House of Commons
Monday 8 September 2014
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before questions
Death of a member
It is with great sadness that I have to announce the sudden death of our colleague Jim Dobbin, Member of Parliament for Heywood and Middleton, while on a Council of Europe trip to Poland. Before being elected to the House in 1997, Jim worked as a microbiologist for 33 years. He was elected as a councillor to the metropolitan borough of Rochdale council in 1983, becoming group leader in 1994. Jim was an assiduous, independent-minded and principled parliamentarian who enjoyed respect on both sides of the House. He will be sadly missed. We send our condolences to Jim’s wife of 50 years, Pat, and their four children: Patrick, Barry, Mary and Kerry.
That Mr Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the County constituency of Clacton, in the room of John Douglas Wilson Carswell, who since his election for the said County constituency has been appointed to the office of Steward or Bailiff of Her Majesty’s Manor of Northstead in the County of York.—(Michael Gove.)
Following the third Division on Friday afternoon, in relation to the committal of the Affordable Homes Bill to a Select Committee, the Chair received a report from the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) that the hon. Gentleman had been unable to vote as the Division Clerks and Tellers had left the Lobby. Having investigated the matter, I am content to direct the Clerk to correct the numbers voting in the Division accordingly. The Ayes were 236 and the Noes were 265.
Oral Answers to Questions
Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Fire Service Pensions
Since taking office I have had several meetings with the Fire Brigades Union, the Retained Firefighters Union, the Fire Officers Association and the women’s committee of the FBU. Further meetings are in the diary. It is only through such discussions that we will bring the dispute to an end.
I welcome the Minister to her post, although I notice that she failed to answer the question—that is a great start to her ministerial career.
The Minister has made positive comments during her visits to fire stations throughout the country. The Government commissioned the Williams review on the impact of medical retirements for firefighters aged between 50 and 60, and especially the impact on women. Do the Government accept the need for minimum fitness standards?
There need to be minimum fitness standards. That is a priority for me, and it is key to bringing the dispute to an end, so we need to consider carefully how firefighters who wish to maintain operational roles can be appropriately supported to maintain their fitness standards. I have asked the chief fire and rescue adviser to chair a working group to examine these issues in detail, and I expect that group to meet later this month. I also requested, and have had, a meeting with the FBU women’s committee regarding its concerns about fitness.
As the number of fires has gone down, firefighters’ roles have changed. For example, Cheshire fire and rescue works with the Prince’s Trust to support young people into work, and it is fitting fire alarms in old people’s homes and working to reduce antisocial behaviour. Is it not right that as the role of firefighters expands, we look at their terms and conditions to ensure that there are the right skills in fire services so that they can move forward?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Some of the best ideas for developing roles in the fire service have come from firefighters themselves, and they are at the head of the queue of people who want to remove the obstacles to change and reform. I am pleased that the review has already received a very large number of replies to the consultation, and some great ideas have emerged from that.
I welcome the Minister to her position. I hope that she will bring a bit of common sense and rationality to this long dispute over pensions, but does she not agree that morale is very low among all those working in fire and rescue services across the country, not just because of pensions, but because of the age issue that has already been mentioned and the reductions in numbers in front-line fire services? We have to recognise that there is support for these men and women across the country.
I thank the hon. Lady for her warm welcome. I take issue with her claim that morale is low. I have made going out and seeing firefighters and chiefs a priority in the short time I have been in office—in fact, just this weekend, I was up with the west midlands service. I asked them about morale and was told that morale is good. Clearly, everyone will benefit from the dispute being brought to a close, but actually morale is good and we need to keep it good, to keep firefighters engaged with the reforms the service needs.
I welcome the Minister to her place and thank her for visiting my constituency on Saturday. We had what I think were constructive discussions with local firefighters, as well as celebrating the launch of the Haden Cross community fire station. Does she agree that the new fire station is a splendid example of a station that will serve the people of Halesowen and Rowley Regis and allow firefighters to do an effective job for my community?
I was pleased to be part of that wonderful community event. It is a fantastic new facility, not just supplying state-of-the-art services to the fire and rescue services and as a base for other blue light services, but available for use by the local community as well. I had a wonderful day and I look forward very much to going back and doing more with that fire service.
Mr Speaker, I am sure the whole House echoes your sentiments about our colleague, Jim Dobbin.
I too welcome the Minister to her post. The Government’s dispute with firefighters has now been ongoing for 1,091 days and there have been 31 strikes. Can she explain why her predecessor and colleague failed to bring the dispute to an end and what she will now do differently?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words of welcome. Resolving the dispute is a key priority for the Government. I have some advantages that my predecessor did not have: when he entered office, we did not have the Williams report, the Knight review and other such reports that enable me and others to make evidence-based judgments. Everyone wants the dispute to be resolved. We are now in a position to have constructive talks, and we have been doing so with the FBU; and we have further meetings in the diary—we meet next after the trades union conference. I am optimistic that the dispute will be resolved soon.
Private Rented Sector
We will soon publish a model tenancy agreement to encourage longer tenancies. Our £1 billion Build to Rent fund will deliver up to 10,000 new homes for private rent, and our housing guarantee schemes will attract long-term investors into the market, which in itself will increase choice, quality and stability for renters.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but the fact remains that we are building fewer than half the homes we need in this country, and the combination of that and rising private sector rents is putting home ownership out of reach for many families. Is the Minister content that under his Government the dream of home ownership will be out of reach of millions of families in this country?
I am slightly surprised by the hon. Lady’s question, given that under the previous Administration the number of affordable rental homes fell by 420,000 and under this Government, since 2010, we have got about 480,000 new homes built. To be clear, and contradicting something she said, average rents are down in real terms year on year under this Government.
Does the Minister agree that the way to improve stability and affordability in the private rented sector is for local authorities to make more land available for housing? That is happening in my constituency, where we are delivering new housing at double the rate seen in the country as a whole.
May I draw attention to my interests as declared in the register? In its consultation earlier this year on the future of the private rented sector, the Minister’s Department proposed the possibility of extending a requirement to have working smoke alarms fitted in all private rented units. I understand that there has been overwhelming support for that in the response to the consultation, and I would welcome an indication from the Minister as to when the Government intend to act on this recommendation.
Will the Minister cast his mind over the problems that are faced by people living in the private rented sector in London? It is unaffordable for anyone on average or below-average income, and those on benefits can no longer remain within the communities that they have lived in for many years. Does he accept that it is time for full regulation of the private rented sector and for a limitation on the levels of rent that can be charged so that we can maintain the diversity and cohesion of communities all over the capital city?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. However, affordable housing starts in 2013-14 show an increase on the previous year, with a large percentage of them being in London. I remind him of what I said a few moments ago: under this Government average rents are down in real terms year on year, not just elsewhere in England but in London. It has been clear from the suggestions by Labour Members that the idea of short-term gimmicks such as rent controls are simply something from the past.
Brownfield Land and Empty Buildings
In June we announced a new £400 million package to encourage development on brownfield land which we estimate could provide up to 200,000 new homes by 2020. We have extended permitted development to give new life to thousands of empty buildings. The number of empty homes is now the lowest since records began a decade ago.
I am encouraged by that answer. Tamworth council has relatively few publicly held brownfield sites, but it is working innovatively with the private sector to redevelop our town centre with a mix of leisure, retail and accommodation property to keep it vibrant. What further support can Ministers give to local authorities with relatively few brownfield properties to encourage private owners to make better use of their assets?
I have indeed visited Tamworth, which already has a very handsome town centre with a statue of Peel that I went to visit. I suggest that my hon. Friend’s friends in the local authority look at the empty homes programme. I understand that, as of October last year, Tamworth has 579 empty homes, of which about 150 have been empty long term. If the council were able to work with the owners to bring just a third of those properties back into use, there would not only be new homes for people but a substantial new homes bonus of about £350,000 for Tamworth council.
In its current inquiry into the national planning policy framework, the Communities and Local Government Committee has had dozens of complaints from local residents about local councils having to find more greenfield sites to build on because brownfield sites cannot be included in their local plans as they are deemed not to be viable. At the same time, more and more applications are being considered under the presumption in favour of sustainable developments and are being approved for building on greenfield sites. Given that the vast majority of those complaints come from the constituencies of Government Members, what is the Minister going to do to address them?
It is up to local communities to work with their local councils and, indeed, their local constituency MPs to see what is most appropriate for each area. It is a mistake to make pronouncements from the Dispatch Box about particular circumstances in particular areas, but if the hon. Gentleman has a specific example he wants to put to me, I am sure we will be able to take it up.
At the risk of testing your sense of order, Mr Speaker, would you allow me to place on record our, as Members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, sadness at the death of Jim Dobbin? He was a true Christian and a true gentleman, and we shall all miss him. Our thoughts are with Pat.
I applaud the Government’s efforts to bring brownfield sites back into use, but deplore the equal efforts by Mrs Ann Gloag to reduce a perfectly serviceable airport, Manston in Kent, to a brownfield site, with a view, presumably, to gaining Government assistance. Will the Minister join the Prime Minister in recognising the importance of Manston as a national asset and applaud the efforts of Thanet council, on a cross-party basis, to seek to bring it back into use as an airport?
Last week the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), who has responsibility for housing and planning, was clear in rejecting urban extensions, yet under his Government brownfield development has fallen from 70% under Labour to just 53% now. As his new proposals to support brownfield development will help only about a third of councils, where do the Government think the new houses will go?
We have announced a £400 million fund for local authorities to bid to create new housing zones, with 20 in London and 10 around the country. With the additional money the Mayor of London is putting in, that is a £600 million investment. We will also publish a consultation next month on further measures to get planning permissions on brownfield sites, and we are working with local authorities to produce a support package, available from next March, to further encourage the use of brownfield land. There is, therefore, a lot of activity taking place in this area.
We are providing £1 billion for the business rates support package, including a £1,000 discount for smaller shops, businesses and restaurants. We estimate that about 300,000 retail premises will benefit from this discount in England, including more than 1,000 retail premises in Bury; nearly 400 retail premises in Stevenage; more than 800 in East Hertfordshire and 600 in North Hertfordshire; more than 1,000 retail premises in Norwich and 300 in Broadland; and 1,000 retail premises in Dudley.
It is important to recognise that the Department is playing a role, as are the rest of Government, to get business going, to make sure that communities can stand on their own feet and to support very small businesses. That is why a £1,000 discount this year and next year will help those businesses.
I am delighted that the Minister has given local authorities the power to review and reduce business rates locally. I have teamed up with a local accountancy firm in Stevenage to launch a campaign to help businesses to do just that. Will the Minister support that campaign, and does he agree it is ridiculous that many small businesses in my constituency pay more in business rates to Stevenage borough council than they do in rents to their landlords?
I know that my hon. Friend is absolutely passionate about supporting people in Stevenage and that he is ruthless in pursuit of the Labour council, which yet again has failed local businesses. I am sure we can offer our support to his campaign and those businesses.
This tax cut for small shops, pubs, cafés and restaurants is already getting real help to hundreds of businesses in my constituency, and I think it is sad—perhaps the Minister agrees with me—that no Opposition Members rise to support it. Would the Minister like to give a message to Dixie’s café in my constituency—a regular pit stop for hungry Conservative canvassers—about the bill change that it already welcomes?
As my hon. Friend observes, and as many of us have seen, the Labour party is not business-friendly, unlike those campaigners who are supporting Dixie’s café and are out seeking to secure a Conservative majority while buying coffee and bacon sandwiches from what I am sure is a fantastic local shop.
Lower business rates are undoubtedly a factor in the recovery of high streets in my constituency of Stourbridge. Will my hon. Friend update the House on how many shops have benefited from the additional discretionary and hardship rate relief powers made available to local authorities by the Localism Act 2011?
Unfortunately, I cannot give my hon. Friend those details, because we do not record them. We should, however, recognise that this £1 billion package is part of the Government’s response to ensure that we have more businesses and more jobs. The £1,000 discount for local businesses this year and next year has had the successful impact of bringing 1.8 million people into employment, and that is a direct consequence of this Government’s intervention.
Building Affordable Homes
13. What steps he is taking to increase the building of affordable homes. (905211)
Almost 200,000 affordable homes have been delivered since 2010. A further £23 billion of investment will deliver 165,000 affordable homes between 2015 and 2018. This will be the fastest rate of affordable house building for the past 20 years.
As someone born and raised in an affordable home, I know the value of such homes. I also know that not enough units are coming on stream in my constituency at the moment. This Government have presided over the lowest build of new affordable homes in peacetime since the 1920s. Does the Minister regret slashing the budget by 60% on coming into government?
I respectfully point out to the hon. Gentleman that we actually inherited the lowest level of house building since the 1920s from the previous Government. In fact, as I have just said, we are about to get the fastest rate of building in the past 20 years. Just to be specific, in his home area of Greater Manchester alone, 5,724 new affordable homes will be delivered as a result of this Government’s investment in this period’s affordable homes programme.
The Minister has been keen to bombard us with statistics and to blame anybody but this Government, but it is they who have set affordable rents at 80% of private sector rents. In areas such as Hackney, that means that such rents are not affordable to the average, ordinary working person, while it also puts pressure on the housing benefit bill. When will the Government rethink this crazy and unfair policy?
Despite the awful inheritance that the Minister has had to deal with, the truth at the moment is that the public sector is continuing to hoard surplus land and buildings. May I urge Ministers to look at ripping up the financial rules of Government, ensuring that we penalise the hoarding of public sector land and buildings and incentivise Whitehall and town halls to get such assets turned into real affordable homes?
In an area with a very recently adopted core strategy that, because of the current severe shortage and a backlog of many years, requires 50% affordable housing, what advice would the Minister give planning officers determining new applications should there be requests for deviations from that requirement?
I would say to the right hon. Lady that planning decisions are obviously matters for the local authority, and it would be wrong for me to comment on the core strategy of a particular area. However, if she wants to come and see me, I will be happy to go through any queries she has.
I welcome the Minister to his new position. According to his Department’s own forecasts, housing starts are due to fall in this financial year. His predecessor admitted that that was due to an expected hiatus between the current affordable homes programme and the next one. Will the Minister explain what steps he is taking to avoid this? Does he think that there will be such a hiatus in 2015?
Regrettably, the truth is that the Government have undermined affordable housing, not promoted it. With the 60% cut to the affordable homes programme, the watering down of section 106 agreements, and the hated and discredited bedroom tax, will the Minister now admit that for all Ministers’ talk on affordable homes—we have heard the same today—the number of homes built for social rent has dropped to a 20-year low and that simply changing Ministers will not overcome this Government’s failed housing policies?
I am slightly astounded that such a question has been put by the hon. Lady, who represents a party that oversaw a drop in the number of affordable rental homes of 420,000 between 1997 and 2010. Under this Government, house building has got going again. We need to keep on top of that to deliver the houses we need, and we are looking at an increase of 170,000 in this period alone.
In the autumn statement, we announced a £1 billion package of business rate support, which included a £1,000 discount for shops, pubs and restaurants with rateable values below £50,000. That could benefit three in four pubs. We are also providing funding to help communities diversify their pubs, and pubs can be saved through the community right to bid.
There are many reasons why pubs are closing: people do not want to drink and drive; some people do not go to pubs because of the smoking ban, although I support that; and people buy low-cost alcohol from supermarkets. Is my hon. Friend aware that one problem is the pubcos that charge high rents? How will the new statutory code help?
15. In August 2011, the Government consulted on ending the use of restrictive covenants by pub companies to prevent new owners from reopening valued pubs. Three years on, the Government are yet to announce the outcome of the consultation. Will the Minister commit to ending the disgraceful practice of using restrictive covenants to prevent closed pubs from being reopened? (905214)
The popular, successful and profitable Seven Stars pub in Sedgley in my constituency is threatened with closure because Marston’s and Morrisons are discussing turning it into a supermarket. Does the Minister agree that those companies ought to accept my invitation to meet residents who are concerned not just about the loss of the pub, but about the impact on traffic, parking and businesses in the nearby town centre? Is it possible to introduce tougher rules, so that planning permission is always required before a pub is demolished or closed?
I think that the businesses concerned should meet local residents—that dialogue is absolutely appropriate. The Government have given powers to councils under article 4 and the community right to bid mechanism. If communities have treasured assets that they want to be recognised as community assets, they can register them with the local council and give them some protection. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s participation and the dialogue that he is having with local business.
Right to Buy
In 2013, social housing stock topped the 4 million mark for the first time since 2004. In the first year following the reinvigoration of the right-to-buy scheme, there were almost 6,000 council right-to-buy sales. In the same period, affordable rented stock increased by 20,000.
In South Lakeland in my constituency, of the 7,500 council homes, only 3,000 remain, and there is a council house waiting list of 3,500 individuals. That must be set against the backdrop of local house prices being 12 times average local wages. Does the Minister agree that, in the spirit of localism, it would be right to do as the Scottish Parliament has done and allow local authorities the right to suspend right to buy in those places where it is having the worst impact?
I do not entirely agree. I believe that people who aspire to own their own home should have the opportunity to do so if they can afford it, because it allows them to have the pride of ownership not just in their home, but in their street and their neighbourhood.
It is sad not to have Jim Dobbin jumping up and down today, as he usually did in this House. He was a man of courage. He would have joined me in saying that we need courage in facing the lack of good social housing. I have always been in favour of the right to buy, as long as the homes are superseded by more social housing. Is it not true that some Government some time must have the courage to say, “We will not meet housing need in this country—social or private—until we build on some of our green belt”?
I agree with some of what the hon. Gentleman said, but I do not think that we need to go down the line of his final few comments. From April 2012 to June 2014, almost 3,700 homes have been started on site or acquired with the £514 million that has been generated by additional sales through the reinvigorated right to buy. The additional receipts that are raised by local authority right-to-buy sales are now used directly to fund homes for affordable rent, thanks to the changes that the Government have made.
Is my hon. Friend aware that under this Government an astonishing 437% more people in Harlow have bought houses under the right to buy? Is that not an example of a housing policy that helps lower earners and gives people the ladder of aspiration?
National Planning Policy Framework
Our planning reforms and locally led planning system have given more discretion to local authorities—to members, and through them, to local communities—especially when preparing local plans that identify where development should and should not go. Wherever possible we want local authorities to make decisions about their local areas.
On Friday, following a concerted campaign by local residents, Newcastle city council exercised that discretion and rejected an application recommended by officers to site a two-storey McDonald’s drive-through opposite the city’s largest school at the northern gateway to our city. Does the Minister agree that the spirit of localism is best served by McDonald’s respecting democracy and not appealing?
My hon. Friend is right, and I intend soon to issue additional guidance to reiterate the protection that the national planning policy framework provides to the green belt and other designated areas. That will make it clear that local planners should seek to meet their objectively assessed needs, unless there are specific environmental and other policies in the framework—such as those on the green belt—which indicate that development should be restricted.
The Secretary of State has said that only in the most exceptional cases will fracking be allowed in national parks. Will my hon. Friend say what those exceptional circumstances will be, and that the precautionary principle will normally prevail for fracking?
Local Enterprise Partnership Boundaries
There has been no recent assessment of local enterprise partnership boundaries. Through growth deals, the Government invited local enterprise partnerships to submit proposals to revise those boundaries, but none did.
We have been clear that those decisions must be locally driven. The Government are happy to consider such requests, and we are currently considering the results of a consultation on the rules surrounding the creation of combined authorities. It must be a locally driven ask, and in the hon. Gentleman’s case it is vital that both combined local authorities work together and not centrifugally. That will provide the best backdrop to spending £300 million—soon to rise to £550 million—of local growth funding for the hon. Gentleman’s area.
The borough of Kettering is in two LEPs—the Northamptonshire LEP and the South East Midlands LEP—and Kettering borough council is happy to be in both. Will the Minister confirm that no pressure should be applied by larger local authorities to force smaller ones to choose between two LEPs?
Greater Manchester is a case in point. The city region and the LEP boundaries are coterminous, which is working well, but there is a democratic deficit. What more will the Government do to address that problem, so that local populations have buy-in to the economic regeneration plans for the city region?
We are providing support, as are other organisations, such as, most recently, the Federation of Small Businesses, to help LEPs to develop and to have better representation on their boards. The Manchester LEP is doing extremely well—we need to do more to encourage it to allocate its growth funding to projects, but it is doing well. Further support, both from the Government and from third-party organisations, is being provided to develop democratic structures.
Solar Arrays (Impact on Landscape)
I know from recent correspondence of my hon. Friend’s concerns about large-scale solar arrays. Although I cannot comment on particular cases, I can assure you that the same expectations on deciding planning applications apply to inspectors and local councils.
I thank the Minister for his reply. He will know that local residents and South Hams district councillors were very disappointed that he did not haul in the application for another 58 acres of solar arrays near Diptford. That is the fourth large-scale development within a three-mile radius of a tiny community in my constituency. He will also know that district councillors are under great pressure to accept such applications, because when they turn them down, as they did in Kingsbridge recently, the applications are overturned on appeal, with punitive costs. Will the Minister reassure me, and meet me to discuss how the situation can be resolved?
I am more than willing to meet my hon. Friend. I cannot comment on individual cases, but I should emphasise that the solution to giving confidence to a local council about the decisions it makes, and to the community, is to have a secure local plan, under which people clearly determine what they want to be built in their area. At the moment, the plan that covers the area where the hon. Lady works and lives is not appropriate and does not give that security.
Peterborough city council is misguidedly pursuing a solar energy park to the east of the city, around the villages of Thorney and Newborough, which will involve 500,000 glass panels on an area the size of 700 football pitches. Do we need to consider the use of more robust language in the strategic planning framework to ensure that such proposals to build on prime agricultural land are not pursued in future?
Wiltshire council recently permitted a well-sited solar project—it was behind an industrial estate, next to a sewage works on the outskirts of Trowbridge—yet Broughton Gifford, a small village, has had a number of applications for several different arrays in its vicinity, despite the presence of National Trust buildings and English Heritage listed buildings. Is the Minister confident that the protections that we give our heritage assets are appropriately recognised in respect of such proposals?
As I have said in answer to previous questions, there is clear guidance on what is appropriate and inappropriate. It is absolutely appropriate for individual local authorities to get a secure local plan that determines the shape and use of renewable energy sources.
Help to Buy Scheme
More than 50,000 families have already purchased a home in England with the support of Help to Buy since March 2012, helping them to achieve their ambition of owning their own home. In Swindon, 430 families have bought through Help to Buy.
It has not been as successful in Wales, because Labour rather botched its introduction of Help to Buy. I was recently in Mid Bedfordshire looking at some houses on a Barratt Homes development, and I was surprised to find that all the brickies came from Wales. The explanation was that because of the decline of house building in Wales, ambitious brickies are coming to England for work.
Help to Buy is strengthening demand for housing, but if that is not met by an increase in supply, it will simply end in higher prices. What is the Secretary of State doing to increase supply, which we know is at one of the lowest levels in recorded history?
I think we have made quite a lot of progress. As the hon. Gentleman admits, we inherited the lowest level of house building at any time since the 1920s. The current figures for the amount of house building taking place are more than encouraging—it is quite a success, and I think he will be pleased when the latest figures are released.
Having been appointed the first ever Minister with responsibility for coastal communities, I can reassure my hon. Friend that we are committed to coastal areas. Since 2012, we have provided more than £62 million through the coastal communities fund to deliver more than 8,500 jobs, 3,000 training places and 400 new business start-ups, helping to make our coastal towns better places to live, work and visit.
I congratulate the Minister on that new position and wish her well.
In Fleetwood, Wyre borough council has a long-term economic plan to develop and expand the fish processing industry. Will the Minister and her officials meet me and representatives of the council so that we can pursue that project further?
I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is a champion of that industry and what it will bring to his constituency. He has successfully campaigned both on fisheries reform and for CCF funding, which will improve the Fleetwood coastline. I would be happy to meet him about the issue that he raises and the hoped-for improvements to St George’s quay.
May I join you, Mr Speaker, and Opposition Members in expressing my sadness at the death of Jim Dobbin? As you rightly said, he had a very distinguished career in the health service before becoming a Member of Parliament, which demonstrates what someone of a more mature age coming into this place for the first time can give us. He was a charming man and always very courteous, and Government Members will miss him deeply.
I am sure the whole House would like to congratulate the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the wonderful news this morning that they are expecting a second child. We wish them well.
My Department is announcing the first wave of funding for the builders finance fund, which will help to kick-start the building of 13,000 homes on 160 small sites across England that stalled because of Labour’s housing crash. Thanks to our long-term economic plan, housing construction is up and Britain is building again.
Jim Dobbin was indeed one of the nicest and kindest men in Parliament, and we will miss him greatly.
The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has made it plain, both in letters to local authorities and by withdrawing the subsidy, that large and industrial-scale solar farms like those discussed earlier are simply not acceptable on greenfield agricultural sites. However, planning regulations do not so far reflect the robustness of the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s determination. Will the Secretary of State either write to local authorities or change the planning regulations so that the Planning Inspectorate and local authorities will take account of what DECC is saying on the subject?
The short answer is yes. I was struck by what Members said, and this country clearly needs a robust and sustainable housing policy with regard to energy. We need a degree of reality and reasonableness in this approach. We have made a number of ministerial statements on the matter. It is excellent to see these solar panels on the roofs of houses, but we do not want them taking away valuable agricultural land. I shall look carefully at what my hon. Friends and Opposition Members have said, and we will work with fellow ministries and produce a statement soon.
I join the Secretary of State and you, Mr Speaker, in expressing our profound sadness at the death of our good friend and colleague Jim Dobbin. Jim served his constituents and this House with distinction. He was a passionate defender of the national health service, for which he worked for many years, and a campaigner against global poverty. His integrity and his decency shone through in everything he did. All our thoughts are with his wife Pat and their children in their great loss.
I also join the Secretary of State in passing on our congratulations to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Over the summer, the nation has come fully to realise the scale of the grooming and recruitment of young British Muslims to go and commit atrocities in the name of the so-called Islamic State. Every single one of us has responsibility to tackle the causes of this radicalisation, and the Secretary of State particularly so. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore tell us what specific steps he and his Department have taken to counter this threat?
The right hon. Gentleman will readily understand that when we came to office, the Prevent strategy was moved to the Home Office. We have concentrated on the matters that bring people together and encourage communities not to be isolated. We have spent the best part of £45 million on that endeavour, on things ranging from “English First”, which ensures English is taught in perhaps unusual places—trying to target young mothers, for example—to putting a lot of money, about £10 million, into the recruitment of detached youth workers to appropriate organisations. We have also funded groups that work together, whether it be in mosques, churches or synagogues. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that we all have an obligation in this regard. Speaking as someone brought up in a multicultural city, I think this issue goes far deeper than funding streams. It is an extraordinary sight to see someone born and brought up in this country participating in atrocities in the middle east. I pledge the Government, along with the Opposition, to work hard on this—
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his reply. Given what he said, however, why does he think that last month the widely respected counter-extremism think-tank Quilliam criticised his Department’s failure to produce a proper strategy as “catastrophic”? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that much more needs to be done across government and the country to protect our young people, including confronting head-on Islamic State’s repugnant ideology, its promoters and apologists here in the United Kingdom and its utter contempt for our democracy and way of life? As he does so, he will have the full support of the Opposition.
I am grateful. We came to the conclusion early on not to fund some of Quilliam’s work, which might well have clouded its judgment. I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support. Quilliam’s criticism does not reflect what my Department, working closely with the Home Office, is doing, but as I say, I am grateful for his support.
T2. The Rural Services Network has expressed some concern about the unintended consequences of removing section 106 obligations on small developments and its effect on raising land values, making it more difficult to provide affordable housing in small rural communities. Will the Minister meet me on this issue as well so that I can be reassured? (905225)
Yes, I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend.
T4. Last week, in a statement on child exploitation in Rotherham, the Home Secretary said that the Secretary of State was “minded” to commission an independent investigation of what had happened there. Will the Secretary of State update the House on his thinking, and tell us whether it would be within the remit of those conducting such an investigation to look into the accountability of officers who work for Rotherham now or have done so in the past, and their responsibility for anything that happens in this regard? (905228)
I hope to make an announcement very soon. There has been a delay because I want to ensure that the person that I should like to lead the inquiry is able to clear their diary.
I think that the fundamental question does revolve around governance, accepting responsibility and ensuring that there is a chain of command, so I take what the hon. Gentleman has said very seriously, and I think he is on the money.
T3. Will the Secretary of State update the House on plans to support my constituents who were victims of flooding in the summer of 2013 and who missed out on the compensation scheme that was afforded to the people of Somerset? (905227)
T6. The Secretary of State commissioned PricewaterhouseCoopers to conduct an examination of the finances of Tower Hamlets council. Tower Hamlets council will be paying for that audit. Will the Secretary of State update us on how long it will be before the auditors report? (905230)
We are talking in terms of a matter of days. I understand that the consultants have finished their report, but the facts will have to be checked with Tower Hamlets, and only when that process has been completed will I be briefed on it. I shall then have to make a “minded” statement, because Tower Hamlets will obviously have the right to respond before I make a final statement to the House.
T5. This Saturday I shall be cleaning up Gosport with my local litter action group. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Thank you so much.In the light of the recently launched inquiry into litter by the Communities and Local Government Committee, will the Minister join me in commending the litter action initiative, which involves community volunteers from all over the United Kingdom working to keep their local streets clean? (905229)
I fully commend the work of the group that my hon. Friend is supporting. The local authority of which I used to be a member identified that £6 million had been spent on picking up litter. How many more elderly people and individuals in schools throughout the country could we have helped with that money? How many books could we have bought for libraries? This is about a lack of responsibility on the part of individuals, which needs to be addressed and challenged.
Ministers will be aware that, during the lifetime of this Government, the grant that Knowsley council will receive has been reduced by between £65 million and £74 million. Given that half the total amount spent by the council is spent on adults’ and children’s services, will the Minister consider reintroducing the council tax resource equalisation adjustment in order to mitigate the worst effects of the cuts?
Council tax nearly doubled under the last Government. This Government have effectively reduced it by some 11%, but that does not detract from our responsibility to look after elderly people, which is why we are providing a £3.8 billion package to support them.
T7. Over the summer, a disabled pensioner in my constituency received a parking penalty notice after his car had suffered a puncture. His car was pushed to the side of the road by good Samaritans, and when he got out of his car to go into the premises of a firm to find some people to help him to change the tyre, a traffic warden came along and gave him a parking ticket. Ealing council refused to cancel the ticket. [Laughter.] The council has exercised no discretion at all. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is outrageous? (905231)
I must say that I was very shocked to hear the laughter from the Opposition Benches. I think it is a disgrace that the full panoply of the state should fall on a disabled person in this way. I urge Ealing council to look at the file again right now, to rescind the parking ticket, and to treat that disabled person with a degree of respect.
I have had an opportunity to see this very close up and am very firmly of the opinion that the way in which this is dealt with now, through gold command, and with the firefighters, the Environment Agency and the police working together, is by far the best system.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and his constituents on what they have managed to secure themselves in terms of on local growth. Deal is a fantastic example of a thriving high street, which I myself visited only a few weeks ago. It is already award winning, but I wish it good luck in the great British high street contest, which it has entered. I look forward to visiting Betteshanger park sustainable energy centre, which has secured £2.5 million of coastal communities funding to bring together business, education, heritage, green technology and tourism.
Somerset county council is reported to be paying one officer £318,500 through a limited company owned by him and his wife, his deputy £275,000, and has 15 other posts paying over £96,000. At the same time it says it has not got the money to run our services. Does the Secretary of State think that is right?
Is the Secretary of State aware that the Tory leader on Croydon council has been forced to resign in disgrace after he was exposed last week for secretly taking £10,000 in extra allowances before the council elections in May? Will he reassure the House that no other Conservative councils have set up allowances schemes that allow them to boast in public that they have frozen their allowances while leaving them free to claim the increases retrospectively after the polls have closed?
The Hertford road in Enfield is a struggling, though viable, shopping parade. Does the Secretary of State agree that Enfield’s Labour council’s obsession with mobile CCTV cameras in the area is simply a demonstration of its wish to raise fines and not support local businesses, and will he offer assurances to help out?
We now have a huge amount of evidence of what prevents local growth, and over-zealous parking restrictions are top of the list. My hon. Friend’s remarks are absolutely correct. We need to be giving support to local traders, listening to them and removing these obstacles to help our high streets thrive.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the NATO conference, but before I do so, I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to Jim Dobbin, who died suddenly this weekend. Jim gave his life to public service. He worked hard for his constituents, he loved this House of Commons and he contributed hugely to all its work. With his expertise in microbiology, he also did outstanding work in this House championing vaccines for children in the developing world. Though we may not have agreed on everything, we did agree about the important contribution of faith in politics—although, unlike Jim, I have to say I am not expecting to get a knighthood from the Pope, which Jim received, and much deserved it was, too. He will be missed by us all, and our thoughts are with his family at this time.
We have also heard this morning that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are expecting their second baby. I am sure the House will join me in congratulating them on behalf of the whole country on this fantastic news and wishing them well in the months ahead.
The NATO summit in Wales saw the successful coming together of this vital alliance. Everyone could see its unity, its resolve and its determination to meet and overcome all the threats to our security. I want to thank the local council in Newport, the Welsh Assembly, the First Minister, the Secretary of State, our armed services and police and all those who worked so hard to deliver a safe, secure and successful summit. It was, I think, the biggest gathering of world leaders that has ever taken place in our country. Most of all, I want to thank the Welsh people for their incredibly warm welcome. They did our United Kingdom proud.
The summit reached important conclusions on Ukraine, on defence spending and the reform of NATO, on countering Islamist extremism, on the future of Afghanistan and on supporting our military and their families. I want briefly to take each one in turn.
First, on Ukraine, we welcome the ceasefire that has been in place since Friday. At the NATO summit, I chaired a meeting with President Poroshenko and the leaders of France, Italy, Germany and America to agree that what was needed was the implementation of a proper peace plan that respected Ukraine’s territorial integrity. NATO sent a clear message to Russia that what President Putin was doing was illegal and indefensible. We stand firmly behind Ukraine’s right to make its own decisions and not to have them dictated by Russian soldiers trampling on Ukraine’s sovereign soil.
We will continue our efforts to support Ukraine, including by providing financial assistance to improve its command, control and communication capabilities. Today’s new sanctions from the European Union will further ramp up the economic cost to Russia. They will make it harder for its banks and its energy and defence companies to borrow money. They will widen the ban on selling so-called dual goods, such as machinery and computer equipment, which could be used for military as well as civilian purposes. They will also prohibit the provision of services for the exploration and production of shale, deepwater and Arctic oil.
Secondly, the summit reached an important agreement on defence spending. One of the problems with NATO is that only a small number of countries have achieved the commitment to spend 2% of their GDP on defence. As a result, the share of spending by the largest country, the United States of America, continues remorselessly upwards and now accounts for around 70% of the total. That is not sustainable. The summit addressed that by agreeing the responsibility of those countries that have not achieved 2%. The conclusions were very clear about that. Through the Wales pledge, every NATO member spending less than 2% has now agreed to halt any decline in defence spending, to aim to increase it in real terms as GDP grows and to move towards 2% within a decade.
There was also a second target—namely, that a fifth of all defence budgets should be dedicated to major new equipment, because what matters most is having military assets that we can actually deploy. Here in Britain, we have the second largest defence budget in NATO and the biggest in the European Union. We have taken long-term and often difficult decisions to put our defence budget on a sustainable footing, and the fruits of that are now coming through.
We are equipping all three of our services with the best and most modern military hardware that money can buy. This includes a £3.5 billion contract for Scout armoured vehicles, which I announced on Friday—the largest such order in over three decades. [Interruption.] It includes new fleets of joint strike fighter and Voyager refuelling aircraft; 22 new A400M transport aircraft; new Astute hunter-killer submarines; Type 45 destroyers and Type 26 frigates; and HMS Queen Elizabeth, our brand new aircraft carrier—
It is all very well to order them, but they actually have to be paid for. In a nutshell, that is the difference between a socialist and a Conservative. They dream about having money; we actually raise it and spend it.
The hon. Gentleman will be very pleased to hear that I announced at the NATO summit that that our second new carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, will also be brought into service. This will ensure that we always have one carrier available 100% of the time. This investment in our national security, our prosperity and our place in the world will transform our ability to project power globally, whether independently or together with our allies.
Turning to the wider reform of NATO, after the end of the cold war, NATO stood down its highest readiness force. At this summit, we decided to reverse that decision and scale up our readiness to respond to any threat. At the same time, we agreed to do more to build the capacity of other nations outside NATO, to help them with their defence capabilities. A new multinational spearhead force will be formed, and it will be deployable anywhere in the world within two to five days. That is vital in underlining our article 5 obligations to collective defence, and the UK will support that by providing a battle group and a brigade headquarters. We will also contribute 3,500 personnel to exercises in eastern Europe between now and the end of 2015, as part of NATO’s efforts to ensure a persistent presence on our eastern flank.
On capacity building, NATO has a vital role in helping other countries with their capacity to defend themselves against all threats, including terrorist threats. When we consider how many of the threats that NATO countries, including the UK, now face from the middle east, north Africa and elsewhere, we see that this capacity building is becoming ever more important. It was a key priority for the UK at the summit that we made progress. NATO will now undertake capacity-building missions, beginning in Georgia and Jordan, with the offer of a training mission for Iraq as soon as the new Iraqi Government are in place.
Next, the alliance was clear about the scale of the threat from Islamist extremism, and we agreed that we must use all the instruments at our disposal—humanitarian, diplomatic and military—to squeeze this barbaric terrorist organisation out of existence. We should be clear about what needs to happen: we will continue to support the Kurds, including by providing them with arms and training their troops; we will work to support a new and representative Iraqi Government, which we hope to see in place later this week; and the fight against ISIL must be led by the Iraqis themselves, but we will continue to encourage countries in the region to support this effort and to engage allies across the world. We will proceed carefully and methodically, drawing together the partners we need, to implement a comprehensive plan. Earlier today, I spoke to Ban Ki-moon to seek support at the United Nations for a broad-based international effort to confront ISIL, and I will be working on building that international support when I attend the United Nations General Assembly later this month.
Turning to Afghanistan, we called on the two presidential candidates to work together to deliver a peaceful election outcome and a new Government as swiftly as possible. They made a statement during the conference that they would make those endeavours, and it is vital that that comes about. The summit paid tribute to the extraordinary sacrifice made by all our armed forces in driving al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan and training the Afghan security forces to take control of their security. We reaffirmed our long-term commitment to supporting a peaceful, prosperous and stable Afghanistan, including through our development conference in London in November.
Finally, as our troops return home from Afghanistan, it is right that we do all we can to support them and their families. In Britain, we have the military covenant—a pledge of commitment between the Government and our military—and we are the first British Government to write this covenant into the law of the land. We have made it ever more real by taking a series of measures, including doubling the operational allowance; introducing free higher and further education scholarships; investing £200 million in helping our service personnel to buy homes; increasing the rate of council tax relief; signing up every single local council in our country in support of the military; and giving unprecedented support to military charities.
At the summit, we took our military covenant internationally, with every NATO member signing up to a new armed forces declaration, setting out their commitment to support their military and enabling all of us to learn from each other about how we can best do that. We will continue to do everything possible to look after those who serve our country and whose sacrifices keep us safe. This, I believe, was a successful NATO conference. It proved that this organisation is as important to our future security as it has been to the past, and I commend this statement to the House.
First, I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Jim Dobbin. He was an assiduous Member of Parliament who always put the people of Heywood and Middleton first. He was, as the Prime Minister said, a man of faith, which underpinned everything he did, and he was a lifelong public servant, having worked in the NHS for 30 years before coming to this House. He was also a proud Scot, and was planning to be in Scotland this week to help campaign to keep our United Kingdom together. He will be sadly missed, not just by his family and friends, but by colleagues from across this House.
I also join the Prime Minister in congratulating the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on their happy news, and I, too, wish them well in the months ahead.
I congratulate Wales on its successful hosting of the summit. Perhaps we should also congratulate the enterprising Raffle family on their picture at Stonehenge with President Obama.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. This NATO summit was the most important for a generation. Today, NATO faces the gravest challenges in Europe, the middle east and beyond since the fall of the Berlin wall and the first Gulf war. I commend NATO leaders for seizing the opportunity to put down firm markers on the key issues: Russia and Ukraine, ISIL, and defence co-operation.
Starting with Ukraine, the ceasefire and peace plan announced on Friday by the Presidents of Ukraine and Russia was welcome, but it must be observed. It would be a grave mistake to ease international pressure on Russia before Russian troops no longer operate in Ukraine. We therefore welcome the readiness action plan, which is a step towards more nimble and flexible capabilities, sending a signal that if a NATO member is in danger, allies will take quick action. I welcome the attendance of President Poroshenko at the summit. What assurances were specifically given to Ukraine by NATO? Given also the desired aim of agility in the plan, how is the NATO decision-making process requiring agreement of all 28 countries being made sufficiently reliable and swift? Specifically, on the spearhead force, what countries will be host to it and in what situations will it be deployed?
Let me move on to the rise of ISIL in the middle east. The whole world is acutely aware of the barbaric threat that ISIL poses, and it was right that NATO members sought to address that. It is right also to seek to build the widest possible consensus in pursuit of that aim. There is no long-term solution to ISIL without a long-term plan that is based on widespread partnership in the region and the legitimacy of an inclusive Iraqi Government, and that includes a genuinely multilateral, political, diplomatic and humanitarian alliance.
In that context, will the Prime Minister tell us what progress is being made in the urgent task of assembling a genuine inclusive Government in Iraq? I welcome the united position taken by the Arab League yesterday against ISIL. Will the Prime Minister update the House on what other progress has been made in the vital work of building regional support?
Let me turn to NATO’s clarity of purpose, which is the collective defence of a strong transatlantic alliance. On defence spending, we share the commitment to maintain strong defence and a strong NATO. In the light of the pressures that all countries face, does the Prime Minister agree that part of the task that NATO faces is better pooling of alliance resources so that we have the kinds of capabilities that are required?
Finally, on Afghanistan, I commend the commitment of NATO members to Afghanistan. Our country has made huge sacrifices, and so have a number of others. It is right that by the end of 2014 we will see the drawdown of British forces. I pay tribute to our forces for the sacrifices that they have made and I join the Prime Minister in giving my full support to the military covenant, the armed forces declaration and its implementation.
We know from the past, not least in Iraq, the crucial importance of securing the right political settlement. To ensure that the sacrifices that have been made lead to a better future, Afghan leaders must resolve their current post-election differences and agree to a unified leadership. Will the Prime Minister update the House on progress on that matter and on a security agreement with the remaining forces? Given that the force contribution from coalition nations will be critical, will the Prime Minister tell the House the number of NATO troops expected to stay past 2014 and the UK contribution to that mission?
This summit has demonstrated that the NATO alliance is strong and is needed by its member states more than ever. As President Obama said:
“The defence of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defence of Berlin and Paris and London.”
The task for NATO is to demonstrate this commitment and to understand that wherever our interests lie, we need a strategy that combines military readiness with political, diplomatic and strategic alliances. We join the Government in supporting a NATO that meets that challenge.
I thank the Leader of the Opposition for his response. He was right to say that this was the most important NATO conference for a generation. That is because we face multiple challenges—in Europe and Ukraine, with ISIL and the other threats around our very dangerous world. Let me take his questions in turn.
On Ukraine, the mood of the NATO meeting and the meeting I chaired with the Ukrainian President was that there should be no easing of the pressure on Russia. With regard to what NATO is doing for Ukraine, there is some important defence capability building being done on things such as command and control and ensuring that the Ukrainian army is properly managed. There is also support in the form of non-lethal equipment such as body armour and other facilities that countries are giving. It is important that we do not measure the NATO commitment to Ukraine through military support for war-fighting capabilities. The real measure of support is the EU and US approach on sanctions, which have been ratcheted up. As I have said in the House before, it is important that we keep up the pressure in that regard.
As for the new spearhead force, different countries will be contributing and Britain has got out ahead by making clear the nature of our commitment through the brigade headquarters and the battalion. I am sure that others will come forward with their contributions, but the right hon. Gentleman is right that the implementation of the NATO agenda will now be vital.
On the question of combating ISIL, I agree absolutely with what the right hon. Gentleman says about the need for an inclusive Government in Iraq. That is supposed to be being put in place this week. It has already taken time and it is a complex undertaking, but it is absolutely vital. I would argue that without that, it is very difficult to take the further steps that need to be taken, so it is vital that it is put in place.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about regional support. Jordan, as a partner nation of NATO, was at the conference and made a very strong statement about its support for squeezing ISIL. He asked whether NATO countries are properly pooling their resources, and this is where the 20% pledge on new equipment is so vital. When new equipment is commissioned, it should be properly interoperable between NATO countries, and increasingly it is.
On Afghanistan, the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that the way to secure our legacy in Afghanistan is to ensure that there is a proper political settlement. A lot of pressure is being put on Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Dr Ghani to bury their differences and form a Government together. They have promised to do that, but we need to see it happen. The right hon. Gentleman asked about the contribution that Britain will make to the NATO forces. Our principal contribution post the end of 2014 will be the officer training academy that President Karzai specifically asked for and that we are providing. That should put our contribution of troops for that facility into the low hundreds. Some other countries, most notably the United States but also Germany and some others, will have more NATO troops on the ground, as it were.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the bilateral security agreement; both candidates have said that they will sign it, and I would expect it to be signed. As for his general point, what is required in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, is a combination of all the assets we have at our disposal. On occasion, that will include military assets, but the importance of politics cannot be underestimated. The future of Afghanistan will best be secured by an inclusive Afghan Government and the future of Iraq will best be delivered if there is an inclusive Iraqi Government.
Never has there been a time when decision makers have been faced with so many key decisions, and I congratulate the Prime Minister and his colleagues on an excellent summit in Wales. However, as they were meeting, yet another front was opening up, with reports of militia activity on the Russia-Estonia border. Does the Prime Minister agree that Estonia is a red line? Can he assure me that if there are any incursions, the UK and NATO will treat them with the most serious attitude conceivable?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his remarks and I can absolutely give him that assurance. It was important that one of the first things that needed to happen at the conference was for NATO to be very clear about the article 5 commitment that all members of NATO are subject to collective defence, Estonia included. It is important that that message goes out and that we should not only have the readiness action plan and the new spearhead force but start to see more NATO exercises, so that when Russians look at Estonia—or Latvia or Lithuania—they see different nationalities involved in their defence, not just Estonians. That is vital and yes, it is a red line.
May I thank the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition for their generous tributes to our north-west colleague and friend, Jim Dobbin? I know that they will be much appreciated.
I want to ask the Prime Minister about the searing divisions that are now opening up within the Gulf Co-operation Council, with allegations by some states in the GCC that others, including Qatar and to a lesser degree Kuwait, are harbouring people, sometimes quite senior, who are helping to finance and give other support to the Islamist extremists in Iraq and elsewhere. What representations are the Prime Minister and others making to the Governments of those states to ensure that if such activities are taking place—there is high suspicion that they are—they should stop?
The right hon. Gentleman makes the important point that, on occasions, there have been concerns that some Gulf states have supported players—whether in Syria, Libya or elsewhere—with extremist views. We have repeatedly said how unwise we think that is. There are discussions between those Gulf states but, as I have said many times with respect to our domestic arrangements, Britain is clear that we need to oppose not only violent extremists, but the extremist narrative.
May I associate myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends with the tributes that have been paid to Jim Dobbin? He was proud to be a Labour MP and he was proud to be a Scot, and those things are not mutually inconsistent, despite some of the observations made elsewhere in the kingdom about loyalty.
The attempt to obtain a 2% level of expenditure within 10 years can be regarded only as a rather gentle target, so is my right hon. Friend satisfied that it is strong enough? The real question that will be in the minds of many hon. Members is this: exactly where do we stand on action with regard to ISIS? Does he agree that it is right to recognise that the best that can be done in relation to an ideology such as that of ISIS is to degrade it as far as possible, but that it would be entirely unrealistic to believe that political, economic or military means would destroy it?
I agree very much with what my right hon. and learned Friend says about Jim Dobbin. As a passionate Scot, a passionate Brit and a passionate Labour MP, he showed that you can be all three of those things, and we could replace the word “Labour” with “Conservative” or “Liberal Democrat” and say absolutely the same thing.
What is different about this time is that the 2% spending pledge has never before been included in a leaders declaration in quite the same way, and there has never been a time scale for it. I particularly pick out that it puts in its sights those who are below 2%, saying that they need to halt any further decline in their defence spending. I think that is a powerful statement.
On ISIL, of course one has to degrade an ideology. However, when it comes to terrorists who have taken control of a state’s institutions, meaning that they have land, oil, money and weapons, we should be more ambitious and say that the right people to run the state of Iraq are the Iraqi Government and the right people to run Syria are an inclusive Syrian Government, and that there should be no place in those states for these extreme terrorists.
Can we presume that the implication of the undertaking of those countries spending below 2% not to let that fall even lower is that those countries at or above 2% have undertaken not to allow their contribution to fall below 2%, particularly the United Kingdom?
The hon. Lady is basically right, but I refer her to the text of the declaration. Interestingly, it says that all allies
“currently meeting the NATO guideline to spend a minimum of 2%...will aim to continue to do so”,
which is important, and then it sets out the point about spending 20% on equipment, which is absolutely vital. The declaration then singles out allies
“whose current proportion of GDP spent on defence is below this level”.
Page 4 of the document sets out in some detail that those allies will
“halt any decline in defence expenditure…aim to increase defence expenditure in real terms as GDP grows”
“aim to move towards the 2% guideline within a decade”.
It is important that for the first time all 28 countries signed up to that sort of specificity.
On ISIL, my right hon. Friend is clearly right to have been cautious and to have sought the widest possible support for any international action, including by going through the United Nations and working closely with the Arab League. Will he continue to make it clear that this long and painstaking problem will not be solved only by smart weapons delivered from 12,000 feet, but will need long-term engagement on many fronts?
My right hon. Friend is right to say that this is long and painstaking work. What is needed is a comprehensive plan that includes everything: humanitarian aid, political support, diplomacy, regional pressure and, above all, an inclusive Iraqi Government. President Obama and I very much agree that military action can be only one part of a plan; it is not, in itself, a plan, and it is important that people understand that.
I would like to associate myself with the Prime Minister’s comments on the sad news about Jim Dobbin and the happy news about the Countess and Earl of Strathearn.
There is particular concern about the hostage David Haines in Tayside, where he is from, and in Sisak in central Croatia, where his wife and child live. What more can the Prime Minister say about the support for David’s family both in Scotland and in Croatia?
It is obviously a tragic situation. One only has to think for a few moments of what it would be like to be in his or his family’s position to understand what they are going through. What I try to make sure of in all these situations is that the family gets support from a police liaison officer and directly from the Foreign Office. There is always an offer for Ministers to speak directly to the hostage’s family to tell them about all the efforts being made on their behalf. We have a clear policy, which I believe is right, not to pay ransoms when terrorist kidnaps are involved. I made that point at the NATO dinner and pleaded with other countries to do the same, but no one should interpret that as our not doing everything we can in every case to help the family and the hostage.
The whole country will be delighted to see a NATO restored and newly vigorous after the summit, but will the Prime Minister tell the House specifically what assistance he is seeking from the Sunni Gulf states, without which this coalition will find it hard going?
First, my right hon. Friend is right that what was interesting about this NATO conference was that it was one of resolution and unity in purpose. There were none of the sort of debates that might have been had in previous discussions about Iraq. There was real unity about what needed to be done, and part of that unity was not just about the Iraqi Government that were required, but the support—the active support—that would be needed from the regional players, in particular Sunni countries that can provide not only resources, diplomacy, aid and even military support, but real insights and input into the thinking of the Sunni tribes in Iraq, whom we need to rise up against this appalling regime.
I welcome the readiness action plan, which will enable NATO to respond with greater force and greater speed in a dire emergency—provided the 28 member states are able to give political authority for its use quickly. In the bad old days of the cold war, the similar Allied Command Europe mobile force gave the SACEUR—Supreme Allied Commander Europe—pre-authority to use it in a dire emergency. If there is any question of pre-authority being given to use the readiness action plan, will the Prime Minister bring that proposal to the House for debate?
The short answer to that is yes, I will. As the hon. Gentleman knows, a lot of the detail of how the force will be constructed, who will contribute to it and how exactly it will work is still to be determined. The main thing is that the readiness of it is decided. May I take the moment, though, to thank him for his contribution to the NATO summit? He spoke as head of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly with great clarity and great support for what NATO is doing.
In support of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) has just asked, may I draw the Prime Minister’s attention to a very important article by General Jonathan Shaw, a former director of special forces, in the Evening Standard on 5 September, in which he wrote:
“Deploying the Western military without a Muslim political plan would be folly”?
What approach will we be taking to Saudi Arabia, which has a habit of looking both ways on these questions, and where the Government appear to be friendly but sources inside Saudi Arabia supply funds to organisations like IS?
I shall certainly look at the article my hon. Friend mentions. It is sometimes hard to keep up with all the contributions and advice that retired military figures are given to offer, but I do my best. The point my hon. Friend makes is absolutely right: were there to be a military element to the strategy, it would work only if it was in conjunction with all the other parts of the strategy. As I put it, we cannot intervene over the heads of local people and leave them to pick up the pieces; it has to be part of a strategy and a plan.
As the Prime Minister knows, secure borders are essential in the fight against terrorism. During his discussions with President Hollande, was the crisis in Calais mentioned, given the French Government’s criticism concerning British Ministers’ inaction in dealing with our juxtaposed borders? Will the Prime Minister ask the Home Secretary to visit France at the earliest opportunity to engage in meaningful discussions to end this crisis, including giving the French the fence that we used at the Cardiff summit?
The offer of the use of the fence is there, and it was a very effective piece of equipment. These discussions are taking place at every level. I do not think it is fair to say that Britain has been unengaged in this. The juxtaposed border controls have been a success, but we need to work very closely together to make sure that the appalling scenes that we have seen are not repeated.
Did the Prime Minister have time to discuss with our NATO partners the very serious implications of Scottish secession for the defence of the rest of the United Kingdom and NATO’s northern flank—in particular, the potential threat to our sea lanes? Does he agree that in these very seriously troubled times, surely England, Wales, Northern Ireland and, indeed, Scotland would be infinitely better defended and better together?
A number of people raised their concerns about the referendum. The overwhelming view of people who wish our country well is to say that of course it is a decision for people in Scotland but they hope that we stay together. I would absolutely echo that. Two visions of Scotland’s future are being put forward. The vision I believe in, and I believe the majority of Scots believe in, is, yes, of a proud and strong Scotland with strong institutions and a powerful place in the world that is in part secured by its membership of the United Kingdom. The alternative vision of separation involves such uncertainty about all these organisations—not knowing whether they would have a place in the European Union, or indeed a place in NATO, or indeed what currency they would use. These are real problems of uncertainty. I believe that the patriotic choice for Scotland is a strong, proud Scotland but within the United Kingdom.
May I echo the Prime Minister’s words about Jim Dobbin? I sat beside him at the meeting of the parliamentary Labour party that we had on Friday, and we both discussed the Scottish situation. His death has come as a great shock to us all.
President Obama will set out his strategy for dealing with ISIS on Wednesday. If, as seems likely, military action is part of that strategy and if the UK Government decide to join in that military action, even if that decision is restricted to action in the air and not forces on the ground, does the Prime Minister believe that that would require a vote in this House?
The short answer is yes, but we are not at that stage yet. As I said on Friday, we should be building this comprehensive strategy. We are already helping the Kurds, delivering arms to them. I said that we should step up to arming them directly and to training Kurdish peshmerga battalions, and increasing all the elements of the strategy. I have always believed, in this role and as leader of a Government, that you should consult the House of Commons as regularly as you can and the House of Commons should have an opportunity to vote. The point I always make, though, and this is not to run away from the right hon. Gentleman’s particular scenario in any way, is that it is important that a Prime Minister and a Government reserve the right to act swiftly without consulting the Commons in advance in some specific circumstances—for instance, if we had to prevent an immediate humanitarian catastrophe or, indeed, secure a really important, unique British interest. But other than that I believe it is right, as he said, to consult the House of Commons.
I welcome the summit declaration. Does not the discussion about parliamentary consent, parliamentary consultation and the need sometimes for swift action underline the need for a proper legislative framework to govern this country’s engagement in military action overseas?
That has been an interesting issue of debate and we have not come up with the final answer. There are problems with trying to write down every scenario into a law of the land. The convention that has grown up—it is now clear that the House of Commons should be consulted and a vote taken—is now very clearly understood on both sides of the House, and my personal view is that that might be better than trying to write everything down in some inflexible document that can create all sorts of legal problems of its own.
Given the debate about our defence capability that has taken place both at the NATO summit and in the wider context of UK foreign policy, if it can be shown that we might in the foreseeable future require areas of our defence capability that have been recently removed or are in the process of being removed, would the Prime Minister consider reinstating that lost capability?
I always have an open mind on these issues, but I say candidly to the hon. Gentleman that in the last four years I have often wanted to see even more of the capabilities that we have been ordering—intelligence, surveillance, special forces and transport—rather than more of the things that we have got rid of or discontinued. My instinct is that defence reviews are vital, but only if we make bold decisions about the future capabilities rather than hang on to old ones that might not have so many uses.
May I commend the Prime Minister on the confidence he showed in Wales by bringing the NATO summit to Newport? It was the biggest international event of its kind ever held in this country and was clearly a resounding success. Does he agree that it is now important that Wales should capitalise on its period of international attention by ensuring that the international investment conference, which will take place in November, is an equal success?
I am very grateful for my right hon. Friend’s comments. The Welsh Assembly Government, the Secretary of State, the police and all the organisations, including Newport council, which I singled out, did a brilliant job, and Celtic Manor was an absolutely excellent venue. Something like 24,000 hotel room nights were required, not just in Wales, but on the other side of the Bristol channel. Wales must make sure we secure the legacy from the summit, and that can be seen in trade and investment. It was a great window on Wales. I also think there is a legacy in making sure that young people in our country understand the importance of NATO and of defence.
Perhaps the best way we can honour the memory of Jim Dobbin is to ensure the continuation of the fine work he did here and in the Council of Europe to help those who have become addicted to prescription drugs.
May I thank the Prime Minister for the chance he gave Newport to display its magnificent facilities as a world habitat for occasions of this kind? I also thank him for the chance he gave himself and his Ministers to see the high quality of education in Newport, including a lecture the Secretary of State had from a young 10-year-old in St Woolos on the wonderful Chartist history of Newport. May I emphasise the fact that in November there will be a world conference of almost equal importance to get business opportunities to Newport, Wales and the United Kingdom? What is the Prime Minister going to do to ensure that that will be an equal success?
It is a rare event for the hon. Gentleman and I to be in almost complete agreement, but I think this is it! I agree with what he said about the importance of the issue of addiction to prescription drugs, but above all I think Newport really did put a great face forward in how it responded, because there are pressures with a NATO summit: there are traffic problems and disruption, but I thought people were incredibly reasonable about that and very welcoming, including the local media, to everyone who came. Securing the legacy is about supporting the investment conference and making sure we maintain a pro-business environment in south Wales.
The growing parliamentary convention, which the Prime Minister mentioned a moment ago, that this House should be consulted and given a vote on all overseas deployments would fail for two reasons in this context. The first, of course, is that the NATO rapid reaction force he has described would be deployed within two days, so presumably there would be no possibility of any such vote—perhaps there should not be one anyhow. It would also be deployed under NATO command. Secondly, the House has voted on war on only two occasions—one was Iraq in 2003 and the second was Syria last year—and neither of them was an outstanding success. Does the Prime Minister agree that serious thought ought now to be given to precisely what role this House should have when we decide to deploy our troops overseas?
I hear what my hon. Friend says, but I would say that the convention that has grown up is that if a premeditated decision is made by the Government about action to be undertaken—whether the war in Iraq, or my view that it was right to consider action in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria—it is right to consult and, if possible, to have a vote in the House of Commons. I do not think that we need to write that down in some book of rules for it to be the overwhelming convention. But as I have said, there are times where very rapid decisions have to be taken, and I think that the House of Commons understands that when that happens, as was the case with Libya, you make the decision and come straight to the House to explain yourself afterwards.
Will the Prime Minister clarify the position as regards arming the Kurds? He said in his statement that
“we will continue to support the Kurds, including by providing them with arms”.
I took that “we” to mean NATO, because he was referring to the alliance. Yet he has just said in an answer both that we are supplying them with weaponry from other countries and—I think this is what he said—that we might arm them directly. Is he now saying that we will arm the Kurds, which I would welcome, and what weaponry will we give them?
The short answer to that is yes. Up to now, we have helped to provide the Kurds with weapons. We have transported some weapons, for instance from Albania to the Kurds, using our transport planes, because that fitted in with the weaponry they have been using, some of which is from the Soviet era. However, I have always said that we would respond positively to requests from the Kurds for a direct supply. We are now prepared to do that, so we will provide them with arms, as the Germans and others will. We think it is right, also with allies, to step up our training and mentoring efforts. We have said that we were willing, if they would like, to train a battalion of peshmerga fighters, because they are doing such a vital job in holding back ISIL. That is “we” as in the United Kingdom, rather than “we” as in NATO.
The Prime Minister and the NATO summit have been absolutely right to stress the importance of strong defence, but given recent critical reports from the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee and given the very disappointing reserve recruitment figures—creating the risk of capability gaps and false economies—has the time not come for the Prime Minister to reconsider the Government’s Army reforms?
The short answer to that is that, no, I do not think that it would be right to reconsider the reforms. Over the last year, 3,200 people joined the Army Reserve—I am confident that we will now see some good recruitment figures to the Army Reserve—but we are putting in place a major change.
The bigger point that I would make to my hon. Friend is that when we consider the sorts of things that we contemplate doing—whether helping the Nigerian Government to overcome their problems, what we did in Libya or the sorts of things we are doing in Iraq—what we need more of is intelligence, surveillance, special forces, mobility, assets and equipment that can be used with partners, the most modern equipment, and armed forces that have no extra equipment needs because they have everything they want. That is what is required, rather than just very large numbers of people involved in any of three services.
May I associate myself, my party and my colleagues on these Benches with the Prime Minister’s tribute to our colleague, Jim Dobbin? For me, Jim will of course be remembered greatly for his strength of opinion on Gibraltar, particularly his support for the right to self-determination of the people there to remain British. That resonated very strongly with me as an islander, and with my desire to remain British. I also associate myself with the Prime Minister’s comment that he is not expecting any knighthood from the Pope—he’s not the only one in this House in that particular regard.
To turn to the military or armed forces covenant, the Prime Minister will know that Northern Ireland is a fertile recruiting ground for Her Majesty’s forces. Indeed, we are more than matching our weight in numbers for Her Majesty’s forces. However, the military covenant has not been fully implemented; indeed, in many cases it has been dishonoured. Will he go the extra mile and ensure that the Northern Ireland Executive do more to ensure that it is honoured in every regard?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I have discussed this with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland, because it is important that we look after our armed forces and their families in every part of the United Kingdom. I hope that some progress can be made on that. In the meantime, local councils can of course take up the community covenant to make sure that they act in a way that supports the armed forces and their families. Many councils in Northern Ireland will be able to do that. As for the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about the Pope, I assumed that there might be something that cascaded down the generations, but obviously not.
The House will share the Prime Minister’s concerns about the situation in Ukraine, particularly his description of President Putin’s actions as indefensible and illegal. At his meeting with President Poroshenko and other leaders, did they reach any conclusions on what were the aims of Russia and President Putin in Ukraine, and on what action might be taken if he continues to pursue those aims?
I think that the aim of Russia is to deny the people of Ukraine their legitimate choice to be closer to the European Union and to have an association agreement with it. We need to say very reasonably to President Putin that he cannot overcome the stated will of a people to determine their own future. Of course there should be a relationship between Ukraine and Russia, and indeed between the European Union and Russia, but he cannot use force to stop people choosing their own future. That is why we should measure our response to Russian action not in a military response through NATO or Ukraine, but in raising the pressure through sanctions. We should say to Russia that if she continues down that path, she will suffer economically, because ultimately, as I have said from this Dispatch Box before, Russia needs America and the European Union more than America and the European Union need Russia.
Further to the Prime Minister’s last answer, it is clear that ultimately, we will need to move to a political process with the Russians. What support have NATO and the United Kingdom given President Poroshenko in developing his political dialogue with the Russians?
That is a very good question. We are supporting President Poroshenko by saying that a ceasefire is only the first stage and that what is required is a proper, worked-up peace plan. He set out a 12-point plan in front of all of us at the meeting. We are giving him our support by saying that we will do everything that we can to engage with Russia to ensure that it engages properly in the peace process. That has to include getting Russian soldiers out of Ukraine and Ukraine being able to determine her own future. Obviously, Russia also has a number of concerns, including over the treatment and rights of Russian minorities in Ukraine, which it is perfectly legitimate to discuss.
May I add a tribute to Jim Dobbin from the Government Benches? He worked tirelessly for vulnerable people in the tropics, in particular through his work on tropical disease eradication and his expertise in pneumococcal disease. He will leave that legacy for the benefit of the most vulnerable people on our planet. We will miss him.
On the combating of ISIL, I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement on the unity of approach in respect of the development of governance and security at the same time—NATO is speaking with one voice. I urge him to put those arguments forward at the upcoming United Nations meetings, as he indicated he would, and to use NATO as an example of finding a united way, not least because that is one of the great lessons that we learned from the rapid reaction in Mali, which dealt somewhat successfully with the most recent outbreak of the al-Qaeda threat.
There are good lessons from Mali because there was proper concentration on the importance of the political process that would bring a new Government in Mali, as well as some important military action. My right hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of the United Nations as a way of building support and legitimacy for what needs to be done.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the reason most of us support NATO is not that we are warmongers, but that we want to prevent war? The more strong, organised, strategic and well-resourced NATO can be, the better. The news from Newport was very good, as long as it is carried through and we check that the members of NATO deliver. However, did he think it strange that nearly every report said that President Obama and everyone else had stipulated that there should be no boots on the ground? Is that not strange coming from NATO?
First, let me agree with the hon. Gentleman that NATO is a defensive alliance. That is at the heart of its success. Of course, it now has to think more about the threats from outside Europe, such as terrorism and cyber-attacks, which might require more activism. On his remarks about boots on the ground, in order to squeeze ISIL out of existence, as I have put it, there will have to be boots on the ground, but those boots should be Iraqi boots. It is their country and they should be leading the process. The question for us is what we can do to help those boots on the ground, rather than put our own there.
The absence of any of Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran from a commitment to or the formation of an international strategy to destroy the Islamic State, will probably fatally compromise such a strategy. What efforts are being made to include them?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and the Turkish President, with whom I had quite extensive talks at the NATO conference, is, like everyone else, extremely worried about the creation of that state on his doorstep, not least because of the appalling kidnaps that have taken place of such a large number of Turkish personnel. My hon. Friend is right that discussions must be held with all those regional partners and players to ensure that the strongest possible squeeze can be put on that organisation.
The west went into Afghanistan 13 years ago, Iraq 11 years ago, and now a massive NATO summit agrees to spend yet more money on defence around the world. What consideration was given to why there has been such an increase in terrorism since those two wars, and to why ISIL has grown as such a big force? Should the NATO summit, and indeed all leaders, be looking at the causes of war, and at the perception of the role of the west in seeking commercial and mineral advantage around the world, rather than bequeathing us yet more military expenditure?
Let me try to find a little common ground with the hon. Gentleman. As well as believing in the importance of defence expenditure and keeping our defences strong, I also believe that international aid and development is an important tool not just for helping people out of poverty, but in demonstrating the compassion and generosity of the west in helping people who are less fortunate than we are. Where I think the hon. Gentleman is wrong is that we have to understand that a fundamental cause of the extremism and terrorism that we saw with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and that we see with ISIL in Syria and Iraq, is the poisonous ideology of Islamist extremism. We see people joining it who have not suffered poverty or deprivation, but they have bought into that perverted world view. Irrespective of what we might think of them, they are very clear that they want to kill us.
Is the Prime Minister satisfied that all our NATO allies are taking sanctions against Russia? In particular, is he concerned about the role of Turkey, which does not seem to be taking sanctions and is alleged to be undermining some of the sanctions that we are taking?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The EU has through its mechanisms decided and implemented sanctions, as has the US. There are a number of countries that have serious trading relationships with Russia, and which I believe ought to see the dangers to them of the approach that Russia is taking to the sovereign authority of another country. Yes, it is important that we have those conversations.
May I echo the comments already made about Newport in this statement? Hosting the summit certainly put our city in the headlines; the community grasped the opportunity and we all hope that we benefit from things such as the investment conference coming up in November. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking those public services that worked collaboratively, not least Gwent police force that worked with 42 other forces to deliver one of the largest security operations ever in the UK, with fantastic community policing?
I would like to say a particular thank you to the police. The Gwent force did a brilliant job, but police had to be called in from all over the country to deal with, I think, 54 Prime Ministers and Presidents, and the heads of a number of important international organisations. That is more Heads of Government or State than have ever come to a conference in Britain’s history. We were asking a lot of Newport, and Newport, the local police and all those involved responded magnificently.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the response to ISIL must be global, with the ambition of securing peace in the long term, and that it must include religious leaders, because it is not to exaggerate the facts to say that the traditional Christian communities of the Levant are more threatened with extinction than at any time in more than 1,000 years?