House of Commons
Monday 15 April 2013
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
BUSINESS BEFORE QUESTIONS
That the Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough constituency of South Shields in the room of David Wright Miliband, who since his election for the said Borough constituency has accepted the Office of Steward of Her Majesty’s Manor of Northstead in the County of York.—(Ms Winterton.)
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Veterans (Mental Health)
Before I answer the question, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Jamie Webb of the 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment, who died in hospital in Kandahar on Tuesday 26 March 2013 from wounds received in Afghanistan on Monday 25 March. He died in the service of his country and our thoughts, and those of the whole House, are with his family and friends.
The Government are committed to ensuring that each and every one of the roughly one in 10 adults in this country who are veterans receive the support they require from across the whole of Government. Responsibility for delivering mental health support lies with the Department of Health, with which the Ministry of Defence works closely. Together we are providing greater access to mental health care for the first six months after discharge, an increase in the number of veterans mental health professionals, a 24-hour helpline in partnership with Combat Stress, and an online mental health support and advice website called the Big White Wall.
The north-east provides more servicemen and women, proportionally, than any other region in the country, so I am pleased to say that we have award-winning mental health services such as a veterans well-being assessment and liaison pilot, in partnership with Combat Stress and the Royal British Legion. They expect a surge in referrals as our troops withdraw from Afghanistan next year, but the pilot ends in March. What plans does the Minister have to meet the expected increase in demand for mental health services?
As I say, this will partly be a responsibility for the Department of Health, with which we work closely, but I take the whole issue very seriously, and I have tried personally to meet as many people as I can who are involved in this issue, for instance Sir Simon Wessely at King’s, Andrew Cameron at Combat Stress and Dr Hugh Milroy at Veterans Aid. The Government will continue to reach out to these and other experts to provide the right care for those to whom we owe such a debt of gratitude.
Some great work has been done on mental health care for veterans since the seminal report by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), some years ago. Does the Minister agree that there is a particular problem associated with members of the Territorial Army and other reservists who have come back from active service and who may not know that they have a mental problem? It may be many years later, when they have left the regimental family, that the problems become apparent. What extra can be done to help members of the Territorial Army who have been dispersed around the country?
I understand the issue that my hon. Friend raises. Like him, I pay tribute to the excellent “Fighting Fit” report, which addressed mental health for both serving personnel and veterans. He may be aware that there was a lacuna a few years ago in that reservists returning from theatre were not subject to the same decompression package as regulars and did not necessarily receive the same mental health briefings as regular troops. We have changed that so that reservists coming back from theatre get the same decompression package and mental health briefings as their regular counterparts, which helps to alleviate problems later on.
There has been an issue, partly compounded by difficulties relating to the matter of consent. The FMed 133, as the form is known, provides a summary of a person’s medical history while in the services, and is given to members of the services when they leave. They are encouraged to present it to their GP when they resettle in the civilian community, so that the GP knows that they served and are now a veteran. The form provides information to the GP on how to receive more detailed medical records from Defence Medical Services if the GP decides that that is appropriate.
We work very closely with Combat Stress, which is a valuable charity. As I intimated earlier, I recently met Andrew Cameron, who helps to run that charity so effectively. As my hon. Friend may know, it has a number of residential centres where people who suffer from such conditions as post-traumatic stress disorder can receive help over a period of weeks or months if necessary. I hope to visit one of these centres in the near future.
This Ministry of Defence is fully committed to the Government’s growth agenda by supporting responsible defence exports. From the Prime Minister down, ministerial colleagues and senior officials are actively supporting the British defence industry in international markets. For example, already this year my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has promoted defence exports during his visits to Australia and Indonesia. I have visited India, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Malaysia in support of exports and to lead delegations at defence exhibitions, and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who has responsibility for international security strategy, has just returned from supporting defence exports in Libya and Brazil.
The production of the wings for the new Airbus A400M at Filton is progressing so well that Airbus has announced that it is increasing the number of skilled aircraft fitters. Once the first aircraft is delivered to the French air force this summer, and to the RAF next year, I believe that the A400M will be the jewel in the crown of the British aerospace industry. Will the Minister outline what action the Government are taking to support exports of this aircraft to markets overseas?
The A400M Atlas will provide both tactical and strategic airlift capability from its first delivery to the RAF next year. We agree that this world-class capability has the potential to become the tactical lift aircraft of choice for air forces around the world once the hugely successful C-130 Hercules, which has had this role for many years, is withdrawn from service. The UK is fully behind the efforts of Airbus Military to export the Atlas military transport aircraft, which will support skilled jobs in the aerospace hub around Bristol and across the UK.
The Defence ministerial team will have had a number of representations on the challenges faced by small and medium-sized enterprises in being able to compete adequately. What support will the ministerial team be extending to SMEs in the defence sector so that they can compete and export internationally?
As I have said at the Dispatch Box previously, we have a strong commitment to support SME penetration of our own procurement chain and to help them export overseas. Early next month, in support of the UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation, I am attending a symposium at which there will be more than 350 SMEs, precisely to help them with their defence exports.
20. I thank my hon. Friend for his earlier answer. Will he explain to those who do not necessarily understand the merit of defence exports the incredible benefit they deliver, not only for our armed forces but for the wider British economy? (150749)
Our armed forces benefit directly from responsible defence exports. Not only do they help build bilateral relationships and defence co-operation with our key allies, but they raise capability, enhance the interoperability of allies and partner nations, and contribute to regional security around the globe. As far as the contribution to the UK economy is concerned, defence exports have a vital role to play in sustaining UK jobs, generating UK tax revenues and helping to ensure the long-term viability and cutting edge of our defence industrial base.
I would like to associate the Opposition with the Minister’s condolences to the family and friends of Lance Corporal Webb for their loss.
The Minister will be aware that the Brazilian navy is looking to acquire at least one, possibly two, new aircraft carriers, so there will be significant potential for export opportunities. French companies are already on the case, supported by the French Government, looking to procure the design work. Given that we are building two of the world’s most advanced aircraft carriers, as a result of which we will have the skills and a dip in ship-building orders between the end of the carrier build and the start of the Type 26—which, incidentally, we are looking to sell to the Brazilians—what discussions has his Department, including the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), during his recent visit, had with the Brazilians specifically to promote British interests in the design and build of those carriers?
As the hon. Lady knows, Brazil and the UK entered into a maritime co-operation agreement as a result of the Prime Minister’s visit in recent months. As I said earlier, the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire, visited Brazil only last week, when he discussed maritime co-operation, particularly in the offshore patrol vessel area. It is clear that the Brazilians wish to construct the aircraft carriers in their own shipyards, which means that there is no prospect of a direct export order for an entire ship; but as regards many of the systems, components and weapons systems, we will be seeking to provide opportunities for companies in this country supplying our aircraft carriers, which are currently under construction in Rosyth, to bid into the Brazilian and other nations’ programmes.
Reserve forces have a central role to play in delivering national defence and security—what they do matters to our nation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State attended two national workshops in January with a range of employers to discuss our vision of a transformed relationship based on mutual benefits. I am very pleased that at these workshops and in other responses from employers to November’s Green Paper consultation, there has been broad and constructive support for our proposals. In the lead-up to the planned publication of the future reserves 2020 White Paper later in the spring, we will continue to engage with employers and employer groups such as the CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses.
Will the Minister confirm that our target for additional reserve recruitment could be met by less than one third of 1% of the younger working-age population and that the employers in question would benefit enormously from the positive attitude, outlook and determination of employees who take up reserve training?
My hon. Friend knows something about this matter personally, because he himself served in the Territorial Army some years ago, and is absolutely right about the benefit that reservists can offer to their employers. I am pleased to say that a number of employers recognised that in their response to the consultation. On his good point about numbers, I would just say that when I served as a TA infantry officer in the 1980s—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!] Thank you—employer support was an issue then too. We managed then to get to 75,000 trained soldiers in the TA with a smaller population than we have now, so I have to believe that we can get to 30,000 now.
I suggest that expressions of support and troops and boots on the ground are two different things. Given the widespread concerns about defence cuts and force generation factors, how confident is the Minister that the plan to plug the gap left by the loss of 20,000 regular troops will not prove to be a false economy?
As I think I have already said, I am confident that we can do this, based not least on my own experience and that of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who, as my hon. Friend will know, was a Territorial Army officer in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers—the same regiment to which he belonged.
We all wish the Government’s reservist White Paper to be a success. Within existing competition rules, would the Minister consider MOD procurement processes that take into account whether companies support reservists? I wish to return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr Roy). Current legislation protects reservists returning from the front line, but no equivalent employment legislation protects them from the minority of employers who discriminate against reservists in their hiring processes. Although the Minister has held out against such legislation in the consultation, will he at least consult employers large and small to see whether there is an appetite to prevent that small number of employers from discriminating against those who protect our nation?
In some ways the right hon. Gentleman has, for honourable reasons, asked a similar question to his hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr Roy), who sits on the Benches behind him. We are aware of the issue and intend to address it directly when we publish the White Paper later in the spring. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has offered bipartisan support in principle for the White Paper and the process of growing our reserves, which clearly we welcome.
I am not sure I can give my hon. Friend a precise number for how many have joined since 1 January, but I am willing to write and give him a number for how many in the Ministry of Defence are serving in the reserve forces. I am also happy to provide that information to the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). I am sure that, like me, he will agree with the remarks of the chairman of Durham county council, Councillor Linda Marshall, who said:
“Reservist employees are better at problem solving, they are good negotiators…their confidence grows throughout their training.”
If we can do it in Durham with the support of the county council, we can do it elsewhere.
Arms Trade Treaty
As the hon. Lady will now know, on Tuesday 2 April the arms trade treaty was adopted by an overwhelming majority vote, with 154 states voting in favour at the United Nations General Assembly. Once implemented, this robust and effective legally binding treaty will establish a common baseline for the regulation of arms transfers.
I very much welcome the work that the Government have done on the treaty, and I am sure that the Minister will want to acknowledge the central role played by the previous Labour Government in promoting it. Will he confirm that the agreed terms of the treaty will be implemented in full in the UK at the earliest opportunity and also say when we can expect legislation on this matter?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her congratulations, which we should pass on to colleagues in the Foreign Office who led on this issue. We welcome the treaty wholeheartedly. The arms export licensing regime operating under this Government and the previous Government is one of the most rigorous in the world and ensures that we will comply with the treaty’s obligations. It is good for British defence contractors, as it establishes a level playing field at a higher standard. We will have no difficulty implementing the treaty. It does not become effective until 50 states have signed it, and we will work hard to encourage that to happen as soon as possible.
The outcome of the talks has been broadly welcomed, as the Minister recognises. Labour has always argued that “conventional arms” should include ammunition, munitions, parts and components. Can the Minister confirm that the Government’s interpretation of “conventional arms”, as it will apply to the UK arms trade in implementing the treaty, will also cover those elements?
RAF Facilities (Alternative Uses)
It is Ministry of Defence policy to encourage commercial, social or community use of RAF facilities, consistent with operational, security and safety considerations. We are encouraging civil aviation use of certain military airfields, such as RAF Northolt, within agreed operating hours. We regularly hold air shows at military airfields and encourage community use of sporting or other leisure facilities on RAF bases wherever possible.
I thank the Minister for that response. In my constituency, RAF Woodvale is in danger of forfeiting good will and much needed revenue by stopping the popular Woodvale rally because of asbestos risks. What can he do to make my constituents happier and the Ministry of Defence a little better off?
I am aware that the hon. Gentleman was concerned last year when the Woodvale rally could not take place as a result of the discovery of fragments of asbestos following burrowing activities by, I believe, rabbits and moles in the grassy areas of the airfield. They have been fenced off and we are undertaking a land quality assessment exercise this year to see whether the asbestos can be safely contained, for public health and the health of the servicemen and women who work there.
The Government’s estate has been the subject of one announcement so far on Army basing, and there will be a subsequent announcement on reserve basing. As part of that exercise, the Government are intending to make savings that are baked into the efficiency targets agreed with Her Majesty’s Treasury, and I would be happy to write to the hon. Lady with more details in due course.
Defence Engagement Strategy
The international defence engagement strategy, published in February 2013 and now very much in play, provides a sharp focus to our defence engagement activities in support of wider Government objectives, in line with the vision set out in the strategic defence and security review. Defence is making a contribution to UK influence worldwide on a daily basis, with the Defence Engagement Board overseeing the rolling out of our defence engagement strategy. Since publishing the strategy, we have accredited a non-resident defence attaché for Burma and advanced our preparations for new defence sections in Libya and Somalia.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight this matter. He will be aware of the success of Operation Atalanta under British command; that operation has really got to grips with piracy off the horn of Africa. In addition, we engage with the European Union through EUTM—EU training mission—Somalia and EUCAP NESTOR, which is involved in training indigenous assets for littoral operations. He will also be aware of the work of AMISOM, the African Union Mission in Somalia, in which we are involved with training, and of the British Peace Support Team Eastern Africa, based in Kenya, which is heavily involved in peace support operations. Later this year, I hope that we will be able to open a defence section in Mogadishu, when security conditions allow.
Does the Minister agree with the value of joint international training as part of the defence engagement strategy? Will he take this opportunity to commend the thousands of personnel from 10 different states who are currently taking part in the Joint Warrior exercise, as well as all the communities that are hosting them?
I certainly commend our engagement in training. I have spent some time in Libya and Brazil recently, and it is clear that our international partners really want British training. It is an important part of their ask of us, and it is a first-rate part of our defence engagement activity.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and successor on his work on the defence engagement strategy. Does he agree that nothing leverages influence in the world more than defence, particularly in areas such as training, mentoring and providing advice? Has he been able to secure any extra funds, particularly from the Department for International Development, given that money spent on the defence engagement strategy is much more effective than some of the money that is being spent on overseas aid?
My hon. Friend is right in many respects, especially on the quality of the men and women of our armed forces and the high regard in which they are held. This country is absolutely peerless in that regard, and it is a great joy for me to go around the world—as I now inevitably do, and as he used to do during his excellent tenure of the post that I now hold—and see that the reason that others want to engage with us is that we are very good at what we do. It will therefore continue to be the case that the UK will be a partner of choice in defence engagement.
Armed Forces Covenant
14. What recent steps the Government have taken to uphold the armed forces covenant. (150741)
The full extent of the Government’s work to support the armed forces covenant was set out in the armed forces covenant annual report, which was laid before the House in December 2012. Since then, new measures have included the introduction of the armed forces independence payment, which is not taxable or means tested, as well as the introduction of the new defence discount service and the recent Budget announcement of further LIBOR fines funding for service charities. The Cabinet Sub-Committee on the Armed Forces Covenant, on which I sit, was established to ensure that momentum is maintained, and it continues to provide a forum in which Ministers can propose commitments from their respective Departments to assist in honouring the covenant.
I seem to recall that the hon. Gentleman has asked me questions on related matters before. Local councils have some discretion in the money they can use for assisting particular cases, and I hope they will use it wisely, including when military families are affected. I am encouraged by the fact that more than 250 local authorities across Great Britain have signed community covenants—more than half the local authorities in Great Britain—so I particularly expect them to do their best to make the right decision.
I am interested in the Minister’s response, because the devolution of blame for the policy overlaps with how the Government have behaved over the Armed Forces Pay Review Body recommendation for a 1.5% increase in pay for the armed forces. The Budget said that it would be paid, but the detail shows that it will start on 1 May not 1 April, and will therefore run for only 11 months, not 12. This means our forces are getting £2.6 million less than was promised, or intended by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body. Could the Minister explain how that is in line with the principles of the military covenant?
The announcement in the Budget was indeed that it would come in from May, and not in April, so there is no surprise in what the hon. Gentleman announced. It was made plain in the Budget at the time. When Labour Members have raised these types of question in the past, they sometimes found that their criticism was ill-founded. I refer to the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). He will remember that a few months ago he asked me how reforms to housing benefit would affect service families. He will know, following the announcement made by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, that we changed the system so that where an adult child living at home is serving on operations, the child will be treated as continuing to live at home and is therefore exempt. The point I make to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) is that when these issues have been raised in the past we have listened, and we have funds for local authorities to address the issue as well.
The two local authorities in my area, South Gloucestershire council and Bristol city council, have yet to sign up to the community covenant scheme. What more can the Government do to ensure that local authorities sign up to the covenant as a matter of priority?
The decision to sign a community covenant is a matter for individual local authorities, but we obviously encourage all local authorities across the country to sign up to a community covenant to show their support for the armed forces family—the wider armed forces community. I hope that will apply to the local authorities in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
I make that about 23 seconds.
Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Gosport borough council, which adopted its version of the military covenant at the tail end of last year? Will he update the House on the progress that has been made in the take-up of community covenants?
As I said, more than half the local authorities in Great Britain have signed the community covenant, and I am pleased to say that they are coming in all the time. I am really encouraged by the number of local authorities at all tiers of local government that have been signing community covenants to demonstrate their support for the armed forces community, and I am very pleased to hear that that spirit is alive and well in Gosport.
The Service Complaints Commissioner and the Defence Select Committee both back the creation of a services ombudsman, as do we. On 31 January, we held a Westminster Hall debate on the military justice system, and I hope the Minister will review the remarks he made in that debate. I am concerned that he may have inadvertently overstated the powers being given to the Service Complaints Commissioner. Could he confirm that it is his intention that the commissioner should have all the powers he outlined in that debate, and does he therefore agree that it is time for an ombudsman?
I have a great deal of time for Dr Susan Atkins, the Service Complaints Commissioner. I have met her twice since my appointment to this post and my ministerial colleagues and I remain in dialogue with her. We are looking at the whole operation of the service complaints system, not least in light of some of the points raised in that debate. We continue that dialogue with her and we may have more to say about the matter in the future.
It is clear that North Korea is undertaking programmes to develop nuclear weapons and a range of missile systems. It has successfully flight-tested ballistic missiles capable of reaching South Korea, Japan and US bases in the region. It has paraded a long-range missile with a claimed range of 12,000 km, which is highly likely to be intended to be nuclear-armed. Those developments are in breach of international law and threaten the stability of the region.
As for links with Iran, North Korea is known to have sold ballistic missile technology to Iran. Any sharing of nuclear technologies would be a matter of grave concern and would breach UN sanctions.
The attempted development of nuclear weapons by North Korea and Iran surely underlines the importance of maintaining our own independent nuclear deterrent, but does my right hon. Friend agree that perhaps the greatest risk to world peace is a miscalculation or mistake on behalf of either Iran or North Korea at this time when tensions are rising?
I completely agree that there are huge risks at a time of heightened tension and a huge potential for miscalculation, which is why I welcome the initiative in which the United States is engaged to try to calm tensions around the Korean peninsula. The developments in Korea, and indeed Iran, show us primarily that the world is a very dangerous and unpredictable place, and that a credible nuclear deterrent is the ultimate protection against the threat of nuclear aggression or blackmail.
It is impossible for us to make with any accuracy a prediction of the time scale involved. As I said, the North Koreans have tested shorter-range ballistic missiles and paraded a ballistic missile with sufficient range to reach Europe and the continental United States. We can only assume—I would be prepared to bet my bottom dollar on it—that they are seeking to integrate their nuclear technology with that ballistic missile technology.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s robust earlier reply, but does he agree that the links to which he and my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) referred—not only with Iran but, to a lesser extent, with other potentially extreme regimes—emphasise once more that, in a world with huge uncertainty, our nuclear deterrent is critical?
I agree with my hon. Friend, and I would go further and say this: the life expectancy of the replacement ballistic missile submarines will be about 35 to 40 years, and it would be a very brave man who would claim now that he could see, 40 years ahead from the 2020s, that there will be no need for that capability.
It is in all our interests that the situation in North Korea is resolved not only peacefully but meaningfully so as the US deploys military assets to the Korean peninsula, what discussions has the Secretary of State had with his US counterparts about the provision of any UK logistical support? Should the US move any military assets out of Afghanistan to that region, has he confirmed to the US that the UK would be willing to fill any of the gaps created by that redeployment?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. There have been no discussions with and no requests from the US, as far as I am aware—certainly at ministerial level—regarding any form of logistical support in relation to the tensions on the Korean peninsula. Again, as far as I am aware, there is no proposal by the US to move any assets from the Afghanistan theatre in response to this crisis.
I announced to the House last May that we had eliminated the black hole in the finances of the Ministry of Defence that we inherited from the Labour party, and had brought the Defence budget into balance. Since then, on the one hand, we have been required to make further budget reductions in 2013-14 and 2014-15 of £1.2 billion in total as a result of the Chancellor’s announcements at autumn statement 2012 and Budget 2013; on the other hand, we have made further savings through efficiency and renegotiation of contracts and have been granted exceptional levels of end-year flexibility by the Treasury to carry forward 100% of our 2012-13 underspend, including unneeded contingency provisions, into 2013-14 and 2014-15. In consequence, we are confident that we can absorb the budget reductions announced without any significant impact on core defence output in those years.
Ministers frequently say that they have a defence review and then budget according to the security needs of the country, so I am a little confused as to why No. 10 and the Treasury say that there will be defence cuts post 2015. Is it because the Government’s priority is Treasury accountants, rather than the security needs of this country?
The Government have announced that there will be a spending review—spending review ’13 —which will set the budgets for non-ring-fenced Departments, including Defence, for 2015-16. There has been an announcement confirming that the equipment programme will be protected in the defence budget, with a real-terms increase of 1% per annum between 2015-16 and 2020-21.
I am not going to pre-empt the outcome of SR 13; nor am I going to conduct the spending review in public. My Department is engaged in analysis with the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, in search of genuine efficiency savings. Where we can find such savings, for example in the equipment support programme, the Ministry of Defence will willingly do its bit to contribute to fiscal consolidation. I will, as you would expect, Mr Speaker, argue vigorously for the resources that Defence needs to deliver Future Force 2020 in accordance with the strategic defence and security review 2010.
A few weeks ago, the Prime Minister told the House that he continued to hold the “strong view” that the overall defence budget should rise in real terms from 2015 onwards. When will that prime ministerial wish become Government policy?
Does my right hon. Friend realise that he struck a chord with many in the House of Commons when he recently expressed reservations about the possibility of further cuts in the defence budget? Does he agree with me that it is not the immediate availability of capability that is important but the resilience that our armed forces possess in the event that the United Kingdom found itself engaged in a protracted engagement? Is he satisfied that all three services possess that resilience?
My right hon. and learned Friend is of course correct: it is resilience, both in the sense of an ability to sustain an enduring operation, and in the sense of an ability to regenerate capability and force levels should the global security situation change, which is crucial. One can always have more resilience, and one would always like more reserve, but I am confident that the stance or posture that we set out in SDSR 2010 will enable us to deliver appropriate levels of national security in 2020.
Does the Secretary of State realise that if he wants a defence manufacturing sector to remain in our country—I have David Brown Gear Systems, an important defence contractor, in my constituency—and if he wants it to survive and thrive as a sector, it is absolutely vital that we have procurement over a long period to enable the necessary investment? Is he aware that there is uncertainty in the industry about these defence cuts?
Of course, cuts in defence budgets, not only in the UK but in the United States and, in fact, in nearly all developed countries, have presented huge challenges to defence industries. At the same time, many of their traditional export customers have developed their own defence manufacturing and even design and development capabilities. We are trying to work with the defence industry to give it greater visibility of our forward intentions, and to work with it to design greater export ability into its projects.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend unreservedly on his success in the herculean task of balancing the defence budget, but does he agree that if we are to keep that budget balanced, one of the things that has to change is the status of Defence Equipment and Support? Can he share with the House any clear indication of when he will announce his intentions in respect of that organisation?
My hon. Friend is right. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) correctly guesses that the announcement will be made shortly; “in the spring” and “before the summer recess” also spring to mind. My hon. Friend is right that if we are to deal effectively, and in a way that protects the best interests of the taxpayer, with large corporate entities which are able to scour the world for the top talent, we must be able to match them man for man across the negotiating table.
Onshore Wind Turbines
Perhaps it is a matter of keeping the best for last, or there is nothing in my portfolio, or it may be an attempt to keep me away from the Dispatch Box—the House will decide.
Regarding the question, Ministry of Defence officials and my colleague the Minister with responsibility for defence personnel, welfare and veterans met the chief executive of RenewableUK in November to discuss matters relating to both offshore and onshore wind turbine applications. MOD officials also attend the aviation management board made up of key wind energy stakeholders, chaired by the Department of Energy and Climate Change. My Department routinely engages with developers and consenting authorities in its consideration of onshore wind turbine planning applications.
I am sure the Minister is aware that despite the installation over the past few years of a number of radar systems that can distinguish between turbines and planes, the number of MOD objections to turbine applications doubled between the first part of 2012 and the last part of 2012 as a percentage of applications. Can the Minister assure me that his Department continues to honour the memorandum of understanding between the wind energy industry and the MOD in 2008?
The hon. Gentleman and I share a deep commitment to renewable energy, including wind energy onshore, going back to the days of the parliamentary renewable and sustainable energy group, when I was the vice-chairman and he was the chairman. There are two reasons, as I understand it, for the increase in the number of objections. The first is that there has been a plethora of applications for wind turbines onshore, and many of those are pretty close to airfields and other radar installations. The second is that, because of the plethora of applications, we are no longer able to provide the pre-application advice as we did before—there are so many of them.
RAF Staxton Wold in my constituency is within an 8-mile radius of a raft of onshore planning applications. Surely the MOD must have a view as to possible interference with and collision between radar and these obstructions.
I am not aware of the individual circumstances surrounding those applications. However, I do not think we are particularly concerned about collision with turbines—I hope I am not being unduly optimistic about that. Each application is judged on its merits, and the MOD will object only if it believes that a wind turbine will interfere with the radar or flying activities.
China’s aircraft carrier capability remains at an early stage of development and the building of new indigenous vessels will take it some time. The Government closely watch developments in the Asia-Pacific region as they may affect our interests and our allies.
We have regular discussions with allies across the region, including major talks such as AUKMIN, where the Foreign and Defence Secretaries visited their counterparts in Australia in January and where a variety of strategic issues were discussed. I went to New Zealand and Tonga at the end of last year to promote defence co-operation. I passed on my thanks for their troop contributions to Afghanistan and presented some medals to the Tongans who defend Camp Bastion.
Compensation (Service Personnel)
The armed forces compensation scheme was last reviewed in 2009-10 under the independent chairmanship of the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Lord Boyce. The review found that the scheme was fundamentally sound but adjustments were required in some areas. The MOD implemented all recommendations from the review through legislation laid in August 2010 and February 2011. The changes became operative on 9 May 2011.
I thank the Minister for that response. Will he undertake to look into the case of my constituent former Royal Marine Thomas Nicoll, who was medically discharged after suffering permanent injuries to the tendons in his knee? Had he suffered ligament injuries, he would have been entitled to the highest rate of compensation under the scheme but, because there is no mention of tendons in the guidelines, he is not entitled to that. Will the Minister promise to rectify that bureaucratic absurdity so that my constituent will be entitled to the compensation?
My priority remains the success of operations in Afghanistan. Beyond that, my priorities are to deliver the transformation of the MOD, maintain budgets in balance and deliver equipment programmes so that our armed forces can be confident of being properly equipped and trained. We have set out plans to restructure the Army, to re-base it from Germany, to expand the reserves and integrate them with regular forces, and to restructure the Defence Infrastructure Organisation and Defence Equipment and Support within a slimmed-down MOD that is focused on providing support to the armed forces.
Has my right hon. Friend seen the recommendation of the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee’s report on the implications of Scottish separation that the Government should provide assurance that plans are in place to maintain the UK’s nuclear deterrent in the event of the Scottish people voting for separation? Does he agree with the recommendation?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and disappointed that the sole representative of Scottish separatism in the Chamber today had disappeared before we reached this point in proceedings. I have indeed seen the recommendations of the House of Lords report. As my hon. Friend will know, the Government’s position is clear: Scotland benefits from being part of the United Kingdom and the United Kingdom benefits from having Scotland in it. We are confident that the Scottish people will agree. However, in the event that they voted to leave the United Kingdom, the referendum, rather than being the point at which Scotland would leave the Union, would mark the beginning of a lengthy and extremely complex set of negotiations between the Scottish and UK Governments on the terms of independence. If an independent Scotland wanted to change the arrangements for the UK’s nuclear deterrent, the considerable costs, complexity and time scale involved in delivering alternative arrangements would inevitably be a major feature of the negotiations. It is therefore incorrect to suggest the need for an immediately deliverable contingency plan for the deterrent. However, the House will be aware that the MOD plans for a huge range of contingencies. For reasons of national security, we do not comment publicly on plans relating to the nuclear deterrent.
The MOD underspent its budget by £3 billion last year: a total of £1.6 billion is being carried forward, and there is now a shortfall of £1.4 billion up to 2015. Further to the question asked earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), can the Secretary of State tell the House why the MOD is not using some of that money to backdate the pay increase from May to April announced in the Budget?
A significant proportion of the underspend in 2012-13 is, in fact, the result of delayed spending on equipment programmes and will be needed to be spent in 2013-14 and 2014-15. As the hon. Gentleman will also know, part of the underspend is being used to meet the additional reductions in the budget announced by the Chancellor in the autumn statement and the Budget, which is why we are able to meet those requirements without cutting into the delivery of our core outputs in 2013-14 and 2014-15. To amplify the point about the pay settlement that is effective from 1 May, I will say this: the practical reality is that the MOD’s pay system is quite fragile, and the possibility of making a retrospective change was considered significantly high-risk. It would introduce a significant risk of a catastrophic breakdown in the pay system. We therefore—
Order. We have a lot of questions to get through and I intend to get through them. Frankly, the answer to the first supplementary question was an abuse of the procedure at topical questions. Answers should be brief. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State can look at me quizzically, but I am telling him that the answer was simply too long for me, too long for the House and it delayed us unnecessarily. It must not happen again.
T4. Does my right hon. Friend agree with the conclusion of the Defence Committee that it is ultimately up to the Afghan people to determine their future? What assurances can he give that the UK will continue to give substantial support to the Afghan Government and institutions once ISAF combat operations conclude by the end of next year? (150756)
I agree with the Defence Committee that it is for the people of Afghanistan, not people abroad, to determine their future. We certainly intend to continue to support the Afghan people. We intend to support the Afghan national army officer academy post-2014 and in other ways. I also understand that the Government will be supporting Afghanistan through the Department for International Development.
T3. Given that the security situation in Syria is deteriorating by the day and that there is growing concern about the possible use of chemical weapons, will the Minister update the House on what discussions he has had with EU partners and NATO allies about the risk of escalation of the conflict—in particular, the risks of arming the opposition groups in Syria? (150755)
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise the issue. She will be aware that under UN Security Council resolution 1540, responsibility for the securing of those terrible weapons lies with the Assad regime. That regime should be under no illusion but we will hold Bashar al-Assad to account in the event that he deploys them. The hon. Lady will also be aware that the United Nations Secretary-General will investigate both sides of the issue to determine whether there is any evidence of use of these terrible weapons. We will offer our technical assistance in that matter.
T5. As the anniversary is now little more than a year away, what help can my right hon. Friend give, with colleagues in other Departments, to Normandy veterans, along with their families and carers, to make what may well be their final trip to Normandy to commemorate the 70th anniversary of their arrival on those beaches in 1944? (150757)
I regard commemorating D-day as particularly important, not least because my own father, Reginald Francois, served on that historic occasion. I am aware that the Normandy veterans are considering how best to contribute to the 70th anniversary next year. The Heroes Return 2 scheme was launched on 1 April 2009 and provided funding to help second world war veterans who saw active service to take part in commemorative visits to mark the anniversaries of important events in that conflict. We hope that the scheme, which is provided by the Big Lottery Fund, will also be able to assist in a material way next year.
T9. The Secretary of State may have seen a recent interview, given by the Foreign Secretary to The Times, in which the Foreign Secretary said that what we increasingly need is more capability in surveillance, specialist capabilities and cyber skills. May I ask the Secretary of State whether his Department is cutting, or has plans to cut, any of those capabilities of which the Foreign Secretary says we need more? (150762)
No. We are very much aware of all those needs and I endorse the comments that my right hon. Friend made. He was probably making an oblique reference to press speculation about special forces. I can confirm that front-line special forces numbers will remain at current levels and will not be cut below the 2010 level.
T6. I very much welcome the increase in UK defence exports, which employ hundreds of thousands of people around the country, many of whom are in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend update the House on progress on exports of the Typhoon fighter? (150758)
The Government have been at the forefront of export campaigns for Eurofighter Typhoon. Following success in securing export orders in Oman last December, we have been actively working with industry, the UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation and the Eurofighter partner nations to support potential Typhoon sales to a number of countries in the middle east, Europe and Asia—including Malaysia, where I led a delegation of 25 companies in the week before Easter. Typhoon exports help to sustain highly skilled jobs and engineering capability in the air sector, including that of the facility in my hon. Friend’s constituency which produces vital, full-mission simulators for Typhoon pilot training.
Ministers will be aware that subcontracted work on the aircraft carrier on the Clyde is drawing towards a close. What steps are being taken to ensure that work is found for those shipyards before steel starts to get cut on the Type 26?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, because we have discussed this directly in recent months, the Aircraft Carrier Alliance is continuing work on the programme for the construction of the existing Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier and its successor, Prince of Wales. Discussions with the company on how to mitigate the work gap prior to the order being given for the Type 26 frigate are continuing.
T7. I am sure that the Minister agrees that the new centre for the Devon Army cadet force in Newton Abbot is a demonstration of this Government’s continued support in maintaining strong local links with the armed forces. Will he consider a visit to my constituency to see for himself the valuable contribution that the corps provides to young people in our community? (150760)
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the excellent work that our cadet forces do for young people in all parts of the United Kingdom. I am delighted that the Army cadet force and the air training corps in Newton Abbot are making full use of their new joint centre. Only last week, the Secretary of State visited two cadet units in Glastonbury, and before Easter I visited a cadet unit at Kinnegar in Northern Ireland. Later in the year I hope to visit the commando training centre in Lympstone, and I will look into visiting the Newton Abbot cadets on the same trip.
The people of Chesterfield have tremendous affection and respect for 575 Field Squadron Royal Engineers reserve forces, based in Chesterfield. Notwithstanding the success of that squadron, which was given the freedom of the borough of Chesterfield last year, there will be considerable concern at recent reports that the level of reservists needs to increase by 66% for the Government to hit their targets. Are the Government confident that those targets will be hit?
As I have already made plain to the House, I am confident that we can meet those targets, but taking nothing for granted, this Friday I am going down to the new Army recruiting centre at Upavon to see the recruiting process at work for myself. I think that I will be even more confident when I get back.
T8. In drawing up plans for the return of military equipment from Afghanistan, what account has the Ministry of Defence taken of the equipment that the Afghan army will need to carry out its challenging duties in the future? (150761)
We have yet to decide on any gifting to the Afghan army, but obviously the Afghan army is our ally. We are proceeding on withdrawing equipment from Afghanistan as we withdraw numbers of personnel from the country, but we have yet to decide on anything about gifting.
Next year HMS Illustrious will be taken out of service. The Minister will know just how fond memories are of the work that was done at Rosyth dockyard. Will he meet me to discuss how we can best commemorate her withdrawal?
I hope that we can do better than to commemorate the withdrawal of HMS Illustrious and that it will be possible to come up with a scheme to save her for the nation. She is representative of a historic class of aircraft carrier, and we need, one way or another, to preserve her for generations to come.
One of the reasons the previous Government were able to run up a £38 billion gap between their budget and their forecast expenditure was the doing away with the annual defence review White Papers in 1997. What measures does my right hon. Friend have in place to make sure that the forthcoming defence budget stays honest in the light of his decade-long promise on defence expenditure?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We have implemented a number of measures internally, including a very tight control on new commitments, constant monitoring of budgets, and attention to this issue at the highest levels of the Department, including ministerial oversight. I am very confident that the defence budget, having been got into balance, will be kept in balance, however difficult the decisions that have to be made to ensure that.
As I intimated in response to an earlier question, I have met Dr Susan Atkins twice and we discussed her view of the operation of the service complaints system. As I said earlier, we are looking at how to improve our service complaints system and we hope to have more to say in the future. I hope that that will satisfy sub-lieutenant Mordaunt.
I would like to make a short statement about the arrangements for Lady Thatcher’s funeral on Wednesday. I have received a number of representations—direct and indirect, formal and informal—concerning how the House and Parliament as an institution might best mark this occasion. I have considered all of these, but concluded that the most appropriate means of indicating our sentiments would be for the chimes of Big Ben and the chimes of the Great Clock to be silent for the duration of the funeral proceedings. I have, therefore, made the necessary arrangements to achieve this. I believe that there can be a profound dignity and deep respect expressed in, and through, silence and I am sure that the House will agree.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As you know, Lady Thatcher held Parliament in great reverence in her time both in this House and in the other place. I am confident that this will be seen as a dignified and respectful gesture on the part of Parliament. I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, and I am confident that Lady Thatcher’s family will take it very much in that spirit and be hugely appreciative of what you have decided.
Heart Surgery (Leeds)
Following the deaths of 30 to 35 children at the Bristol royal infirmary between 1991 and 1995 and the subsequent inquiry, children’s heart surgery is rightly the subject of great public concern.
With respect to Leeds general infirmary, there are three issues that the House will want to be updated on: was it right to suspend children’s heart services at Leeds on 28 March; was the decision handled in the best way possible; and, given his public comments, is it appropriate for Professor Sir Roger Boyle to have a continuing role in the Safe and Sustainable review of children’s heart surgery?
First, was the right decision made? The answer is categorically yes. The principle of “first do no harm” must run through the very heart of the NHS. If there is evidence that patient safety is at risk, it is absolutely right that the NHS acts quickly and decisively to prevent harm to patients. However difficult or controversial, we must never repeat the mistakes made at both Mid Staffs and Bristol, where arguments over the quality of data prevented action that could have saved patients’ lives.
Secondly, was the decision handled properly? On 26 and 27 March, Sir Bruce Keogh, NHS England’s medical director, was given a range of critical information about the quality of care at Leeds: statistical data that indicated higher than expected mortality rates; concerns about staffing rotas; and further concerns from parents and a national charity about the way the most complex cases were referred. With the agreement of the LGI, Sir Bruce took the entirely appropriate decision to suspend children’s heart surgery while further investigations were made. The families were informed on the day the decision was taken to suspend services, 28 March.
On 29 March—Good Friday—the day that decision became public, I spoke with the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and my hon. Friends the Members for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) and for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) to inform them of the situation. My conclusion is that, on the basis of the information available to him, Sir Bruce behaved entirely properly. He was also right to authorise the restarting of surgery from 10 April for low-risk patients on the basis of more complete data and assurances from the trust.
The third question is whether, in the light of his recent comments, Professor Sir Roger Boyle can have a continuing role in the Safe and Sustainable process. Sir Roger is one of our leading heart surgeons. He did the right thing in informing Sir Bruce of his concerns over Leeds’ mortality data. He has also played an important role as an adviser to the Safe and Sustainable review of children’s heart services. However, it is the view of Sir Bruce Keogh, with which I concur fully, that Sir Roger’s comments to the media on 11 April could be seen as prejudging any future conclusions of that review. It is therefore right that Sir Roger plays no further role in its deliberations.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his answers. No one would disagree with the point that information that is provided about the safety of a unit should be investigated. However, the quality of the information and the source of the complaints raise serious questions about the proportionality of the action that was taken and, more importantly, about the motives of the complainants. Sir Roger Boyle was a key adviser to the Safe and Sustainable review, which proposed an illogical outcome for northern England. His recent actions and comments surely prove that the decision to close the Leeds unit was predetermined.
Sir Roger leaked data that were unverified to argue for the suspension of surgery—an action that was described as “appalling” by their author. The information was inaccurate and, when corrected, demonstrated that the Leeds unit was safe. In fact, it showed that it is in a similar position to the units at Guy’s and Alder Hey. Why did Sir Roger not recommend the suspension of surgery at those units? Is it because those are the ones that he and the Safe and Sustainable review recommended as designated centres?
Furthermore, on Friday, despite detailed scrutiny that proved that Leeds was safe, Sir Roger claimed that it was on the edge of acceptability and that he would not send his daughter there. Those comments demonstrated a clear bias against Leeds and were irresponsible in respect of parents whose children are facing surgery. In addition, one of the whistleblowers has been identified as a surgeon from the Newcastle unit, which is another example of vested interests.
The suspension of surgery and Sir Roger’s comments have caused huge anxiety and concern among patients and staff, and have hurt the reputation of the hospital, which it has taken years to build. I therefore ask the following questions of my right hon. Friend.
How can we have faith in the Safe and Sustainable review, given that its key adviser has behaved in such an appalling and biased manner? Despite the fact that he will no longer take any part in the review, the decisions remain. Does this matter not prove that Sir Roger acted in a predetermined manner? Is it not vital to put the patient’s interests first, rather than NHS politics? Does my right hon. Friend agree that Leeds has been treated disproportionately when compared with other units that have similar figures? Is he aware that there are reports of surgeons being anxious about providing data for fear of reprisals? Is there not an urgent need for the Independent Reconfiguration Panel to report to resolve the uncertainty that exists across the country with regard to children’s heart surgery? Is it not time to give serious consideration to the proposal that both Leeds and Newcastle should stay open, which is supported by clinicians and patients as it is in their best interests? Finally, will he pay tribute to the staff and patients at Leeds, who have acted with great dignity in the face of hostile criticism?
I do pay tribute to the staff at Leeds and to the families of patients. I recognise that this is an issue of huge concern. As my hon. Friend rightly says, they have behaved with great dignity in a difficult situation. I also pay tribute to him for the responsible way in which he has behaved in this difficult situation, as have many Leeds MPs.
My hon. Friend will understand, given that the NHS nationally was provided with data that suggested that mortality could be up to 2.75 times greater at that unit and given that there was a potentially busy holiday weekend ahead, when it did not know how complex the cases would be and when there were locums on the staff rota who may or may not have been up to the standard of the permanent staff, that Professor Sir Bruce Keogh had genuine concerns that led to his decision. But I hope the fact that surgery was restarted on 10 April will assuage my hon. Friend’s worry that the initial decision was linked to the Safe and Sustainable review—it was not; it was a concern about patient safety and because that concern has been addressed, surgery has restarted.
There were, however, issues about the quality of the data, which at least in part was because the hospital was not supplying data properly in the way it needed to. That was one reason why the mortality data were not as accurate and good as they should have been. Although I entirely agree that patient safety must always come first, and not NHS or national politics or whatever it may be, that also means that sometimes difficult decisions have to be taken. What happened at Mid Staffs, where we had a big argument about data that meant nothing happened for too long, and what happened originally at Bristol, where up to 35 children may have lost their lives, is a warning about the dangers of inaction. On this occasion, I think that overall the NHS got it right.
First, let me apologise to the House on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) who cannot be here today because he is in Liverpool attending the memorial service for victims of the Hillsborough disaster.
This situation has descended into yet another trademark Government shambles. Just 24 hours after the High Court announced that the decision to close the children’s cardiac unit at Leeds was “legally flawed”, Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust was effectively instructed to stop surgery. The timing of the decision was strange to say the least, but to quote the head of the central cardiac audit database:
“It rings of politics rather than proper process.”
We now know that the instruction was based on incomplete and unverified data, and that Dr Tony Salmon, president of the British Congenital Cardiac Association, was “very concerned” at the way the data were being used, and that any conclusions drawn from the data were “premature”. The Opposition are therefore pleased that this urgent question has been granted as the House clearly deserves some answers.
First, the Secretary of State needs to outline to the House exactly when he was informed that NHS England had concerns about the centre, and say whether he gave his approval to suspend surgery there. If so, was he satisfied that the data presented were accurate and had clinical support? On the issue of data, why did it take this recent episode at Leeds for the information to be released into the public domain—information that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), and others, had asked to be released for some time?
Secondly, does the Secretary of State accept that the suspension of surgery, with all the consequent anxiety that it caused patients and staff, was at best a mistake and at worst an irresponsible and disproportionate action? Thirdly, does he accept that the timing of the decision to suspend surgery so soon after the High Court’s ruling caused a great deal of suspicion in Leeds and gave the distinct impression that it was a political decision and not based on clinical evidence? Finally—this point goes beyond Leeds—the Health Secretary’s record so far has failed to inspire confidence in the process of reconfiguration. Will he therefore conduct an urgent investigation into Leeds and how this happened, and consider what lessons can be learned from this unedifying episode for the children’s cardiac review and future reviews?
We owe it to the dedicated staff who work in our NHS to ensure that whatever disagreements we may have in Westminster, and whatever our politics, we do not hinder their ability to provide high-quality care to patients. We also owe it to patients and their families not to add to the anxiety and stress of undergoing treatment. On both those counts the Government have failed, and I hope that when the Secretary of State returns to the Dispatch Box, he will have the decency to apologise and start answering these very serious questions.
I am afraid the hon. Gentleman has let the Labour party down with the total inadequacy of that response. He spoke of an irresponsible and disproportionate decision, but I ask him to reflect on that as someone who would like to be a Health Minister. Would he seriously have wanted anything different to happen? If the NHS nationally is informed of data that show that mortality rates at a particular hospital could be up to three times higher than they should be, would he sanction the continuation of surgery, or would he say, “We need to get to the bottom of the statistics before deciding whether there will be any more operations”? If he is saying that he would have wanted surgery to continue, I put it to him that he and his party have learned nothing from the lessons of Bristol and nothing from the lessons of Mid Staffs. I did not authorise the decision, but wholeheartedly supported it because it was an operational decision made by NHS England. It is right that such decisions are made by clinicians, who understand such things better than we politicians do.
On reconfigurations, the hon. Gentleman’s party closed or downgraded 12 A and Es and nine maternity units in its period in office. The shadow Health Minister, the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), has said that Labour would not fall into the “easy politics” of opposing every single reconfiguration, but that is exactly what the Opposition are doing. It is not just easy politics; it is what Tony Blair last week called the “comfort zone” of being a “repository for people’s anger” rather than having the courage to argue for difficult reforms.
My right hon. Friend mentioned at the outset of his response three principles, the first of which was to do no harm. Following discussions that he and I have had—I am sure he has had such discussions with our hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) and no doubt other Leicester and Leicestershire MPs—does he agree that there is a read-across from Leeds to Glenfield, where we have the Leicester children’s heart unit? It is unquestionably a unit of international repute and certainly one of national repute. The death rates for that hospital, which deals with particularly difficult patients and highly complicated operations, are right at the top. I urge him to learn from the Leeds fiasco—I do not put the fiasco at his door—that the Glenfield hospital should be preserved for the good of the nation and of the people of the east midlands, so that we do no harm.
I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for his question. I am waiting to hear advice from the Independent Reconfiguration Panel on its assessment of the Safe and Sustainable review. I will wait until I get that advice before making any decisions, and in particular before making any decisions on Glenfield, Leeds or any other hospital involved.
It is important to recognise, however, that there two separate issues: the first is the mortality rates at particular hospitals, but the second is whether we can improve mortality rates overall by concentrating surgery in fewer hospitals. I will wait to hear from the IRP on both before making any decisions.
The Secretary of State will be well aware of the deep disquiet in Leeds about what has happened to the children’s heart surgery unit in my constituency, and I am grateful to him for the conversation we had on Good Friday. Given that the High Court has decided that the decision to close Leeds is unlawful, and given that we have now had it confirmed that the Leeds unit was safe before and is safe still, when will he be able to reassure worried parents of very sick children that the future of the Leeds unit is safe?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the constructive conversation we had on Good Friday about what I entirely agree is an extremely difficult issue for the families and for the staff at the LGI. My intention is to try to resolve the matter as quickly as possible. I obviously cannot comment on what view I will take while legal proceedings are under way and while I wait for advice from the IRP, but I agree with him about the uncertainty, which I would like to resolve as quickly as possible. He would want me to be guided by what is in the best interests of his constituents and people across the country who need children’s heart surgery.
I, too, thank the Secretary of State for his private phone call to me, but we should have heard from him on this fiasco before today in response to an urgent question. I have to say that his response has simply not been good enough, considering what has happened. To correct one thing that he said, it was not with the agreement of the LGI that services were suspended. Clearly, Sir Bruce Keogh marched into the LGI at 8 o’clock in the morning and said that if surgery was not suspended, people would be sacked. That was no way to behave even if the data were accurate, but Sir Bruce has now backtracked and admitted the data passed to him by his friend Sir Roger Boyle were not accurate.
The decision to close children’s heart surgery in a safe unit, which is what we now know Leeds always was, puts children at greater risk. To make a decision of that nature that is incorrect is simply unacceptable. Will the Secretary of State do what is now clearly necessary and have a full investigation of this fiasco, including the conduct, judgment and motivations of senior NHS officials involved?
I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that if, as he has alleged consistently in the media, this was some kind of political ploy linked to Safe and Sustainable, we would not have reopened children’s heart surgery in Leeds on 10 April as we did. I spoke to him at the time and told him that it was my hope that operations would be able to resume as soon as possible and that we would get to the bottom of the data to find that the concerns were unnecessary because the unit was safe. In the end, that is what happened.
It would have been utterly irresponsible for Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, in view of the evidence he was faced with—including incomplete data that the hospital had not supplied in the way that it should have done—not to ask the hospital to suspend surgery. That would have been taking a risk with the lives of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and the people of Leeds in a way that would have been wholly inappropriate. The NHS needs to move in a totally different direction on patient safety, and this is a good example of the NHS medical director behaving promptly and properly in exactly the way he should.
In his opening statement, the Secretary of State mentioned that one of Sir Bruce Keogh’s concerns was the complaints made by families in Yorkshire about the treatment their children had received at Leeds children’s heart surgery unit. If there had been those concerns, does the Secretary of State not think that over the three years of the Safe and Sustainable review at least one complaint would have been made via Members of Parliament in Yorkshire or local media outlets? The fact that no complaints were received over three years surely tells him that generally the families were very satisfied with the way their children were treated. Will he now apologise to the families of Yorkshire for the closure between 28 March and 10 April?
The apology would have been due to those families if Sir Bruce Keogh had not acted promptly in the face of data that showed the possibility of a serious problem at that hospital. He was right to react promptly and to get to the bottom of those data. I put it to the hon. Gentleman that if he had been a Health Minister at the time he would not have wanted the NHS medical director to do anything other than give absolute priority to patient safety. That is what happened. Like the hon. Gentleman, I am delighted that it was possible for operations to resume on 10 April.
However we got to this point, I urge my right hon. Friend—on behalf of one of the leading campaigners for Leeds heart surgery, my constituent Lois Brown—to do everything he can to ensure that we move as quickly as possible to a decision on Leeds, based on the full facts and made in a transparent manner.
I can absolutely assure my hon. Friend that that is my intention. There is legal due process—legal proceedings are under way—and he would want that to be respected. I am also anxious to read and digest the report of the Independent Reconfiguration Panel. I would like that all to happen as quickly as possible within the law, so that we can conclude this matter and remove the great uncertainty that I know is unsettling so many people.
Does the Secretary of State not accept that Sir Roger’s unacceptable remarks, which came 24 hours after the court decision confirmed the review as flawed, unfair and unlawful, have dented severely the credibility of the Safe and Sustainable review in the eyes of the public? The Secretary of State has suggested that he will wait until the configuration board comes back with a recommendation, but does he not think that it would have been better if he had come to the Chamber to tell hon. Members and the public what steps he would be taking to restore credibility to the Safe and Sustainable review?
I think that NHS England has taken firm action: it has said that Professor Boyle will not take any further part in Safe and Sustainable. However, the hon. Gentleman will understand that as the review is currently subject to legal proceedings, I cannot comment any further. As the final decision will end up on my desk, I want to wait until the legal proceedings are complete and I have the report of the IRP to consider before I make that decision. I stress what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith): I would like it to conclude as quickly as possible. I know that is in the best interests of the people of Leeds.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. NHS bosses are right to take seriously any concerns regarding patient safety, particularly in the light of the Mid Staffs crisis. There has been significant anger and confusion locally surrounding the chaos of the decision to close the unit. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the use of data, which are incomplete and described by the doctors that produced them as not fit for purpose, has led to precipitate and disproportionate actions that have worried patients and their families? We have, after all, a culture in which NHS managers are extremely familiar with handling data. They must have known that precipitate actions would come from looking at leaked partial data.
I entirely understand the concern of families, staff and doctors at the LGI. I simply say to my hon. Friend that the reason the data were not complete was because the hospital had failed to supply them. There is, therefore, an important warning to all hospitals to ensure that they supply accurate and timely information on their surgery survival rates.
Does the Secretary of State still accept the underlying premise of the Safe and Sustainable review, which is that there should be a smaller number of centres of excellence for children’s specialist heart surgery? If he still accepts that premise, will he say something to the House today about his timetable for bringing the issue, which has gone on for 12 years, to a conclusion?
I certainly accept the premise, on the basis of considerable clinical evidence, that for complex surgery greater specialisation leads to higher survival rates. On whether that is the right thing to do in this particular case, I would like to wait for the outcome of the legal process and the advice of the Independent Reconfiguration Panel, but I will just say this: I would like to conclude this as quickly as possible. I am subject, rightly, to legal due process. Families who feel strongly want this to be concluded quickly, but they also want to know that it has been concluded fairly, and I think that that underlies a lot of the concerns raised by Members this afternoon. The timetable is not within my gift but what is within my gift in terms of timings I will try to expedite as quickly as possible.
Does my right hon. Friend recognise that whatever challenge there may be to the evidence relating to Leeds, there has been no challenge to the evidence of the successful outcomes in Newcastle? Can he assure me that clinical evidence will predominate in his final decision?
I can absolutely give my right hon. Friend that assurance. It is very important, when dealing with very difficult decisions of this nature, that we are led by clinical evidence on what will save the most lives. We have an absolute responsibility to all of our constituents to ensure that clinical evidence informs the final decision.
I was contacted by a mother whose son’s operation was cancelled, and it had also been delayed on two previous occasions for other reasons. Given this unedifying situation, in which the two leading clinicians who advise on these areas for the NHS have lowered themselves to saying whether they would send their child to this unit for an operation, what advice should I give to my constituent?
I am certain that the right hon. Gentleman’s constituent would not want surgery to proceed anywhere in the NHS if there are question marks over its safety. Of course, when such decisions are made in a very short period of time, it is greatly discomfiting and worrying for the many families involved, who have enough to worry about anyway—I completely understand that. He should remember, however, how we in the NHS let down the families in Bristol and Mid Staffs by not acting when data suggested that there might be a problem. It is better to act quickly and decisively and then, if possible, to resume surgery, as happened on this occasion, than not to act at all and to find out later that we have been responsible for much, much worse outcomes.
On behalf of right hon. and hon. Members across Yorkshire, may I use this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) for how he has worked in a consensual, cross-party and non-political way on this issue?
Did the Secretary of State not find it at least odd that the concerns about the Leeds unit came to light within hours of the High Court’s ruling against the decision to close the Leeds unit?
Whenever he receives information, the medical director is under an absolute obligation to act. What he did was absolutely correct: he said that he would look at the data and get to the bottom of them and that if it turned out that the data were not as accurate as they should have been, surgery would resume. That is exactly what happened.
A baby born with a heart condition in Sheffield who needs a complex intervention would normally go to Leeds. One of the concerns about the Safe and Sustainable review was that children from my constituency would have had to travel further. The decision to suspend the Leeds unit created that very situation. The Secretary of State needs to acknowledge that children could, as it turns out, have been put at risk unnecessarily by closing a unit that was in fact safe, because they would have had to travel further, which for very ill babies is a risk in itself. At the heart of this has been a lack of transparency and a failure to put information into the public domain. I have had to table parliamentary questions to try to get information about what is happening. Nobody wants an unsafe situation. Will the Secretary of State now commit to complete transparency in respect of all the information?
This situation arose because of the much greater data transparency and because the Government have been encouraging people to come forward if they have concerns about things going wrong. As a result, we were presented with data on the basis of which the NHS director decided that the safe and sensible thing to do was to suspend surgery while we got to the bottom of these data, which could have demonstrated some very serious outcomes. We need to take good advice from clinicians about the balance of risk. Yes, there might be some risks with people having to travel further for the surgery, but surely the risks are much greater if potentially unsafe operations are allowed to continue. That was why, on that balance of risk, it was decided to suspend surgery at Leeds until we could get to the bottom of whether the data were right.
In the week after surgery at the heart unit was suspended, my wife and I met a constituent in Rothwell whose child was due to go in for surgery. She was completely and utterly exhausted and overwrought with worry and concern. Many people were concerned not just about the suspension, but about the distances that they would have had to travel if Leeds had not reopened. That possibility, which we had previously mentioned, became a reality. Sir Roger has now been suspended from the review, but he had already reported. In order that we can take one positive out of what has happened in the past couple of weeks, will the Secretary of State ensure that the distances people have to travel are now taken seriously in the review?
That is exactly the purpose of a review. Let me reassure my hon. Friend that before I make any decision, I will be getting on my desk independent advice from the Independent Reconfiguration Panel. One thing that that advice does is weigh up the balance of advantage between the greater distances that people have to travel and the advantages of specialisation for complex surgery. My heart goes out, as I know his does, to people who were made extremely worried by what happened over Easter at Leeds. However, he will also understand that if there are concerns, the last thing his constituents would want is an NHS that did nothing because of an argument about data. The right thing to do was to get to the bottom of the data, and I am sure that his constituents are as delighted as he and I are that surgery has now resumed.
What does the Secretary of State think of the opinion of one of my constituents, who said to me over the weekend, “What a right old mess all this has been”? The fact is that it has been a mess. I have supported the all-party campaign on the basis that we go for the best clinically safe outcomes for all my constituents. My constituents have gone to Leeds general infirmary, as have my children. It is a hospital of great renown, in which the people of Yorkshire have tremendous faith, but in today’s statement the Secretary of State has two or three times put us in the same frame as Mid Staffordshire and Bristol. There is no question but that Leeds general infirmary is a fine institution. Will he put it on the record today that this is not the same sort of case? This is a fine hospital struggling to deliver under a cloud that has been over it for three or four years.
What I say to the hon. Gentleman is that it is a fine hospital and a safe hospital, but data were presented to the NHS medical director that said that mortality rates there for children’s heart surgery were two and three quarter times higher than should be expected. In that situation, there is of course a great deal of inconvenience and worry caused by a decision to suspend surgery, but I would rather have that inconvenience and worry than continue with surgery when we have not got to the bottom of whether there is any truth in those data. That must be the right thing to do for the people who are due to have operations at that hospital.
Parents whose children face major surgery are already particularly anxious and distressed, and that is before an unseemly public dispute breaks out between the medical experts that they rely on. This also highlights the fact that the investigation has been going on for far too long. The uncertainty is unacceptable. May I urge my right hon. Friend to do everything possible to bring the matter to a speedy conclusion?
I know the Secretary of State likes dancing, but his fancy footsteps today are doing him no favours. The position in Leeds is that the public have lost confidence after what has taken place. Sir Roger Boyle has condemned the hospital and the Secretary of State has not condemned him for the comments he has made. Can he do that now?
Let me be clear: I do not want anyone in the NHS who has concerns about mortality to sit on those concerns, so if Sir Roger had concerns, he was right to raise them with Professor Sir Bruce Keogh. Sir Roger also made comments that suggested that he might have prejudged the outcome of Safe and Sustainable, so I think it is right that he does not take any further role in that, and we will be getting independent advice on whether Safe and Sustainable made the right recommendations, which I shall consider before making any decision. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that there is no fancy footwork. I am absolutely clear that if anyone, anywhere in the NHS, has concerns about safety and if the view of the NHS medical director is that we need to investigate those concerns and, in the meantime, suspend surgery at that institution, I will support the NHS medical director. That is the right thing to do and I think the hon. Gentleman would do exactly the same if he were in my shoes.
This whole thing stinks; it really does. We now know that the unit is perfectly safe, which means that, for a period of time, children’s health was put at risk while it was closed. That is the seriousness of the situation. The decision was not made after careful, thoughtful consideration of authoritative, verified data; it was a kneejerk reaction to what must, in all probability, have been malicious allegations made against the unit. We have been told over and over again to ask ourselves what Sir Roger could have done, other than close the unit, but what did he actually do? That is what we need to find out, and the matter needs to be investigated. We know what the context was, following the court case, and we need to find out what follow-up work he did in that context to verify the allegations before he took that risk with the health of young children.
There are some risks, of course, in suspending surgery, but when we have mortality data such as those that Professor Sir Bruce Keogh was faced with, there are also considerable risks involved in doing nothing in response. The decision was taken not to close the children’s heart unit but to suspend surgery until he could get to the bottom of whether there was any truth in the data. He had a very difficult decision to make, given that situation, but I think he made the right decision.
Parents of very poorly children in the Scunthorpe area who have been very effectively supported by the Leeds unit have been dismayed to hear what has been happening over the past month or so. The Secretary of State has given us clear answers this afternoon, and I thank him for that. He has said that there will be a resolution to the Safe and Sustainable review as soon as possible. Will that be in 2013 or at some point beyond that?
I very much hope that this does not go beyond 2013, but I am afraid that that is not in my hands, because of legal due process. Legal proceedings are under way at the moment and I have to consider the advice of the Independent Reconfiguration Panel, but I want to stress to the hon. Gentleman, as I have to many hon. Members, my determination to resolve the situation as quickly as possible.
Children living in Thirsk and Malton will be operated on either at Leeds hospital or at Newcastle hospital. What is becoming apparent in this and other debates on the health service is the desire of parents and other family members to have their loved ones—young children in this case—operated on as close as possible to where they live, whereas clinicians and the Government seem, at every stage of the NHS reforms, to be making decisions based on clinical excellence. This is a debate that needs to be had.
I agree with my hon. Friend. There are two types of reason for people going into hospital. With geriatric care, for example, there are clear advantages in someone being treated as near as possible to their home. All other things being equal, it makes sense for people to be treated where it is easy for friends and family to visit them, as that can aid recuperation and convalescence. When more complex surgery is required, however, there is clinical evidence that mortality rates are better if we specialise surgery in a fewer number of centres. That is the debate that we are having about children’s heart surgery, and I hope to resolve the matter as quickly as possible.
Given that the Safe and Sustainable review is being dogged by so many problems, and given the inaccuracies and the prejudice against Leeds in particular, has the Secretary of State thought about scrapping the whole process?
That is the subject of legal proceedings at the moment, and I want to ensure that we have a process that is fair and that is recognised to be fair by all the people who are affected by this possible decision. I therefore want to ensure that the decision will be judicially robust, but I also want to get independent advice from the IRP before I make my final decision. If that means that it takes longer to get to a decision, then I am afraid that that might be the case, but the most important thing is to get to a decision that is fair and that is recognised to be so.
It is right that such decisions should be made on the basis of data, but those data must be more reliable. Such decisions are made in this way up and down the country on maternity and accident and emergency units, for example. How will the Secretary of State ensure that such data are reliable and robust, that they can be challenged, and that such situations can be dealt with far more quickly than has been the case in Leeds?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. At the heart of this is a change happening in the NHS, where heart surgery is leading the way and we are discovering that we can make dramatic improvements to mortality rates. It has happened in heart surgery, where we have moved from being one of the worst performers in Europe to one of the best, because of the collection of risk-adjusted data. That has now been extended to cancer outcomes and to a total of 10 specialities. We shall gradually collect those data over the next two years, which will allow peer review in a way that cannot normally happen. It is a big change and part of the issue was that the hospital in Leeds did not realise how seriously the data would be taken, which may have meant that it did not supply as complete data as it should have, and that led to the problem. There is a big change, but also a big opportunity for the NHS to improve its outcomes.
I want to reinforce entirely the point put to the Secretary of State by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier) a few moments ago. Safe and Sustainable made recommendations about Leeds and about closing children’s heart surgery at Leicester, but in recent days published data show that Leicester has one of the lowest mortality rates. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that the Independent Reconfiguration Panel will fully take into account those data published just a few days ago?
We have seen an extraordinary sequence of events that have unnecessarily tarnished the reputation of what the Secretary of State described as a fine hospital, and caused enormous anxiety to families across Yorkshire and the wider region. Does the Secretary of State not agree therefore that we need a full inquiry into how the decision was taken?
I think the most important thing is properly to establish the truth of the data and then to make sure that any lessons learned from that are reflected in decisions made about the Safe and Sustainable Review, so that the influence of mortality data on any decisions in Safe and Sustainable is based on proper analysis of those data. That is certainly something we will learn from.
G8 Foreign Ministers
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the meeting of G8 Foreign Ministers in London last week, which also allows me to update the House on international events over the recess.
The theme of the meeting was preventing and resolving conflict, and dealing with its consequences. There were important agreements in five areas that the UK had established as priorities.
The G8 agreed to support the re-engagement of international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, with Somalia, so it can invest in its economy, and welcomed the Somalia conference, which will be held in London on 7 May. The Ministers endorsed the Burmese Government’s proposals for responsible investment to support political and economic progress, while urging peace and reconciliation to end ethnic and religious conflicts. On cyberspace, we agreed to share best practice and build up the capacity of other countries to secure their networks effectively. The UK’s G8 presidency this year is being used to help create economic opportunities in countries in transition in the middle east and north Africa, particularly for women and young people. The Ministers endorsed our programme to promote investment, support enterprise, and work with Arab countries on the return of stolen assets. The G8 agreed a landmark declaration on preventing sexual violence in conflict, which I will return to shortly.
We also had extensive talks on pressing international issues. In Syria, we face worsening conflict and extreme humanitarian suffering. Well over 70,000 people have died, a truly horrific number; 5.5 million people are in desperate humanitarian need, and there are now 1.3 million refugees in neighbouring countries—a quarter of a million more than when I last spoke to the House on the subject only last month. The UK is deeply concerned that the UN relief effort is critically underfunded, and that only 34% of the $1.5 billion humanitarian appeal has so far been provided, even though the need will become far worse if the conflict continues. The G8 agreed immediate priorities of increasing humanitarian access inside Syria, ensuring that donors provide the funding they have promised, and the need to support stability in host countries.
The G8 Ministers reaffirmed the view that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would demand a serious international response. The UK is increasingly concerned that there is evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. These allegations must be fully and urgently investigated. We welcome the UN Secretary-General’s announcement of an investigation into the allegations, and call again on the Syrian regime to co-operate fully and allow the investigation unfettered access to all areas. They should take heed that the world is watching, and those who order the use of chemical weapons, or who participate in their use, must be held to account.
We also agreed that a Syrian-led political transition is urgently needed, based on the principles of the Geneva communiqué. The opposition has stated that it is open to dialogue and we are supporting its efforts to prepare for political transition. The Syrian Government must demonstrate that they are ready to enter negotiations in good faith. We are calling on Russia to work with us to establish a genuine political effort on that basis.
I, along with my American and French counterparts, held talks with the Prime Minister designate and two vice-presidents of the Syrian National Coalition ahead of the G8. We discussed how the coalition can best represent the interests of all Syria’s communities and uphold human rights, and how we can work together to increase services and humanitarian assistance inside Syria.
The UK is determined to do more to support the Syrian National Coalition. Our aim is to bring about a political transition by building the credibility and capability of the moderate opposition and increasing pressure on the regime. The package of non-lethal assistance, including protected vehicles and body armour, that I announced last month is now being shipped to the region. As I said during my previous statement to the House, we have to be prepared to do even more to help to save lives. Our policy on Syria cannot be static in the face of this growing calamity.
As the Prime Minister said last month, we have taken no decision that we would like to send arms to the Syrian opposition, but the UK and France argue that we will need further amendments to the EU arms embargo, or even to lift it altogether. As things stand, we need greater flexibility if we decide that urgent action is necessary, for example in response to a specific incident or continued grave deterioration on the ground, or to create the conditions for a successful political transition. I will discuss that with the Foreign Ministers of other key countries in the Friends of Syria Group in Istanbul on Saturday, with EU Foreign Ministers in Luxembourg on Monday, and in further international meetings next month.
The G8 Ministers also reviewed the threat to international security from North Korea. We condemned its aggressive rhetoric, the announcement that it would reopen the nuclear facility at Yongbyon, and its development of nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, breaching its international obligations. We urged North Korea to engage in credible and authentic multilateral talks on denuclearisation, to abide by its obligations under all relevant UN Security Council resolutions, to abandon all its weapons programmes and to refrain from further provocative acts.
All G8 Ministers were clear that North Korea’s current posture will lead only to further isolation. We emphasised our willingness to take further significant measures if North Korea conducts another missile launch or nuclear test. I discussed North Korea in detail with the Japanese Foreign Minister in the margins of the G8 and spoke to the South Korean Foreign Minister this morning. I also welcome Secretary Kerry’s visit to the region at the weekend. I have laid a written ministerial statement today on these developments and the action that the Government are taking.
The G8 also discussed the recent E3 plus 3 talks on Iran’s nuclear programme and the disappointing outcome. Tehran’s position falls short of what is needed for a diplomatic breakthrough. We will continue the twin-track approach of sanctions and negotiations, but the G8 was clear that the window for diplomacy will not remain open for ever.
We also had very good discussions on the middle east peace process, strongly welcoming Secretary Kerry’s recent visits to the region and the US commitment to finding a just, lasting and comprehensive peace. Both sides must show bold political leadership and refrain from actions that threaten the viability of a two-state solution.
I was delighted that the G8 Foreign Ministers agreed a major declaration on preventing sexual violence in conflict, which is the first of its kind and the result of a year of effort and negotiations by the United Kingdom. I pay tribute to the special representative of the UN Secretary-General on sexual violence, Zainab Bangura, and to UN special envoy for refugees, Angelina Jolie, who has worked with me to develop this initiative from the beginning—[Interruption.] And very good work it has been.
The G8 has declared, for the first time, that rape and serious sexual violence in conflict constitute grave breaches of the Geneva convention. G8 members have the responsibility to search for, prosecute or transfer for trial individuals accused of such crimes, regardless of their nationality and wherever they are in the world. The G8 committed itself to the development of a comprehensive international protocol on the investigation and documentation of rape and sexual violence in conflict to increase the number of successful prosecutions. We will now take the lead on developing this protocol with experts from all over the world.
We declared that there should never be any amnesty for sexual violence in peace agreements and pledged to review the doctrine and training that we provide to our own national military and police, and to peacekeeping troops of other nations. The declaration also includes vital commitments on women and children’s rights, and the protection of women human rights defenders.
The G8 endorsed the deployment of international experts to help build up the judicial, investigative and legal capacity of other countries, which the United Kingdom is already doing. Our team of over 70 experts has been deployed to Bosnia, the Syria border and Libya, and will carry out further deployments this year to those three countries, as well as to South Sudan, Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The G8 Ministers announced £23 million in new funding to back these efforts, including £10 million from the UK.
Taken together, that was an historic step, marking a wholly new international effort to shatter the myths about sexual violence in conflict and end the culture of impunity. We will now take this campaign to the United Nations. I will lead a debate at the UN Security Council during our presidency in June, and it will be one of my top priorities for the UN General Assembly in September. In all these areas, the G8 Foreign Ministers addressed the crises of today, but also, as I believe strongly we must always do, addressed ourselves to improving the condition of humanity.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it. The G8 Foreign Ministers meeting covered a range of subjects, as the Foreign Secretary made clear in his statement, but I will focus on Syria and North Korea.
First, however, it would be remiss of me to do anything other than express my personal congratulations to the Foreign Secretary on his leadership on the issue of sexual violence in conflict zones. His steps to bring the international community together to tackle the horrific use of sexual violence in conflict have rightly received warm support from Members in all parts of the House. I also pay tribute to the civil society groups that have campaigned tirelessly on the issue, and on whose significant efforts the Foreign Secretary’s engagement has been built.
The Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have speculated in recent weeks about the need to ensure that the Syrian rebels are armed and trained. The Foreign Secretary will be aware that the G8 communiqué made no reference to international efforts to stem the flow of arms into Syria, but did he raise the transfer of weapons at the meeting or, indeed, in any bilateral meetings with G8 Foreign Ministers in attendance, in particular with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov? In his statement, the Foreign Secretary stated that the UK has “taken no decision” on arming the Syrian rebels, but in the Liaison Committee on 12 March the Prime Minister struck a rather different tone, as he was keen to stress that the UK
“might have to do things in our own way.”
He added that the UK was “still an independent country”.
Will the Foreign Secretary clarify those earlier remarks from the Prime Minister, and will he further clarify whether the Government’s approach to arming the rebels has altered in any way in the light of recent evidence of radical Islamist militants operating on the ground? That includes the al-Nusra Front, which only last week confirmed its affiliation to al-Qaeda. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary will be aware of a letter that I sent to him on 20 March raising questions about the British Government’s decision to
“fund training to help armed groups understand their responsibilities and obligations under international law”.—[Official Report, 6 March 2013; Vol. 559, c. 963.]
I have not yet received a reply from the Foreign Secretary, so in the light of the upcoming deadline for the renewal of the EU arms embargo, will he kindly confirm his intention to reply to that letter?
I also welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary said that one of the immediate priorities arising from the meeting was ensuring that donors provide the funding that they have promised for Syria. Will he confirm whether all the states represented at the G8 Foreign Ministers meeting last week have provided all the funding that they have promised?
A key priority on Syria as we approach the G8 summit must be to build influence with Russia, and encourage it to stop its continued sponsorship of the Assad regime. Given that, I found it a little curious that the Foreign Secretary restricted his observations about discussions with Russia to a single line in a statement of six pages. Will he clarify what, in the light of the final communiqué from the Foreign Ministers meeting, is the British Government’s strategy to help to bring an end to the violence in Syria? If it is the Geneva accords, what practical steps have been taken to secure the anticipated negotiations?
Finally, I should like to turn to the points made by the Foreign Secretary on the ongoing situation in the Korean peninsula. We support the agreement reached by Foreign Ministers following the G8 meeting to condemn the continued aggressive and provocative actions of the North Korean regime. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that China’s role as an historic supporter of North Korea is key to defusing the crisis, so will he join me in welcoming its constructive engagement on the issue to date?
The efforts of others will not absolve the North Koreans of their own responsibilities, so does the Foreign Secretary agree that the responsibility is now on the North Korean leadership to accept an open offer that has been extended from the international community to initiate meaningful negotiations in relation to this troubling and dangerous situation?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his questions and for his strong endorsement of the initiative that I have been pursuing on preventing sexual violence in conflict. This is a cross-party issue that is of concern to people in all parties in the UK, and we can all enthusiastically get behind it. We are, as he said, building on the efforts of people in civil society, many NGOs and people who have already worked at the United Nations for some years, but it is time for the most powerful, active Governments of the world to get behind the initiative, make major international diplomatic progress, and show that we can change the situation on the ground. I will keep the House updated throughout the year on our efforts.
On Syria, the right hon. Gentleman asked about discussions on the transfer of weapons. We had a long discussion about Syria at the G8 and with the Russian Foreign and Defence Ministers when they made a bilateral visit here on 13 March. So in the past month we have had two substantial rounds of discussions with Russian Ministers—indeed, three rounds in just over a month. Of course we discussed the continued flow of weapons to the regime in Syria. Part of the problem is that the regime can continue to receive weapons, but many moderate figures in opposition groups say that they cannot obtain them.
What the Prime Minister said last month about the possibility that we might have to do more is very much what I am saying here and what I said in my last statement—that our policy cannot be static. He said, and I repeated in the statement, that we have not taken any decision about arming the opposition ourselves. There are legitimate arguments against that. They have sometimes been put in the House, and the right hon. Gentleman has raised some of them. If we were to take that step, we would have to assure ourselves to the maximum degree possible not only of the international legal position, but that the weapons could not be misused by others for whom they were not intended. Those are major considerations.
It must also be a major consideration that we currently face a humanitarian catastrophe, with tens of thousands of people being killed and millions in desperate need. A regime that is not bringing the conflict to an end can get weapons and extremists can get weapons, but people who are in favour of a free, democratic and moderate Syria find it very difficult to do so. We all have to ask ourselves how long we can go on with that situation if the conflict continues and if it continues to get worse. Of course, what we need most of all is a diplomatic and political settlement. Giving additional assistance to the National Coalition is part of putting pressure on the regime to come to a political settlement.
To expand on our discussions with Russia about that, we have discussed with our Russian colleagues several times in the past month how to try to come together to bring about the Geneva communiqué—a transitional Government drawn from regime and opposition, with full executive authority—but no one in other western or Arab nations, nor the UK, has yet succeeded in agreeing with Russia the mechanism to bring that about. A United Nations Security Council resolution would, in our view, be the appropriate mechanism, but Russia and China have vetoed that in the past and would do so again under current circumstances. It could come about through each of the countries involved—through us, the United States, the Russians and others—putting pressure on all the parties involved to negotiate that. We are ready to do so. We are always doing that with the national coalition, but sufficient pressure has not been put on the regime to do that, so we will always work hard on a diplomatic and negotiated way forward. In the absence of that, we have to do what we can to save lives and to try to make a resolution of the conflict more likely.
I agree with the thrust of the right hon. Gentleman’s questions about China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. China’s position of agreeing to UN Security Council resolution 2094, which put additional sanctions on North Korea, is welcome. I will discuss that with the new Chinese leadership over the next couple of days to see how we can work together on it. The message should be clear, as it is from the whole House and from the whole UN Security Council: North Korea has a choice, and with the choice it is making at the moment it will end up with a country that is even more broken and even more isolated, even from China. It is not too late to make an alternative choice; the path of multilateral negotiations and greater engagement with the international community is still open.
I share the Foreign Secretary’s loathing of the violence of the Syrian regime, but will he comment briefly on the opposition forces? To what extent do they believe in democracy, freedom and human rights, and how well armed are they already?
The answer, of course, is a mixture. I believe that the National Coalition, which we met last week—we met the Prime Minister designate, two of the Vice-Presidents and, indeed, the President, Mr al-Khatib, whom I talked with on the phone—is sincere in its commitment to democracy and human rights and to the inclusion of Syria’s very varied communities in the country’s future. I have met them and discussed that a sufficient number of times to be sure of that answer. There are extremist groups, however, and the longer this goes on the greater the risk that they will gain more support. Estimates of the number of fighters in the al-Nusra Front, which the shadow Foreign Secretary referred to, are in the low thousands, but that is still thousands. The number of fighters supporting various opposition groups is likely to be in six figures—more than 100,000. Although that is proportionately small, we must nevertheless take that seriously, which is why we argue that we have to give more practical support to the moderate democratic opposition so that the focus of opposition in Syria does not become the more extreme groups.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and commend all the efforts for peace in Korea and Syria and the progress that has been made in combating sexual violence in conflict. I think that all Members on both sides of the House will be absolutely horrified that 66% of pledged UN aid, which is vital for UN agencies and the Red Crescent, has not been provided. Will he outline for Members, perhaps by placing a paper in the Library, which of the countries that have pledged amounts have provided it and which have not?
I will consider that. The hon. Gentleman will understand that sometimes there is a delicate diplomacy in naming and shaming on pledges. It is necessary first to get the facts absolutely straight, because there are countries that have disbursed money, countries that have allocated money but are awaiting the details of the projects they will spend it on, and other countries that have done neither, so the picture is quite complex. However, I will look at the idea. After all, we should be as transparent as we can about the data.
I neglected to answer the question the shadow Foreign Secretary asked on whether all G8 nations have disbursed all the money they pledged. The answer is no, although they are better than most at delivering the money. I think that in the main they have allocated it to particular countries and projects. I will consider how best I can provide the House will more information, although my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary can provide the House with more information on that that is consistent with delivering on the pledges made.
I am sure that the whole House would wish to express its appreciation to my right hon. Friend for finding space in his busy diary to spend time with Angelina Jolie, and to good effect, as we have heard.
Returning to the question of Syria, I maintain my reservations about arms supplies, as my right hon. Friend would expect, but I recently met a senior Jordanian official who went to great lengths to express to me the impact of the refugee problem on Jordan. When there is a country that is fragile politically and even more fragile economically, a failure on the part of those who have made pledges to provide assistance for the refugee problem becomes more acute. The truth is that their failure is nothing short of disgraceful. Does my right hon. Friend agree?
Yes, I do. The official number of refugees now in Jordan is 424,000. To put that into perspective, that would, on a rough calculation, be equivalent to about 8 million or 9 million people arriving in the United Kingdom—that is the scale of the addition to the population there. We can all imagine the strain that that would impose on any country.
The House is clear, strong and united on the subject of countries’ meeting pledges. The additional dimension to this matter is that if it is so difficult to come up with the $1.5 billion agreed in January at Kuwait, how difficult will it be to come up with the $1.5 billion every few weeks or couple of months that we are going to need if the crisis goes on and the numbers get much bigger? That is why I say again that our policy cannot be static. There is only a choice between the lesser of evils in how we pursue our policy on this subject, but that underlines the fact that we cannot ignore the crisis.
The Governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan armed the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, with unforeseen and terrible long-term consequences. Rather than giving to elements of the Syrian opposition surface-to-air missiles that can shoot down civilian aircraft, would it not be better to consider again whether a no-fly zone, controlled by us, is a better option?
All options have to be considered. The hon. Gentleman has asked about the issue several times and has been pursuing it wholly legitimately. My answer is quite similar to the one I gave him last time. To enforce a no-fly zone, there are, again, international legal considerations. It would also require the participation of aircraft on a very large scale, so the decision would essentially be one for the United States, given the scale required. No such decision by the United States has been taken. We are working in an environment where we do not have a no-fly zone and we have to consider the options available to us in the light of that.
I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on a successful conference, which obviously entailed a lot of hard work behind the scenes. On Syria, he said, “As things stand, we need greater flexibility if we decide that urgent action is necessary”. Does he accept that any further action in Syria must be lawful and have a legal basis if it is to have international support?
Yes, absolutely. It is a fundamental principle for British Governments that the action that we take must be lawful. My hon. Friend will know that when, for instance, we took action ourselves in Libya, based on UN resolution 1973, the Cabinet collectively considered the legal advice before that took place. We were able to be clear about it in the House.
Yes, international law is of paramount importance for us. Due regard must be given in international law, of course, to extreme humanitarian suffering. There comes a point where trying to ameliorate extreme humanitarian suffering becomes the prime consideration. However, I assure my hon. Friend that such legal considerations will never be absent from our minds.
I welcome the decisions taken by the summit in respect of the Roma-Lyon group and the fight against international terrorism. Last week, I visited Interpol and was briefed on the work of its Fusion Task Force. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that there seems to be a synergy between the work of the taskforce and the Roma-Lyon group? Will he undertake to try to bring those initiatives together while we hold the presidency of the G8, so that there is no duplication in the fight against international terrorism?
I will certainly look at the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes. The G8 Ministers strongly and unanimously reinforced our commitment to countering terrorism effectively; that was a major part of our discussion. There is the kind of synergy to which he refers, and I will look at what we can do in that regard.
Will my right hon. Friend cast his mind back to the first G8 summit that he attended as Foreign Secretary? Was anybody forecasting that we would be facing a horrendous conflagration in Syria and the threat of thermonuclear war in North Korea? Does not that underline how unpredictable our current international security situation is and the fact that it is impossible for us to predict that we will not require nuclear weapons for our protection within the next 50 or 60 years?
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right, particularly with regard to the attempts of the DPRK to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology. The effects of the decisions that we are making about a successor to Trident will last for decades. We have to provide for the security of this country over several decades to come, and we must therefore, absolutely, have at the forefront of our minds the fact that we cannot predict—even a few years out, as he says—the threats that we might face. We can imagine that anyone in 1913, rather than 2013, who was trying to predict the threats they would face into the 1940s would have struggled very seriously to do so.