House of Commons
Monday 2 September 2013
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Over the next 10 years, the Ministry of Defence will spend over £12 billion to ensure our helicopter capability remains up to date. The Chinook remains our heavy-lift helicopter. We currently have a fleet of 46 aircraft—the second largest fleet in the world—with 14 new aircraft coming into service from 2014, bringing the total to 60. We regularly review the requirement for all of our helicopter capability.
Chinooks, along with other helicopters, already regularly operate from royal naval vessels. Some specific training is needed to qualify crews to enable them to operate from ships, but no specific engineering work is required for Chinooks to embark on or fly from ships, so no marinisation programme is needed. But as Chinooks cannot fit in the hangar on any of our existing vessels, they embark for specific operations or exercises rather than for long deployments.
The Government of Yemen have specifically requested support, as far as air power is concerned, in order to defeat al-Qaeda. As the Minister knows, there was an attempt to assassinate the Prime Minister of Yemen over the weekend. What support can be given to Yemen, as far as heavy-lift helicopters are concerned?
I want to ask the Secretary of State why there has been no response whatsoever to my letters to him and his Ministers dated January, February, April, June and July 2013, or to my letters to the head of the Military Aviation Authority, dated January, February, April and June, about a number of serious concerns raised by my constituent, Christopher Jackson, relating to the safety of the Sea King helicopter fleet and the conduct of a number of individuals involved in ensuring the safety of the fleet, which I understand is now the subject of a police investigation. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State investigated what has happened, and may I receive responses by return?
I am obviously not able to speak for the head of the Military Aviation Authority, which has its own organisation within the MOD, but I would be happy to look into the matter. I have not heard from the hon. Lady directly myself; I will take that on board and write back to her.
2. What assessment he has made of the cost and credibility of a nuclear deterrent based on a cruise missile system. (900041)
A range of cruise missile-based systems were examined as part of the recent Trident alternatives review. The evidence showed that any cruise missile option was more vulnerable and had significantly reduced reach compared with a Trident-based deterrent. Additionally, it would be more costly, requiring the design and development of a new warhead, as well as a new missile.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, but will he give me a commitment that in any future negotiations with our coalition partners after the next general election, if by some misfortune no single party should gain an outright majority, our party would retain a continuous-at-sea deterrent with four nuclear submarines?
The Government’s position is that we will maintain continuous-at-sea deterrence, and to do that we are preparing to go ahead at the main-gate decision in 2016 with the delivery of replacement submarines. I fear I would be straying beyond my remit if I were to speculate on negotiations that may or may not take place after the next election.
What is the Secretary of State’s latest estimate of the cost of replacing both the warheads and the submarine system, ahead of the main-gate decision in 2016? Has he given further consideration to the possibility of us not renewing Trident in order to help bring about a nuclear-free world more rapidly rather than re-arming ourselves and thus delaying the possibility of a nuclear-free world?
On the last point, I think that history teaches us that unilateral abandonment of nuclear weapons is not the way to bring about a more rapid elimination of those weapons, much as we would all like to see that happen. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the estimates produced in the 2006 White Paper for the cost of replacing the existing submarines with a four-boat solution were between £15 billion and £20 billion—in terms of the 2006 economic conditions—and they remain unchanged.
In order that the Secretary of State does not keep having to tell us that he must not go above his pay grade, will he carry the message back to No. 10 that as Labour Front Benchers say they are willing to sign up to two of the four boats before the next election, and as the majority of people in this House would like to have that main-gate decision implemented at least in part, why should we not go ahead so that we cannot be blackmailed by the Liberal Democrats in the event of a hung Parliament after the general election?
I understand my hon. Friend’s point of view. He has on other occasions raised the issue of entering into a contract for the submarines at an early stage. Our current way of managing our equipment programme is to enter into contracts with industry at the point at which projects are mature enough to enable us to secure the best possible value for money for the taxpayer. Entering into a contract at this stage, when the project is relatively immature, would not represent value for money.
Trident Alternatives Review
The review demonstrates that no alternative system is as capable as a Trident-based deterrent, or as cost-effective.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the dangers of the alternatives to Trident is that of mistaken identity? An intercontinental ballistic missile leaves a very distinct signature on launch, whereas the alternatives could be confused with conventional weapons, and hence trigger an escalation rather than a de-escalation of conflict.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Trident alternatives review makes clear that that is just one of the many drawbacks of a cruise-based system. The other primary drawbacks are the risk, the time scale for development, the likely cost, the lack of range, and the vulnerability of the weapons system.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that, when maintenance is taken into account, the cost differential between four boats and three boats is minimal, and that we should press ahead with a full replacement for Trident because it is in our national interest to do so?
My hon. Friend has conflated two different questions. The Trident alternatives review states categorically that Trident provides the best value and the best capability for the United Kingdom. As for the separate question of how many boats are needed, the Government are determined to maintain continuous-at-sea deterrence, and the best advice at present is that that will require four boats. The cost differential between three and four boats is about £1.7 billion in net present value terms, or about £50 million to £60 million a year over the life of the project.
My right hon. Friend has already made a powerful case for Trident and for continuous-at-sea deterrence, but does he agree that other potential deterrents that have been mooted, such as an airborne deterrent, would also be expensive to implement? Moreover, an airborne deterrent would be prey to a pre-emptive strike—which means that it would be no deterrent at all—and would be considered objectionable by many people who do not want nuclear armed planes landing and taking off on their doorsteps.
Indeed. The nature of the United Kingdom, which is a relatively small and densely populated land mass, is one of the factors taken into account by the Trident alternatives review, and one of the reasons why the idea of land-based ballistic missiles was ruled out at an early stage. The review states clearly that all alternatives to Trident are less capable, higher-risk and more expensive. That strikes me as a pretty categorical conclusion.
Can the Secretary of State tell the House how much taxpayers’ money has been spent on the Liberal Democrat vanity project that is the Trident alternatives review, given that, by and large, both the Conservative part of the coalition and the Labour Opposition support the outcome and knew what it would be?
I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the work on the review was conducted in-house, led by the Cabinet Office and supported by the Ministry of Defence, and that the principal cost involved will have been civil servants’ time. If he submits a written question to me, I will ask the Department to produce the best estimate that it can make of the time involved.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we opted for an alternative to Trident, we should probably have to be out of the submarine building business altogether, and that that would pose a real risk to the national security of the country?
My right hon. Friend has made an extremely good point. It seems often to be forgotten by those who advocate an alternative that we must make a choice about whether to sustain a submarine building industry in the United Kingdom. I, for one, believe that it is essential to the UK’s strategic interest for us to maintain a submarine-building capability, and that further points to the use of a submarine-based continuous-at-sea deterrent.
The Government’s Trident alternatives review covered a large number of options and was described in this House by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury as the “most comprehensive study” of our nuclear deterrent policy. Will the Secretary of State enlighten the House as to why the alternative being put forward now by the Liberal Democrats of two boats conducting irregular unarmed patrols was not considered as part of that comprehensive review?
Armed Forces (Scotland)
Defence of the UK is planned, organised and resourced to meet the needs of the UK as a whole. Units based in Scotland are an integral part of the UK armed forces and, as such, make a vital contribution to national defence. Scotland, as part of the UK, plays a key role in all aspects of its defence, and benefits from the full range of UK defence capabilities and activities. It is perfectly clear that we are better together in defence, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman and the vast majority of those in this House will agree.
Support for Scottish separation has fallen this morning to just 29%. Does the Minister agree that one reason for that is the lack of credibility of the nationalists on defence? Has he received any communication from the Scottish Government on how they propose to fund a standing army of 15,000 troops with a defence budget one tenth the size of this Government’s?
The data that the hon. Gentleman has reported to the House come as no surprise to me. The straight answer to his question is no; we hear all sorts of rumours, but we await a White Paper from the Scottish Government—apparently, it will arrive at the end of this year—laying out more precisely than we have had thus far what they plan to do for national security and defence. It sounds, however, from the data that he has brought to the House that that will be highly hypothetical.
Troop Numbers (Afghanistan)
As the Prime Minister announced on 19 December 2012, UK force levels will reduce from 9,000 to 6,000 from this autumn, and to about 5,200 by the end of 2013. That figure may, of course, fluctuate and occasionally exceed this total due to temporary surges into theatre. Our force level reduction is in line with the draw-down plans of our NATO allies and reflects the progress of the Afghan national security forces in assuming overall security responsibility for the country.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Clearly, I put on the record my salute to all those brave servicemen and women who have given their lives or been injured, and those who place their lives on the line every single day, in support of our security. The worst thing would be if we withdraw our troops from Afghanistan and then have to go back. Will he inform the House on what progress he is making on getting the ANSF to take over from our brave servicemen and women?
As my hon. Friend will know, the focus of our armed forces is now on encouraging the ANSF and training, helping and mentoring them. We are very encouraged by the progress that we see. For instance, a major operation took place in the summer in the Logar and Nangarhar provinces, involving a large number of Afghan troops. It was very successful and it also demonstrated the increasing capability of the Afghan air force, so we are on track. Despite the scepticism of some, the ANSF are looking on track to assume responsibilities overall.
I cannot share the exact numbers with the hon. Lady. What I can say is that our focus will definitely be on the Afghan national officer academy, which is just outside Kabul. We are very much concentrating on that, but of course we need to consider force protection and other issues, and the actual details cannot yet be given.
At a time when some commentators outside the House doubt the utility of UK military force, it is crucial that those from all parts of the House again put on the record our respect for the remarkable contribution that our men and women are making in Afghanistan.
Let me return to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), on which the Minister attempted an answer but did not give enough details. Will he say to the House in more detail what he understands to be the current commitment for UK equipment being retained in Afghanistan post-2014? When will the Government be in a position to share with the House the precise number of UK military personnel who will remain in theatre post-2014?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments about our armed forces, which, notwithstanding any excitements last week, are still doing an extremely good job in Afghanistan. I pay tribute to them as well.
Our focus after the end of next year will most definitely be on the Afghan national army officer academy outside Kabul. I am afraid that I cannot yet give the right hon. Gentleman or the House details of equipment that we might be leaving behind or anything like that, but we expect to announce it by the end of the year.
Defence Equipment and Support
The Department continues to make good progress in the assessment phase for the reform of Defence Equipment and Support. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, we are testing a GoCo—Government owned, contractor operated—model in the market. Separately, we are working up the best public sector option we can, which we are referring to as DE&S-plus. The commercial competition for a GoCo provider is well under way and I am pleased to confirm that two consortia are participating in this work. The invitation to negotiate was issued to each on 24 July and officials have commenced negotiations to develop the GoCo option in more detail.
The MOD is in the early stages of negotiations on the contract for a GoCo and, as I have said, is at the same time working up a DE&S-plus option. We will not make a decision until we have received bids from the consortia, which we expect to conclude in the spring of next year, and we will compare that against the DE&S-plus option. Only at that point will it be appropriate to consider the question that the hon. Gentleman asks.
I appreciate that for sound commercial reasons the Minister will not want to share with the House the details of the value-for-money assessment of DE&S-plus and the GoCo. Is he able to tell the House whether that process has been completed and, if it has, what the broad conclusion is?
As I have just said to the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), until we receive the bids for the GoCo option we will not know either the costs of implementing that option or the benefits the MOD will receive. The final value-for-money case can be completed only once that information is available to us.
Proposals for DE&S include greater involvement of the private sector, as we know. We also know that a very large number of private companies already contribute significantly to MOD projects. However, in the light of the very recent public failures and the fact that the GoCo tender process is under way, will the Minister tell the House what discussions there have been across Government and with the Justice Secretary specifically about companies that have been found to overcharge, or worse, and their ability to do business with the Government and MOD in the future?
I can confirm to the hon. Lady that a review across Government is being undertaken into the competition currently being managed by the MOD. We expect it to report relatively soon. On the question of the company that she did not mention specifically but referred to as having difficulties with the Ministry of Justice, we are aware of those discussions. The company is a member of one of the consortia and it will be up to the consortium to decide whether it is appropriate, in the light of the outcome of the review, for that company to remain in it or not. It will be up to the consortium to replace it, if it wishes, with another.
Ministers will have to make a decision about whether to consolidate DE&S at Donnington or at Bicester. Unless and until they make that decision, it will not be easy to persuade the private sector to invest in much-needed new logistics equipment and 21st-century warehousing at either location.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pressing the case for his constituency interest in one of the most significant logistics sites the MOD operates. It is our view that it is not appropriate to prejudge the outcome of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, the logistic commodities and services transformation exercise, the DE&S-plus exercise or the Defence Support Group exercise, all of which have an involvement in both Donnington and Bicester. Once we are clear which entity we are working with on each exercise, we will be best placed to judge where the locations should be consolidated.
A cost-benefit analysis of possible nuclear deterrent systems was carried out for the 2006 White Paper, “The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent”. This demonstrated that a submarine-launched ballistic missile system based on Trident was the most cost-effective solution to the UK’s requirement. The recently published “Trident Alternatives Review” supports the judgments made in 2006 and demonstrates that the renewal of the current Trident-based system is the most cost-effective and capable nuclear deterrent for the UK.
Just because Trident is obviously the best new nuclear deterrent, surely we should still worry about, and be aware of, costs. Given that submarine programmes have a history of vast cost overruns—50% in the case of the Astute class programme—will the Secretary of State assure the House that he is keeping a close eye on costs and that he is broadly confident that he can deliver Trident on time and on budget?
We have not yet contracted but, as I said in response to the question asked by the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), we believe that the costs of replacing the Trident deterrent will fall within the estimates set out in the 2006 White Paper. I should say to my hon. Friend that we have made significant strides to reform the way in which the submarine enterprise is conducted, and we believe that the MOD has a much firmer control of the enterprise’s cost base than has previously been the case.
Is the right hon. Gentleman keeping an open mind about the timetable? If experts and the industry tell him that there could be a more cost-effective solution for the taxpayer if the main-gate decision were to come earlier than the scheduled date of 2016, will he be alive to that, rather than sticking to the current agreement within the coalition?
Tempting though it is to go down the route that the hon. Gentleman sets out, the reality is that the processes that must be undertaken to reach a mature main-gate decision that is properly informed by the evidence simply could not be shortened to the available time scale. We are aiming for 2016, by when we will have a robust basis on which to contract and to conduct the value-for-money assessment.
The conflict in Syria is of grave concern to the international community and the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime is, I think, regarded as abhorrent by everyone. The UK will continue to press for a political solution to end the bloodshed and we are urging the Syrian regime to enter the Geneva process towards a negotiated transition.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Clearly the security situation will have the greatest impact on Syria’s near neighbours, so what discussions have he and other members of the Cabinet had with those near neighbours and the Arab League, as well as NATO and the EU?
My hon. Friend might have seen that the Secretary-General of NATO made a statement only this morning about this matter. I assure her that we have the closest possible contact and dialogue with the regional players—the Arab League, the Gulf Co-operation Council, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. We are acutely conscious of the risks and threats that the situation in Syria present to them. I should also mention that we are the second largest donor of humanitarian assistance to try to alleviate the shocking refugee crisis in Syria.
Is it not the case that, although the civil war in Syria started in early 2011, a UK firm was granted a licence to sell chemicals to the regime in 2012, and that was stopped only because of tougher EU sanctions? Is there any murderous regime anywhere with which we are not willing to do business? This illustrates what I have said about Syria. If that process had not been stopped owing to EU sanctions, chemicals would have been sent that could have made the gas that was used against civilians there.
The hon. Gentleman makes a case with a great deal of passion, but without much detailed understanding of what he is talking about. Export licences were granted for some industrial chemicals that could have been used in a process that might be involved in the production of poisonous gases. Those export licences were revoked—no such chemicals were exported. However, I should explain that the problem that we all face is that a significant number of industrial chemicals have perfectly legitimate industrial uses—in this case, I believe, in metal-finishing activities—and we have to maintain the right balance between ensuring that we are not providing materials that could be misused and allowing normal trade to be conducted.
Much has been made in the media about the potential impact of last week’s vote on the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that whatever disagreements there might be on the particular issue of Syria, the strength of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States is absolutely essential, and it rests, much more importantly, on intelligence and a shared belief in a nuclear deterrent?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our relationship with the United States is central to our defence and security, and I am confident that, whatever happened last week, the depth, strength and history of that relationship mean that it is a resilient one. The Prime Minister has spoken to the President since last Thursday, and I am confident that as a result of that conversation the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom will continue, and will remain strong and resilient.
Given that the security situation in Syria is likely to deteriorate or certainly change, will the Secretary of State tell the House why last Thursday’s vote, whereby in essence the House did not agree to two motions, should not be revisited in future?
As the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Foreign Secretary have already made clear, this is a democracy. Parliament has spoken, and we take it that Parliament has spoken very clearly. We cannot keep coming back to Parliament with the same question. I think that the circumstances would have to change very significantly before Parliament wanted to look again at this issue.
I warmly welcome the Government’s policy of not intervening militarily in Syria, but may I seek assurances from the Secretary of State that every action will be taken by the Government and by friendly Governments around the world to make sure that perpetrators of atrocities in Syria are outlawed, and that should they seek to leave their country they will stand trial and any wealth and money they have forfeited?
Our position remains that there needs to be a robust response to the illegal use of chemical weapons. The House of Commons has ruled out military participation in any such response, but we will pursue every diplomatic, political and other channel to continue to deliver the robust message that my right hon. Friend calls for.
I want to return to the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart). On Thursday, after the vote, the Prime Minister ruled out UK involvement in military action in Syria. The Government of course will remain engaged diplomatically and on aid policy, but will the Secretary of State spell out for the House in what, if any, circumstances, following changes in Syria or internationally, the Government would bring back to Parliament the issue of UK military involvement in Syria?
If I may say so, it is a bit rich for the right hon. Gentleman, who last week trooped into the Lobby behind the leader of his party, giving rise to the very situation in which we now find ourselves, to demand that I tell him precisely in which circumstances we might revisit this issue. I have already said to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) that we believe that Parliament has spoken clearly on this issue, and is unlikely to want to revisit it unless the circumstances change very significantly.
As my hon. Friend knows, the armed forces covenant is important for this Government and it is a personal priority of mine. We are taking a number of steps to strengthen it. These include the continued promotion of the community covenant scheme, with more than 370 local authorities now signed up—that is more than 80% of all the local authorities in the UK; the recent announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer of £10 million per year to support the covenant; and the launch of the corporate covenant, which allows businesses and charitable organisations to demonstrate their public support for the armed forces community.
Over the next few years, a considerable number of pupils from military families will be educated in south Wiltshire and around Salisbury. Will the Minister confirm that the MOD will work proactively with local authorities, including Wiltshire, to ensure that pupil premium funding is spent in an optimal way and that best practice is shared?
Yes, I believe I can. The service pupil premium was increased in April this year from £250 to £300. I can assure my hon. Friend that as units move under re-basing, whether from Germany or within the United Kingdom, we continue to work with the Department for Education, providing specialist information, advice and support through our own directorate for children and young people to local authorities and schools to secure maximum benefit from the service pupil premium for service children. In my hon. Friend’s particular case, we will of course ensure that we involve the military-civil integration partnership in Wiltshire, which does very good work in this area.
The Army Families Federation has launched an investigation into the effect of the bedroom tax on armed forces families, which I know may come as a surprise to the Minister as it took him some time to accept that armed forces families would be affected by the bedroom tax. Will he clarify whether the families of armed forces personnel who stay in single living accommodation on base in the UK are to be exempt from the bedroom tax in the same way as are the families of students living away from home? At present there are inconsistencies in the way this policy is being applied and it is undermining the armed forces covenant.
I recently had the privilege of attending the Army Families Federation conference in Germany, where I spoke on a number of matters, and a number of questions were raised with me by service personnel. I do not remember that issue being raised with me by the Army Families Federation when I was in Germany, so it may be an issue that the federation has raised with the hon. Lady, but it certainly did not raise the matter with me when I was at its conference.
The Minister rightly pointed out that the armed forces covenant is not just for the Ministry of Defence. With that in mind, what regular liaison and discussions are held with the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that the community covenant is more than just a photo call?
The hon. Gentleman mentions the community covenant, which gives me an opportunity to repeat the fact that more than 80% of local authorities have signed it, including, I am pleased to say, all those in his and my county, Essex. He talked about co-operation between Government Departments. As he will know, a specific Cabinet sub-committee chaired by the Minister for Government Policy meets regularly to make sure that we are properly co-ordinated between Departments in evaluating the covenant. The hon. Gentleman may be pleased to know that that committee is due to meet again in the near future.
I am delighted to be able to say that the ultimate answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is 42, as the UK currently participates in 40 NATO smart defence initiatives and two of the European Defence Agency’s pooling and sharing projects. I am happy to write to him with a list, if he would like it. Capability development is a long-term process. Many of these projects are still in their infancy and as such we are unable to quantify meaningfully direct savings to the UK, but savings there certainly will be. There are clear benefits for the UK in seeking collaborative opportunities and encouraging other partners to do the same, particularly working in small groups where it is expedient to do so. UK-Dutch amphibiosity, 40 years old this year, is a very good example.
Indeed, I would like the Minister to write to me. I support what the Government are doing to try to buy at lower cost collaboratively with allies, but the Government’s defence expenditure, according to public expenditure statistical analyses last year, was in real terms £4.9 billion less than when Labour was in power in our last year of office. What proportion of that £4.9 billion has been saved through smart defence?
I have to refer the hon. Gentleman to my earlier remarks. These projects have been going since 2011—they are in their infancy—so it would be remarkable if demonstrable savings were to be volunteered at this point, but we are confident that there will be savings, which is in large part why we are doing this, and they will be forthcoming as we go further with pooling, sharing and smart defence.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. He will be aware of the Northern Group. Within both NATO and the European Union it is important to identify groups of like-minded countries, such as the Northern Group, with which we can work particularly well. It seems to me to be expedient to work with the grain of such countries in order to lever in effect. My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary will discuss that shortly in Vilnius.
On defence sharing, the UK provides military training to senior military officers from countries around the world. The MOD has confirmed to me in parliamentary answers that over recent years that has regularly included senior army officers from the Assad regime. Does the Minister regret that?
I cannot really comment because I just do not know. I would be very surprised if that was the case, but we can certainly look into it. The hon. Gentleman is right that we provide training and exposure to a wide range of countries, looking all the while at the probity and integrity of their regimes. Clearly nothing is perfect in this world, but we put huge effort into ensuring that those who benefit from our training courses go back to their countries and use the information they have gained to good purpose and in a way that we in this House find acceptable.
Does the Minister believe that the principles of smart defence are best served through multilateral organisations, such as the European Defence Agency or NATO, or on a bilateral basis, such as the Lancaster house agreement? He said that he will write to my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley). Will he share that information with the entire House by placing details in the Library?
Absolutely. I am more than happy to write about the 42 programmes and place a copy in the Library. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s binary proposition: namely, that we should choose to operate either on a bilateral or multilateral basis or through supranational organisations. I believe that both have their part to play. Working with the grain of other countries, in the way I have described, seems to me to offer great opportunities for levering in effect. I have cited UK-Dutch amphibiosity, which we should all be celebrating in this 40th anniversary year.
14. What steps he is taking to increase defence exports. (900054)
This Government are working tirelessly to support economic growth, and responsible defence exports make an important contribution to that. From the Prime Minister and Ministers across other Departments to service chiefs and Ministers in the Department—indeed, I was in Korea and Japan during the recess—all are engaged in supporting our allies in looking at acquiring top-quality British military equipment.
I thank the Minister for that answer. My constituency has a number of defence and aerospace contractors, so will he join me in welcoming the 62% growth achieved last year in defence exports and tell the House what support he has received from other Departments to ensure that that growth continues?
Of course I join my hon. Friend in welcoming the 62% increase in defence and security exports in 2012, which is up to £8.8 billion, and in a global market that grew by only 45%, so we are increasing our market share. As I indicated earlier, we have had support from other Government Departments. The Home Office, in relation to security, the Cabinet Office and No. 10, through the Prime Minister, are engaged. I point out to my hon. Friend and to the whole House that next week the defence and security international exhibition, which is expected to be the largest of its type in Europe this year, will take place in the O2 Centre here in London, showcasing to over 30,000 visitors and 100 foreign delegations the best of British on offer.
Notwithstanding the growth of the industry, does the Minister accept that the recent debacle over parts of chemical weapons being sent to Syria shows that this Government still have not learned the lessons from Matrix Churchill and must be much more joined up between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the MOD?
I think that the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the nature of the export application that was declined for Syria recently, as described by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We have a very clear policy for export controls that is supervised by BIS. I should have referred earlier to BIS’s excellent work in responsible defence exports through the UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation.
The proposals in the “Future Reserves 2020” White Paper published in July were the result of a full and open consultation with stakeholders, including employers and representative bodies such as the CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses. I have been encouraged by the constructive support we have received. We know that the only way to implement our plans successfully for the future reserves is to maintain an open and honest discussion among the Department, reserves and their families, and employers. That is what we have done to date, and it is precisely what we shall continue to do in the weeks and months ahead.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he join me in paying tribute to the many reservists who have served with distinction in both Iraq and Afghanistan, including one young man in my office, Hugh Orton, who has completed a three-month internship and who has done valuable service overseas?
I wholeheartedly join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to our reservists, including her member of staff. Our reservists are essential members of our armed forces who have served and continue to serve with great distinction and gallantry on deployed operations. Since 2003 more than 25,000 reservists have been mobilised for operations alongside their regular counterparts, with a number paying the ultimate price. In the Territorial Army alone, more than 70 operational awards have been earned since 2003.
The Minister is of course right to pay tribute to the contribution of reservists, but could he indicate to the House what protection he will put in place to ensure that reservists are not discriminated against by employers when they go for new jobs?
We are already providing additional support for employers, particularly small and medium-sized businesses, to assist them to find people to fill in if their members of staff are deployed as reservists on operations. We also plan to give greater notice to employers, so they should have greater regularity in when their employees are deployed for service. We have discussed this in great depth with employers. They are not convinced that we should legislate specifically on this issue, although of course we keep an eye on it as we go along.
My first priority remains the success of operations in Afghanistan. Beyond that, my priorities are to deliver the sustainable transformation of the Ministry of Defence, to build confidence within the armed forces in the Future Force 2020 model, to reinforce the armed forces covenant, to maintain budgets in balance, and to deliver equipment programmes on time and to budget so that our armed forces can be confident of being properly equipped and trained.
I thank the Secretary of State for that helpful statement. Does he agree that the current crisis in Syria brings into very sharp relief the crucial importance of the strategic bases in Cyprus, particularly RAF Akrotiri? Does he agree that it is essential that the Government do not just retain those bases but invest in their facilities and infrastructure?
The Government reviewed the utility and position of the sovereign base areas in 2010-11 and concluded that they played an important part in Britain’s defensive arrangements. We intend to continue to invest in them and to maintain them on the current basis.
T7. When will the Government make a decision on the number of F-35s that will be procured as part of the arrangement with Lockheed Martin, and is the Minister able to guarantee that the work-share allocation for the United Kingdom and BAE Systems will not be reduced in the future? (900006)
I can confirm that it is our intention, in the remaining months of this year, to place our first order for the first operational squadron of joint strike fighters. As far as the work-share component is concerned, as long as other countries maintain their orders and we maintain ours, we intend to retain the 15%.
T2. In July the Secretary of State announced that the Territorial Army centre in Stratford-on-Avon would close and made assurances, through a Minister, that tenants of the centre, such as the local ambulance association, would not be left homeless. The Minister also made assurances that the facilities would be provided for the local cadets and that recruitment to the historic 867 Signal Troop based there would not be negatively impacted. Two months on, could the Minister update my constituents and me about plans for the New Broad Street centre? (900001)
I can tell my hon. Friend—who is quite right to be concerned about these things, and I understand his constituents’ point of view—that the long-term future of the centre in Stratford-on-Avon has yet to be determined and that there will be re-provision for any cadet units and any lodging units when that happens. We have yet to decide what the wider defence uses might be for the site. If there is no long-term defence use for the site it will be disposed of in accordance with standard procedures, but without, I hope, any bad impact on the cadets or other lodging units.
A leading commentator in Australia recently characterised the Syrian conflict as not “goodies versus baddies”, but rather “baddies versus baddies”. Does the Secretary of State share that simple assessment of our political and military dilemma?
Simple assessments of complex situations rarely paint the whole picture, but the hon. Gentleman has a point. The opposition is not a single, homogenous force. There are various elements within it, some of which are deeply unpleasant in their objectives and methods.
T3. Following the answer to the first topical question and in the light of last Thursday’s decision, what conflict-resolution role does the Secretary of State envisage for our troops based either in Cyprus or more widely in the middle east and north Africa region? (900002)
As I have made clear, we accept the will of Parliament that there will be no British military involvement in any action against Syria. That does not mean that we are not continuing to press for a diplomatic solution and for the convening of the Geneva peace conference to try to reach a negotiated transition in Syria. No one has yet suggested that any such transition would involve any military role for the UK. Until such a conference convenes and makes progress, any such question is purely hypothetical.
Why was the intelligence document published by President Obama on Friday so much more comprehensive, detailed and compelling than the one the Secretary of State published just the day before? If the Secretary of State was not in possession of the same information, which I find difficult to believe, why did he not wait until he could put all of the facts before this House, instead of forcing Members to make a decision when it was too soon and we were not in possession of the facts?
First of all, I did not publish a document. The chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee wrote to the Prime Minister summarising the judgment of the UK intelligence community. That was done in an atmosphere in which we were extremely conscious of the parallels with Iraq 2003 and extremely cautious about presenting any argument to Parliament that relied or depended on intelligence information that we could not publish or produce. I think we made the right judgment in presenting our argument cautiously, relying only on information that was available and could be examined by Members of the House of Commons.
T4. Ministers’ summer reading will have included the report of the Committee on Arms Export Controls, including its concerns about export licences for dual-use items to Syria. In responding to that report, will the Minister confirm that British exports will not have contributed to the military strength of the Assad regime? (900003)
I am glad to answer that question because it allows me to provide a rather more full answer than was given to the somewhat hysterical outburst from the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick). The licences that are mentioned in the newspapers today, which I think are those that concern the hon. Gentleman, are two standard individual export licences that were issued in January for sodium fluoride and potassium fluoride. As everybody in the House will know, sodium fluoride is used in the fluoridisation of drinking water and in toothpaste—I suspect that we will all have some today. Potassium fluoride has applications in the metallurgical industry and in the manufacture of pesticides. When it was considered that those substances could be precursors in some other application, the licences were withdrawn. Nothing has been exported.
The head of Britain’s armed forces, General Sir Nick Houghton, has admitted that he faces a “huge challenge” in maintaining morale and performance. Figures that were released just the other month show that the proportion of service personnel who feel that their morale is low has gone up to 30%. That is a shocking situation. What will the Government do about it?
If the hon. Lady cares to read the original interview that General Sir Nick Houghton gave to the in-house magazine, she will see that there is a slightly different slant in that story to that in some national newspapers. The Chief of the Defence Staff was saying that we have perhaps not communicated our vision of Future Force 2020 and what it offers to the people in our armed forces as well as we could or should have done. That is why I included in the list of my priorities that I gave a few moments ago the communication of the challenges and opportunities of Future Force 2020 to our own people.
T5. Given that for four centuries, Scotland and the Scottish people have played such a glorious part in the defence of our United Kingdom, and that from the battles of Malplaquet and Blenheim to the sands of north Africa and the mud of Flanders we have shed blood together, would it not be a good idea if Armed Forces day 2014 was held in Scotland? (900004)
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, Armed Forces day was held in Scotland in 2011. He will remember that it was held in Edinburgh. I am delighted to tell him that on 28 June 2014, Armed Forces day will be held in the great city of Stirling. I spoke to the Provost, Councillor Mike Robbins, about that and he was absolutely delighted. The Ministry of Defence and the city of Stirling will work together to ensure that it is a first-rate event.
What is the strategy in Syria? Listening to the speeches in last Thursday’s debate, it became very clear that no one had spoken to the new leadership in Iran or to the new leadership in China about their position on the Security Council. What is the strategy or are the Government just giving up on defence and foreign affairs?
We will take no lectures from the hon. Gentleman on the last point. As I have said several times today, notwithstanding the vote last Thursday, which made it clear that we will not engage militarily in a response to the shocking use of chemical weapons, we will continue to explore every avenue to influence the outcome through diplomatic and political means. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that if he makes himself available here tomorrow, he will have the opportunity to ask the Foreign Secretary that question at Foreign Office questions and to receive a full answer about the level of engagement with the leaderships of Iran, Russia, China and the many other countries that are involved.
As I believe my hon. and gallant Friend knows, the air ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—optimisation study is looking at our defence requirements and capabilities in air-based ISTAR, including maritime patrol, to inform decisions as part of the strategic defence and security review in 2015. A range of options is being considered, including unmanned air systems for maritime surveillance. If he is available next week to go to the ExCel centre—rather than the O2 centre which I mentioned earlier—for the Defence and Security Equipment International conference, I am sure that he will see some of those systems on display.
I think we have to be clear in these matters. The British Government can speak for what Britain will or will not do; other allies have to make their own decisions, and just as we have asked them to respect our political processes and constitutional norms, so we have to respect theirs as well.
T8. Parliament as a whole owes a huge debt of gratitude over 25 years to the armed forces parliamentary scheme and its founder, Sir Neil Thorne. Under your instructions, Mr Speaker, and those of the Lord Speaker and the Secretary of State, the scheme will be relaunched next Tuesday at 5 o’clock in Room 14 under new management, and I am glad that Sir Neil Thorne has agreed to become life president of the new scheme. Will the Minister recommit the assets and determination of the Ministry of Defence to the scheme, and ensure it takes forward this brilliant opportunity of educating parliamentarians about the ways of the armed forces? (900007)
Absolutely, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on becoming chairman of the trustees. I know he has put a lot of effort into that, and it will be a great success. I add my tribute to Sir Neil Thorne, who has done a wonderful job over more than a quarter of a century in bringing together this wonderful scheme which so many right hon. and hon. Members have participated in and benefited from. The Ministry of Defence values that highly and will, of course, commit resources to ensuring it is a success. I am sure the House will agree it is important that the scheme should evolve, and right hon. and hon. Members will want the sort of transparency and governance arrangements that have now been brought in. I am clear that under the guidance of my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour, the scheme will go from strength to strength.
Beyond the dialogue that has taken place with the United States Government on how to respond to the chemical weapons attack in Damascus on 21 August, will the Secretary of State confirm that work will continue on how to respond were Syria’s chemical weapons to fall into the hands of al-Qaeda affiliates or Hezbollah?
That is a very good question and, of course, a completely separate issue. If the large stocks of chemical weapons held by the Syrian Government were to fall into the hands of non-state actors, that would represent a very serious threat to the region and indeed to the wider international community. I confirm, as the House would expect, that we have had and will continue to have dialogue with international partners about what we might collectively do if such a situation were to arise.
T9. I understand that a Fleet Air Arm pilot recently landed an F-35 on an American aircraft carrier. Will my right hon. Friend please confirm that, and also update the House on the implications of any effect last Thursday’s vote had on training with the Americans? (900008)
As my hon. Friend says, I am delighted to confirm that a British-piloted F-35B—the short take-off and vertical landing version of the F-35 aircraft—has completed a successful landing on USS Wasp, which was, I think, off the coast of Virginia. We have a programme of embedded UK pilots training with US navy marines on those aircraft. Progress is good on that programme, and we expect the first squadron of aircraft to come to the UK fully formed in 2018, with pilots who have been trained and prepared in the United States.
Post-conflict Commonwealth applicant Burundi desperately needs assistance in rehabilitating soldiers and ex-combatants from the civil war, including disabled and child soldiers. Will the Secretary of State use his good offices to come up with a scheme with the Department for International Development gainfully to employ some of the great expertise that our ex-service personnel, who are about to increase in number, could use to assist them?
I will certainly talk to my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary and see whether DFID could look at that. I will also ask our own conflict prevention and reconstruction unit to consider whether there is anything that the UK military could do to help in that situation.
Points of Order
Order. Just before the hon. Gentleman proceeds, I must first seek his confirmation that he has made all reasonable efforts to ensure that the hon. Member for Bradford West (George Galloway) is aware that this matter is being raised in relation to him in the Chamber this afternoon.
I can confirm that I spoke to the office of the hon. Member for Bradford West to advise him that I would raise this point of order.
During the debate on chemical weapons in Syria, the hon. Gentleman denied accusing Israel of supplying chemical weapons to al-Qaeda, and yet in the week before the debate, on Iranian-funded Press TV, he was clearly recorded accusing Israel. I would be grateful for a ruling on whether he has misled the House.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for his reassurance that he made contact with the hon. Member for Bradford West, or his office, in advance of raising it. Let me just reiterate the factual—constitutional, if you will—position. All hon. and right hon. Members are responsible for what they say in this Chamber. If they make a mistake, it is their responsibility to correct it. The hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) is a sufficiently astute student of the procedures of the House to be aware of the many channels that are open to him to pursue the matter. I feel sure that he will be tenacious in pursuit of his opportunities. He will, I am sure, readily accept both that I have not heard the interview in question, and that it is not for the Speaker to adjudicate upon the factual accuracy of the content of Members’ speeches. I feel sure that he will pursue the matter in one or more of the ways I have outlined.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I clarify for the record that, in the Opposition day debate on 10 July, I did not intend to suggest that I regarded either Pat’s Petition or We Are Spartacus as extremist groups?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The events of last week have created a historic constitutional precedent that future decisions on war and peace will be subject to the decision of the House. That has implications for other constitutional conventions, one such being the tradition that the Government do not reveal their legal advice in those matters. That is normally a very sensible convention, but if the Attorney-General is the adviser to the Government and to the House of Commons, that creates a problem in giving independent advice to the House. Can you, Mr Speaker, use your offices to resolve that problem, either by obtaining independent advice on future occasions, or by approaching the Government to change that convention?
The right hon. Gentleman raises an interesting constitutional point, which I readily accept is worthy of further reflection and consideration. My best advice to him is that, if he wishes to pursue the matter and for the House to have an opportunity to reach a judgment about it, he should, in the first instance, approach the Chair of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform with a view to that Committee undertaking a study of, and making recommendations in relation to, the issue. There should then be an opportunity for the House, before too long, to come a view about it. I hope that that is clear and helpful.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will have noticed that the Defence questions Order Paper was dominated by questions about the Trident successor and the Liberal Democrat-demanded alternatives review. Given that the delay to the main-gate decision cost this country £1.4 billion in extending the life of the existing submarines, is there any way in which I, within the rules of order, can set on the record that, present for those questions, were no more at any one time than two or three out of nearly 60 Liberal Democrat MPs?
The hon. Gentleman has, not for the first time, found his own salvation. I noticed during Question Time that, when he put his inquiry to the Secretary of State, the Secretary of State, with his customary courtesy, and no world-weariness, observed that the hon. Gentleman had made his point before. I could have told the Secretary of State that the hon. Gentleman has, in my recollection, made the same point in relation to Trident, or a number of the same points, for the best part of the 30 years that I have known him. On most occasions, he has done so on a daily basis.
Private Members’ Bills
Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I beg to move,
That this House has considered the publication of the Second Report from the Procedure Committee, Private Members’ Bills, HC188.
Thank you for calling me to make a short presentation on the Procedure Committee’s report, Mr Speaker. I thank members of the Committee for their forbearance; we all worked extremely hard to produce the report. Some are more enthusiastic about its content than others, but it is a testament to the collective will of the Committee that we have produced something in this vexed area that we can somewhat unite behind.
The right to move Back-Bench legislation is a great privilege that I and many other colleagues value enormously. We need to ensure that that privilege is exercised robustly, and with force and purpose. The Government, of course, have the absolute right to stop any proposed legislation that they feel they cannot live with getting on to the statute book. That is the reality of government and the report does not try to challenge it. However, the current system for private Members’ Bills borders on the dishonest. Many people are losing confidence in the system, and I believe it is right to reform it.
I would go further than the hon. Gentleman and indeed the report, although it contains some useful comments. The present system is not just a farce; it is completely and utterly dishonest. It wastes Members’ time and misleads the public about what we do on a Friday. May I suggest that he avoids the concept of “Back-Bench legislation”? When the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) was on the Front Bench as Secretary of State for Wales, she introduced good legislation. In his terms, she would have been Front Bench, not Back Bench.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I thank him for putting his views so forcefully. He gave excellent evidence to the Committee and I will come on to the points he raises and try to address them.
Some 90% of the Bills now reaching statute that are marked as Back-Bench Bills or private Members’ Bills are, in reality, Government hand-out Bills. Not all Government hand-out Bills are to be despised, but there has to be a better balance.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and the Committee for their first-class work. I have two reservations about the report, however, that I would like briefly to put to him. As one who was fortunate enough to see two private Members’ Bills enacted thanks to the support of colleagues in all parts of the House, will he explain to me why the recommendation is still for such Bills to be debated on a Friday, the worst possible day for being quorate? With regard to the end of the report—this relates to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—does the hon. Gentleman not agree that to call Acts “Back-Bench Acts” reduces the importance of legislation that has as much support as any Government legislation in both Houses once it has received Royal Assent?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for those observations. First, we are sticking with Fridays because a year ago the House took a view that it wanted Back-Bench business to remain on Fridays. It would not be for the Committee to suggest moving such Bills from Fridays 12 months after the House decided not to go down that route.
As for calling the business Back-Bench Bills as opposed to private Members’ Bills, that is again entirely for the House to decide. These are just recommendations; we are not going to force them on the House or demand that it adopt them. It is entirely for the House to come to a view on the many recommendations in the report, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will put his arguments forcefully at that moment.
May I say what an excellent job the Chairman does of chairing the Procedure Committee? However, given the number of people in the Chamber to hear his eloquent remarks, does he not think that it would be helpful if the Government found sufficient time at the earliest opportunity for the whole report to be debated at some length?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I know that the Leader of the House is positively chomping at the bit to find time for the report to be debated, because he is a great reformer and is entirely reform-minded. Indeed, I feel that I am presenting these reforms today with his support, which is extremely exciting and very welcome.
My hon. Friend makes a fantastic point, but if private Members felt that they had a genuine chance of getting their own legislation on to the statute book or that the Government would at least give it a proper hearing, we might begin to redress the balance.
I thank the Chairman for giving way and congratulate him on his efforts in keeping the Committee working on this project. Does he agree that it is an opportunity to move the balance of power in the constitution away from the Executive and towards the democratically elected legislature? We should look at the attendance last Thursday—not only was the Chamber full, but the Gallery was too—to see that where there is an opportunity for the will of the House to confront the will of the Executive, people will turn up.
That is very much the flavour of this moment in time. I thank my hon. Friend for making that observation, but if hon. Members are happy that 90% of private Members’ Bills are in fact Government handout Bills, there is a good argument for returning the 13 Fridays back to the Executive, because they seem to have no trouble filling them.
We have come up with a number of recommendations that may or may not find support with the House. The first suggestion relates to how Bills are selected for debate. The current ballot system has much to commend it. Those entering have an equal chance of success and it is not susceptible to manipulation. However, the ballot is totally random and does not discriminate between Members with serious intent to engage with the process of private Members’ legislation and those with a passing interest—such as myself, at times in my past—and a willingness to sign their name in the book because it seems like a good idea at the time, as they are directed towards it in a Division Lobby by the Whips. Therefore, we ask the House to consider a system whereby the responsibility is placed on Members to gather support for their legislative initiatives.
Those Bills with the greatest number of signatures drawn from across the House would take precedence. Members would be allowed to support only one Bill with their signatures—this is very important—so once they had signed their signature away, they could not give it to anyone else, unless they withdrew it from the Bill that they had already said they would support. The process of attracting support would start well before the date of presentation and demonstrate the seriousness of intent behind the Member’s proposed legislation. It is hoped that those participating would cast their net wide in seeking support and, of course, include Ministers and Whitehall at an early stage.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. There is much to commend the current ballot system, but it is incumbent on the Committee to put a series of proposals before the House so that it can come to its own view, because the House is populated by extremely wise people who have a lot of knowledge and wisdom to impart in this area. It will be for the House to reflect on what it wishes to do.
I have been able to read the Procedure Committee’s report since it was issued this morning, and I greatly welcome it. Were it to be implemented, it would result in a sea change in the attitude of Members on both sides of the House to private Members’ legislation, and their behaviour would change as a consequence. However, achieving such a change in behaviour is not so much about the method of selecting the Bills in the first place as about providing, through timetabling, a process by which decisions can be made. At the moment, any Bill that is even remotely contentious ends up being kicked into touch as a result of the activities of the Whips. This creates a dishonesty that verges on farce, and leads to institutional disingenuity by those in the Whips Office—of all persuasions—and therefore by Government Departments. I also very much welcome the Committee’s proposal for the Government to have to state their attitude to a Bill on First Reading. The Leader of the House suggested in his evidence to the Committee that the Government spent a great deal of time forming a view of such Bills. If that is the case, things have obviously changed since 2010. Also, we must be able to come to conclusions on Bills, whether on a Friday or on any other day.
The right hon. Gentleman has made some useful observations. In preparation for this afternoon’s debate, I wrote a very long, tedious and laborious speech, but I do not think that I shall have time to make it. Instead, I shall demonstrate the clear thinking of the moderately informed by answering each of the points that he has just raised.
First, in my view and the view of most members of the Committee, timetabling is an outstanding idea. We have come up with a number of suggestions to facilitate its introduction, in which either some or all of the private Members’ Bills drawn in the ballot would be timetabled. They would get a vote at the end of the Second Reading debate, and there would be a facility on Report to table a timetable motion that could be debated for 45 minutes and voted on if the House so wished.
The House really needs to give serious consideration to our suggestions on timetabling. It is incumbent on every colleague here to ensure that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) and others spend more time with their constituents on Fridays. As much as I enjoy listening to my hon. Friend on Fridays, I believe that on occasions his time on those days could be better spent in his constituency, where he would be welcomed with open arms. I know that you will be concerned about my mentioning my hon. Friend in this way, Mr Speaker, but I spoke to him in the Tea Room this morning and he told me, in his rounded Yorkshire vowels, that he thought the report was a load of rubbish and “cobblers”. However, we need to ensure that colleagues have an incentive to turn up on Fridays, whether they are for or against a particular Bill, and that they at least have a chance to make their views heard. If a Bill has a timetable motion, one can then impose time limits on speeches.
I want to refer the hon. Gentleman back to the answer that he gave to the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke). The hon. Gentleman suggested that it would not be right to reconsider the moving of the debates on private Members’ Bills to the middle of the week because Parliament had already discussed that proposal and rejected it. Perhaps he is crediting Parliament with a little too much consistency. If we were to put that question to the House again, I think that it would attract a huge amount of support. Holding the debates and votes midweek, rather than on Fridays, would give real status to private Members’ Bills. It would also give us a better chance of ensuring that they are not talked out.
Any motions that we table are amendable, and if there is a desire in the House to consider a day other than Friday for such debates, the House may do so. It is not incumbent on the Procedure Committee to tell anyone to behave in a particular way. We have come up with a set of suggestions, and the House is free to accept them, amend them or throw them out as it sees fit.
I may have missed it, but does my hon. Friend’s excellent report deal anywhere with the issue of one single Member shouting out “Object”, effectively killing or pushing into the very long grass a Bill that might have widespread public support? Did my hon. Friend and his colleagues look at that issue; does he have any thoughts on it?
It is to be hoped that our recommendations will ensure that when someone secures a position through the ballot or whatever other system the House chooses, that person will get a chance to put their legislation before the House and let it decide on its merits or otherwise without having it talked out or ruined by a single individual or a small minority. If, however, my hon. Friend has found a deficiency in our report, please point it out to me, the Clerk and others, because we hope to bring these recommendations forward in the not too distant future and we want to make sure that what is put before the House has been properly tested.
I thank my hon. Friend for this very good report, although there are a couple of things in it with which I do not agree. Some of the most controversial legislation has gone through this House as private Members’ Bills, so trying to restrict Second Reading through a timetable for fewer than three hours would, I think, be damaging. I have in mind issues such as the legalisation on homosexuality, abortion and similar issues. A greater move is being made to have one Member present or address one Bill on one day, but I am slightly concerned because I recall my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) saying that when Parliament sits, constituents can expect their MP, if the MP so chooses, to be in Parliament. I think that point should not be dismissed lightly.
As my hon. Friend says, two and three quarter hours—one of the suggestions for timetabling on Second Reading—does not sound a lot, but we have to remind ourselves that most private Members’ Bills, if not all, are fairly straightforward. I appreciate that that is not the case on every occasion, but they are often straightforward and short. Government Bills, which are usually enormously complex and run to hundreds of pages, get six and half hours, which is often truncated by urgent questions and statements. I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) says, but that is why we have options in the report. One suggestion is for timetabling to be limited to one Bill on a Friday. Again, it is for her and others to argue for and against the system they favour, which can then be put to the vote.
The report is much to be welcomed. Could we summarise the hon. Gentleman’s and the Committee’s views thus: “Here is a package of proposals to make sure we reach a view and decide on private Members’ Bills in the future, so that they do not get kicked into touch, but we are not against revisiting the time of the week or the week of the month in which such Bills are looked at if the first set of proposals does not achieve the sort of objectives that I hope we would all want”?
The right hon. Gentleman has nailed that with great perspicacity; that is exactly what the report says. As I have now said on about four occasions in this rather long speech, it is for the House to come to a view on our recommendations and to amend them as it sees fit.
I want to make one important point about Third Reading before taking any further interventions. One of the most important parts of our report is the suggestion to remove the vote on Third Reading from the Friday proceedings and put it on a mid-week prime-time slot. That will serve two purposes. First, it will allow the Government to take a view and if they want to kill a Bill, they can stand up at the Dispatch Box and explain why they want to kill it and whip accordingly. It also means that the whole House—or those present, which will be almost the whole House perhaps on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday—can come to a view on that. If it is passed, it will pass with the will and support of the House.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate him and his Committee on putting together an excellent report, whose effect would be to empower Parliament and, by extension, voters. I think it is absolutely right that if a motion is to be defeated, it should be defeated as a result of a Division—the collective will of the House, rather than the procedural trickery of one or two people who are particularly good at it. I would like to add my voice to the concerns expressed about Friday sittings, if only on the basis that Friday is fine for people whose constituencies, my own included, are relatively close to Westminster, but exclusive when it comes to people representing seats miles away from London, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), for whom giving up a Friday is a very big deal.
My hon. Friend has made a very good point, which has also been made by a few other Members today. I must stress that it will be for the House to reach a view.
It worries me—and this came up in evidence—that a Government, of whatever colour, shape or creation, will occasionally say to a Member who promotes a private Member’s Bill “We are 100% behind your Bill—we think it is a great idea which will go far, and we are all there for you”, while, behind closed doors, geeing up a number of colleagues to run it into the sand and kill it off. I think that that is pretty outrageous and pretty shabby. It is not peculiar to this Government or to previous Governments; it is something that all Governments do. Governments enjoy exercising power. I do not propose to take that power away, and I do not think that my Committee does either. We merely wish to see it exercised openly and honestly, and for that reason I feel that this is a good report.
Some Members have expressed concern about our suggestion that private Members’ Bills should be called Back-Bench Bills in future. I think that “Back Bencher” is a term worthy not of derision but of great pride, and I therefore do not share their concern; but, as I have said, if they cannot live with it, there will be a chance for a decision to be made on the Floor of the House on what we should call what we hope will be an improved, refined and enhanced process.
I thank you for your patience and forbearance, Mr. Speaker.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the publication of the Second Report from the Procedure Committee, Private Members’ Bills, HC 188.
Postal Services (Rural Areas)
I beg to move,
That this House recognises the vital contribution that Royal Mail makes to rural areas; notes that the six day a week collection and delivery service to rural and remote areas is invaluable to local life; further notes that the relationship Royal Mail has with the post office network is equally important for the continued survival of post offices; recognises that the impending privatisation of Royal Mail will place a question mark over its willingness to maintain what may be loss-making services; and calls on the Government to provide more concrete, long-term protections for postal services in rural areas, remote areas and islands while ensuring that the postal universal service obligation in its current form endures.
It is a pleasure to have an opportunity to introduce this debate on the future of our post office network in the event of the Government deciding to proceed with their plans to privatise Royal Mail. I thank the Members in all parts of the House who signed the motion that led to the allocation of time for the debate by the Backbench Business Committee. The motion expresses the view that the privatisation of Royal Mail will lead to uncertainty over the continued survival of many post offices, particularly in rural areas where there are often loss-making services, and calls on the Government to provide
“more concrete, long-term protections for postal services in rural areas”.
I represent a rural constituency with many small town and island communities, and I know that there is a great deal of concern among post offices in my area about the impact that privatisation will have on the services that they provide. Post offices are central to the life of many small communities in particular. They provide a number of vital services, enabling people to obtain cash and even to buy a pint of milk.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this important issue to the attention of the House.
My constituent Hugh Gaffney, who is a leading member of the Communication Workers Union, has on several occasions—along with others—brought to my notice the impact on pensions that will result if the Government proceed with their plans. He and other members of the union consider pensions to be not national liabilities but deferred income, and he has asked me to convey to the House the strong views that they have expressed. Not only are the union members unhappy, but Mr Gaffney feels that if the Government go ahead with their proposals it will be—as he put it—daylight robbery.
I was contacted by Hugh Gaffney today. He and other members of the union have been lobbying Scottish Members of Parliament in particular. It is vital for many pensioners who live in small communities—and in communities of many different types—to have access to postal services, but such access is also vital for many other people living in small communities.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful case. The post office is often also the only shop in the area, and it is a place where an elderly person can feel safe because he or she knows the person who works in the shop. If such people now have to travel to a much larger town, they will not benefit from the same sort of reassurance.
I appreciate the opportunity to intervene in this debate, because in my constituency rural post offices are essential, as they obviously are in the hon. Lady’s constituency. Does she not recognise the Government’s wise decision to protect 11,500 post offices, modernising 6,000 of them, and to make sure that post offices that exist today will exist tomorrow and always in the future?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. As he will be aware, however, organisations such as the National Federation of SubPostmasters believe that what the Government have done is inadequate to ensure the future of our post office network, and I suspect we will be exploring such issues in today’s debate. I also recognise that he, too, has a very rural constituency and that this debate is of as great importance to his constituents as it is to mine.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does she recognise that the link between Royal Mail and individual post offices is crucial? We talk about “rural post offices”, but in my constituency, which borders the M4 and is a former coal mining constituency, all but three of the post offices are part of the rural network.
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point, one that has been made to me by many who run post offices in my constituency.
The post office is vital, not only for individuals, but for many rural businesses—that is another point that many people in my constituency have made. I believe that those who work for Royal Mail have a strong public service ethos. They provide a vital service in many parts of the country, and in rural areas nobody else is going to provide it. There are real concerns about the impact that the privatisation of Royal Mail will have on not just Royal Mail itself, but our post office network. I suspect that many issues associated with that will be explored in this debate by many hon. Members from all political parties.
The background to this debate is, of course, the Postal Services Act 2011, which was passed by this House and allows not only for the privatisation of Royal Mail, but for competition for postal services. The Government have not, as yet, specified what form the sale of Royal Mail will take—whether it will be an initial public offering or a sale to private equity—although they have said that an IPO is their preferred method of sale. There is a great deal of concern throughout the country that the Government are rushing their timetable for political reasons. They have said that the sale will take place within the 2013-14 financial year. If that is the case, we will be hearing further details on the privatisation very soon.
The Government have framed their argument for privatisation in such a way as to suggest that Royal Mail is in imminent danger and that privatisation is the only solution, but that is not the case. Royal Mail is doing very well at the moment, and profits more than doubled in the past year, to more than £400 million. That is partly because the Government have taken over the assets and liabilities of Royal Mail’s pension scheme, saving the company £300 million each year. I congratulate the Government on taking that step. Of course Royal Mail needs access to capital for investment, but the urgency of the Government’s case seems to be driven more by a political timetable. There are many ways to get access to capital. For example, Network Rail is a public body that is authorised to access private capital, without affecting Government borrowing. This House has the right to expect the Government to look at other ways in which Royal Mail could get this access without going down the privatisation path.
The privatisation path is deeply unpopular, with not only the public, but Royal Mail staff. When the Communication Workers Union consulted its staff, it found that 96% opposed privatisation. Unite, which represents managers in Royal Mail, has also come out strongly against privatisation. The National Federation of SubPostmasters was originally sympathetic to some of what the Government were saying but it is now calling on them to halt the privatisation of Royal Mail, because of what it says is the Government’s failure to provide new work to post offices. In the briefings that it has been providing to Members throughout the country, which have been given to me by my constituents and when I have visited post offices over the past few days, the NFSP says that no new work has been awarded to post offices since May 2010 and that the new services that have been introduced are one-off transactions available only at a small number of post offices. It says that without the promised new Government work Post Office Ltd and individual post offices do not have a viable future and that a close relationship with Royal Mail is vital and will be jeopardised by privatisation.
One reason people are so opposed to privatisation is the fear that the universal service obligation will be under threat. The affordable six days a week service that is so valued in the United Kingdom is expensive to provide, particularly in rural areas. Rural post offices and rural postal services are most vulnerable because they are the most costly, and private parcel delivery companies routinely charge a high premium for delivering to remote or rural areas or to islands—or simply refuse to deliver at all.
A report by Citizens Advice Scotland in 2011 found that 83.8% of people surveyed living in remote parts of Scotland had been refused delivery altogether by a retailer using a carrier other than Royal Mail and that increased charges are normal. That is, of course, a problem not just in Scotland but throughout many parts of the UK.
The hon. Lady mentions the universal service obligation. Is it not the case that the obligation is now better protected than ever as it has been written into primary legislation by Parliament?
There is not a short answer to that question, but I will try to explore it. My point is that the legal protections are inadequate, as there is a great deal of uncertainty about where we will go. The 10-year agreement that has been entered into is not good enough and does not last long enough. I expect that we will explore those issues as we continue the debate.
That is indeed the case and that is very much what the people running post offices are saying.
I appreciate the difficulties—the Labour Government grappled with them, too—but I must say to the Government that unless we deliver on providing new services to the post offices, change of this nature is unlikely to be successful. All political parties and all levels of government —not just Westminster, but the Scottish Government and local government—must do a lot more in this area. We need to consider ways in which we can ensure that more services are provided in post offices to ensure a long-term future for them.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who is being very generous in taking interventions. Although I completely agree that post offices need access to more services, does she agree that allowing greater flexibility in the Post Office Local model about how services are delivered within the business is important? A bakery in Frogmore provided such a service, and the restrictions being placed on it seem entirely unreasonable. Does she also agree that more flexibility is needed in the funding for the Post Office Local model?
The hon. Lady is correct. Many people who are running post offices are being very innovative in how they are trying to develop the system, but how they operate is very much determined by how the Post Office relates to them and how the commission is calculated. Many of the schemes proposed by the Government mean that they will get less commission in the future, which is another issue that many people who run post offices are raising with me.
As I said, there is a significant problem with the delivery of items in more rural areas unless Royal Mail provides that service. Even in areas of my constituency where private companies are normally willing to deliver, as soon as there is a bit of bad weather only Royal Mail continues to provide a service.
Although I will not have time to develop the point, another major problem is the fact that people in rural areas are disproportionately reliant on Royal Mail. Consumer Focus, which is now Consumer Futures, found that users in rural areas were often more reliant on traditional forms of communication, such as the post, because of the limited availability of others. We could have many debates about problems accessing high-speed internet in many parts of the country.
The Postal Services Act 2011 enabled other postal service providers to enter the direct delivery, end-to-end market, which is already enabling private postal service providers to cherry-pick services. For example, TNT has set up a delivery service in west, central and south-west London. It is able to win business because it can choose where, when and what to deliver. It does not maintain the service and standards that Royal Mail undertakes to provide, and it undercuts the terms, pay and conditions of postal workers so that it can provide a cheaper service.
TNT employs workers on zero-hours contracts, which means that they are not guaranteed any hours. A journalist who went undercover in a TNT workplace reported how workers “hustled” each day to get work. The practice of organisations like TNT is to over-hire staff, meaning that staff are turned away each day without any work and therefore, of course, without any pay.
The hon. Lady makes a vital point about how rural areas, especially remote rural areas, will be starved of a service. People on the island of Rathlin, which I represent, will be forced to come to the mainland of Northern Ireland to collect their post, as will people in remote rural areas. Such a strangulation of service cannot be allowed to happen.
The hon. Lady has been generous in taking interventions and it has been helpful to hear her responses. If the Labour party were to win the 2015 general election—I know that an awful lot of people hope that that will happen—what practical steps would a Labour Government take not only to ensure the survival of rural post offices, but to encourage them to expand?
I suspect that that topic could be the subject of a lengthy debate. I do not want to stray too far from the terms of the motion, but hon. Members on both sides of the House have outlined fully in previous debates what needs to be done to ensure that post offices have a viable and successful future. The Government have a role to play in that. I call on parties on all sides of the political debate to do what they can, because we all have areas where we are in power and can ensure that post offices get more work and receive more support.
The overall package of pay and conditions of not only TNT staff in London but those employed on a similar basis by other private companies, which have been able to operate in such a way only since the 2011 Act was passed, is significantly worse than that of the Royal Mail work force. Ofcom is responsible for regulating the sector. It has explicitly stated that it is regulating TNT, but it has done nothing whatsoever about TNT either cherry-picking services or undercutting wages and conditions.
The fear is that this is the face of future postal services. Although TNT and others might wish to operate in London and other profitable areas, they will not be interested in many other parts of the country, such as North Ayrshire and Arran. Of course, that means that Royal Mail will not be able to use the money it makes in profitable areas to subsidise—to cross-fertilise—services in less profitable areas so that it can provide a national service. The Government say that they support the universal service obligation, as the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) suggested in an intervention.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. She has been extremely generous, and I congratulate her on securing the debate. Did she, like me, see in the fly-on-the-wall documentary TNT’s habit of calling its delivery people back before they had finished their day’s work, thus returning mail to the depot, so that it took longer for people to receive it? That is an ongoing practice, and it is encouraged.
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point.
If we proceed down this path, the pressures on future Governments and the management of Royal Mail will be to reduce requirements, as they will need to compete on a level playing field with other service providers. They will have to ensure that the universal service obligation is financially sustainable. If we go down the path suggested by the Government, loss-making rural services will be the most vulnerable and will be the first to go.
I appreciate the fact that the Government say that the universal service obligation is enshrined in law, but that covers only the bare minimum. Many of the requirements are set by Ofcom and can easily be changed. The regulator has recently consulted on user needs, including getting rid of first-class mail and thus next-day delivery, and moving from a six-day to a five-day service. That may not happen now, but if privatisation goes ahead it is more likely. The privately run PostNL in the Netherlands has put pressure on both the regulator and the Dutch Government regarding the universal service obligation and there are now plans to drop Monday deliveries.
There is no guarantee that the inter-business agreement that has been entered into between Royal Mail and the Post Office will continue or remain unchanged at the end of the 10-year period. I do not believe that the protections that we have been offered are adequate, so I am asking the Government to halt the sale of Royal Mail to give proper consideration to how rural services can be provided in the longer term, and to put in place stronger legal protections for the universal service obligation. I believe that cross-party support for the motion reflects a genuine concern about the issue, and I urge the Government to look at the issue in detail, and to provide a detailed response today.
I noted the time limit, Mr Speaker, and demolished about two thirds of what I intended to say.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) on introducing the debate, and I agree with many of the points that she made. I particularly agree about the need to create opportunities for sub-post offices in rural areas to provide more services, and I intend to discuss exactly that and one other key point. My constituency is bordered by the south-west edge of the M25. It is close to London, but it is rural or semi-rural. Many people will have seen the London Mayor in the recent broadcast of the Surrey cycle race, and some may even have seen Mayor Boris puffing up Leith hill on his bicycle—not a Boris bicycle, but his own bicycle—and the beautiful countryside that is to be found throughout my constituency.
I want, however, to concentrate on something that is on the table. The mainstay of my rural post office services—and this was touched on in the opening speech—is provided by sub-post offices. My constituency has two main towns and perhaps 30 villages. A considerable number of villages have at their core a pub, if not two pubs, and a village shop, which generally incorporates a sub-post office. Between 2001 and 2012, Mole Valley lost a number of sub-post offices, which in turn threatened, sometimes fatally, the associated village shops. I understand that there are 11,800 post offices in the United Kingdom, and approximately 750 are what could be called main post offices. Logically, therefore, the remainder are sub-post offices, of which 55% are in rural areas. In the United Kingdom, 31% of those post offices are the only retail outlets in the area, and 58% provide some of the very few shops in village areas.
Sub-post offices are absolutely key to my villages. The viability of these sub-post offices is what I want to concentrate on, and I shall look at one particular angle. The Government can help us, because there is a move by Post Office Ltd to centralise a key front-office service: the system for the acceptance and checking of the printed photo ID market. Post Office Ltd is the front line in over-the-counter processing of digital photographs for licences issued by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, passports and other ID photos. This service is being cramped by Post Office Ltd. It is being moved to the 750 main post offices, where Post Office Ltd is installing at considerable expense what are called Cogent cameras, which will take the photograph and transmit it to the DVLA or Passport Office, as appropriate.
I have in my constituency the head office of Photo-Me. This is a business with which many of us are familiar because there are a couple of Photo-Me booths downstairs. There are many such booths throughout our small towns and, in my area at least, some sub-post offices have them. If the proposal to use Cogent cameras proceeds, my constituents will have to travel from their villages to a centre such as Guildford. It does not look far on the map and it is not far as the crow flies, but my constituents do not fly. I am aware that the trend is for on-line services, but according to a recent estimate, 40% of households in my constituency do not have a computer, let alone broadband. For many, the internet is so complicated that they prefer to use the printed form with the printed photograph. These folks will have go to Guildford, with some difficulty, or one of the other 750 main post offices, rather than the 11,500 sub-post offices that could be available. That is inconvenient and takes time. It means time off work and, at various times of the year for various people who work in rural areas, this is impossible.
A proposal has been put to Post Office Ltd by the chief executive of Photo-Me on behalf of a considerable number of photographers who currently produce ID photographs. There are about 1,500 independent photographers nationally, including well-known names such as Photo-Me, Jessops and Snappy Snaps, and a number of small outlets in small towns. The proposal is for the sub-post offices to have a relatively cheap scanner so that the sub-postmaster or staff can go through the transaction and scan the printed photograph into digital form to be sent online to the DVLA, Passport Office or whichever Government Department needs it.
For some years long and technical discussions, in which I have participated, have been taking place, first with the DVLA, which now accepts that that would be possible and is a very good idea. We have now reached the Post Office, which seems to have put up a brick wall. Having got technical acceptance from the DVLA, I hope we can persuade Post Office Ltd to put this cheap and simple system into our rural post offices. I am having difficulty with that. The benefits to the sub-post offices are obvious. They would provide a new, better and increased service, which would also increase the footfall in sub-post office shops, which has a knock-on effect, similar to the system that supermarkets work. If people want to go to the pharmacy in a supermarket, they have to walk past absolutely everything before they get there and on the way back as well. They look and they tend to buy, so they use that service. It is vital, as the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran said, that we keep those sub-post offices in shops going.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case on behalf of sub-post offices, a shining example of which is Hopes of Longtown in my constituency, which has a shop alongside it. Does my hon. Friend share my view that many of these sub-post offices are also rural sorting offices and that it is equally important to preserve that aspect? He may wish to join me in asking the Minister to dwell on that in future reflection and when closing the debate today.
I thank my hon. Friend. I would love to be able to do so, but as he knows, we are short of time. He has made the point and the Minister appears to be making a note of it.
I am sure the Minister is as anxious as we are that rural post offices and sub-post offices continue. I would be grateful for an opportunity for two or three of us working in this area to have a meeting with her to discuss progress or, rather, the lack of progress. The chief executive of Post Office Ltd has offered to discuss the matter with me. I accepted her invitation some weeks ago but I await notice of time and date from her.
The importance and vitality of a rural post office and postal service must not be underestimated. Having seen the evidence in my constituency, I believe that the previous Government damaged that, but as many of their Ministers were urban they probably did not realise it or they turned a blind eye. In essence, I am looking forward to the Minister’s agreement and support at a meeting to try to persuade Post Office Ltd to see this as an opportunity to expand a service and increase footfall in the sub-post offices in our rural areas.
I agree with many of the points made by the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford). In the remote former mining villages in my constituency, up the valleys, there are many pensioners and others who do not have cars and are not online and for whom rural postal services are absolutely vital. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) argued persuasively, the universal service provided by the Royal Mail makes a vital contribution to life in remote and rural communities. However, I think that that public service is currently under threat from the combined effects of Government privatisation and end-to-end competition from private postal operators such as TNT.
The hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) claimed that the universal service will not be threatened because it is enshrined in law through the Postal Services Act 2011, but that covers only the bare minimum of the universal service. Many aspects of the universal service are set by the regulator, Ofcom, and could easily be changed while remaining legally compliant. For example, Ofcom recently looked at various ways the universal service could be changed to make it cheaper to run. It considered getting rid of first-class mail, and therefore the next-day service, reducing quality of service standards and cutting delivery days from six a week to five. Thankfully, it did not proceed with those changes, but with a privatised Royal Mail those options are likely to be raised again and again because of commercial pressures. On 23 December 2012 The Daily Telegraph reported that Conservative Ministers were thinking about future changes to the universal service obligation and that an all-Conservative Government could perhaps seek to relax it.
Privatised postal services abroad have been successful in pushing Governments and regulators to downgrade the universal service. For example, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran mentioned, the plans to drop Monday deliveries in the Netherlands were the result of pressure from the private company PostNL. A privately owned Royal Mail would be under pressure to generate a return for shareholders and might similarly want to cut the burden of the universal service and lobby for similar changes here in the United Kingdom. Downgrading the universal service in that way would disproportionately affect consumers in rural areas. Services outside the universal service would not be commercially justifiable and would either become very expensive or not be sustained.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is not only consumers in rural areas who will suffer but businesses? In fact, the whole local economy of large swathes of rural parts across these islands will be severely detrimentally affected.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady, who makes a valid point about the impact on businesses, especially small businesses.
Equally, if quality of service targets were downgraded it would be the harder-to-reach locations that would be most affected. Ofcom’s recent review of user needs suggested that removing Royal Mail’s air network in the name of cost-cutting could mean areas of Scotland, Northern Ireland, south Wales and rural England seeing first-class quality of service fall to just 50% to 75%.
The Government say that they have no plans to change the universal service requirements in law for the duration of this Parliament, but that is hardly a long-term commitment, given that we are just two years away from a general election. Royal Mail privatisation is likely to place pressure on the Government to downgrade those aspects of the universal service that hurt the bottom line. Private companies are primarily responsible to their shareholders, and the public sector ethos behind the Royal Mail’s universal service does not sit well within that model. We need only look at private parcel delivery companies to see what happens when profitability rather than public service is the driving force.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran said, consumers in remote and rural locations are frequently charged extra. She pointed out that there are reports of £45 being charged for the delivery of £25 phones. The Government say that Royal Mail faces imminent danger and that privatisation is the only answer, but that is simply not the case. The most recent financial results show that under public ownership its profits more than doubled in the past year to £403 million. That demonstrates that Royal Mail can be profitable in the public sector, which is where most people—two thirds of the public, not just the vast majority of staff—want it to remain.
Privatisation of the letters service will also impact on post offices in remote and rural locations. The post office network is reliant not only on Government subsidy but on the commercial relationship with Royal Mail that allows its postal products and services to be sold through that network. The current chief executive of Royal Mail says that the commercial success of both companies is best served by their working closely together, but a new chief executive of a privatised Royal Mail may take an entirely different commercial view. There are legitimate concerns that a privatised Royal Mail responsible only to shareholders would seek to sever this relationship in line with its commercial interests. That would have a disastrous effect on the entire post office network, but branches in remote and rural areas would be at particular risk because of their low population density and their revenues. The last Postcomm annual report on the post office network in 2010 found that fewer than 23% of rural branches generated over £40,000 per annum, compared with 70% of urban branches and two thirds of branches in deprived urban areas.
The Government and Ofcom need to make sure that the universal service obligation in its current form endures and postal services in rural and remote areas are protected. This requires Ofcom to use the powers that it has to tackle the end-to-end competition from private postal operators such as TNT UK. It also requires the Government to consider an alternative business model for Royal Mail that would keep the postal service run in the interests of the public and properly engage the work force. The main problem is that the model of competition under the 2011 Act has meant, in a privatised context, cherry-picking of the most profitable parts of Royal Mail’s business—for example, taking the profitable parts such as business mail, sorting it and then delivering it to city centres, but dumping it back into the Royal Mail network for delivery to the most remote and costly rural areas. That imposes a double burden on Royal Mail, taking revenue away and then forcing it to bear the extra cost.
TNT’s stated aim over the next five years is to increase its end-to-end operations to a work force of approximately 20,000 and to deliver business post—that is, the most profitable post—to doorsteps across the UK. Evidence from Communication Workers Union members in the trial areas of London shows that Royal Mail’s postal volumes have been materially affected because of this competition. Loss of revenues on the scale that TNT is working towards would have very serious consequences for Royal Mail. It means Royal Mail missing out on the most profitable business that would usually subsidise the high cost of delivering to remote and rural locations. Such unchecked competition places the current universal service under significant threat.
The right hon. Gentleman may be surprised to learn that I agree with every word he has said on this occasion, though that may not have been the case when he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I think it would strengthen his argument if he could throw a little light on the last part of the motion which
“calls on the Government to provide more concrete, long-term protections for postal services in rural areas”.
Will he explain what concrete, long-term protections for postal services in rural areas would be introduced if there were a Labour Government in 2015? That would be enormously helpful.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I mostly agreed with her when I was Secretary of State, even if she did not agree with me, but there we are. I would want the next Labour Government elected in 2015 to ensure that the competition regime was fair and that Ofcom regulated the market to ensure that competitors did not cherry-pick the most profitable parts of the business. That is quite an easy thing to do, but it has to be driven ultimately by Government policy.
Royal Mail needs a level playing field where its competitors also have an obligation to deliver up remote Welsh mountains, or to the Scottish islands or the Yorkshire dales. That is why Ofcom must use the powers it already has to introduce general universal service conditions on competitors such as TNT which provide services that fall within the scope of the universal service. GUSCs do not require legislative change or ministerial approval, and they provide the best option for intervention on cherry-picking in the short term. Requiring Royal Mail’s competitors to deliver to a minimum area of geographic coverage for a specified number of delivery days and to a representative proportion of the population would go some way towards ensuring that competition was on much fairer terms.
Ofcom could also seek to introduce a universal service compensation fund through which rival postal operators would compensate Royal Mail for the costs of providing the universal service. Similar support funds are being established in a number of other European countries to ensure the long-term viability of the universal service.
Running Royal Mail as a not-for-dividend company, such as, for example, Welsh Water, would provide a suitable alternative model, and that is entirely compatible with the 2011 Act. The Government could choose that model and I urge them to do so.
Royal Mail’s recent profitability shows that it could raise investment capital through its own profits, which would be a step towards becoming a self-financing, not-for-dividend company under the Act. Without changing ownership, Royal Mail could borrow from money markets, at a cheaper rate, as is the case with Welsh Water, even under the terms of the Act. That would be a much better model for protecting rural postal services. Otherwise I fear that the future will be an end to door-to-door delivery in remote rural areas and the appearance of personal letter boxes in village centres, with the post office network all but disappearing.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain). I disagree with some of his conclusions but share his concern for the rural network. He set out well the potential problems that areas such as his and mine face.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) on securing the debate, which is important and timely given that, as she said, the timetable for making progress on Royal Mail has been set out for the financial year. Although that is what the motion largely refers to, it is inevitable that Members have spoken a lot about post offices, because they are so crucial to our constituents. I will be no different, because I want to discuss the importance of the post office network, which is a key part of the proposals. I also want to talk about issues relating to the universal service obligation that have already been raised by hon. Members.
The constituency of North Cornwall contains 65 parishes. During the previous Parliament, when we had a formal programme of post office closures, it had 70 parishes, so it has shrunk since then. However, it is still a big rural area without a single railway station and where people rely on services that are close to them, wherever possible. It is a huge source of anxiety to them if they feel that a service that provides access to the wider world is going to be withdrawn.
We have also had issues with the provision of broadband, which the hon. Lady mentioned, and I am delighted that the coalition Government have made it a priority to invest in that. Investment in Cornwall is at a particularly advanced stage, because convergence programme money from the European Union has allowed us to get ahead of the game. Many areas in my constituency were so-called not spots where not only did they not have fast broadband, but they did not have broadband at all and were still on dial-up. That was a source of consternation to a few people who had decided to relocate to the constituency to run a business, which was welcome, only to find when they tried to connect to broadband that it did not exist. I am delighted that we are making progress on that front.
Postal services are vital too. That is partly due to the growth of online activity, including shopping. I am sure that many hon. Members visit postal workers at Christmas. Rather scarily, this will be my ninth year of doing so. There has been a huge growth in the number of packages that the Royal Mail delivers on behalf of a number of well-known companies that have hit the headlines and been debated in this Chamber for other reasons, namely their tax practices. That brings work to the Royal Mail and shows again how important it is. If the universal service obligation were undermined, people would be disadvantaged.
My constituency shares with the hon. Gentleman’s the unusual distinction of having no railway stations. It also has problems with its broadband provision. He is making the excellent point, which it is important to emphasise, that such basic infrastructure makes the post office all the more vital to those communities. Does he agree that it is important to see the post office as part of the essential infrastructure?
Absolutely; the hon. Lady is quite right.
Many hon. Members have visited the North Cornwall constituency, including the Prime Minister. Some Members may have seen the pictures in the national media. [Interruption.] He is braver than I am; I would not want to see pictures like that of me in the national media. However, we welcome him and his contribution to the local economy. There are many hamlets within the 65 parishes, so we are talking about lots of communities. If people visit the rural communities of North Cornwall, they will see lots of cottages with the name “The Old Post Office” on them. That is a mark of how many post offices we have lost.
During the last Parliament, from 2005 to 2010, we received a tough deal under the post office closure programme. For example, many of the villages around Bude lost their post offices. They are still suffering from that. I could point to a number of successful voluntary schemes that have brought back local community shops and post offices. The scheme in Blisland predates the closure programme. The community there came together and provided an excellent facility that has an internet café as well as a shop and a meeting place. In St Tudy, where the post office closed, the community recently got together to apply for funding for a new building. That went up incredibly quickly, which is testimony to the hard work of the community. In other places, the publican has provided the post office. The Tree Inn in Stratton, which again is near Bude, has brought the post office back to the community of that market town.
I agree with my hon. Friend on the importance of local post offices. Does he agree that the Department for Work and Pensions has an important role to play by giving business to the Post Office? It is essential that the Post Office card account contract continues and that post offices are used as places where people who do not have access to the internet can apply for universal credit. Does he agree that it is important that the DWP gives that work to the Post Office?
Ministers have felt under pressure to ensure that they provide a level playing field to all people who want to provide such services, but there is no question in my mind that only the post office network has the reach to provide services such as the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency contract and to tick all the boxes in terms of accessibility.
It is very generous of the hon. Gentleman to give way. On the services provided by rural post offices, does he agree that the organisation’s strong brand is a good reason why it should introduce banking and mortgages, as it is doing? Those are powerful reasons to maintain the network and justify the Government’s confidence in it.
The hon. Gentleman is right. We must look at the positives. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran raised a lot of fears, some of which are natural, but we must look at how justified they are. We must ensure that we are not speaking in political terms to draw the attention of the media and to provide a subject on which to campaign, but that we look at the reality. That is why I am delighted that the Government have invested money in the network as part of the programme.