House of Commons
Wednesday 3 July 2013
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Electricity Transmission Projects
1. What discussions he has had with National Grid on future electricity transmission projects in Wales. (162123)
The Wales Office takes a close interest in National Grid’s electricity transmission projects in Wales, and I will meet National Grid later this month to discuss them in further detail.
Western Power Distribution is consulting on routes for electricity poles linking TAN 8 area G in north Carmarthenshire to the national grid in the south of the county. Local people feel strongly that any electric cables should be underground to preserve the beauty of the Tywi valley, and are concerned that the consultation period is far too short. Will the Minister impress upon the Department of Energy and Climate Change and National Grid that such transmission projects in open Welsh countryside should be underground, and at the very least that the WPD consultation should be extended into the autumn?
These transmission projects are best dealt with case by case. The problem with a default position of saying they should always be underground is that it adds huge cost and complexity, making projects unaffordable. We want to keep the lights on in Wales, so we need infrastructure that is affordable, but I will certainly look into the specific point the hon. Gentleman raises about the consultation period with Western Power.
National Grid has proposed to construct a 40 km 400 kV line through my constituency, but the local economy depends to a significant extent on its physical beauty and tourism. Will the Secretary of State press National Grid to ensure that if it does go ahead with this monstrous proposal it will be placed entirely underground?
National Grid has already given a commitment that where possible it will use underground cabling projects in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but in my discussion with National Grid the week after next I will certainly raise the point again and come back to my hon. Friend with a fuller answer.
On electricity generation, does the Minister share my concern about the stance of Plaid Cymru and its leader Leanne Wood on new nuclear, and Wylfa B in particular, despite the £10 billion of investment and the 6,000 jobs it could bring to Ynys Môn and the wider Welsh economy?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about many of the positions of the Plaid Cymru leader in Wales, not least on nuclear. We still do not quite know the party’s position on investment in nuclear power, but we know that project would be a huge boost to the economy of north Wales.
Has the Minister noticed some of the very fine print in the Energy Bill allowing pylons, which are already large enough, broadly speaking to be doubled in size without extra planning permission? Does he agree that that would wreck the landscape of Wales, as of England, and we ought to be extraordinarily cautious about it?
I agree with my hon. Friend that we have some unique and outstanding areas of beauty in Wales that need to be protected where possible, but, as I said in answer to an earlier question, these projects are best dealt with case by case, balancing environmental considerations with those of affordability and, of course, the views of the local communities, which should be at the heart of all planning applications.
Yes, the United Kingdom aerospace industry is the second largest in the world, and is by far the largest in Europe, and it contributes some £24 billion per annum to the UK economy. The Government have set out our strategic vision for the UK’s civil aerospace sector in the aerospace industrial strategy, which includes Government investment of £2 billion over the next seven years.
I am sure my right hon. Friend is aware of the new terminal being built at Chester Hawarden airport in the constituency of the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), which will cater for small planes carrying up to 50 passengers. What benefits does my right hon. Friend foresee for north-east Wales, and for Chester as well, from having direct flights to Cardiff, across the UK, and to continental Europe?
Constituents have visited my surgery expressing concern at the potential closure of 71 Inspection and Repair Squadron at St Athan, with the loss of 75 highly skilled jobs in the aviation sector that are based at the station there. Will the Secretary of State talk to the Ministry of Defence to explain how the defence footprint, particularly in highly skilled aviation jobs in Wales, is shrinking? Will they make sure that that does not happen?
I am, clearly, happy to raise the hon. Lady’s concerns with the MOD, but when I visited the British Airways maintenance centre at Cardiff airport only a few weeks ago I was impressed by the fact that a large number of workers there were former RAF employees.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues here in London and with Welsh Ministers on improvements to the M4. I am clear that the M4 is the single most important piece of transport infrastructure for the Welsh economy, and we are absolutely committed to working with the Welsh Government to deliver the funding solution required for improving that motorway.
I am grateful to the Minister for his efforts in trying to deliver improvements to the network and the M4 around Newport. It is the gateway to the south Wales economy. What reassurance can he give me that the project will go ahead this time, because it was cancelled twice by the Labour party?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s campaigning, and the work of other Government Members, to see the improvements to the M4. He rightly points out that this project was shelved on several occasions by Welsh Ministers. I do not want to pre-empt any announcement today, but I would like to give him every reason to be optimistic that we will get a successful outcome to the discussions with the Welsh Government on this issue.
Help to relieve the traffic nightmare around Newport is vital, but will the Minister assure my constituents that any resource given to the Welsh Government will be significant enough to help deal with the big impact that any new road will have on local communities and the environment?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise the technical challenges involved in a new relief road for the M4. She will have noted the Welsh Government announcement that they will shortly launch a consultation on the details of the scheme, which will provide her local community with every opportunity to express concerns and, we hope, get answers to their questions.
I applaud the Minister for his determination to go ahead with this much-needed project, which has been blocked so many times by members of the Labour party in the Welsh Assembly. May I also urge him to ensure that it is linked to an announcement about the future of the Severn bridge, as motorists are struggling to pay the costs of it, just a few years before it is returned to the Government?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. As I said in answer to a previous question, I am not going to pre-empt any announcement today. I recognise the concerns of the Chairman and other members of the Select Committee about the high tolls on the Severn bridge, but we are not in a position today to make any comment on what lies beyond 2018, when the current concession comes to an end.
I have had a number of discussions with the Chancellor on the spending review. This Government are investing in Wales. The announcement of the £250-million new prison in north Wales will create much-needed jobs for the region and further boost economic growth.
Missing from the spending review was real investment in Welsh ports and Welsh infrastructure to those ports. Wales has already lost out under this Government on ports, which are the gateways to Wales. They could regenerate sectors such as energy and, thus, make places such as Holyhead world leaders. When will this Secretary of State stand up for Welsh ports and make sure that we get a level playing field for this energy development, which includes marine, tidal, onshore wind, offshore wind and nuclear power, which Plaid Cymru does not support?
I regularly visit ports across Wales and am well aware of the importance of Holyhead port to the economy. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that we need better connectivity with the ports, on which I am pressing my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, and I am raising it with the Welsh Government.
The austerity audit published in the Financial Times found that the average working Welsh adult would lose £549 a year from the cuts compared with just £470 for an adult in England. Given that, why is the lion’s share of investment in infrastructure plans in London and the south-east, with no high-speed rail to Wales and no capital investment? Will he fight for a fair share of investment as well as an unfair share of cuts?
I strongly refute the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that Wales has somehow been short-changed: the investment in railways is very significant, with electrification right through to Swansea; in north Wales, we have a new prison; and we have new nuclear on Wylfa. The hon. Gentleman should also remember that as a result of our tax changes the average taxpayer in Wales is some £750 per annum better off.
As the Secretary of State will know, total pay in Wales has fallen by 8% since 2007, one of the biggest falls in living standards in Europe. The spending review will not help the Welsh economy very much, taking a further £1 billion out of the Welsh economy—and the Labour party has now signed up to that. It is for Ynys Môn to decide whether it wants Labour cuts or Conservative cuts. Which does the Secretary of State think would be appropriate?
I will make no apologies for the way in which the Government have treated the interests of Wales since we came to power. We have seen more infrastructure investment in Wales under this Government than under 13 years of Labour and I am proud of the support we are giving to Welsh families and the Welsh economy.
The IMF—the high priests of austerity—said that the Government should cut less and start spending more on infrastructure projects. The re-announcement of HS2 last week was sort of welcome, but the cost has gone up to £50 billion. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that Wales will not be given the £2.5 billion consequential?
In the spending review, the Chancellor made a significant announcement about capital expenditure. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that we in Wales get the appropriate proportion of that capital infrastructure spend?
The reality is that since 2010 the Welsh budget has been cut in real terms by £1.7 billion, or 11%, yet on Welsh television last week the Secretary of State for Wales said that Wales had “got off lightly”. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is not exactly famed across the House for his humour, but was that meant to be a joke?
Compared with the average cut across Whitehall, which was 8%, and the cut to the Wales Office budget, which was 10%, I would say that the real-terms cut of 1.9% for Wales, because of the protection of the health budget and the education budget, is a good deal.
The answer is clear: Wales is meant to be grateful for this Government’s largesse, but the reality is that on the right hon. Gentleman’s watch, the budget is down £1.7 billion, real wages are down £1,700, 3,000 more people are out of work, 35,000 people are using food banks, 33% of children in Wales are in child poverty and 400,000 people have lost their tax credits. If that is “getting off lightly”, heaven help the most vulnerable in Wales if he and his Government decide to get serious.
This Government’s energy reforms are designed to attract substantial investment in energy infrastructure throughout the UK, including in Wales. I believe that Wales has a key and significant role to play in meeting the challenge of creating a low-carbon energy network, fit for the 21st century.
I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman tries to criticise the green deal programme. We are in the early weeks of a 20-year programme that will lead to real improvements in energy efficiency and help to tackle fuel poverty in Wales. Perhaps he would like to come with me on a visit to the British Gas green deal academy in Tredegar, where he will see the value of the green deal for Wales.
It is intended that 10% of UK energy consumption will be carried across Ynys Môn and the Menai straits on pylons. At the same time, electricity from Scotland to England will not go through the Lake district, but be carried under-sea to the Wirral and across the Wirral underground. Why the difference?
As I understand the project across the Menai straits, four options are being looked at and sub-sea is one of them. I shall certainly discuss the matter with National Grid, as I recognise the significant concern, and I will follow up with the hon. Gentleman in due course.
The Welsh steel industry could have to wait yet another year for the Government to get state aid clearance for the energy-intensive industries package—a package that would not have been necessary had the Government not gone it alone and introduced such a high carbon floor price. What can the Minister do to secure interim support to prevent energy-intensive industries in Wales from being forced to run down production and lay off workers?
I and the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), recently met representatives of different industries in south and north Wales for a round table to discuss precisely that question. Those present included Tata Steel and Celsa Steel, large industrialists from south Wales, and Toyota from north Wales. We are looking at specific solutions that will keep the Welsh economy powering ahead.
I recently met my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary to discuss matters relating to Wales, including the proposed reforms to criminal legal aid in England and Wales. I have also met Welsh representatives of the legal profession to hear their views on the proposed changes.
Research by the Monmouthshire Law Society found that law firms serving Gwent would have to make up to 15 members of staff redundant if they lost their criminal legal aid contract. Does the Minister share their belief that these changes are the final nail in high street law firms in Wales?
No, I do not. It is clear that there have to be reductions in legal aid spend, and a consultation is ongoing. Recently, my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary made it clear that, having listened to representations, he believed that choice is important both to clients and to solicitors, and choice will be incorporated in the final proposals. [Interruption.]
The legal aid cuts in my constituency will affect many of my constituents, who will also be affected by the closure of the Rhyl family court, the closure of the Rhyl Army recruitment centre, the closure of the Rhyl tax office and, on top of all that, the closure of the Crown post office. How will that help the regeneration of Rhyl?
EU Structural Funding
In February, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister negotiated a real-terms reduction in the EU budget for the first time in its history, saving UK taxpayers an estimated £3.5 billion over the next five years. I continue to support reforms that are in the best interests of Wales and the United Kingdom as a whole.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question and recognise the particular expertise she has developed in this area. We are always open to listening to new ideas for reforming European funding, but I hope that she will recognise the fantastic deal that British, Welsh and European taxpayers got as a result of the historic negotiated agreement to see a real-terms reduction in the EU budget for the very first time.
National Procurement Service
11. What assessment he has made of the effect of the Welsh Government’s national procurement service on suppliers based in England. (162134)
Public sector contracts are an important source of income for many businesses. Although I support efforts to make the procurement of public service contracts more streamlined in Wales, I do not think that should be at the expense of ensuring value for money regardless of where the supplier is located.
Small businesses in Herefordshire find it increasingly difficult to become accredited suppliers to the Welsh public sector. There is a growing tendency, and indeed a Welsh Government policy, to encourage public organisations to buy Welsh. Does the Secretary of State share my view that public organisations in Wales should not be discouraged from buying from English suppliers and that the Welsh Government should make it very clear that they cannot do so?
I trust that the new public procurement process will be driven by providing value for taxpayers’ money, irrespective of where the business is located. Part of the object of the procurement service is to develop local supply chains, and in many parts of Wales the local economy will include businesses located in England.
Will the Secretary of State applaud the work of Professor Dermot Cahill of Bangor university, who is working with others and the Welsh Government to increase the number of small and medium-sized enterprises that are now making use of procurement in Wales? Would the right hon. Gentleman not say that, in that regard, Wales is leading the way?
Police and Crime Commissioners
I heard what the former chief constable said. I want to reiterate what I said at the last Welsh Grand Committee. I have the highest possible regard for Carmel Napier. Ultimately, however, it must be for the police and crime commissioner to make that decision, and of course he is accountable to Parliament through the Home Affairs Committee.
Clearly, the power to dismiss a chief constable is one of the statutory powers given to that officer. However, when it is exercised, the police and crime commissioner must be extremely careful to ensure that the proper procedures are adopted and, furthermore, must understand that he will be accountable to Parliament.
The evidence we heard yesterday from the chief constable was that she was called in and, out of the blue, the police and crime commissioner said that he would dismiss and humiliate her. That is an extraordinary, menacing and bullying attitude. Are police and crime commissioners the Government’s stupidest policy?
The Prime Minister was asked—
Does the Prime Minister agree with me, and I think much of the nation, that the best way to celebrate the 65th birthday of the NHS is for the Government to strip out the culture of secrecy and cover-up that we have seen so strongly in Morecambe and Mid Staffs and put patient safety and empowered professionals back at the heart of the NHS?
I think my hon. Friend is absolutely right. The way to celebrate the NHS’s 65th birthday is to go on investing in it as this Government are with an extra £12 billion, but also to be on the side of patients. That is why we are introducing the chief inspector of hospitals, who will make a real difference. Yes, we do need to end the culture of secrecy and cover-up that we had under Labour.
I am sure I speak for everyone in this House when I say that there is deep concern about what we have witnessed over the past few days in Egypt, including appalling violence and deaths, just a year on from free elections. I begin by asking the Prime Minister for assurances that all the appropriate steps are being taken by the Government to guarantee the safety of UK nationals in that country.
I can certainly give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance—and also to safeguard our embassy in Cairo. I should add that we are advising British nationals against all but essential travel to Egypt, except for the Red sea resorts, as set out on the Foreign Office website.
The right hon. Gentleman is right that these are deeply disturbing scenes. The level of violence is appalling. We should appeal to all sides for calm and to stop the levels of violence and particularly the sexual assaults. It is not for this country to support any single group or party; what we should support are proper democratic processes and proper government by consent.
I agree with the Prime Minister. All of us want to see a peaceful resolution to the present crisis. Therefore, can the Prime Minister tell the House what work is being done, even at this late stage, by the UK and indeed the European Union to encourage the Egyptian Government to secure a negotiated political solution to this crisis in advance of today’s Egyptian army deadline?
What I can tell the right hon. Gentleman is that very clear messages have been sent to President Morsi—including by President Obama, who spoke with him directly; we have also been communicating through our ambassadors—that, yes, he has a democratic mandate and we respect that, but democracy also means ensuring that everyone has a voice and leaders have a responsibility to represent all Egyptians and show they are responsive to their concerns. That is what the Government need to do in order to bring about peace and stability in that country.
I am grateful for the Prime Minister’s answer and I know that he and the Foreign Secretary will keep the House updated in the coming days.
Let me turn to another subject. The country will need 240,000 extra primary school places by 2014. Can the Prime Minister assure parents that that will not be met by increasing primary school class sizes?
But class sizes are rising. When the Labour Government came to office, the number of infants being taught in class sizes of over 30 was a quarter. When we left office, it was just 1.8%. It has doubled on the Prime Minister’s watch—that is the reality for lots of parents.
Under the Prime Minister’s plans, one third of new schools are being built in areas where there are surplus places. Can he explain to parents in areas where they are struggling to get their children into primary school why he is spending money building schools where there are already plenty of places?
I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that he left the biggest budget deficit in Britain’s peacetime history. We have had to make difficult decisions. That is why we have cut welfare, that is why we have cut areas of spending—but we have made education a priority. That is why the amount of money going into our schools is going up and not down. That is why we are funding half a million extra school places. That is why this Government have built 200 new school buildings since taking office.
The right hon. Gentleman asks about new schools going into different areas. What that is code for is Labour’s opposition to free schools. We want more new, good schools. Their policy is still the same as John Prescott’s policy—remember that? The trouble with good schools is that everyone wants to go to them. Well we want good schools, but, as ever, his questions are written by Len McCluskey of Unite.
As always, this Prime Minister has no answers to the questions that he is asked. If he will not answer me, maybe he will answer David Simmonds, who is the Conservative spokesman for the Local Government Association. This is what Mr Simmonds says:
“We know of schools that are literally falling down and still have to compete with brand new builds down the road”—
in other words, in areas where there are surplus places. Is not the truth that while the Prime Minister is pouring millions of pounds into building new schools where there are already places, the only way he is going to meet the shortage in other areas is teaching kids in Portakabins and increasing class sizes?
The fact is that the last Labour Government cut primary school places. Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what this Government are doing. The education capital budget is £21 billion over the next six years: that is what we are doing. What is so interesting is that he is taking his script from the trade unions, who do not like choice, who do not like new schools, who do not like free schools—they want to control everything. But we know one organisation they have got control of. We see it in black and white—they have taken control of the Labour party.
Let us have a debate about ethics. This is a Prime Minister who had dinners for donors in Downing street. He gave a tax cut to his Christmas card list, and he brought Andy Coulson into the heart of Downing street. The idea that he is lecturing us about ethics takes double standards to a whole new level.
In this one policy on schools we see the hallmark of this Government: they make the wrong choices on tax and spending. The millionaires’ tax cut, the top-down reorganisation of the NHS, and schools in areas where there are surplus places—and all the time they repeat the meaningless mantra, “We’re all in this together.”
The right hon. Gentleman goes up and down the country speaking for Len McCluskey. No wonder the former Home Secretary calls them “the party of the graveyard”. I have the press release here: “How Unite plans to change the Labour Party”. [Interruption.] I know you are paid to shout by Unite, but calm down a bit. This is what it says: “We give millions of pounds to the party—the relationship has to change” and
“We want a firmly class-based and left-wing general election campaign”.
That is what this week shows: too weak to sack his Health Secretary, too weak to stand up for free schools, too weak to stand up to the Unite union, too weak to run Labour, and certainly too weak to run the country.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Individual voter registration is a major step forward, but, frankly, we have a situation with one of this country’s political parties whereby it has become apparent that votes are being bought and people signed up without consent—all done by the man, Len McCluskey, who gave the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) his job.
Q3. There was demand for food banks from 30,000 households in the year before the general election, but the figure was 350,000 households last year. Will the Prime Minister acknowledge, unlike his noble friend Lord Freud, that rocketing demand for food banks shows we have a problem? (162805)
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, as a member of Unite, will want to look very carefully at his own constituency Labour party. Who knows how many people it has bought and put on the register?
Food bank use went up 10 times under Labour—that is what happened—and it is this Government who are helping working people by freezing their council tax, giving 24 million people a tax cut and taking 2.4 million of the poorest people out of tax.
The Prime Minister will be aware of the recent terrible stabbings in my constituency that led to the death of Louisa Denby, aged 84, and the serious injury to nine-year-old Jason D’Arcy, who was playing in the park. Will the Prime Minister join me not only in praising the police for their swift action in making arrests, but in supporting the local community and congratulating it on its steadfastness and community spirit, which has helped it get through a traumatic period?
I certainly join my hon. Friend. These were truly shocking events. To read this morning about the young the boy who staggered out of the park bleeding, having been stabbed, and the grandmother who was described as so much of a community member that she was seen as everybody’s grandmother was truly disturbing. I join my hon. Friend in praising the police and the local community. We must make sure that justice is done.
Q4. The Government have promised that by 2016 no one will have to pay more than £72,000 towards the cost of their personal care. I do not know whether the Prime Minister had a chance to read an article in Saturday’s Financial Times, but it said that the cap will be not on actual costs, but on eligible costs, which will not include people’s costs in meeting their moderate care needs or, indeed, all the costs they incurred in going into a private residential home. Is this not another example of the Prime Minister promising to do one thing when in reality he plans to do something completely different? (162806)
What we are introducing is what was debated and discussed in this House in terms of those costs that will be covered and those that will not. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that the Labour party had 13 years to cap the costs of care and do something about the rising costs of social care, but it did precisely nothing.
Q5. May I congratulate the Government on achieving political agreement on the next round of common agricultural policy reform? May I also make a plea that proper time be taken to agree its implementation in order to ensure a level playing field and a fair deal for Britain and our farmers? (162807)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we have got a good deal on the common agricultural policy. We need to listen carefully to our farmers’ concerns so that they are not disadvantaged compared with other countries. We also need to take the time to introduce the new system, because when the single farm payments were introduced so quickly under the last system we suffered large fines from Europe as a result. My hon. Friend is being extremely wise on this issue.
Q6. Is the Prime Minister aware of the rather disturbing commitment given yesterday by his Chancellor to continue to interfere and intervene in the affairs of the Royal Bank of Scotland on behalf of the taxpayer? Is he also aware that the Chancellor’s last intervention—the completely irresponsible ousting of Stephen Hester—has cost the British taxpayer £4.5 billion so far as a result of the loss in value of their shareholding? Will the Prime Minister, as First Lord of the Treasury, instruct his Chancellor to desist from any such interventions in the future?
What I would say to the hon. Gentleman, who I know has great experience of lending money, is that it is important that the Government stand up for the taxpayer and ensure that Royal Bank of Scotland has the right strategy and the right leadership so that we get back the money that was put into the banks by the last Government.
Two days ago saw the start of independent retailer month. Does the Prime Minister agree that we need to do more to support local independent shops, to keep our high streets vibrant and creative, and to avoid takeover by multiple retailers and the formation of clone towns?
On this issue, I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman and think that he speaks for a lot of Britain. We should be working out what we can do through the Portas review and in other ways to back our town centres. We should be looking at how the rates system works for our town centres. We should also be looking at the planning system, as we are, and how we can use change of use to back our town centres. We should work with local authorities that want to see their town centres succeed. This is a vital issue for towns up and down our country, and it has my full backing.
Q7. When he plans to visit the north-east of England. (162809)
I very much enjoyed my recent visit to the Nissan factory in Sunderland for the launch of the first mass-market electric vehicle to be fully produced in the UK. That will support more than 500 jobs at the plant and 2,000 jobs across Britain’s car industry. I look forward to visiting the north-east again soon.
When the Prime Minister next visits, he will see again for himself that the key issue facing the region is unemployment. There are more than 20 applicants for every advertised vacancy. His policy of local enterprise partnerships and enterprise zones is not having the same effective impact on the region’s economy as the development agency had. Will he consider the appointment of a Minister to work with the local enterprise partnerships and Members of Parliament from the region to push forward the private sector employment agenda?
Ministers do work with the enterprise zones. Let me give the right hon. Gentleman the figures. Obviously we want to see more, but employment in the north-east is up by 9,000 and private sector jobs in the north-east by 37,000 since the election. There is not only the success at Nissan: Hitachi is committed to building a new train building plant in County Durham, which will bring 700 jobs; the new Tyne tunnel opened in 2011; and extra money is going into the Tyne and Wear metro. All those things will make a difference. In the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, the youth claimant count has fallen by 4% over the past year.
On his next visit, will the Prime Minister take the opportunity to promote apprenticeships and the support that the Government are giving to them among north-east businesses? Will he also take another look at the A1 and press the Department for Transport to get on with dualling it?
The last time I was in the north-east, I made a speech about apprenticeships. It is remarkable how many people have started apprenticeships under this Government. On the transport issue, we are funding feasibility studies into fixing problems on the A1 north of Newcastle to Scotland and on the Newcastle and Gateshead A1 western bypass. We are also improving the A19 between Newcastle and South Shields. That is a much better record than that of the Labour party. Even though it had a Prime Minister who came from the north-east, it never did what we are proposing to do with the A1.
The hon. Lady is wrong. If she looks at the figures, she will see that we have added to the plans that Labour had for this Parliament and are increasing the amount of capital spending. The Opposition come to this House and oppose changes to welfare, oppose cuts to Government programmes and oppose the efficiency changes that we are making. They have not supported a single cut that we have made. If they did all the things they say, there would be no capital spending at all. That is the problem with the weakness of Labour Front Benchers: because they have taken no tough decisions, they cannot support the capital spending that this country needs.
Q9. When the Government tried to get workers to exchange their rights for shares, we were told that 6,000 businesses would sign up. In the event, only six have even shown an interest—not 600 or 60, only six. What went wrong? (162811)
The programme has not even started yet: it starts in September. It is a programme that has been praised by the Institute of Directors, the CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses, but of course it has not been praised by Len McCluskey and the Unite union. The hon. Gentleman is a member of Unite, so he has to stick to their script. What a sad day for democracy.
Whenever the Prime Minister does next find time to sample the delights of Bury, Ramsbottom and Tottington, will he join me in meeting some of the hundreds of local small businesses and charities that will be £2,000 a year better off from next April because of the new employment allowance, which will cut employers’ national insurance contributions, giving them a real incentive to create genuine new jobs?
My hon. Friend is right: you can now walk down any high street in any town in Britain and point out to shopkeepers and business owners that if they employ people, they will see a £2,000 reduction in their national insurance bill, and if they do not employ people, they can take people on and not pay national insurance. That is possible only because of the tough decisions the Government have taken on public spending and welfare, decisions that have never been backed by Labour, but which demonstrate that we are on the side of people who work hard and want to get on.
The Prime Minister’s deputy party leader in Scotland describes the UK Government’s scaremongering about independence as “silly”; one of his key donors in Scotland describes it as “puerile”; and the country’s leading Conservative commentator says that it is “tripe”. Given that the Prime Minister is in charge of Project Fear for the UK Government, will he ditch this silly, puerile tripe?
I have a remarkable feeling of déjà vu, because I was asked precisely this question yesterday. I will give a similar answer: the information that has been produced by the Government on what would happen under Scottish independence is impartial, extremely powerful and very sensible. The fact is that the Scottish nationalists are losing the arguments on jobs, the economy and the influence that Scotland would have in the world. I say bring on the referendum, because they are losing the battle.
Q11. Last Sunday, High Wycombe Rotarians raised more than £10,000 for local under-privileged children. I feel sure the Prime Minister will join me in encouraging membership of a full range of voluntary service clubs in the community, but does he agree that those wonderful voluntary institutions stand in stark contrast to the kind of institution that would try to block-buy political influence despite—[Interruption.] (162813)
My hon. Friend is right. It is a huge honour for me to be an honorary member of my local Rotary club in Witney. Such clubs are an important part of the big society, they raise a lot of money and they do an excellent job, but they certainly do not go around hoovering up members by making single payments from trade unions in order to buy influence.
Q12. Back in March, the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the right hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) said, “I wouldn’t be sleeping if we didn’t have 10,000 signed up to the Green Deal by the end of the year.” So far only four households have signed on the dotted line: is that Len McCluskey’s fault as well? (162814)
What is hypocritical is to take donations from a donor in the form of shares to avoid taxes. That is what the Labour party has done. It should pay back that £700,000 to the taxpayer, and that money should go to schools and hospitals. That is Labour’s shame.
If the hon. Lady is asking about the Work programme, the fact is that it has got 312,000 people into work. Some 60% of the people going into the Work programme are coming off benefits. While the Unite union and all the Unite Members opposite might not want to hear it, and while it might not be part of Len McCluskey’s script, the fact is that this programme is twice as good as the flexible new deal.
Q14. As a doctor who once had to listen incredulously to a patient explain, via a translator, that she only discovered she was nine months’ pregnant on arrival at terminal 3 at Heathrow, I was pleased to hear the statement from the Secretary of State for Health today on health tourism. Does the Prime Minister agree that although the savings are modest, the principle matters? The health service should be national, not international. (162816)
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. This is a national health service, not an international health service. British families pay about £5,000 a year in taxes for our NHS. It is right to ensure that those people who do not have a right to use our NHS are properly charged for it. We have made this announcement, and I hoped that there would be all-party support for it, but Labour’s public health Minister has condemned it as “xenophobic”, so I assume that Labour will oppose this sensible change that working people in this country will roundly support.
Q15. The bedroom tax is turning into a disaster in constituencies such as mine. Families are moving out of good-quality social housing and into the private rented sector at a greater cost to the taxpayer. Three and four-bedroom houses are now standing empty and are classed as hard to let. I even have pensioners approaching me saying that they want to downsize but cannot because small properties are prioritised for families. Is this not turning into a disaster for the taxpayer, as well as for families? (162817)
This is fair for the taxpayer. We do not give a spare room subsidy to people in private sector accommodation, so we should not give a spare room subsidy to people in council accommodation. The question now is for the Opposition. We have decided to remove the spare room subsidy. They now say they support our spending changes—well, they did for about five minutes last week. Is that still the case, or are they committed to repealing this? There is absolutely no answer.
The shocking abuse that was revealed in Winterbourne View and by Operation Jasmine in Wales has revealed a gap in the law, which means that while the staff are prosecuted, the organisations are never corporately accountable for what they have allowed to take place. Will the Prime Minister meet me and a small delegation to discuss how to plug the gap in the law and ensure that there is proper accountability for abuse and neglect?
I am very happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman, because this issue is vital. I think the Francis report had a number of recommendations on duties of care and duties of candour that we need to put in place. I am keen to ensure that we get that done.
Why has the royal charter, which was approved overwhelmingly by this House, still not been sent to the Privy Council when that should have been done in May? Will the Prime Minister assure the House and the victims that he will not do a deal with certain newspapers further to water down Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations?
What I can say to the right hon. Gentleman is that we have to follow the correct legal processes. The legal advice, which we have shared with the Leader of the Opposition and his deputy, is that we have to take these things in order: we have to take the press’s royal charter proposal first, and then we have to bring forward the royal charter on which we have all agreed. I have to say that I think the press’s royal charter has some serious shortcomings, so, no, I have not changed my view.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, very much indeed. I am most grateful to you.
Given that the selection of parliamentary candidates is a legitimate concern of this House, does the Prime Minister agree with me that the voting irregularities in the Falkirk constituency should be looked at as a matter of urgency?
The all-party group against human trafficking has raised the awareness of modern-day slavery to a great level. I am delighted to report that last night 158 hon. and right hon. Members of this House and the other House attended the annual general meeting. That is a credit to the Prime Minister’s personal commitment to this issue. Would he consider, perhaps in the next Queen’s Speech, having a modern slavery Act?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the consistent work he has done on this vital issue. It is important that we wipe out modern-day slavery, and I very much enjoyed going to meet him and other Members to see just how bad the situation is. We are looking at legislative options, and I will be chairing a committee across Government to look at what more can be done.
One of my constituents and her three-year-old child had become homeless fleeing the most heinous domestic violence; and now, despite legally living and working in this country for four years, an immigration technicality has made them destitute. Will the Prime Minister please examine this legislation and its possibly unintended consequences, so that in future no woman and her child may suffer double abuse?
I am very happy to look at the individual case the hon. Lady raises, which actually links to the last question, about modern-day slavery. Sometimes immigration rules have caused difficulty for those who want to flee the people who are keeping them entrapped in their homes, so I am very happy to take up the individual case.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the shocking catalogue of revelations of NHS management failures highlights the importance of the Government’s quiet revolution of patient empowerment and accountability, which we need to modernise the NHS so that it becomes driven by the patients who pay for it and whom it is there to serve?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am a huge fan of and believer in our NHS. At its best, it provides the best care in the world and incredible compassion for families who use it, but we do not serve the NHS if we hide or cover up when there are difficulties in individual hospitals. Clearly there were in Stafford, there were in Morecambe Bay and, we read today, there are in the Tameside hospital, too. That is why the reform of the Care Quality Commission and the chief inspector of hospitals post are so important, and why I think the friends and family test, which will be applied in every part of every hospital over time, will make a real difference. That is in stark contrast to what we had under the last Government, when inspectors were basically told not to surface problems, because it was somehow embarrassing for the Government.
Was it the Prime Minister’s conception when he set up the office of police and crime commissioner that a fine chief constable such as the one in Gwent should have a career cut short by a vindictive bully who told her to resign or he would humiliate her?
The point of having police and crime commissioners is to make sure there is proper accountability and that police constables have to account to a local person. That is why a number of former Labour Members of Parliament stood for the post. In some cases, such as that of John Prescott, the people of his region saw sense and rejected him.
Order. Before I call the Secretary of State for Defence to make a statement, let me say that we need an orderly House, both because that is right in itself and because it will be of interest, in the light of the coverage of this matter, to discover whether he has anything to say in the House that we have not already heard outside. We look forward to it.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the future of our reserve forces. In November last year, I announced a formal consultation, which lasted until January this year. I am grateful for the more than 3,000 responses we received. I have placed copies of the summary of consultation findings in the Library of the House.
More than 25,000 reservists from all three services have deployed on operations over the last 10 years. Sadly, 30 have paid the ultimate price, and I know the whole House will want to join me in saluting their sacrifice.
In 2011, the Future Reserves 2020 Commission reported that our reserves were in serious decline. This Government responded by committing to revitalise our reserve forces as part of Future Force 2020, reversing the decline of the recent past, growing their trained strength to 35,000 by 2018 and investing an additional £1.8 billion in them over 10 years.
We recognise the extraordinary commitment reservists make and, in return, we commit to deliver the reservist a challenging and rewarding experience, combined with an enhanced remuneration and support package and an improved deal for employers. However, to recruit the reserves we need and to train and equip them to be fit for purpose in Future Force 2020 requires substantial change. I am today publishing a White Paper setting out our vision for the reserve forces and the detail of how we will make reserve service more attractive. It also confirms our intention to change the name of the Territorial Army to Army Reserve—better to reflect the future role.
Alongside the White Paper, I am publishing the first report of the independent external scrutiny group, which I announced last year to oversee and report on our progress in delivering Future Reserves 2020. The White Paper reiterates our commitment to improve access to modern equipment and to provide better training as part of the £1.8 billion package. About £200 million will be invested in equipment for the Army Reserve and to kick-start that programme, I can announce today that we will bring forward to this year £40 million of investment in new dismounted close combat equipment, meaning that upgraded weapons and sights, night vision systems, and GPS capabilities will start to be delivered to reserve units before the end of the year.
The integration of regulars and reserves is key to Future Force 2020. That integration prompts a closer alignment of the structure of remuneration across the armed forces. We have therefore decided to increase reservists’ total remuneration in two ways: through the provision for the first time of a paid annual leave entitlement in respect of training days, and through the accrual of pension entitlements under the new future armed forces pension scheme 2015 for time spent on training as well as when mobilised. These two measures represent a substantial percentage increase in total reserve remuneration.
The White Paper sets out details of an improved package of occupational health support for reservists to underpin operational fitness. We will also ensure that effective welfare support is delivered to reservists and their families. Welfare officers are being recruited now for Army Reserve units. Additionally, we have already implemented measures to streamline and incentivise the process by which those leaving the regular forces can transfer to the volunteer reserve, with accelerated processing, passporting of medical and security clearances and retention of rank, as well as a “signing-on” bounty of £5,000 for ex-regulars and for direct entry officers joining the Army Reserve.
The support of employers is crucial to delivering the future reserve forces. We seek to strengthen the Ministry of Defence’s relationships with employers so that they are open and predictable. The White Paper sets out how we will make liability for call-up more predictable; make it easier for them to claim the financial assistance that is already available; increase financial support for small and medium-sized enterprises by introducing a financial award of £500 a month per reservist when any of their reservist employees are mobilised; and improve civilian-recognised training accreditation to help employers to benefit from reserve training and skills.
The White Paper signals a step change in Defence’s offer to employers. I urge them to take up this challenge. In turn, by building on the armed forces covenant with the introduction of the corporate covenant, we will ensure that reservist employers get the recognition they deserve. However, while Defence is fully committed to an open and collaborative relationship with employers, it is essential that the interests of reservists should be protected. Dismissal of reservists on the ground of their mobilised reserve service is already illegal. We will legislate in the forthcoming defence reform Bill to ensure access to employment tribunals in claims for unfair dismissal on the ground of reserve service, without a qualifying employment period.
The job that we are asking our reservists to do is changing, and the way in which we organise and train them will also have to change. That will impact on force structure, and on basing laydown. The force structures and roles of the maritime and air reserves will remain broadly similar to now, although increased in size and capability. The Army, however, has had substantially to redesign its reserve component to ensure that regular and reserve capabilities seamlessly complement each other in an integrated structure designed for the future role. That redesigned structure has been driven primarily by the changed function and roles of the Army Reserve and by the need to reach critical mass for effective sub-unit training.
The details of the future Army Reserve structure are complex, and beyond what could coherently be explained in an oral statement. I have therefore laid a written statement, supported by detailed documents that have been placed in the Library of the House, showing the complete revised order of battle of the reserve component of Army 2020.
The restructuring will require changes to the current basing laydown of the Army Reserve. The TA currently operates from 334 individual sites around the United Kingdom, including a number of locations with small detachments of fewer than 30 personnel. Some of those sites are seriously under-recruited. To maximise the potential for future recruitment, the Army has determined that, as it translates its revised structure into a basing laydown, it should take the opportunity to rationalise its presence by merging small, poorly recruited sub-units into larger sites in the same conurbation or in neighbouring communities. As part of that exercise, the Army Reserve will open or reopen nine additional reserve sites.
However, the consolidation of all poorly recruited units would have led to a significant reduction in basing footprint and a significant loss of presence in some, particularly rural, areas. I have decided that that would not be appropriate as we embark on a major recruitment campaign. We will therefore retain a significant number of small and under-recruited sites that the Army considers could become viable through effective recruiting. The units on those sites will be challenged to recruit up to strength in the years ahead. Over the next couple of years, we will work with local communities, through the Army’s regional chain of command, to target recruitment into those units. I know that right hon. and hon. Members will want to lead their local communities in rising to that challenge.
The result of the decisions I am announcing today is that the overall number of Army Reserve bases will be reduced from the current total of 334 to 308—a net reduction of 26 sites. With your permission Mr Speaker, I will distribute a summary sheet that identifies the reserve locations being opened and those being vacated.
The White Paper and the written ministerial statement on structure and basing set the conditions to grow and sustain our reserves as we invest an additional £1.8 billion over 10 years in our vision for the integrated reserves of Future Force 2020. That vision calls for an even bigger contribution from our reservists and from employers as we expand the reserve forces. I am confident that both will rise to the challenge.
For the first time in 20 years, the reserves are on an upward trajectory. Those of us who are neither reservists nor employers can none the less provide vital support and encouragement to our fellow citizens who make such a valuable contribution to delivering our national security, and I know that Members on both sides of the House will want to take the lead in urging our communities to get behind the reserves and the recruiting drive that will build their strength to the target level over the next five years. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State and his officials for giving me advance briefing, but I am disappointed by the fact that we have been given only half a statement. The House does not have the luxury of possessing a list of the bases that the Government intend to close, because that has not been shared with Members on either side the House. It does not appear to be in the Library either, and it is not contained in the White Paper. I will happily accept your guidance, Mr. Speaker, on whether I should continue.
It is certainly open to the right hon. Gentleman to continue. If it was the Government’s intention that such further details should be available in the Vote Office and they are not, that is at the very least regrettable, and arguably incompetent. If it was not the intention for the material to be available, it should have been.
Under your guidance, Mr. Speaker, I shall of course do so, but I am sure that Members in all parts of the House will, like me, consider it utterly unacceptable that we are being expected to comment on a statement that has not been shared with the House. We have been told that a number of bases are to be closed—26, I understand—but the House is not in a position even to scrutinise any of the measures that have been advocated by the Government. I do not think that that is malevolent; I believe it to be utterly incompetent. However, on the basis of your advice, Mr. Speaker, I shall continue.
We support an enhanced role for the reserve forces, working alongside regulars to project force globally. Our reserves make an enormous contribution here at home in many ways, including the 2,000 who helped to protect the Olympics. Many serve overseas in faraway terrain in the name of national security. It is right that we pay tribute to each of those who have served, and above all to those who have lost their lives. It is even more important for us to reflect on their courage, professionalism and patriotism so soon after Armed Forces day.
While we champion reserve forces, we recognise the need to modernise. However, it is worrying that rather than synchronising the reform of the Army with that of the reserves, today’s announcement appears to have been belated. There are also fears that the reserves uplift is designed not to complement our Army, but to supplement lost capacity. Many people will reasonably want the Government to explain the defence rationale. They will want to know why the cuts in the regular Army are happening regardless of the success of any uplift in the reserves. Concern about that is only added to by the fact that the TA recruitment targets were missed by more than 4,000 last year.
Labour Members welcome much of today’s announcement—that which has been shared with the House—including the information about mental health. Increased training alongside regulars and investment in equipment will enhance reserves’ capability. Transferability of qualifications will encourage recruitment, and the change in the name is welcome. However, there will undoubtedly be concern and real hurt in the 26 as yet anonymous communities in which centres are being closed. We will examine the detail of that as soon as the Secretary of State and his team deign to share it with the House, as they have already shared it with the media.
There will be concern in certain parts of the country, particularly Scotland and south-west England, about some of the decisions that seem to have been reached. We have said repeatedly that we want, and the country needs, a reservist plan to succeed, but much of that will depend on getting the offer right for employers and reservists. A central challenge to be overcome is ensuring that reservists’ employment patterns are compatible with longer deployment periods, and that they do not face discrimination in the workplace. Service experience is an enormous asset to business, but despite that, a recent survey by the Federation of Small Businesses found that one in three employers believed that nothing would encourage them to employ a reservist.
Will the Secretary of State comment on the balance between transparency and security, particularly in respect of reservists in Northern Ireland? Will he also tell us what measures he will introduce to ensure that the employers who are least well equipped to absorb the impact of large-scale deployment, such as small businesses, are able to manage requests for leave?
Engagement with public sector employers is compulsory. We should not be inviting demands on the private sector that we would not make of the public sector. Will the Secretary of State explain how the process will be managed and monitored across Departments, and will he tell us how many Departments currently bill the Ministry of Defence for the cost of members of their work force who are deployed as reservists?
It is essential that those who volunteer to protect our country are protected in their workplace. The announcement on access to unfair dismissal tribunals is welcome, but, on discrimination at the point of hiring, I fear that the Secretary of State may be missing an opportunity. We need to get this right, rather than be rushed, but many will worry that time spent on consultation on the principle could be better used by consulting business on specific proposals.
A number of reservists who have recently lost their jobs will be on welfare. We have heard assertions from the Government on the bedroom tax and the armed forces that have turned out to be unfounded. I do not doubt Ministers’ intentions on welfare, but question the implementation, so for the purpose of clarity will the Secretary of State publish full detailed tables on how reservists in receipt of benefits or credits will be affected?
On niche specialisms, can the Secretary of State say more about how he would seek to recruit reservists with specialisms where there are current skills shortages, particularly in languages, with targeted recruitment among diaspora communities?
These reforms must succeed to fill the capability gaps, but, more importantly, they should mark a change in culture where we strengthen our front-line force with a greater and more integrated use of civilian expertise. Our modern forces must be as diverse as the threats we face, and that means having a new, high quality Army Reserve. In the interests of national security, we will work with the Government to make that a reality—but I wish to say again on behalf of the whole House how unacceptable I find it that I am expected to respond to a statement about the closures of bases, the detail of which was not shared with any Member of this House, whereas those who gather to record our proceedings have the full detail. It is a shameful way to behave, and occasionally Ministers have to have the courage to come and advocate their own policy in this Chamber.
Order. Before the Secretary of State rises to respond, he said in his statement:
“With your permission Mr Speaker, I will distribute a summary sheet that identifies the reserve locations being opened and those being vacated.”
It was not clear from that wording quite when the intention to distribute was, but clearly significant numbers of Members had not received a copy of the tri-service site summary by location, which is a detailed piece of information on one sheet. It was, however, apparently available to members of the media. I hope that the Secretary of State—[Interruption.] Order. I hope that the Secretary of State can clarify the situation, but on the face of it, it is a very considerable discourtesy to the House of Commons, and I hope he can either prove it is not, or if he recognises or accepts that it is, I am sure he will be gracious enough fulsomely to apologise to the House of Commons.
I was intending to open my remarks by apologising for the evident delay in distributing these summary sheets. The summary sheet I referred to relates to the basing and structure statement that has been made today as a written statement. However, I felt that Members would wish to have a summary of the most important element of that—the base closures—and it was my intention, Mr Speaker, with your permission to distribute that sheet as I sat down at the end of my statement, and I deeply regret that it was not available until just a few moments ago. I am also not aware that it has been distributed outside this House.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) for his broad support for these measures. We have discussed these issues before, and I know the Opposition wish these measures to succeed. It is our intention that the reserves, and, as the right hon. Gentleman said, civilian contractors, will play a crucial role in the delivery of Future Force 2020, and the integrated regular reserve whole force will be at the centre of that construct.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to “longer deployment periods”. It is not the intention to increase the maximum length of deployment period. That will remain as now, usually six months in an enduring operation, with a period of pre-deployment training to precede it.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about transparency and security, and mentioned specifically the context of Northern Ireland. This is a perfectly fair point. We want to be as transparent as possible with employers, and we want to recognise employers, but we also recognise that there will be both employers and reservists who for various reasons will be reluctant to be identified, and we will, of course, respect that as we deliver this agenda.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about small and medium-sized enterprises. We have today introduced a very significant bonus for SMEs, with a £500 per month per reservist cash bonus on top of the other allowances that are already available for SMEs when an employee reservist is called up for operations, but the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: on top of the cash inducement, flexibility is crucial to SMEs, and we will continue to exercise flexibility in dealing with requests for postponement.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about public sector employers. I absolutely agree that the public sector must lead the way. Central Government have already set out a very generous offer to reservist employees in excess of that which is statutorily available. We are challenging the wider public sector to match that, and the NHS is already a very considerable provider of reservists, but I should just clarify that public sector employers are not eligible for the financial inducements we have announced today, and, indeed, for the ones that were already available.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the issue of discrimination at the point of hiring. As he knows, the consultation response identified that some 46% of reservists reported a perception of discrimination at some point either in the workplace or in applying for work. We have announced in the White Paper that we are today establishing a website at which reservists can report incidences of perceived discrimination, which we will then investigate. If we discover that there is a case for further action, we will take it, including considering the possibility of further measures in the next quinquennial armed forces Bill, which is due for introduction in 2015.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the specific issue of the spare room subsidy as it affects members of the reserve forces. We have been clear about that. There is a section in the White Paper on benefits and related matters. If the situation is still not clear to him after he has looked at that, I will be very happy to clarify further, although the Department for Work and Pensions is, of course, the lead Department on this matter. I can say this to the right hon. Gentleman, however: where any adult member of the reserves is deployed on operations or pre-deployment training and is called up and as a consequence vacates a room in their parents’—or another person’s—house, that room will not be treated as unoccupied for the purposes of calculation of the spare room subsidy.
I declare an interest in that my daughter is a member of the Territorial Army.
I know my right hon. Friend and the entire House will wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) for what is by any standards an astonishing parliamentary achievement. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no plan B, and that it is absolutely essential that this reserves plan succeeds? Will he therefore persuade our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to join forces with the Leader of the Opposition to make it absolutely plain to employers that the success of this strategy is vital in the national interest?
My right hon. Friend is, of course, absolutely right. The success of this strategy is vital in the national interest, and I very much welcome the fact that the Opposition have approached the matter in a bipartisan fashion, challenging and questioning us where appropriate, but supporting the basic principle of expanding the reserve forces. I would be very happy to suggest to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that he make a joint approach to employers with the Leader of the Opposition. I am sure both of them share the view that the support of the employer community is critical to the success of this project.
As we withdraw from Afghanistan it will be increasingly important to have community buy-in and community awareness of our ongoing defence needs, so the building up of reserve forces within communities will be vital. It is disappointing that hon. Members, who will take a lead often in their communities to encourage people to focus on the reserve forces, do not have a copy of the statement and have belatedly had copies of the details of the areas that have been closed. I find that two are being closed in Wales, which is worrying for me because Wales’s defence footprint is already particularly small compared with that of the rest of the UK. Will the Secretary of State assure me that he will look at the impact on recruitment in Wales and the opportunity for reservists in Wales to continue to serve following the closure of these bases?
I can tell the hon. Lady that I have already done that. For example, the Territorial Army centre at Caernarfon is to close and I have looked at the distribution of the home addresses of TA members serving at that base. The nearest alternative base where they would be expected to go is at Colwyn Bay and, in fact, the majority of them live closer to Colwyn Bay than they do to Caernarfon. So we would expect the majority of them to continue to serve at the Colwyn Bay TA centre.
I have to explain to the House that when I said in my statement that some of these small units are significantly under-recruited, I was not overstating my case. We have TA centres with six or seven people enlisted at them, and we have one where the average attendance on training nights has been one over the past year. This is not just a question of the careful husbandry of resources; it is also a question of delivering the kind of training that we have promised members of the Army Reserve. We cannot deliver effective training unless we have a critical mass at the sub-unit level, and that is the driver of all the changes we are announcing today.
I warmly welcome many of the detailed announcements that the Secretary of State has made this afternoon about the way in which both regulars and civilians will be incentivised to join the TA and how employers—small and medium-sized enterprises, in particular—will be able to look after their employees. Nevertheless, is he not concerned that there will be a time gap between a large number of regular soldiers, sailors and airmen being made redundant, which is happening at the moment, and having the 30,000 fully trained TA members that he intends to have in place? What is he going to do about the time gap?
Of course, as my hon. Friend correctly presents, it will take us until 2018 to have achieved a 30,000-strong trained Army Reserve. We are seeking to capture as many ex-regulars leaving the regular service as we possibly can, and we expect that the £5,000 transfer bounty, together with the streamlining of the procedures for transfer from the regular to the reserve, will have a significant impact. He rightly says that there will not be a smooth trajectory between now and 2018—some of the measures we have to take will have short-term negative impacts before they deliver long-term positive gain—but we are clear that this is the right path to adopt.
Given the confusion that we have just had, can the Secretary of State categorically confirm that our campaign to keep the Cobridge TA centre in Stoke-on-Trent open, not least because of its community work, has meant that it is definitely not for closure and will stay open? Will he also give me an assurance about the recent Supreme Court judgment relating to the late Corporal Stephen Allbutt, whereby the Ministry of Defence has a duty of care properly to equip all serving armed forces under the Secretary of State’s jurisdiction? Will he assure me that the change being brought forward today will make sure that all our armed forces will be properly equipped and kitted out?
I am a bit astonished that someone who was a supporter of the previous Government has the effrontery to sit there and challenge me to declare that all our armed forces will be properly equipped when they go into battle, given the shocking examples that we had during the last years of the last decade in Afghanistan.
The hon. Lady correctly says that we have a duty of care, and we take it very seriously; we have made a very clear political and moral commitment to properly equipping our armed forces. I have to say to her that I do not believe that enshrining that as a legal duty, as the Supreme Court appears to have done, will help the operation of our armed forces. She also asked me specifically about Stoke-on-Trent and I can tell her that if it is not on the list we have supplied, it is not going to be vacated.
Order. I gather—I have just been informed and seen evidence for myself—that the oral statement, or copies thereof, is now being distributed around the Chamber, in what is an unedifying spectacle. I have, in all sincerity and candour, to say to the Secretary of State that, as he will know, the content of statements is not a matter for me and I take no view of them, but the administration of this matter has been woefully inadequate and, frankly, utterly incompetent. I have not known a worse example during my tenure as Speaker. I know that the Secretary of State has expressed himself in his usual, rather understated, terms, but I hope he genuinely does feel some sense of embarrassment and contrition at what has been a total mishandling by his Department, for which he is solely responsible—it is as simple as that.
I hesitate to pile Pelion on Ossa, but you will recall, Mr Speaker, that earlier this year I had occasion to raise a similar issue with you about the provision of information—the MOD has form and, no doubt, the opportunity will be taken to revise procedures.
A quick perusal of the list allows me to say that I am grateful that the bases at RAF Leuchars where an engineer regiment is based, and at Cupar, where a yeomanry squadron is based, both of which are in my constituency, are to be preserved. May I make a point to my right hon. Friend that is less about process and more about substance? Those, such as me, who have been in the House for a long time have on many occasions heard statements of the kind we have just heard from him advocating a much greater use of the value of reserves—like me, the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) will recall many of them. The issue now is not what the statement says; it is the extent to which it will be implemented and the extent to which the MOD will be answerable if it is not.
First, I am indeed embarrassed by what appears to have just occurred. As you would expect, Mr Speaker, I will be investigating precisely what has happened and I will write to you to let you know what has gone wrong this afternoon. I understood that copies of the statement and copies of the spreadsheet would be distributed as soon as I sat down, and I apologise for the fact that that did not happen.
My right hon. and learned Friend is, of course, right to say that a statement in itself, or a White Paper in itself, does not deliver the solution. But I am not coming to the House today presenting a set of ideas that we will now begin to implement; many of these ideas and processes are already under way and beginning to have effect. I have given commitments previously, and I will give them again, to keeping the House updated through the publication of both recruitment figures and trained strength figures as we turn the corner with the Army Reserve.
The Secretary of State will be aware that today is the first anniversary of the Moray Firth Tornado crash tragedy, in which Flight Lieutenant Adam Sanders, Squadron Leader Samuel Bailey and Flight Lieutenant Hywel Poole and a seriously injured fourth serviceman were involved. RAF Lossiemouth, friends and families are remembering them today, as I am sure everybody does in the House.
On the statement, there has been a discourtesy to not only Members of the House, but to the parties in this House. Some hon. Members may not be aware that all political parties in this House—the Labour party and the parties of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—receive an advance copy, and we were not provided with the appropriate information either. That is a huge discourtesy. It is unprecedented—I have never experienced it in my 13 years in this House—and it is unacceptable. Frankly, it is a dog’s breakfast and the MOD should be ashamed of itself.
As we know, in recent years there have been disproportionate cuts to personnel, to basing, to spending and now even to the Territorial Army in Scotland. In the absence of providing the list in detail and on time, will the Secretary of State please confirm that six of our 38 Army and Navy reserve sites are to close? That is 16% of the total and it represents twice Scotland’s population share, so the disproportionate cuts continue.
The approach to dealing with the estate and the rationalisation of structure has not been territorial but was based on the structure of the Army. Some new major units are relocating to Scotland. To answer the hon. Gentleman’s specific questions, there are 52 reserve sites in Scotland. Seven will be vacated and a new site will reopen, which means a net loss of six. According to my calculation, that is a 12% reduction in site footprint. I accept that the hon. Gentleman does not have ready access to the information, so he cannot know this, but some of the sites in Scotland are so incredibly poorly recruited that I think that even he would struggle to argue for their retention. There are sites with an establishment of 30 or 40 and a recruited strength of six, seven, eight or 10. We clearly cannot deliver a proper offer to Scottish reservists unless we consolidate on to sites that will deliver a critical mass at the sub-unit level for training.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), on an immensely good package. In the last statement, we heard that the Government were going to get back to using formed sub-units, which is what reserve officers want. This time, we have heard that we have gripped the critical mass issue at sub-unit level, that we are resourcing equipment properly and that we will have opportunities for employers at all levels and money for SMEs. This is a package for the future of the reserves and the future of our armed forces, of which we should all be proud.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and repeat the congratulations expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) on his work in this area as a member of the independent commission, a tireless advocate of the reserves and a giver of good advice over a long period on a complex issue. I am grateful to him for his endorsement, as he is one of the significant number of people in this place who understand the reserves and what the debate is all about.
I would be grateful to know why the Secretary of State proposes to close the Widnes site in my constituency. Halton has 125,000 people and I would love to know the logic behind that decision. However, my question is as follows. Is not the Secretary of State missing the point? He tells us that he wants massively to increase the recruitment of reservists, but at the same time he is closing down a number of centres around the country. How is that logical and how does it make any sense whatsoever? He particularly makes the point that he wants to recruit ex-members of the armed forces. Halton is one of the best recruiting areas for the armed forces in the country, so why would he want to close down the TA centre?
Even in conurbation where there are numbers of TA bases, in some cases it has been necessary to consolidate them to reach critical mass and to provide the training offer that we have committed to deliver to reservists. I should explain to the House that the TA, as structured by the previous Government’s review in 2007, had an established strength of 36,500. It never resourced that and never recruited up to that strength. We are doing two things today. We are setting out a structure and basing laydown that will work for Future Force 2020 with a force of 30,000, but we are also dealing with the overhang of a hugely over-ambitious and underfunded proposition that the previous Government put in place in 2007.
Although it is regrettable that the Secretary of State was not furnished with the correct information to enable the House to judge these matters, is it not the case that generally speaking with statements the devil is in the detail? The House will need to examine all the detail set out not only in the statement but in the White Paper. Although my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) is absolutely right that this is the only show in town, the Secretary of State should be under no illusions about the fact that this is a substantial challenge we face in cutting our regular Army to 82,000. Will the Secretary of State assure me that he will continue to keep the House regularly informed about the success of the recruitment so that the conditions that he has just set out, which applied after the last review conducted by the previous Government, do not apply to this one?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and he is absolutely right. The complexity of such an issue requires a written statement, which is why I have made one today. The changes to the structure of the Army run into the hundreds—re-rollings, relocations and amalgamations—to create an effective force, and I pay tribute to the Army staff, who have done an enormous amount of work in producing this structure. I urge right hon. and hon. Members to look carefully at the detailed documents that have been provided today, because they explain the detailed position more clearly than an oral statement ever can. My hon. Friend challenges me to publish regular updates. I have already said that I have previously committed to publishing recruitment figures and trained strength figures—on a quarterly basis, I think—and I repeat that commitment.
We welcome the broad thrust of the statement. As the Secretary of State will know, the reserve forces in Northern Ireland are among the best recruited of any region in the United Kingdom. Indeed, 2nd Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment is one of the best recruited reserve infantry units in the British Army. Although we welcome the decision to reopen Kinnegar, will the Secretary of State explain the decision to close the Territorial Army centre in Armagh?
I am afraid I shall be repeating myself. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that Northern Ireland is one of the best-recruited areas—in fact, most of the units in Northern Ireland are over strength and we appreciate the commitment of the community in Northern Ireland to reserve service. The changes to Army structure and the delivery of efficient and effective training require the closure of the TAC at Armagh and the opening of an additional site. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept that the transfer from Armagh to Portadown is part of the Army’s best effort to deliver the most effective way of training, recruiting and managing the reserve Army in Northern Ireland. We are not talking about something for just the next couple of years but about a structure and laydown that we expect to endure for many decades and to form the basis of the fully integrated Army we all want to see.
I suggest that the Government have still failed, however, to show that their plans represent value for money or are in the best interests of this country. The fact that further cash incentives have been announced today, that that ex-regular reservists will be on a better scale of pay than brigadiers and that TA numbers have been falling all point to doubt being cast on Government plans—and that is before we consider the issue of capability. Would it not be wise to halt the disbandment of the regular battalions and to stop the loss of 20,000 regular troops until we know for sure that these plans will work?
My hon. Friend returns to a familiar theme—he has suggested that course of action to me on many previous occasions. We are restructuring our armed forces to reflect the threat they will face in the future, as identified in the strategic defence and security review, and to respond to the fiscal challenges we must address if we are to have a stable platform for the proper defence of this country. I am afraid to say to my hon. Friend that although it might be tempting to wish that we had the resources to retain the regular Army at its historic strength while we recruit up to 30,000 trained reserves, we do not have that luxury. I think the Opposition would acknowledge—and have implicitly acknowledged—that reducing the size of the regular Army while increasing the size of the reserves is not without risk but is the best way to manage the resources we have to deliver the military output we require.
When the Secretary of State says that there will be effective welfare support for reservists, including in the context of the bedroom tax, I welcome that, and I am sure that my hon. Friends do, too. However, under DWP measures reservists are already exempt from the bedroom tax, and that is not the issue. Regular members of the Army are the ones who are affected by the definition of the bedroom tax. The veterans Minister, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), is already well aware of that and has promised a meeting with me that will, I am sure, occur soon. We must resolve the issue now, because armed forces families are about four months in arrears.
I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and discuss the matter. I personally read the DWP regulations on this yesterday and I am clear that when a member of regular military personnel is deployed on operations, their room will continue to be treated as occupied for the purpose of the spare room subsidy.
We are committed to recruiting a reserve force of 35,000. I remind my hon. Friend that as recently as 1990, we had a trained reserve force of 72,500, so it is not as if we are trying to do something that has not been done before. All our English-speaking allies operate with far greater reserve forces as a proportion of their regular forces than we do.
I should tell my hon. Friend that the responsibility for delivering the strength required lies with the individual commands, and they understand and accept that they may have to flex resources if that is necessary to deliver the objective. We have no plan B: we will deliver these reserve numbers.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to refer to that matter in detail. Part of the structure change relates to a new focus on reservists’ contributions to cyber-defence. Alongside the traditional image of the reservist, we are looking for people who spend their week sitting in front of a screen, perhaps working for one of the big IT companies, but who relish being able to deploy their skills in a more operational environment. We will specifically recruit cyber-reservists, who will not necessarily have to have the same levels of fitness or deployability as reservists in general if they are willing to deploy to add to our cyber-defence capabilities at UK locations on a routine basis.
I hope very much that we will get 30,000 trained and deployable reservists by 2018, but over the past year recruitment to the Territorial Army—the Army Reserve, as it will be—has not been great, so I am slightly pessimistic. In 2018, will the armed forces be blamed if 30,000 reservists are not fully trained and deployable?
It will be for individuals to point the finger, although I can guess where it is most likely to be pointed. I should say that, having previously declined sharply, numbers have stabilised. Of course that is not enough, but it is at least a start; the hole is not getting deeper. The purpose of announcing the measures in the White Paper is to provide the backdrop for what will now be an aggressive recruiting drive to bring through the recruits who in two years’ time—it will of course take two years—will have become fully trained members of the reserve forces.
I am incredibly disappointed about the shambles today, not least because I learned only 20 minutes ago that Dunfermline was to close. I hope that the Secretary of State will explain the rationale behind that decision. However, written in hand on the summary sheet for this omnishambles of a statement is the word “Kilmarnock”. Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify whether that is a late addition or someone’s homework? What exactly is going on with Kilmarnock?
The hon. Gentleman is right that Dunfermline is closing: 154 Transport Regiment is to move to Bruce House Territorial Army centre, in one of a significant number of consolidations. In most cases, consolidations do not give rise to site closures because there is more than one unit on a site, but in some cases, where a consolidation removes the last unit or all the units on a site, logically the site closes. I emphasise again that the driver for these changes is not to vacate sites; it is to create a structure that will deliver the military capability we require and allow reservists to receive the training offer that we have set out to them today. I regret that, in some cases, that will mean that people have to travel to an Army Reserve centre in an adjoining community, but I should mention that reservists receive home-to-duty travel allowance and will therefore be reimbursed for the costs of making the journey.