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Commons Chamber

Volume 572: debated on Monday 16 December 2013

House of Commons

Monday 16 December 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—

International Supply Chains

The Ministry of Defence undertakes a quarterly assessment of industrial risk covering both domestic and international supply chains. Our key suppliers are under regular review, not only for their financial status, but for their business strategy, sector risk and leverage. Prime contractors are held responsible for the health of their own supply chain, although many of their sub-contractors are also reviewed under the MOD critical supplier process, which monitors the financial resilience of more than 500 domestic and international suppliers.

Food security is one of the big issues facing the UK, given that we are one of the largest importers of food. When assessing the increasing protectionism and food consumption globally, does the MOD feel that we have a secure food supply chain?

I am very confident of the food supply chain for mince pies, having visited the factory supplying our troops in Helmand earlier today.

The national security risk assessment rates the short to medium-term disruption to essential resources including food as a tier 3 risk. The UK currently enjoys a high degree of food security in terms of access, availability, resilience and variety of food supply. The main role for the MOD in securing international food supply chains and other critical resources is, in co-ordination with others, to police international sea lanes, which supply the vast majority of imports to the UK of food and other essential resources.

In the scenario planning assessing the security of the supply chain, has the Minister considered the possibility of the Suez canal being closed? What provision has he made for such a scenario?

The Suez canal is clearly a vital supply chain route in and out of the Mediterranean. Naval vessels use those channels to take part in some of our regular routine operations on the other side of the Gulf, and the canal is of course an essential part of the security of supply chains for oil resources out of the Gulf. We keep that under continual contingency planning.

BAE Systems has announced its plan to cease shipbuilding in Portsmouth, which will have an impact not only on its own employees but on those in the wider supply chain. What steps is the Minister taking to support small and medium-sized enterprises through this difficult time?

Clearly, BAE System’s decision to extract itself from shipbuilding in Portsmouth will have a significant impact locally, but my hon. Friend will be well aware that more than 11,000 people will continue to be employed on the royal naval base at Portsmouth, which will maintain vital jobs for SMEs throughout the supply chain.

What role can unmanned aerial vehicles play in filling the maritime capability gap, and has the Minister considered the use of UAVs by both Europe and the United States of America for maritime surveillance and intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the strategic defence and security review 2015 will be the opportunity to review new capabilities in the unmanned space. He might also be aware that the ScanEagle unmanned maritime system is due to enter service in the new year.

Cyber-security attacks constitute an increased threat to the supply chain. How is the MOD working with the industry to ensure sufficient and proportionate cyber-security in the UK supply chain?

As the hon. Lady might be aware, last July we announced the defence cyber-protection policy, which works in conjunction with industry to develop awareness of cyber-defences across the 13 largest defence contractors and with the SME representatives, the trade associations. We are working closely with industry to develop cyber-defensive capabilities.

Humanitarian Assistance

2. How much humanitarian assistance has been provided by his Department to (a) the Philippines and (b) other parts of the world in 2013; and how much funding for such assistance has been reimbursed to his Department to date. (901479)

3. What assessment he has made of the Royal Navy’s involvement in the relief operation in the Philippines. (901480)

8. What assessment he has made of his Department’s contribution to relief of the humanitarian situation in the Philippines. (901485)

Operation Patwin was the principal humanitarian relief operation to which the UK armed forces contributed in 2013. The armed forces supported Department for International Development efforts using assets including HMS Illustrious, HMS Daring, two RAF C-17 strategic lift aircraft, an RAF C-130 tactical lift aircraft and a logistics support team in the Philippines. The civilian transport in the area improved, and DFID agreed that military support was no longer required after 10 December. The marginal cost to the MOD is estimated at about £10 million. This sum will be reimbursed by DFID under the terms of a memorandum of understanding covering military support to humanitarian assistance missions.

The public response to the Philippines aid appeal shows that this is international aid that everyone can support, and our service men and women have done this country proud in the help they have provided to the Philippines. Given that the defence budget is the most challenging of any departmental budget in Whitehall, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that every time Her Majesty’s armed forces assist in a humanitarian response, it will be counted towards the UK’s aid target, not on top of it?

As my hon. Friend will know, there are some complex definitions relating to exactly how such aid is counted, but I assure him that we count it whenever we can. I can also reassure him that the marginal cost of that operation will indeed be recouped from the Department for International Development under the MOU to which I referred.

I, too, pay compliment to our service personnel who assisted in the Philippines. Some of the comments coming back from service personnel who were there show how grateful and supportive the people were of their efforts, which should be recognised and commended. To probe a little further on the cost, should not that sort of response, which the UK does magnificently, be part of the Treasury’s bill rather than come out of the funds of either the MOD or DFID?

Although I can appreciate the sentiments behind the question, under the arrangements I have described, the marginal cost is paid for by DFID under the auspices of the MOU. The original question related to the Royal Navy, so let me say that the Royal Navy assets to which I referred contributed significantly to relieving the suffering in the Philippines. For the record, the Navy delivered more than 700 tonnes of water and food aid and other assistance and transported aid teams to remote locations, while personnel on board those ships demonstrated their versatility by turning their skills and efforts to constructing shelters, restoring education and economic facilities and delivering immediate medical aid.

The Minister will understand that, as someone who did two weeks’ voluntary service with the Philippine Nurses Association in 2010 as part of the Voluntary Service Overseas programme, I really appreciate the anguish that the Filipino people must be feeling as a result of the typhoon. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate on our behalf the service personnel of HMS Illustrious on delivering 500 tonnes of urgent supplies to far-flung regions of the Philippines?

I am more than happy to do so. Unfortunately, HMS Illustrious personnel will suffer some disruption to their planned Christmas leave in the UK, which we should acknowledge. However, about a third of personnel abroad will be flown back to the UK, with the remainder having their Christmas stand down at a port in the Indian ocean. I am confident that the whole House would wish to join me in thanking our armed forces personnel for the humane, professional and adaptable manner in which they responded. We are immensely proud of what they do.

I add my voice to the tributes already paid to the work of our armed forces in the Philippines. Will the Minister detail the role, if any, of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary in any of those operations and what role he sees it playing in future humanitarian operations in light of its role in the past?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, some ships, such as HMS Illustrious, were diverted on to this task from their deployment as part of Op Cougar. He will know that the RFA provided intimate support to Op Cougar, too. We are very proud of our armed forces personnel, but we are also very proud of those who fly the blue duster.

Is not one of the lessons of the humanitarian success of the Royal Navy in the Philippines that naval ships are capable of early and effective deployment and that, once deployed, they are logistically self-sufficient? Does that not underline yet again the need for a full, adequate blue water Navy? Next time the Treasury knocks on the door of the Ministry of Defence, will Ministers take the opportunity to point the Treasury in the direction of the humanitarian aspects of military resources?

As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, we enjoy a close and constructive relationship with Her Majesty’s Treasury, and if he wishes to supplement that relationship at any time, he is welcome to do so. While we Conservative Members appreciate the importance of the defence budget, I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will spread that message firmly among his Liberal Democrat colleagues.

Does the Minister think it wise to declare mission accomplished concerning the operation in the Philippines—or, indeed, operations in any other part of the world?

I would not necessarily use precisely those words, but it is fair to say that our armed forces personnel have done good service for Her Majesty and for the people of the Philippines in providing a tremendous humanitarian response at short notice. At the risk of repeating myself, we are immensely proud of what they have achieved on Op Patwin.

Genium Prosthetics

4. What estimate he has made of when service personnel who have suffered amputations will receive Genium prosthetics. (901481)

14. What funding his Department is providing to improve the prosthetics available to military personnel who are amputees. (901491)

First, may I say that I am sure Members on both sides of the House would wish to join me in wishing our troops, wherever they are deployed around the world, a very happy Christmas and a safe new year? That applies equally to the families who support them.

In February, I announced £6.5 million of additional funding to allow all UK service amputees who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan to have access to the very latest prosthetics and, to date, 96 Genium microprocessor knee systems have been fitted to 57 patients at Headley Court. The programme to upgrade earlier prosthetics where it is clinically appropriate is expected to be completed within two years. A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting Headley Court and meeting clinical staff and injured personnel who had been fitted with the Genium legs, and I saw at first hand the life-changing effects of these high-technology prosthetics.

I associate myself with the remarks made by the Secretary of State about Christmas and the troops and their families, many of whom, obviously, will be separated this Christmas.

What feedback has the Secretary of State received from service personnel using the Genium limbs about their effectiveness and whether they deliver greater mobility and control?

The feedback I have had has been universally positive, and often about the small things we might not think of. Service personnel using the Genium have told me that the most transformative thing is the ability to stand still, which is not easy to do on the traditional prosthetics. Being able to stand still and being able to take a pace backwards are key gains, and there is much greater mobility in negotiating steps and stairs and a general enhancement in mobility. This was a very worthwhile investment of £6.5 million.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on these advances and the speed with which they have been accomplished. What preparations have been made to support NHS prosthetics centres, which will presumably take over support for these personnel when they re-enter civilian life?

They will indeed; the arrangements we have made embrace the NHS. The NHS is establishing nine centres of excellence specialising in advanced prosthetics across the UK, and as service personnel and veterans pass out of military care at Headley Court, they will be able to choose whether they want to go to a local centre or to one of the nine regional specialist centres, where we expect that over time standards of skill and expertise will match those currently delivered at Headley Court.

I assume, therefore, that someone either in the military or outside the military fitted with a Genium limb will have the latest version fitted to them throughout their life.

They will continue to be supported as clinically appropriate, and the phrase “clinically appropriate” is very important. The Genium limb is very beneficial for somebody who is in an active phase of their life and we hope many of these veterans and service people will remain active for long periods of their lives. It would not be appropriate for an older person who was less mobile and wished to be less mobile, however. The point of making the money available is so that the clinicians have the scope to prescribe whatever is most clinically appropriate, even when it is the very costly microprocessor knee solution.

Community Covenant

I am pleased to say that 98% of local authorities have now signed up to the community covenant. Some 11 have yet to sign, but I am told—[Interruption.] I am reliably told that they have now all agreed and undertaken that they will sign up as a matter of some urgency.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but can she explain in a little more detail what steps have been taken to encourage those small number of authorities who are yet to sign up?

I am happy to answer as follows. There has been—[Interruption.] Hon. Members are very keen; it must be the Christmas spirit. If they could just hold their horses for a moment, we might get to an interesting punch line that could steal their joke. In all seriousness, the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government have written to the 11 remaining authorities. I also know that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) has spoken at length to Charnwood borough council to ensure that it would sign up. If any local authorities have not signed up by the end of January, I think it might be a good idea for me to ring them and to speak to their leaders personally.

I think we all agree that that would be a magnificent prospect and that it would bring a prompt end to non-co-operation.

I am proud that Kirklees council signed up to the armed forces community covenant on 29 June 2012, demonstrating the strong bond between my local community and our armed forces, particularly as the Yorkshire Regiment suffered such tragic losses in Afghanistan. Does the Minister agree that communities across the UK should show their respect and support for those who risk their lives for our country by signing up to the community covenant?

I certainly do. I should like to pay tribute to the Yorkshire Regiment and to Kirklees council. I took the trouble to visit the council’s website, part of whose home page is devoted to an item containing an abundance of information for people who are leaving the armed forces. That shows the council’s commitment, and it is a very good example of the kind of work that could and should be done. I also pay tribute to all those local authorities that have secured some £11 million of funding to ensure that they can deliver the community covenant.

South Wales has traditionally been a strong recruiting ground for the armed forces, so I am delighted that Councillor Mel Nott, the leader of Bridgend county borough council, has signed up to the community covenant. Has any assessment been made by the Department, in conjunction with the Department for Work and Pensions, of the impact that the stretching of front-line services such as housing and social services could have on the delivery of the community covenant to veterans and their families?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question; he makes a good point. It is all well and good people signing up, but what matters is the delivery. There will no doubt be a chance later in questions to talk about today’s annual report on the covenant. This is about delivery, and some local authorities are clearly delivering, but there is also concern that some are not delivering in the way that we want them to deliver.

On the subject of delivery, the covenant report published today contains a quote from the three service families federations, which states:

“Central Government has asked local authorities to implement many aspects of the AF Covenant with little additional resources in terms of financial support, staff or guidance.”

So, to ensure that we do not end up with central Government pushing extra responsibilities on to local authorities and with the service community being let down as a result, will the Minister undertake and publish an audit of what local authorities are being asked to do for the service community and what funding is being provided for it? At the moment, there is a gap.

The covenant grant scheme has already provided £11 million in funding to local authorities, often working with their local barracks to ensure that they are delivering on the covenant. I have here a copy of the annual report on the covenant; it has been placed in the Library and it is also available from the Vote Office. Yes, we know that we must ensure that there is delivery, but I shall make two points. First, any audit should be done by the Department for Communities and Local Government. Secondly, this is one of those instances in which local government must deliver, and it is for local people to ensure that their local authorities are doing so—[Interruption.] I appreciate that the hon. Lady might have difficulty in understanding that, but this is not about top-down government. It is about local authorities and communities coming together to do the right thing. It is not about a big bossy Government telling them what to do.

Helicopter Capabilities

6. What recent investment his Department has made in the armed forces’ helicopter capabilities. (901483)

This Government are committed to providing our armed forces with the helicopter capability required for Future Force 2020. In the equipment plan, published last January, we confirmed that the Department would spend some £12 billion over the next 10 years to ensure that our helicopter capability remained up to date. We have already invested £2 billion since the strategic defence and security review in 2010 on modernising our existing helicopter fleet and bringing into service the Merlin Mk 2, the Wildcat and—a matter of particular interest to my hon. Friend—the Pumas based at RAF Benson in his constituency.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he ensure that the 14 Chinook helicopters ordered by this Government will be put to good use, unlike the eight Chinook helicopters that were left languishing in hangars under the previous Government, despite the shortage of lift capability?

My hon. Friend is quite right. This Government are getting helicopter capability upgraded and in service, in stark contrast to the Labour Government, who left eight Chinook helicopters languishing in hangars for years.

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the register.

We know that the UK has strength and depth across helicopter design and development—I have visited AgustaWestland and spoken to other manufacturers—but we need support for the future development of both rotary and fixed wing. In the light of recent reports that the next generation of fighter aircraft may have to be bought specifically from the US or Asia, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that we not only protect the skills in the UK but meet our future defence needs?

I am intrigued that the hon. Lady is seeking to divert the question to fixed wing from rotary wing. We have a clear strategy to replace fixed-wing and helicopter capability over the next period. On the joint strike fighter, a 15% share of that global programme is being manufactured here in the UK through the BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce supply chains.

St Athan

7. What reports he has received on the use of the runway at MOD St Athan by private companies based in the nearby enterprise zone; and if he will make a statement. (901484)

I commend my hon. Friend for all the hard work he has put into St Athan, in pursuance of the prosperity agenda. I have received no further reports since I wrote to him on 23 October, but MOD officials continue to work hard with Welsh Government officials to ensure and promote the future of the airfield.

Does the Minister agree that the facility at St Athan, including the red dragon hangar, offers great opportunities for both military and commercial purposes? Will he update the House on his Department’s work with the Welsh Government to ensure that there is an efficient and effective use of the runway for both commercial and military purposes?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. As he knows, the Welsh Government would like to extend commercial operations at St Athan to seven days a week from the current five, and they are seeking to appoint a contractor to run the airfield services. The MOD, of course, stands ready to work with whoever wins the contract when that person is announced. He knows that defence is remaining at strength at St Athan, utilising the site transition plan, notably to accommodate 14 Signal Regiment. The plan will have the red dragon hangar vacated for Welsh Government tenants from 2016-17.

Are the efforts to build a joint plan with the Welsh Government going well? Is there a good working relationship between the Department and the Welsh Government?

There is indeed a good working relationship between the MOD and the Welsh Government. The next step is heavily dependent on the Welsh Government appointing a contractor to take on airfield services. That will enable the airfield to progress in a way that is suitable for commercial tenants. My strong advice is that that work needs to be done very soon, as we are talking about 29 MOD service and civilian employees at St Athan, who need to be looked after properly. If the Welsh Government want this to proceed quickly, it would be in their best interests, and those of all concerned, to get a move on.

Intellectual Property

9. What recent discussions he has had with the UK defence sector on the protection of intellectual property. (901486)

Routine contract negotiations involve intellectual property discussions with industry all the time. The MOD’s intellectual property team enjoys a close working relationship with industry. A joint issues working group meets three times a year and it includes the industry trade body ADS.

The Minister will know that I chair the all-party group on manufacturing and that we have some fine manufacturers in my constituency. There is a worry in the sector about the close relationship with China. We want to export to China, but many people in the sector believe that China is in the business of economic warfare—it has stolen our IP—and that we are opening up our major sensitive companies to the stealing of IP by China.

The hon. Gentleman may have a point in relation to other industries, but I can assure him that there is no intent on the part of this Government to encourage the export of defence equipment to China.

Onshore Wind Farms

10. What objections his Department has made to applications for onshore wind farms in the last 12 months. (901487)

The Ministry of Defence objects to wind farm applications if they have any detrimental effect on military capability. In the past year we have received 2,200 applications and objected to 284.

I thank the Minister for that answer. EDF Energy proposes to erect 14 126-metre masts on farmland at Bullington Cross in my constituency and the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young). In the impact statement submitted to the council, it said that Bullington Cross

“is an extremely busy aviation site with a high density of both military and civil aviation activity”.

Given that the site is within a Ministry of Defence low-flying area for battleground helicopters, does the Minister not agree that it is totally inappropriate to have the training of our armed forces personnel compromised by turbines higher than Winchester’s great cathedral?

I know that my hon. Friend and the Keep Hampshire Green group have been tireless in resisting the proposed development. The application remains a live planning case, and the MOD has objected to it because of possible interference with the primary surveillance radars at Middle Wallop and Boscombe down, the precision approach radar at Middle Wallop and the low-flying operations. The MOD aims to be helpful in facilitating renewables through mitigation and pre-application inquiries, but safety and key defence deliverables must have primacy.

As an aviator who, from time to time, has recourse to Popham airfield, may I strongly support my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) in his objection to this massive 14-turbine development, and encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to stand firm for all the reasons that he has given about the impact on the precision approach radar at Middle Wallop and Boscombe down and on the low-flying area? There are precious few areas in the United Kingdom where low-flying can be carried out, so I hope my hon. Friend and the Department will remain robust in the face of that unwanted development.

As ever, I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Of course the Department will be robust. As I have said, we put our key defence deliverables and safety first and foremost. Although we will do what we can to promote renewables, which is a Government imperative, we must in the first instance ensure that our key deliverables and the safety of our personnel in the air and on the ground come first.

Equipment Programme

11. Which urgent operational requirements he plans to bring into the core Ministry of Defence equipment programme. (901488)

The future of equipment bought through the urgent operational requirement process for operations in Afghanistan is currently being considered, with a departmental provision of £1.5 billion to support such equipment over the next 10 years. I can confirm to my hon. Friend that we have already decided to bring some 2,000 protected mobility vehicles into the core programme, including 71 Coyote, 325 Husky, 441 Jackal, 439 Mastiff, 169 Ridgback and 60 Warthog vehicles. That represents a significant increase in the Army’s protected mobility capability, which I am sure he will welcome.

I welcome that very comprehensive answer. I am pleased that we will make the maximum use of the equipment that was purchased for Afghanistan and that the Government are determined to increase the capability of the Army in Europe. What cost implications will that have for the core equipment programme, and will it have an impact on other aspects of the programme?

As I said to my hon. Friend in my fairly comprehensive initial answer, we have allocated £1.5 billion, which is essentially to support the elements being brought back into the core. The original capital cost was more than £5 billion in Iraq, and, I think, £7.6 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. That is of course money that has already been spent, so it is not a continuing drain on the Ministry of Defence budget.

The Government previously announced that the cost of the Vanguard successor programme would be part of the MOD main core equipment budget. I note that today the Minister has published a document on the costings of the assessment phase of Vanguard. It makes reference to the alternatives review. Will he inform the House when the Department will be in a position to tell us the cost of that review?

I am sure that you would agree, Mr Speaker, that the successor programme could scarcely be described as an urgent operational requirement.

Let me take the House back to urgent operational requirements and the fairly comprehensive answer given by my hon. Friend. Will he update the House on the progress of the Foxhound vehicle, which began life as an urgent operational requirement and is now part of the core programme and performing very well?

With great pleasure, as my hon. Friend played a key role in commissioning the Foxhound vehicle. As he will recall, it was commissioned under the urgent operational requirement procedure but was always regarded as a core piece of equipment. We are well on the way to delivering 400 Foxhound vehicles to the British Army.

Mental Health Issues (Veterans)

My hon. Friend will be aware that primary responsibility for the mental health of our veterans lies with the national health service. He might also know that I have taken a strong interest in the issue, and I am therefore pleased to report good progress not only in implementing the entirety of the excellent “Fighting Fit” report by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), but in the provision of substantial funding for national and community-based projects to support veterans experiencing mental health issues.

I welcome the Minister’s answer. I also welcome the vital support that the Government are giving veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder through the excellent charity Combat Stress. Its latest review shows that the average referral takes 13 years from leaving the military. There are various reasons why that might happen, but can we do more to get those with PTSD the help they need a little quicker?

I join my hon. Friend in his praise for the work of Combat Stress in helping veterans with mental health problems, including those with PTSD. The value of its work is fully recognised by the Government. Funding of up to £18 million is being provided by the NHS to Combat Stress to provide specialist acute PTSD treatment services to veterans and the MOD funds Combat Stress to provide remedial treatment for eligible veterans in receipt of a war pension, at a cost of approximately £2 million in the last financial year. As the excellent chief executive of the charity, Andrew Cameron, knows, we have been in discussions with the NHS about how we can further provide services for veterans, including access to treatment once they are diagnosed with PTSD. Those discussions are ongoing and we hope to have more to say on the subject next year.

Minister, diagnosis is one thing, but how much research is done on why those people suffer in the first place so that we can prevent them from having mental health problems? What kind of work is being done in that area?

The King’s centre for military health research, among others, is expert in the field. Professor Sir Simon Wessely is not only nationally but internationally renowned as a great authority on the subject. When veterans present with PTSD, which can be some years after they have left the service, we find that sometimes, because of a trigger event, the symptoms begin to emerge quickly and the challenge is to reach those people rapidly and to begin to give them help when they need it. We are talking to the NHS about how we can do that even better than we do now and we hope to make some further announcements about the progress we are making.

The charity Combat Stress has suggested that reservists are twice as likely to suffer from mental health issues and PTSD than regular soldiers or, indeed, the population at large. Will the Minister confirm that those potential costs have been factored in to the new Army Reserve costings?

It is true that reservists returning from operations have a slightly higher rate of incidence of PTSD than regular personnel, but according to my last briefing on the subject the rate is only about 1% to 1.5% higher. I am afraid that I do not agree with the analysis that it is twice as likely. My hon. Friend might not agree with me, but, if he wants, he can pop down and see Professor Sir Simon Wessely and have a word with him about it.

In the United States there is widespread successful use of specialist courts for veterans who might suffer from mental health and other problems. That helps to divert them away from committing further crimes. Given the Minister’s personal interest in such issues, will he consider the use of such courts and let me know his view of whether they could be appropriately used here?

I should say from the get-go, as the Americans say, that if it is an issue about courts the Ministry of Justice would normally lead on that. I and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who is responsible for defence personnel, welfare and veterans, will attempt to talk to our colleagues in the MOJ and see whether any lessons can be learned from the American experience.

Armed Forces Covenant

I look forward to seeing the report. What legal advice has the Department taken about the impact of the Human Rights Act on the covenant, and will it be reflected in the report?

I am not aware of that being reflected in the report, though if it is, I apologise; my memory may be playing tricks on me, but from my reading of the report, I do not think it is there. I am sorry that I am not being more helpful. If there is any way that I can assist further, I will write to the hon. Gentleman.

GoCo Contract

I refer the hon. Member to the statement I made in the House on 10 December, which explained that I have decided to terminate the present Government-owned contractor-operated competition for defence acquisition in view of the fact that only a single proposition was received. I was therefore unable to ensure a sufficient level of competitive tension in the negotiation stage of the process to ensure value for money for the armed forces and the taxpayer.

What has been agreed with both the Cabinet Office and the Treasury on the freedoms and flexibilities for the Defence Equipment and Support plus alternative option, and when does the right hon. Gentleman think it will it be match fit?

On the freedoms and flexibilities package, we have agreed that it will be possible to operate outside the civil service pay structures and that there will be flexibility in the appointment process so that we do not have to go through the overly bureaucratic civil service appointment process. The organisation will also be able to engage some private sector strategic support for specific areas of the business where we know weaknesses exist. On match fitness, we envisage a process that will take three years in round terms to get DE&S plus to the level of the competent and qualified organisation that we would like to see.

Most commentators say that the Secretary of State has botched the GoCo process, wasted two years and squandered millions of pounds, yet he does not seem to be any closer to resolving the problems with procurement. Does he agree?

No, I do not, as the hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear. Defence acquisition is one of the most complex business areas in the country. It has a long history of challenge, as has been recognised under both Governments, and we are working on what I hope will be a long-term solution. The Gray report was commissioned by the previous Government, and we have sought to maintain a thread of continuity from the thinking that underpinned it. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to proceed to a GoCo at this time, but I believe that the exercise has been extremely valuable in informing this process, and it is clear that DE&S is making incremental progress, even though the step change that we were hoping for with GoCo was not able to be delivered.

Baltic Region

I have regular discussions on Baltic security with my NATO counterparts. I met them at the NATO defence ministerial on the 22 and 23 October, I visited Estonia on 2 December and I attended a meeting of the Northern Group in Helsinki on 3 December. The Northern Group consists of the northern European NATO Allies with the addition of Sweden and Finland.

At those meetings, did my right hon. Friend discuss with his Baltic counterparts the recent Russian military exercise called Zapad 13?

My hon. Friend is obviously aware of the issues that are of concern to our Baltic and Nordic colleagues and the subject of Zapad 2013 did indeed come up. The stated intention of the Zapad 2013 exercise was to repel terrorists threatening Russia and Belarus. To that end Russia claims that it deployed 11,900 troops and 180 items of military equipment, including 10 tanks, 40 aircraft and 10 ships. Some of our Nordic and Baltic colleagues see that as a slightly excessive response to a terrorist threat exercise, but Members of the House will understand that the Baltic states in particular continue to express unease about a large-scale Russian exercise close to their borders.

If Zapad 13 was a great success, it was nothing by comparison with Steadfast Jazz, the NATO exercise that occurred at more or less the same time. Leaving aside the question of who thinks up these daft names, does the Secretary of State agree that security in the Arctic in particular is a matter of huge concern for the future and not one to which we have yet given a great deal of attention?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and I have to agree with him on the names. I have always assumed that they are chosen by a computer—if it is a person, something should be done about it. He is absolutely right to identify that we have huge strategic interests in the Baltic and, in particular, the Arctic, because a significant percentage of the UK’s primary energy supply now comes from Norwegian territorial waters in the Arctic, where significant strategic issues will play out over the coming years and decades.

Gender Discrimination/Sexual Harassment

21. What research his Department has commissioned since 2010 on gender discrimination and sexual harassment in the military. (901499)

As an equal opportunities employer, the armed forces are committed to a working environment free from harassment and discrimination. Substantial progress has been made since the 2006 Equal Opportunities Commission report on sexual harassment in the military and, as I am sure the hon. Lady knows, the 2009 Watts Andrews report into equality and diversity in the Army was published last week. The UK has the first female two-star military officer, Air Vice-Marshal Elaine West. Since her appointment, a second female RAF two-star appointment has been made. The short answer to the hon. Lady’s question is no, but it is obviously a serious subject that we take seriously.

As the Minister will be aware, the numerous surveys that have been carried out among female members of the armed forces show that on a daily basis they experience sexual harassment and gender harassment. What steps will she take to ensure that we drive out this pernicious underestimation of the capability of female members of the armed forces and put in place the equality regime that our military should be operating to?

It is a serious subject, and certainly one that I take seriously. The armed forces continuous attitudes survey for this year indicated that 10% of personnel believe that they have been the subject of discrimination, harassment or bullying in a service environment in the past 12 months, which unfortunately is 2% higher than in 2012. It is a serious matter, and one that I will always be happy to discuss with the hon. Lady.

Topical Questions

My first priority remains the success of our operations in Afghanistan. Beyond that, my priorities are to complete the Ministry of Defence’s transformation programme; to build confidence within the armed forces in the Future Force 2020 model; to make progress in growing the reserve forces; to reinforce the armed forces covenant; to maintain budgets in balance; and to reform the defence procurement organisation so that our armed forces can be confident of being properly equipped and trained.

My Bridgend council recently added to its military covenant a recognition of the service of the nuclear test veterans and called for the development of a fund for those veterans and their descendants in times of need. The idea was put forward by Councillor David White, whose father died when he was four, as he had been at Christmas Island and was one of the nuclear test veterans. What steps will the Ministry of Defence take to give that additional support and recognition to nuclear test veterans?

This is a somewhat complicated subject, and certainly one of some controversy. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) recently secured a debate on the subject. At the moment, the Government have no intention of setting up such a fund. We believe that the existing provision is there. Again, I am more than happy to have a discussion with the hon. Lady to explain what I think is the very good case that the Government make on the matter.

T3. As we approach the end of combat operations in Afghanistan, support for armed forces veterans will become more important than ever. What action is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that veterans charities benefit from LIBOR fines funding? (901507)

We are very much aware that, as a result of withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is a concern that a number of our charities might not get the sort of generous support we have seen from the public by way of financial donation. That is one of the reasons why the LIBOR funding is so important. I am delighted that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced that an extra £10 million will be available from 2015 each year for the next 25 years.

May I join the Defence Secretary in sending Christmas and new year wishes to members of our armed forces past and present and their families, whether abroad or in this country?

Once again the media are reporting concerns about a major defence issue based on a document obtained from the Ministry of Defence. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the planned privatisation of the Defence Support Group, which provides equipment repair and maintenance for our armed forces? Will he confirm that the US Government have raised significant concerns about intellectual property and that the sell-off is causing understandable nervousness in the Army?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, this Government do not comment on leaked documents. I can confirm, however, that the Defence Support Group is an important maintenance supplier to the British Army and that we are in discussions about the possibility of selling that entity, as has been made clear to him and to the Members of this House who have facilities in their constituencies. A decision will be taken in the first quarter of next year. We have had initial interest in this opportunity and we are well on top of the issues that have recently been identified in the press in relation to intellectual property and foreign IT.

Well, there we have it—again. We have seen this one before and we all know how it ends. Despite warnings from Labour Members, the Defence Secretary pressed ahead with his fundamentally flawed plans for a GoCo before being forced to abandon them last week when it became clear that they would not work. Rather than go through that again, why do not the Government delay putting the Defence Support Group out to tender to allow a proper analysis of the implications of selling it off and to help to ensure that we do not end up with another GoCo no-go debacle? This is about our national interest and security; does not the Defence Secretary agree that we need to get it right?

The Defence Support Group provides maintenance and repair to platforms used by the British Army. It is entirely analogous to the maintenance and support repair facilities provided to surface and sub-surface ships in the Navy and to all the air platforms in the Air Force, which are all provided by private contractors, many of whom were put under contract under the previous Government.

T4. I strongly welcome the improvements already made to the care of veterans, but do Ministers agree with the Prime Minister that more can be done in this area? Do they also agree that the Chavasse report written by Professor Tim Briggs, which has the support of the surgeon-general and others, points the way forward to even better care of veterans and reservists through better co-operation with the NHS and Defence Medical Services? (901510)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, because I know that Professor Tim Briggs is his constituent, and that is why he so ably puts forward this report, which of course has much merit. Professor Briggs has met the surgeon-general, and we look forward to the report bearing fruit in due course.

T2. Last time I asked the Secretary of State a question about the reserves, he said that he had a better track record than me as Secretary of State, although as I have never been Secretary of State I could not have a better track record in that regard. When and why did the Government’s policy change so that reductions to regular forces are no longer contingent on an uplift in reserves recruitment? (901506)

I do not wish to disappoint the hon. Gentleman or the Secretary of State, but frankly I have no recollection of that exchange, and I expect that my experience is widely shared in the House.

I may be suffering from early onset whatever, but I do not think that at any stage I have suffered from the delusion that the hon. Gentleman was ever Secretary of State for Defence. I have made it clear in answer to similar questions in the House that Defence is not funded to maintain a regular force at the scale of 94,000 through to beyond 2018. We are required for budgetary reasons to draw down the regular force as we build the reserve force, and that is what we are doing.

I welcome the update to Parliament on the United Kingdom’s future nuclear deterrent published today, which states:

“The Government policy remains to maintain a continuous at sea deterrent and proceed with the programme to build a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines.”

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government will in no way entertain any squalid deals with any other party if what is needed for continuous-at-sea deterrence is four submarines and if another party, conceivably the Liberal Democrats, tried to argue that three would do?

My hon. Friend may note that some people have even suggested that two submarines could provide some sort of deterrent, but the Government and the Prime Minister have made clear their commitment to continuous at-sea deterrence and to delivering the number of submarines required to provide proper at-sea deterrence, not some jumped-up, import alternative.

T5. My constituents who work for the Defence Support Group at Sealand in north Wales share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) about this possible sale. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne) does not need to comment on leaked documents; could he just tell the House whether or not the American Government have made any representations to him about the dangers of such a sale? (901511)

What I can say is that the activities at Sealand cover ECBU—the electronic and components business unit—which we have indicated would not form part of the sale, so it is most unlikely to apply.

As we approach the next strategic defence and security review, may I invite the Secretary of State to consider leasing the V-22 Osprey—a multi-mission tilt-rotor aircraft—from the United States? Its unique design means that it moves faster and goes further than a Chinook and I hope the Secretary of State will agree that it provides enormous expeditionary capability, including the refuelling from the carrier of the joint-strike fighter.

My hon. Friend is right that the V-22 is an exceptional platform and incredibly impressive, but he will also know that operating an additional fleet of any kind imposes a huge burden on defence. Strangely enough, I am not approaching SDSR 15 on the basis of looking for additional commitments other than those that are already well known.

T6. Press reports suggest the Prime Minister is increasing support for armed forces children in schools, which is, of course, welcome, but today’s armed forces covenant report says that “the need for more comprehensive, affordable childcare…needs to be addressed.”What does the Department propose to do about that? (901512)

Our child-care proposals in any event are providing the sort of support that one would hope for. Again, I believe there is an understanding at the local level and that, as the covenant rolls out, people will understand that they are making a commitment when they sign it. I believe we will see progress on this.

Earlier this year, the Royal British Legion was unable to secure a road closure for Armed Forces day in the village of Bulkington in my constituency. However, the good news is that that will be achieved next year, following the adoption of the community covenant by authorities across Warwickshire. What can be done to ensure that common sense prevails in such situations in future?

There is the community covenant, but I would be more than happy to make a phone call if it might help in any way.

I am sure the Secretary of State is concerned, as are many people, about the new statistics on near air misses involving fast jets. The Ministry of Defence committed in 1998 to installing collision warning systems on Tornado aircraft, but it has not yet done so. Does the Secretary of State regret that? Will he also confirm that the Typhoon does not have a collision warning system installed? Are there plans to do so and when will that happen?

I am sure those four questions will be pithily replied to by the Secretary of State, who is dexterous in these matters.

First, a collision warning system on the Typhoon is currently under test and if that test is successful, we would expect to roll it out. The Typhoon is a platform with a very long life ahead of it. There is also now a plan to install collision warning equipment on Tornados. The hon. Gentleman has raised this issue in the House before in relation to the very regrettable Tornado accident in his constituency in July 2012, and I have, in consequence, looked at whether, if the original procurement had gone ahead, we would have expected that equipment to have been installed on Tornados by the time that accident occurred. The answer is that we would not have expected it to be installed by that stage.

My right hon. Friend has done some sterling work to make sure that we get much better value for money from the defence budget. What role does off-the-shelf procurement have to play in that and what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to make sure that it becomes more of a default approach?

We have been clear that there are some areas where we need to protect UK sovereign capabilities for reasons of strategic advantage or in order to protect strategically important industrial capabilities. In all other areas we will look to procure in the way that is most effective for delivering defence.

The Secretary of State will be pleased to know that I have looked at “The United Kingdom’s Future Nuclear Deterrent” report, which he has just placed before the House. Page 5 gives me great concern, however, because it seems to assert that the programme is on track and on budget, and then goes on to predict savings thereafter. Those two things seem to me possibly to be in conflict. Will he assure me that there is no commitment to spending money beyond this Parliament in 2016, in relation to making the main-gate decision, when the new Parliament will have the right to decide the future of the whole programme?

Yes. Some £3 billion has been earmarked for spending before the next election, and the expectation is that that will have been committed, but that is the total commitment that will have been made at that time. That includes money that will not be disbursed until some time during the next Parliament, but which will have been committed.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the rebasing of British troops from Germany represents a further opportunity to give a much-welcome boost to the UK economy?

Yes, I very much welcome the rebasing. It will indeed boost the economy in the country overall, and not least in my own constituency. It is likely that in training and efficiency measures, it will save about £240 million a year. That will be of great benefit to the country in pursuing the prosperity agenda, and it will of course give surety to our troops, which is vital going forward, so I very much welcome it. Our German friends and colleagues are of course being taken along with the programme: they understood that it was coming, and they are very much on side. We pay tribute to the presence of the British Army in Germany for all these years.

In written answers to parliamentary questions, the Government have said that they have had 10,000 applications for Arctic Star medals, of which 4,000 have now been processed. One of my constituents is the daughter of such a veteran who is seriously unwell. I am grateful to Ministers for expediting her application, but I ask them to do everything they can for other next of kin in a similar position to make sure that veterans get the recognition that they deserve?

Absolutely. As all my predecessors have said, if any hon. Member has any difficulty at all, they should write to me and we will make sure that we speed up the process. If hon. Members have any difficulty they should contact the Minister—at the moment, it happens to be me—and we will do everything we can to speed that up, because that is very important.

In respect of the defence estate, we are very keen to get on with building new housing on the surplus Ministry of Defence land at Craven Hill in Bicester, but there appears to be some confusion about where the new housing will go and where tank transporters will be stored. Will my right hon. Friend please intervene to make sure that that is sorted out as soon as possible? We want to ensure that he gets a financial receipt for his Department.

I have, indeed, already done so. I think that there has been a miscommunication and a misunderstanding by Cherwell district council. We are clear that our proposals for the possible continued use of part of the land for military purposes will not have any negative impact on the wider proposed housing development. We hope to be able to proceed with the sale imminently.

Now that the MOD has taken back responsibility for the disposal of RAF Kirton in Lindsey from the Homes and Communities Agency, will the appropriate Minister meet me and representatives of the town council to be assured that the MOD will not make the mistakes in that transfer that it has made in other parts of Lincolnshire?

I am very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss his constituency issue. I hope that he is not criticising the level of disposals that we have undertaken. We must satisfy our target, which he will know is to have 37,624 living spaces by the end of this Parliament. That is on track, and it is a huge success.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. With the EU defence ministerial Council taking place this week, will my hon. Friend reassure the House and the country that, for the United Kingdom, NATO remains the cornerstone of this nation’s and, indeed, Europe’s defence? Will he resist any attempt by some of our pathetic European partners to try to rival NATO in the defence of Europe?

It is my guess that this will be the last question, so it gives me great pleasure to wish my hon. Friend a very happy Christmas and, I hope, a Eurosceptic new year.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. NATO remains the cornerstone of our collective defence, and I am certain that he will be satisfied with the outcome of the December Council meeting at the end of this week.

North Korea

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on North Korea following the execution of Jang Sung-taek.

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this issue to the House’s attention and commend her for her tireless work as vice-chair of the all-party group on North Korea.

We are deeply concerned to learn of the execution of Jang Sung-taek. It is yet another example of the horrifying and surreal brutality of the North Korean regime, which presides over what Carl Bildt, the Swedish Foreign Minister, has called an “empire of horror”. We remain deeply concerned about the impact of that unpredictable regime on regional stability.

Jang Sung-taek’s execution and the reports of executions of people associated with him reinforce our significant concerns about North Korea’s appalling human rights record, which we assess to be one of the worst, if not the worst, in the world. The United Kingdom has consistently raised concerns about the severe and systematic human rights violations carried out by the North Korean Government, including reports of executions; the lack of any sort of basic judicial process; the severe curtailment of all freedoms, including freedom of thought, movement and religion; the systematic use of torture; and the horrific stories emanating from the gulags.

The United Kingdom has been at the forefront of raising those concerns in international forums. This year we co-sponsored two human rights resolutions in the United Nations. We also supported the introduction of a UN commission of inquiry, which will report to the Human Rights Council in March 2014. In October, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office sponsored a visit to the UK by the inquiry panel. The panel heard harrowing accounts from North Korean refugees about systematic abuses of even the most basic human rights. I met the panel and confirmed the United Kingdom’s full and unequivocal support for its work. I am pleased that parliamentarians had the opportunity to meet the panel and discuss its work.

Given the opaque nature of the North Korean leadership, the implications of Jang’s execution remain unclear. Our embassy in Pyongyang reports that the situation on the ground is currently calm. We will continue to monitor the situation closely, not least during the anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s death tomorrow. We are alert to the possibility that the regime may use that as an opportunity to bolster public support for its leader.

It remains to be seen whether the execution will strengthen Kim Jong-un’s power or whether it indicates political instability and a struggle for power. We are in close contact with the United States and the Republic of Korea, and we will speak to other members of the six-party talks in the coming days.

I thank the Minister for that reply. As he said, Jang Sung-taek’s execution was just the most high-profile of many. For some six decades, the North Korean people have suffered intolerably. People are incarcerated merely for their beliefs, or for speaking a few words that the leadership objects to. Children are treated as prisoners from birth, and those who try to escape the regime risk not only imprisonment or worse for themselves but punishment for up to three generations of their family. An incalculable number of North Koreans have been, and continue to be, worked to death, frozen to death, burned to death, gassed to death or tortured in the most unimaginable ways. In short, the North Korean people are the most persecuted on earth.

Just because this terrible situation has persisted for so long—over three generations—cannot be a reason for the international community not to address it as a priority. Millions live at or near starvation while international charities say that food aid, if accompanied—and there are the means—will reach them. What more will our Government do to help them through the Department for International Development and otherwise? Food should never be used as a weapon of war.

Given that a major weapon in ending Stalin’s reign of terror was the role that this country played by broadcasting the BBC World Service and breaking the Soviet information blockade—the same has been done more recently with the Burmese information blockade—and given the Foreign Secretary’s role in setting the World Service’s strategic objectives, will the Minister consider extending the BBC World Service to the Korean peninsula?

Having read Amnesty’s recent report on the expansion of North Korean prison camps, which are incarcerating some 300,000 people, and following the recent spate of executions—including that of Jang Sung-taek—the show trials, force-fed propaganda, and an ideology that has starved 2 million to death, and bearing in mind that the UK is now home to the largest number of North Korean refugees outside South Korea, should we not do all in our power, both as a country and as a leader in the international community, to help end North Korea’s reign of terror?

My hon. Friend’s almost fantastical description of North Korea is, alas, not fantastical but only too true. To call it an Orwellian nightmare would be a cliché and would not give a clear enough indication of the horrors vested on the people of that country by its leaders.

I think the United Kingdom is playing an important part. My hon. Friend will be aware that we fully support the United Nations Human Rights Council agreement to establish a commission of inquiry. That was a unanimous vote—which is unusual on such issues—and was proposed in a resolution presented by the EU and Japan, and co-sponsored by more than 40 countries. As my hon. Friend knows, that commission will look at all those issues, particularly the prison camps as well as other matters such as human rights abuses, and report back in March 2014.

My hon. Friend asked about food aid to North Korea, which is understandable given the reports emanating from that country about food shortages. There are even some alarmist reports about how people are going about eating, which, again, are too horrific to recount. The United Kingdom does not currently have a bilateral development programme in North Korea, and neither do we provide money to international organisations specifically for use in North Korea. However, some non-earmarked funds that we provide to organisations such as the World Food Programme may be used for humanitarian programmes in that country. Our embassy in Pyongyang uses some of its bilateral funding for small-scale humanitarian programmes such as nutrition for nursing mothers and greenhouses for children’s homes, although that remains under regular review.

My hon. Friend also asked about the ongoing issue of the BBC and broadcasting to North Korea, which I know is something that the North Korea all-party group has discussed and a matter that Lord Alton of Liverpool has been pushing hard. The BBC has been in touch with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the issue—or vice-versa, I should say. It is primarily an issue for the BBC, which has, of course, full editorial, operational and managerial independence. We understand that it is not currently persuaded that a Korean language service would be an effective value-for-money use of available resources. Nevertheless, our embassy in Pyongyang is working with BBC Worldwide on an initiative to broadcast BBC drama, nature and science programmes on North Korean television. We believe that that has the potential to expose significant numbers of North Koreans to aspects of the outside world from which they are normally totally isolated.

I thank the Minister for his response and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for raising this issue. The House is united in its condemnation of the North Korean regime, and we share the view of the Foreign Office that this execution is another shocking illustration of the brutality of the North Korean leadership. We also echo concerns about the shocking levels of hunger and poverty in North Korea, as well as the many human rights abuses.

It seems likely that the execution was intended as a show of strength by Kim Jong-un, and to the wider world it has also been taken as an indication of his insecurity and volatility. It comes after a year that has seen an even more provocative and unpredictable stance from Pyongyang, including nuclear threats to the USA, and the declaration of a state of war with South Korea. Recent satellite images published by Amnesty International indicate that the largest prison camps are continuing to expand. The international community responded calmly and—crucially—with a united front to attempts to escalate tensions earlier this year, and it is important that that consensus continues.

Given that an urgent question has been granted today, the House must turn its attention to what can be done in the immediate future to try to address the situation. Have the Government made any assessment of the possible implications of the execution for the North Korean leadership and the wider region? The Minister mentioned that discussions have already taken place with the USA and the Republic of Korea, but have any conversations been held yet with Chinese officials, or will that happen in the near future? It has been reported that Jang Sung-taek had been building trade links with China, prompting some speculation about a change in economic policy. What is the Minister’s assessment of such reports, and of the nature of North Korea’s current relationship with China? I was in the Republic of Korea earlier this year, and my understanding is that the relationship is under some strain. Was North Korea discussed during the Prime Minister’s recent visit to China?

More generally, can the Minister elaborate on what influence he thinks China can potentially exercise? Given that both the United Kingdom and China were recently elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council, what action does he think the council can take, and, most crucially, what prospect does he envisage of any response at all from North Korea? As he said, the UN commission of inquiry on human rights in North Korea is due to report in March. Will he tell us what recommendations the Government would like it to make?

Given the unanimous support for UN security resolutions, which has already been mentioned, will the Minister be taking the matter up with the UN Security Council, and what does he think could be achieved by his doing so?

I thank the hon. Lady for the spirit of consensus in which she framed her questions. We are clearly very much on the same page.

The hon. Lady made an assertion about the implications of, or the reasons for, the execution. I must pause to think about that. There is a total lack of clarity in regard to what the execution was about, and an equal lack of clarity in regard to the implications for what will happen next. I have read a number of reports this morning, and each of them is speculative, so the answer is ‘we do not know.’ Whether we will ever know is also a legitimate question, but as things stand, we simply do not know.

The hon. Lady asked whether the Prime Minister had raised the matter in China during our recent visit. The answer is yes, and, as she would imagine, it was also raised during the visit of President Park of the Republic of Korea during her recent state visit. The hon. Lady asked what more China could do. China has a 900-mile border with North Korea, it has a very real and present interest in North Korea, and we believe that it has a key role to play in the country’s future. She also asked what kind of relationship the current North Korean regime had with China. Again, we simply do not know, because we do not understand the thinking behind the leadership as it stands.

The hon. Lady asked what the British Government would like from the commission of inquiry. The commission will report to the United Nations in March 2014, and, as she will understand, it would be inappropriate for us to comment on the recommendations before we have seen the full report. I believe that the unanimity shown by the United Nations Human Rights Council and its reporting will be extremely important in respect of what we do next. We would like the six-party talks to resume as soon as possible, but at this stage I cannot envisage their resuming until we see some sort of gesture of good will from the regime in Pyongyang. Such a gesture would be more than welcome; at present, as the hon. Lady and the House will know, such a gesture is very much absent.

Order. A great many right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. I must emphasise that the Second Reading debate on the Care Bill, which is to follow, is very heavily subscribed. We are therefore somewhat time-constrained, which renders pithiness from Back and Front Benches alike imperative.

Given that the United Kingdom remains a member of the armistice commission which was established at the end of the Korean war, can my right hon. Friend give an unequivocal assurance that, in the event of further military provocations from the north and a military response from the south, the United Kingdom Government will use their position as a member of the commission to do their utmost to ensure that military action by both sides does not escalate out of control?

My right hon. Friend talks about a military response. We are doing everything in our power to avoid any regional instability or military response by any side in the region. There are several worrying areas in that part of the world, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is contributing to the general instability. We work closely with our partners in the six-party talks and liaise closely with both the Republic of Korea and our American allies, and we shall continue to do that.

Will the Minister have slightly more robust conversations with the BBC, encourage it to look at the issue of transmitters into North Korea and point out to it that BBC documentaries and drama, however entertaining they may be, are not really the answer? What is needed is the World Service and access.

The hon. Lady will no doubt be aware that we have these discussions with the BBC. As I say, my noble Friend Lord Alton of Liverpool has been leading on this, and the BBC has taken a view and is communicating it to him. There are reasons to do it and there are reasons not to do it, but at the end of the day, the BBC has the independence to decide where and to whom to broadcast.

I share the expressions of distaste, even disgust, that we have heard, but I wonder if I might be forgiven for saying that we have to keep some sense of realism. Is not the truth that for the foreseeable future the best we can hope for is to pursue successfully a policy of containment and deterrence?

My right hon. and learned Friend, who speaks with considerable wisdom, is entirely right. Yes, containment is important, but equally we want the DPRK to halt its programme to develop nuclear capability in violation of every known international agreement. That is what this is about. We do not want North Korea to become a nuclear state. We cannot act unilaterally to prevent it, but we can act together with our partners in the six-party talks.

I share the Minister’s horror at the execution last week and I condemn the death penalty in any circumstances anywhere, but it has served to highlight the abuse of human rights throughout North Korea. Have the six-party talks at any stage included a discussion about human rights? When they are resumed, will he ensure that human rights are brought into the equation?

It is almost impossible to conceive any discussion involving the abuses of the regime in Pyongyang not including its horrific abuse of human rights—as I said in my opening remarks, perhaps currently the worst of any regime anywhere in the world.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to start breaking down barriers in North Korea is through contact with the outside world? Will he use his position therefore to encourage contacts with South Korea in Kaesong? Furthermore, will he encourage the BBC to consider broadcasting into North Korea—it would be not a cost-effective, but a diplomatic decision—and encourage maximum contact with China through trade?

Yes to the last point. I have just accompanied the Prime Minister to China on the largest ever prime ministerial-led trade delegation anywhere—it included more than 150 companies—so UK-Chinese bilateral trade is incredibly important. I believe that I have addressed the BBC issue. On my hon. Friend’s other point, I would say: that is why we have an embassy in Pyongyang. Some people say, “If you can’t penetrate the mind of the regime, why have an embassy in Pyongyang?” He has answered that question: a chink of light is better than no light at all. The fact that we have a diplomatic presence in North Korea is welcomed by Seoul and Washington, with whom we work closely on these matters. It is important that whenever we see a chink of light, we try to widen it to expose to the people of North Korea that there is a better world out there. I do not believe that the regime can keep them downtrodden forever.

Will the Minister lay out his thinking about the parallel process of the six-party talks and the other avenues the Foreign Office is pursuing in trying to resolve this issue?

The correct place to resume negotiations is through the six-party talks. That is key. It brings in all the interested parties in the region and, obviously, the United States. Without those talks, I do not believe that sufficient progress could be made, and as I said earlier I do not think it is possible for those talks to resume without a gesture from the North Koreans, but obviously that gesture is sadly lacking.

Given that we already send food aid to some pretty unpalatable regimes around the world, could we ask the Department for International Development to look again at the issue of North Korea?

I have already said that the situation is currently under review, and I will certainly raise it again with colleagues in DFID. I think there are reasons why we do not give food aid to North Korea, not least because of the great difficulty of ensuring that it ended up in the right place. I will make a commitment to my hon. Friend, who takes a keen interest in these matters—and rightly so—that I will speak to my DFID colleagues on the issue he raised and I will get back to him.

It is difficult to envisage any people anywhere in the world who would not benefit more greatly from the BBC World Service than the people of North Korea. The Minister said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) that there were reasons why the BBC had decided not to broadcast into North Korea. Will he now share those reasons with us?

The BBC takes a view about where its resources are best employed and about how people can best access its broadcasting abilities. At the end of the day, whatever representations we make to the BBC, it quite properly makes the final decision on where it wants to broadcast. That is how the BBC is enshrined in charter, and it is how it should remain.

Do not recent events in North Korea demonstrate the need for a clear, continuous and candid dialogue between the Foreign Office and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister’s recent visit to China was extremely welcome in thickening and deepening the UK’s relations with that country?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was encouraged by the levels of access that the Prime Minister and his ministerial team were granted by the Chinese authorities. Political and diplomatic relations are now good, while bilateral trade is, of course, extremely good and inward investment is good. It is critical, as my right hon. Friend says, that China continues to play a lead role in trying to resolve what has been for many decades now an impenetrable problem of this rogue despotic regime in North Korea, treading on the lives of its people. This cannot go on indefinitely. It is up to all of us in the international community not only to prevent some of the regional instabilities created by this situation, but to do something for the people who are living there in the most horrific circumstances.

About 20% of North Korea’s Christians are in jail. What discussions did the Prime Minister have on his recent economic visit to China about leaning on North Korea in order to gain a relaxation or easement of the persecution of Christians?

The hon. Gentleman, who always speak up for Christians, is right. Alas, it is not only the Christian community in North Korea that is so downtrodden. We raised our general concerns about this issue and human rights in North Korea with officials from the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs most recently in November 2013. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman, however, that making significant progress on human rights and the protection of minorities such as Christians is difficult, because the North Korean Government refuse to enter into meaningful discussions on these matters.

What assessment does my right hon. Friend make of reports of widespread public indoctrination sessions occurring in North Korea? Does that not reinforce the point that greater outside influence must be brought to bear if we are to see change in this despicable regime and change for the people of North Korea?

My hon. Friend will no doubt wish to discuss that at the meeting of the Conservative group on North Korea that I believe is taking place tomorrow. He mentions indoctrination, and I have to say that the levels of indoctrination that go on there are almost surreal—incomparable with any other regime or country in the world. It is truly horrific, with almost every aspect of the Korean people’s lives being the result of indoctrination. That is why, as I said, we maintain an embassy because any chink of light is better than no light at all, but it is a long haul and it is difficult work.

The Minister will be aware that many North Koreans in touch with families in South Korea have reported not only that the number of indoctrination sessions has increased, but that targeted individuals are being forced to write letters of loyalty to the leader, Kim Jong-un. Does that not suggest that Jang’s execution is part of a wider campaign to consolidate power as the economy continues to fail?

There are indeed reports that Jang has taken the blame for the desperate state of the economy, and there are also reports that this is the work of the military and not of the leader, but all these are just that: reports. We could indulge ourselves all afternoon by speculating about the reasons behind this. The answer is we do not know. The one fact of which we are certain is that the people of North Korea are suffering in a way that some of us can only guess at, and some of us would not wish that treatment to be vested on even our worst enemies.

We remain extremely concerned about proliferation of any sort. There has been evidence in the past of trade between North Korea and Iran which is why it is so vital that everybody adheres to the sanctions regime that is currently imposed.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In last Thursday’s business questions I asked for a statement on funding for 18-year-old students. I said that further education colleges such as my local college would be £800 per student worse off but that sixth-form colleges would not be affected. I have since been advised that sixth-form colleges will also suffer a loss in funding, so I want to apologise to the House for the erroneous information I gave last Thursday and to put the correct information on the record.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am sure you will agree that Members should always use temperate and moderate language in our exchanges in the Chamber in order, if nothing else, not to offend our constituents. Therefore, can you provide a ruling on whether it was in order for the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) to use the word “bigot” when referring to a Member of the House of Lords and by implication Members of this House when discussing the same-sex marriage Bill? May I ask that your office write to the hon. Gentleman to ensure that his sesquipedalian tendencies do not fall foul of the House again?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and his courtesy in giving me notice of it. I ought perhaps to say to the hon. Gentleman that I trust he informed the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) of his intention to raise this point of order—and I am grateful to him for his nod of assent. I heard the remarks of the hon. Member for Rhondda last week and I did not intervene. I do not think the hon. Gentleman was using the word “bigot” in application to a particular individual and the record at column 360 of Hansard confirms this. I should, however, add that even had he been doing so, I do not feel that accusing others of holding strong opinions on the basis of prejudice rather than fact is altogether uncommon in exchanges in the House and I am not inclined myself to view its use in that way as unparliamentary. That said, I do remind all Members of the need for courtesy and moderation in the language they use in debate and the need to respect the good faith of those on the other side of the argument. I hope that is helpful to the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) and the House both today and for the future.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On Thursday, a Minister from the Department of Energy and Climate Change made a speech to the Solar Britain trade association in which he said:

“we are putting in place the framework to drive even more investment in solar power.”

This morning I met people from Sharp of Japan in my constituency, who informed me that they were withdrawing from production of solar panels in Wrexham and that 615 jobs in my constituency would be lost. Have you received any indication, Mr Speaker, that a Minister of the Department will be coming to the Chamber to explain how it is that they are so out of touch with the industry that they purport to represent?

I do not think the hon. Gentleman will keel over in shock when I advise him that I have received no such indication from any Minister. The hon. Gentleman is a legendarily wily parliamentarian and he knows how to deploy his opportunities to make his case. What he has just raised is not in any meaningful sense a point of order; it is a point of debate, to which I suspect the hon. Gentleman might wish to return, possibly through the medium of an Adjournment debate, and his ambitions may at some point be realised.

Bill presented

House of Commons Members’ Fund Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr Peter Lilley, supported by Mr Clive Betts, Mr Brian H. Donohoe, Richard Harrington, David Mowat and John Thurso, presented a Bill to consolidate and amend provisions about the House of Commons Members’ Fund.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 17 January 2014, and to be printed (Bill 145).

Care Bill [Lords]

[Relevant documents: Third report from the Health Committee, on After Francis: making a difference, HC 657, and the Government response, Cm 8755.]

Second Reading

I should inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Our health and care system stands for compassionate care, or it stands for nothing. That was the vision when the NHS was founded 65 years ago: that anyone and everyone, regardless of background or income, should receive the best quality health care and be treated with dignity, compassion and respect. Because we have made much progress in delivering that vision, the NHS rightly remains the single biggest reason people are proud to be British. This Government want to keep it that way, which is why we are determined to root out poor care whenever and wherever it exists. Tragically, it does exist, both in the NHS and in private provision. In recent years, we have heard of patients being left in their own excrement at Mid Staffs, of patients left unchecked on trolleys for hours on end at Tameside, and of blood on the curtains and catheters on the floor at Basildon. All are issues that could and should have been dealt with by the last Government. Tragically, those problems were swept under the carpet, with devastating consequences for families across the country.

Today it gets worse, because the same people who failed to face up to those problems as Ministers will troop into the Lobby to try to vote down the very measures that will stop them ever happening again. People watching this debate will be asking one simple question: what more will it take for Labour to learn the terrible lessons of these tragedies? How many more people will need to suffer before the Labour party, the party that is rightly proud to have founded the NHS, comes to its senses and recognises that, on its watch, targets mattered more than patients and good news mattered more than good care?

The right hon. Gentleman casts those allegations around widely. Will he name the Ministers against whom he is making them?

I will absolutely go on to name the problems and the Ministers involved, if the hon. Gentleman will just be patient.

Hon. Members should not simply take my word for this. This is what Mid Staffs campaigner Ken Lownds, a former Labour party member, says about Labour’s decision today:

“It’s shocking and deeply depressing that Labour have learnt nothing from Mid Staffs. Their decision to oppose the Care Bill is a slap in the face for the campaigners and relatives who have fought for years for these measures that deliver a safer, more transparent and more compassionate NHS. Once again they have let patients and whistleblowers down by putting their political interests ahead of patient safety.”

The Secretary of State has come here to introduce the Second Reading of a very important Bill, yet it has taken him only two minutes to start casting aspersions on the previous Labour Government. When is he going to start acting like a Secretary of State?

The reason I am talking about this is that the hon. Lady’s party has decided to oppose the Bill. Let us look at the measures in the Bill that Labour is opposing.

I will make some progress, then I will give way.

Labour will today vote against measures that will help to implement 61 of the most important recommendations made by Robert Francis. Many of these will be policed by the new chief inspector of hospitals, appointed to be the nation’s whistleblower in chief, whose duties will be enshrined in today’s legislation, which Labour are voting against.

How can it be appropriate to introduce a debate on such fundamentally important issues as the way we care for older people with such narrow, petty, partisan, point scoring efforts? May I just say to the Secretary of State that he should not stand there and misrepresent the position of the Opposition? We will not oppose the Second Reading—we have tabled a reasoned amendment, because we do not believe his proposals for a cap are what they seem, but we will not oppose the Second Reading of this Bill. He should get his facts straight before he comes to that Dispatch Box.

The right hon. Gentleman needs to read his own amendment, because it says that he “declines to give” the Bill “a Second Reading”. If he is changing his position now, that is the fastest U-turn in history.

Let me go on to say why it is so important that the Labour party supports today’s Bill and does not, as the amendment says, decline to give the Bill a Second Reading.

I am going to make some progress. The new chief inspector of hospitals will act as Ofsted does with schools and, as with Ofsted, will inspect and rate hospitals using simple language that the public can understand: “Is my local hospital safe? Is it caring? Is it responsive? Is it clinically effective? Is it well led?” We will also make sure that the same scrutiny is directed at services outside hospitals, so the Bill makes provision for a chief inspector of social care and a chief inspector of general practice.

Ministers in the previous Government were repeatedly asked to strengthen the regulatory system and repeatedly ignored those requests. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman says, from a sedentary position, that that is rubbish, but this is what Barbara Young, the chair of the Care Quality Commission at the time and now a Labour peer, told the Francis inquiry about the inspection system that the right hon. Gentleman introduced:

“The annual health check was so flawed in so many ways that I went and saw the Secretary of State. It was nonsense. And having argued that with the Secretary of State, I was told firmly that we weren’t permitted to change it. I was very unhappy about that.”

Well, today—

No, I am going to make some progress. Today he had a chance to show that he had learned how wrong—

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it in order for the Secretary of State to misrepresent the views of the previous Government and previous Ministers, and refuse to take interventions? He has just said that I refused to change and strengthen the regulation system of hospitals in England—that is factually incorrect. I brought forward a new system for the registration of all hospitals in England in autumn 2009, on the back of recommendations from the CQC. Again, he should get his facts straight at that Dispatch Box.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order, and I make two points in response. First, every Member and every Minister must be responsible for his or her comments in the Chamber—the accuracy and appropriateness thereof. I am afraid that, however angry people feel, on either side of the argument, these are matters of debate. Secondly, the situation would be greatly helped if the Secretary of State now, immediately, turned his mind to the presentation of the argument in support of the introduction of the Bill, which is, ordinarily, the matter upon which one anticipates a Secretary of State will focus his remarks. This is not an occasion for a historical legerdemain; it is an occasion for the presentation of the case for a Bill, to which I know that, without delay, the Secretary of State will turn his mind.

I am delighted to do so, Mr Speaker, and I know that you would think it was legitimate of me to hold the Labour party to account for its decision if it is voting against today’s Bill or declining to support it, as its amendment clearly states.

However, today is a day to rise above party political considerations, as Mr Speaker has just said, and recognise that putting these things right is overwhelmingly in the interests of patients. If the Labour party continues its stubborn refusal to support legislative underpinning for a new chief inspector of hospitals, which is in today’s Bill, how will it ever be able to look patients in the eye again? Perhaps the most shocking thing about Mid Staffs, which is one of the reasons we have so many provisions in the Bill, was not just the individual lapses in care but the fact that they went on for four long years without anything being done about them.

I am going to make some progress.

When problems are uncovered, action must be swift. Robert Francis cited confusion over which part of the regulatory system is responsible for dealing with failing hospitals, so this Bill makes it clear where the buck stops. It is the CQC’s job to identify problems and instigate a new failure regime when it does so. Monitor and the Trust Development Authority will then be able to use powers to intervene in those hospitals, suspending foundation trusts’ freedoms where necessary to ensure that appropriate action is taken. If, after a limited period, a trust has failed significantly to improve, the Bill requires a decision to be taken on whether the trust needs to be put into special administration on quality grounds—and, yes, where necessary, a trust special administrator will be able to look beyond the boundaries of the trust and consider the wider health economy. As we know from Lewisham, that is not easy, but we will betray patients if we do not address failure wherever it happens.

Why, when the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have clearly set out the four tests that have to be met for any downgrading of hospital services, is he now introducing this clause? Those greater powers will totally undermine the clinical commissioning groups that his Government set up to meet local clinical and health needs, and not to balance the books for people outside their area.

I recognise that the right hon. Lady campaigns hard for her constituents. The four tests set out by the Prime Minister were never designed to require unanimous support from local CCGs for necessary changes. If we had to secure that, it would be virtually impossible to make any major reconfigurations. Where there is a failing hospital, it is important to resolve and address situations. There are exceptional occasions when that cannot be done in an individual trust’s area. The change in the law will not apply retrospectively to Lewisham, but it is right to ensure that, if we are to learn one lesson from what has happened in recent years, we deal much more quickly with failing hospitals, and that applies to South London Healthcare NHS Trust as well. Governments and the NHS must never again sit on coasting or failing hospitals for year after year without doing what it takes to sort them out. That is why this year, for the first time, we have put 13 hospitals into special measures. How utterly inexplicable but sadly predictable it is that the Labour party, which failed to sort out those problems, is today refusing to back the changes that mean those mistakes can never be repeated.

Another lesson from the Francis inquiry is that we need to create a culture of openness in health and social care so that, rather than being bullied and intimidated, doctors and nurses feel they can speak out about problems. The Care Bill will introduce a duty of candour as a requirement for registering with a CQC. That means that honesty and openness must come as standard for every organisation. We are also introducing a new criminal offence that will apply to care providers that supply or publish false or misleading information. Directors and other senior staff involved in committing the offence will be held to account. In addition to the Bill, the professional regulators have agreed to place a new strengthened professional duty of candour on all doctors and nurses. The Government are on the side of openness and transparency in our health care system.

I am sorry that the Secretary of State has not made any reference to part 1 of the Bill, which is about care and support. I hope he will come on to it, because it is so important. Perhaps he will also explain why Francis’s recommendations on a duty of care are being applied to organisations but not to individuals?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we considered that matter carefully. We decided that the best way forward is to strengthen the professional duty of candour on individual doctors and nurses through their professional codes. After extensive consultation, which was supported by the medical profession, including the British Medical Association, we decided that that was a better way of ensuring that we had the right outcomes and did not create a legalistic culture that could lead to defensive medicine, which would not be in patients’ interests.

If supporting the Francis measures in the Bill is too awkward or embarrassing for Labour Members, can they not see the merits in the parts of the Bill that deal with out-of-hospital care? I am talking about not just vulnerable older people, but carers, for whom we need to do more. We need to do much more to remove the worry that people have about being forced to sell their own home to pay for their care.

I want to make some progress.

At Committee stage, we intend to table amendments to enable the creation of a £3.8 billion better care fund in 2015-16. That represents the first significant step any Government have ever taken to integrate the health and social care systems.

I will give way in a moment, but let me make some progress first.

I commend the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) for championing integration, although he chose not to do anything about it when he was in office. How, then, when a Government take steps to do that for the first time, can he possibly justify not supporting it?