With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Afghanistan, and also report back on last week’s European Council.
I visited Afghanistan on Armed Forces day, to pay tribute to the extraordinary men and women who risk their lives every day to serve our country. We should remember in particular the 444 who have lost their lives in Afghanistan. I hope the whole House will welcome the decision to use money from banking fines to build a permanent memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire so that our generation—and every future generation—can remember and honour the sacrifice that they have made for us.
We are in Afghanistan for one reason: to protect our national security by stopping that country being used as a base from which to launch terrorist attacks against our people and our allies around the world. That requires a security response: resisting Taliban insurgent attacks, driving out al-Qaeda, and training Afghan forces to take on that task for themselves. It requires a political response: supporting the Afghans to build a more peaceful, democratic and prosperous future, including a peace process. It also requires a diplomatic response, working in particular with Pakistan, which has a vital role in fighting terrorism in the region. Let me take those three points in turn.
On security, four years ago three quarters of the most serious terrorist plots against the UK had links to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Today, it is less than half. British and international forces have stopped Afghanistan acting as a safe haven for al-Qaeda, and Afghan forces are taking the lead on security right across the country. At the weekend I went to Camp Bastion, Lashkar Gah and the forward operating base at Durai. The British forces I met are absolutely clear about the capability, confidence and leadership of the Afghan forces. Afghan forces already deliver 90% of their own training, and all the 1,000 police patrols in central Helmand each week are now conducted alone without international security assistance force support. It is that growing capability that enables us to draw down our troops. Our numbers in Afghanistan have already reduced from 9,500 to 7,900. By the end of this year, they will be about 5,200. Until recently, we were in 137 different bases. We are now in 13 bases and by the end of the year it will be four or five bases. By the end of next year, when Afghan forces take on full security responsibility, there will be no British troops in any kind of combat role at all. Beyond 2014, small numbers of British troops will remain to help the Afghans deliver their national army officer academy, and this was a request from the Afghan President himself. We will also contribute £70 million a year as part of international financial support for Afghan security beyond 2014.
A strong security response must also be accompanied by a strong political response. In Helmand, we have been working for many years to support the development of better governance, local justice, public services and the chance for Afghans to build sustainable livelihoods that do not involve drugs. Some 130,000 children are now in school, including 30,000 girls—something that would have been impossible under the Taliban—and 80% of the population can now get health care within 10 km of their home. At the national level, the political process is moving forward too. At the weekend, President Karzai assured me of his commitment to the first peaceful democratic succession of power in living memory, following next year’s elections at the end of his second and final term. More than 50,000 new voters have already registered, including over 10,000 women. Britain is supporting this with £4.5 million of aid targeted specifically to increase women’s participation.
The progress in Afghanistan is a challenge to the Taliban. The combination of the successful build-up of the Afghan national security forces and progress on the ground demonstrates that the way to a role in Afghanistan’s future is not through terror and violence, but only by engaging in a political process. So I welcome plans to begin direct talks with the Taliban. The peace process must be Afghan led, but we should do all we can to support it. That does not signal any weakening of our security response, but if we can persuade people that there is a legitimate political path for them to follow, we should do so.
We also know that the problems in Afghanistan will not be solved in Afghanistan alone. The support of neighbouring countries such as Pakistan will be vital. On my visit to Pakistan, I was greatly encouraged by the commitment of the new Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. His election was the first ever democratic transition in that country from one elected Government to another. I believe that that represents a precious sign of progress in Pakistan. We discussed our trade, economic and cultural ties. We also agreed to work together in countering extremism and radicalisation, investing in education, tackling poverty and dealing with all the issues that can fuel terrorism. Building on the trilateral process I have been leading between the UK, Afghanistan and Pakistan, I welcomed the Prime Minister’s commitment to working with Afghanistan in defeating terrorism across the region.
Let me turn to last week’s European Council. This was rightly focused on sorting out Europe’s economy by doing what we are doing in Britain: getting a grip on spending and supporting private enterprise to create jobs and growth. On spending, the Council finalised, with the European Parliament, the seven-year budget deal we successfully negotiated in February. This agreed new flexibilities between different years and between different budget headings. Crucially, the deal delivers, for the first time, a real-terms cut in the credit card limit for EU spending for the next seven years. There was no change to the February deal, which set total payments at €908.4 billion across the next seven years. That compares with €943 billion in the past seven years. However, in this process there was a further attempt to unpick the British rebate. In February, after repeated attempts to water down the rebate, we reached a clear deal that it would remain unchanged. This was reflected in the Council conclusions that I reported back to this House. The discussion that took place was not necessary and frustrating, and it was frankly unacceptable that we had to go through it all over again. The proposal to remove our rebate on agricultural spending in new member states would have cost the British taxpayer more than £1.5 billion. That has now been categorically rejected. We will continue to get the rebate in the years ahead on the same basis that we do now. It is fair, it is right, and, unlike the previous Government, this Government will not agree to weaken it or give any part of it away.
At the Council there was a particular focus on tackling youth unemployment by supporting the private sector to create jobs and tackling burdens that hold back our businesses competing in the global race. [Interruption.] What we did—to answer the shadow Chancellor—was agree that the European Investment Bank would increase its lending by 40%, with more finance for small and medium-sized businesses. We agreed to do more to help young people not working to acquire the skills that the private sector needs through proper educational training—very much along the lines of Britain’s £1 billion Youth Contract. We also agreed to scrap unnecessary EU regulation, which ties up our businesses in red tape when they should be growing and creating new jobs. To give additional detail and urgency to the Commission’s work, in the UK we will establish a new business task force with six of our best business leaders to take a fresh and ambitious look at the impact of EU regulation on our companies.
It is vital that we expand our trade and increase overseas investment into the UK. That is one of the reasons I was the first serving British Prime Minister to visit Kazakhstan on Sunday and Monday. Since 2000, that country has seen growth at an annual rate of between 8% and 9%. Per capita income has doubled and Kazakhstan has the potential to be the sixth largest oil and gas producer in the world. My business delegation signed deals worth over £700 million, all of which will help to create and sustain jobs right here in the United Kingdom.
Finally, the Council welcomed Croatia, which became the newest member of the European Union at the weekend. We also agreed to start negotiations on accession with Serbia, and on a stability and association agreement with Kosovo. When we remember what happened in the Balkans within our political lifetimes, it is a remarkable achievement that these countries are now joining or preparing to join the EU, with a sense of peace and stability. Britain is proud to support them.
Each of these steps at the Council was about doing what is right for Britain and right for Europe. It is in our national interest to get spending under control, to make Europe more competitive and to expand EU membership to the Balkan states. Openness, competitiveness and flexibility are vital elements of the fresh settlement that I believe is needed for the European Union. We want more of a say for national Parliaments and powers to flow back to member states, not just away from them. This is a new settlement that I intend to put to the country in a referendum within the first half of the next Parliament—a referendum that will give the British people the in/out choice they want and which my party will offer at the next general election. It is a referendum that my party will be voting for in this House on Friday, and I commend this statement to the House.
May I start by associating myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks about Afghanistan? I join him in paying tribute to our troops for the extraordinary job they have done over the last decade. I join him, in particular, in remembering all those who have lost their lives—and their families and loved ones as well. It is right that the Government have set a date for the withdrawal of our forces from Afghanistan, but it is also right that the international community, including the UK, continues to make a contribution to Afghanistan’s long-term security post 2014.
Let me ask about post-2014 arrangements, political stability in Afghanistan and co-operation with Pakistan. On the arrangements for 2014 and after, can the Prime Minister provide a bit more detail on the specific nature of the UK forces’ role? Can he say whether, beyond officer training, there will be further responsibilities for any UK forces? Can he say at this stage what objectives will determine the length of stay of any residual UK force? On political reconciliation in Afghanistan, I agree with him about the importance of a proper political process. Can he tell us what the prospect is, in his view, of getting the political talks on track—including with the Taliban, which he mentioned in his statement—and on what timetable that might be possible, given the end-2014 deadline for our combat forces?
Turning to relations with Pakistan, I join the Prime Minister in recognising the vital bilateral relationship between Pakistan and the United Kingdom. I also join him in expressing the belief that the UK will need to build strong working relationships with the newly elected Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, especially with regard to the future of Afghanistan. There is wide support across this House not just for an inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan, but for a regional settlement involving Afghanistan’s neighbours. That was the reason for the Prime Minister’s Afghanistan-Pakistan Chequers summit five months ago. In the communiqué there was a commitment to building
“a peace settlement over the next 6 months.”
Can the Prime Minister say what progress has been made since and what more can be done to achieve that goal?
Let me turn to the European Council. I join the Prime Minister in welcoming Croatia’s entry into the EU, the start date for EU-Serbia accession negotiations and the association agreement with Kosovo. On the European budget, the House was right to vote for a real-terms cut last October, and we support the recent agreement on the European budget and rebate, including the European Parliament’s agreement. It would be a shame to let this occasion pass without quoting the Prime Minister’s flowery words at his press conference last week. I am sure the House will be interested to hear that he said that
“in this town you have to be ready for an ambush at any time, and that means lock and load and have one up the spout”.
I have to say that that sounded more “Carry On up the Council” than “High Noon”, but let us leave that to one side.
Let me turn to the discussions on youth unemployment, which was supposed to be the main subject of the summit but which formed only a small part of the Prime Minister’s statement. There are 26 million people looking for work in the European Union, and nearly 6 million unemployed young people. Nearly 1 million of those young people—one in six across the European Union—are here in Britain. Targeting any extra resources at tackling youth unemployment is welcome, but does the Prime Minister really believe that the response was equal to the scale of the challenge?
At the press conference after the summit and again today, the Prime Minister said the Council had agreed to take action
“very much along the line of Britain’s…youth contract”.
That is worrying news. Last year, the Prime Minister launched the Youth Contract, which he said was
“going to do enormous amounts on youth unemployment”.—[Official Report, 9 May 2012; Vol. 545, c. 24.]
So will he explain why a survey of 200 employers last week revealed that none of them—not a single one—had used the Youth Contract to hire a young person? The Youth Contract is not the solution to Europe’s unemployment problem. Frankly, the summit did not mark the long-overdue recognition that the current economic approach across the EU is leaving millions of young people without employment or prospects, and fearing for their future.
Of course we should look at EU regulation, as the Prime Minister proposes, but does he seriously believe that that is the solution to youth unemployment, including in Britain? The European economy is struggling and the British economy has not grown as the Government promised. That is why nearly 1 million young people are still looking for work here in Britain. That is also why long-term youth unemployment is up by 158% since he took office and why his Youth Contract is failing. The truth is that the Prime Minister can hardly argue effectively for action in Europe on youth unemployment when he is so transparently failing here at home.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his response. Let me take his questions in turn.
First, on the post-2014 position in Afghanistan, we have not taken any decisions beyond those that I have described on the officer training academy and the force protection that will go with that, and on the funding of the Afghan forces going ahead. In terms of other commitments, I would make the point that this country has played a very big part but we have also paid a very big price. So I think it is right to focus on the one thing we have been asked to do by the Afghans, and we will take pleasure in running the officer training academy rather than looking for ways to go beyond that.
On the political process, the timetable is urgent and we want the meetings to take place as rapidly as possible. I spoke to Mr Rabbani, who runs the High Peace Council and who is ready to meet and speak to the Taliban. We have to accept, however, that the opening of the Doha office and the way in which that was done and advertised have caused a setback and are deeply unpopular in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the idea of a peace process, and of getting them to talk, is right, and I believe that it will happen.
I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about Pakistan and the democratic transition. I also agree with what he said about the trilateral process, which has helped to move the agenda forward. Since Chequers, for instance, there has been progress on the release of prisoners so that talks can take place, and other discussions on conferences, borders, police and military co-operation have also made progress.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the EU, and mentioned my rather “flowery” language. The point I was trying to make is that we have to recognise that 27 other countries want to get rid of the British rebate, and we can add to them the European Council President and the European Commission. That is why you have to make sure that you take a tough approach and that you are ready for anything. We know that Labour’s approach is to go in with their hands up and waving a white flag. That is what you get. The difference between us is that we have kept the rebate while they gave so much of it away. That is the truth.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about youth unemployment. Let me point out to him that youth unemployment in the UK is down by 43,000 this quarter and down 60,000 since last year, but we are not in the slightest bit complacent. He asked about the Youth Contract, and 100,000 young people have used work experience, which has got many of them off benefits and into work. Our Work programme, according to the figures announced yesterday, has seen 320,000 people getting work. That makes it almost twice as successful as the flexible new deal.
In terms of international comparisons, over the last year youth unemployment fell faster than in the USA, Germany, Canada, France and Italy. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Youth Contract, and I have already told him that 100,000 young people are getting work experience. I know that Opposition Members think that that is not worth while, but we on the Government side think it is worth while.
What I thought was interesting about the right hon. Gentleman’s response was that we heard not a word about the referendum that we are going to discuss and debate on Friday. I think I know why. The right hon. Gentleman has said that he is not in favour of a referendum; the shadow Chancellor has said that it is pretty stupid not to have a referendum; his chief adviser has said that it is conceivable that they might have a referendum—mind you, his chief adviser thinks all sorts of things are conceivable. Now the Labour leader has a new approach, announced in The Sunday Times—that Labour is not going to talk about a referendum. I think I can sum up the right hon. Gentleman’s policy in three words: weak, weak, weak.
May I ask the Prime Minister a question that I have asked other Ministers over the years? To which central authority will the Afghan national army owe its allegiance? As the army is mainly recruited and officer-led by Tajiks and Uzbeks, with the Pashtun very unrepresented, what is more likely than that there will be a civil war between the old Northern Alliance and the Taliban after 2014, which will put Afghanistan back into the chaos that existed when the Russians withdrew?
Let me try to answer all my right hon. Friend’s questions. In terms of the Afghan national security forces, which are getting towards the number of 340,000—a sizeable investment that the international community has made—the Afghan army will be accountable to the Afghan Government and the Afghan President. That is how it should work. My right hon. Friend is right to say that we still need to work on the balance of the different ethnicities in the Afghan national army, but Pashtuns are being recruited to it. I recently had the great honour of speaking at the passing-out parade of new officers at Sandhurst, and I gave an award to a Pashtun from Helmand who had passed out of Sandhurst and was about to serve in the Afghan national army.
My right hon. Friend’s point about the need to avoid a splintering of Afghanistan is absolutely right. We want to avoid that, and I think the Afghans want to avoid it. That is why it is so important that we continue, long after our troops have left the combat role, to fund the Afghan national security forces, as well as continuing to fund Afghanistan. If we do that, and if the successor to President Karzai properly balances and understands the different pressures in the country, I see no reason why it cannot stay together.
The Afghan forces have improved their capability year on year, but there are still challenges in logistics and equipment. I am told that there are no plans for us to pass over or gift any equipment to the Afghans—even some of the more theatre-specific equipment that we have acquired over the years. If all the ISAF countries adopt the same attitude, how are those challenges going to be met after the draw-down of the combat mission?
First of all, we look at all the equipment we have and at individual Afghan requests to see whether it is something that we can make available. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the capabilities of these forces have increased. As he knows, in talking to our forces out in Afghanistan, it is striking to find out that we are talking to people on their second or third tour, who have seen a radical improvement in what is available. One of the challenges is making sure that the Afghan army has all the enablers and all the assistance it needs—and the Americans are specifically looking at that problem. What has been noticeable about the recent attacks on Kabul is that they were dealt with entirely by the Afghan national security forces—and dealt with very effectively.
May I commend the Prime Minister for his decision to ensure that a proper memorial will be created at the National Memorial Arboretum—a decision that I am sure the whole House would welcome?
In the course of his discussions with the new Prime Minister of Pakistan, was there any consideration of the problems caused by the border tribal areas, which have been used in the past as a safe refuge for those elements of the Taliban determined to thwart the efforts of NATO and, indeed, to bring down the Karzai Government? So long as the borders remain porous and these particular areas provide safe havens, it will be very difficult indeed to achieve the objectives that our Prime Minister and the Prime Minister of Pakistan obviously agreed upon.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his question. The memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum is the right move and I think it is important that some elements of the very moving memorial at Camp Bastion are transferred to the arboretum so that there is real continuity.
The problem of the tribal areas in Pakistan, this problem has dogged the country for decades. I did discuss the issue with both the Afghan President and the Pakistan Prime Minister. The simple point is this: it is in both countries’ interests that the danger of Talibanisation is dealt with. It is a threat to Pakistan that there are Pakistan Taliban in Afghanistan, and it is a threat to Afghanistan that there are Taliban in Pakistan. Both countries need to understand their shared interest in dealing with both these threats. They need to recognise the importance of dealing with them together, so that we have a safe, stable and democratic Pakistan and a safe, stable and democratic Afghanistan.
When the Prime Minister discussed issues with fellow leaders at the weekend, did he mention to them his Bill on the referendum on Friday? In particular, what view was taken of the fact that he required the good offices of one of his Back Benchers to bring it forward as a private Member’s Bill and not a Government Bill?
I did not explain all the intricacies of parliamentary procedure, but during the very good debate on the future of economic and monetary union, which was one of the sessions of the European Council, I made clear the view that I have often made clear in this House—that, just as the countries within the eurozone need change and need to integrate more, so countries such as Britain, which in my view will not and should never join the eurozone, need changes, too. We need to make the European Union flexible enough to include both sorts of countries. I think there is a growing recognition that this is the case.
I quite agree with the Prime Minister that the correct message to the Taliban is that stability is best achieved not through violence, but through negotiations. Further to questions from the Leader of the Opposition, will my right hon. Friend say what the prospects for the talks are? To what extent are regional players going to be involved, and will Pakistan be a part of that regional settlement?
I think the overall prospects for talks between the Taliban and the High Peace Council—the right body in Afghanistan to hold these talks—are good. We have to recognise, however, that the way in which the Doha office was established, when it advertised itself as the Islamic emirate of Afghanistan, has caused a setback, and that is rightly deeply unpopular in Afghanistan. As I discussed with President Karzai, the sense is that it is in the interests of Afghanistan for all Afghans to see a Government and a future in which they can have confidence and for the Taliban to lay down their arms and stop fighting. That is in their interests, so although there has been a setback, the underlying logic of what needs to happen is still there.
When the right hon. Gentleman was in Islamabad, did he discuss with our high commissioner the operation of the entry clearance office, which is currently preventing the mother of a constituent of mine who is dying of cancer from visiting him in Manchester before he dies? Did he discuss with Nawaz Sharif the American drone attacks on Pakistan, which violate Pakistan’s sovereignty, kill very large numbers of innocent people and are a war crime, violating international law?
I did not discuss any specific cases with our high commissioner, but I did discuss with him the important operations of our visa processing and the very important work that he does. I think this is a good moment for me to pay tribute to our high commissioner and to his hard-working staff.
As for the second issue raised by the right hon. Gentleman, nothing was off the table during my discussions with Nawaz Sharif. I think that the right approach is to maintain a very tough security response to terrorism. There is no doubt that the presence of al-Qaeda in both Afghanistan and Pakistan has been radically reduced in recent years and that that has made us safer here in the United Kingdom, but we must ensure that such reductions are accompanied by the proper combating of terrorism in all its forms, which means ensuring that we deal with the underlying narrative on which the terrorists depend. It is with that combined approach that we will succeed.
On the proposed EU-US trade deal, will my right hon. Friend tell us what are the contents and the areas covered by the negotiating mandate which was agreed behind closed doors last weekend? It is governed by a qualified majority vote of which the UK has only 12%, and it is an exclusive competence controlled by the European Commission. Can my right hon. Friend explain why the European Scrutiny Committee, which is looking into these matters, has not been supplied with the mandate, and can he tell us when we will receive it?
I can tell my hon. Friend that the discussions are going ahead on the basis of the maximum level of inclusion of all topics. I think it has been announced in the House that there is a reserve on audio-visual matters, as there has been with all the EU mandates for trade talks, but in this case, uniquely, there is the opportunity to opt back in to discussing those matters as well.
As for my hon. Friend’s point about the European Scrutiny Committee, I shall have to look into that and see whether there is anything I can do to help.
I welcomed the Prime Minister’s visit to Afghanistan, and I pay tribute to the bravery of our troops who are fighting terrorism there. While we must never forget the sacrifice made by those who have died in the field of conflict, can the Prime Minister assure us that the troops who return home—many of them wounded both in body and in mind—will receive all the attention they need?
I certainly want to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. I think it is clear from the advances that have been made in recent years in the availability of defence medicine—in Afghanistan, in aircraft transporting troops back from Afghanistan, and here in the UK, at Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham and then at Headley Court—that it is second to none, and that we can be proud of what we make available. However, we must think about what happens next as well, and that is what the centres of expertise around the country are all about. It is also important for us to proceed with the work on the military covenant that is being done by the Armed Forces Covenant Sub-Committee—chaired by the Minister for Government Policy—and to continue to channel resources into these vital areas.
Most of the injured and the 444 British dead to whom the Prime Minister referred were brought home either through his constituency or through Royal Wootton Bassett in mine. The people of Britain are hungrily looking forward to the end of combat operations, and will welcome the withdrawal from a large number of forward-operating and patrol bases in Afghanistan that the Prime Minister has announced today. However, can he bring us up to date on what will happen to Camp Bastion once we have left Afghanistan? Will it remain as some kind of strategic base, or will we simply abandon it?
Let me first, through my hon. Friend, pay tribute to the people of Royal Wootton Bassett, and also to people in Carterton and Brize Norton in my own constituency, who I think have shown the best side of Britain in welcoming back, sombrely and properly, those who have fallen in combat operations in Afghanistan.
No final decision has been made about Camp Bastion, but it is likely that it could be used as one of the bases led by the Americans for the purpose of their continued presence in Afghanistan. That would obviously be quite helpful in terms of the timetable governing the return of our resources. However, as those who visit Camp Bastion will see, a great deal of work is being done to return kit to the UK now.
Did the Prime Minister have any opportunity in the margins to discuss, even informally, the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe, especially in the light of the EU’s removal of some of its restrictive sanctions? Will he continue to urge South Africa, and the Southern African Development Community generally, to send more international monitors to the country as soon as possible? If that is not done, we shall see another stolen election.
The hon. Lady speaks about this issue with great expertise. I did not discuss Zimbabwe at the European Council, but we did hold a National Security Council meeting relatively recently, at which our high commissioner in Zimbabwe was present. We have been working out how best to maximise the leverage and influence that we have in order to secure a proper election and a proper democratic transition, and that is why we have taken the steps in the European Union to which she referred. However, we keep all these matters under review to ensure that we do all that we can to assist the transition that Zimbabwe so badly needs.
If western work in Afghanistan is not to unravel after next year, one of two things must happen. Either the Taliban must be persuaded that they made a terrible mistake in giving house room to al-Qaeda, or the Americans must retain one or more strategic bases to dissuade them from offering it house room in the future. Does the Prime Minister know whether either of those things has happened or will happen?
I may be a little more optimistic than my hon. Friend, but I think the most likely outcome is that both those things will happen. One of the reasons why I think a peace process can get under way is the fact that, in recent statements, the Taliban have effectively said that they do not want Afghanistan to be used to harm other countries. I believe that the decoupling of the Taliban from al-Qaeda is well under way, and I think that that is positive.
I also do not believe that America, NATO, ISAF or any of us are walking away from Afghanistan, and I think that that is positive as well. As I have said, we will maintain the officer training academy and our funding of the Afghanistan national security forces, and I think it likely that the Americans will maintain a presence in the country—to be negotiated, of course, with the Afghan Government.
Obviously we want to see a peace process succeed, but, as we have always had to explain, our security response of training the Afghan national army and police force is the key part of making sure that the country will not fall back under Taliban or al-Qaeda control, and, having observed the effectiveness of those forces, I think we can be confident that they are capable of ensuring that that happens.
Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to praise the skill, persistence and dedication of the European Union’s High Representative, Cathy Ashton, and her staff in securing the welcome agreement between Serbia and Kosovo on normalisation on 19 April? Will he also take this opportunity, while he is supporting further enlargement of the EU, to explain why we are in favour of other countries joining the EU, but many members of his party want us to leave?
Let me first pay tribute to Cathy Ashton and the very good work that she does in the European Union, which I see at first hand. We work very closely together, and I know that she works very closely with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. While some of the dossiers for which she is responsible must be immensely frustrating—I am thinking particularly of the Iranian negotiations—there is no doubt that she can take a huge amount of credit for the opening of accession negotiations with Serbia and the completion of the process of accession for Croatia. I made that very clear at the European Council meeting.
As for the hon. Gentleman’s comments about my party, let me point out that the Conservative party has always been in favour of the widening of the European Union. We have been arguing for that for decades. Indeed, we were arguing for it, and delivering it, in the 1980s, when the hon. Gentleman’s party stood on rather a different ticket.
For the many of us who supported the expulsion of al-Qaeda but opposed the morphing of the mission into one of nation building, this has indeed been a long and sad road, and that has been compounded by the fact that we should have been holding talks with the Taliban a long time ago. Will the Prime Minister therefore use his best offices to ensure that talks with the Taliban are truly unconditional? This has been a stumbling block in the past, particularly with the Americans.
Since the very first day on which I took office as Prime Minister in 2010, I have pursued the agenda of a peace process and a political process, and I have been discussing it with the Americans and others for all that time. Of course historians will argue about whether the Berlin peace conference of 2001 was established in the right way, but let us leave that to the historians; we should be dealing with the here and now.
I do not agree with my hon. Friend on one point. I think that a very important condition needs to be fulfilled. As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) pointed out, there must be an understanding that the Taliban do not believe that Afghanistan should be used as a base for foreign attacks and that they will not allow it to be so used.
I am delighted that the Prime Minister finally acknowledges that the right place for a European nation with a population of 5 million is as an independent member state of the EU. However, on the issue of EU competitiveness, this week there was some good news about mobile phone roaming charges that I think Members on both sides of the House will welcome. That was a great success for the EU, although curiously the UK Government have published a report suggesting that somehow the old charges will remain in a sovereign Scotland. That has been reacted to by the Prime Minister’s deputy chairman in Scotland as “silly”, by Tory donor John McGlynn as “puerile”, and by his favourite Conservative commentator Alan Cochrane as “tripe”. Will the Prime Minister show some leadership and end these puerile, silly scare stories?
What the hon. Gentleman cannot hide from is the fact that the legal advice is absolutely clear—clear from the Government and clear from the European Commission. Of course, his party said it had legal advice, yet it had absolutely none, but the legal advice is clear. If Scotland votes to become independent it will have to queue up behind Serbia, behind Macedonia and behind Kosovo in order to get back into the European Union. That is the truth, inconvenient though it may be for the hon. Gentleman.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the country will not understand if Members of Parliament fail to engage in this Friday’s debate on the need for us to renegotiate our membership of the EU and to let the people decide in a referendum whether they want our membership of Europe on that renegotiated basis? This is not an issue that Parliament and Members of Parliament can run away from.
My hon. Friend, who has a long track record of support for the EU, makes a very sensible point, which is that when it comes to this Bill on Friday, and when it comes to the issue of a referendum, people can either be in favour of holding an in/out referendum or they can be against holding an in/out referendum, but surely they must have an opinion. My hon. Friends and I will be voting for that Bill; we will be voting in the Lobby on Friday. What is Labour going to do? Is it simply going to decide it does not want to talk about this issue? I think the whole country will find that completely feeble.
Is it not surprising that, in view of the considerable concern that has been expressed abroad over US intelligence operations against friendly European countries, including EU offices in Washington and New York, there was apparently no discussion of that at the European Council? Surely it is an item that should have been considered, and perhaps the Prime Minister can give us his views about what the US has been doing.
I say the same thing publicly and privately, and in the European Council and this House, which is that I do not comment on national security and intelligence matters as I think that would be wrong, but I think it is important to remember that our security services operate under the law. We do not use co-operation with foreign intelligence services to get around our own procedures here in the UK, and it is worth remembering that the intelligence and security gathering we do is of huge benefit to those partners, including many in the EU, with whom we share it. It helps to keep us safe and it helps to keep them safe, and we should praise what our intelligence and security services do on our behalf.
Will the Prime Minister say how the women of Afghanistan may be represented in any talks with the Taliban, and what assurances can he give to the women of Afghanistan that their hard-won advances in terms of the right to education for girls and the right to a livelihood for women will be sustained in the 2015 settlement and thereafter?
My right hon. Friend asks an important question, and the answer to it is that the Afghan President and Government are absolutely clear that any discussions need to proceed on the basis of the Afghan constitution, which has safeguards on those and other issues. It is important to note that whereas in 2001 there were almost no girls in school in Helmand, there are now over 30,000.
I was pleased to hear from the Prime Minister, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), that he is still a passionate champion of enlargement, but does he agree that it is not sufficient just to welcome countries like Croatia into the EU, as we need to support them to ensure they are of benefit to the EU, rather than a burden?
I agree: we should support Croatia, and we have agreed to the use of the European budget to make sure Croatia gets its receipts from the EU as well as making its payments into the EU. The strength of widening the EU is not only that when those countries come in they become even greater trading partners and investment partners for Britain, but that as part of the process of preparing to join they have to put their own houses in order to tackle corruption, improve the rule of law and so forth. We have seen that in Croatia, we are seeing it in Serbia, and it is very welcome.
Last night I had a phone call from Afghanistan, from my son. He wanted to express to this House how much the serving members of our armed forces who are out there appreciate the efforts of the Prime Minister in coming out there and speaking to them personally. I hope the Prime Minister will accept those thanks.
May I, through my hon. Friend, thank his son for his service in Afghanistan? We have been there for many years now, and we come across people now who are on their second or third tour of Afghanistan—people who have spent many months of their lives working under very difficult conditions. We can be proud of the fact that when we sit in a room with our armed forces and ask them about the job they are doing, the morale is high; they are enthusiastic about the capabilities of the Afghan security forces, and they are also enthusiastic about the kit they receive. There are still issues we need to deal with—more access to wi-fi and one or two other things—but generally speaking I found people in high morale who are enthusiastic about the job they are doing.
The Prime Minister’s usual advisers are gentlemen in uniform, but may I ask him to reconsider the use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan, because a consistent body of evidence has shown that drones have killed far more civilians than al-Qaeda operatives, and with countries such as Pakistan openly objecting to the use of drones, that is also a violation of their sovereignty? Please will the Prime Minister therefore take a thorough relook at this whole issue of drone use?
As this issue relates to Pakistan, it is an issue for the United States and Pakistan, although what I have said about the huge damage that has been done to al-Qaeda is beyond debate; it is a fact. On Afghanistan, I think it is important that we give our armed forces every protection they can possibly have, and the use of ISTAR drones and other cameras and the like have done a huge amount to keep our armed forces safe and to make sure we defeat the Taliban insurgency.
As I set out in the speech I made at the end of January this year, I believe we need to recognise that change is taking place in the EU. That means the single currency countries will have to integrate further, but it should be available to non-single currency countries to see powers flow back to them. I gave one example my hon. Friend might be interested in: I think the phrase “ever closer union” should be disapplied from the United Kingdom. I do not think it is ever something we in this country were comfortable with. It was something we never really wanted to sign up to in the 1970s. I think we do need that different sort of European Union, and then to give people the choice about whether they want to join or leave it.
Can the Prime Minister help me by telling us what he really thinks about Afghanistan? We have been there for 12 years, we have lost over 400 soldiers, thousands of others have died, £17 billion has been spent, an illegal drone war is going on in Pakistan and neighbouring countries, and now there are talks with the Taliban in Qatar. Does he not think it is time to reassess the whole question of intervention, what it does in terms of the hatred between this country and others around the world, and what it does to the peace of the world as a whole?
Where I take such a different view from the hon. Gentleman is that we know what non-engagement with Afghanistan leads to, because that is what happened after the end of the fall of the previous regime. There was a process when the world looked away from Afghanistan, and we paid the price in a civil war that went on for years, with plummeting living standards, rampant poverty, and a country that went backwards in every regard, and then became, under the Taliban, a haven for al-Qaeda extremists who carried out plots, killing people on our soil, in America, and in other parts of the world. That is what happens when we do not engage.
Of course, the state of Afghanistan is not perfect, but after all the investment and the sacrifice we can at least say, “Here is a country where there are not active plots against Britain being hatched. Here is a country that is making economic and social progress. Here is a country with an elected President that is looking forward to a democratic transition. And here is a country that has got security forces which have a good prospect of maintaining Afghanistan into the future.” That is the result of engagement. We know the results of disengagement, and I know which I think is better.
The Yorkshire Regiment will be marching through Huddersfield later this month on a freedom parade. Does the Prime Minister agree that freedom parades are a fitting way for our communities to pay tribute to our brave servicemen and women for their contribution in Afghanistan?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, which is that there is a yearning in this country to find new ways to recognise what our armed forces do and all they represent. For some years in the past—this is not a political point; I think that the last Prime Minister recognised this—we did not really do enough and we were not quite sure how to show our appreciation. Armed Forces day was a good step forward and the military covenant is a good step forward—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) says it was a Labour achievement, but I think he will find that the military covenant was put into law by this Government. I was attempting not to make a political point, but he made me diverge. I also think these parades are a great way, on a cross-party basis—on a no-party basis—of everyone turning out on to our streets and saying thank you.
Will the Prime Minister seek to change the rules of this House so that the names of the fallen can be honoured by being read out in this Chamber—the same Chamber that sent them to their deaths? What lasting achievements have there been in Afghanistan that justify £37 billion of taxpayers’ money and 444 deaths?
We do read out the names of those who have fallen, and we rightly pay tribute to them because they have made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of our country and our security. The hon. Gentleman asked what this has achieved, and the point I make is that before 2001 Afghanistan was a haven for terrorists who were plotting actively to do harm to people in this country and elsewhere, but since 2001—he can ask the security services about this himself if he wants—there have not been major, serious plots hatched in Afghanistan and carried out against us. That is a big and important achievement, but we also have to look at the capacity Afghanistan has today to continue to deliver that. When I first visited Afghanistan in 2006, there were no Afghan security forces in Helmand province; they did not exist. They have been built from scratch. I do not think we honour those who have paid this price by talking down, in any way, the extraordinary achievements that we have seen there. That is not to say that things are perfect—of course they are not—and it is not to say that there is not more that needs to be done, but on the ledger of Britain’s engagement in Afghanistan, we should correctly identify the good points as well as the difficulties that still remain.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. Of course the €6 billion package is important, and €400 million of that is available for spending in the five regions of the UK with the highest rates of youth unemployment. But there is a growing recognition in the European Union that simply spending money on schemes is not going to be enough; it is the structural changes that we need, because the European Union contains countries, such as Germany or Holland, with youth unemployment rates of about 9%, and countries, such as Spain, where the rate is more than 50%. The structural reforms and the flexibility of the labour markets also need to be addressed.
The Prime Minister said that £4.5 million was being made available to increase women’s participation in Afghanistan. Can he spell out how that will be used to ensure that women’s voices really are heard in the direct talks with the Taliban?
That specific piece of money, which is part of an overall large Department for International Development budget, is simply about getting women to register to vote. At the moment, the new electoral registration laws are being passed through the Afghan Parliament, and it is very important that women register to vote in the forthcoming presidential election in April next year.
I certainly welcome the news that the European Investment Bank is going to increase its investment in small and medium-sized businesses by 40%. I would like to see the same in some other banks. Is there any genuine appetite to include energy in a more competitive framework, perhaps a single market?
First, Britain supports the EIB. Our policy has always been one of saying, “Look, on fiscal policy we do have to take tough and radical actions, but on monetary policy we should be looking at all the ways we can help to get money from banks and other institutions into businesses.” That is what the funding for lending scheme is all about and what this EIB expansion should be about. On energy, we continue to push for the completion of the energy single market, where progress has been made, but it is an ongoing battle.
The Prime Minister is right to say that we need to expand trade and overseas investment, and I am pleased that he discussed trade with the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Does he think that his efforts on trade will be helped or hindered if the Home Secretary imposes a £3,000 visa bond on visitors from India and Pakistan?
What the Home Secretary is looking at is the idea of using bonds in some immigration circumstances to make sure we do what needs to be done and what the previous Government did not do, which is to differentiate between people who want to come here to contribute, for example, by studying at a British university and those who want to come here simply as economic migrants. We need an immigration policy that really does have an emphasis on quality and on control, and that is exactly what we have. One of the points I was able to make in Pakistan, as I made in Kazakhstan and as I have made before in India, is that under our rules there is no limit on the number of overseas students who can come to study at a British university. There is no limit at all; they just have to have an English language qualification and a place at a British university. That is what is required. But, at the same time, we have shut down about 180 bogus colleges that were operating while the hon. Gentleman was assisting his Government.
I join the Prime Minister in again paying tribute to our armed services. Many of us, including me, did that at the armed services events in our communities at the weekend. Against the welcome background of the knowledge that our troops are going to come home and that there will be a conflict resolution process involving the Taliban, will the Prime Minister say what role he envisages for UK troops or civilians, and people from neighbouring states to make sure that the elections in Afghanistan in 2014 are peaceful, democratic and respected?
My right hon. Friend makes a good point about these important elections. Obviously, security in Afghanistan is now provided predominantly by Afghan national security forces, as are patrols, so they should predominantly provide security during the elections, in comparison with the last set of elections in 2009 in which we were more engaged. As for how we make sure they are as good a set of elections as they can be, obviously all sorts of international bodies will want to engage and we need to make sure that the elections are properly monitored.
Khalsa Diwan Afghanistan, based in my constituency, has raised with me and with representatives of the Foreign Secretary its concerns for the welfare of minority Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan, and for the rights and representation of women. What commitment has President Karzai given in discussions with the Prime Minister to maintain women’s political representation and minority rights?
At last week’s EU Council meeting, the greater mobility of young people was discussed as a way of tackling youth unemployment across the EU. Can I have assurances from my right hon. Friend that that will not lead to greater benefit tourism in this country?
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. This Government are engaging with others in Europe to try to cut down on benefit tourism and to look at what we can do to make changes to the habitual residence test so that people can come to work but cannot come to claim benefits. It is also worth making the point that as new members join the EU, such as Croatia, this Government will put in place the transitional controls that should have been put in place when members joined under the previous Government.
When we, on both sides of the Atlantic, bring our troops home from Afghanistan, one of the knots that ties the transatlantic relationship together will inevitably loosen. So may I ask the Prime Minister to comment not on the security matters, but on the political implications of the allegations in the newspapers about electronic eavesdropping by the United States on the EU? Will he say specifically what Britain can do to help to heal that rift between the US and other countries in the EU?
On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, I do not believe that the ending of combat operations in Afghanistan will in any way loosen the bonds between Britain and America. I think the Americans are deeply appreciative of the fact that we have been the second largest troop-contributing nation, understand the very high casualties that we have taken and also welcome the role that we play at the heart of the command structure. The commander of ISAF is an American general and the deputy commander is a British general, Nick Carter, with whom I spent some of the weekend. On the second issue, I have said all that I want to say. I do not comment on intelligence and security matters, but in this country we operate very clearly under a legal process.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on being the first international world leader to visit Pakistan and meet Prime Minister Sharif, which clearly shows our two countries’ close collaboration and links. Will the Prime Minister clarify one point? Were discussions had with Prime Minister Sharif about reforming the madrassahs, the religious schools, in Pakistan, which have often been seeing as a recruiting ground for extremist and radicalised organisations? Does the Prime Minister agree that we need to ensure there is a wide spectrum of education in Pakistan, so that students can move away from ethnic and radicalised violence in the country?
In my discussions with Prime Minister Sharif, he made it very clear that his three priorities were the economy, energy and extremism. On combating extremism, I think that we agree not only that there is a need for a tough security response, but that we need to drain the swamp of extremism, including by reforming education. He particularly praised the work that British aid has delivered in the Punjab, where his brother is the Chief Minister. Sir Michael Barber—a well-known British civil servant—has worked his socks off making more than 30 visits to the Punjab and delivering a programme that has meant that millions of Pakistani children have had schooling that they otherwise would not have had. That is all down to his hard work and to British aid.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. I had the opportunity two years ago to visit Afghanistan and, in particular, to visit Lashkar Gah, where the police recruits were being trained. The US Government have invested $6 million in their training college. The policing training might be rudimentary, but it is very important. Will the Prime Minister update the House on how many police officers are trained each quarter and whether they are on target to deliver sufficient police officers for all of Afghanistan?
I do not have the specific figures for police officer training, but in our monthly update to Parliament, which I instituted, Members can see the police training numbers, the army training numbers, the overall national security force training numbers and the retention numbers. This is a good moment to pay tribute to all those from Britain, including those from Northern Ireland, for the role that they have played in helping to train the trainers in those important programmes.
That obviously puts a little extra pressure on the budget, which has been reflected, but it is a pretty modest additional amount. It is in Britain’s interests that the EU continues to enlarge and expand. Croatia has been added to what is already the world’s largest single market, and Britain as a trading nation will have all sorts of opportunities to increase our trade with and investment in Croatia. We will put in place the transitional controls available for new nations—the Government have already made that decision.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s leadership on deregulation in Europe. The Commission has been worse than useless at understanding the burdens that it places on our smallest businesses. How do Britain’s 5 million small and medium-sized enterprises input into the new taskforce that he set up last week?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We must recognise that the Commission has made some progress and we will probably get further if we credit it with that but push it harder for more, which is my tactic. It has consulted business on the top 10 most burdensome regulations. For the first time, it has committed to exempt micro-businesses with fewer than 10 employees from new EU proposals and has also looked through the forthcoming regulation and removed 17 new regulatory proposals. Overall, the burden on business is down by some 25% in recent years. There is some progress, but it is not going fast enough, which is why I am setting up a regulation review panel comprising Marc Bolland from M&S, Ian Cheshire from Kingfisher, Glenn Cooper from ATG Access, Louise Makin from BTG, Dale Murray, who is an angel investor, and Paul Walsh, the former CEO of Diageo. That is a list of very senior businessmen and women, and small businesses can write to them and send in their ideas for what they want changed.
I, too, am pleased that my right hon. Friend has been able to establish an early and productive relationship with the new Prime Minister in Pakistan. May I urge him to keep high on his agenda the treatment of the Hazara community, which continues to face severe persecution?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. One of the advantages of getting in there early as the first Prime Minister to go and meet Prime Minister Sharif is that we can have that sort of dialogue. We have a full strategic partnership with Pakistan and a national security dialogue, so all these issues can be raised.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on being the first western leader to visit Nawaz Sharif following his election and the first peaceful and democratic transition of power in Pakistan since its independence in 1947. A lasting stable peace in Afghanistan cannot be achieved without the involvement of Pakistan, but trade, energy, relations with India and a whole range of other issues will be higher up Prime Minister Sharif’s agenda. What can our Prime Minister do to ensure that momentum on Afghanistan-Pakistan relations is not lost?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. This democratic transition is an incredible moment for Pakistan, and I believe that it should use it as a moment to get the world to look afresh at this remarkable country, which has an enormous population and great economic prospects for the future if it makes the tough and necessary decisions. We must accept that Prime Minister Sharif has many priorities. He needs to deal with energy shortages, to get his economy on track and to deal with extremism. It is in dealing with that last element where we need to work together to demonstrate that the extremism suffered in Pakistan cannot be addressed without addressing the extremism from which Afghans are suffering, too. If we can try to achieve joint working between the President and the Prime Minister and the two Governments, that is the key.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to tackle the scourge of youth unemployment across the EU is through the creation of jobs and growth and that the best way to do that is to raise our vision above the horizon of the EU and look to countries such as India and China, where two fifths of the world’s population live, to rid ourselves of burdensome regulation and to make Europe a more competitive environment?
I agree that the creation of private sector jobs is absolutely key, particularly for those countries that have large budget deficits. We have seen the decline of public sector jobs, but perhaps three times as many private sector jobs have been created. To achieve that, we need to rebalance our economy and to trade more, so, particularly as the European Union is a low-growth area—or a no-growth area in terms of the eurozone—we must look for new trading partners. That is why we should be look at countries such as Kazakhstan, where we are the second largest investor but where trade volumes are quite low. That is why we need, as I have put it, to compete in the global race and forge partnerships with all of the fastest growing countries of the world.
The Leader of the Opposition rightly mentioned youth unemployment, which has fallen by 15% in my constituency since Labour left office. One way to drive it down further is to expand the single market, so I welcome what the Prime Minister said about accession negotiations with Serbia. Does he agree that the long-term aim should be an EU from the Atlantic to the Urals, but that if the EU is to include more diverse countries, it needs to change fundamentally?
I absolutely agree with what my hon. Friend says. Britain has always believed in a wider, looser Europe and it is that that we should be fighting for. As he says, if we want it to be that sort of Europe, it must make changes and must be more flexible. The countries in the eurozone will need greater integration, but if we are to be attractive to other countries as a European Union, we must be more flexible and competitive.
My right hon. Friend will know that there are almost 11,000 foreign national offenders in our prisons, many from EU countries. There is an EU-wide compulsory prisoner transfer agreement, but only the United Kingdom and 12 other member states have ratified it. If it was not discussed at this EU Council, will the Prime Minister use his best endeavours to ensue that it is on the agenda for the next EU Council, ahead of the removal of transitional immigration controls from new entrant countries?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. This prisoner transfer agreement is absolutely in Britain’s interests. We have held specific National Security Council discussions about prisoner transfers and about foreign national offenders, because I think that we need to do much better in getting people out of our jails and back to the countries where they belong. We are making some progress, but it is hard work. This European Union agreement is a potential benefit for us and we have to do everything we can, both at the European Council and bilaterally with other countries, to get them to sign and implement. That is a programme that the Government are very much working on.