Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 555: debated on Wednesday 19 December 2012

House of Commons

Wednesday 19 December 2012

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Civil Servants (York)

1. How many full-time equivalent civil servants were employed in York in May (a) 2010 and (b) 2012. (134225)

The number of full-time equivalent civil servants employed in York on 31 March 2010 was 2,390 and on 31 March 2012 it had reduced to 1,980.

With electronic communications improving all the time, it is hard to justify having so many civil servants in London and so few in other parts of the country, such as my constituency, where rents and overheads are so much cheaper. Will the Cabinet Office carry out a strategic review of the number of civil service posts in London that could be relocated to cities such as York?

There have been endless such studies, including under the last Conservative Government and the Government of whom the hon. Gentleman was a member. The truth is that the number of civil servants in central London is much higher than it needs to be, and it is already falling. We are concentrating the numbers into the central London freehold estate, which is significantly reducing our costs, but there is further to go.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, given the country’s huge deficit, it is only right that the civil service should contribute to savings, and that it is important that we ensure the creation of more private sector jobs, which are, indeed, being created across York and the wider region?

The civil service certainly must reduce in size, and it is doing so: it is at its smallest since the second world war. Private sector jobs are being created at quite a rate, and in the two years after the formation of the coalition Government 11,000 jobs were created in the private sector in York, while 4,400 were lost in the public sector.

Consensual civil service relocation to cities such as York is good, cost-effective one-nation politics, as it can help to overcome chronic regional economic disparities, but if the right hon. Gentleman insists on regionalising public sector pay such relocations will simply further retrench existing regional disparities. People in York doing exactly the same job as their colleagues elsewhere in the country will be paid less. The Cabinet is reportedly divided on the subject. In this festive season, may I encourage the right hon. Gentleman to say goodbye to his inner Scrooge and abandon the ill-conceived regional public pay proposals he has been hawking around Government?

My inner Scrooge is the taxpayer’s outer friend, and I should, perhaps, point out to the hon. Gentleman that in only one part of the civil service—Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service—have regional pay scales been abandoned and the move to regional or local market-facing pay been made, and the Government of whom he was a member introduced that.


2. What recent assessment he has made of the implementation of the Government’s procurement reforms. (134226)

As a result of this Government’s procurement reforms, we have made the way we do business more competitive, more transparent, better value and far simpler than ever before.

Procurement reform is essential from the Government who brought us aircraft carriers without any aircraft and German trains. Last February the Prime Minister pledged that small and medium-sized enterprises would get 25% of Government contracts. What proportion of contracts is currently awarded to SMEs?

The short answer is: a lot more than under the Government of the hon. Gentleman’s party. Direct spend on SMEs across Government continues to increase quarter by quarter, and we are planning, Department by Department, to reach that 25% target, and in doing so achieve far more than he and the last Labour Government ever did.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s answer, but may I suggest that at the top of the list of items for renegotiation with the EU—or near the top—should be a reversal of the previous Government’s absurd decision to extend European procurement rules to a large part of our defence programme?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s support. The Government agree that EU procurement rules must be fundamentally reformed, and we are making strong progress on that. I am delighted to say that most of the UK’s specific requests in this year of negotiations have been included in the latest work and that that work continues.


3. What plans he has to promote volunteering opportunities for recently retired people to work with young people. (134227)

Through the innovation fund and the social action fund we are supporting a range of opportunities for retired people to share their skills and experience in their communities, including with young people.

I wish you, Mr Speaker, and my hon. Friend the Minister the compliments of the season.

Are we not missing a trick, with a vast army of recently retired people, particularly men, who are not yet ready for their cocoa and slippers and have a lot to offer through volunteering, particularly to young teenage boys in “dadless” households? Will he agree to meet me and a number and businesses and youth charities to see how we can scale up some of the best practice?

My hon. Friend is hugely respected across the House and outside it for his splendid work on behalf of young people over many years. The short answer to his question is yes, I would be delighted to meet him.

Retired people can work and volunteer with young people in many projects in my constituency, including the intergenerational project in Newtownards in Strangford. One regular problem is the cost of insurance. What help can the Minister give towards insurance costs for those projects?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We are actively looking at the burden of regulation on volunteers. I am sure he will join me in welcoming the reform of the Criminal Records Bureau process to reduce the number of people who need checks and to make checks more portable. We are actively working with the insurance industry to see what we can do to reduce the liabilities and insurance requirements on volunteers.

National Citizen Service

Our ambition is to make National Citizen Service a rite of passage available to every 16 or 17-year-old. In 2011, more than 8,400 young people took part in it. This year we made the programmes available to a much larger number of people. The programmes finished recently and we await final data on the numbers. In 2014, we will ensure that 90,000 places are on offer.

All those involved in the NCS programme in 2012 in my constituency of Gloucester will welcome the Minister’s news of expansion in 2013. Excellent local partner, Gloucestershire college, has suggested to me that if it was possible for the organisations that pledge support to provide more detail it could provide even more opportunities to young people in my constituency and across the county. Does my right hon. Friend agree that more could be done from the Cabinet Office to facilitate that?

I know that my hon. Friend has taken a very close interest in the NCS, which is fast-growing and immensely popular with those who take part. Satisfaction is expressed by more than 90% of its participants. I hear what my hon. Friend says and will discuss further with him how we can take that forward.

The NCS designated Catch22, the provider of this programme in the south-east, with more than 2,500 places for 16 to 17-year-olds in the summer of 2012, but only 30 places were allocated to the young people of East Sussex. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that more places will be available in 2013, particularly for the young people of Hastings and Rye?

I am very sympathetic to that indeed. Of course, the first two years were pilot years in which the programme was not available throughout England. We are now rolling it out on a much wider scale and the whole country will be covered by the NCS in 2013 and 2014. I am confident that there will be significantly more places available in East Sussex, and I shall look particularly at the position in Hastings and Rye.

12. The NCS is the Prime Minister’s flagship policy for volunteering and the big society. Is it not therefore a bit ironic that it is primarily being run by Serco, a private company? (134237)

The hon. Lady is quite simply wrong. Serco has had no involvement whatsoever. It will be involved in some of the regions in the forthcoming—[Interruption.] There seems to be a certain amount of interest in this. Serco is in a partnership with voluntary organisations and it is the lead organisation in a minority. Most of the regions are being led by voluntary and community sector organisations, two of them by consortia of further education colleges. I hope the hon. Lady will welcome that.

Government Contracts

5. What his policy is on streamlining the procurement process to enable more small and medium-sized enterprises to secure Government contracts. (134229)

It is this Government’s policy to dismantle the barriers facing small companies, charities and voluntary organisations to ensure they can compete for contracts on a level playing field. This helps to deliver economic growth through public procurement. As I have mentioned before, it is an ongoing process to reach our aspiration in this Parliament of 25% of central Government procurement spend being with SMEs.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. If bad practice continues, will she explain how my constituent SMEs can complain, and will her office undertake to ensure that investigation follows if bad practice exists?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point to the need for organisations to make complaints about poor procurement practice. That is why we have provided a right to challenge such practice through the mystery shopper service and I confirm that today we are publishing the next batch of its results, which I think my hon. Friend will find very interesting indeed, and we shall continue doing so.

The Federation of Small Businesses told me yesterday that most of its members had given up trying to do business with Departments. According to the Government’s figures, public sector procurement from small businesses has fallen in most Departments since the election. Why has that happened?

I am afraid the hon. Gentleman is rather mixed up. As I mentioned in my answer, spend with SMEs is rising and we are on track for that 25% target. I am also conscious that the chairman of the FSB said this year that

“central government has raised its game…But more must be done”.

The question is: why did the previous Government do so little?

ONE3ONE Solutions, a recent start-up, is the commercial arm of prison industries. In the interests of us all, the business needs to grow to get prisoners working effectively. What progress is the Minister making to put the organisation on the preferred supplier list for Government contracts, for which it has suitable products and services?

As Members would expect, our prime objective in procurement is value for money for the taxpayer, but I am sympathetic to what my hon. Friend articulates and I will be happy to discuss it further with him and appropriate colleagues.


We are cutting red tape. We are investing in giving and making it easier to claim gift aid. We are investing in supporting volunteering and social investment, and we are gradually making it easier for charities to help us deliver better public services.

An analysis by the Charities Aid Foundation found that small and medium-sized charities reported deficits of more than £300 million in 2011, and that the situation had markedly deteriorated since 2010. Does the Minister agree that the finances of the voluntary sector, like the economy as a whole, have indeed markedly deteriorated since 2010?

Official figures from the Charity Commission show that over the last three years the number of charities has grown, and the income for the sector has grown to more than £50 billion, but we all know from our constituencies that there is intense pressure on charities at the moment, particularly small charities, which requires a whole-society response. The Government are doing their bit, as I described in my first answer.

I am delighted to hear of the Government’s moves to support smaller charities. One charity that really needs the Government’s support is the Plymouth Brethren, who do so much good and who are facing a despicable attack on their charitable status. What can the Minister say in support for the Plymouth Brethren and their legitimate claims to retain their charitable status?

I know that feelings run strongly on the issue across the House. The bottom line is that charitable status is decided by the Charity Commission and by the courts in the event of an appeal, which is what is happening in this case. I am sure my hon. Friend supports me in wishing for the process to be resolved as quickly as possible.

14. In Luton, the local authority’s budget is being cut by approximately half over the period of the comprehensive spending review. In turn, funding is being cut for many local charities, such as LAMP—the Luton accommodation and move-on project—a brilliant charity based in my constituency that works with youth homelessness. Is that not the reality of the big society? (134239)

The reality of the big society is that the public are enormously supportive of charities. Seventy-five per cent. of charities receive no funding at all from the state. Where they do, it is incumbent on us all—Members on both sides of the House—to send a very clear message to local authorities, as the Prime Minister has done, that we do not expect to see disproportionate cuts to the sector, and that we need to see the process being delivered in accordance with the compact.

One excellent way to support smaller charities is via the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) and strongly supported by the Government. Will the Minister update the House on progress with implementation of that radical change in procurement?

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating our hon. Friend on doing an extraordinary job in taking that private Member’s Bill through Parliament. I can assure him that we are about to issue the necessary guidance to local authorities.

With one in six charities fearing that they will face closure next year, after huge cuts in Government funding, and after the promised bonanza of new income from Whitehall contracts failed to materialise, how does the Minister hope that his performance will improve next year?

I put it to the hon. Gentleman that just as Labour Members talked down the economy for three years, now they are talking down the voluntary sector, which has grown over the past three years. I set him a test of seriousness: will he send a stronger message to Labour local authorities, as the Prime Minister has done, about the need to avoid disproportionate cuts on the sector, starting with Derby?


7. What recent progress he has made on the Government’s cyber-security strategy and establishing a centre for global cyber-security capacity building. (134231)

As my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office recently informed the House, we have made real progress on improving the UK’s cyber-security capability.

In October, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary announced plans to establish a new global cyber-security capacity building centre. We expect to make a further announcement on that next year.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Lancaster university is a centre for excellence on cyber-security in the excellent county of Lancashire, which of course she is very welcome to visit. I wonder whether she recently saw a report that the university produced on the impact of cybercrime on small businesses; does she agree that that issue is no longer just for Government and big business, but now concerns every business?

I thank my hon. Friend for his reminder. I am aware of the excellent work that Lancaster does. I will gladly look into an opportunity to visit. I fully agree that cyber-security is an issue that affects everybody in society—businesses large and small. We are increasing our work with small and medium-sized enterprises to raise awareness of cyber-threats and what we can all do to protect ourselves.

The hon. Lady is right that cyber-security affects everyone in society. Will she therefore put her support behind the annual PICTFOR—the Parliamentary Internet Communications Technology Forum—competition, “Make it Happy”, which is targeted at primary schools and in 2013 will be focused on cyber-security, building on the forthcoming programme for secondary schools?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s scheme, and I welcome PICTFOR’s support. I look forward to working with him on the scheme because it is important that we get that message out, even to children at a young age, and I am sure that we can all have a happy new year with that scheme.


8. What assessment he has made of the merits of establishing an independent body to investigate complaints against charities. (134232)

The Charity Commission investigates complaints where serious mismanagement or maladministration puts the charity’s assets or beneficiaries at significant risk.

Complaints about the services a charity provides should be directed to the charity itself. Lord Hodgson concluded in his review of the Charities Act 2006 that a new body would be inappropriate and unaffordable. I agree with his assessment.

Agapao International, a charity in Haslingden in my constituency, took control of a property that was gifted to it by the community in 1999 through various charitable grants. It is now attempting to sell the property for its own financial gain in order to put right financial mismanagement, and there have been dozens of complaints against the charity. The Charity Commission does not seem to have the powers to investigate. Will the Minister meet me to see what can be done to resolve the issue?

I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, but I understand that the Charity Commission has engaged with the charity, and the bottom line is that its role is to deal with serious misconduct or mismanagement, not to deal with complaints where people are just unhappy with decisions that are taken within the law and within the governance arrangements of the charity.

Topical Questions

My responsibilities are for the public sector efficiency and reform group, civil service issues, industrial relations, strategy in the public sector, government transparency, civil contingencies, civil society and cyber-security.

I welcome the fact that the Government are increasing the range of services that they provide online to our constituents. However, digital by default is a cause for concern as some constituents who do not have access to broadband or for whatever reason choose to use a paper option are worried that that may not continue. Will the Minister reassure the House that that option will remain for all those constituents who do not wish to use the computer option?

Transacting with the Government online costs about one twentieth of the cost of doing so by phone, one thirtieth of doing it by post, and one fiftieth, on average, of doing it face to face, so there are massive savings as well as increased convenience from moving public services online. But we recognise that there are of course people who cannot access services online and we will make sure that proper provision is made for them. We will publish our assisted digital strategy before the end of the year.

In July 2010 the Minister for the Cabinet Office said that

“it is essential that we take radical steps to increase efficiency and reduce energy use. . .This Government is determined to tackle waste wherever it exists, and that includes energy”,

yet according to figures updated last week on, energy use in the Minister’s own Department at 70 Whitehall has increased by 9% this year compared with last year. Why is the Minister not practising what he preaches?

The Government are more than meeting their target to cut energy. It would be very good to hear the hon. Gentleman supporting our energy for growth project, which will mean cheaper energy for government and will unlock blocked renewable energy projects throughout the country. It would be very good to hear him supporting that.

T3. I am encouraged to see that the Government are firmly committed to reducing the extent of their bloated property portfolio. Will my right hon. Friend please update the House on progress that has been made in this area this year? (134243)

We have hugely reduced the amount of property that the Government occupy. The overall size of the central estate in 2011 alone fell by nearly 6%; the number of our property holdings fell by 11%; and we sold Admiralty Arch, which is an unsatisfactory office building but will be a very good hotel building. We are making enormous savings. We have achieved total savings of £360 million in annual running costs. If this had started when the Leader of the Opposition had my job, the country would not have been in the mess that we inherited in 2010. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many noisy private conversations taking place in the Chamber. As a result, Members are not attending to the answers that are being given by Minister Maude, and that is unsatisfactory.

T2. May I encourage Ministers to work across parties to achieve a strong and robust register of lobbyists, rather than proceed with the proposal which the chair of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations has described as so weak that it is not worth joining? (134242)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We are continuing to analyse the responses received from the consultation on that matter.

T4. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) has already raised the plight of the Plymouth Brethren, who are subject to a disgraceful attack by the Charity Commission on their charitable status. During the passage of the Charities Act 2011 through the House, the current Leader of the Opposition gave undertakings that no religious body would lose its charitable status. If the Plymouth Brethren lose the litigation, will my hon. Friend undertake to ensure that the law will be changed? (134244)

I am sure we all want to see the Plymouth Brethren issue resolved as quickly and cheaply as possible by the Charity Commission and the tribunal. My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that we are reviewing all charity law in co-operation with Lord Hodgson, including whether we should revisit a statutory definition of public benefit.

T6. Nottingham community and voluntary service’s state of the sector report found that although demand for services is increasing, 69% of voluntary groups are facing reduced income, 52% have been forced to cut staff this year, 76% say they may have to close a service and 36% may close altogether. Is this not a terrible indictment of this Government’s support for the voluntary sector? (134246)

The Labour party has been predicting the collapse of the voluntary sector for three years. In fact it has grown, but it is under huge pressure, which is why we are doing so much to cut red tape, invest in giving, invest in social investment, support volunteering and make it easier for charities to help us to deliver better public services.

T5. With the festive season upon us, will my hon. Friend join me in thanking all those at the Erewash council for voluntary service and other voluntary organisations in my constituency who do so much at this time of year to give those in need and those on their own the extra support they need? (134245)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving us all the opportunity to thank the volunteers in our constituencies who do so much to keep things going, who bring people together and make things happen that otherwise would not happen. They deserve all our support and thanks, which is what this Government give.

T7. Does the Minister think that abolishing the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances in the morning and establishing the Hazardous Substances Advisory Committee in the afternoon was a sensible use of taxpayers’ money and time? (134249)

I have no idea about the issue the hon. Gentleman is talking about, but I will look into it and give him an answer.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our best wishes for Christmas to our brave armed forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere. To their families, who will be missing them, and to the servicemen and women around the world, you are always in our thoughts, we owe you a deep debt of gratitude, and we send our heartfelt thanks at Christmas time.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meetings later today.

I thank my right hon. Friend for wishing a merry Christmas to our servicemen and women on deployment and to their families. Will he tell us what progress Sir John Holmes has made in his review of medals, especially for those who served on the Arctic convoys with bravery and endeavour?

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks about our troops. On the issue of medals, which has gone on for a very long time, I am delighted to be able to tell the House that we have reached a resolution. I asked Sir John to conduct a review not just of medals in general but specifically of one of the most important cases. He has completed his work and I thank him for what he has done. More details will come from the Ministry of Defence in the new year, including how veterans can apply, but I am very pleased to tell the House the following. On the Arctic convoys, Sir John has recommended, and I fully agree, that there should be an Arctic Convoy Star medal. I am very pleased that some of the brave men of the Arctic convoys will get the recognition they so richly deserve for the very dangerous work they did.

On Bomber Command, Sir John concluded that they had been treated inconsistently with those who served in Fighter Command and has therefore recommended, and I agree, that the heroic aircrews of Bomber Command should be awarded a Bomber Command clasp. I know that these announcements will be widely welcomed across the House. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) and for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) and Members on both sides of the House who have campaigned hard on these issues. I am glad that we have reached a resolution, and one that is popular and right.

I start by joining the Prime Minister in paying tribute to our troops in Afghanistan, who continue to show such huge courage and bravery. It is particularly important at this time of year to remember them and their families, many of whom will be separated from them. Their families, too, are in all our thoughts.

I also welcome the Government’s expected announcement today on reducing the number of troops in Afghanistan during 2013; we await the Defence Secretary’s statement. Can the Prime Minister tell the House how many British troops and civilian staff will be left in Afghanistan after the 2014 deadline, and can he confirm whether they will be there under Afghan-led command?

I join the Leader of the Opposition in welcoming what our troops do. Specifically on Afghanistan, we have two decisions to make. The first is about the draw-down of troops between now and the end of 2014. The Defence Secretary will announce that because of the success of our forces and Afghan national security forces and the fact that we are moving from mentoring at battalion level to mentoring at brigade level by the end of 2013, we will be able to see troops come home in two relatively even steps—2013 and 2014—probably leaving around 5,200 troops after the end of 2013, compared with the 9,000 we have there now. It is a good moment to pay tribute again to the incredible work they have done, many of them going back for tour after tour, and those I have spoken to recently have been particularly impressed by the capacity of the Afghan national forces.

In terms of post-2014, we have not made final decisions yet. We have said very clearly that no one will be in a combat role and that there will be nothing like the number of troops there are now. We have promised the Afghans that we will provide the officer training academy that they have specifically asked for. We are prepared to look at other issues above and beyond that, but that is the starting baseline.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. Given that thousands of British troops are still going to be in harm’s way in Afghanistan, can the Prime Minister update the House and say what specific effort the Government are making, with the international community, to match the continuing military efforts with the greater diplomatic efforts that both he and I think are important? After all, that will leave behind, or give us our best chance of leaving behind, an inclusive and durable political settlement in Afghanistan, which is so important.

The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right. As well as a military track, there has always been a political and diplomatic track.

Let me be clear. After December 2014, some troops will still be involved in returning equipment and dealing with logistics. Exact announcements will be made about that at a later stage. In terms of the work that we will go on doing, because we will not be leaving Afghanistan in terms of our support and help for the Afghans, we will be contributing £70 million a year to help to pay for the Afghan national security forces and we will have an aid programme in excess of £170 million a year for Afghanistan.

In terms of the diplomatic track, the thing that we are most focused on is bringing Afghanistan and Pakistan together. I have personally hosted two meetings between the two Presidents and I hope to host further meetings, including early in the new year. I spoke to President Karzai this morning to encourage him to keep working on that vital relationship, so that Pakistan and Afghanistan can both see that they have a shared interest in a stable future.

I am grateful to the Prime Minister for that answer.

I want to turn to another issue. I want to recognise the work of thousands of volunteers who are helping out in our nation’s food banks and the millions of people who are donating food to them. Is the Prime Minister as concerned as I am that there has been a sixfold increase in the last three years in the number of people relying on food banks?

First of all, let me echo what the right hon. Gentleman said about volunteers and people who work hard in our communities, part of what I call the big society, to help those in need. It is a good time of year to thank our volunteers for what they do, but I do share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern about people who are struggling to pay the bills and to deal with their budgets.

Of course, the most important thing is to get on top of inflation, and inflation is coming down. The most important thing is to get more people into work and out of poverty, and we see 600,000 more private sector jobs this year. We are helping those families by freezing the council tax and making sure that we help families with the cost of living.

We both pay tribute to the work of the volunteers, but I never thought that the big society was about feeding hungry children in Britain.

The problem is that it is working people who are turning to food banks. One head teacher of a school rated “outstanding” by Ofsted, Vic Goddard, says that even children with a parent or parents in work are often struggling with the choice of heating their homes, buying their children clothes or buying them food. A report last week from the Children’s Society said that two thirds of teachers knew of staff providing pupils with food or money to prevent them from going hungry. Why does the Prime Minister think that is happening, and why does it appear to be getting worse on his watch?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we need to do more to help the poorest in our country. That is why we have lifted the personal tax allowance and taken 2 million of the lowest paid people out of tax altogether. Let us take someone who is on the minimum wage and works full time—because of the tax changes that we have made, their income tax bill has been cut in half. I would also make this point: because of the decisions that we made in this Government to increase the child tax credit by £390 ahead of inflation, we have helped those families with their bills and we will continue to do more in the future.

I am afraid that that answer will have seemed very out of touch with families up and down the country. The problem is that what the Chancellor did not tell us in the autumn statement was that his tax on strivers will be hitting working families who rely on tax credits up and down the country.

The reality is that in the third year of the Prime Minister’s Government, more children are going hungry and more families are relying on food banks. Is it not the clearest indictment of his Government’s values that while lower and middle-income families are being hit, at the same time he is giving an average of a £107,000 tax cut to people earning over £1 million a year?

What is out of touch is denying the fact that we had a deficit left by the right hon. Gentleman’s Government that we had to deal with. That is what we have had to do, but we have been able to do it at the same time as cutting taxes for the poorest in our country, increasing child tax credits, and freezing the council tax to help those families. When it comes to the top rate of tax, let me tell him this: the richest in our country will pay more in tax under every year of this Government than any year of his Government. Those are the facts; he may not like them but he cannot deny them.

The problem is that nobody believes him any more. We know who this Prime Minister stands up for, because where was he last weekend? Back to his old ways partying with Rebekah Brooks, no doubt both looking forward to the Boxing day hunt. Before he was elected, the Prime Minister said: “Unless you can represent everyone in our country you cannot be a one nation party.” That was then; this is now. Everyone now knows he cannot be a one nation Prime Minister.

It would not be Christmas without the repeats, and that is all we ever get from the right hon. Gentleman. I will tell him what we have done this year. We said we would take action on jobs; we have 600,000 more private sector jobs. We said we would help with the cost of living; we have frozen the council tax for the third year in a row. We said we would deal with the deficit; we have cut the deficit by a quarter. And what have we heard from him this year? What has he told us about the deficit? Nothing. What has he told us about welfare? Nothing. What has he told us about his education plans? Nothing. The fact is that he has got absolutely nothing to offer except for the same old something-for-nothing culture that got us in this mess in the first place.

Trust in the police is an essential part of a just and democratic society. Will the Prime Minister therefore seek—[Interruption.]

Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but Members must now calm down. Both the questions and the answers must be heard.

Will the Prime Minister therefore seek personal assurances from the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police that no stone will be left unturned in getting to the full truth about allegations that a serving police officer fabricated evidence against a member of the Cabinet?

First of all, let me say again that at Christmas time it is right to pay tribute to our brave police officers—men and women who look after us round the clock and do an extremely good job. But the point that my hon. Friend has made is important. A police officer posing as a member of the public and sending an e-mail potentially to blacken the name of a Cabinet Minister is a very serious issue, and it does need to be seriously investigated. The Metropolitan Police Service is conducting a thorough and well resourced investigation to get to the truth of this matter as quickly as possible. The Independent Police Complaints Commission will be supervising the investigation, and I think we should allow it to get to the truth.

Q2. Despite what the Prime Minister has just said in response to our leader, the facts on the ground are these: the classic poverty-related diseases of rickets and tuberculosis are on the increase in this country, the number of food banks is increasing, kids are going to school hungry, and we have a stagnant economy. Is the Prime Minister proud that his policies are taking this country back to the 1930s? (134211)

I would hope that the hon. Gentleman, with the constituency that he represents, would today be celebrating the fact that Nissan has announced another £125 million investment in our country. This is now one of the biggest and most successful car plants anywhere in Britain. Yes, we face tough economic times, but the fact is that we have over 1 million new private sector jobs, and last year and this year saw some of the fastest rates of new business creation. That is what is happening in our country. Yes, there are tough times and tough choices, but our economy is rebalancing and we should recognise that.

Q3. In March we introduced a new local green space designation to protect green spaces not just for great crested newts and landscape painters but for urban and suburban communities such as Leckhampton, Warden Hill and Whaddon in my constituency. Can the Prime Minister reassure local councils that they can and should use this new designation and that it has not been undermined by any recent pronouncements?


I reassure my hon. Friend that the national planning policy framework that we have put in place—it was 1,000 pages long, but is now just 50 pages long—is our planning policy and framework. We are giving local authorities greater power and greater ability—and also neighbourhood plans—so that these decisions can be made where they should be: more locally.

Q4. I have in my hand a genuine suicide note from a constituent of mine who, sadly, took his own life after he was informed that he was no longer entitled to employment and support allowance and disability benefits. Across the UK, more than 1,000 people have died only months after being told to find work. This is 2012—we are supposed to be a civilised society. We should be looking after disabled citizens in the UK. Will the Prime Minister listen to the 62,000 people who have signed Pat’s petition and please finally order an assessment of all changes hitting disabled people in this country? (134213)

I will look very carefully at the very tragic case that the hon. Gentleman has brought to the House. Everyone’s thoughts will go out to that person’s family because of what has happened to them.

What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that the actual money that we are putting into disability benefits over the coming years is going up, not down. I think that everybody knows and accepts that we need to have a review of disability benefits. Some people have been stuck on these benefits and not been reviewed for year after year after year. That is the view of the disability charities and it is the view of the Government as well.

As we approach Christmas, will the Prime Minister join me in celebrating the fact that there are more people in employment this Christmas than ever before in this nation’s great history?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. After all, the Leader of the Opposition said back in January that unemployment would go up. That was his prediction—he stood at the Dispatch Box and said that. The fact is that unemployment has come down, employment has gone up and we have seen a record fall in youth unemployment in the last quarter. All of those things are welcome, particularly as we are seeing growth in the private sector, because everyone knows that we have to have a rebalancing of our economy whereby we shed some jobs in the public sector but grow the private sector, and that is what is happening.

Q5. Merry Christmas, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.]People realise, now, that the Prime Minister has a Dickensian vision for the UK: grandeur for the few, workhouse for the many. Why is he limiting welfare benefits for parents caring for adults with disabilities? Could we have an explanation from Ebenezer? (134214)

I say to the hon. Gentleman that it is probably a case of merry Christmas and happy speaking opportunities in the new year.

We have not restricted disability benefits; what we have done is put more money into disability benefits. That is what this Government are doing. We have taken difficult decisions to increase tax credits by 1%, to increase public sector pay by 1% and to increase out-of-work benefits by 1%. Those were tough decisions that needed to be taken.

Q6. Last week, the published census figures revealed that the previous Government presided over the largest wave of immigration our country has ever seen, yet next Christmas our borders will be flung open even wider to potentially limitless immigration from among the 29 million people who live in Romania and Bulgaria. Will my right hon. Friend look seriously at triggering the national interest clauses buried deep in the EU free movement directive in order to stem this new flow, especially for those with criminal records and those who seek access to our welfare benefits system? (134215)

First, let me echo the first half of my hon. Friend’s question. The last Government allowed a completely uncontrolled system of migration, under which we saw net immigration of 200,000 people a year and 2 million people across a decade—that is two cities the size of Birmingham staying in our country every year. There has been not one word of apology for the mess that the last Government left.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the transitional controls coming off the accession countries. I will look carefully at what he says. We have rules to try to restrict access to benefit. We will go on working to make those as robust as possible. I mentioned the national interest clauses in the statement on Europe on Monday. I think that those can be triggered only if there are emergency conditions, but I will look carefully at what he says.

Q7. A month ago, the Prime Minister told the House that universal credit will put in place work incentives for people at all levels of income. Why then does the Department for Work and Pensions now say that universal credit will mean that working women will consider giving up work? (134216)

That is not the case at all. By bringing different benefits together, universal credit means that people will always be better off in work and will always be better off by working extra hours. That is what we are doing. Labour had 13 years to sort out these poverty traps and it completely failed.

My constituent, Yogi Papi Depass, is currently stuck in Cuba, despite having a British passport. I wonder whether the Prime Minister could encourage the Cuban authorities to look at this matter with compassion and speed to get Yogi back home for Christmas with his family.

I quite understand why my hon. Friend raises that case. Yoandry Depass was born in Cuba. He entered the UK and obtained a British passport in 1997. We are in regular contact with the Cuban authorities, and they have advised Mr Depass that he should expect to receive his Cuban passport this week, which will enable him to travel. Ultimately, the decision rests with the Cuban authorities, but British embassy consular officials will continue to assist him and we will keep in touch with my hon. Friend.

Q8. In April, the Prime Minister stated that energy efficiency would be placed at the heart of Government policy. On Monday this week, the Government’s fuel poverty advisory group warned that there could be more than 9 million households in fuel poverty. That would include 25% of all households in Stoke-on-Trent. Will the Prime Minister tell us why, from next year, expenditure on heating insulation programmes for low-income households will be half that of 2010-11? (134219)

I know that the hon. Lady takes a deep interest in these matters. The green deal that is being brought in is a bigger and better programme. Labour promised to abolish fuel poverty altogether in its 2005 manifesto, and yet fuel poverty went up. We are investing in the Warm Front scheme, we have maintained the winter fuel payment, we have increased the cold weather payment, we are making money available under the Warm Homes Healthy People fund, and the green deal and the energy company obligation are some of the biggest schemes ever introduced in this country.

Q9. Does the Prime Minister agree with the shadow Health Secretary that any increase in the expenditure of the NHS would be “irresponsible”? (134220)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Some people in the House might have missed this. In a recent health debate, my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary asked the shadow Health Secretary:

“does he stand by his comment that it is irresponsible to increase NHS spending?”—[Official Report, 12 December 2012; Vol. 555, c. 332.]

What did the shadow Health Secretary reply? He said, “Yes, I do.” It may be Christmas time, but the shadow Health Secretary is the gift that keeps on giving.

Last week, 100 young homeless people came to this House for the first ever young homeless people’s parliament. I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for being present, to the House authorities for their support, and to the Ministers who came to engage with those young people. They were excellent young people who gave powerful, personal testimony about why they had become homeless. They set out in no uncertain terms what they expect from us in this House. Above all, they want their voice to be heard. They agreed that they would seek a meeting with the Prime Minister. Will he receive a delegation of those young, homeless people?

I join the hon. Gentleman in welcoming the fact that those young people came to Parliament to make those points, and I will listen carefully to what they have to say. The truth is that in our country we have seen housing benefit increase by something like 50% over recent years, and even under our plans it will continue to increase. What we in Britain need to do is build more homes in the private sector and the social rented sector. That is the vital task ahead of us, and I give credit to planning Ministers and others who will help to make that happen.

Q10. The closure two months ago of the originally state-sponsored lifeline helicopter service to the Isles of Scilly has presented significant challenges to islanders, medical services and the economy, although local people and other stakeholders are working together to find solutions. Is the Prime Minister prepared to meet me and a small delegation of islanders to explore what encouragement and assistance the Government can provide to the islands in this their hour of desperate need? (134221)

My hon. Friend makes an important point; clearly proper transport links to the Isles of Scilly are absolutely vital. I understand that other providers are looking to fill the gaps left by the helicopter service. That would provide the most long-term and sustainable option, rather than Government subsidy, but obviously we have to look at all options, because that part of our country needs to be connected to the mainland. If it is necessary to have a meeting, then of course I will.

When the great train robbers stole £2.5 million from Royal Mail, they were sentenced to as many as 30 years in prison. When our bankers get caught fraudulently taking billions of pounds from poor people throughout the world, they just pay large corporate fines and walk away with fat pensions. How can we ever be in anything together as long as we tolerate powerful villains who are too privileged to be put behind bars?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and that is why the Wheatley review into the LIBOR scandal recommends a series of changes, including criminal sanctions. I think that when people have broken the law they should face the full force of the criminal law. What punishment we should design for the people who sold our gold at half price, on the other hand, is another matter altogether.

Dementia is a terrible condition that destroys lives. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in commending Warwickshire county council and local health care partners for developing the excellent Coventry and Warwickshire dementia portal that provides an excellent service to dementia sufferers and their carers?

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to his county council. We need to do far more as a country to tackle dementia. There are three important parts to that. First, we must recognise that dementia is a disease and not just a natural part of ageing, and we need to increase the research that goes into dementia. We need to improve the care that people get in hospitals and in care homes, and make sure that there is far more dignity. Frankly, all communities have to come together and make more dementia-friendly communities. That is where local government can help lead the way by bringing organisations together, as it has obviously done in Warwickshire.

Q12. It is interesting that the Prime Minister says that those who break the law should feel the full force of the law, as his local Heythrop hunt has pleaded guilty to four charges of illegally hunting foxes with dogs. Will he remind the House how many times he has ridden with the hunt and say whether he used his own horse or borrowed one from a friend? (134223)

May I reassure my right hon. Friend that those of my constituents who are most strongly in favour of reforming benefits—focusing them more on those who need them and taking them away from those who do not—are people who live on council estates and are fed up with working long hours to subsidise the lifestyles of those who do not want to work?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have made three difficult decisions. We set a 1% pay freeze on the public sector, a 1% increase on working benefits and a 1% freeze on tax credits. Labour Members support the 1% freeze on public sector pay, which is progress, but they do not support the 1% increase on welfare benefits. They think the income of people who are out of work should go up faster than the income of people who are in work. That is why they are so profoundly out of touch with the nation, and why they do not deserve to be in government.

With the Prime Minister’s neighbours in trouble over phone hacking and, as we have heard, his local hunt in disgrace, he might find himself stuck at home a bit over Christmas watching films on TV. I have had a quick scan of the Radio Times. Which of these films would he fancy: “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”, starring the Chancellor of the Exchequer; “The Muppet Christmas Carol”, starring the Lib Dem members of the Cabinet; or “It’s Not a Wonderful Life for the Poor”, starring himself?

The Labour party will have to swap “Wallace and Gromit” and have “The Muppet Christmas Carol” instead. I have one suggestion—full of Christmas cheer. Everybody knows that the shadow Chancellor does a brilliant job playing Santa at the Christmas party every year—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] He does an excellent job. Why not give everyone an early Christmas present, make the arrangement permanent and give him the sack?

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Does the Prime Minister agree with the increasing number of informed commentators who believe that the ring-fencing of the investment banking subsidiaries of commercial banks will not work properly, and that complete separation is required?

The Government have looked at this carefully. We commissioned the Vickers report, which came up with the idea of ring-fencing, which was right. The key is that we want to ensure that, if a bank fails, it can fail safely, without taxpayers having to stump up the money to sort it out. That would be a major advance, and something the whole country would support.

The Prime Minister will be aware of the welcome news this morning that the Attorney-General’s application to quash the Hillsborough verdicts was upheld by the High Court. He will understand that that will involve the Hillsborough families in a great deal of legal costs to ensure that they are properly represented. Will he agree to waive the VAT on the CD “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”, the proceeds from which will go directly to the Hillsborough families to support their legal case?

I join the right hon. Gentleman in welcoming the decision made today. The Hillsborough families have long wanted this new inquest, and it is very good that the system has moved relatively rapidly since the Hillsborough statement and the Hillsborough debate in the House to help bring the decision about. I have received representations on the Hillsborough families’ single. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is currently on the other side of the Atlantic, but as the First Lord of the Treasury, I think I can confidently predict that there will be a decision that will go down well on Merseyside.

As this is the season of good will and humbug, will the Prime Minister confirm that, for the greater part of the period of the Labour Government, the top rate of tax was 40p; the gap between rich and poor widened; and they left nearly 4 million children living below the poverty line?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. He could have added that the Labour Government left a record deficit, saw youth unemployment double, made a complete mess of the economy, and had an open-door immigration system. They have never apologised for any of it.

Many people watching our proceedings will be interested in the issue of fuel poverty, but they might be a little confused by the Prime Minister’s reply a few moments ago to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley). Will he confirm—let us be transparent—that, as one body has advised, approaching 9 million households suffer from fuel poverty, which is the highest since records began? Will he explain to the House and our constituents, as we approach Christmas, what the Government are prepared to do about the horrible scandal of fuel poverty?

The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right that fuel poverty is a scandal and that it needs to be dealt with, but I do not believe the figures he gives are correct. The figures I have show that, in 2012, it is expected that 3.9 million households will be in fuel poverty. However, as I have said, we are committed to tackling fuel poverty. That is why we have maintained the winter fuel payments; why we have increased the cold weather payments and kept the increase permanent; and why we are investing in the Warm Front scheme and the warm home discount. The green deal will make a real difference—[Interruption.] I hear chuntering from Opposition Front Benchers. They promised to abolish fuel poverty, but they put it up.


With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on Afghanistan.

Let me once again pay tribute to the brave men and women of our armed forces serving in Afghanistan. Theirs is a difficult and dangerous job; they operate in the most demanding of environments, displaying courage and heroism on a daily basis. Since operations began in 2001, 438 members of our armed forces have made the ultimate sacrifice; 11 since my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary made the last quarterly statement on Afghanistan on 13 September.

In the face of such sacrifice, we should be in no doubt about why we are operating in Afghanistan. It is for one overriding reason: to protect our national security. Atrocities on the scale of 11 September 2001 must never be allowed to happen again. We seek an Afghanistan able to effectively manage its own security and prevent its territory from being used as a safe haven by international terrorists to plan and launch attacks against the UK and our allies.

That is an objective shared by our coalition partners in the international security assistance force and by the Afghan Government. We in NATO fully support the ambition of the Afghan Government for them to have full security responsibility across Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Our strategies are firmly aligned. The phased process of transition of security responsibility, agreed at the Lisbon summit, is well advanced and on track. In accordance with ISAF planning, by the end of 2013 we expect that UK forces will no longer need to routinely mentor the Afghan national army below brigade level. This is a move up from our current battalion level mentoring, a reflection of rapidly improving Afghan capacity and capability and in line with the Chicago milestone.

As the Prime Minister has just announced, a progressive move to brigade level mentoring will also allow us to make further reductions to our force levels from the 9,000 we will have at the end of this year. Our current planning envisages a reduction to approximately 5,200 by the end of next year. That number is based on current UK military advice and is in line with the NATO strategy agreed at Lisbon and the emerging ISAF planning. It also reflects the real progress being made in Helmand. We will keep this number under review as the ISAF plan firms up and other allies make draw-down decisions in the new year. Let me be clear: this reduction is possible because of the success of the Afghan national security forces in assuming a leading role.

Across many parts of Afghanistan, security is already delivered by the Afghan national security forces. Today, the ANSF has lead security responsibility in areas that are home to three quarters of the population, including each of the 34 provincial capitals and all three districts that make up the UK’s area of operations. Across Afghanistan, the ANSF now leads on more than 80% of conventional operations and carries out 90% of its own training. It sets its own priorities, leads its own planning and conducts and sustains its own operations. By the middle of next year—marking a moment of huge significance for the Afghan people—we expect the ANSF to have lead security responsibility for the whole country.

This national picture is replicated in Helmand. The ANSF is now firmly in charge in the populated areas of central Helmand, increasingly with the ability and confidence to operate independently, and, as the ANA’s confidence in its own ability grows, it is showing an appetite to conduct Afghan intelligence-led raids, and we are focusing our advisory effort accordingly.

The focus of our assistance to the ANSF in Helmand is increasingly switching from company-level activities to mentoring at battalion level. Kandaks from the ANA’s 3/215 Brigade in Nad Ali and Nahr Saraj have already moved to the new model, working alongside the UK-led brigade advisory group, and further kandak advisory teams will be in place shortly. The reaction of the leaders and commanders at all levels in 3/215 Brigade has been one of pride based on self-confidence. Furthermore, this phased transition has allowed the UK-led Task Force Helmand to reduce its footprint significantly, and, since April, nearly 50 permanent British base locations—more than 60% of the pre-April total—have been closed or handed over to the ANSF.

Although progress on security has been real and meaningful, partnering is not without risk, and the attacks on our forces, including the so-called insider attacks perpetrated by rogue members of the ANSF, remind us how difficult the mission is. We are working at every level to suppress this threat and will do everything that we can to thwart it. We are clear that we will not allow these cowardly attacks to derail our strategy or commitment to the Afghan people.

The insurgents remain committed to conducting a campaign of violence in Afghanistan and continue to represent a threat to the future stability of the country. The ANSF, supported by ISAF where necessary, is taking the fight to the insurgents and pushing them away from the towns, markets, key transport routes and intensively farmed areas towards the rural fringe. As a result, the Afghan-led security plan is increasingly able to focus on disrupting the insurgency in its safe havens.

Although we cannot be complacent, the picture as a whole is of an insurgency weakened. The number of enemy-initiated attacks has fallen by an average of more than 10% in areas that have entered the transition process, so demonstrating that the Afghans are managing their own security. More importantly, the geographical pattern of enemy-initiated attacks shows a significant reduction in impact on the local population. Although our combat mission will be ending in 2014, our clear message to the Afghan people remains one of firm and ongoing commitment.

On the security front, at the Chicago summit in May, the international community agreed to provide funding to support the continued development of the Afghan national security forces in the years after 2014. NATO has agreed the establishment of a new, non-combat mission after transition completes. The UK will support this, including through our role as the lead coalition partner at the new Afghan national army officer academy. That is our baseline commitment, and, as the Prime Minister said earlier, we will consider other options for additional engagement after 2014.

On supporting the Afghan Government as a whole, the Kabul conference in June sent a clear message of regional engagement, and, at the Tokyo conference in July, $4 billion per year was pledged to meet Afghanistan’s essential development needs. The UK’s combined ongoing funding commitments from Chicago and Tokyo are almost £250 million a year. For the value of this support from the international community to be fully realised, however, the Afghan Government will need to address the corruption that remains rampant and could become a very real threat to the long-term stability of Afghanistan. The Afghan Government now need to deliver on their commitments through the Tokyo mutual accountability framework to establish a legal framework for fighting corruption, improve economic and financial management and implement key economic and governance reforms, including on elections.

Democracy is taking hold in Afghanistan—not, of course, in the same shape that we have here in Britain, but Afghan voters can look forward to a future of their choosing, rather than one that is imposed upon them. Afghan women enjoy a level of participation in their society and their politics that few could have dreamed of even half a decade ago. The Department for International Development will continue to provide funding and support to advance this important agenda further. In Helmand, the process of local representation has seen marked improvements. Voter participation in 2012 for district community council elections in the traditionally challenging districts of Sangin, Nahr Saraj and Garmsir has been impressive by comparison with levels in previous presidential and parliamentary elections in the same areas. October’s announcement of the 2014 presidential elections is another important milestone in Afghanistan’s history. Many challenges remain, but an inclusive and transparent electoral process will be a sign of real progress.

Ultimately, the best opportunity for a stable and secure Afghanistan for the long term lies in a political settlement—one that draws in those opponents of the Afghan Government willing to renounce the insurgency and participate in peaceful politics. Any political process will, in the end, require the Afghan Government, the Taliban and other Afghan groups to come together to talk and to compromise. We appreciate how difficult that is for the respective parties, so we are working with our international allies to help to bring all sides together. In particular, the engagement of Pakistan in the process is hugely important. Our aim is to generate confidence and dialogue. Our message to the Taliban is that reconciliation is not surrender; it is an opportunity for all Afghans to sit down together and help to shape their country’s future. Common ground can be found, focused on the need for a strong, independent, economically viable Afghanistan.

The future of Afghanistan can be seen in the increased level of economic activity across the country. Bazaars that had been deserted are re-opening and commercial investment is evident in the towns. Basic public services are available to increasing percentages of the population. Nevertheless, Afghanistan, although rich in culture and natural resources, remains one of the poorest countries in the world—a legacy of 30 years of conflict. Its people are proud and hospitable, yet they have suffered unimaginable brutality and deprivation.

Over the last 11 years, we have been helping to ensure that Afghanistan’s past is not inevitably its future. As we move towards full transition at the end of 2014, it is clear that there remain huge challenges ahead for the Afghan people. Our combat mission is drawing to a close, but our commitment to them is long term. Progress is clear and measurable, and our determination to complete our mission and help Afghanistan to secure its future remains undiminished. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of his quarterly statement. On each occasion when we meet to discuss Afghanistan, we rightly pay tribute to our service personnel and their families. That is even more poignant as we approach Christmas. As we prepare to celebrate Christmas with our families, we remember those in Afghanistan, separated from theirs, and those who have been lost, never to return to their loved ones. They are in the thoughts of us all and in the prayers of many of us.

The commitment to success in Afghanistan runs deep on both sides of the House. Although we on the Opposition Benches will scrutinise Government decisions, we will support the intentions with which they are made. Afghanistan has seen significant, but not irreversible progress. Al-Qaeda has been dispersed; we have overseen elections; the army and police forces are being trained; and a rule of law is developing. However, none of those tasks can be said to be complete. There are immense challenges to overcome. Facilitating free and fair presidential elections, tackling green-on-blue attacks, improving the representativeness of the police and the army, developing an education system and, above all, helping to deliver political reconciliation are all issues that necessitate our commitment up to and beyond 2014.

We all want to see our troops home as soon as possible, and we welcome today’s announcement. However, can the Secretary of State say when he will be able to tell us which units will leave and from which parts of Helmand? We are all concerned about the continuing risk to UK personnel who will remain. Can he tell us whether any force protection capabilities will be drawn down as a consequence of his announcement?

The Secretary of State spoke in general terms. Can he be more specific about how the capacity of those who are departing can be sufficiently replaced by Afghan forces? Can he give the House more details about the capability of Afghan forces specifically? What capacity do they have in providing an airbridge, aerial surveillance and intelligence?

The Secretary of State told us that 3,800 of our forces would leave by the end of next year. Does he currently envisage most of them remaining until the end of the fighting season, and does he expect the UK forces who remain after 2013 to be withdrawn throughout 2014 or to remain until the end of combat operations?

The co-ordination of the military coalition is essential. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether today’s announcement is part of a synchronised international set of announcements? Can he also say whether all those who return from Afghanistan, whether in 2013 or in 2014, will be exempt from any future tranche of compulsory Army redundancies?

Although the focus is rightly on withdrawal, it is also necessary to consider the post-2014 military settlement. The Chief of the General Staff is right to say that our commitment to Afghan institutions must be long-term, but we need more clarity about the nature of that commitment. Will the Secretary of State be more specific about the role of non-combat personnel? Is it his current thinking that our trainers will be embedded with the ANSF, and, if so, who will be responsible for force protection?

The Prime Minister rightly alluded to this earlier, but it is still unclear how many UK forces will remain post-2014 and from which services they will be drawn. When will the Secretary of State be in a position to give us more details abut that, as well as the UK’s equipment legacy to Afghanistan?

We all know that a long-term settlement for Afghanistan will be achieved through politics, not just through military might. There have been reports recently of a road map to peace from Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, outlining plans for talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban early next year. How confident is the Secretary of State that such talks may indeed take place, and does he believe that talks between the Taliban and US officials will recommence in Qatar in the new year? Will he also comment on the significance of Pakistan’s release of 18 Afghan prisoners? Does he feel that it marks a potentially significant shift in the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship?

One of the main measures by which we will judge progress in Afghanistan is the progress of women. Sadly, a recent detailed UN report showed that Afghan women remain frequent victims of abuse. What efforts are the UK Government making to ensure that women’s safety does not deteriorate once ISAF forces have left? In particular, beyond DFID’s efforts, what are the Government doing to sustain the progress that has been made for women in relation to the political process, the police and the judiciary?

As we enter the 12th and penultimate year of UK combat operations in this bloody but unavoidable conflict, there will rightly be lessons and consequences from Afghanistan. The time will also come for us to reflect, as a nation and free from party politics, on how we can mark in a lasting way our commemoration of those who have fallen and those who have been injured. I look forward to hearing from the Secretary of State how NATO can achieve withdrawal while maintaining the stability for which so many Britons have fought so fiercely. We need to get this right. This is our fourth conflict in Afghanistan, and we have no intention of there ever being a fifth.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments and for the tone in which he made them. I know that he expressed the views of Members in all parts of the House in sending best wishes for Christmas to the members of our service personnel who will be in theatre over the Christmas period. I am grateful for his continued support and for that of the whole Opposition.

The right hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to emphasise the scale of the challenge ahead, and the reversibility of the achievements that have been won. It is for precisely that reason that we are engaged in the ongoing process of building the Afghan national security forces and the institutions of the Afghan state for the long term, and it is for precisely that reason that we have gone out of our way to emphasise the nature of our ongoing commitment to the Afghan people way beyond the end of our combat operations in 2014.

The right hon. Gentleman understandably asked some questions about the draw-down of our forces during 2013. He asked which units would leave and from which parts of Helmand. Owing to our six-monthly rotational pattern in which units are deployed to theatre routinely around March-April and September-October each year, it is less a question of which units will leave than a question of deploying fewer units to replace those that are coming out of theatre at each successive turn of the handle. I expect that there will be some draw-down of numbers next April, a period during the fighting season in which numbers remain constant, and a further draw-down in September-October, towards the end of next year.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about force protection measures. Ours is an integrated force. The 5,200 figure was arrived at through a bottom-up process of military logic and military planning that took account of the shape and scale of the force that will be required to deliver the tasks that we expect to be delivering by the end of 2013.

As for the capabilities of the Afghan national security forces who will increasingly fill the gap as we reduce our numbers, the message is clear. The right hon. Gentleman will have heard it: I know that he has heard the back-to-office reports of returning commanders from Afghanistan. The Prime Minister mentioned it earlier, and I have heard it myself. Everyone talks of the Afghan forces’ increasing confidence, increasing competence and increasing willingness to engage. There has been a step change in the level of what they are able to do.

However, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, at present Afghan forces still depend on ISAF allies for some key enablers: air cover, air support, indirect fire support—they are building a capability of their own in that respect, but it is as yet immature—and, crucially, medical evacuation, which gives the Afghan army high levels of confidence on the battlefield. Over the next two years, we will focus on developing Afghan indigenous capabilities so that they can replace those enablers at the end of our combat involvement.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the international dimension of draw-down. There is an emerging ISAF plan, which is being discussed among the ISAF nations, and today’s announcement is entirely consistent with that plan. Other allies, including the United States of America, will make specific announcements in due course.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the rules on redundancy. Announcements about future tranches of Army redundancy will be made in the new year, and the rules will be set out to be as fair as possible. That means ensuring that the field of redundancy is as wide as possible, while ensuring that those who are about to be deployed on operations, those who are currently deployed and those who have just returned from operations remain exempt. The more widely we set the field, the fairer the process of redundancy selection will be.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the post-2014 non-combat commitment and about embedded training. Those matters have not been decided, beyond the commitment that we have given to take the lead role in running the Afghan national officer training academy. There are a number of things that we could consider doing beyond that, but we have decided that it does not make sense to make firm commitments earlier than we need to, before we see how the situation develops on the ground and before we see what other allies intend to do. We will make announcements to the House in due course, during 2013, as those decisions are made.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked about talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban and between US officials and the Taliban. The Government are working very hard and very diligently. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is routinely engaged in encouraging the process of dialogue, as is the Prime Minister. We know from our own experience over many years that conflicts of this kind invariably have to be settled by means of dialogue and compromise. At the heart of that dialogue and compromise will be a renewed shared understanding of the need for future dialogue and co-operation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and I am pleased to say the UK has played a significant role in enhancing that and in ensuring there is genuine engagement with Pakistan in these discussions.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. My question is about force protection. As all the ISAF countries begin to draw down, they will have concerns about force protection, including how to protect increasingly isolated units. What is being done to reduce the isolation of ISAF units and to share possible force protection measures across ISAF countries and the Afghan national security forces?

My right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that question, as the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) also did. As we draw down, force protection will be one of the key determinants of the shape of the force and the scale of draw-down that is possible. As my right hon. Friend suggests, there will be co-ordination across ISAF, including sharing force protection arrangements as the force gets smaller. I should also draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to what I said earlier about the reduction of the UK footprint in Helmand. That is significant and has significant implications for force protection. We are now servicing 32 UK locations in Helmand province, as opposed to more than 80 UK locations just nine months ago. That has led to a significant reduction in both the logistics challenge and the force protection challenge.

When military action was first taken in Afghanistan some 11 years ago, the purpose was rightly to remove, after 9/11, al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, and that was accomplished fairly quickly. I welcome the troop reduction, but does the Secretary of State accept that a military victory of any kind over the Taliban is totally out of the question—it has not come about so far, and it is not going to come about in the next two years—and that the future of Afghanistan will have to be decided by Afghans, even including some Taliban members, who are totally opposed to that obnoxious organisation?

To my surprise, I largely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is right that the initial challenge was to defeat al-Qaeda and deny it the space to organise in Afghanistan, and that has been achieved. He is also right that military means alone will not solve the problem in Afghanistan, and I do not think anyone in this Government or the previous Administration has suggested that. In the end there has to be compromise and dialogue, and a process that draws into civil society what we might call the soft part of the insurgency, which is willing to renounce insurgent activity and engage in political dialogue. Our experience in the United Kingdom and around the world clearly suggests that that is the way sustainably to end these kinds of enduring conflict. If we want an enduring peace in Afghanistan, it will need to involve all sections of Afghan society and all strands of political opinion.

May I also express my admiration for, and gratitude to, those who have served and who are serving in Afghanistan? Like other Members, I was reassured by what my right hon. Friend said about force protection, as it is axiomatic that land forces are at their most vulnerable at the time of withdrawal, but a further area of protection needs to be addressed. Will there be proper protection of equipment, to minimise opportunities for it to be used by insurgents or others with malign intentions towards the Government of Afghanistan?

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his remarks. I should have said in relation to force protection that the transition from company-level to battalion-level and then to brigade-level mentoring and advising will make the force protection challenge much easier by reducing the daily footprint of contact with Afghan forces and the Afghan population. We intend to recuperate to the UK large amounts of equipment, as we are planning to use much of it in the construction of our future Army plans, Future Force 2020, but we will, of course, ensure that any equipment that is not required back in the UK is either properly and formally gifted to the Afghan national security forces or the militaries of friendly neighbouring countries, or is appropriately destroyed.

Out of which budget will the cost of repatriating and reintegrating equipment come? Will it come out of the £160-billion core equipment budget?

That is a good question. Our arrangements with the Treasury are that equipment that has been purchased as urgent operational requirements from the special reserve may be repatriated into core without any charge to the defence budget, but the cost of physically recuperating that equipment will be met from the core defence budget. In respect of armoured vehicles that have been purchased as UORs, therefore, the Army will have to decide whether it is cost-effective to bring that equipment back and overhaul and re-equip it for future service, or whether it is more appropriate to abandon it and devote the money saved to purchase new equipment.

My right hon. Friend and the Prime Minister both rightly referred to the importance of maintaining a post-2014 commitment in Afghanistan. One of the ways that we might most appropriately manifest that is by maintaining Camp Bastion, which has been specially built for its purpose. Indeed, a huge amount of money has been invested in it. That would not only send a signal to the Afghan population and Government; it would also provide a useful strategic asset in what is an important and turbulent area of the world.

The United States is currently considering where to retain strategic bases in Afghanistan beyond 2014, and my understanding is that it is highly likely—although not yet absolutely certain—that it will choose to continue to occupy Camp Bastion.

A few weeks ago in the House of Commons there was the first ever meeting of the UK’s Hazara community. As the Secretary of State knows, the Hazaras are a Shi’a minority who have suffered considerable oppression in Afghanistan, going back at least as far as the first British war there, but in particular under the Taliban regime. The Secretary of State has rightly talked about the need for a political solution, but may I urge him and his fellow Ministers from other Departments to ensure that the interests of the minority Hazara community are not lost in the rush to achieve a political settlement?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that question, and I will ensure that his concerns about the Hazara community are drawn to the Foreign Secretary’s attention. There is a significant number of minority communities in Afghanistan—it is a fragmented society—and one of the challenges will be to design a future solution that is coherent and promotes having a strong central Government but also respects the many different minority communities in the country.

What does my right hon. Friend mean when he refers to mentoring at kandak or battalion level? Does that mean our soldiers and officers will not venture out on patrol, but will remain with the headquarters element and therefore will not be as exposed as in the past?

Not necessarily: some of the kandak-level advisory activity may well involve moving with the battalion headquarters element, and if the battalion commanders are moving outside their bases, on some occasions the advisory team may move with them. This is a flexible construct, however, and things will depend on how individual commanders prefer to work and how their kandak advisory teams find it most constructive to work with them. There is a large degree of discretion.

Although of course it is right to press ahead with dialogue with the Taliban, it is also prudent to keep an eye on what they are doing as regards the ongoing conflict. What are our military doing to build the intelligence gathering capacity of the ANSF in advance of withdrawal?

That is a very good question. It is probably fair to characterise ISAF as having had rather poor human intelligence capability and having relied on very sophisticated electronic and other technological intelligence gathering. We will not be able to replicate in the ANSF a similar level of high-tech intelligence gathering, but I am pretty confident that what the ANSF will lack in that regard will be more than made up for by its human intelligence capability. Members of the ANSF have an intuitive understanding of what is going on in local communities that gives them a touch and feel for the local area that ISAF troops, however long they stay there, will never have.

Given what my right hon. Friend has said about the inherent risks of reversibility in the security situation, what plans are in place if there is a significant change in what is anticipated over the next couple of years so that, if there is not the training and leadership capability among the Afghan population, we have the flexibility to implement different plans and that our hard-won gains are not lost by the end of 2014?

Of course, we retain flexibility in our plans, but I would not wish to mislead my hon. Friend: our clear intention is to end our combat operations by the end of 2014, along with the rest of our ISAF partners. By setting that clear target, we have set the Afghans a target and all the evidence is that they are stepping up to the plate with alacrity and delivering on—indeed, exceeding—our expectations of their ability to respond to that challenge.

As Pakistan has a key role to play in any peaceful solution for Afghanistan and the Secretary of State has mentioned increased engagement, what evidence does he have of reduced involvement from certain sources in Pakistan, particularly the security services, in helping and sheltering insurgents and the Taliban?

As the hon. Gentleman knows and as we have discussed in this House before, the situation in Pakistan, particularly in the federally administered tribal areas, is extremely complex, as is the engagement of the Pakistani intelligence agency in activities there. We are seeing a clear political direction from the Pakistani civilian Government towards engagement and constructive working with the international community and Afghan partners, but we are also seeing a clear indication that the military are now thinking hard about where Pakistan’s long-term interests lie. They know that there are only two years left of ISAF combat presence in which to sort this out and they are engaging with international partners and the Afghans in a much more constructive way than we have seen for many years.

The Secretary of State quite rightly says that the relationship between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban will be central to any peace, which we all hope will include respect for the rights of girls such as Malala Yousafzai, who is surely one of the bravest teenagers in the world. Does the Secretary of State detect any lasting shift in Pakistani public and political opinion and in attitudes towards the Taliban following on from her extraordinary example?

I think that the answer to that must be yes, that has had an impact on Pakistani public opinion. There is also evidence that the Taliban is moderating some of its more extreme views because it recognises that they are costing it popularity with the population.

I was in Afghanistan three weeks ago as president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. I concur that the Afghan national army is capable, well led and well equipped. It is essential that it remains under political control, however, and as President Karzai will step down early in 2014 and a new president will be elected, will the Secretary of State reassure me that our Government and those of our ISAF allies will give as much attention to the political transition as to the security transition?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Clearly, maintaining political control of the Afghan national army is crucial. I see little sign that it is becoming politicised and it operates effectively as a military force, but the Afghan Ministry of Defence is a weak institution. One area that we are considering for UK engagement beyond 2014 is the provision of support at senior level to the Afghan Ministry of Defence.

Will the Secretary of State assure me that he will not listen to the requests from the Opposition to provide yet further details about our tactical deployments and tactical draw-down? Our enemies already know too much about when we are withdrawing, how many troops we are withdrawing and in what numbers. Giving units, equipments and other important details would, I suggest, help our enemies and not hinder them.

As I have already said, I cannot at the moment give the details of which units will be in theatre in future. We make no secret about units being deployed—we make routine announcements on which units will be deployed to theatre—but I completely agree with my hon. Friend that a public discussion about which capabilities we will retain and withdraw and about when we will do that would not be helpful.

I, too, was able to visit Afghanistan with colleagues from the Defence Committee, as the Secretary of State will know, and we saw much of the progress he has described. However, we identified one particular issue on which I would like him to make an observation: the detention of prisoners at Bastion and the difficulties in transferring them into the Afghan justice system. I understand that two of them are charged with the murder of British troops. Will he comment on how that process is progressing?

I am happy to update the House on the detention situation, which is an important aspect of our operations. We suspended transfers into the Afghan justice system earlier this year because of concerns about the potential for the mistreatment of prisoners in National Directorate of Security facilities. Over a period of months, a significant number of steps were taken to increase our oversight of what happens to transferred prisoners. We were hoping to recommence transfers in the autumn, but two things happened. First, in a case that is being heard in the High Court in London, an injunction was granted against us, preventing further transfers into the Afghan system without the permission of the High Court. Secondly, new and classified information came to my attention that led me to make a decision to continue as a matter of policy to suspend transfers into the Afghan system. That means that we are holding significant numbers of detainees who are to be charged in the Afghan judicial system but cannot, for reasons of policy and legal impediment, be transferred into the Afghan system at present. We are improving and increasing the size of the detention facility at Bastion to reflect the fact that those people will be held in larger numbers and for longer periods.

People across Wiltshire, to where many of these soldiers will return, will strongly welcome the announcement about what is effectively the beginning of the end of our combat involvement in Afghanistan. It is very welcome indeed. Does the Secretary of State agree that the success of our withdrawal will be judged by two kinds of Afghan confidence? First, they must be confident that they can do the job, which increasingly seems to be the case, and secondly they must be confident that we will not cut and run—that we are not leaving them to it, but that we will keep an eye on what happens and stand ready, as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) said, to intervene again should that become necessary in the years to come.

As the Prime Minister has repeatedly made clear and I have emphasised again today, although our combat mission will be coming to an end, our commitment to the Afghan people will be enduring and is underpinned by a firm commitment of more than £250 million a year of military aid support and development aid.

Mohammed Hottak is a former Afghani interpreter who lives in Leicester. It took him years to get his asylum case processed, and his wife and children have still not joined him. He and other interpreters risk their lives to support our country. Why are the Afghani interpreters being treated differently from those who helped us in Iraq?

Locally employed civilians include interpreters, but the question goes much wider than interpreters. We are currently looking very carefully at how we are going to make appropriate provision to support locally employed civilians as we draw down and eventually end our combat mission. We have a clear commitment to treat them fairly and appropriately, and to ensure their safety and security beyond the term of their employment with Her Majesty’s Government. I cannot comment on an individual’s specific case, but I am confident that as we get nearer to the end of our combat involvement in Afghanistan, further statements will be made about our detailed policy towards locally employed civilians; I believe we currently have about 3,500 of them.

A few moments ago, the Secretary of State gave a very important answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth), when he confirmed, for, I think, the first time by a British Minister, that our American allies are thinking of retaining at least one strategic base in the region. Given that we face the threat of the return of al-Qaeda to Afghanistan and the destabilisation of Pakistan by the Pakistani Taliban—with their nuclear arsenal to be borne in mind—is it not extremely important that somebody has a fallback plan, based on the use of strategic bases, even if it is not us?

When any of my colleagues stands up and says that I have said something that no Minister has said before, my heart sinks, but I think on this occasion I am okay.

I would not be so presumptuous as to speak for the United States, but my current understanding is that US planning very likely envisages the retention of Camp Bastion. Of course, any remaining footprint in Afghanistan—strategic base or otherwise—depends on the agreement of the Afghan Government, and as my hon. Friend knows, negotiations are under way between the United States and the Government of Afghanistan about a long-term strategic partnership agreement.

Can the Secretary of State tell us exactly how much money has been spent by the UK in the Afghan operation over the past 11 years—[Interruption.] It is not a joke. Can he also tell us what the comparative figures are for poverty among the ordinary people of Afghanistan now and 11 years ago?

On the first part of the question, I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman off the top of my head what the total expenditure has been since the beginning of the operation in 2001, but I am happy to write to him to give him those numbers. I think they have been published, but I am very happy to write to him and place a copy in the Library.

On the hon. Gentleman’s second point about poverty, Afghanistan is still a very poor country, but its economy has been growing, and although it is of course relative, there is a strong sense in Afghanistan of growing prosperity. People are able to get their goods to market; if they farm their produce, they can actually sell it. There is investment in towns and cities, and the economy has been growing at 9% a year for the last few years. Those are positive signs for ordinary Afghan people, and the progress that has been made in moving the combat—the insurgency—out of the populated centres is crucial in restoring confidence in the local economy and allowing it to thrive and prosper.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that Defence Equipment and Support is based in my constituency. Will he join me in paying tribute to DES for all the work it has done over the entire deployment, making sure that we have the right kit and the right people in the right place at the right time? Will he give us an assurance that DES will have all the resources it needs as the draw-down begins to take place, so that equipment and personnel can be brought back efficiently and on time?

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Defence Equipment and Support, and in particular to draw attention to the extremely efficient way in which the UOR process has worked throughout both this conflict and the Iraq conflict before it. Resources will of course be available for the recovery of our personnel and equipment, and a huge logistic operation is beginning to get under way—reopening the reverse lines of communication both through the northern stans and Pakistan—to bring that vast amount of equipment out of theatre.

I welcome the news that more troops are to be swiftly withdrawn, but I want to go back to the question put by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) about Afghan interpreters. They are worried that they will be sent back to Afghanistan and killed, and interpreters still serving UK troops in Afghanistan fear for their lives as more British troops leave. Can the Secretary of State assure us that he will let us know as soon as he can whether a scheme similar to that in Iraq will be properly extended to Afghanistan? Legal proceedings are about to be mounted on behalf of those people, who fear that their lives are at risk.

As the hon. Lady says, legal proceedings are about to be instigated—we understand—so obviously it would be improper for me to say anything about them. This is a big and complicated issue. A large number of people are involved and not all of them are interpreters, who usually are quite highly educated. There are also large numbers of locally employed staff in other capacities. As I said, we are very much focused on the problem and we must have a properly thought-through and coherent approach. I give the hon. Lady an undertaking on behalf of the Government that once we have a clear plan we will announce it to the House.

This is a landmark statement, which signals the beginning of a long draw-down in a very difficult war. Difficult questions will need to be answered as to why it has taken us so long to get to where we are today. Peace is by no means guaranteed. Does the Secretary of State agree that the welcome advances in security must be matched by improvements to governance and economic development if Najibullah is not to be repeated?

Yes, I am happy to agree with my hon. Friend. In particular, progress has to be made on the endemic corruption that still exists in Afghan society and throughout the Afghan economy, if the progress already made is to be built on.

Perhaps I could take this opportunity to tell the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) that I have become aware—by magic—that the net additional cost of military operations since 2001 is estimated as £17.4 billion to date.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. The murder in Pakistan of six aid workers delivering vital polio treatment shocked us all. Can he assure the House that there will be military protection for medical aid workers in Afghanistan to ensure that the polio inoculations and medical treatment that are so important for children and adults can be maintained?

The responsibility for protecting Afghan local health services will be primarily for the Afghan police and military, but I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we were all shocked by the reminder of the primitiveness of some of the Taliban doctrine, and that they would attack people for providing vaccination against life-threatening diseases. That is the scale of the challenge we are dealing with.

I welcome the statement, but as the Secretary of State knows, some Members of the House have long held the view that we were fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country, as we strayed from the original mission. Will he confirm that ISAF is now conducting non-conditional talks with the Taliban? Until fairly recently, the American position was that they would only talk to the Taliban if the Taliban laid down their arms and accepted the constitution. The Americans were living in never-never land. Has the position on those talks changed?

I think it would be wrong to characterise the discussions as ISAF discussions. There are discussions that the Afghan Government have indicated a willingness to enter into, which are conditional on an acceptance of the Afghan constitution. That is the position of the Afghan Government. There are also discussions, which have been widely reported, between US officials and Taliban representatives, which do not have the same preconditions attached to them.

This year, Corby lost one of its sons, Grenadier Guard James Ashworth, who died in a grenade attack in Helmand. In paying tribute to James and all the soldiers from Corby who served in the past and will serve in the future in Afghanistan, may I ask the Secretary of State to say what assessment he has made of the increased risks to the 5,500 servicemen and women who will be in Helmand in 2014?

Our current estimate of the opening number in 2014 is 5,200. We do not think there will be an increased risk to them. There are balancing factors to consider. On the one hand, we will be mentoring and advising at a higher level of command; that will imply a lower footprint, fewer bases and fewer patrols going outside the wire. On the other hand, we will be drawing down, and drawing down and evacuating equipment is by its nature a complex and risk-based business. But I think overall we would not expect the total amount of risk to increase during the draw-down, taking those two factors together.

On our recent Defence Committee visit to Afghanistan it was impossible not to be deeply impressed with the progress made, and my right hon. Friend’s statement is extremely welcome. May I put it to him that pivotal to our successful operation in Malaya and also, arguably, Northern Ireland was the offer of a genuine amnesty to those who laid down their arms, and that the current amnesty on offer, which does not even extend to drug-dealing activities, is not really the right route to get the softer element of the Taliban to negotiate?

I am happy to agree with my hon. Friend that reintegration of people who have been opposed to the regime and, indeed, active supporters of the insurgency is an essential part of a stable future for Afghanistan. A substantial reintegration programme is under way, as he knows. Thousands of low-level Taliban fighters who have abandoned the insurgency have been reintegrated into Afghan society and that process will need to continue if we are to deliver stability in the future.

Having visited Helmand two years ago, I want to add my own tribute to the fantastic work of our armed forces, having seen that at first hand. I recently spoke to personnel serving in Afghanistan who fear leaving the forces, fear looking for a job, and fear the cuts to support to people on low incomes. Increasing numbers of veterans who have served in Afghanistan are turning to the Royal British Legion and other forces’ charities for advice and often emergency support. What is the Secretary of State doing to support those charities to serve our very brave veterans in their lives after they leave the forces?

Of course we support the service charities; they are a very important part of the overall service family. But the hon. Gentleman does not do our armed forces and the people who serve in them any service by painting that very bleak picture of their prospects after service. The truth is that over 90% of people leaving the armed forces who are looking for work have found work within three months and over 95% within six months. That is a good result. We can continue to do better; we can continue to deliver additional support, and the recent appointment of a transition tsar by the Prime Minister to support service people leaving the forces and to help them in the process of getting into work and establishing a new home is a very important contribution to that. It is basically a good news story, not a bad news story.

I join other Members in congratulating the Secretary of State on making a very difficult, very courageous, correct decision to draw down troops so rapidly. May I ask him to remain open to the possibility that, depending on US decisions in January, we look at this as being only the minimum amount we withdraw, and to remain open to the possibility of withdrawing significantly more?

I have announced that our current planning sees numbers going down to about 5,200 by the end of 2013. That planning is of course based on certain assumptions about what the rest of our ISAF partners are doing, and about what the ANSF will be doing. We believe that those assumptions are robust, but if it turns out during the course of 2013 that things turn out differently, of course we retain the flexibility to look again at our plans.

Given that combat missions will continue to 2014, as the Defence Secretary has said, will he ensure, in the light of green-on-blue attacks and other reasons, that all soldiers are equipped with sidearms for force and individual protection? Like many, I have constituents in Afghanistan, and some who are going there, and they and their families would be slightly less tense if all soldiers were equipped with sidearms, which would also act as a deterrent.

Without getting into the technicalities, I do not think I can give the hon. Gentleman the commitment that all soldiers will be equipped with sidearms, but I can tell him that current orders require all soldiers to carry a weapon at all times when they are anywhere in contact with Afghans, and if they are in a circumstance where they cannot carry a weapon, a so-called guardian angel system is in place where armed troops overwatch them during any period where they are necessarily unarmed, such as during sports activities.

One of the legacies we can give to those who have paid so much in sacrifice for our mission in Afghanistan is the long-term stability of the nation. In its economic stability, are we doing everything we can to make sure that the wealth of natural resources that my right hon. Friend mentioned is exploited to the best benefit of the people of Afghanistan, not those from outside?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the long-term stability of Afghanistan depends on its economic development and a key part of its economic development will be the successful exploitation of its mineral wealth. Mineral wealth cannot be taken offshore to Dubai; it sits in the ground, and as long as the wealth of Afghanistan is in Afghanistan, local people will invest in Afghanistan and the future of the country. There are all sorts of international efforts, including many supported by the UK’s DFID funding, to ensure the development and exploitation of that mineral wealth for the benefit of the people of Afghanistan.

The withdrawal is of course very welcome, but why has the Secretary of State disregarded the alarming fact that in the past 12 months, $900 million has been stolen from the bank of Afghanistan by Government corruption, and that £4.5 billion has been smuggled out of that country, much of it to Dubai, to tart up the boltholes that the politicians have prepared to flee to in 2015? Does he think that the Afghan army will give their allegiance to a corrupt Government, to the Northern Alliance or to the Taliban?

I am not ignoring those facts. I have acknowledged that the Afghan Government will have to do much more about corruption if Afghanistan is to have a viable future. All our activity, through DFID and other channels, is to secure sustainable development in Afghanistan, which will encourage people to retain their wealth in Afghanistan, but I do not dissent from the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that there is wholesale corruption and that significant amounts of money have been illegally expatriated from the country. He is of course right.

Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan fuels much of the illegal hard drug trade on the streets of Britain. What progress is being made, and will be made, to reduce the reliance of the Afghan economy on poppy cultivation, while also ensuring that the livelihood of many poor farmers is not endangered?

This is a perennial challenge in any country where narcotics cultivation is a core part of the economy—to develop sustainable alternative forms of economic activity that provide a livelihood for peasant farmers which can compete with the returns available from narcotics. That is a big challenge for the Afghan Government. We are putting a lot of investment into helping them with that challenge and counter-narcotics will be a continuing strand of our involvement with Afghanistan well beyond the end of our combat operations in 2014.

May I press the Secretary of State to say whether Afghanistan campaign returners will be subject to compulsory redundancy?

The hon. Gentleman asks the question in the abstract—[Interruption.] It is not a yes or no question at all. At the time when redundancy decisions are made, a defined group of people will be excluded from consideration. That will be people deployed on operations, people preparing to deploy on operations, and people recovering on leave after operations, but I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman, as the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) asked me to do, that anyone who is now or at any time in the future deployed in Afghanistan will not be eligible for redundancy. That would reduce the field eligible for selection to a tiny number and would be most unfair.

I welcome the ongoing United Kingdom commitment to give £250 million a year for development in Afghanistan. This represents about 10% of the pledged total. Does my right hon. Friend have confidence that the remaining 90% will be found and that the United Kingdom will not be left to pick up the difference?

I think my hon. Friend might be confusing two things. There are, rather unhelpfully, two separate 4 billions here. There is £4 billion of development aid that was pledged at Tokyo, and there is $4 billion a year of support for the ANSF, of which the United Kingdom has committed about $100 million—around £70 million. We are confident that these sums will be found and that they will be available to the Afghans on an ongoing basis. We have set out our commitment and we do not intend to change from that position.

Like many hon. Members in the Chamber, I represent several families who have lost their loved ones in Afghanistan over the past decade. That felt like a very optimistic statement from the Secretary of State on the progress we have made. I am a little more sceptical about what it has cost us in human life and treasure for the progress we have made. We would all agree that a political solution is necessary to resolve the conflict, but what assurances can the Secretary of State give us that when we reach that political solution with our draw-down forces, we will be able to maintain the safety of all those Afghans who have been our allies over the past decade, and we will not leave them to the mercy of the elements of the Taliban that we wish to draw into the future government of Afghanistan?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has visited Afghanistan, but many of his colleagues have. It is not a perfect democracy and it never will be. It will not be the case that the Afghan Government will control every inch of their territory after 2014. There will be messy compromises in some parts of the country. Some will not be under the control of the central Government, and some of the behaviours will not be behaviours of the type that we would put up with here or in any European country, but any of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues who have been there will tell him that the lives of ordinary Afghans are immeasurably better today than they were five or six years ago, and that is the standard by which we should measure our involvement.

The Secretary of State said that the civilian Government in Pakistan are fully committed to engagement and a stable Afghanistan. He will know that there are general elections in Pakistan in March—that is, three months away. Have there been discussions with other political parties to see whether they are committed to the same process of engagement and a stable Afghanistan?