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
1. What progress has been made in negotiations to settle the fire service pensions dispute. 
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
2. What steps he is taking to improve stability and affordability in the 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.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The affordable homes programme is on track to deliver 170,000 new affordable homes between 2011 and 2015. It is important that we keep on top of that and keep moving forward with the new homes that we need.
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.
As soon as we are ready to respond to that consultation, the right hon. Gentleman will be among the first to know.
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
3. What steps he is taking to (a) encourage development on brownfield land and (b) bring empty buildings back into use. 
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?
I hear what my hon. Friend says and I heard what the Prime Minister said. He was obviously better briefed on Manston airport than I am, so I simply commend to my hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s words in answer to his previous question.
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.
4. How many shops in Bury North constituency have benefited from the reduction in business rates. 
5. How many shops in (a) England and (b) Stevenage constituency have benefited from the reduction in business rates. 
6. How many shops in (a) England, (b) Norwich local authority area and (c) Broadland local authority area have benefited from the reduction in business rates. 
10. How many shops in (a) England and (b) Stourbridge constituency have benefited from the reduction in business rates. 
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.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that the business rate relief, together with the new employment allowance, makes a vital contribution to maintaining the viability of parades of small shops such as those on Mile lane in my constituency?
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
7. What steps he is taking to increase the building of affordable homes. 
13. What steps he is taking to increase the building of affordable homes. 
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?
To an extent, I am having to apologise for the previous Labour Administration’s failure to deliver the sufficient number of council houses that we need. It is good to see that, under this Government, building is getting going again.
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?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I know that one thing he previously worked on, and I am now working on, is to make sure that we can go forward and deliver the land, as we are doing, to deliver the houses that we so badly need in this country.
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?
No, I do not. The more than 41,000 affordable housing starts in 2013-14 is an increase of 15% on the previous year.
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.
8. What steps his Department is taking to support community pubs; and if he will make a statement. 
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?
I reassure my hon. Friend that tied tenants will be able to report breaches in the statutory code to a new independent adjudicator, who will be able to arbitrate and bring penalties against individuals or organisations that fail to act appropriately.
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? 
The Government pledged to release the consultation relating to covenants by the end of this year. I hope to release the information in the coming weeks.
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
9. What assessment his Department has made of the effect of changes to right to buy on the viability of maintaining and increasing the stock of social housing in England. 
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?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government have stood firm behind this clear policy to give people the chance to aspire to move on, own their own home, and play an important part in developing that home in their community for the future.
For the avoidance of doubt, will the Minister tell the House what is affordable in London and the south-east? What is the capital cost and what is the rent?
I will write to the hon. Lady with that information.
National Planning Policy Framework
11. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the discretion given to local authority officers in the 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?
The hon. Lady will appreciate that I cannot comment on a particular planning application, but she is right to say that local democracy means that local decisions should be made by local members of local council authorities.
Will the Minister confirm that the national planning policy framework has provisions that protect the green belt from developers and people like the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) who would like to build all over it?
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.
What guidance or instructions has the Minister given to local authorities to protect the green belt?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I just gave. The NPPF gives clear protection and priority to the green belt, and I encourage local authorities to respect that.
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?
Any planning application must be decided on its own merits. That means that things will change from application to application, based on the merits of each individual case.
Local Enterprise Partnership Boundaries
12. What recent assessment he has made of 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.
Some areas such as Bassetlaw are in two LEP areas. Will the good people of Bassetlaw be given the choice which local enterprise area they go in, or will it be a central Government decision?
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?
My hon. Friend is right. It is important that people choose locally how to organise themselves. There would be no support for pressure to get smaller authorities to change how they operate.
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)
16. What his policy is on whether planning inspectors at appeal or local authority planning committees should determine what constitutes cumulative impact on the landscape from large-scale solar arrays. 
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.
Order. May I invite the Minister to remember the merits of the third person, of which I am sure he is very conscious?
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?
There is clear guidance on building on agricultural land and a preference to build on brownfield. I cannot comment on the case that my hon. Friend raises, but I am sure that his robust position will be heard by the local council.
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
17. What assessment he has made of the extent of take-up of the Help to Buy scheme in (a) England and (b) Swindon. 
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.
Government-backed schemes have helped 430 hard-working families in Swindon get on the housing ladder. Will the Secretary of State comment on whether the scheme has been successful in Wales under the Labour Administration there?
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.
18. What steps his Department is taking to support coastal communities. 
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.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. 
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—
Order. I am grateful to the Secretary of State, but we have many questions to get through.
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? 
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? 
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? 
My hon. Friend has raised a very reasonable point. We are working with other Departments to identify funds for that purpose, and we hope to make an announcement very soon.
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? 
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? 
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? 
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.
Will the Minister make dealing with flooding a statutory duty for all fire services, or at least undertake to consider doing so, and then report to the House?
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.
T8. May I welcome the massive support the Department has given to coastal communities like mine in Dover and Deal, and the great backing to high streets, of which Deal’s is officially and definitively the best in the country? 
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.
Can we be sure that small local businesses are benefiting from the scheme whereby councils can come together and cluster to provide services and procurement?
I can see no reason why not. In terms of procurement, my Department has looked at helping small and medium-sized firms, and I think it is very important that local councils support local businesses.
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?
Obviously, the possibility of applying for the job is something one would not rule out. I think that is an absolutely outrageous use of public money. People should pay their taxes in a normal way, and it is an abuse of process for that to have happened.
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?
I do not mind whether somebody is Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Independent or UKIP—if they are on the fiddle, they deserve to have their collar felt, and that behaviour was completely unacceptable.
Last but not least, Mr Nick de Bois.
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—
The hon. Gentleman keeps saying “Labour”. He might remember that Labour left us a £38 billion defence black hole.
At NATO, I announced that our second new carrier—
We ordered them.
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?
My right hon. Friend is right to talk about the threats to minority communities in the area, including Christian communities. We should be standing up for them. He is also right to draw attention to the role of religious leaders and religious communities. It has been heartening to see how many Muslim and Islamic leaders have come out to condemn ISIL and to say that those people are not in any way acting in their name. They have even gone viral burning the ISIL flag. It is thoroughly worth while for people right across different religious communities to condemn ISIL.
In response to the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) and the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), the Prime Minister confirmed that the response to ISIL must involve regional Governments more effectively. In view of the fact that the British military has trained many people in those regional Governments, and certainly in the militaries of those countries, what is our Army doing to ensure that its counterparts are on board?
The hon. Lady makes a spot-on point. We have good relations with, for instance, the Saudi military, the Qataris, the Emirates and the Jordanians, partly because many have trained here alongside our armed forces. We should maximise those relationships and that defence engagement. That should be part of the comprehensive plan that has been put in place—we should work with them to squeeze ISIL. One thing we decided at NATO was that we need to do even more to build the capability of those militaries because, increasingly in our dangerous world, we are confronting problems, whether in Syria, Mali or Somalia, where it would be good if the regional players had the military capabilities better to deal with the problems—with our assistance and help, but not always with our direct interaction.
Jim Dobbin campaigned with gentle tenacity about the plight of minority Christian groups in the middle east. When even Pope Francis has indicated that he supports limited intervention to stop the massacre of the innocent, may I press my right hon. Friend on the two previous questions he has been asked about Saudi Arabia? Saudi Arabia is allegedly our ally. We train Saudis and supply them with military wares. Will he tell me specifically what interventions he and his Foreign Secretary have made with the Saudi Government to ask them whether they will be part of the solution in their back yard?
Engagement is certainly taking place. I spoke to the King of Saudi Arabia around 10 days ago about how we should best work together to confront the threat, which the Saudis see very much as a threat to them. John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, is currently in the region and talking to a number of the important regional players. That process needs to continue.
Will the Prime Minister clarify what support is being provided to Iraq to ensure that it has an inclusive and strong Government to tackle its national threat, and to ensure that it has the resources to support the safety of citizens in war zones, particularly women and children, given the reports of appalling sexual violence perpetrated by ISIL?
To take the second part of the hon. Lady’s question first, our aid budget is obviously being brought to bear, working with others, to build refugee camps and to help those people who get to safety, whether the Yazidi community or other people who are being persecuted.
On working with the Iraqi Government, we are stepping up what we are doing. We obviously have a full embassy engaged in that work, as do the Americans. We are doing more, but the crucial decision needs to be made by the Iraqi leaders. They need to decide that it is time to end the client politics of looking after the Shi’a and not the Sunni, and instead to form a proper, inclusive Government that includes Sunni, Shi’a and Kurd.
In the light of Russia’s destabilisation actions in Ukraine, what discussions were had at the summit on improving NATO’s cyber-security capabilities and on the article 5 implications of cyber-attacks?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The issue was discussed, because clearly some very vicious cyber-attacks have been carried out on NATO members. It is no good having a defence alliance if we cannot address one of the modern threats, which is the ability of people to take out computer programs, electricity grids or what have you. That is an important part of the work that we do, and Britain has some particular expertise in that area.
May I, too, convey my shock and sadness at the loss of our good friend and comrade Jim Dobbin? His daughter lives in Cardiff, and he never missed an opportunity to tell me how proud he was of his grandsons and their achievements.
Will the Prime Minister add to the list of organisations that he thanked Cardiff council, which organised the NATO dinner in Cardiff and the warships in Cardiff bay? Will he comment on the question that I think my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) was trying to get at—namely, is he offering a guarantee that the UK will not allow its defence expenditure to fall below the 2% target next year?
First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for accurately reminding me that I should include Cardiff city council in my thanks. It did a brilliant job with the dinner in Cardiff castle, which was a fantastic setting for discussing the issues we needed to discuss. I am very grateful for everything that it did.
We meet the 2% target and have done so under this Government. The new targets are set out clearly in the document, and as I said, they put particular emphasis on those not currently meeting the 2% target. All parties in the House will have to set out their spending plans, including for defence, at the next election.
May I thank my right hon. Friend for his commitment to investing more money in equipment for our armed forces?
Should the Scots tragically decide to vote for independence in the forthcoming referendum, would my right hon. Friend consider Plymouth dockyard for the building of future naval ships, rather than continuing to have them built in what would then, of course, be a foreign country?
Of course, my hon. Friend loses no opportunity to stand up for Plymouth, but let me say, as Prime Minister, how much I welcome the fact that we bring to our armed forces those from every part of the United Kingdom. We can think of the magnificent service of the Scottish regiments and the expertise of those who have built our incredible warships in Scotland—most recently, of course, the aircraft carriers. It is the contribution of all parts of the United Kingdom that means we have a defence budget that is one of the top five in the world and armed forces that are the envy of the world. My argument would be not just that Scotland benefits from being part of that but that it contributes a huge amount to what is a unique asset around the world.
May I add my tribute to our colleague and friend Jim Dobbin, who has been supportive of me since I came into the House in 2010? He will be greatly missed.
The appalling attack on flight MH17 saw two avid Newcastle United fans, Liam Sweeney and John Alder, murdered along with 296 other innocent passengers. What specific discussions did the Prime Minister have with his NATO colleagues about ensuring that the perpetrators of that appalling atrocity are brought to justice?
The appalling act of the shooting down of MH17 was discussed at the NATO summit. I have also met some of the relatives of the constituents to whom the hon. Lady refers. It was an absolutely horrific set of affairs that came about. The Dutch will be publishing their report in the next few days, and I think we all wait patiently for what they have to say about how this was caused.
In the light of Britain’s further defence commitment at the NATO summit, will the Prime Minister give a categorical assurance that there will be no more cuts in the size of Her Majesty’s armed forces?
I certainly do not want to see further reductions in, for instance, the size of our Army. We have had to take difficult decisions, such as going to a regular force of 82,000 and a larger reserve force, and I do not want to see further changes to that. But as I said in answer to a question earlier, what matters most of all is having armed forces that we are confident to use because we know that we have the most modern equipment and that we are never going to send soldiers, sailors and airmen into a difficult situation with substandard equipment. We have been able to make sure they have the very best equipment now, with the Scout vehicle to come, because that is absolutely crucial.
May I thank the Prime Minister for his kind tribute to our friend Jim Dobbin, who was a greatly respected member of both the labour and co-operative movements in Greater Manchester and will be missed?
I was interested in what the Prime Minister said in his statement about the new exercises in eastern Europe. Given that NATO’s permanent bases have historically been located in what is probably now the wrong part of Europe, may I ask him, without wishing to ramp up the tensions on NATO’s eastern flank, what discussions were had at the NATO summit about where NATO’s permanent bases ought to be located in the future to face the challenges of the future?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to make that point. Part of the readiness action plan is that there should be prepositioning of equipment and better use of bases in central and eastern Europe. He will see from the detail of the declaration that that is very much anticipated by the NATO conference.
We have always been told that the more we spend on overseas aid, the more it will enhance our security. We have been spending more on overseas aid, but the security threat level has been raised, so that correlation has clearly been shown to be a load of old cobblers. Will the Prime Minister therefore divert some of the money from the overseas aid budget and give much-needed additional resources to our armed forces and security services to help keep us safe in these very dangerous times?
I do not think it is quite right to make that correlation. I would argue that had we not put money into stabilising Somalia, for instance, or Afghanistan or into helping save lives in countries such as Pakistan, we would have seen even more pressures from asylum seeking and migration, and even greater problems with drugs and terrorism. What we have to get right is the balance between armed forces to keep us strong and an aid budget that fulfils our moral responsibility to the poorest in the world, which also helps, I would argue, to keep us safe.
The NATO summit showed how vital NATO still is. It was good to see the Gloucestershire constabulary in RAF Fairford playing a small role in the logistics, and I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement. As part of the security discussions, did members discuss the role of foreign imams in our mosques? UK-born and educated imams preach in the context of understanding Britain and are valued, but that is not always the case with foreign imams. Does my right hon. Friend believe that it may be time to tighten the policy on foreign imams while encouraging the training of British ones?
There is a lot in what my hon. Friend says. I think what matters most of all is that imams are able to communicate to their constituents in English—that is absolutely vital—and that they are up to date with how to help young people by diverting them from the extremist preachers that they find online.
I, too, pay tribute to Jim Dobbin. As a new member on the Transport Select Committee, I particularly appreciated his expertise, knowledge and shared passion for trans-Pennine infrastructure in transport. He will be sadly missed in the Committee.
I very much welcome the news about the full commissioning of our carrier, the HMS Prince of Wales, but will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to debunk the myth that our carrier force will not have the aircraft it needs and confirm our full commitment to the new joint strike fighter, the F-35 Lightning II, which will provide the aircraft for both HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales?
I can confirm that. We will have joint strike fighters on these aircraft carriers, as well as, of course, vital attack and other helicopters, which will provide platforms of real power. The announcement I made about making sure that both are commissioned means that at any time we will always have a carrier available. I think that really strengthens this country’s defence capabilities.
I chair the all-party parliamentary group on Georgia. The Prime Minister referred to NATO beginning its capacity-building missions. He is held in very high regard in Georgia since his visit shortly after the war with Russia. Will he say a little more about the enhanced partnership, which will put Georgia alongside Sweden and Finland, among other countries, and how it will help the country, and particularly its Defence Minister Alasania who has done exceptional work on modernising the Georgian armed forces?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. There are various elements to this. First, the fact that there will be a defence capability-building mission in Georgia is very significant; it will help the Georgians modernise and build up their armed forces. It is also worth noting that a lot of this is being done because of the real contribution that Georgia has made, not least to the ISAF forces in Afghanistan, where the Georgians took on some very difficult work and paid a high price in terms of casualties. This is an enhanced partnership. Georgia is one of the strongest partners that NATO has, and I am sure that this defence capability mission will be much welcomed.
I think it reasonable to regard the defence budget of our country as an insurance policy for its security, and to regard NATO as a group insurance policy. However, it is clear that while all NATO members wish to enjoy the security that the cover of membership gives them, not all of them wish to pay the premiums. Does my right hon. Friend agree that now is the time for Germany, in particular, to step up to the plate and increase its defence spending to 2% in line with NATO guidelines?
My hon. Friend puts it in a good way. In order to enjoy the collective security, we must pay into the insurance policy, but the Germans tend not to sign things unless they have read the small print. They are quite meticulous. I know that Chancellor Merkel looked very carefully at what the agreement said before she signed it. I think that that is important, because Germany’s defence expenditure is below 2%, and it must therefore halt any decline in that expenditure.
May I associate myself with the remarks made about the late Jim Dobbin? He was my parliamentary neighbour, and he was a man of faith and a man of great principle and decency.
Does the Prime Minister agree that, in an increasingly dangerous and uncertain world, our 27 allies in NATO provide a better guarantee of safety and security for the British people than could be provided by the other 27 members of the European Union?
I must point out to my hon. Friend that they are two quite different organisations. NATO is about defence and collective security—and we have, if you like, signed away a bit of our sovereignty in NATO, in that we are pledged to go and defend anyone who is attacked—whereas, of course, the core purpose of the European Union is not defence, but should be about securing our prosperity and ensuring that we can trade freely with our 27 partners.
Does the Prime Minister agree that in considering defence equipment increases across NATO, we should give equal weight to the importance of co-operation on cyber-defence and cyber-attack? Will that not be an important area of theatre in the future, particularly in relation to countries such as Russia?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. He mentioned cyber-defence and cyber-attack. If we believe in deterrence in the field of, say, nuclear power or conventional forces, we should apply the same logic to cyber-warfare.
In the context of achieving a secure, stable, democratic Afghanistan, does the Prime Minister agree that it would be helpful to have a secure, democratic, successful Pakistan? That being the case, and in view of recent events, does he also agree that the United Kingdom will always support a democratically elected Government in Pakistan rather than those who are trying to derail that Government?
I agree with my hon. Friend: we should be friends of a democratic Pakistan. I think it is good that, in spite of that country’s difficulties, there has been a transition from one democratically elected Government to another democratically elected Government, and we should be encouraging that process.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the work that he has done in NATO to secure a strategy to deal with ISIS. Does he agree that Kurdistan is the only beacon of democracy and the rule of law, and the only place of religious tolerance, in Iraq? Does he also agree that, as well as supporting Kurdistan in the short term, we should bear in mind the fact that, given its status, it will need continuous political, military and humanitarian support in the long term? May I also ask whether there was any discussion in NATO about Iran’s onward march towards nuclear capabilities?
Obviously, this meeting spent more time on ISIL, Ukraine and other elements than on the Iranian nuclear issue, which has been discussed a great deal at other recent meetings. As for what my hon. Friend said about the Kurdish regional authority, yes, of course we should support it—I very much admire what it has done to protect minorities and foster democracy—but I think that we should support it as part of our effort to build a pluralistic and democratic Iraq. I think it is absolutely vital that we see it as part of that country.
Both Greece and Turkey are members of NATO, and both were at the weekend summit. Was it made clear to Turkey that it needs to secure its border to prevent the flow of foreign jihadist fighters to the new caliphate forces, and was it made clear to Greece that it must secure its border, which is the weakest part of the EU’s external frontier, against the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who are making their way into the EU and across it to Calais, and then trying to make their way on ferries to our shores?
My hon. Friend makes two points that I totally agree with. First, I discussed the Turkish border issue with President Erdogan. The Turks have taken quite a few steps to provide further security at their border, and they are looking at a range of military intelligence and security co-operation with us to that end. There is a real problem with Europe’s external borders—the Greek border being one—where people are coming into Europe to claim asylum, but instead of claiming asylum in the first country they arrive in, which is what they ought to do, they are making their way to Calais in order to try and come to the UK. We need those external borders secured, but we also need everyone properly to implement the rules we have all agreed.
Although the British people are united in their opposition to terrorism and their determination to overcome it, they remain somewhat nervous about possible military involvement unless there is a clear link to our own security. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s approach, particularly when he says that he will make careful and methodical moves towards a comprehensive plan. Can he assure the House that he will be equally careful and methodical in his moves to ensure the full support of the British people?
I will try to be careful and methodical about everything I do, but the point I would make, even today, to the British people is: be in no doubt about the threat that the so-called Islamic State poses to us here in the United Kingdom. We have already seen something like six planned attacks by ISIL in the countries of the European Union, including of course the appalling attack in the Brussels Jewish museum where innocent people were killed. That flows directly from this organisation. It kidnaps people, it has ransom payments—it has made tens of millions of dollars in that way—and it now has the weapons, resources and oil of a state and is using some of that money directly to target people in this country and across the European Union. We have to be fully cognisant of that fact. There is no option to look away, to put our heads in the sand, to hope this will all go away if only we did not get involved. The fact is that we are involved because it has decided to target us, and that needs to be the beginning of the conversation we have.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Over the weekend, my surgeries were picketed by an individual in dispute with the Courts Service. I recognise the right to protest, but the use of a loud-hailer made it almost impossible to hold a conversation with those visiting my surgeries. The protest also extended to my home and, more worryingly, those of my patient and generous neighbours, which resulted in multiple calls being made to the police throughout Saturday and Sunday. The protester made it clear to my neighbours that unless I succeeded, as their MP, in changing the law to his liking, he would mount a sustained campaign against them. These threats caused great distress. Protest is one thing, but it is intolerable to try to coerce an MP to act in a particular way under the threat of his neighbours and constituents being harassed, disrupted and distressed. To paraphrase a US President—I think it was Truman or Roosevelt—“Your right to throw a punch ends where the nose of another constituent begins.”
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman both for his point of order and his courtesy in tipping me off yesterday about his desire to raise it. I think the whole House will have been shocked to hear the hon. Gentleman’s account of the distress and disruption to which he, his family and his neighbours have been subjected. Let me, perhaps—I hope on behalf of the House—make the situation clear beyond doubt: however strongly any individual feels about a particular cause or campaign, each and every Member of this House has a right to go about his or her legitimate business without intimidation or harassment, or fear thereof. Moreover, it is quite unacceptable for any individual to threaten continuing such harassment if the Member fails to seek to bring about the particular change in the law that that member of the public seeks. That simply will not do. I think I can say that the whole House will be behind the hon. Gentleman on this matter, and I hope he will be good enough to keep me informed of the developing circumstances. We wish him, his family and his neighbours well.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. May I remind the House that in 2009 we had an intense debate on the security of Members’ home addresses, in which the then Labour Leader of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), rightly said that MPs must be able to do their jobs without fear or favour and without having to look fearfully over their shoulders. What disturbs me, from what little I know about this incident, is that the police appear reluctant to intervene. If that is so, is it not absolutely disgraceful?
I cannot comment on that because I do not know whether it is true or not. I think I had better reserve judgment on that point—
Order. I will come back to the hon. Gentleman in a moment. The hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and I will have known each other for 30 years next month, and I say in all courtesy to him that when first he proposed, in the interest of all colleagues, to bring about a change in the law on the subject of home addresses, I do not mind admitting that I did not think his chances of securing such a change were very good. I should have known better than to predict failure, however, because his mission was successful. I have a feeling that the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) wants to get in again.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. May I just make it perfectly clear that the Hertfordshire constabulary has been simply wonderful in its dealings with me? I wholly accept the first part of the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), but Hertfordshire constabulary has been absolutely brilliant. It has supported me and my neighbours, and I have nothing but admiration for it.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that further point of order.
And I am happy to withdraw what I said.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Have you received notice of an imminent Government statement on new devolution legislation or other plans for Scotland? If there is no statement, would it be correct to conclude, given that the UK Government are currently in strict purdah, that there is no substance to what is being proposed outside this Chamber?
If I did not know the hon. Gentleman as well as I do, and if I were not inclined to regard him as a straight dealer—which, through my natural generosity of spirit, I am—I would think that he was seeking to inveigle me into some sort of partisan debate, perhaps relating to an upcoming plebiscite. But of course I cannot believe that he would attempt to do any such thing. To seek to dragoon the impartial Chair into such a partisan debate would be quite improper, and I cannot believe that he would seek to do anything that could be described as quite improper. We will leave it there for today.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I was very pleased with the way in which you gave us the sad news about the death of Jim Dobbin at the start of today’s proceedings. I treasure a photo of him outside this building campaigning for the end of nuclear weapons in this country. However, something seems to be missing here. When a Member dies in office, tributes have to be paid through interventions in debates on completely different subjects or through a brief statement by you, Mr Speaker. Could there not be a proper facility for paying appropriate tributes to people we have worked with who have been good friends and to whom we wish to pay due regard?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I am very open to that proposition, although it would not be right for me to seek to impose a new arrangement. I have, however, sought to update and humanise the procedure. When I first took office, I was told that the proper practice was to report the fact of a death very baldly and rather coldly. When I suggested that I should perhaps utter a couple of sentences of tribute to the Member, I was told, “Oh no, Mr Speaker, that is not the way it is done. That is not appropriate.” I am afraid I decided that it was appropriate, and that we should move on and invest these matters with some humanity. I do not know whether there is a feeling in the House that we should have a short, dedicated session in such circumstances, but I have a feeling that the hon. Gentleman’s point of order will quickly be brought to the attention of the Procedure Committee, whose Chair was here only a few moments ago. Let that conversation begin. I will happily be guided by the House, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order.
National Insurance Contributions Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is the third national insurance contributions—NICs—Bill this Parliament. The Government have already taken action to reduce significantly the burden of NICs on earnings and employment through previous Bills. At Budget 2011, the Chancellor announced a £21 a week above-inflation increase to the employer’s NICs threshold. Last April, the employment allowance was introduced, which will benefit up to 1.25 million businesses and charities. Next April, the vast majority of under 21-year-olds in work will be lifted out of employer NICs, which will support 1.5 million jobs. All those measures have been strongly welcomed by business and have contributed to the current record levels of employment.
This Bill contains four measures: simplifying NICs paid by the self-employed; accelerating the payment to the Exchequer of NICs in dispute in avoidance cases, and providing for the issue of follower notices where the scheme or arrangements have been shown to fail in another party’s litigation; applying new information powers and penalties to promoters of avoidance schemes; and introducing a targeted anti-avoidance rule—TAAR—to prevent people from circumventing new legislation tackling avoidance involving employment intermediaries.
Let me explain each of those four measures in more detail, starting with the simplification of NICs paid by the self-employed, which is contained in clauses 1 and 2, and schedule 1. Hon. Members may recollect that at Budget 2014 the Chancellor announced that the Government intended to simplify the NICs collection process for the self-employed, who currently have to operate two different processes for two separate classes of NICs. This followed a 2012 recommendation by the Office of Tax Simplification and a consultation published in July 2013 entitled “Simplifying the National Insurance Processes for the Self Employed”, which sought views on proposals to simplify class 2 NICs.
The number of self-employed individuals in the UK is growing, with more people having multiple jobs and moving in and out of self-employment. Having two separate collection methods for class 2 and class 4 NICs causes confusion and extra work for both the self-employed and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. The objective behind the measure is to modernise the way class 2 NICs are assessed and collected, making the system simpler and more straightforward, and reducing administrative burdens on the self-employed. Class 2 NICs are currently collected via a flat-rate charge of £2.75 per week, paid through six-monthly billing or by direct debit, while class 4 NICs are a percentage charge on profits—of 9% between the lower and upper profits limit and 2% above the upper profits limit—paid through self-assessment alongside income tax.
The aims of clauses 1 and 2, and schedule 1 are to change the way in which class 2 NICs are structured; change the means by which class 2 NICs are collected, by moving their collection into self-assessment, so that they can be collected alongside class 4 NICs and income tax; change the means by which class 2 NICs are enforced, with changes to associated appeal rights to mirror broadly those for class 4 NICs and income tax; and make consequential changes to legislation relating to maternity allowance to allow women to continue to become eligible for it post-reform.
Those changes are proposed to take effect for the 2015-16 tax year onwards, so that the collection of class 2 NICs under self-assessment will be from 6 April 2016. The changes are aimed at simplifying NICs for the self- employed and small businesses—sole traders, partnerships and unincorporated businesses—by enabling them to report their class 2 NICs liability and pay it through their self-assessment, thus reducing the administrative burden of the two current separate collection mechanisms. The six-monthly billing and direct debit systems will cease from April 2015 and July 2015 respectively.
During the consultation there was some concern that the reform would mean that the self-employed would no longer be able to spread the cost of paying class 2 NICs. I want to take this opportunity to reassure the self-employed that there is already the facility in self-assessment to make budget payments to spread the cost of tax and NICs through the year.
Hon. Members may be interested to know that one of the key changes that we made through this reform is that there will no longer be a need for customers with low profits who want to opt out of paying class 2 NICs to apply for a small earnings exception in advance—something that we know they find confusing and burdensome. Under this reform, customers with profits below the new small profits threshold, which will be equivalent to the current small earnings exception threshold, will not be liable to pay class 2 NICs, but will be able to choose to do so on a voluntary basis. That means that those with low profits who want to opt out of paying class 2 NICs will not need to do anything apart from confirm that when they are completing their self-assessment return, while those who still choose to pay in order to protect the benefits entitlement will be able to do so quickly and easily. Rather than a separate process, the decision will be built into the self-assessment return.
There is a small proportion of HMRC customers who pay class 2 NICs but who are not in self-assessment. Those individuals will continue to get a separate class 2 NICs payment request. They will receive that once a year instead of twice a year as they currently do. Hon. Members will be pleased to learn that the tax information impact note published by HMRC about this measure indicates a net administrative burden reduction to the self-employed of £74 million over five years as a result of these reforms.
I now wish to take the House through the provisions in the Bill that deal with accelerating the payment to the Exchequer of amounts of NICs in dispute in avoidance cases. That also includes providing for the issue of follower notices where there is a relevant case in which the scheme or arrangement has been shown to fail in another party’s litigation. Those provisions are in clauses 3 and 4 and schedule 2.
The provisions broadly follow, for NICs, new powers that are included in the Finance Act 2014—the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) and I debated this matter not that long ago—which allow HMRC to issue a notice to taxpayers who have used avoidance schemes that have failed before the courts in another party’s litigations. The provisions in the Bill and the Finance Act 2014 are estimated to raise £5 billion in tax and NICs for the Exchequer in the years ahead.
A follower notice sets out HMRC’s view that a judicial decision in another case is directly relevant and that those who receive the notice should settle their disputes. If the taxpayer does not settle in response to this notice, they will face a tax-geared penalty if they are unable to show that their case is materially different from the other party’s litigation or if they did not have reasonable grounds to continue the dispute.
An accelerated payment may be required from taxpayers in the following circumstances: where a follower notice has been issued and the taxpayer decides not to settle their dispute; where taxpayers are involved in schemes subject to disclosure under the disclosure of tax avoidance schemes—DOTAS—rules: and where taxpayers have used arrangements that HMRC decides to counteract under the general anti-abuse rule.
For both follower notices and accelerated payments, taxpayers will have 90 days to make representations. There is no formal right of appeal against the notices or payments, but taxpayers can appeal against any penalties. The measures are expected to lead to the issue of payment notices to around 43,000 taxpayers involved in avoidance schemes currently under dispute with HMRC over the period to the end of March 2016.
Now that I have outlined what the provisions in the Bill do, I want to address some of the points raised in debate on the Finance Bill and by some commentators. One point that has been made is that the measure effectively assumes that someone is guilty before they are proved innocent. The Government do not agree, as most people pay their tax up front and can apply for a refund afterwards, for example through pay-as-you-earn, VAT and tax on interest income, and the measure extends the existing practice of having disputed tax sit with the Exchequer. That is already the case when taxpayers seek tax refunds for disputed avoidance. The measure in no way alters the rights of appeal that people already have when disputing the tax or NICs they owe HMRC; it is only about where the money sits while the dispute continues.
Hon. Members might also be aware that the measure has been described as having retrospective effect. The Government do not agree. It is not retrospective and there is no change to the liability to make a contribution. It involves NICs that the individual and his or her employer would already have paid if they had not entered into the avoidance scheme. The taxpayer can continue to dispute the case and will be repaid with interest if they succeed.
It has also been suggested that taxpayers are likely to find it difficult to find the money to pay. The Government’s view is that we would expect a prudent taxpayer to anticipate that an avoidance scheme might not deliver savings and would be subject to challenge by HMRC and that such a taxpayer should have made some provision against that possibility. I can reassure the House, however, that when a taxpayer has genuine difficulties in paying some or all of the NICs, HMRC will use its usual collection tools, including appropriately structured payment arrangements, to assist taxpayers in paying the required amounts.
I have seen representations from businesses suggesting that they entered into such arrangements to reduce business costs and that the measures will now put unacceptable pressure on their business activity. The Government have put in place an attractive business tax regime and expect everyone to pay the taxes that are due. Avoidance involves trying to pass the burden on to the vast majority who have not tried to avoid tax and where business is concerned it involves attempts to gain an unfair competitive advantage against those who pay their taxes and do not try to avoid tax.
I want now to take the House to the provisions in the Bill that apply new information powers and penalties to the highest risk promoters of tax-avoidance schemes. The provisions are also contained in clauses 3 and 4 and schedule 2. The measure was announced for tax in Budget 2013 and the Government’s intention has been to extend it to NICs at the earliest opportunity. A consultation on the tax aspects, called “Raising the stakes on tax avoidance”, ran until 4 October 2013.
Hon. Members might also be aware that the Finance Act 2014 includes legislation that allows HMRC to issue conduct notices to promoters of tax-avoidance schemes and monitor promoters who breach a conduct notice. The Bill applies the tax legislation to NICs so that the legislation operates as one unified measure that covers tax and national insurance contributions. Monitored promoters will be subject to new information powers and penalties, which will also apply to intermediaries who continue to represent them after the monitoring commences. The monitored promoter will be named by HMRC and the naming details will include information on why the conduct notice was breached. It will be required to inform its clients that it is being monitored by HMRC. Clients of monitored promoters will also be subject to certain obligations that have a penalty for non-compliance and extended time limits for assessments.
The measure is part of the Government’s strategic response to avoidance. It will deter the use of avoidance schemes through influencing the behaviour of promoters, their intermediaries and clients and it is aimed at changing the behaviour of promoters of NICs and tax-avoidance schemes. Naming a monitored promoter should deter intermediaries from acting for them and clients and potential clients from using their products. I can confirm to the House that the measure is not expected to have any significant economic impact and that the cost to HMRC of dealing with the additional information and reporting it is expected to be negligible.
Now that I have outlined what those provisions do, I would again like to address several points that have been raised during Finance Bill debates and by some commentators. It has been suggested that the Bill is too wide and will catch innocent promoters, but the Government disagree. To be covered by the legislation, a person must be the promoter of avoidance schemes that give a tax advantage, or that avoid or reduce a NICs liability, and to have made a significant breach of a threshold condition. The vast majority of promoters will not be in that position.
Hon. Members may be aware that it has been suggested that this response to avoidance is disproportionate, but we disagree. The Government have made it absolutely clear that we are determined to crack down on tax avoidance. The vast majority of taxpayers pay the right tax and NICs at the right time, and should not have to subsidise those who participate in avoidance.
One part of the Government’s strategy is to tackle the behaviour of the supply side of the market—those highest-risk promoters who design and sell avoidance schemes. We want to ensure that promoters who avoid their obligations to HMRC and their clients are made to change their behaviour, and the Bill achieves that by imposing consequences for those who do not meet acceptable standards of behaviour. It requires monitored promoters to tell HMRC about their schemes and clients, and there will be significant fines if they do not comply.
Another argument that has been made against the measures is that they apply retrospectively. The House will not be surprised to learn that the Government disagree with that proposition. While the provisions involve looking back at a promoter’s past behaviour, they are designed to improve current and future behaviour. It is only if there is no improvement in the promoter’s compliance with their obligations that they are subject to significant information powers and penalties.
I shall now describe to the House the provisions relating to the new targeted anti-avoidance rule that will prevent people from circumventing new legislation that tackles avoidance involving employment intermediaries. The proposed TAAR is set out in clause 5. The National Insurance Contributions Act 2014 strengthened legislation in respect of offshore employment intermediaries. It was specifically intended to address the non-payment of employer’s national insurance in the oil and gas industry involving the placement outside the UK of the employer of oil and gas workers working on the UK continental shelf.
Hon. Members may be aware that the temporary labour market is quick to react to legislative change and to find new convoluted ways to reduce the amount of income tax and NICs that would otherwise be liable to be paid. Stakeholders have indicated to HMRC that intermediaries involved in the facilitation of false self-employment may set up avoidance vehicles with convoluted structures that are specifically designed to circumvent the 2014 Act. To dissuade such intermediaries, the Government propose that a TAAR is included in NICs legislation to deter such avoidance. That TAAR is similar to the tax TAAR established for the same purpose through the Finance Act 2014. The rule will focus on the motive for setting up arrangements—on whether it is to avoid NICs—and whether those arrangements result in less NICs being paid. To ensure that the tax and NICs TAARs operate as one, both will take effect from 6 April 2014.
Let me explain why we are bringing forward the TAAR now. The use of employment intermediaries as a way of avoiding tax has grown in recent years, and they are increasingly marketed and promoted as a way of avoiding employer’s NICs. The TAAR will dissuade some businesses from entering into convoluted arrangements to avoid NICs. The proposed measures will help to level the playing field for UK businesses and ensure that compliant UK businesses that facilitate the UK’s flexible labour market are not undercut by those trying to avoid tax.
The Government have already taken action significantly to reduce the burden of NICs on earnings and employment through previous Bills. At Budget 2011, the Chancellor announced a £21 a week above-inflation increase to the employer’s NICs threshold. Last April the employment allowance was introduced, which will benefit up to 1.25 million businesses, and next April the vast majority of under-21s will be lifted out of employer NICs, which will support 1.5 million jobs.
The Bill introduces further welcome measures and is both important and necessary. The modernisation of the way class 2 NICs are assessed and collected will make the system simpler and more straightforward and will reduce administrative burdens on the self-employed. The Bill also includes a package of measures aimed at activity that attempts to reduce the amount of NICs payable to the Exchequer. I commend the Bill to the House.
I thank the Minister for his introduction to this short Bill, which, as he said, aims to simplify the administrative process of paying class 2 NICs for the self-employed; apply measures from this year’s Finance Bill, now the Finance Act 2014, to NICs; and introduce a targeted anti-avoidance rule, TAAR, to tackle disguised self-employment made possible through employment intermediaries and offshore employers. We support the measures and so will support Second Reading, but we will examine in detail some of the expected practical impacts of the measures in Committee.
As the House will know, national insurance benefits are funded by a system of compulsory contributions on earnings paid by employees, employers and the self-employed. Most of the income from NICs goes into the national insurance fund to pay for contributory benefits, including the state pension, contributions-based jobseeker’s allowance and bereavement benefits. Some NICs money goes directly into the national health service. NICs are the second largest tax after income tax, raising £108 billion in 2013-14.
The self-employed make two types of national insurance contribution. Class 2 NICs are paid by the self-employed at a flat weekly rate of £2.75. A self-employed person can apply to be exempted from liability if their annual profits are under a certain threshold—the so-called small earnings exemption—which is currently set at £5,885. Class 4 NICs are paid annually by self-employed persons on profits immediately derived from a trade, profession or vocation that are chargeable to income tax. Class 4 NICs are payable at a rate of 9% on profits between £7,956 and £41,865 and 2% on profits above £41,865.
Until now, payments of class 2 and class 4 NICs have had to be made separately. Individuals may pay class 2 NICs by direct debit either twice a year, in January and July, or monthly, paid four months in arrears. Alternatively, HMRC will issue two payment requests a year. In contrast, self-employed persons pay class 4 NICs with income tax on completion of their self-assessment tax return. From 2011, the dates on which payment of class 2 NICs is due have been aligned with the dates for tax and self-assessment—31 January and 31 July each year—but payment of both has continued to be made separately.
As the Minister said, when the Office of Tax Simplification looked at these matters in 2012, it suggested bringing class 2 NICs within self-assessment, and that this would bring administrative benefits to self-employed persons and businesses. In July 2013, HMRC published a consultation document in which it noted that the present system places significant burdens on small business, and that while class 2 NICs accounted for less than 0.3% of the £102 billion-worth of NICs collected by HMRC in 2012-13, they accounted for more than 40% of national insurance-related telephone calls to HMRC and the associated processing work that resulted. The Bill therefore changes the liability for class 2 NICs so that it arises at the end of the tax year and not weekly, as now, and moves class 2 NICs into self-assessment, so that self-employed people can deal with their class 2 NICs together with their income tax and class 4 NICs.
We support the aim of making the system easier for self-employed people and reducing the administrative burden caused by the current arrangement of having two separate systems for collection of class 4 and class 2 NICs. Almost one person in six is self-employed, so this is a significant issue affecting a large number of people. Making the system easier to navigate is therefore welcome and of genuine practical benefit for the self-employed.
A number of specific issues arise as a result of this change on which we will seek greater clarification from Ministers in Committee. However, it would also be helpful if the Exchequer Secretary offered some further comments on the points I am about to raise, as that could help to clarify the issues ahead of Committee. The first relates to the maternity allowance. At present, 25,000 self-employed women claim maternity allowance each year. Entitlement to maternity allowance is not assessed on self-employment and class 2 NICs paid in a particular benefit year. Instead, it is assessed over a test period of 66 weeks up to and including the week before the baby is due. Collecting class 2 NICs at the end of the tax year means that some women may find that it appears as though they have not been paying class 2 NICs during the period needed to make them eligible for the maternity allowance.
In order to address this problem, the Government have proposed measures in the Bill that would enable women who have not had the opportunity to file a self-assessment return and pay class 2 NICs to pay them early in order to secure maternity entitlement at the standard weekly rate. However, there is a danger that these proposals may be impractical. Women would have to make voluntary contributions before they filed their self-assessment returns, and this demands a very high level of forward planning on their part. The provisions may therefore require some additional clarification. If the Exchequer Secretary or the Financial Secretary have had any additional representations on these points—I know that some stakeholders have been raising such concerns—it would be helpful if they set out their thinking. The Minister will be aware that the Chartered Institute of Taxation has suggested that the Government should review these changes at the earliest opportunity—in two years, I think—to ensure that they have not resulted in a reduction in the number of claims for the standard rate of maternity allowance. Again, it would be helpful to have an indication of the Minister’s current thinking on this point.
For the 650,000 self-employed households that claim universal credit, these proposals will have a different impact. Universal credit regulations require the individual to report their income, net of certain expenses, on a monthly basis. That net income is then used to establish their entitlement to universal credit. Certain safeguards are built in so that if income from self-employment for an assessment period falls below a certain level, the claimant’s income is treated as being a higher amount called the minimum income floor. Because universal credit is assessed on a monthly basis, if a claimant has to pay all their class 2 NICs in one month, this could push their earnings under the minimum income floor, thereby reducing their universal credit for that month. Simplification should not come at the cost of hardship, We will press the Government for assurances that they have fully considered the potential impacts of this change along with the introduction of universal credit, and the interplay between both policies.
The tax information and impact note suggests that the option of monthly payments will still be made available to self-employed persons and businesses. However, there is no provision for that in the Bill. A number of stakeholder groups have suggested that the retention of a monthly payment system would be of particular value to those on very low incomes who may struggle with one lump sum payment. Even accepting that for many people the total amount does not seem large or too onerous, of course that is not necessarily the case for those on extremely low incomes, and retaining the monthly payment option would therefore be helpful. It is not clear why the note suggests something that the Bill does not touch on. I would be grateful for some further clarification on that.
The Chartered Institute of Taxation points out that there will be a gap of 22 months between the collection of class 2 payments for 2014-15 and the collection of payments for 2015-16 as liability moves from a weekly basis to arising at the end of the tax year. Thereafter, the payment of class 2 will be in arrears on 31 January following the end of the tax year. This could affect entitlements to benefits. Under the current system, the entitlement to many contributory benefits is based on the claimant having paid contributions and operating on a pay-as-you-go basis. Have the Government considered the cash-flow implications of class 2 NICs coming in up to 10 months after the end of the tax year, rather than being paid in-year as they are at the moment? Are they able to give us some more information on that today?
We will also seek reassurance and confirmation that moving class 2 into self-assessment will not adversely affect entitlement to contributory benefits. These are significant changes and the Government will need to ensure that they are properly advertised and that taxpayers are educated about them. We do not want a situation to arise whereby people have gaps in their payments. As I have said, NICs relate to eligibility for important benefits that people rely on. We need greater reassurance from the Government that they will have a full programme of education and information about the changes. It is also fair to say that we will need a relatively widespread publicity programme ahead of April 2015, as existing direct debits will need to be stopped. It would be helpful if the Exchequer Secretary could tell us what the Government have planned in relation to educating taxpayers who will be affected by the changes.
As the Financial Secretary said, the Bill also extends measures introduced in the Finance Act 2014 to cover NICs, particularly in relation to follower notices, accelerated payment notices and measures to tackle high-risk promoters of tax avoidance schemes. During the passage of the Finance Bill we had an extensive debate on the issues raised by the new provisions, which are the same as those contained in this Bill, and we will continue to press Ministers in Committee on the practical arrangements for the measures.
On follower notices, we welcomed the amendment made on Report of the Finance Bill, which brought in a right of appeal on three grounds where a follower notice has been issued. Outside of those three grounds, however, the only other option will be for taxpayers to seek a judicial review. What further reassurances can Ministers give that follower notices will be issued only in cases that are on all fours, as it were, with the precedent or lead case, so that occasions where a taxpayer may have to resort to a judicial review are kept to a minimum?
It is important that the internal systems operated by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in deciding whether to issue a follower notice allow for the points of difference in a case to be considered, rather than the process amounting to a more straightforward box-ticking exercise to determine eligibility for a notice. Now that the Finance Act is law, I would be grateful if the Government could set out what further work has been done on the approach and methodology that will be adopted by HMRC staff and officials as they make important decisions about whether to apply a follower notice to a particular case.
As the Financial Secretary has noted, there has been considerable controversy and heated debate about whether accelerated payment notices amount to retrospection, as we discussed in Committee. Although we have put to him the concerns of stakeholders and constituents from all over the country, I agree with him that, from a legal perspective, they are not retrospective per se. The issue is more one of tax liability that has already been disputed and of where that liability sits. We have, therefore, supported the measures relating to accelerated payment notices. The Government have assured the House that decisions about whether to issue an APN will be made only by HMRC staff with sufficient seniority who are at a high grade. The Financial Secretary and I have had a number of discussions about HMRC staffing and resources, so he will not be surprised to hear that I will be taking up those issues again.
The Association of Revenue and Customs believes that HMRC faces a demographic time bomb, with more than half its work force aged over 45 and 18% over 55. That proportion is even higher at senior level, where about 30% of grade 6 employees are over 55. It is important to know how that will affect the implementation of APNs. We will need to be satisfied that there will be enough sufficiently experienced staff and that those who are due to retire are being replaced at the correct rate.
We have pressed Ministers on the resourcing of HMRC, and I note the Financial Secretary’s comments in our previous debates about the expansion of the counter-avoidance team at HMRC. Again, we will pick that up in greater detail in Committee. Now that the Finance Act is law, we must keep a close eye on implementation and resourcing. Especially given the high level of interest in such matters, the first decisions made about follower notices and accelerated payment notices must be robust and stand up to scrutiny if they are to inspire confidence within the population of taxpayers.
The Bill will introduce a new targeted anti-avoidance rule to cover the payment of national insurance contributions, which sits alongside the provisions in this year’s Finance Act aimed at tackling the issue of employment intermediaries who falsely label workers as self-employed to reduce their tax liabilities. The problem is widespread, and a Government review found that at least 100,000 individuals working in this country were employed through an intermediary company that had no presence, residence or place of business in the UK. In many cases, the employee was unaware that their payroll was located offshore and that tax was avoided on their earnings.
For workers falsely badged as self-employed, particularly those who do not know that that is the case, the impact is that they are not eligible for many of the benefits available for employed earners, such as holiday and sickness pay. This year’s Finance Act amended legislation directly to address the issue in relation to the payment of income tax. A worker will now be designated as an employee if they are under the supervision, direction or control of someone else, and in that case they must be paid through PAYE, rather than as self-employed people. That is a change from the previous designation, under which a worker was deemed to be an employee if they provided their services personally. It was found that many intermediaries could exploit the test by claiming that there was no obligation for the worker to provide their services personally, and to get around that, a clause was often inserted into a worker’s contract stating that they could send someone else to do their work, even though the employee in reality wanted that specific worker.
The role of the TAAR in this Bill is to ensure that the new measures cannot be circumvented, and that workers who would be employed earners if it were not for the intermediary arrangements are treated as employed earners. The TAAR will allow HMRC to consider both the motive for setting up such an arrangement, including whether it was set up with the motive of avoiding NICs, and what was achieved, including whether it resulted in less NICs being paid.
During debates on the Finance Bill, we supported the new measures and the corresponding TAAR for income tax, but we stressed the importance of considering the resource that HMRC would need both to implement the changes and to ensure that sufficient guidance was provided to those affected. The same applies to this Bill. In addition, we will continue to press, as we did on the Finance Bill, for further examination of the case for having deeming criteria to combat disguised employment in the construction industry, particularly where such practices are a significant problem, with self-employment levels at 40% compared with an average of 14% across all industries. However, the TAAR envisaged in this Bill takes us forward in dealing with the problem, and we will support it.
With those points, I hope that I have given Ministers sufficient notice of the debates that we will have as the Bill progresses, and I look forward to picking up those issues in greater detail in Committee.
I rise to say a few words in favour of the Bill, which the Liberal Democrats wholeheartedly support. We are very pleased that it incorporates measures to deal with tax avoidance.
The whole problem of disguised employment is rife across the country, and the Bill will go some way to combat it. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood), spoke about it as though people were unwilling to be disguised employees, but in many cases people are willing disguised employees who duly make savings themselves. I believe that the Bill will help to combat the problem.
The measures in relation to offshore workers are particularly welcome in my constituency, which has a large number of them. Some only realised what their real national insurance status was when they claimed their pension and found that their contribution record was nothing like they expected, because the payments that they thought they had paid were not properly rendered as national insurance contributions. I therefore very much welcome the removal of another anomaly in the system.
I look forward to the Bill passing smoothly through the House, as it so far seems to be doing.
Before I begin my remarks, I should probably declare an interest as a member of the all-party parliamentary group on the freelance sector. As such, I am fully aware of the invaluable contribution that genuinely self-employed people, including freelancers, make to the economy. They play an increasingly prominent part in the generation of economic growth and prosperity.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) and the Financial Secretary set out, the main aim of the Bill is to make life a bit easier for self-employed people in respect of the payment of their national insurance contributions. That is more important than ever, given the structural changes in our labour market over the past few years. There are 4.5 million self-employed people, which is more than at any point in the past 40 years, according to the Office for National Statistics. Welcome though the changes are, the Government need to go further in supporting the self-employed because, while we know that the majority of working people are not feeling better off in their pockets, it is becoming increasingly clear that the self-employed have been hit particularly hard by the cost of living crisis of the past few years.
The latest labour force survey figures from the ONS show that more than a third of the new jobs that have been created since the last quarter of the last Parliament—39%—are self-employed jobs. The self-employed make up one in seven people in the work force. The Institute for Public Policy Research recently described the UK as the
“self-employment capital of Western Europe”.
Although the Government like to boast that 2,000 businesses have been set up and have been “flourishing” in every month over the last year, that masks the true effect of the cost of living crisis on many self-employed people. Although self-employed people are included in the employment figures in the ONS labour force survey, they are not included in the pay figures. The Resolution Foundation has concluded that, were the 4.5 million self-employed people included in the labour force survey, average wages could have fallen by a further 20% due to the huge shift towards low-paid self-employment. Whereas the official figures show that working people are, on average, £1,600 a year worse off since 2010 after inflation, Labour’s analysis shows that the self-employed have been hit particularly hard and that their average incomes have fallen by £2,000 a year. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies,
“the fall in average living standards was caused primarily by sharp falls in gross earnings and self-employment income.”
We know that the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee has a range of views on the extent to which the growth in self-employment has painted a false picture of the strength of the labour market. We also know from a recent survey by the Resolution Foundation that more than a quarter of those who have become self-employed in the past five years—almost half a million people—would rather have salaried jobs.
It is for those reasons that the shadow Secretaries of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and for Work and Pensions have written to Sir Andrew Dilnot, the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, to ask him to examine whether new measures are needed to take better account of the earnings of self-employed people. The truth is that they are working harder for less and that many of them are struggling to make ends meet. We must ensure that they get the support that they need.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood set out the Opposition’s concerns about the Bill. The first relates to clauses 1 and 2 and schedule 1, which will simplify the payment of national insurance contributions that are currently paid by monthly direct debit or in six-monthly instalments, so that they will be paid under the self-assessment regime at the end of the tax year. Although that simplified process will be welcomed by many self-employed people, there are concerns that shifting all liability for NICs to the end of the tax year, potentially to be paid in one big lump sum, could be difficult for low-paid workers.
The Chartered Institute of Taxation recommended that the option of monthly direct debit is retained, and the Government’s tax information and impact note also anticipates that
“a small number may want to continue to make Class 2 NIC payments through a regular payment option.”
No such option is referenced in the Bill, however, so it would be helpful if the Minister cleared up that point and said whether there is any intention to include such a measure.
There are also implications for self-employed people who receive universal credit—I say receive, but I mean when, or if, universal credit is ever fully rolled out, given the current timetable. Because under universal credit income is reported net of expenses on a monthly basis, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood said, if income falls below a certain threshold in a given month—the minimum income floor—the claimant’s income is treated as being a higher amount, and they therefore lose some of their universal credit entitlement for that month. NICs and income tax will count as such deductions, and in any one month liability may fall on both of those under self-assessment. That could result in universal credit claimants losing out in that month, which could set them back significantly for a longer period. The Low Incomes Tax Reform group has expressed its concerns that that shift could “spell misery” for some self-employed people, and create a system where
“payments will be made much later and could affect entitlements to benefits in the meantime.”
I am following the hon. Lady’s argument with interest and she is making an excellent point. Does she believe that the annual assessment and payment of class 2 NICs will cause a big problem for people on universal credit? How does she think that could be dealt with? Clearly, it is part of their costs and deductions from income, which will not be known when they are claiming and receiving universal credit.
I think the hon. Gentleman very much agrees with the concerns raised by Labour Members, and I hope that the Minister will have some suggestions on how those potential pitfalls can be addressed. If not now, thought should certainly be given to that before the Committee stage to ensure that the most vulnerable self-employed workers, and those on lowest incomes, are not penalised by the change in processing national insurance contributions. We accept that there are clear benefits to reducing red tape and the administrative burden on self-employed people who would benefit from such a measure, but there are those in a more vulnerable position who could be forced into “misery”, as the Chartered Institute of Taxation puts it well.
There is also an increased administrative burden for those who are self-employed as a result of the introduction of universal credit. They will have to draw up two separate accounts—one for HMRC that they report yearly, and one for the DWP that they report monthly. Perhaps Ministers will provide some much-needed clarity about the provisions that they intend to put in place to support low-paid self-employed people, so that they are not disadvantaged by the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood mentioned the 25,000 self-employed women who claim maternity allowance each year. Currently, class 2 contributions are the means by which a self-employed earner accesses entitlement to contributory benefits, including the standard rate of maternity allowance. In order to receive that, a self-employed woman must have paid 13 weeks’ of class 2 NICs within the previous 66 weeks. That shifting liability for class 2 NICs to an annual payment to cover the previous 12 months’ liability could mean that they fail to satisfy those criteria and are not able to access the standard rate of maternity allowance. HMRC’s consultation document from July 2013 flags those concerns. It states:
“The Government recognises that the proposals have implications for the way eligibility for”
“is determined for pregnant self-employed women and will be considering how best to ensure the changes have no adverse impact for the small group who might otherwise be affected.”
Despite the promise of that wider review of maternity allowance eligibility for self-employed women, the Government have settled on what has been described as a “wholly impractical” solution, whereby women must pay their class 2 NICs throughout the year of their own accord before they file their self-assessment returns at the end of the year.
The Bill’s aim is to simplify NICs for the self-employed, but the proposed approach is anything but simple. In fact, it places a much greater burden on some 25,000 pregnant women each year who want to access their entitlement to the standard rate of maternity allowance. The Chartered Institute of Taxation has labelled that approach as “impractical”, and has suggested that a review should be carried out after two years to see what impact it has had on the claims of self-employed women for standard rate maternity allowance. Perhaps the Minister could respond to those concerns. Have the Government considered alternative approaches, and why have they settled on what has been described as an impractical approach for those women who could be affected?
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood spoke in depth about the anti-avoidance measures in the Bill, which were debated at some length in the Finance Bill Committee. However, I want to make the general point that the Opposition are committed to anti-tax avoidance measures. We believe strongly that everybody should pay their fair share. That is why we support the measures in the Bill, but what reassurances can the Minister provide for hon. Members that HMRC will be sufficiently resourced in order to implement the measures and the safeguards? My hon. Friend mentioned the demographic challenges that HMRC is likely to face in the coming years, and the challenge of the numbers of those available to ensure that the promised safeguards are put in place. Will the Minister provide reassurances on that? I am sure the matter will be debated at some length in Committee.
To conclude, we have only to look at the Government’s past record on tax avoidance to understand why the Opposition seek those reassurances. The Government have got it wrong in some respects, such as on the UK-Swiss tax deal, and have over-egged their tackling of tax avoidance and the tax gap, which the National Audit Office recently said is almost £2 billion lower than it should have been, and that the Government have mis-stated the situation. Ministers must provide reassurance for hon. Members and for those who are interested in the debate that they have learned those lessons, and that we will not experience tax avoidance in relation to measures in this Bill that the Government are similarly unable to deal with.
This has been an efficient debate—the Bill was discussed at great length in debates on the Finance Bill. On that basis, I will not recap the purpose of the Bill or the clauses, which have been effectively discussed. However, it is fair, right and proper that I address the points made by Labour Members. Clearly, there is consensus in a number of areas—work has taken place in debates on the Finance Bill and discussions have been had—but there are a number of areas that I should like to address.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) asked a number of questions. I will begin the debate on them now, and I have no doubt that they will be explored further in Committee. On the reform of maternity allowance for self-employed women, I challenge the assertion that the process is burdensome. As we have heard, the Bill is about simplification and introducing a degree of efficiency to NICs. Primary legislation and supporting regulations, and a revised claim process, will ensure that expectant mums are no worse off than they were under the previous class 2 arrangements. Right hon. and hon. Members will be pleased that HMRC and the DWP are working together to ensure that the process is straightforward and simple for them. As I have said, that will no doubt come up again in Committee.
The hon. Members for Birmingham, Ladywood and for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) made a point on reform for the low paid and the impact of universal credit. It is fair to say that most self-employed people have the option to pay their class 2 NICs regularly using the budget payment option that is already available in self-assessment. Importantly, they are enabled to spread the cost of those payments. That is not legislated for in the Bill because the option to make the budget payments already exists within the current system of self-assessment. Once the Bill becomes law, the issue is how we raise awareness to ensure that people know about that. NICs are accounted for on an accruals basis, so the important fact is the time period within which the money is due rather than the date for payments. Of course, they will continue to be counted in the tax year, but as I have said, it is a question of spreading the costs.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood rightly asked how HMRC will ensure that it applies the rules fairly for all taxpayers. It is fair to say that that argument was rehearsed in Finance Bill debates. The Government recognise that there are significant new powers. Obviously, the system must be administered fairly and consistently for all taxpayers. To that end, HMRC will establish clear governance for the key decisions on which cases can be designated as followers, which disclosure of tax avoidance schemes will be within scope and on the appointment of designated officers for the calculation notices. One important point is that clear separations will be established so that reviews of follower notices are carried out independently of the original issuing team. In addition, clear internal guidance and training will be provided for staff within HMRC on how they are to apply the rules. That goes with the clear external guidance, which has been published by HMRC so that taxpayers and advisers know how the rules impact on them. This is about not only fairness, but transparency, so that there is no confusion. On follower notices, those who know that they are deliberately avoiding tax will also know that they are being looked at, which is important. It is fair to say that our determination to lift every stone, and ensure that those who deliberately avoid tax are actively watched and pursued, is unequivocal.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North touched on wage growth for self-employed individuals. The self-employed community is growing, which is a good thing. This is about how we support them through the tax system, but there must be agreement that the only way to raise living standards is to tackle wider challenges and economic problems. We appreciate that times are tough, but this is about how we support hard-working people and the self-employed. We have increased the tax-free personal allowance to £10,500 from April next year, which will save the typical taxpayer £805 per year. We have also taken more than 3.2 million people out of tax altogether and cut income tax for someone on the minimum wage by nearly two thirds. There have been other effective measures such as the freeze in fuel duty and the freeze in council tax in every year of this Parliament.
There is no doubt that more discussion will follow in Committee, but given that there is a great deal of agreement on the Bill’s provisions, at this stage I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
National Insurance Contributions Bill (Programme)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the National Insurance Contributions Bill:
(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.
Proceedings in Public Bill Committee
(2) Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Tuesday 28 October 2014.
(3) The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.
Consideration and Third Reading
(4) Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.
(5) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
(6) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading.
(7) Any other proceedings on the Bill (including any proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments or on any further messages from the Lords) may be programmed.—(Mark Lancaster.)
Question agreed to.
NATIONAL INSURANCE CONTRIBUTIONS BILL (WAYS AND MEANS)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the National Insurance Contributions Bill, it is expedient to authorise:
(1) provision for, and in connection with, the application of Part 4 of the Finance Act 2014 in relation to national insurance contributions;
(2) the payment into the Consolidated Fund of any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable into that Fund under any other Act.—(Mark Lancaster.)
Question agreed to.
Business of the House (10 September)
I beg to move,
That at the sitting on Wednesday 10 September, the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motion in the name of Jesse Norman relating to Select Committee on Governance of the House not later than two hours after their commencement; such Questions shall include the Questions on any Amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved; proceedings may continue, though opposed, after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.
Last Thursday during the business statement, the Leader of the House announced, following representations from and discussions with the Backbench Business Committee, that on Wednesday of this week the House would consider a motion to establish a Select Committee on governance of the House. The motion to establish the Select Committee has been found time additional to that already provided for Back-Bench business. Given the level of interest throughout the House and the importance to the House of resolving its governance arrangements in a timely manner, the Government have brought forward the motion to allow the issue to be considered and resolved after the moment of interruption on Wednesday should that prove necessary.
The House will be aware that the major item of business being taken on Wednesday is the general debate on Ukraine, the middle east, north Africa and security. That is obviously a significant debate, and it is important that the House is given an adequate opportunity to debate those issues. That is why the Government have agreed, on this occasion, to provide Government time for the debate on international issues, in addition to the statements and other debating opportunities that the House has had to consider those issues. I hope the House will agree that this business motion will facilitate the business of the House in a sensible way, and I commend it to the House.
We support the motion to timetable a Back-Bench debate on Wednesday evening on the creation of a Select Committee on governance of the House. The time proposed by the Government will give Members throughout the House a sufficient chance to have their say, and the motion also recognises that we will have spent a significant amount of time on Wednesday debating international matters of crucial importance.
Mr Speaker was right last week to say that it is important that the House move as one on the issue of its governance. That is why we welcome both the chance to have the debate and the motion proposed to the Backbench Business Committee. I do not want to address the content of Wednesday’s debate now, but it is clear that the moment is right to consider splitting the roles of the Clerk and the chief executive, and that the House should have a process for considering that properly and in a timely fashion, so I hope that Members will support today’s motion.
Question put and agreed to.
[Relevant documents: The Eighth Report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 2012-13, on Contamination of Beef Products, HC 946, and the Government response, HC 1085; and the Fifth Report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 2013-14, on Food Contamination, HC 141, and the Government response, HC 707.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered food fraud.
First, I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate on this important and topical issue. I must say that some of us had anticipated that the Government business would take rather longer this afternoon and that this debate would start rather later. I was given the information that we might have the debate this evening rather late last week, and despite the best efforts of my staff to contact right hon. and hon. Members to urge them to make a contribution, the message obviously got out rather late. Perhaps there was not much contentious business to debate today, either. Nevertheless, the debate is topical, coming soon after the Elliott report, which the Government commissioned following the horsemeat scandal of just over a year ago. I should declare my interests related to meat production, which appear in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I first became interested in food crime when I was elected in 2001. We were in the middle of a foot and mouth disease outbreak, and the election had actually been postponed for a month until the first Thursday in June so that the outbreak could be contained and dealt with. Unfortunately, it went on well after the election, particularly in my constituency. Thousands of sheep were slaughtered on the Brecon Beacons in an attempt to control the disease, which did happen. At that time, farmers were concerned about the lack of checks taking place at the ports on meat coming into this country. They were particularly concerned about the seaports through which meat was imported and the airports through which illegal meat was thought to come. I tabled a ten-minute rule Bill to ask the Government to re-examine the checks and balances, and that was what happened.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that the lesson that we have learned about food fraud is that we need spot checks on processors so that they do not know we are coming? We should go to them and find out exactly what sort of meat they are processing so that we can stamp out fraud, rather than carry out general testing all the time, which is expensive.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point, which is made in the Elliott report. Intelligence-led monitoring is also important. Controls on food coming into this country have been tightened at the airports and seaports. Sniffer dogs have been introduced at Heathrow, and I have been there and seen them in action. It was extraordinarily impressive to see dogs being able to find little bits of food that were being brought into the country—not intentionally but because somebody had forgotten they had left a ham sandwich in their suitcase or backpack.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on fighting on this issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) mentioned checks on food processors. Given the amount of food that comes into this country already processed, is my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) satisfied that spot checks and other measures can be undertaken outside the country?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Of course, because we are in the European Union we expect that all food that comes into this country will have been slaughtered, processed or manufactured to a standard that would be acceptable in this country. Food coming in from third world countries is another matter altogether. One issue that I concentrated on when I first became involved with the issue of food fraud was the smuggling of meat into this country from Africa. There were various types of meat, but the most serious were parts of primates, including gorillas, apes and monkeys, which certain ethnic communities in this country particularly value. It was obvious that there was no scrutiny of the safety of these meats or even what they were. There was a real concern that not only animal diseases but human diseases could be brought in by this means. Much of the meat came from west Africa. The problem of Ebola today shows that we might still face a real danger from this problem.
I certainly welcomed the final publication last Thursday of the Elliott review of the integrity and authenticity of the UK food supply. We waited quite a long time for the report, but it was worth the wait because it is a comprehensive and well set-out document. It demonstrates the UK Government’s commitment to improving the integrity and assurance of our food supply networks. Professor Elliott’s report highlights that the UK has one of the safest food supply systems in the world, with a great deal of work being done to ensure that food is safe to eat and free from chemical and microbiological contamination, and all those involved in the supply of food and those responsible for developing and enforcing legislation should be commended for what has been achieved.
More attention and more resources, however, need to be put into food authenticity and combating food fraud and food crime. At the beginning of the horsemeat problem, the important question arose about what was meant by adulteration and what was meant by contamination. As far as I am concerned, contamination is not the deliberate introduction into food of other substances—it happens by mistake or inadvertently—whereas adulteration is the deliberate introduction into food of mostly lower-priced commodities. That issue was certainly at the heart of the horsemeat scandal.
My hon. Friend will remember that I had some involvement in the problems at that time. It was important early on to establish a threshold for contamination/adulteration that made sense. Otherwise, we would have been in the absurd position of testing every piece of meat and finding that it was contaminated simply because somebody in the room might be shedding human DNA or because the meat had been sitting in a butcher’s shop where beef or pork sausages were not in separate airtight compartments. The level of the threshold, it seems to me, was one of the most important early advances we made in understanding the issue and ensuring that we were not attacking the wrong problem.
I commend my hon. Friend for the work he did right at the beginning of the horsemeat scandal. He provided us with greater clarity about what was involved and about the difference between contamination and adulteration. Of course, contamination is not something that should be taken lightly in its own right. Halal meat contaminated by pork, for example, is a very serious matter for the religious beliefs of some of our communities. I do not in any way view contamination as of little interest; it is of great interest, but it must not be confused with the deliberate adulteration of food.
Food fraud is corrosive of consumer confidence, which has ramifications right through the food chain. The horsemeat contamination incident last year is an example of such a damaging effect on the food industry and on consumer trust. After “Horsegate”, a poll showed that only 56% of consumers were confident that the food they bought was what it claimed to be—a rather shocking statistic. This figure is far too high, and it is one of the reasons why it is so important that we are having this debate today.
Small businesses are especially vulnerable to food fraud, and according to the Elliott review, many have said they are struggling to stay in business because they are competing against those who cheat. That goes for farmers, too, as they grow the raw ingredients for the food industry and rely heavily on consumer confidence. It is essential to safeguard this industry.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way a second time. Does he agree that there is huge pressure on the processors to reduce their prices, especially from some unscrupulous retailers? Of course, if we drive the price too low, beef cannot be put in the beefburgers and other things start to get mixed in with them. Although retailers are not directly responsible for what happens, I think they play a rather bad part in the whole saga.
My hon. Friend is completely right that food fraud is price-driven—there is no doubt about that. Food adulteration and fraud are as old as history, as we know from many centuries of experience. The watering down of milk was one such example, but an even more heinous crime is the watering down of beer, which should carry an especially heavy penalty!
Is there watered-down beer in Brecon?
We do not have any examples in Brecon; it is mostly down in south Wales! But the history books are full of examples of this sort of thing.
As I was saying, it essential to safeguard this industry. Food and farming is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, contributing £96 billion to the economy and employing almost 4 million people. It is essential to keep up confidence in the UK, while also protecting the reputation of our food abroad.
Another point inn Elliott’s proposals is the setting up of a cross-Cabinet Committee on food safety and food crime. I fully agree with that recommendation and I am glad that the Government have accepted it.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and thank him for giving way. Particularly in the light of the splitting of the roles and responsibilities of the Food Standards Agency in 2010, was he surprised that some sort of cross-Government or cross-Cabinet regular systematic group was not established to take account of that fact?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point—one that is addressed in the Elliott report and one that the Government have accepted, as I said. I am very pleased that the Government have accepted all the report’s recommendations, so we should pay tribute both to the report and to the Government’s response to it.
Following on from the hon. Gentleman’s point, there was such a cross-Government forum for co-ordination on food at Cabinet level until May 2010. Up to that point, there was also more clarity on the responsibilities for food, as the FSA then had the responsibility for authenticity, testing and policy on compositional labelling of food, as well as on nutrition policy, which subsequently went to the Department of Health.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for generously giving way again. In his interim report, Professor Chris Elliott made it clear that he wanted to see both responsibilities returned directly to the FSA. In his subsequent final report—he has made it clear that it is because of the political difficulty—he has stepped back a little from that, but the suggestion is that he would still like to see this done. What does the hon. Gentleman think about that? Should these responsibilities be returned to the FSA?
If the hon. Gentleman reads the full report by Professor Elliott, he will find that he responds to the concern that the final report took quite a long time to come out. He makes it very clear that none of the recommendations in the final report is the result of any political pressure, but are the result of his committee looking at the issue and coming up with what he believes are the best proposals for protecting food and consumers.
No doubt the Minister will correct me later if I am wrong, but I believe that Professor Chris Elliott said he was loth to include the full recommendation in the interim report—that is, the recommendation that all the responsibility should be returned to the FSA—and made it clear that that was because of the political difficulty of doing so. I make that point purely for the sake of accuracy.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will develop his point further when he makes his own speech, and that the Minister will do so as well.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. As he has already pointed out very eloquently, the Government will be setting up—at a very early date—a cross-departmental Committee, which I think will prevent the same thing from happening again.
On Thursday, the Minister did not have time to respond to an important question that goes to the heart of this issue, namely the question of what is happening in regard to traceability and labelling at European Union level. I hope that we shall be able to stay here all evening and hear about that at first hand from him.
As always, the Chairman of the Select Committee has made a very good point. I listened to what she said on “Farming Today”. Was it on Thursday? I cannot remember. When one is up very early in the morning, the days may not be readily identifiable. Anyway, the hon. Lady made the very good point that the real problem with the horsemeat scandal was that we had never identified the point at which the horsemeat entered the food chain. There have been a number of prosecutions, but they have taken place on a very small scale. Whoever perpetrated this fraud on such a large scale is still out there, and is still, perhaps, waiting for an opportunity to commit either the same or a similar crime.
The real problem is that we do not know where that horsemeat came from. Were the animals slaughtered in a registered slaughterhouse? Were they slaughtered in a farm barn? Was the meat properly looked after? As it turned out, there was not, we understand, a very big threat to public health, but that may have been due more to luck than to judgment.
In order to prevent a Select Committee love-in, may I press my hon. Friend a little further? I think that the key proposal from Professor Elliott is the proposal for a food crime unit, with intervention by the police. However, even a close reading of the Secretary of State’s written statement does not make immediately clear what powers the police will have. Perhaps my hon. Friend has had more time to look into the matter than I have.
I have not, but I was going to mention the establishment of a police crime unit, which I think is essential. This was criminal: laws were broken, and people should face the consequences. I hope that the new unit will ensure that those people are brought to book in future, that they are named and shamed, and that they will not be able to have a role in the food industry again.
I thank my hon. Friend for indulging me a third time. I rather fear that a few small operators may have been singled out for what happened, and that there are some very big guys out there who have never been thoroughly investigated.
That is the point that I was trying to make. There have been a number of arrests, but on a very small scale. Certainly the prime operator in the crime has not been identified and brought to book. It is important for there to be a police involvement, but it is also important for there to be an international police involvement. As the horsemeat scandal demonstrated, the food chains are very long and convoluted, and the people involved often do not actually handle the meat at all. They are traders who buy and sell it without ever knowing its quality or composition. It is therefore essential for an international police view to be maintained.
While we are on the subject of crime, may I ask what my hon. Friend thinks are the ultimate responsibilities of retailers? Are they not ultimately responsible for what they sell? Does my hon. Friend believe that the right controls are in place, and that the penalties are right? My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) mentioned the prices of some of the processed meals involved. Does my hon. Friend not think that the retailers ought to have known that those meals could not have been produced at that price with the proper contents?
My hon. Friend has put his finger on it. As has already been pointed out, price is the driver of food crime, and as Professor Elliott said in his report, if major retailers or processors have a deal that is too good to be true, they should trace it to its source. Both processors and retailers have a real responsibility in that regard. It is no good saying that they have not the facilities or the wherewithal; they have the ultimate responsibility.