have made, in particular for Watchkeeper, where a very substantial investment has been made for a British-designed, British-built capability.

We have also undertaken some collaborative work with other nations. The issue of our collaboration with the French was raised earlier. We have committed, through a memorandum of understanding signed in July, to two specific strands of that work. One is investing in the concept phase for a future combat air system; that is at the very early stages of the work stream, but work is beginning. The second was in relation to potential French interest in procuring the Watchkeeper system. If British industry is able to export that system to the French in due course, that would be a further success for it. We recognise that British aerospace industry will take an increasing interest in this capability, and through our procurement we are seeking to support that interest.

The Minister, in an earlier response, said that there might not be a role for drones in the MOD in its entirety, but there is a role through the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy’s responsibility is for fishing enforcement, through European regulation. There are three ships set aside for that; I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to be on one, HMS Severn. Is there any intention of introducing drones in the Royal Navy for enforcement of fishing regulation?

As I mentioned earlier, the Royal Navy is undertaking a short-duration capability concept demonstrator, to inform the future concept of use for tactical maritime unmanned air systems. We are not intending to test a specific system, but a system will go through concept demonstration next year. The uses will be for the Royal Navy to decide, if it decides to procure a system in due course.

I think I have addressed the specific questions that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston put to me.

Clearly we intend to keep the chain of command within a purely military concept, but some of our very close allies do not. Do we have difficulties working with other Governments whose chain of command is not purely military?

As I have explained a couple of times, we are at present using RPAS on operations in Afghanistan, and at present we have no other operational use in mind for UK assets beyond Afghanistan. I think that is as far as I can go on that matter at the moment.

I will pick up on some of the comments made by the hon. Member for North Durham. I am grateful for his support for the continued use of unmanned aircraft systems. I am glad that he referred to the joint doctrine document, because it begins to set out some of the issues that are of concern. However, I do not accept the need to undertake a codification of separate rules for RPAS. As I have already mentioned, and as the hon. Gentleman acknowledges, all aircraft operators must follow national and international laws, together with the rules of engagement. Those rules are the same whether an air, sea or land-based platform is being used. Similarly, we have well-established command, control and supervisory frameworks for all our operational assets, so we do not believe at this point that additional measures are needed for RPAS. I will just pick up on the thrust of why I think he was suggesting that we need to take the public with us in our use of RPAS, which is something that I agree with. There is a greater role to be played by politicians and the military in explaining to the public the utility of unmanned systems from a military perspective, from the safety perspective of our own personnel, which is obviously vital, and in minimising the risk of collateral damage when weaponised systems are used. As a Government, we need to do more, and I welcome the help of the hon. Gentleman in advocating the use of such systems to the public at large.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston said that we have to bring the public with us. The Americans are already looking at codification. Would it not be a help to the MOD in getting the arguments across? I accept that an anorak like me reads those documents, but the average person in the street does not. If we had a clearly laid out code, it would give reassurance to individuals who are rightly worried that this new technology is not under any type of control; that is not the case, so it will at least give them some reassurance.

The difficulty with a code is how it is differentiated from rules of engagement. For the reasons I have explained, we do not wish to publish specific rules of engagement, so having a code would head us down a direction of potentially having to publish more about our operational use than would be safe for us to do.

We already have procedures in place for the oversight of all the military capabilities that we have deployed, and the National Security Council will consider whether forces should be deployed in the future. It operates with the benefit of the NSDR and NSDA, to use military acronyms—

I am in danger of falling into a trap that I should not have set myself.

Finally, RPAS is not shielded in secrecy, which was the expression used in the article in The Times that was referred to earlier in the debate. During the last few weeks, months and years, we have released significant details about our use of RPAS, but our use of RPAS should not be confused with general MOD policy on safeguarding information relevant to targeting and intelligence. I hope that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman will recognise that that is an overriding requirement and puts to rest the need for any potential confusion with a system of codification, rules of engagement or secrecy over the matter.

Let me finish by restating that the UK complies fully with its obligations under international law, as set out in article 36 of additional protocol 1 to the Geneva conventions, to review all new weapons, and means and methods of warfare. That process applies to unmanned capabilities as well as to other manned weapons systems.

I welcome the opportunity presented by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston to put on the record once again the Government’s clear view of the benefits of RPAS in minimising the risk to civilians, as well as to our own service personnel and other coalition forces. RPAS provide vital intelligence to our forces on the ground and I can only see their importance increasing, as part of our overall service capability.

Health Services (Cornwall)

I am delighted to have secured this debate on health services, which are important in Cornwall—and, I am sure, in the rest of the world as well.

The national health service was created in 1948. It looks forward to its 65th birthday while facing the biggest challenges in its history, and nowhere more so than in Cornwall and on the Isles of Scilly. The previous Labour Government set a demanding target of £20 billion efficiency gain by 2015, something not advanced for any other health system on the planet, and the present Government have introduced the biggest reorganisation since the NHS was created.

As the Minister knows, I have argued, and voted, against the Government on what is now the Health and Social Care Act 2012. However, we must face up to what the Government have done, to ensure that, irrespective of the wisdom or otherwise of the policies, the Act does not undermine our vital local health services in Cornwall and on the Isles of Scilly.

Along with the significant financial challenges, which are a great deal more significant in Cornwall and on the Isles of Scilly than in the rest of the country, I hope to raise some of the many other challenges that the local NHS faces, including the consequences of the loss of the helicopter service to the Isles of Scilly.

I want to mention the important campaign that Sandra Cousins, one of my constituents, launched a year ago, following the tragic death of her daughter Mercedes Curnow, which led to the setting-up of the Mercedes Curnow Foundation. Mercedes died on 14 December 2011, aged 23. She and her mother had sought to highlight the need to strengthen the systems for detecting and treating cervical cancer in young women—particularly those under 25, who are denied screening in many circumstances.

There are many other issues. Nationwide, there needs to be a greater emphasis on registered nurse-to-patient ratios in some acute settings, and the need in Cornwall is significant. There is the risk of regional pay, the need to ensure adequate community hospital beds and primary care services, and the public health agenda, which must ensure adequate levels of NHS dentistry. That might be far too many issues to fit into the limited time available.

I am very reassured that highly professional and dedicated clinicians are already working hard to ensure that our local health services are the best they can be in the circumstances. In 2013, the new service in Cornwall will, as in the rest of the country, be largely led by local general practitioners. I am delighted that the shadow Kernow clinical commissioning group—“Kernow” is Cornish for Cornwall—chaired by Dr Colin Philip, was only this afternoon authorised by the NHS Commissioning Board to be responsible for the £700 million for commissioning health services across Cornwall.

The group is very open to working with the local community in ways that are extremely encouraging. For example, the Cornish campaign group 38 Degrees is already working with the group and suggesting amendments to its constitution to ensure that local health services are protected in ways that any local community would wish them to be protected. It is well on the way to creating new structures, challenging as they are, that will shape how the NHS operates in Cornwall.

A big challenge nationally is to ensure that the NHS really effectively puts patients before profit. The previous Government rolled out the red carpet for private health companies in Cornwall, as elsewhere, and gave them opportunities to profit their shareholders by delivering some of the less challenging elements of NHS work. I have questioned the basis on which tariffs will be awarded for procedures. After I raised questions with him about the risk of cherry-picking, the new Secretary of State told me, in a letter dated 30 October 2012:

“Under these new rules, commissioners should adjust the tariff price if a provider limits the type of patients it treats…resulting in lower costs than the average of the tariff category. As a result, providers undertaking only the more simple interventions—for example, because they do not have the proper facilities to handle more complex cases—would be paid a suitably lower price.”

That is certainly the case in Cornwall, where a number of private providers deal with some of the easier and less complex cases—for example, patients without anaesthetic risk and those without co-morbidities. If those providers are offered a lower tariff price the question that needs to be asked is whether that might have the unintended consequence of commissioners driving patients into the arms of the private providers that cannot provide the range of services that the Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust, for example, excellently provides for our local community.

There is also fragmentation, which although a nationwide issue is a particular risk in a peninsula that depends on core services and has no alternatives. Although patient choice might well apply, and is welcome as a luxury beyond the core services, the risk is, of course, that it will not necessarily help services if it results in their fragmentation.

On the role of the private sector, my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) and I have raised concerns with the Care Quality Commission about what we detected had been going on with the out-of-hours GP service in Cornwall. The CQC, in its report in July, found—as the Minister will know because of the significant national ramifications—that there had been some manipulation of some of the data records, and inadequate staffing. The primary care trust, in its report on 20 September 2012, identified that it had deliberately altered data 250 times between January and June this year, which had the effect of inflating its published response times. That is not particularly encouraging. The problem is that in a very competitive environment there is an increased risk that that might happen.

Cornwall must ensure that it gets a fair share of the cake. Our allocation is significantly less than what the Government say we deserve—their stated target—and they should take account of the underfunding we have had in recent years. For example, between 2006 and 2012 Cornwall has received £201 million less than its target. That is a significant amount, and I would be surprised if anywhere else in the country had been allocated so much less than what the Government said it should get. This year, 61 primary care trusts will receive a total of £1.3 billion over target, while 88 PCTs, one of which is Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, will receive £1.3 billion below target.

Added to that, Cornwall receives less money for each medical procedure within a national tariff, using the market forces factor framework as the index. The Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust receives the lowest payment of any acute trust in the country. It inherited debts from troubles that originated in 2006-07, which rose to £46 million in 2008-09. Although repayments have reduced the debt to £22 million, it will be passed on to the new quasi-independent foundation trust, which we hope will be established next year.

Although we have had disappointing responses from Ministers so far, my hon. Friends the Members for Truro and Falmouth and for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) and I are still arguing that the debt should be written off to give that foundation trust a clean slate on which to begin its work next year.

I entirely support and thoroughly endorse the trust’s response to the latest revelations with regard to concern in the obstetrics and gynaecology department. I make it clear, so that there is no equivocation or uncertainty, that I entirely endorse the actions the trust has taken with the external review, and we hope that that will be brought to a conclusion as soon as possible. The trust is certainly doing all it can to reassure patients in Cornwall. The trust has high standards, and we entirely support the work it is doing. We hope that patients who may be concerned will contact the trust.

Sandra Cousins of the Mercedes Curnow Foundation has been working tirelessly. Although I have written to Ministers on this issue over the past year and have received helpful and instructive replies, a large number of young women are still dying, unnecessarily in my view and certainly in the view of Sandra Cousins and her many supporters across the country.

Sandra is also concerned that, even where GPs are prepared to undertake a smear test—smear tests for young women under 25 have to be authorised by a doctor—laboratories, apparently, are not always following through by undertaking work on those tests. She argues that laboratories must accept and follow through the necessary tests. She draws a comparison with Australia, where the cervical screening limit is 18 and where, since 2009, the human papilloma virus vaccination has been available for those up to 26 years old, which is much higher than in this country. The mortality rate from cervical cancer in Australia is half the UK’s.

Sandra Cousins says:

“I also feel regarding the hpv vaccination that it should be done nationwide in schools. Cornwall is a prime example of low uptake of the vaccination, 49% compared to many counties that are 89%, because it is done at G.P. practice not in schools.”

She advances the case for schools, but she is also concerned about the 18 to 26-year-old cohort, because HPV vaccination ends at the age of 18 and there is no cervical screening for those under 25. Her daughter, of course, fell into that cohort, and I certainly believe she has a strong case for advancing the points that she is making.

Of 20 cervical smear and HPV tests that the Mercedes Curnow Foundation has funded, 18 were positive. Those women went on to have further investigations and treatment. Sandra Cousins cites other examples where that is an issue that needs to be addressed in more detail.

I have mentioned regional pay, and I am pleased that MPs across the south-west met the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) last week. We were reassured by his response, and he will be writing to the south-west consortium. Indeed, those south-west MPs will be writing to the chief executives of the 19 trusts engaged in that consortium to encourage them to get back to national negotiation.

I urge the Government to consider nurse staffing levels. With all the stories about poor care and nursing in hospitals, few are prepared to consider the resources that are going into the hospital wards themselves. On many occasions, nurses are running around unable to fulfil all of their duties because there is an insufficient number of them on the ward. There are mandatory registered nurse-to-patient ratios in places such as Australia and they work well, with good outcomes.

The commercial helicopter service to the Isles of Scilly ceased just over a month ago, and it is already having an impact on services to my constituents on the Isles of Scilly. Blood samples and patients are unable to get over to the mainstream health services on the mainland, and I hope the Minister is prepared to look closely at that and perhaps work with the Department for Transport to help find a solution. Cross-departmental co-operation is required.

We have low levels of NHS dental provision in Cornwall, and I am concerned that the local authority might put the director of public health not on the chief officers board of the local authority, but under one of those senior officers. There are major concerns across Cornwall that Peninsula Community Health, the community interest company set up last year, is unable to provide the necessary staff to staff community hospital beds. It is important that we front-load community and primary care to get the balance right between those acute hospitals seeking to discharge patients earlier than they are able and avoiding unnecessary admissions to those hospitals.

I am sorry that I have gone on for a minute longer than I intended. There are many challenges, but the biggest that we face—I hope the Minister will take this on board—is Cornwall’s unfair funding deal: £200 million of missing money over the past six years alone.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on securing this debate and on raising what can only be described as a rich pot-pourri of topics relating to the state of the health service in his county and to his constituents, whom he serves not only in St Ives and across Cornwall but on the Isles of Scilly.

I assure my hon. Friend that the total revenue allocated to NHS Cornwall and Isles of Scilly increased by 2.8% in 2012-13, which is entirely in line with the 2.8% overall increase nationally. That represents an additional £26 million to invest in front-line care in his local area. Indeed, the total budget for NHS Cornwall and Isles of Scilly is £941.8 million for 2012-13. On top of that, I am advised that the local NHS expects to achieve efficiencies of 4%, totalling £36 million, with those funds being made available to support improved services to patients in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

I understand that the independent Advisory Council on Resource Allocation has been developing a new allocations formula. I am told that allocations to clinical commissioning groups for 2013-14 will be announced by the NHS Commissioning Board later this month and that ACRA’s final recommendations are due to be published alongside those allocations.

It is not for me to say whether Cornwall should receive more or less money—it is difficult to think that Cornwall could possibly ever receive less—but if there are some inequities, I am sure my hon. Friend and his colleagues from the county will do their best, as they always do, to put forward those arguments with full force. I assure him that they will continue to be listened to.

The Government are clear that Cornwall receives less money than they say it should. I gave the figure earlier that Cornwall received more than £200 million less than the Government said it should.

Indeed, but it is for ACRA to come up with a new formula, and it is hoped that that can be advanced. The formula might, of course, be to the benefit of the county.

There is a rich number of topics to address, and it is difficult to know where to begin, but I will start by saying that I am disappointed that my hon. Friend chose to vote against the Government’s excellent NHS reforms. In his area, as he has already told us, the CCG was authorised yesterday. I will give some examples of how that movement of power and determination into the hands of front-line professionals will benefit his constituents.

The CCG has secured more than £500,000 from the Government’s dementia challenge fund to improve the lives of people in Cornwall living with dementia and their carers. The funding will be spent on improving dementia care in residential and nursing homes and in the community, and increasing peer support in communities and hospitals. Those are just some of the things that that successful application for £500,000 will achieve. The CCG is also investing £300,000 to expand the acute care at home programme. I have many other examples, including four services in Cornwall that have been expanded through the “any qualified provider” scheme: psychological therapies, back and neck pain treatments, adult hearing services and ultrasound and MRI diagnostic services. My hon. Friend raised concerns about the march of the private sector, but if there is such a march—I have no evidence of it—it would seem that in his county, it is by no means to be feared; indeed, it is to be welcomed.

My hon. Friend mentioned the loss of the helicopter from Penzance to the Isles of Scilly. I know that the service has ceased, and I understand the worry that that causes him and many of his constituents. I understand that the service previously fulfilled all non-emergency health transportation needs, but I am informed that emergency transport is usually carried out by RNAS Culdrose, so any interruption to routine travel affects only non-emergency appointments. The islands are also served by a passenger ferry, and the NHS has back-up arrangements in place to use a cargo ship if needed for medical samples.

In response to the ending of the helicopter service, I am told that the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company, which runs the fixed-wing aircraft Skybus and the passenger ferry Scillyonian—forgive me for not pronouncing it correctly—

My hon. Friend knows it better than I. The company has enhanced its services to accommodate NHS needs, and has committed to purchasing a second aircraft to enable it to increase flights. I hope that those arrangements are of some assurance to him.

On registered nurse staff ratios and the skill mix, we know that patient care in the 21st century is different from what it used to be. Hospitals report that the type of demand that they face is changing. In particular, the average lengths of hospital stays are about one third shorter than they were 10 years ago. It is true that the number of nurses has been decreasing, but the total number of professionally qualified clinical staff in the NHS is rising.

Planning the number of nurses and the shape and size of the work force must be based on the needs of the people in our care. Services must be properly designed around the care and treatment that people need. Those decisions could result in a need for nursing numbers to change, but that must be based on properly redesigning services, not just on affordability. Changes must be decided at a local level, based on evidence that they will improve patient care. It is important to use this valuable staffing resource wisely, in properly constructed multi-professional teams with appropriately blended skills focused on the care and treatment needed by patients, families and communities.

The Government are committed to improving quality standards in the NHS. Our role is to clarify the standard of patient care demanded of the NHS through the mandate and to underpin it with robust external monitoring and validation by appropriate bodies. We are not here to impose management solutions.

I am interested in what the Minister says. However, is she saying that she and her fellow Ministers are content that registered nurse staffing levels are currently adequate in all settings within the NHS?

With great respect, I could not possibly say either yea or nay to that, because I do not know what they are, but I always look forward to the continuing representations made by hon. Members urging Ministers to raise or change the numbers.

I turn to the concerns expressed about the financial situation of the Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust. I hope that those concerns will now be allayed; the trust is forecasting a surplus of £3.8 million for 2012-13, and is progressing well on its path to achieving foundation trust status. Yesterday, through a video link, I spoke to one of the trust’s officers, who told me with much encouragement about plans for the future of the hospital and said that the trust believes that it is now on top of its financial situation. By way of example, I asked specifically about the trust’s preparations for winter, as it looks like we are going to have one of the hardest winters in this country for a long time. I was heartened by not only the trust but the PCT and others to whom I spoke about the high level of preparedness in Cornwall and Devon, two counties that are used to unusual snaps of weather, quick changes and sudden emergencies. I was left with a feeling of great confidence that those two counties are doing everything that they should to be ready. For what it is worth in this short time, I urge all counties to be in as great shape as Cornwall and Devon are.

In my remaining few minutes, I will turn to one particular point. My hon. Friend may have raised others. If I have not answered them, I will write to him. He rightly talked about a foundation trust set up by one of his constituents in memory of another of his constituents. I did not catch their names, so if he will forgive me, I will not make a hash of them, as it is a serious matter and a young woman lost her life. I am told that 80% of eligible women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly took part in the NHS cervical screening programme in the previous five years. That uptake has increased from the previous year and exceeds the percentage of women who took part nationally.

My hon. Friend’s point was about screening for women under the age of 25. He said that it concerns him, and asked why the age should not be reduced. In May 2009, the advisory committee on cervical screening reviewed the screening age specifically and considered all the latest available evidence on the risks and benefits of cervical screening in women aged between 20 and 24. The committee was unanimous in deciding that there was no reason to lower the age from 25, which happens to be in line with the World Health Organisation’s recommendations. The committee gave a number of reasons, which I cannot read out given the time available. I am more than happy to supply him with a list of those reasons.

That is not to say by any means that my hon. Friend and his constituents should cease their campaign to achieve better levels of screening and awareness among young women about the fact that cervical cancer can affect them even though they are young. I say that as the mother of two daughters, one aged 21 and one 22. It may be of some interest to him that by complete coincidence, I was stopped today by my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), who approached me because she too, unfortunately, had a constituent under the age of 25 who died of cervical cancer. She raised the same issue with me. I gave her an undertaking that I am more than happy to meet with her and her constituents to discuss it further, and I extend that invitation to my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives and to his constituents who are campaigning. It may well be that the matter should be revisited. As I said, the advisory committee considered the issue in 2009. The technology may have changed—I know not—but it is certainly a matter that needs to be considered, and I am more than happy to meet hon. Members to talk about it and see whether anything can be done.

It would appear that I have dealt with all the items on my list of notes, and so—

I am absolutely delighted that the funding formula is being reviewed, but a crucial question for us in Cornwall, when the formula arrives at a solution saying how much Cornwall should get, is whether we actually get it. It has not necessarily been a problem with the formula; it is that we have never reached the existing formula. It is about renewed determination that there will be a road of travel.

With 50 seconds remaining, this is a perfect opportunity for any other Member to stand up and make exactly the same point. It is a good point, and it is about to be made again.

I am pleased that we have made a lot of progress through the coalition—the gap has decreased from minus 7 to minus 2 —but a great enough rate of change to get Cornwall up to where it should be within this Parliament is essential for the people of Cornwall.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. She makes a good point. Like others who have spoken in this short debate, she advances her county’s cause eloquently and undoubtedly with some merit. I cannot make any promises, but I can ensure on my return to the Department that the matter is raised yet again at the highest level so that we can see whether we can make some progress.

Tackling Corruption

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh.

Sunday 9 December marked the United Nation’s international anti-corruption day. This year, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, called on us all to pledge to do our part by cracking down on corruption, shaming those who practise it and engendering a culture that values ethical behaviour. Those words are poignant when considering the general feeling in the public, who have been protesting about fairness and ethical behaviour, particularly among multinational corporations.

According to the Christian relief and development agency, Tearfund, corruption hits the poorest sectors of society the hardest. It reduces access to and quality of essential public services, such as education and health care, prevents resources from reaching their intended destinations, undermines trust and harms economic growth. In Africa alone, the cost of corruption has been estimated at nearly £100 billion a year, or £3,000 a second, representing 25% of the continent’s GDP.

Tackling corruption is particularly important to ensure that money, whether tax, investment or aid, is used for economic growth and to tackle poverty. For example, the 2009 extractive industries transparency initiative report showed that in Nigeria there was a discrepancy of $800 million—equivalent to the health budget—between what companies said they pay to the Government and what the Government said that they received. That Government are rightly working to recover that money.

As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on anti-corruption—my fellow co-chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar), is also in the Chamber—I say that we need much greater focus on this issue. The Prime Minister made it clear recently that, together, transparency and fighting corruption are part of

“‘the golden thread’ of conditions enabling open economies and open societies to thrive”.

He announced, rightly, that he is putting transparency at the heart of the G8. In addition, the UK Government have set themselves the ambitious target of becoming the most open, transparent Government in the world. We will hold the Prime Minister to that statement.

The Bribery Act 2010 is a strong piece of legislation. The Department for International Development, created by the previous Labour Government, came top in the recent ranking for aid transparency. The UK Government came third in the 2010 open budget index for transparency in budgeting. The UK is also showing strong leadership in pushing for effective transparency legislation in the European Union, so that oil, gas and mining companies publish what they pay to Governments. However, 2013 is an opportunity to continue this progress, because as chair of the G8 and co-chair of the Open Government Partnership, the UK has a unique opportunity to harness the energy and commitment of Governments, the private sector and citizens to ensure that resources are used to tackle poverty.

The UK Bribery Act has, in many ways, set the standard globally. Now, effective implementation of the Act requires sufficient resources for enforcement. The Serious Fraud Office is responsible for enforcing the new legislation, but its budget has been cut from £52 million in 2008, to approximately £33 million in 2012 and it is expected to be further reduced in forthcoming years, which is a huge worry. Without sufficient funding, the SFO will not be able to do its job of enforcement, however good the legislation may be. Given the importance of the issue at stake, I hope that the Minister will give assurances that the SFO will have sufficient funding to implement the Bribery Act effectively. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that that happens?

With at least 11 Departments and public bodies having the remit of tackling corruption, there is clearly a need for cross-departmental co-ordination and an overarching anti-corruption strategy. The Prime Minister’s commitment in June 2010 to make the then Secretary of State for Justice, now the Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), the Government’s anti-corruption champion was welcome. However, the role lacks clarity and after the summer’s reshuffle we heard little more about it. The all-party group recently wrote to the Prime Minister about that and, although it was reconfirmed that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe will remain anti-corruption champion, we have yet to see further details about the remit of the role or any cross-Government strategy to tackle corruption at home and overseas. Will the Minister confirm when further details of the role of anti-corruption champion will become available and when we can expect the production of a cross-departmental anti-corruption strategy?

Some 3.5 billion people live in countries rich in oil, gas and minerals. Revenue from those sectors is often one of the greatest sources of wealth generated within developing countries. In 2010, for example, exports of oil and minerals from Africa were estimated at $333 billion, nearly seven times the value of international aid to the continent, which is currently valued at $48 billion. However, such wealth provides little benefit to the people living there, especially the poor, in part due to lack of transparency.

The UK has shown leadership in Europe in pushing for strong EU transparency legislation, for oil, gas and mining companies to publish what they pay, and has received cross-party support in the UK. We in the all-party group wrote to the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Minister, the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), to show our support for strong Government leadership in Europe on the matter. Nevertheless, more can be done. The recently passed US Dodd-Frank Act, together with the EU transparency legislation, will cover all extractive industry companies listed on the US and EU stock exchanges, including many from G8 and G20 countries, such as Australia, Canada, China and Brazil.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. It is said that developing countries lose three times as much in tax revenues as they receive in aid. We need to rush this legislation through so that we can start developing such countries and they can start raising their own income to allow their economies to prosper.

That is the crux of the issue. The Government have rightly supported the previous Labour Government’s calls for committing 0.7% of our GDP in aid to developing countries, but until we get the international structures right—the transparency—to ensure that that money goes to the right people and is spent in the right places, and that countries are able to protect their own resources and tax revenues, we will not make the progress that we would like and aid will not have the greatest effect. To win the argument on many fronts, work must be done on the anti-corruption agenda and increased transparency to improve the efficacy of that aid, which we are rightly committed to as a country.

Much more can be done. The UK has been a leader in spearheading and supporting the extractive industries transparency initiative, a mechanism by which companies report the payments that they make to Governments, host Governments report their revenues, and any discrepancies can be resolved. That has led to large differences being identified between payments made and revenues reported and, as a result, money has been recovered, as shown in the Nigeria example that I mentioned. However, despite supporting the EITI, the UK is not yet one of its 36 current members; only one G20 country is. Although many warm noises are coming from the G8 and G20 Governments on the transparency agenda, it is questionable whether we can provide global leadership without putting our own houses in order. What plans do the UK Government have to use the G8 to encourage other rich countries to pass transparency laws and to reach global standards on transparency for oil, gas and mining companies? Is there an existing timetable that the Government are using to sign up to the EITI?

Open and transparent budget systems promote development by enabling citizens in developing countries to help their Governments to formulate budgets that reflect public priorities, to reduce money lost due to corruption, and to hold their Governments to account on spending. Such systems ensure the optimal use of resources gained from tax, aid and investment, which is even more vital now in times of austerity. For example, Mexico made details of agricultural subsidies to small farmers publicly available, showing a high concentration of recipients among the wealthiest 10% of farmers, who received nearly 20 times what the bottom 80% received. In 2007, under public pressure from the International Budget Partnership, the local non-governmental organisation Fundar, and Congress, maximum and minimum limits for farm subsidies were introduced and the recipient list was then cleaned up. In Uganda, public expenditure tracking surveys led to a reduction in leaked funds from 80% to 20% in five years, from 1995 to 2000, which was connected to Government grants for school fees. Many Governments, however, do not have transparent budgets, and nor do they allow citizen participation in the process. According to the 2010 open budget index, 74 out of the 94 countries surveyed failed to meet even the most basic standards of transparency and accountability. Only seven provided extensive information, of which the UK was one.

Clearly, much more needs to be done at an international level. The UK has an opportunity to make sure that that happens through its role as chair of the G8 and co-chair of the Open Government Partnership. The partnership, with 58 member countries, had its first steering group meeting under the UK chairmanship on 3 and 4 December, led by the Minister for the Cabinet Office. Countries have committed to publish data on Government spending in a way that the public can use, but the commitment is still limited and only includes the Executive’s budget proposal and audit report, while missing other key documents. Most importantly, the commitment does not require member Governments to develop practical ways of engaging their citizens and Parliaments in the process. As a result, the Open Government Partnership eligibility criteria need to be strengthened, so that countries show year-on-year progress and reach the highest standards of budget transparency, and to state clearly how citizens and parliamentarians can be involved in the budget process. For that to work, other key G8 and G20 countries need to commit to joining—fewer than half are currently members. Greater support is also needed to support civil society groups in using the information produced to hold their Governments to account. That could also be done, for example, through DFID programmes.

The process is comprehensive but crucial, and I will welcome further information regarding the Government’s plans to support its development in the years ahead as part of their wider anti-corruption strategy. A cross-governmental commitment to fighting corruption, throughout all Departments and across parties, is vital. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the various questions and challenges that I have put to her today.

I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for this important debate and for rightly celebrating international anti-corruption day, which fell on Sunday. We might be somewhat belated, but we are ensuring that we mark it in Parliament today.

Some interesting points have been made, which I will endeavour to answer as best I can. I will provide an update on the Government’s efforts to tackle international corruption, which, as the hon. Lady rightly said, have to go across Departments. I am sure that such efforts come with the strong good wishes of all parties. I also welcome the presence in the Chamber of the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar). He has not made a full speech today, but he is well known to the House as the co-chair of the all-party group on anti-corruption. He and the hon. Lady ought to be congratulated on their work on that agenda.

I will mirror many of the concerns that have been expressed this afternoon, and I lay out the reassurance that the Government are committed to tackling corruption at home and abroad. Corruption is a scourge that hurts individuals, businesses and social and economic development. Such injustice invariably hits the most vulnerable citizens the hardest, throughout the world, and it has a corrosive impact. Corruption can have a badly corroding effect not only on society, the rule of law and democracy but on the reputation of and trust in the state in general terms. In particular, if we look at people’s views of the ease and cost of doing business, the effect can be seen clearly in many places around the world.

The British Government’s view is that strong action to address corruption will help to move the vast resources involved to more productive ends. Instead of people’s resources being squandered to enable organised crime or to undermine the rule of law and those bonds of trust to which I referred, we seek for them to be used to support trade, commerce and growth.

The UK has played a leading role in the international fight against corruption, and I wish to make a few points about that today. I also take the opportunity to welcome the correspondence that hon. Members have had with the Prime Minister on the role of the anti-corruption champion. Indeed, I have a copy of that correspondence with me.

I am delighted to have the full support of the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), as I address the issue today. I shall ensure that he hears the results of the debate, and I shall convey to him the points made by hon. Members in their desire for clarity on the breadth of his role and on his next steps.

I turn to what the UK is doing on the international stage. Over the past 20 years or so, there has clearly been progressive globalisation—not only of business but, crucially, of corruption. We must therefore internationalise the fight against corruption. The UK has taken part in the need for broader and more sophisticated legislation and co-ordination. The Bribery Act 2010 represents what many consider to be the most comprehensive anti-corruption legislation in the world, as I think the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North recognised. The Act clamps down on foreign as well as domestic bribery and addresses passive as well as active corruption. It acknowledges the international and multifaceted nature of the challenge, and I hope and believe that it will provide a template to many other legislatures around the world.

Some UK businesses might have been concerned when the 2010 Act came in so, as an aside, I reassure them that a legal system that provides a good reason not to pay bribes saves businesses money and protects their reputations. They could also point out any corruption with hope of redress if their competitors were not acting as honestly. Far from driving firms away, the Act ought to attract and to deliver something of an ethical premium in respect of doing business.

The UK has played a prominent role in co-ordinating international efforts. The hon. Lady mentioned the G20 anti-corruption working group, which the UK has co-chaired with Mexico and which has made progress on asset disclosure, mutual legal assistance and the denial of entry to corrupt public officials. The success of the group has been such that we have seen the bringing together of global expertise from civil society and, crucially, businesses.

I agree with all the Minister’s comments so far, but can we tease out the details on what specific action the UK Government have taken, internationally or domestically, to clamp down on corruption?

Without a doubt. I will carry right on and do exactly that, and I am happy to ensure that the hon. Gentleman has further information if I do not manage to cover everything in the time available.

The UK is the lead chair of the Open Government Partnership, an international initiative that has attracted 57 other countries since its launch, which is an accolade to the UK’s lead chairmanship. It allows us to help countries to build transparent governance structures which, because the battle is international, help the UK as well, demonstrating that transparency is a central plank of any effort.

The UK fully recognises the importance of the longer-term agenda, and Ban Ki-moon spoke about the millennium development goals on Sunday. That is another important point to note in the record. There is

“a golden thread of development”

and we intend that to be a central tenet of our G8 presidency in 2013. The UK intends to champion an agenda of transparency and accountability by changing the nature of the debate on development and aid. The power of open economies, open Governments and open societies can deliver that growth and prosperity that we seek and, crucially, the bonds of trust.

The hon. Lady asked about the extractive industries. The UK is leading efforts in the UK to require oil, gas and mining companies to publish key financial information for each country and project that they work on. In many ways, the UK’s work on transparency paves the way for the G8, and this is my point in answer to the hon. Gentleman.

The Department for International Development has made great strides over the last couple of years, as hon. Members recognise. We are publishing data according to the international aid transparency initiative. Through those efforts we have been able to move in one year from fifth to first place in the Publish What You Fund aid transparency index. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that, and I know that both hon. Members will welcome the fact that the traceability of aid benefits those for whom the aid is intended. We all agree on that, and our constituents throughout the country want transparency of Governments and a reduction in waste, fraud, and corruption in the country’s aid budget.

We want transparency in how aid is delivered, but one frustration for our constituents is that although they may believe in aid, they see corruption by Government officials coming the other way. We must reform our institutions here to ensure that we do not aid and abet corruption in other countries.

The hon. Gentleman raises a wise point. If he will forgive me, I will allow a Minister from the Department for International Development to respond in more detail than I can today.

Let me turn to what we are doing on enforcement and what we are doing in the UK, because both are vital. We are playing a key role in the tracing, seizing, recovering and return of illicit assets. That is important, and in September the Prime Minister launched a taskforce to work with the Egyptian Government to gather evidence on stolen money, for example. That builds on the work of two police units that DFID has funded in that arena.

Effective enforcement is central and essential in the trustworthiness of the whole process. Laws mean very little if they are not enforced by every official who might come into contact with the process. The UK targets foreign and corrupt officials who launder the proceeds of corruption and bribery through our country, and I will give an example. James Ibori, the former Governor of Delta state in Nigeria, became one of its richest men by embezzlement. Following a British police investigation, he was sentenced to 13 years in jail, which sends a clear message to those who might seek to use the UK as a refuge for criminal acts.

In addition, the UK operates a comprehensive anti-money laundering framework which, in accordance with the revised international standards of the Financial Action Task Force, helps us to combat money laundering and terrorist financing.

Will the Minister clarify that the action that she is outlining and has given examples of is pursued under the Bribery Act 2010 and through the Serious Fraud Office? If so, will she clarify the SFO’s funding situation, and whether it has sufficient resources properly to tackle corruption on an international scale, an example of which she has given?

I am conscious that the hon. Lady asked that question earlier, and perhaps I can return to it. I have just mentioned one case, and I can furnish plenty more than what I have been able to give on my feet this afternoon. She will appreciate from her role on the Front Bench that it will be hard for me to pre-empt future spending decisions, but we are putting a serious focus on the new UK National Crime Agency, which I am about to come on to. I hope that she will find reassurance in that.

As well as telling other countries to put their houses in order, the UK must put its house in order. We should not be complacent. According to Transparency International’s work, we are perceived to be less vulnerable to corruption than some of our friends, such as the US, France and Ireland, but we remain behind other counterparts with whom we might seek to compete. We have subjected and continue to subject our domestic systems to peer review by the OECD, the UN convention against corruption and the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption experts.

We are already working across Departments and law enforcement and prosecution agencies to see how we can make it easier for UK residents and businesses to identify, prevent and report bribery and corruption. We need to improve the intelligence picture through a more joined-up and co-ordinated approach that gives us a clearer picture of the true nature and scale of domestic bribery and corruption. We can then use that to support a stronger law enforcement response.

From next year, the new UK National Crime Agency will have a part to play, and while the details are being developed, it will seek to reduce the threat from corruption and bribery within the UK and internationally.

The Minister is being generous in giving way, and I thank her for that. What role will institutions play as part of that framework? Clearly, our banks, whether consciously or subconsciously, are being used to funnel corrupt money through our institutions. Will they play a role in that framework?

I see the force of the hon. Gentleman’s argument. If he will allow me, I will ensure that in due course he receives a fuller answer than I can give him in the three minutes remaining.

I want to add to some points about what has just been announced in the autumn statement. The Government have reinvested more than £900 million in HMRC to tackle evasion, unpaid tax debts and avoidance. That allocation of extra resources to HMRC during this spending review period will add a real element to what we have discussed today. Our serious compliance activity shows that the Government are committed to clamping down on tax avoidance wherever it is identified, and that is an important plank in what we are talking about in the most general terms and in preventing corruption.

The autumn statement announced the closure with immediate effect of some newly identified loopholes that were being exploited, and that will protect hundreds of millions of pounds for the UK. It also announced the introduction of the UK’s first general anti-abuse rule, which provides a significant new deterrent to abusive avoidance schemes and strengthens HMRC’s means of tackling them wherever they persist. Finally, we are cracking down on the marketing of tax avoidance schemes through proposals to introduce new information disclosure measures.

The Minister is aware that very little time is left for this debate. Apart from the measures that she has just outlined on activities at HMRC, she has not told us whether there is a cross-departmental anti-corruption strategy, or whether one is likely to be published. That would be useful information to have before we run out of time in this debate.

I endeavoured to address that in my opening words. As the hon. Lady and the hon. Gentleman know, my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister without Portfolio is delighted to continue to be the anti-corruption champion; there has been no change in that respect following the ministerial reshuffle in September. It is with his full support that I am here today answering the hon. Lady’s questions.

It has been difficult to give a full overview of everything the Government are doing, but that is what I have endeavoured to do in this debate. I will convey to my right hon. and learned Friend her desire for a fuller response. I am sure that the all-party group’s work, which is supported across parties, will be well recognised, and I am sure that its desire for that strategy can be discussed in greater detail at a later date.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.