House of Commons
Monday 20 October 2014
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Maritime Support Delivery Framework
The maritime support delivery framework contracts are an excellent example of the contribution that the Ministry of Defence makes to sustaining the long-term economic health of the nation's three main naval bases. The contracts total £3.2 billion of spending by the Royal Navy over five years with BAE Systems and Babcock, and will sustain about 7,500 jobs, up to 4,000 of them at Devonport and more than 2,000 at Portsmouth, and about 1,500 at Clyde.
Yes, I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that these contracts are an integral part of the Department’s innovative 10-year forward equipment plan. Not only are they in the plan, but they represent far better value for money for the taxpayer than the previous support arrangements by securing more than £350 million of savings. As my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary said last month, the last Government left a terrible legacy of waste and mismanagement in the form of a £38 billion black hole in defence, which this Government have eliminated through our long-term plan for defence and improving the efficacy of defence procurement.
Will the Minister join me in praising the work done by civilian contractors throughout the country, and, in particular, that done by Babcock at Devonport naval base in helping to repair and manage the Royal Navy’s warships and submarines, which play a key part in protecting our vital national interests?
My hon. Friend is right to welcome the stability that these contracts provide for the communities that support the Royal Navy’s three main operating bases. That includes an investment of nearly £2 billion in support activity at the largest base—the one at Plymouth Devonport, to which he referred and which is near his constituency—until 2020.
As I have told the House during nearly every session of defence questions, securing greater penetration of the MOD’s contracting base by SMEs is an important priority for the Ministry and for me. On Tuesday next week I shall chair the latest SME forum to discuss that very subject.
Strategic Defence and Security Review
The next strategic defence and security review will be conducted next year by my Department, the Cabinet Office, the Foreign Office, the Home Office and others. Until then, our priority remains delivery on the 2010 review, which gave us a balanced and affordable budget and maintained our armed forces’ reputation while modernising force structure and capabilities.
No. The 2010 review rightly identified the need for agile and flexible forces, and set out the numbers. It is too early to prejudge the review that will be conducted next year, but I am sure that the House will want to salute the achievement of our armed forces in so many difficult parts of the world.
Will the Secretary of State ensure that the new SDSR acknowledges that Russia has radically changed the situation, first by creating a war in Europe and secondly by ensuring that NATO is undermined, and will it plan for what appear to be Russian planning assumptions for a major war in 2018-19?
My hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee is right. The 2010 review did not predict the scale of Russian aggression in Ukraine, and the recent NATO summit at Newport reinforced the need for NATO members to maintain the level of their spending and to ensure a properly rapid reaction force that can be an effective deterrent to Russian aggression in future.
The last SDSR made no mention of the high north and the Arctic. Since then, the United Kingdom has never provided any fast jets for northern NATO air policing from Reykjavik, and it rarely provides any naval vessels to take part in northern NATO patrolling. In the last few days, the Ministry of Defence has confirmed that not a single civil servant is working exclusively on this important region. When will the MOD take the northern dimension seriously?
The Secretary of State will be aware of HMS Sultan in my constituency, which is home to the Royal Navy’s school of marine engineering and the first Ministry of Defence training establishment to have received an “outstanding” Ofsted report. Will he confirm that such sites, which are incredibly valuable not only to the MOD but to the local community, will continue to be valued as part of the strategic defence and security review?
I certainly appreciate the valuable and positive benefits that all defence education and training facilities provide to the armed forces. I am not aware of any current plans to alter the establishment my hon. Friend mentions, and I know that she met my hon. Friend the Minister of State last week to discuss it further.
May I start by welcoming the Secretary of State to his place and thanking him for the way in which he has tried to work with me? As I have said, where possible I will try to work constructively with him in the national interest. With our armed forces engaged in a new combat mission against ISIL, intervention in west Africa to prevent the spread of Ebola and support in providing relief to humanitarian crises elsewhere, and with increased NATO commitments in eastern Europe, the next SDSR will be crucial in setting the strategic direction for Britain’s armed forces. How does he intend to ensure that preparations for this SDSR, unlike those for the last one, are well informed, properly scrutinised and not rushed?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s welcome, which I hope the House will extend to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), who, as Minister with responsibility for the reserves, will make his first appearance at the Dispatch Box shortly.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his advice, but I am not sure we need too much advice from a party that failed to carry out a defence review for 12 long years. I assure him that this time, unlike the one for 2010, we will be starting from a much better base, where the defence budget has been brought under control and we have equipment programmes that are properly funded.
I had two questions, so I split them and was going to welcome the reserves Minister when asking this one, but let me welcome him now. I am sure we are all grateful for the Defence Secretary’s response, such as it was, but would it not be much easier if he simply published the 60 questions that, according to his permanent secretary’s evidence to the Defence Committee, are forming the basis for the next SDSR, as that would allow us to judge for ourselves? Some months ago, we wrote to his predecessor, who refused to share them. We then put in a freedom of information request, which has also been denied. In the national interest, and to ensure an open, transparent debate about the future of our country’s defence, will he today commit to publish the 60 questions and to consult this House properly on them ahead of the next SDSR?
Let me make it very clear that the next SDSR is being carried out next year. Work has not begun on it this year. Obviously, a certain amount of preparation, thinking and evidence gathering is going on, but we have not started on the review this year—that awaits next year.
All the reserve forces have worked to simplify their application procedures, including through streamlined online processes and shorter medical forms. We have increased capacity in Army recruitment and selection centres, and more mentoring and support for candidates is being provided by their chosen unit. Early indications of those measures are promising, and Army Reserve enlistments over the summer quarter, traditionally the quarter when enlistments are lowest by far, are running at roughly double the levels of last year.
I welcome my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour to his appointment as reserves Minister. The Gurkhas are a much-valued force within the British Army. Would the MOD be prepared to consider creating a Gurkha company within the reserves, if that would help to boost the number of Gurkhas who seek to join the reserves after their retirement or of their children who seek to do so?
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind welcoming of my unexpected mobilisation. We are indeed looking at ways in which we can get more ex-Gurkhas to join the Army Reserve, but there are legal and practical reasons against establishing a separate Gurkha reserve unit. Given their experience, there are great benefits in ex-Gurkha personnel joining a whole range of Army Reserve units. Gurkhas leaving the Army receive briefs on reserve service as part of their transition support, and we have a programme of using ex-Gurkha reservists to visit Gurkha units to provide case studies of what can be expected.
I am not a defence expert, but I do chair a skills commission, and I know about the market for certain skills. Is not the problem that the whole reserve policy is bound to fail, because these days most people in our country work for small and medium-sized enterprises that do not allow, or have the capacity for, people to serve as reservists?
I hugely respect the hon. Gentleman, but I should tell him that these targets are extremely low compared with either our national history or targets in our English-speaking counterparts. A whole range of larger businesses has come on board, 10 of which have already been over to Downing street for their gold awards. As a special incentive for the employers of SMEs, we are offering £500 a month over and above the other award they can get if someone is mobilised. The various branches of Government, including the civil service, are all on the move. This can and will be done.
We are making use of every possible route. The Federation of Small Businesses is particularly active and helpful on this. The Reserve Forces and Cadets Association and Supporting Britain's Reservists and Employers—SaBRE—which now comes under it, are providing advice to small businesses. A small business connection with just seven employees expressed his concern through a family friend about taking on a reservist. I was able to put him in touch with those organisations and provide reassuring messages. A pack will come out shortly showing how individual MPs can help.
The South Wales valleys have traditionally been a recruitment source for the regulars and the reserves, and long may that continue for those young people who wish to pursue such a career. The valleys are also characterised by a huge proportion of small and medium-sized enterprises. Will the Minister monitor the success of this approach, and has he set targets internally on how he will measure his success with SMEs?
We are looking at the employment market of reservists in a segmented fashion, but we do not have separate targets for separate sectors. We want to make progress in all areas—Government, large businesses, SMEs and self-employed as well as students, who are now a crucial element and of particular interest to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
Troop Deployment: West Africa
The armed forces are making a significant contribution in tackling the grave threat posed by Ebola in Sierra Leone. RFA Argus, which left Falmouth on 17 October, is due to arrive off Freetown by the end of this month. Approximately 750 UK armed forces personnel will be in Sierra Leone by the end of October. Those personnel are supporting the Department for International Development-led effort and will initially run a 12-bed Ebola treatment centre in Kerry Town for international health care workers; deliver up to 700 additional treatment beds; and set up and run a training academy primarily to train health care workers for those additional beds.
Given that Ebola vaccines are unlikely to be ready at scale before April and that in the meantime millions could have been infected, does the Minister agree that these kind of military contributions are absolutely vital? Will this country do whatever is necessary for as long as necessary and encourage other countries to do likewise?
Defence is indeed playing a significant role, supporting the Department for International Development, which leads Her Majesty’s Government’s £125-million mission to support Sierra Leone. The defence contribution to controlling the Ebola outbreak in west Africa—Op Gritrock, as we call it—is well advanced. The contribution is led by 2nd Medical Brigade and 104th Logistic Support Brigade. In scale, this represents the second-largest contribution to fighting the outbreak of any country in the world after the United States.
Britain has been at the forefront of handling the crisis. What steps have the Government been taking to encourage other countries to do as much as us? I am thinking particularly of France, where, in Calais, the authorities have lost control of the security situation, endangering themselves and putting us at risk.
Leaving Calais out of it for a moment, there is a need for the international community to do much more to support the effort against Ebola. That includes a need for an increase in spending, and for more support for international personnel working in the region. We recently held a donors conference in London for our international partners. The Ministry of Defence has engaged widely, securing assistance from Norway, Canada and the United Arab Emirates, among others. We urgently need to upscale the international response. EU Foreign Ministers are meeting today in Brussels to discuss this very issue, and the forthcoming EU Council will be a vital forum for us, if we are to take this work forward with our partners.
The families of personnel deployed to west Africa, although undoubtedly supportive, will naturally be concerned about their family members’ well-being, given the virulence of the disease. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the health of personnel deployed to west Africa is a prime concern for his Department, and that all necessary resources will be made available?
Yes, I can. We take the safety and well-being of our personnel extremely seriously. Anybody, be they military or civilian, deploying to Sierra Leone must meet specified theatre entry standards before being allowed to depart from the UK. That includes a specific Ebola threat brief. I recently visited 22 Field Hospital in Strensall in Yorkshire, and witnessed the staff’s rigorous training, and their professional approach to safety in their preparation. Nevertheless, given the nature of the disease, there will always be some element of risk, so I hope that the whole House will join me in wishing our brave personnel good luck and Godspeed.
We are providing up to 700 beds for the treatment of Ebola-infected patients and, critically, a specialist 12-bed facility to treat health care workers, should any unfortunately become infected. That second element is a magnet, because we must recruit more health care workers to go to Sierra Leone to help fight the disease. I am extremely proud of what our military personnel are doing, and the whole country and the House can be proud of them, too.
Last year, the cost that the RAF incurred in supporting the operation in Mali was picked up by an urgent operational requirement, yet an answer last week showed that the cost to RFA Argus had been met by the Department for International Development. Why the difference?
I welcome the fact that the troops have already left, and Members from across the House will have every good wish for the safety and success of the operation. Will the Minister say how many more troops are expected to travel to Sierra Leone in the coming weeks, how quickly we can get them there, and how quickly, once they are there, they will become operational, bearing in mind any extra training that they may need?
I thank the hon. Lady for her bipartisan support for this vital mission, which the whole House will welcome. As I have already outlined, we will have around 750 troops in theatre by the end of this month. We will continue to keep the situation under review, and if further resources are required, we will of course consider that, but I reiterate to the House that we already make the second-largest commitment to the area, and we need to get our international partners to do more. We are doing our bit; we must get our international partners to do theirs.
The NATO summit in Wales reached important conclusions on NATO’s response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, on the 2% of GDP guideline for defence spending, on the reform of NATO, on countering Islamist extremism, on the future of Afghanistan, and on supporting our military and their families, all of which were United Kingdom priorities.
We continue to address this issue through sanctions and through the political work of the European Union. NATO is implementing the decisions taken at Newport, which will see NATO’s responsiveness increase significantly. We have offered four Typhoon aircraft for next year as part of the ongoing policing mission, and the deployment of 3,500 troops as part of NATO exercise activity this year and next. We have also offered a battlegroup and a brigade headquarters as part of the new very high readiness joint taskforce.
My right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have been in discussion with our allies about the role that the Turkish Government could play in the middle east. For the Turkish Government, as the hon. Lady will know, it is an extremely complicated situation, but it is important that all the neighbours of Iraq and Syria contribute to the effort to prevent Iraq from falling apart and Syria from falling into further bloodshed.
President Putin’s activities in eastern Ukraine have been largely covert and deniable. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if President Putin tried similar tactics in any of the three Baltic states, that would constitute a breach of article 5 of the NATO treaty? If my right hon. Friend does not agree with me on that, would that not fundamentally undermine the credibility of NATO?
I do agree with my hon. Friend—the Baltic states are members of NATO and fully entitled to the protection that NATO members afford to each other. It is also important that where we confront such ambiguous warfare, NATO is unambiguous in its response to it and labels an annexation as an annexation and the invasion of Ukraine as an invasion.
The NATO summit announcement on the development of the new Scout armoured vehicle was a good thing. It will help our troops in battle and boost employment at General Dynamics in south Wales and down the supply chain, but can the Minister update us on the possibility of more British jobs on this project, particularly in south Wales?
Yes, there are jobs involved in the supply chain for that contract, including high-value jobs in design and engineering, which will be in Wales, and in the manufacture of the turrets, which will be elsewhere in England. Other parts of the armoured vehicle are being manufactured in Scotland, so the United Kingdom stands to benefit overall from this project, which is the largest single order given to the Army in over 30 years.
The UK remains firmly committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. We welcome the ceasefire agreement reached between Ukraine and Russia in Minsk on 5 September and the subsequent agreement on 19 September setting out the modalities for its implementation. The ceasefire agreement is broadly holding, although there have been a number of breaches on both sides. The MOD will continue to build on its long-standing relationship with the Ukrainian MOD. We have increased our defence engagement, providing additional support on crisis management, anti-corruption measures, defence reform and strategic communications.
As my right hon. Friend is aware, Ukrainian forces recently engaged not just with Russian-backed separatists, but with regular Russian army troops and their armour, which invaded their country and inflicted heavy losses upon them. Will he see what more can be done to rebuild Ukraine’s defence capability?
We are clear that there cannot be a simply military solution to this conflict. We have provided military support and additional non-lethal support in line with Ukrainian priorities. Specifically, the Government have already provided non-lethal support to the Ukrainian security forces, including personal protective equipment, and last week the Government announced their intention to deliver more than £800,000-worth of further kit, including body armour, medical kits and winter supplies. Also at the NATO summit the UK committed to leading a new C4—command, control, communications and computers—trust fund. We have pledged over £500,000 to the C4 logistics and standardisation trust fund as well. With contributions from other nations, those trust funds and wider NATO activity will play a significant role in supporting the Ukrainian armed forces.
7. What contribution UK armed forces are making to the international effort against ISIL. (905520)
Britain is making a significant contribution to the international coalition to defeat ISIL: training Kurdish forces and gifting and delivering more than 320 tonnes of weapons, ammunition and other military equipment. Since the vote in this House, the Royal Air Force has flown 37 combat missions, conducting 10 successful strikes, providing valuable intelligence and surveillance, and helping to halt ISIL’s advance.
Yes, the United Kingdom seeks to avoid civilian casualties. All air strikes are conducted under UK rules of engagement, which I have agreed for this campaign in accordance with the law. Close observation, careful selection and approval of targets before a strike, and the use of precision weapons, such as Brimstone and Paveway, minimise collateral damage and the potential for civilian casualties, in stark contrast with ISIL’s complete disregard for human life.
The moderate Syrian opposition continues to fight a two-fronted battle against a brutal dictator on one side and the ISIL extremists on the other. Are the Government actively reassessing their refusal to support these boots on the ground with the weapons that they need?
The decision to authorise military action in Syria is a matter for this House, and we have made it clear that we would return to Parliament for that authority if we wanted to proceed there. We are already considering the assistance that we might be able to give to help to train moderate Syrian forces and Syrian communities in self-defence, and we are looking now with our allies in the region as to how and where that training could be provided.
RAF Waddington is in my constituency of Lincoln, and many personnel, some of whom I know personally, and assets of the RAF used in any international effort against ISIL are based or controlled from there. Will my right hon. Friend therefore give an update on the work to replace the runway, and will the base be fully operational as planned and well in time to see a return of the international air show at Waddington in 2016?
I certainly appreciated my visit to RAF Waddington earlier in the summer. Work on the runway has now begun, and it will be for the review of air shows early next year to decide where they can be supported, but I very much hope that the Waddington air show will be able to return in 2016.
The excellent work of our armed forces is being undermined by the number of British citizens who are travelling to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIL. The numbers are now put at more than 500 from the United Kingdom, and at more than 1,000 throughout the EU. What steps is the right hon. Gentleman taking to work with our partners to try to prevent our respective citizens from travelling abroad to fight?
The right hon. Gentleman will know better than anybody the work that is being done by the Home Secretary and the Home Office in this regard, stepping up the number of checks that can be made and making sure that those here are deterred from making that journey to fight for ISIL, which as a proscribed organisation therefore involves a criminal offence.
I fully understand the need for democratic support expressed by the House for any military action, and furthermore I have no desire whatever to see our deploying troops either in Iraq or in Syria, but may I gently say to my right hon. Friend, while congratulating him on his relatively new position, that it is important in any military campaign not to rule anything out, because that gives away a great deal to our opponents?
I hope that it is clear to the House, as the Prime Minister emphasised during the debate, that ISIL can be defeated only in Syria and in Iraq. With the RAF and our own action in Iraq, we have plenty to do to help to check the advance of ISIL, but ISIL’s personnel, equipment and supply routes lie further back in Syria, and it is important therefore that it is countered there, which is why we welcome and support the US and other coalition air strikes that have taken place in Syria.
Political support for the coalition’s efforts is extremely important, particularly from the countries neighbouring Iraq and Syria, as I have stressed on my visits to the Gulf. Five countries have already participated in air strikes—the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar. It is very important that the action is seen not simply as British, American or western, but as a regional battle against the advance of ISIL.
Typhoon and Hawk Aircraft
This Government are proud to prioritise economic growth, and this Ministry is proud to support the role of responsible defence exports in contributing to the nation’s economic recovery. The Ministry of Defence is supporting export campaigns for Typhoon and Hawk aircraft, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, other ministerial colleagues and I are actively engaged with senior military officers and the UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation in seeking to broaden and deepen the family of user nations among our allies and partners.
The Minister might be aware that there have recently been announced new job losses in management positions at BAE Systems in Warton in my constituency. Given that the Typhoon is playing such an important role in our defence exports, what progress are the Government making with Typhoons for the Malaysian air force, in the light of Malaysia’s recent election to the UN Security Council?
Clearly, as my hon. Friend knows, given his proximity to the Warton facility, export growth is important for sustaining jobs in Lancashire. The Typhoon is competing vigorously in a number of export campaigns, including the Royal Malaysian air force’s multi-role combat aircraft requirement. The Government are actively supporting the BAE Systems bid to win the competition and the company has discussed various options to meet the needs of the Malaysian Government. I visited Malaysia earlier this year to support those efforts, and today six RAF Typhoon aircraft from 3(F) Squadron are flying in Malaysia as part of Exercise Bersama Lima.
Reserve and Cadet Forces
The Government have committed £30 million over four years to fund a range of community integration projects. That work helps to deliver a network of support for our armed forces community, whether regular, reservist, serving or veteran. Full details and accountability will be provided in the annual report on the covenant.
I am grateful to the Minister for her reply. I recently visited the Hereford and Worcester Army Cadet Force at their base in Tiddesley Wood, and a very impressive bunch they are too. Will she join me in commending the decision of the regional grant committee of the armed forces community covenant partnership to fund a new shooting range for those cadets, which I understand will also be available to local reservists?
I absolutely will not hesitate to commend it and point out that it received a grant of about £70,000. I understand that a further £6,000 has been made available in Worcestershire and Herefordshire for booklets to help ensure that all our service families and personnel know about the services available to them. That is another good example of some great work being done under this Government.
Will the Minister look again at proposals to charge schools to use the combined cadet force? Llanwern high school in my constituency is one of only three state schools in Wales that has a CCF. I know how much the pupils value it and how much they get out of the experience, but state schools will find it impossible to make the financial contribution when they are contributing in other hidden ways.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. It is important to understand that that is part of expanding our CCFs into all state schools. In fact, we have made great progress on that and anticipate that 100 new CCFs will be ready in September next year. However, it is a consultation and I know that there are concerns. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments and we will listen to everything that is said.
Type 26 Frigates
The Type 26 global combat ship is the next major investment for the Royal Navy, following the new destroyers, the new aircraft carriers and, more recently, the offshore patrol vessels. The programme is still in its assessment phase. We want to learn the lessons from previous multi-billion pound contracts to ensure proper value for the Navy and the taxpayer, so we are currently working with BAE Systems to gain greater granularity for the programme, for example in relation to detailed ship design, the supply chain and the contracting structure.
I welcome the Minister’s confirmation of an imminent decision on the Type 26 frigates. In an uncertain world, I believe that they have an important contribution to make on the high seas. Does he agree that Type 26 frigates named after cities would reinforce the Royal Navy’s community links? Should those on the ship naming committee recognise that, does he believe that they will weigh carefully the 360-year history with the city of Gloucester through the 11 previous Fighting Gs?
As for every new class of Royal Navy warship, the naming of the Type 26 frigates will follow a theme. My hon. Friend will not be surprised to know that he is not alone in seeking to advance the cause of UK cities. He is also not the first to make such strong representations in favour of Gloucester, the city he so forcefully represents. I will ask the Ships’ Names and Badges Committee to note his interest in attempting to revive the name HMS Gloucester, given its impressive heritage.
The Minister said that we will learn lessons from previous programmes. Can he assure me that the mistakes of the Type 45, which set out wishing to be an international project with a big export market, but ended up as a magnificent but very expensive ship, will not be repeated? Will the Type 26 be kept affordable in the global market?
This is part of the rigorous work that we are doing at the moment to ensure that the Type 26 design is modular to allow for regular upgrading as systems improvements take place over the decades to come. As my hon. Friend knows from his work in the Ministry of Defence, we have had a number of engagements with other international navies to see whether they might be interested. While it is likely that the interest will be more in systems than in platforms, we are taking that work forward continuously.
The Ministry of Defence conducts a wide range of activities, many of them inherently dangerous, and faces many legal claims arising from them. It is an absolute priority that when we accept liability, we get on and settle the case, and, equally, that when we resist it, we do so with vigour.
Does the Minister agree that human rights reform should include curtailing the jurisdiction of the Strasbourg Court, which, by expanding in unprecedented ways human rights on to the battlefield, where international humanitarian law already applies, has created legal confusion and operational distractions, and diverted precious public money away from investment in our troops?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is completely lost on me as to why the European Court of Human Rights should be involved, when, as he says, there is already international humanitarian law and, of course, the Geneva convention, both of which are tried and tested. That is how we make sure that things are done properly; we do not need the ECHR in this respect at all.
On the subject of legal claims, I am sure that the Minister has seen the Royal British Legion’s 2015 manifesto, which brings to light a breach of the principles of the armed forces covenant whereby veterans who contracted mesothelioma as a result of their service before 1987 are unable to sue the MOD and instead apply for 100% war disablement pension. That means a difference of over £100,000 less in the possible total payments to those veterans compared with their civilian counterparts, because the newly established compensation scheme for civilians pays a lump sum, whereas the war pension scheme does not. Will she review this matter urgently to avoid unnecessary legal action and to ensure that the principles of the covenant are being applied across Government?
I do not need to review it urgently because the review is under way. Indeed, I have had a meeting with my officials in the past few weeks, so I am very much alive to the issues. The situation is a bit more complicated than the hon. Lady has explained it, because further complications are involved. However, I hope to be in a position to be able to explain the conclusions that we hope to come to very swiftly.
Graves are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission predominantly for Commonwealth armed forces personnel who lost their lives in the first and second world wars. Since January 1948, all service personnel who die in military service and receive what we call a service-funded funeral are entitled to have their grave marked with a military pattern memorial regardless of the circumstances of the individual’s death. If their next of kin chooses to mark their grave with a military pattern headstone, my Department will offer to maintain that headstone and grave at public expense. Families are free to choose to mark the grave with a private memorial. In those cases, the MOD does not maintain the grave.
I am very grateful to the Minister for that helpful answer. A constituent came to see me recently to tell me that her son, who served in the armed forces and was killed in a terrorist attack, could not have his grave tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission because he was not killed in active service. Could the Minister confirm whether that is right or not, whether there should be such a distinction and whether anything can be done to help my constituent?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that question and I know that he wrote to the Ministry of Defence only last week; in fact, I saw the letter this morning. I am more than happy to meet him to discuss the matter, because I think it may not be quite as simple as it appears at first blush. I am sure we can find a way of resolving it and am happy to meet both him and, of course, his constituent.
First, may I declare an interest as a Commonwealth War Graves Commissioner? The question that has just been asked relates to the confusion between MOD graves and Commonwealth war graves. Is the Minister aware that the MOD maintains large numbers of non-commissioned headstones in Germany? Will she have a look at what plans are in place to maintain those graves post-2014, after the British Army withdraws from Germany?
The anomaly is not acceptable, because post-1945 war graves have not been maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I would suggest that this is in breach of the armed forces covenant. If there is a will, there is a way. The CWGC should be allowed to take over and maintain those graves of military personnel who have died since 1945.
The United Kingdom can be proud of its achievements in Afghanistan. The terrorist threat from the region has substantially reduced. We have helped to build the Afghan national security forces, which are now 330,000-strong and lead on providing security. The United Kingdom remains committed to supporting the new Afghan Government and the Afghan forces as part of the new NATO mission after 2014.
As a new Defence Secretary—I congratulate him on his appointment—my right hon. Friend may not be aware of my view that strategic bases are necessary if the hard-fought gains in Afghanistan are not to unravel. Given that we ourselves are not going to provide such a strategic base, what news does he have of whether the Americans will do so, given the recent welcome sign of an agreement between them and the Afghan Government?
I was, in fact, aware of my hon. Friend’s views, which he always articulates so forcefully. The international community has reaffirmed its commitment to Afghanistan at the NATO summit. On current plans, the resolute support mission will have approximately 12,000 personnel. It plans to operate one hub in Kabul/Bagram and four spokes to that hub in Mazar-e Sharif, Herat, Kandahar and Jalalabad. We, of course, have made our commitment to assisting with liaison, support and training at the officer academy.
18. What progress his Department has made in upgrading helicopter fleets across the armed forces. (905534)
This has so far been a stand-out year in rolling out more than £11 billion of our investment programme in helicopter capability. During this year alone we have already achieved, within time and budget, initial operating capability for the Merlin Mk 2, which we brought in four months ahead of schedule, and the Army Wildcat. We also expect that initial operating milestone for the Puma Mk 2 and the Navy Wildcat next year. We have also achieved the in-service date for the Chinook Mk 6 and taken delivery of six of the 14 new helicopters.
I thank the Minister for that response. He will be aware of the importance of Middle Wallop, the Army Air Corps and the school of Army aviation. Given that the training for the Army Wildcat is conducted at Yeovilton, what reassurance can the Minister give on the future of Middle Wallop in Army 2020?
Middle Wallop, as my hon. Friend has just told the House, is the home of the Army Air Corps school of Army aviation. It will continue to play an important part in preparing our helicopter crews of the future, including the Apache conversion to type training for Army pilots and ground crew.
My immediate priorities remain our current operations in Afghanistan and against ISIL and Ebola, as well as the commitments reached at the NATO summit and the delivery of Future Force 2020 by building up our reserve forces and investing in the equipment that our armed forces need to keep Britain safe.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Red Arrows on their 50th display season this year? Will he give an assurance that the future of the Red Arrows is secure under a future Conservative Government? The shadow Secretary of State was unable to give such an assurance for a future Labour Government.
The reported bonus package allowable under new Treasury rules for the new chief executive officer of Defence Equipment and Support would certainly embarrass a banker. In the interests of openness and accuracy, will the Minister confirm exactly how many freedoms and flexibilities there will be? Importantly, have the proposed managed service providers been told about them, and if so, please will he make them available to Members of the House and the shadow defence team?
The hon. Lady is referring to the recent advertisement for the new chief executive of DE&S. I think that she and the whole House will agree that for one of the largest procurement programmes in Government—£14.5 billion a year out of a £164 billion programme—we need to get the best person for the job, who needs to be adequately rewarded. I will leave it at that, because the recruitment process is in progress. As far as the MSPs are concerned, the freedom allows us to recruit 25 people within DE&S at in excess of the Prime Minister’s salary.
T2. To return to cadet forces, the excellent Sandbach school in my constituency has run a popular combined cadet force since 1948. The head teacher, Sarah Burns, has told me that the leadership and life skills it develops are particularly positive for the most disadvantaged pupils who attend. It is a vital part of community life, but proposed funding changes threaten its future. May I add my voice to those urging the Minister to review these plans? (905504)
I thank my hon. Friend not just for her question, but for her letter. I have seen letters from various schools in her constituency, and I note that a large number of them are state schools with existing CCFs. It would not be our plan at all to threaten any existing CCF, and we will do everything we can to ensure that that does not happen. However, we have to look at a good funding solution for our expansion programme, which is exactly—with a new Secretary of State—why we have consulted on it.
I can give the hon. Gentleman a little extra detail, but I may not satisfy him completely. The contract values by location are £1.98 billion at Devonport, £600 million at Portsmouth and £632 million at the Clyde, which breaks down to £2.6 billion for Babcock and £600 million for BAE Systems. Of course, both those companies are intimately engaged in the defence apprenticeship programme.
T3. In May, I joined North West Leicestershire district council in signing up to the armed forces community covenant. Will the Minister update the House on how many councils have now signed up to the covenant, and what assessment her Department has made of the resulting benefits to members of the armed forces and their families? (905505)
I am pleased to say that all local authorities have now signed up to the covenant. We must now make sure that everybody delivers on it. If I may say so, it is beholden on councillors and, indeed, MPs to make sure that we now see real delivery at local level and put the covenant into practice so that none of our service personnel and their families, or indeed our veterans, suffers any disadvantage because of their service.
T5. I listened with interest to the Minister’s responses to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) about Ebola. I welcome his commitment to providing further resources, if they are needed. Given how quickly the situation can change with Ebola, how frequently will he review the need for more personnel? Has he considered training more people to deal with Ebola before they go into the field? (905507)
As I hope I made plain to the House, we have taken extreme care to train all the people who will be deployed to Sierra Leone to take on this difficult disease. It is important to remember that we are doing that not in isolation, but with international partners. For instance, the United States is leading in Liberia and France is leading in Guinea. We need to get more international partners to join the fight to beat this disease.
The Minister for the Armed Forces will know that, with the support of the North Staffordshire chamber of commerce, I had arranged to visit the west Mercian Regiment in Fallingbostel in the spirit of the armed forces covenant. Unfortunately, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority did not approve the designated journey. Given that IPSA, after representations from various people, has reconsidered its policy, does the Minister agree that it is of the greatest urgency that it should issue revised guidance on the scope for proper visits?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her doggedness. As she will recall, we have had exchanges on this matter before. She has persuaded IPSA to change its mind, which does not happen every day of the week. We congratulate her and are considering erecting a small statue to her in Parliament square.
T6. I welcome the deal that the Secretary of State signed last week in Gibraltar. Does he agree that it shows that the UK’s commitment to Gibraltar is as strong as ever? (905508)
Yes. The agreement that I signed last week with the Chief Minister, whom we welcome to London today, is for the resurfacing of the runway, a transfer of surplus land for the benefit of the Gibraltar economy and the fuller incorporation of the Royal Gibraltar Regiment, all of which demonstrates our long-term commitment to Gibraltar and should leave nobody in any doubt as to the strength of British sovereignty there.
Given their localism rhetoric, why have the Government ignored their published guidance on the disposing of assets at market value to public authorities that express an interest in acquiring them in the case of Kirton in Lindsey air base?
I am delighted to confirm our decision to deploy the second carrier within the Royal Navy. It will ensure that we have one carrier available 100% of the time, either at sea or at very high readiness. The carriers will give us unprecedented flexibility over the next 50 years to deploy our power globally to assist in joint strike fighter operations, peacekeeping, conflict prevention missions and the provision of aid and assistance in times of humanitarian crisis.
The hon. Gentleman is a doughty champion and I pay credit to him for his work in helping BAE Systems to conclude its contract with the Indian Government. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is due to visit India between now and Christmas. We are in active discussions in support of the US efforts—the contract is being placed through BAE Systems Inc.—to secure the order.
I can tell my hon. Friend that 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment is already training the Kurdish peshmerga in how safely to maintain, operate and use British-gifted heavy machine guns. We have run one course and a second course is under way. We are working on additional courses in specialist skills. We will, of course, authorise further commitments to train Iraqi or Kurdish troops, if it is consistent with the strategy to defeat ISIL on the ground and consistent with the support of our coalition allies.
I welcome Thursday’s statement from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), about the submarine dismantling project. Will the Minister confirm that as far as he is concerned we are still on course for early dismantling, and will he meet me before the end of the year to discuss further the future of Rosyth?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support for the consultation, which will take some time. We are arranging consultation exercises in public in each location proposed on the shortlist—of which his constituency is one—and I would be happy to meet him before Christmas as part of those efforts.
The only way that we will militarily defeat ISIL is to face it in battle on the ground. Will my right hon. Friend say which of our allies and friends in the middle east have committed themselves to providing forces such as infantry to close with the enemy and deal with them?
It is our view that the advance of ISIL can only be dealt with, and that it can only be driven back to the border by, a home army of Iraqi and Kurdish forces that other countries are ready, able and willing to support, help to train, and provide with arms and ammunition. We have made it clear that neither ourselves nor the Americans will deploy our combat troops on the ground.
Around 37 combat missions have been undertaken by the Royal Air Force since Parliament gave that authority, and a further mission is being conducted today. Success is measured not simply by the number of airstrikes, but also by the intelligence gathered and the surveillance in support of ground forces. That has already had some success in pushing ISIL back to the civilian areas.
My hon. Friend is aware that the Ministry is considering a number of options to sustain the attack helicopter capability. We have not yet made a final decision on procurement strategy, but we expect to do so soon. Our existing fleet is due to remain in service until 2025, and in January this year we announced a £500 million package of support to keep the aircraft flying until 2019.
When awarding defence procurement contracts, large or small, what levers do Ministers have to ensure that supply chain economic multipliers are maximised, particularly in areas such as south Wales that give so much in other ways to our armed forces?
As my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary told the House in answer to an earlier question, the contract to award the Scout armoured vehicle is the largest single contract that has been placed under this Government since 2010, or to the British Army for 30 years. The Ministry’s job is to get the best deal with the prime contractor, and it is down to the prime contractor to secure the best supply chain.
There is an unsatisfactory anomaly whereby war widows can keep their pensions if they remarried before 1973 or after 2005, but not in between. That is an unhappy and unsatisfactory anomaly for war widows, so will the Secretary of State or the Minister look at it?
We have a new Secretary of State, and he, I, and other Ministers, continue to consider that issue. Notwithstanding how much sympathy—perhaps that is not the right word—but support we might have for the argument made, there is a real legal problem and difficulty with retrospection, and that also occupies our minds when deciding what to do.
I was with the Royal Wessex Yeomanry on Saturday, and in the gentlest possible way may I remind my hon. Friend—of whom I am extremely fond—that he promised me a short written brief on the subject? I look forward to discussing that with him and seeing what can be done.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance. The Backbench Business Committee has had to move its meetings to 1 o’clock on a Tuesday, which means that a lot of Members who want to come to the Backbench Business Committee cannot now be present for some of the opening speeches in a debate. Is there something Members can do to ensure that, if they come to the Backbench Business Committee, they are not disadvantaged in participating in those debates?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. The Chair, collectively, always does its best to accommodate colleagues who have disparate and sometimes conflicting commitments in different parts of the House. One has to tread very carefully on these matters because although the centrality of the hon. Lady’s Committee to the affairs of the House is well understood and appreciated, there are many other Committees that also sometimes meet when the House is sitting. Therefore, if the argument is that people are in front of that Committee and cannot also be in the Chamber and might miss out, that would apply to a miscellany of different Committees, so it is something on which I would like to reflect carefully. Suffice it to say, whether there is a formal ruling made on the matter or not, the Chair always does its best to ensure that people are not disadvantaged.
Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill
Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee
When this Act applies
I beg to move amendment 1, page 1, line 4, at end insert—
“( ) Nothing in this Act confers on any person immunity from civil liability, nor does it change the relevant standard of care in negligence or breach of statutory duty”.
With all due respect to you, Mr Speaker, and to the House, I do not think the House will dignify the Bill with much by way of a debate. It has been comprehensively trashed even by its supporters. I think that of 24 witnesses originally asked by the Government to give evidence in Committee, only five turned up. Most of those, even if they supported the principle of the Bill, said how poorly it was drafted. Even the Forum of Insurance Lawyers, which represents the interests of defendants and insurers in whose interests the Bill is drafted, did not have a kind word to say about it. It was buried on Second Reading by the shadow Lord Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) and, not least, by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier). It was dug up and reburied in Committee, and there are only so many times that its corpse can be paraded around Parliament. Indeed, the only thing the hon. and learned Member for Harborough was wrong about was to say that when the Bill becomes an Act it
“will be the subject of derision and confusion”.—[Official Report, 21 July 2014; Vol. 584, c. 1204.]
It is already the subject of derision and confusion.
Amendment 1, and the other amendments we have tabled, reiterates some of what was put forward in Committee. I make no apology for that. We are simply trying to get an answer from the Minister on the points on which he was either vague or contradictory, and, in the last chance before the Bill leaves this House, to see what exact purpose lies behind it.
Amendment 1 states:
“Nothing in this Act confers on any person immunity from civil liability, nor does it change the relevant standard of care in negligence or breach of statutory duty.”
It might seem surprising to need a clarification of that order, but that is exactly what is necessary because the Government have not been clear from day one on whether the Bill seeks to change the law or not. In the pre-publicity, if one can put it that way, the Lord Chancellor said:
“It does not rewrite the law in detail or take away discretion from the courts, but it sends a signal to our judges and a signal to those thinking about trying it on”.—[Official Report, 21 July 2014; Vol. 584, c. 1187.]
Whether the proper purpose of legislation is to send a signal to those thinking about trying it on, I leave it to other Members to comment on.
I know that my hon. Friend is a very good forensic lawyer. I have the same dilemma as he does: it is hard to be in favour of the Bill, but it is hard to be against it. Where does it come from and what was its purpose? Using his forensic skills, can he tell us who was behind its inclusion in the Queen’s Speech?
As I would expect, my hon. Friend asks a very good question. It comes from the media grid in the Ministry of Justice. There was a vacant slot in The Mail on Sunday and something had to be pushed forward for the weekend. I see the Minister was in charge of spin this weekend. He has obviously been promoted to Lord Chancellor. Not only can the Lord Chancellor not be bothered to come to the House any more, but he cannot even be bothered to do The Mail on Sunday. How extraordinary! However, I admired the Minister’s performance over the weekend, particularly dealing with questions about whether he had been the subject of abuse himself. I was glad he was surprised by the question. Someone as emollient as him would never be the subject of abuse by his constituents or anybody else’s.
My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) makes the crucial point. What is the purpose of the Bill, other than as a piece of spin? If we say, “The Bill promotes volunteering and encourages people to intervene where they can be of assistance”, who would not be against sin in that way? But of course that is not the whole purpose, and when we come to the second set of amendments, I will explain that there is an insidious part of the Bill, in clause 3.
Returning to amendment 1, will the Minister clarify—he has tried several times already in Committee—whether the Bill changes the law? This is a key point. After some consideration and umming and ahhing, he said that clause 3, unlike clauses 2 and 4, would change the law. He said:
“We consider that clause 3 represents a change in that it ensures that the court takes into account a defendant’s general approach towards protecting the safety and interests of others when carrying out an activity. It is the general issue that is relevant there.”––[Official Report, Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Public Bill Committee, 9 September 2014; c. 75.]
I cannot see how that is any different from what is in clauses 2 and 4, which he concedes do not change the law.
It might help the House if I quote from the House of Common research paper:
“The Bill would not change the existing overarching legal framework, or leave victims without protection, and the courts would still be able to find that a person had been negligent or in breach of a statutory duty in relevant circumstances.”
Why are we here? What is this about? What is the point of the Bill?
Indeed. In responding to this amendment in Committee, in flat contradiction to what I have just quoted, the Minister said:
“Nothing in the Bill suggests that it gives immunity from civil liability. It also does not change the standard of care that is generally applicable… The Bill simply requires the court to have regard to certain factors in deciding what steps should have been taken to meet that standard of care in a particular case.” —[Official Report, Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Public Bill Committee, 9 September 2014; c. 63.]
As was pointed out ad nauseam to the Minister, the doctrine of negligence in common law has been developed not over years but over centuries. Furthermore, there is already guidance in legislation—the Compensation Act 2006 being the obvious example—insofar as it is needed, but generally the courts do not need guidance in considering all the relevant factors. As I said, however, when we come to clause 3, we will perhaps see what the Government’s ulterior motive is.
I do not wish to labour the point; I simply wish to have an answer from the Minister. Will the Bill—clause 3 or any other part—make any difference to how the law of negligence works in the courts? If so, will he indicate how and explain the motivation? If it does not, what is the purpose of the Bill? I await his response.
The introductory comments by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) are typical of his form. When he was talking about my interviews yesterday in the media about abuse, I thought for a moment that he might be referring to some abuse that he had hurled at me during a debate, but he did not go that far.
I appreciate that the purpose of amendment 1 is to clarify that the Bill does not confer immunity from civil liability on any individual or change the standard of care that is relevant in claims involving negligence or breach of statutory duty. I explained to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues in Committee why I thought such an amendment was not needed, but I am happy to explain our position on this again. As for whether the law has been changed, I will deal with that substantially when we debate clause 3, which is in the second group of amendments for this debate on Report.
There is absolutely nothing in the Bill that suggests it will give immunity from civil liability to anyone. Even if a defendant had been acting for the benefit of society, intervening in an emergency or acting responsibly during an activity when he injured somebody, he could still be found negligent or in breach of a statutory duty if the court considered that he did not meet the required standard of care. The Bill is not designed to encourage people to take unnecessary risks with people’s safety, nor does it remove the court’s ability to do justice in an individual case.
Does the Minister accept that if first aid was made part of the national curriculum, there would be a whole generation of young people coming through who knew what to do in a road crash, for example? The first rule for those going to assist in a road crash is to ensure that they and others are not put at risk; in other words, they have to safeguard the patient or patients. Does the Minister accept that if first aid was taught as part of the national curriculum, everybody would know that?
It is eminently sensible that everyone should have some education in first aid, but as far as the rule is concerned, I will deal with substantive matters of that sort in the next group of amendments. What I will say now, in a general way, is that there is a change, but there is also a message that the Bill sends out, which I will deal with in due course.
The hon. Gentleman and I have known each other a long time. We are good friends and I have a high regard for him, but for the minority of us present who were not on the Committee, will he give a pithy explanation of the guts of the Bill? What does he think is really at its heart? He would probably go to the barricades for the Bill; and if so, why?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we are good friends—I hope his Whips will not hold that against him. He made his contribution on Second Reading and he has certainly made his presence felt in this debate, if not in Committee. The Bill outlines a general responsibility, which must be taken into account by the courts. It sends a powerful message to the courts: when somebody is doing the right thing, the courts must take that into account. As for the decision itself, that will be made by the court, given all the circumstances of the case. That will be fact-specific, but the Bill will tell the court that it must take into account those factors.
I will give way, but I want to answer the question that was put to me. The Compensation Act 2006 has been referred to; indeed, the shadow Chancellor specifically asked on Second Reading what the difference was between this Bill and that Act. There is a very important distinction, which is that the Compensation Act says that the court “may” take into account certain factors; this Bill says that the court “must” take into account certain factors. We do not have to be lawyers to appreciate that there is a fundamental difference between the two.
The other thing that this Bill does is send a powerful message to the members of the public that if they do the right thing, the court will take that into account and they should not be inhibited from doing the right thing in any heroic acts, social activities or whatever.
Order. The Minister is a legendarily diligent and conscientious fellow and among the most courteous of Members. He was on the path of virtue. He was led astray by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), albeit with his characteristic charm and insistence; but the Minister should not persist away from the path of virtue even if it is Members with decades of experience who are naughtily seeking to tempt him in that direction. We must now focus on amendment 1, as we are not having a Second Reading debate. Being the sort of dutiful, law-abiding fellow that the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) is, I am sure his intervention will be entirely in order.
I am certainly trying, Mr Speaker.
I am not too familiar with this Bill and I was not a member of the Committee that considered it. One thing strikes me, however. Is not the definition of “self-defence” a factor in the issue? In the past, there have been incidents of people defending themselves yet finding themselves on the wrong side of the law. Is that part of the issue?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I shall do as guided by Mr Speaker, as self-defence is not an issue I am dealing with in connection with this amendment.
The Bill does not change the relevant standard of care that applies when a court is considering whether somebody has been negligent or has breached a relevant statutory duty. The court will continue to look at what an ordinary and reasonable person should have done in all the circumstances of the case. The Bill simply requires the court to have regard to the factors in the Bill before reaching a decision on liability. It does not tell the court what conclusions to draw or prevent a person from being found negligent if the facts of the case warrant it.
As I said in Committee, if in a finely balanced case the court considers the factors in the Bill and decides that this should tip the balance in favour of a defendant who had been acting for the benefit of society, demonstrating a generally responsible approach towards the safety of others during an activity or intervening to help someone in an emergency, we would welcome that outcome. It will be for the courts to decide how much weight to give these factors on a case-by-case basis, but we do not consider that there is any risk of the clause being misinterpreted by the courts as somehow granting individuals immunity from civil liability or changing the standard of care that is generally applicable. In that light, the amendment is unnecessary, and I hope that the hon. Member for Hammersmith will withdraw it.
I shall not press the amendment to the vote; we can continue our discussion in connection with the second group of amendments. Let me tell the Minister, however, that his explanation has continued to go around in ever-decreasing circles. The two points at the heart of the Bill, raised in a number of interventions, are these. First, is the Minister attempting to change the law or not; and, secondly, is he attempting to fetter the discretion of the judiciary? What he said in respect of the distinction he wishes to make between the Compensation Act 2006 and this Bill suggests that he does wish to do that. Section 1 of that Act says “may”, while this Bill says “must”. If the Minister wants to make that distinction, the only explanation must be that he wants to fetter the hands of the judiciary in dealing with these matters, giving rise to the suspicion that it is entirely inappropriate. However, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 3, page 1, line 13, leave out
“or other interests of others”
and insert “of employees or bystanders”.
Amendment 4, page 1, line 13, at end insert
“in relation to the circumstances leading up to the alleged negligence”.
Amendment 5, page 1, line 9, leave out clause 3.
Amendment 6, in clause 4, page 1, line 17, leave out from “danger” to end of line 18.
I will deal briefly at the end with the amendment relating to clause 4. It raises the issue posed by the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) about St John Ambulance and its concerns about the Bill. Amendments 2 to 5 deal with what is effectively the Bill’s only operative clause, clause 3. Again, I make no apology for saying that these amendments were put in Committee.
Amendments 2 to 4 propose ways of improving the drafting of what everyone from the Law Society to legal practitioners and commentators has described as one of the worst-drafted pieces of legislation they have ever seen. Our concern is that clause 3 is drawn very widely. It states:
“The court must have regard to whether the person, in carrying out the activity in the course of which the alleged negligence or breach of statutory duty occurred, demonstrated a generally responsible approach towards protecting the safety or other interests of others.”
That is hedged around with many generalities. What is a “generally responsible approach”? What does the “safety or other interests” of others mean? Our amendment 4 attempts to clarify the clause by adding the words
“in relation to the circumstances leading up to the alleged negligence”.
The Minister was made aware of this point in Committee so I shall not explain it at length, but the purpose of our amendments is to ensure that if material other than that specifically relating to a particular incident is taken into consideration, it should have a direct causal link—through time, location or type—to the incident being complained of. Otherwise, we risk opening up many cans of worms. In relation to an accident at work, for example, the entire conduct of an employer or employee over a long period could be taken into account, as could working practices and conditions, as well as “other interests”, whatever they might be. I suspect that, in trying to keep the ministerial team happy, the parliamentary draftsmen have been scratching their heads and trying to come up with something. Our amendments are meant to be genuinely constructive in trying to improve the drafting of the Bill—if that is possible. But I shall say no more about that.
Amendment 2 proposes leaving out the word “generally”, in the context of the person who might have difficulty showing that they have demonstrated a “generally responsible approach” towards protecting the safety of others. My hon. Friend has rightly focused on the word “generally”. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier) has said that he suspects the Bill will be the subject of derision and confusion if it is enacted as drafted, but is that not already the case?
At best, the word “generally” adds nothing to clause 3. At worst, it could mean that everything including the kitchen sink is thrown into litigation by defendants who are desperate to show that they are not liable for a particular tort. That could lead to additional costs and complexity, red herrings, satellite litigation and who knows what? I hope that the Minister will at least go so far as to say that the drafting of the clause could be improved. Having said that, I do not think its drafting could be improved; it simply needs to go. I therefore hope that he will agree to amendment 5 and sacrifice the clause. He would be losing only one clause out of the five. I am sure the Bill would be just as good with four clauses as with five.
I will not repeat what I have said in previous debates on the Bill, but the Minister has said at some stages that this is an attempt to change the law. In more candid moments elsewhere, he and the Lord Chancellor have indeed suggested that this is an attempt to skew the balance in personal injury litigation, particularly between employers and employees. An article in The Daily Telegraph has described the proposals as sending a
“blunt message to the trade union officials who bring thousands of negligence cases against employers every year”.
I do not know whether the Minister has ever been a member of a trade union or whether he is familiar with their work, but much of the unsung detailed work that they do on behalf of their members is exactly in this area of assisting with litigation against employers in meritorious cases, just as any other solicitor might do. Personal injury cases are not brought for fun or to make a political point. They are brought because there has been an injury and there is substantial evidence of negligence. We fear that the clause is designed to weaken the ability of those who have suffered injury at work—or elsewhere, but I suspect that it is primarily directed at injury at work—to take their cases to court, and that they will either not be able to bring those cases or will not succeed with them, despite their merit.
Will the shadow Minister join me in congratulating all those involved in producing the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year? An estimated 40,000 lives have been saved in the workplace, and there was not a single fatality during the construction of the Olympic stadium.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Act was a landmark piece of legislation—one of those seminal pieces of legislation—and it could not be more different from this Bill. It has made a cultural change, and has indeed been responsible for saving many hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.
I am sure my hon. Friend has noticed that a Labour Government introduced the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. Does he agree that this Bill confuses issues of health and safety with issues of negligence? There does not seem to be any real difference that warrants the definition.
This Government have already been responsible for full-frontal, across-the board assaults on health and safety in the workplace, from the changes in part 2 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 to the changes in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 in relation to strict liability in breach-of-statutory-duty cases. This is just another of those assaults, but I believe that it is an ineffective attempt. I have confidence in our courts, and I am sure that even if the Bill is passed unamended, the judiciary will treat it with the contempt that it deserves. They will consider the matters that are dealt with in the Bill, as they would have anyway, but they will not give those matters undue consideration because of what is in the Bill, and they will continue to find for meritorious claims and against unmeritorious ones. Of course, it remains the case that if an employee is on a frolic of his own—if he is, as the Lord Chancellor would say, trying it on—the courts will find that out, because that is exactly what the trial process is about. The Bill does nothing but add confusion.
If clause 3 is intended to change the law—no doubt the Minister will clarify that—for whose benefit is it intended to change the law? It seems to me that the Government can only be seeking to bring in extraneous factors which will allow a defendant to deflect from or evade responsibility in negligence and breach-of-statutory-duty cases. The cards are stacked very much in favour of the employer in such cases. The employer controls the accident site, and the employer, directly or through his insurer, has the weight of finance and advice. The employee is often restricted, first, by nervousness about suing his employer; secondly, possibly by his injury; and thirdly, possibly by a lack of income as a result of the incident.
Why would a Government wish to set out to hobble a claimant in that respect other than because some blind prejudice causes them to consider all claims by employees against employers to be unmeritorious? The same motivation led to the 80% decline in employment tribunal cases that has followed the introduction of fees, and the Government have shown the same attitude to health and safety generally in their cuts to the Health and Safety Executive, as a result of which inspection regimes are not what they were, despite the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. Unless the Minister either agrees to amendment 5 or can, very persuasively, show us that it would not have any material effect, I suspect that we will press the amendment to a vote.
Let me briefly deal with clause 4, about which a number of issues were raised in Committee. We have not sought to bring those up again, but one or two of the interventions were about the definitions of “heroic act” and “hero”, and about other poor drafting. I will not address those points this afternoon but, given the criticism from Members on both sides of the House, it is worth asking the Minister whether he will consider withdrawing the final words from clause 4:
“without regard to the person’s own safety or other interests.”
St John Ambulance has clearly made the point that that is an irresponsible provision. It does not add anything; all it encourages is reckless behaviour likely to put either the putative hero or others engaged in such action at some risk. It is a loose and careless piece of drafting, and the Minister would do himself credit if he simply withdrew it. The brief that St John Ambulance prepared for us not only made that point clearly, but made the point raised by the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell).
The one thing the person will not think about when he or she sees something that they could help with is any Bill or legislation. They will think, “I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to help this person.” Whatever we legislate on, we have to make sure that someone who really cares is not inhibited from taking such action.
I could not agree more. The hon. Gentleman’s comments undermine the whole purpose of this Bill, which is, supposedly, to exhort the public to do things that they would almost certainly do anyway. I do not think the public need this Bill to be encouraged to volunteer or to be told that they should intervene when situations demand. The practical point, which St John Ambulance makes, is that if there was a much greater emphasis on first aid training and on people being competent to intervene, not only would the outcome of interventions be better, but people would feel more confident about intervening. The evidence shows that the principal reason for non-intervention is that people lack the confidence to know what to do and fear that they may make the situation worse. I do not believe for a moment that people do not intervene because of concerns for their own safety.
Indeed. The Minister must be picking up, if not from this debate, but from the Bill’s previous stages, that at best there is weariness with more soundbite legislation and littering the statute books—[Interruption.] I believe that the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) has the brief within the Justice team to stop unnecessary legislation across government. He has taken his eye off the ball, because he cannot stop unnecessary legislation in his own Department.
The Under-Secretary must appreciate that criticisms are not coming just from Opposition Members. Although I do not expect him at this stage to abandon the Bill in its entirety, although he might as well put it out of its misery, he could at least take on board some of these sensible and constructive points. I appreciate that they are coming from me and so he might not want to do that, but other Members on both sides of the House have made the point about the wording of
“person’s own safety or other interests”
and about the poor drafting of clause 3.
I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman on amendment 6, and I would happily vote with him if he put that to a Division. There is support from Government Members, although I fear that as it is coming from me it may fall on the same deaf ears.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I listen carefully to everything he says and give it exactly the due weight it should be given. I am very tempted by the thought that we might push our numbers up by one, but I hope that the Minister may give way on this measure and by the time it emerges from the other place the Bill will be improved at least to that extent.
Clause 3 is quite a dangerous provision. We have not voted against the Bill as a whole, because the Bill on the whole does nothing. Clause 3 will be ineffective if it is passed, but its intention is malevolent. It is harmful to good industrial relations and harmful to health and safety in the workplace, and it is a piece of prejudice that this Government and this Minister should know better than to pursue.
As the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) said, the issues were debated at length in Committee; indeed, notwithstanding our very thorough debate on the Bill, three sittings were left spare. Given the track record of the Labour Government, the Opposition’s claim that the Bill is unnecessary is extraordinary.
The hon. Members for Hammersmith and for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) have tabled several amendments in relation to clauses 3 and 4. Let me respond first in relation to amendment 5, which would remove clause 3 from the Bill, and explain why it is important for the clause as a whole to be retained. I will then deal with the other amendments.
Clause 3 provides that a court, when considering a claim for negligence or breach of a relevant statutory duty, must have regard to whether the defendant, in carrying out the activity in which the alleged negligence or breach occurred, demonstrated a generally responsible approach towards protecting the safety or other interests of others.
The core aim of the clause is to provide reassurance to ordinary hard-working people who have adopted a generally responsible approach towards the safety or other interests of others during the course of an activity that the courts will always take that into account in the event of something going wrong and their being sued. We also hope that, by showing them that the law is on their side, the clause will give them greater confidence in standing up to opportunistic and speculative claims.
The need for that measure is amply illustrated by the evidence provided to the Committee by, for example, voluntary organisations and the emergency services. The damaging effects of the fear of litigation on people’s willingness to volunteer, and the propensity of some involved in accidents to bring opportunistic and spurious claims, were emphasised.
I am sure that the House will be surprised and indeed appalled by the example given by the Cheshire fire and rescue service, which has been sued by passers-by who have tripped over hoses being unwound by firemen to extinguish a fire. Those rescue workers were clearly acting in an emergency and their priority was to reach anybody who might be inside a burning building—[Interruption.] Opposition Members may smile and laugh, but that case is absolutely true.
The Government believe that it must be right in such cases to require the courts to take into account the general approach of the defendant towards safety during the course of the activity in question.
I do not know the outcome, but the fact that those people took legal action in the first place is the issue. People should not feel that they can try something on. My hon. and learned Friend is a distinguished lawyer and will probably know what the outcome would be. Perhaps he would like to enlighten the House in that regard.
The issue was not what the outcome was, but that Cheshire fire and rescue service was taken to court in the first place. To those who may still have concerns about the possible effects of the clause, I would emphasise that the provisions do not direct the courts to the conclusion they should reach and will not prevent a finding of negligence or breach of statutory duty where that is warranted. I am confident that the courts will continue to take a common-sense approach to these cases, and will exercise the flexibility that the clause gives them, so that in each case they reach a just decision, in the light of all the circumstances.
On points of detail, amendment 2 asks courts to consider whether the defendant was responsible, rather than generally responsible, during an activity, and amendment 4 ask courts to focus on the defendant’s approach to safety
“leading up to the alleged negligence”,
as opposed, for example, to their track record on health and safety matters over a longer period. As I explained when the hon. Member for Hammersmith tabled the amendments in Committee, they are unnecessary. Clause 3 already states that the courts should look at whether the defendant adopted
“a generally responsible approach towards…the safety…of others”
during the activity in which the alleged negligence occurred. That makes it perfectly clear that the Bill is concerned with the approach that the defendant adopted in the course of the events that led to the injury, and not with their actions in other unrelated circumstances, or their health and safety record over a number of years. During the activity in which the incident took place, if the person’s actions were risky or careless, and that caused injury, there is nothing in clause 3 to stop them being found negligent.
What parameters is the Minister setting for courts by including such a woolly, vague and indeterminate word as “generally”? What if someone says, “A week last Tuesday, I behaved really properly, but on this occasion, I behaved like a nutcase”? Which one is it? This is a ridiculous way to go about legislating.
It is not for me or this place to dictate to the courts the decisions that they should come to. It is for us to make the law, and for the courts to take account of all the facts that may apply to that case and come to their decision. That is how the constitution of this country has operated for centuries, and will continue to, as far as we are concerned. The clause says that if a person carries out an activity in a way that demonstrates
“a generally responsible approach towards protecting the safety…of others”,
and, despite their best efforts, something goes wrong and somebody is injured, the court should take full account of the circumstances. That represents a change, in that case law does not currently oblige a court to consider whether a person took a generally responsible approach to safety during the activity in question. I believe that it is a desirable and beneficial change that is both fair and proportionate.
Amendment 3 seeks to limit the effect of the clause to people who have been taking a generally responsible approach to the safety of “employees or bystanders”. The hon. Member for Hammersmith indicated that that was intended to prevent the provision from being interpreted as extending to entirely non-safety-related matters, such as protecting shareholders’ profits.
On a point of clarification, if the Minister is saying that there is a change of law in clause 3 because the “generally responsible approach” is not in case law or statute, is he saying that the provisions in clauses 2 and 4 relating to acting for the benefit of society and acting heroically are in case law or statute?
As I said in Committee, where we debated this at length, clause 3 does make a change, for the reasons that I just gave. The purpose of the Bill is twofold. First and foremost, it directs the court to take into account certain factors that, at present, it has discretion to take into account under the Compensation Act 2006. Secondly, it sends the powerful message to members of the public who otherwise may not act in certain circumstances that the law is on their side.
On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) gave the example of a time when she stepped off a bus and saw someone lying on the ground, and was told by people who were standing by that they were worried that they might be sued, and so did not want to do anything, or words to that effect. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) also gave an example: when he, as a first responder, went to places to give people medical attention, others were standing by, saying that they were afraid of legal consequences and were therefore not taking any risks. The legislation sends out a powerful message to the public that the law will be on their side.
We have deliberately drafted the clause broadly so that it focuses on whether the defendant demonstrated a generally responsible approach towards protecting the safety or other interests of others. This ensures that it will be relevant in a wide range of situations and will enable the courts to take account of all relevant circumstances and apply the provisions as flexibly as possible to achieve a just outcome. The clause is not restricted to personal injury claims and could in principle be applicable in relation to other instances of negligence, such as damage to property or economic loss, where issues of safety may not necessarily be relevant. That is why a broad definition has been used.
Narrowing the clause, as the amendment would, would mean that many bodies such as voluntary organisations, religious groups or social clubs which demonstrate a generally responsible approach towards protecting the safety or other interests of their clients or members would not be able to benefit from its provisions. That cannot be right.
Amendment 6 would remove part of the wording in clause 4 which clarifies what is meant by “acting heroically”. Specifically, it would remove the final words of the clause, which refer to acting
“without regard to the person’s own safety or other interests.”
I am grateful to hon. Members for tabling the amendment, as we have been considering the issue carefully in the light of similar representations made by St John Ambulance and the Fire Brigades Union during the Committee stage. St John Ambulance indicated that the wording conflicted with first aid practice that discourages first aiders from putting themselves at risk, and the Fire Brigades Union warned that the clause more generally might conflict with advice to the public not to intervene.
After giving this matter further thought, we remain of the view that the courts will interpret the words
“without regard to the person’s own safety”
in accordance with our intended meaning—that a person acts heroically by intervening to assist someone in danger, regardless of the fact that doing so might risk his or her own safety. The example I used in Committee was of a person who sees somebody struggling to stay afloat in a fast-moving current. That person might jump in to help on the spur of the moment, without first deliberating whether he might be putting his own life at risk.
I do not have an objection on the same grounds as St John Ambulance or the Fire Brigades Union. My objection to the wording that the amendment deals with is that it contains an unnecessary additional hurdle. The clause does not state “or without regard”. It states “and without regard”, which introduces an unnecessary extra hurdle. Even if somebody acts heroically, they may well still have some regard for their own safety, but they may go on to ignore that. However, to say that they must have had no regard for their own safety renders the clause, in my view, unworkable.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to clarify the point, and I regret that I clearly have not been able to do so thus far. I refer to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) when he spoke of someone acting spontaneously. If somebody were to witness a situation which required their assistance—for example, if somebody was drowning and it was necessary to jump in and save them—and they were able to do so, I am minded to say that that person would not say, “Well, I need to take account of the law here. If I were to jump in, is account going to be taken of whether I considered this dangerous or not?” If somebody is capable of saving that drowning person, they will jump in and save them. The courts will take account of all the facts of the case and I am confident that the present wording is necessary, the courts will take account of everything, and it will not be held against anybody that they may temporarily have considered danger.
I appear to be speaking in a different language. I clearly cannot get through to the Minister so I will try to phrase my objection in a different way. Can he give us an example of something that would not be covered that should be covered if the wording ended after the word “danger”? What scenario that he wants included would not be included if the wording stopped at “danger”?
My hon. Friend will appreciate that hypothetical examples are somewhat redundant, given that I mentioned earlier the independence of the judiciary, and that it is for the courts to decide on the facts of each case. I cannot stand at the Dispatch Box and predict specific circumstances. It is for the court to take account of the specific facts in a specific case.
We do not consider that the clause will be misinterpreted by the courts or the public as somehow excluding people who did in fact have regard to their own safety or other interests, perhaps in the split second before they dived in, but decided to intervene anyway. Nor do we think that it would be interpreted as sending a signal that members of the public should recklessly expose themselves to danger. We think that the wording and intention of the clauses are clear, and, on balance, we do not think that the amendment is necessary. I hope that on the basis of my explanation, the hon. Member for Hammersmith will be persuaded to withdraw the amendment. In the event that he wishes to press amendment 5, which would delete clause 3, I would urge the House to reject it.
You should hold your horses, Mr Speaker.
All of us who have practised as lawyers, and my hon. Friend the Minister is one such, have had to pick up a duff brief from time to time, and I am not entirely sure that it is fair to pin upon my hon. Friend the difficulties in which he finds himself in trying to explain this Bill. I was rude enough about it on Second Reading, and my hon. Friend was gracious enough politely to refer to my concerns. Both he and I were fortunate that I was not on the Committee dealing with the Bill, but it is fortuitous that I happen to be here this afternoon to invite those listening to, or reading the debate in due course, to read into this brief set of remarks—for the second time when I speak, I notice my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State finds it convenient to leave the Chamber, but there we are—what I said on Second Reading, because I do not think anything has been done to the Bill since Second Reading to alter my mind about it. I do not take a trade union view. I do not take a cataclysmic view of the sort expressed by the Opposition spokesman that this is a Bill designed to undermine workers’ rights, or whatever it may be. I just think that it is a particularly silly piece of legislation. If I am to be rude, I might just briefly explain why.
I can understand that clauses 2 to 4 provide the basis upon which the court exercises its consideration in clause 1. So when considering a claim that a person was negligent or in breach of a statutory duty, it can take into account, or, as it says in the Bill, “have regard to” what is set out in clauses 2, 3 and 4. But I am not at all sure, and I wish I was in a position to be convinced by my hon. Friend, that were a court to have regard, as it is required to by the legislation, that it would be in a better position than that of a court dealing with the case now, given the state of the common law and the existing statutory provisions.
Clause 2—I speak generally to the amendments—invites the court to have regard to whether the person, presumably the defendant,
“was acting for the benefit of society or any of its members.”
I would be interested to know whether that is a matter of law or a matter of fact. Sometimes a judge is required to rule as a matter of law that something is or is not in the public interest. Sometimes that decision can be informed by evidence, but by and large it is a matter of law on which the judge is required to make a decision. I appreciate that we are dealing here with judge alone cases; we are not dealing with judges and juries. But the judge will have to separate his or her mind into the fact-finding part of his brain and the law-deciding part of his brain. It is not difficult, but it has to be done. If we are to be clear about what the Bill is meant to do, we need to know whether a benefit of society or any of its members is a matter of law or evidence. Again, how does that really affect the current state of the law?
Clause 3 states that the court must also have regard to
“whether the person, in carrying out the activity in the course of which the negligence or breach of statutory duty took place, demonstrated a generally responsible approach towards protecting the safety or other interests of others.”
We heard a degree of teasing from the Opposition about the “generally responsible approach”, but I am afraid that the issue is a bit too serious for teasing. I want to know—it is not clear—whether evidence of that responsible approach is to be garnered from one’s lifetime as a member of a fire service or ambulance service, or as an individual, a school teacher or whatever it might be, or by and large from the occasion on which the negligence is alleged to have taken place.
I can well understand that there will be such cases. The Cheshire fire service hosepipe case is almost beyond parody—as my hon. Friend the Minister mentioned it, I can assume only that it is a real case—but I cannot believe that it got beyond the issuing of the county court summons or the High Court proceedings before somebody struck it out. That is what the courts do: if they see a vexatious, frivolous or wholly unmeritorious claim, they strike it out. We do not need the might of the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill to deal with that. Again, I ask the Minister whether a “generally responsible approach” is to be decided as a matter of law or a matter of fact.
Should someone—an individual or organisation—who has an otherwise meritorious claim lose out against an otherwise negligent defendant simply because on one occasion they were woefully negligent, despite showing a generally responsible approach for 20 years? Let us imagine that an emergency service dug a trench across a highway in order to lay a pipe or cable to assist with protecting the safety or interests of others. Let us also imagine that on this occasion—the first since it started doing good works—it stupidly forgot to put up lights and warning signs, which meant that I, a member of society, with interests, rode my bicycle into the trench and suffered grievous personal injuries. Because the defendant has generally been responsible, would I be unable to recover damages for my injuries and therefore have to fall upon the state as a welfare beneficiary, or have I misunderstood what the Bill is trying to do? I would really like to know.
Clause 4 states:
“The court must have regard to whether the alleged negligence or breach of statutory duty occurred when the person was acting heroically by intervening in an emergency to assist an individual in danger”.
I make my preliminary point again: is an act of heroism something that is found by the judge as a matter of law, or is it a matter of fact that could change from one set of facts to another? I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) and, it pains me to say so—[Laughter.] No, it does not pain me to agree with my hon. Friend—I do that with relish—but it pains me to agree with our political opponents across the Floor, because I am yet to hear a coherent explanation for the use of the words in the clause
“and without regard to the person’s own safety or other interests.”
I think that my hon. Friend the Minister said it does not make any difference. Well, if that is the case, then do not stick it in. We are making black letter law, and we should not scribble down the first thing that comes into our heads because it makes us all feel better about ourselves.
We all want people to do dangerous things to assist others. As I said on Second Reading, in some respects it is much braver to take into account one’s own safety and yet then to go on and do the rescuing. If I am diving into the river above the weir, I will think that is not a very sensible thing do, but none the less a child is drowning, and so I go in. Does the court have a different answer to the question if I am a barely sentient creature but can none the less see that a child is drowning and therefore go in?
I really do think that the courts will treat this Bill with derision—I used that word on purpose on the previous occasion—unless we are clear, as makers of the law, that we are doing something to improve the situation in an intellectually sustainable and coherent way. I sincerely regret the fact that so far this Bill does not do that, although I think that the motive behind it is entirely positive and laudable. I am used to bits of Bills sending messages and signals—albeit that that is an improper use of legislation—because that is what we do nowadays. We do not think about what is in the legislation; we just think about the flags we are running up the flagpole in order to send a message.
I urge the Minister, between now and the arrival of this Bill—