House of Commons
Wednesday 17 December 2014
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The United Kingdom is leading the international response to the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, from where I have just returned. We have already committed £230 million and delivered over 880 treatment and isolation beds. We have opened three laboratories, and we have doubled the number of burial teams.
I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. The World Health Organisation believes that since February 2014 there have been nearly 18,000 recorded Ebola cases and 6,000 deaths. According to Dr Frieden, the director of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, speed of response is the key to ending epidemics affecting Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. In the light of her visit, will the Secretary of State indicate what further actions can be taken, notwithstanding what has already been done?
Yes, of course. We will continue to deliver the promises we have made such as getting hospitals open and delivering extra beds. A key announcement I made during my visit over the past few days was to provide more protection for the many children affected by the crisis. Many of them are orphaned or themselves suffering from Ebola and needing to recover. There will be lots more support for them. I can assure the hon. Lady that as we are able to scale up the operation, we will reach more and more patients.
I would like to thank, through the Secretary of State, the British personnel who are engaged in tackling the outbreak. Following up the question on the WHO, does she acknowledge that it did not respond quickly enough and that its mechanisms are not really fit for purpose? Will she press for a review of the workings of the WHO so that it can be more efficient in future?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need to learn some lessons from how the WHO and the international community has responded to the crisis. Speed was of the essence, so I think there are lots of lessons to be learned. I had a chance to meet some of the amazing UK personnel working on our behalf, including some fantastic NHS health workers who are out there providing front-line care.
We have a several million pound programme that is focused particularly on so-called social mobilisation. It is about training community workers to go out into communities and talk to people about how they can take practical steps themselves to reduce the risk of catching Ebola. Of course, the work we are doing in putting in place safe burial teams, which are now burying 100% of bodies safely in the main western area zone and 95% across the country, is one of the key ways in which we can stop the infection from spreading further.
The Secretary of State mentioned the toll on children in Africa—the number of Ebola orphans adding to the huge number of AIDS orphans. Will she join me in encouraging people at Christmas time to make a donation through British charities that work especially among the children of Africa?
I certainly would. Two journalists from the Sunday Mirror accompanied me on my visit, and they are running an important campaign with Street Child, which is seeking to raise money to do precisely what my right hon. Friend suggests. We work with that charity, too, and we will continue to do more.
Tax Havens (Multinationals)
2. What estimate she has made of the loss of tax receipts to developing countries by the use of tax havens by multinational companies operating in those countries in the last three years. (906669)
Tax avoidance is a significant challenge for developing countries, which is why the UK has led international action at Lough Erne and, more recently, in the G20 to help tackle the problem through capacity-building projects and through the implementation of international initiatives.
As the hon. Lady will be aware, one of the key objectives of the G8 presidency, which we had last year, was about tax transparency. I am really proud that our Government have led the way in tackling issues such as base erosion and profit shifting. Rules that have been in place since the 1920s need to be updated for today’s modern corporate world. We are making big steps on that and big steps on transparency and beneficial ownership, and we will continue to play our role, leading the international effort to improve the rules so that we can get the tax due in the countries where the work has taken place.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about G20 progress that was instigated by this Government when we held the G8 presidency. I am tempted to make the point that the Labour Government had 13 years in which to take steps in this direction, and entirely failed to do so. We took some important steps during our G8 presidency, and, as he will know, that involved the overseas territories. We are not saying that we have gone all the way down the path, but we are starting to move down it for the first time, and I think that the hon. Gentleman should welcome that. I assure him that we will continue to work to ensure that we bring the rest of the international community with us.
According to analysis by the ONE campaign, $1 trillion is siphoned from developing countries each year as a result of corruption, money laundering and illicit financial flows. What analysis have the United Kingdom Government conducted of the role of UK companies in that activity?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, there are various estimates of how much this kind of activity costs developing countries, which is one of the reasons why we put it on our G8 agenda. I mentioned the work that is being done to reform international rules. My Department is also engaged in significant work to build capacity in developing countries, so that when the progress that we are starting to see becomes international, they will be in a position to take advantage of it. The HMRC capacity building unit, which I helped to set up along with colleagues in HMRC, will work directly with tax revenue authorities such as the one in Pakistan to help them to improve their tax collection. As for corruption, DFID will continue to increase its efforts, through the Met police unit that it funds, to ensure that we can take action if money laundering and the corrupt obtaining of assets are associated with United Kingdom institutions.
May I return the Secretary of State to the issue raised by the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith)? As she will know, the Government of the 14 overseas territories were in London last week, and published action plans last year. The British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands, for instance, have delayed any action in relation to their own action plans for more than 300 days. When will we see any implementation of the commitments that they have made?
As my hon. Friend has said, for the first time overseas territories have signed up to action plans, and the next step is to ensure that they implement them. In fact, a number of countries need to stand by the promises that they made and deliver on them. However, we are delivering on our own promises.
I am sorry, but the Secretary of State can do better than that. We know that tax revenues amounting to three times the entire global aid budget are lost to developing countries every year, and that nearly a third of the estimated $32 trillion of private financial wealth that is held in tax havens comes from those countries. A year ago, the Prime Minister said that there would be a public register of beneficial ownership. That must include the overseas territories and Crown dependencies. By dithering and delaying, whose interests is the Secretary of State protecting?
There was dither and delay for 13 years under the last Government. I do not think we need take any lectures from them, either on the closing of our domestic tax gap—which grew under Labour—or, indeed, on the closing of the international gap. The hon. Gentleman would do better to welcome all the work that this Government have instigated, not least the setting up of the HMRC unit which I mentioned, which is enabling our officials to give invaluable help and advice to tax institutions around the world.
Unfortunately, there is nothing to remember, because so little progress was made. We welcome questions from Labour Members, because they give us a chance to point out that we are not only increasing the amount of funding for developing countries, reaching the 0.7% target, but working with those countries to support their so-called domestic resource mobilisation. We will do more of that work over the coming months and years.
Given that unemployment is at over 40%, nearly 60% of people have no secure access to food and three quarters have no access to safe water, 19,000 people still reside in United Nations Relief and Works Agency shelters, and 100,000 have been rendered homeless, the situation is dire.
Am I right in thinking that in October the Minister at the donor conference said that a return to the status quo in Gaza was not an option? According to the latest Oxfam report, however, the number of truck-loads going in with essential materials to do the rebuilding he talks about is now less after the summer’s conflict than before. Is Israel in breach of UN resolution 1860 on Gaza access, and if so what will the Government do about it?
The Gaza reconstruction mechanism, in which we have invested heavily, had a faltering start and only 46 truck-loads were delivered in October. We are now up to 302 as of the beginning of this month. It is not good enough, and we are working for more, but it is the only game in town.
The situation in Gaza is of course made more dire by the actions of Hamas, which misappropriates hundreds of thousands of tonnes of concrete and uses it to construct 32 terror and murder tunnels. Can the Minister tell me what he is doing to ensure that Hamas does not similarly misappropriate aid that should be going towards ordinary Gazans?
We contributed £500,000 to the implementation of the mechanism, and the Australians have paid for the software, in order to ensure, by agreement with the Israeli Government, the Palestinian Authority and the UN, that no building materials would be misappropriated.
My recollection is that we take this matter very seriously indeed with respect to—sorry, I have misappropriated the question. [Interruption.] I apologise, Mr Speaker
Boko Haram can only be defeated by action by the Nigerian Government on a security front and on a development front and by provision of leadership. We in DFID have doubled our programme of investment in the north-east of Nigeria and are working to that end.
I thank the Minister for that reply. The active targeting of schools by Boko Haram, and also in Peshawar this week, shows that there is no limit to the barbarism and depravity of such extremists. In tackling such extremists it is important that the security forces maintain civilised standards. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the investigations by Amnesty International and can he assure the House that no DFID projects inadvertently or indirectly harm people by lowering the standards of the security forces?
We take that report very seriously indeed. Human rights abuses exacerbate insurgencies. I can give my hon. Friend that assurance that we do not fund or support in any way the security forces that are responsible for those actions. Indeed, our programme of Justice for All—J4A—ensures that all Nigerians can have access to better justice and human rights.
The Nigerian military have made considerable territorial gains in recent weeks. How can we build on that situation to ensure that there are free and proper elections next year?
We have a deepening democracy fund through which we are providing support for those elections next year. With respect to the advance of Government forces, we are providing intelligence and direct tactical training to the Nigerian army. The elections themselves must be a matter for the Nigerians, but we are providing the funding and the technical support.
We heard recently in the all-party group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases, which I chair, of a very important DFID programme to counter severe malaria in northern Nigeria. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that this programme will be continued and that efforts by Boko Haram to stop such development work will not be countenanced?
Of the girls who were abducted in Chibok, 219 remain missing. Since then another 300 have been abducted elsewhere. We are providing a joint intelligence cell, together with our allies in France, the United States and Nigeria, based in Abuja, and all the technical assistance that we can give.
Armed Conflict (Children)
This Government support the work of several UN bodies, including the special representative of the UN Secretary-General for children and armed conflict, and DFID seeks directly to reduce the impact of conflict on children through our humanitarian efforts and work to build stable and peaceful societies.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s answer. She could go further, though, if her Government would commit to the Lucens draft guidelines on the military use of schools, amend our military codes of conduct accordingly, call on other nations to do the same, and issue a clear and unambiguous prohibition against attacks on and military use of schools. Will she commit to that today?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. We take the entire issue extremely seriously. That is why we provide funding for the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General. I am happy to take the points that she has made, which I think reside within the Foreign Office in terms of policy, and get them followed up, and I am happy to meet her on the broader topic because we recognise how importance it is. As she has heard from my answers to other questions, the Department does a huge amount of work supporting children.
It is the most marginalised children, such as those living in conflict-affected areas, who are most at risk of being out of school. Can the Secretary of State tell the House more about the steps that her Department is taking as part of the post-2015 negotiations to push for Governments to ensure that the most marginalised children benefit from the same educational opportunities as their peers?
The hon. Gentleman is right. Whether in terms of children’s prospects of reaching their full potential or the issues of security and stability that investment in education long-term can address, that is a key part of the post-2015 process. I can assure him that we raise these issues strongly in our work to try to make sure that that framework can deliver for everyone on our planet and will leave no one behind.
Small Businesses (Developing Countries)
We are providing support for small and medium-sized enterprises and micro-businesses across our areas of responsibility, because they contribute so much to both employment and economic development.
My right hon. Friend will know that it is hard enough, with some notable exceptions, to get women involved in entrepreneurial activities in this country. What is he doing to encourage women entrepreneurs in developing countries?[Official Report, 18 December 2014, Vol. 589, c. 5-6MC.]
We have provided some 29 million women with access to financial services, and we are supporting the provision of some £26 billion in commercial loans to some 50,000 businesses led by women. Last year at the conference we announced that we would provide support for mentoring for 100 women across north Africa.
It is important that businesses big and small across the world pay their workers a decent wage, yet Conservative MEPs in the European Parliament voted against the global development programme because it included a minimum wage. Is that the policy of the Government as well?
This morning I returned from Sierra Leone, where I saw the latest British treatment centre to open, in Port Loko. As I have said, I announced new protection and support for children affected by the Ebola crisis, working with UNICEF. We are now providing 882 Ebola treatment and safe isolation beds across Sierra Leone, and I am incredibly proud of the work that our health workers, troops, soldiers and humanitarian staff are doing and will continue to do through the Christmas period. Alongside that, on 4 December the UK and Afghanistan co-hosted the London conference on Afghanistan.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the refugee crisis in Syria, involving 10 million refugees, is probably the worst in our lifetime, yet this Government’s programme has taken in only 90 refugees in the past year. Will the Secretary of State look again at engaging with the United Nations programme and getting more of those people out?
I have spoken directly with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees lead, Antonio Guterres, about this. We also have discussions with our Home Office colleagues on the progress of that scheme. Our aim has been to help people to do what they want to do, which is to get support where they are, outside Syria, but also to have the prospect of returning home, which is what the overwhelming majority want to do.
T2. Will the Secretary of State tell us what her Department has done to address the serious and well-documented allegations of bribery and violence committed by SOCO International in the Virunga national park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? (906699)
We are aware of those serious allegations. I expect SOCO, as a British-listed company, to adhere to the highest standards. In June this year, SOCO and the WWF announced that it would complete the existing programme of work at Virunga and then not undertake or commission exploratory or other drilling within the national park unless UNESCO and the Government of the DRC agreed to it. [Interruption.]
The Prime Minister co-chaired the United Nations High Level Panel on sustainable development goals, yet last month Tory MEPs joined forces with UKIP to vote against the sustainable development goals to tackle climate change, tax avoidance and inequality. Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning them for doing that?
The hon. Lady is right to point out that our country and our Prime Minister have played a leading role in helping to shape the debate and to create a successful post-2015 framework that will include a sustainability theme as well as tackling the things that undermine development, such as problems with the rule of law and corruption.
I notice that the Secretary of State failed to condemn her Tory colleagues in the European Parliament for that vote. The typhoon that hit the Philippines nine days ago reminds us of the threat that climate change poses to the world’s poorest people. She is spending £2.4 billion of British taxpayers’ money on helping vulnerable people to adapt to climate change, yet neither she nor any Minister from her Department attended the Lima climate change conference last weekend. Why on earth not?
The hon. Lady will be aware that the Government were represented by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. I should also like to update the House. Since Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines last year, we have done a huge amount of work with the Government there, and that is one of the reasons that they were better prepared to cope with the storm that came in recently. I am proud of the work that our DFID staff have done. [Interruption.]
T3. Following the appalling atrocity in Peshawar yesterday, will my right hon. Friend pledge that any aid that we give to Pakistan will be directed towards improving governance, ending corruption and fighting the root causes of radicalisation in madrassahs and elsewhere? (906700)
I can tell my right hon. Friend that our programme is very much focused on enhancing the stability of Pakistan, and that one of our largest efforts relates to education, which in the long term provides one the best assurances of stability. He will be aware that we work directly with the Pakistan tax revenue authority to ensure that tax that is due can be collected. That is a key way in which we can tackle corruption.
T6. Yesterday’s shocking events in Pakistan illustrate that children are not safe from violence even when they are in school. UNICEF UK has highlighted the fact that a child dies from violence somewhere in the world every five minutes. Will the Secretary of State seek to secure a global target to end violence against children in the new set of sustainable development goals, so that children around the world will no longer fear horrendous acts of violence such as the one we saw yesterday? (906704)
I should also say that I send my deepest sympathies to the victims and their families who have been affected by this terrible tragedy in Pakistan. It is unthinkable that so many children could have been caught up, deliberately, in a terrorist act of this nature. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the work the Government are doing is very much aimed at enhancing the protection of children. Only yesterday, I announced support for orphans and children affected by the Ebola crisis, but it is part of a much bigger policy agenda and investment that we undertake to make sure we support children.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 17 December. (906683)
I am sure the whole House will join me in condemning the outrages that have shocked the world in recent days. The siege of the café in Sydney ended in tragedy but was accompanied by heroism so typical of that great nation, and we all grieve with the Australians today. What happened several thousand miles away in a school in Pakistan is utterly heartbreaking: a massacre of the innocents that has left the world numb. The world stands, head bowed, with Pakistan today. Words can comfort but words cannot defeat the men of violence, so let this be the moment when the whole of Pakistan and every nation come together and say, “Enough. We will act together to defeat this evil in our midst.”
I am sure the whole House will want to join me in sending our warmest Christmas wishes to all our armed forces deployed across the world, in particular, to those in the middle east, Afghanistan and west Africa. We are for ever indebted for the sacrifices they make on our behalf.
May I associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s comments on the evil atrocities that took place in Pakistan and in Australia, and with the best wishes to our armed forces, who may be serving abroad?
Today’s unemployment figures showed that in the last quarter the south-west was the region with the largest increase in employment in the United Kingdom. To continue to realise its full economic potential and to deliver the city deal, does my right hon. Friend agree that Plymouth needs a faster, better and more resilient railway line, as laid out in the south-west rail taskforce’s three-point plan, which was the discussion last week with my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter)?
My hon. Friend has campaigned over and over again for the important improvements in these rail links, and he knows what is being done to help the south-west in that regard. I received a presentation from the taskforce, and we are going to take forward each of the three points in its plan in the work we do in future, to make sure that there is real resilience and that there are better services for people in the south-west. On the issue of unemployment, the figures in the west country are welcome. In his constituency the claimant count has now fallen by 42% since the election. What these figures show nationally is employment up; unemployment down; and the claimant count falling for the 25th consecutive month. What is an important moment for our country is that unemployment is now below 2 million and wages are rising faster than inflation—something I am sure will be welcomed across the House.
I want to join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to those murdered in the appalling massacre in Pakistan. Even as we have become accustomed to tragic events, this slaughter of innocent children in their classrooms has shocked the world. We stand in solidarity with the grieving families and the people of Pakistan, and in the fight against terrorism. I also join the Prime Minister in condemning the sickening terrorist attack in Sydney, and our condolences go to the families of those who died and to the Australian people. I also, like, the Prime Minister, pay tribute this Christmas to all our troops serving around the world; they do our country proud and they show the utmost courage and bravery.
The independent Office for Budget Responsibility, established by the Chancellor to give independent expert advice, claims that his plans take
“total public spending to its lowest share of”—
“in 80 years.”
Why does he believe the OBR has joined the BBC in a conspiracy against the Conservative party?
First, I welcome what the Leader of the Opposition said about the atrocities that have taken place. Can I also welcome his welcome for the Office of Budget Responsibility? We still remember the days of the fiddled forecasts, the fake figures and all that we had to put up with. If he is going to quote the OBR he might want to read the complete quote. Let me do that for the benefit of the House. It says about our spending plans that the closest equivalent of the national accounts implies that by 2019-20 day-to-day spending on public services
“would be at its lowest level since 2002-3 in real terms.”
Now, 2002-03, in my memory, was after five years of a Labour Government, when the right hon. Gentleman was an adviser in the Treasury. Presumably he is now going to tell us that it was a time of appalling poverty and deprivation, but I do not seem to remember that that was the message at the time.
The right hon. Gentleman has spent four years saying that we spent too much; now he is saying that we spent too little. The OBR says—and this is the full quote— that it takes total public spending
“to its lowest share of national income”
in 80 years. Is he really saying that it is wrong about the proportion of national income?
The percentage of national income will be roughly the same as it was in 1999 after two years of Labour government. The fact is, after seven years of economic growth we should have a surplus; we should fix the roof when the sun is shining. Is the Labour leader really saying that he does not think that we should run a surplus ever?
If the right hon. Gentleman is just a little bit patient, in four months’ time he will get to ask the questions and I will get to answer them. He knows what has happened—the mask slipped in the autumn statement. He has been revealed for who he really is. Let us talk about the scale of the cuts to get to the 1930s vision: they are over £50 billion—more than the entire amount that we spend on schools, half of what we spend on the NHS, and significantly more than in this Parliament. Is he really pretending that cuts on this scale will not do massive damage to front-line services?
Of course we have to make difficult decisions. We have done so every day since taking over from the shambles that we inherited. Everyone can now see that the right hon. Gentleman’s pretence, which lasted for about one week, of caring about the deficit is over. This is what the Institute for Fiscal Studies says about his policy, “Under a Labour Government…there would be much more borrowing, and therefore” more “government debt”. Labour has not learned a single thing from the last four years: more borrowing, more debt, more taxes—all the things that got us into this mess in the first place.
The right hon. Gentleman is borrowing £207 billion more than he planned, and he has broken his promise. The difference is that we will cut the deficit every year—he wants to go back to the 1930s. If that was not bad enough, he has £7 billion of unfunded tax cuts on top. Before the last election, he said that
“you can’t talk about tax reduction unless you can show how it is paid for, the public aren’t stupid”.
What is it going to be: further cuts in public services or a rise in VAT?
What this Government have shown is that if you get on top of the national finances and if you grow the economy you can cut taxes for 26 million people. It is interesting that, on this of all days, not a word from the right hon. Gentleman about the fall in unemployment. That is the truth. Remember the predictions: the Opposition told us that there would be no growth, then there was growth. They told us that there would be no jobs, then there were jobs. They told us that the jobs would not have pay ahead of inflation; now the jobs have pay ahead of inflation. They told us the deficit would go up; the deficit has come down. They have got absolutely nothing to say about the economy because they have been wrong on every single count.
The right hon. Gentleman is crowing that everything is fixed. It may be fixed for his Christmas card list, but it is not fixed for far too many people in this country.
The right hon. Gentleman did not really answer the question on VAT, did he? This is what he said before the last election on 5 April 2010: “We have…no plans” to put up VAT. Barely two months later he put up VAT from 17.5% to 20%. He has £7 billion of unfunded tax cuts, a deficit plan that he cannot meet, and we know that he has got form. Will he now categorically rule out a rise in VAT?
We do not need to raise taxes because we have a plan for efficiencies in spending. It is the Labour party that does not have a plan. The right hon. Gentleman asks what has changed for real people over the past year, and I will tell him: 588,000 people who did not have a job last year have one this year. Long-term unemployment has fallen. Youth unemployment has fallen. You might have thought that the Labour party would welcome those things. It is Christmas, so we should all enter into the Christmas spirit. I have had my Christmas present a little early, because I have here the document being sent to every Labour MP. In case they have not had time to read it, let me advise them that if they go to page 17—[Interruption.] Be patient. It is there in black and white: on managing the economy, the Conservatives have a 17-point lead. Thank you.
I hope that over Christmas the Prime Minister will get to reflect on his year. He has lost two Members of Parliament to UKIP, he lost 26-2 in Europe, and he brought a whole new meaning to the phrase “conviction politician” when Andy Coulson went to jail. The truth is that he has given up on compassionate conservatism. They have been exposed for who they really are. His plan for the 2020s is to go back to the 1930s. It is not about balancing the books; it is about slashing the state. In just four months’ time that will be the election choice.
What this has shown is that on a day when it has been shown that unemployment has fallen, inflation is down and our economy is growing faster than any other major economy in the western world, the right hon. Gentleman has absolutely nothing to say. I almost feel sorry for Labour MPs. They cannot talk about the deficit, because it has fallen. They cannot talk about growth, because it is rising. They cannot talk about jobs, because we are increasing them. They cannot talk about immigration, because they have been told not to. They cannot talk about their leader, because he is a complete waste of space. No wonder for Labour MPs this year it is a silent night.
First, may I concur entirely with the Prime Minister’s words about the appalling tragedies that have unfolded around the world?
Bearing in mind the continuing success of our long-term economic plan, can my right hon. Friend please reassure the House that there will be no further cuts to our armed forces under a future Tory or coalition Government?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that we can have a strong defence budget and strong defence forces only if we have a strong economy and a clear long-term economic plan. Our defence budget is the biggest in the EU and the second largest in NATO, and we meet the guideline of 2% of GDP. I can tell him that, because of the success of our economic plan, we are able to commit to over £160 billion of investment in equipment and equipment support over the next 10 years. That is why we will see the aircraft carriers, the Type 45 destroyers, the future frigates, the A400Ms and the hunter-killer submarines. We are seeing incredible equipment rolling off the production lines in our country to help keep us safe.
The terrible slaughter of the innocents in Pakistan yesterday shocked the world and is another example of the obscene atrocities being visited upon children in various parts of the world by these barbaric forces. Another example was the attack on the 200 schoolchildren who were abducted in north-east Nigeria in April of this year. At the time, the Government and other Governments pledged their support to do what they could to assist in the hunt for those children. What reassurances can the Prime Minister provide on that and on the commitment that British experts will assist?
In all these cases, we see what expertise and assets we can bring into play to help Governments who are trying to combat these problems. In Nigeria, for a period, we lent the expertise of our fighter jets, with their RAPTOR pods, in order to provide imaging to try to help find the Chibok girls, and we continue to work with the Nigerian Government in every way we can. With Pakistan, again, we believe that the Pakistan Government must confront terrorism in all its forms, and they are taking steps to do that. I think today is the day when we should redouble our support and our efforts, and the whole world should do the same, to say that if the Pakistan Government want to continue to act to root out terror—and none of this can be justified—they have the support of the whole world, Britain included.
Q3. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking businesses, schools, my Festomane team and the college for organising the week-long festival—week long—of manufacturing and engineering in my constituency, which was opened by the Prince of Wales? Does my right hon. Friend agree that by focusing on innovation and productivity this Government will deliver more exports and higher standards of living? (906685)
I certainly join my hon. Friend in that. People might know that this is an annual week-long festival, championed by him, that showcases local manufacturing success stories. I remember that when I visited his constituency we watched a 3D bike being printed in metal—it was extremely impressive. We need to continue with the long-term plan, which is delivering a more balanced recovery, with manufacturing growing, as well as construction and services. Our commitments to increasing the number of apprentices, to helping companies with research and development and to keeping tax rates low are all delivering a very strong manufacturing success rate for Britain.
Millions of people will work extra hours this Christmas in difficult and often low-paid jobs so that they can send money to relatives living abroad. Their remittances to sub-Saharan Africa alone account for more than donor aid, but their money transfers will be hit by fees and charges often as high as 15%. Five years ago, the G8 committed to reducing this transfer tax to 5%. Will the Prime Minister therefore join me in calling on the transfer companies to cut their charges for Christmas as a first step to meeting the G8 promise to families in some of the poorest countries in the world?
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the importance of remittances. The amount of money that goes from our country, in the form of remittances, to countries such as Somalia and others in sub-Saharan Africa in desperate need actually outweighs significantly the aid we are able to give to those countries. So yes, we should look, and we are, at every way we can to help these remittances take place. There have been problems in the past with making sure that we apply measures on money laundering and other potential issues to them, but we are looking hard at what we can do to keep the charges down.
Q4. One of the characteristics of the decade leading up to the financial crisis was the £1 trillion increase in household debt. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that no future long-term economic plan will be financed by a debt bubble inflated on the backs of hard-working households? (906686)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the changes we have made since the crash is to put in place proper arrangements for the Bank of England to call time on the level of indebtedness in the economy and to make sure that financial regulation, including regulation of the mortgage market, for instance, is properly put in place. That is one of the important lessons. I have to say to Labour Members that one of the other important lessons is that when you have had a long period of economic growth you should be trying to pay down your debt and aiming for a surplus. That is what fixing the roof when the sun is shining is all about.
Q5. I welcome the fall in unemployment, but it is still too high in the north-east of England. Will the Prime Minister tell the House, and my unemployed constituents, who are the principal candidates for working-age benefit cuts? (906687)
Let me join the right hon. Gentleman in welcoming the fall in unemployment; it has fallen in every region of the country over the past year. In the north-east over the past year, unemployment is down by 11,000, and that is welcome. In terms of addressing the costs of welfare, I think we should be very frank about this, as I was discussing, calmly, earlier with the Leader of the Opposition. Whoever is Prime Minister after the next election is going to have to make public spending reductions. We have a choice: whether we leave the welfare bill as it is, or whether, like Labour Members, we vote this afternoon to add £2 billion to the welfare bill—that is what they are talking about this afternoon: £2 billion on welfare—and then have to take that money out of the Education Department, or the Health Department, or policing. We think we should not do that; we think, yes, there are reductions in welfare that can be made. We will make them, and that will keep taxes down and make sure that we can have good public services.
Q6. For people starting their careers, newly married couples or others, the prospect of owning their first home is a much desired but very difficult step. What are the Government doing to help young people in my constituency make that positive move? (906688)
There are two vital steps that we can take. The first is to go on backing the Help to Buy scheme, which has helped thousands of people in our country—I think over 70,000 people now. It enables people who are working hard, who earn a decent salary and who can afford the mortgage payments to take out that mortgage and buy that home because they do not need such a big deposit. That is the first thing we should do, and we shall continue with that.
The second, as I announced on Monday, is that we want to build starter homes that are 20% below the market price. These should be homes not for rent, but that young people can buy. They will be reserved for people under the age of 40. Again, this is for people who work hard, and who want to get on and do the right thing for themselves and their families. Under a Conservative Government, they will have homes they can buy.
I was contacted at the weekend by a constituent who told me that a fall left his 78-year-old mother bleeding on the kitchen floor and that it took almost an hour and a half for the ambulance to attend. Is that not indicative of the health service under this Government? What is the Prime Minister going to do to ensure that pressures on ambulance services are eased?
What is indicative of the NHS under this Government is the fact that there are 1,700 more paramedics and 200 more ambulances than when we came to power. The reason for that is we did not listen to the Labour party, which said that it was irresponsible to increase health spending; instead, we put £12.7 billion into the NHS. Where any ambulance trust falls down, that is a matter of serious regret and should be looked into very carefully. I will look into this case, as I would with any other.
Q7. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not unhelpful to discuss the concerns of voters in Basildon and Thurrock about border controls and immigration? Anyone who thinks that is out of touch, and perhaps should be moved on. (906689)
My hon. Friend is right. Our job as elected politicians is to respond to people’s concerns and to address them. This is why I fear for the Christmases of Labour MPs. What are they going to talk about? This document says immigration. That is out of the question: they cannot talk about that. On the figures today, there is not much point talking about unemployment, because it is plummeting. They have got nothing to say about the deficit. They spent precisely one week telling us the deficit mattered before pitching up today and spending £2 billion on welfare. I think they will want to skip over leadership issues quite quickly. It is going to be a very difficult time for them.
I do not know whether the Prime Minister has received any Christmas cards featuring husky dogs, but will he tell us whether he agrees with his right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), who has said that the UK’s groundbreaking Climate Change Act 2008 should be scrapped?
I have not checked all my Christmas cards, but I do not think I have so far had the one the hon. Lady suggests. I spent an hour and three-quarters in front of the Liaison Committee yesterday discussing issues of climate change. The legislation we have in place is delivering cuts in carbon emissions. Under this Government, we have seen the world’s first green investment bank—beating the rest of the world in doing that—and we have doubled the amount of investment going into renewable energy compared with the previous two Parliaments. That is what is happening under our Government.
Q8. Will the Prime Minister confirm that, owing to the long campaign led by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) and, of course, the Government’s long-term economic plan, my constituents can have extended urgent care this winter, and can look forward to the rebuilding, at long last, of Chase Farm hospital in the new year? (906690)
I know how hard my hon. Friends have worked for this outcome. I am happy to say that Enfield clinical commissioning group has announced an extension to the opening hours of Chase Farm urgent care centre. This will be in place until the local urgent care review reports. Further, I can confirm that the Government have set aside £230 million for the redevelopment of the Chase Farm site. That is very good news for the people of my hon. Friend’s constituency and his borough in London. What we are doing, because we have a long-term economic plan, is investing in local health services.
Today, there are 2,500 fewer nurses in our NHS than in May 2010. Why?
Obviously the hon. Gentleman has not been studying either the documents he gets sent by his own party or the figures. Today, actually, there are new figures out on the NHS, and I am delighted to give him the new figures. We were saying that there were 2,000 extra nurses under this Government. That was wrong: there are 3,000 more nurses under this Government. We were saying until very recently that there were 7,000 more doctors under this Government. I am ashamed to say that was wrong, too: the figure is 8,000 more doctors under this Government. The NHS is performing well because we have put the money in and made the reforms.
Q9. May I commend to my right hon. Friend some advice from Karl Marx, who, as European correspondent of the New-York Tribune, observed that there were“vital interests which should render Great Britain the earnest and unyielding opponent of the Russian projects of annexation and aggrandisement.”He went on to say that in“the arrest of the Russian scheme of annexation…the interests of…Democracy and of England go hand in hand.”Does my right hon. Friend agree that for the United Kingdom, Europe, the west and indeed the whole world, one of our most important foreign policy priorities for 2015 should be to see that Russia behaves, as one would expect a member of the Security Council to behave, in the interests of international law? (906691)
I very much agree with my right hon. Friend. I have not spent as much time studying Karl Marx as he has, or perhaps even as the Leader of the Opposition has—I do not know what goes on in Camden these days.
In this respect, Karl Marx was right that the interests of the United Kingdom and democracy go together. We should stand up very firmly against the Russian aggression that has taken place, and we led the way in Europe in making sure that there were sanctions. What the combination of the lower oil price and the sanctions is showing is that it is not possible for Russia to be part of the international financial system but try to opt out of the rules-based international legal system. That is what is being demonstrated, and we should keep up the pressure.
Q10. The levy control framework—the total cost added to energy bills and taxation by green targets—will rise from £2.3 billion in 2012 to £9.8 billion in 2020, at a time when many households are struggling to heat their homes. Does my hon. Friend think that is fair? (906692)
The levy control framework has been fixed, and it sets the overall amount of investment that can go into renewable energy schemes, many of which are providing jobs for constituencies up and down the country—often particularly those on the east coast of our country, not least in Hull, where an enormous amount of investment is going in. I welcome that investment, and I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman’s view is.
Will the Prime Minister confirm that if he and the Chancellor deliver their plans for the economy, they will take public spending back to the level that was being delivered by a former Labour Chancellor, but only because he was bound by an election pledge to stick to my economic plan, which he therefore inherited from a Conservative Government?
My right hon. and learned Friend gives us a very important historical perspective. It comes back to the point that the Opposition now seem to be basing their entire economic policy on some throwaway remark on the BBC at about 10 past 6 on a Monday morning. The truth is, what is envisaged is getting public spending back to the level where it was in 2002, when the Leader of the Opposition was sitting in the Treasury. I am afraid that his whole idea, like all his economic policies, has collapsed within five minutes.
Q11. The most recent OECD report, No. 163, on income inequality, shows that the UK economy would be 20% bigger if tax policies had redistributed income to the bottom 40% of citizens. Can the Prime Minister resist the temptation to waffle and consider seriously his policies and those of Chancellor Scrooge over his five years, of rewarding the rich with tax cuts and hammering middle and low-income people with rises in the cost of living, not only— (906693)
I was just about getting the hang of it. The problem with the Labour party’s attemptive narrative is that it simply is not true. Labour Members talk about inequality, but inequality is lower than it was at the election. They talk about poverty, but there are 600,000 fewer people in relative poverty than there were at the election. They talk about child poverty, but there are 300,000 fewer children in relative poverty than at the election. This afternoon we will be talking about children, and there are 390,000 fewer children in households where no one works than there were in 2010. Those are the facts. They may be inconvenient, but Labour ought to have a look at them.
Q12. Last week, my constituents, charity workers Alex and Becky Ewing, faced a tax bill of more than £8,000 as they moved into their first home. As reported in the excellent Salisbury Journal, Mr Ewing declared that he was “blown away” by the Chancellor’s statement and will be giving some of the £4,500 stamp duty that he unexpectedly saved to local charities. What message does last week’s announcement send to first time buyers this Christmas? (906694)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The message that the autumn statement sends is that we are on the side of people who work hard, want to get on, and who want to own their own flat or home. We have cut stamp duty for those families so that they can afford those houses. What a contrast with the Labour party, which wants a new homes tax.
Q13. My constituent who is paying £12 a week out of an income of £72 a week on the bedroom tax was less than impressed to find out that annual spending on housing benefit is now £4 billion higher than it was in 2010. When will this Prime Minister tackle the real causes of the increase in spending on housing benefit, which are low wages and high rents? (906695)
The point is that the Labour party has opposed every single change to welfare and housing benefit, and this afternoon Labour Members will vote in this house for an extra £2 billion of welfare spending—all that in the week when they are meant to be telling us how much they care about the deficit. It is completely incoherent, and that is why the British public will never trust the Labour party with the economy again.
Q14. The recent announcement about the building of the Glossop spur, and the consultation to extend the bypass around Tintwistle, has been widely welcomed across my constituency. There is, however, some scepticism about it actually happening, given that the previous Labour Government shelved their scheme in 2009. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me and my constituents that a future Conservative Government can be relied on to deliver that scheme? (906696)
I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. I know that he has campaigned tirelessly to improve roads in his High Peak constituency, and the trans-Pennine routes are vital. We can give that assurance because we have a long-term economic plan that is delivering the economic growth that we need and seeing our deficit come down. Because we have made that success, we can commit to these road schemes.
The Government are using a range of measures, including cold weather payments, the warm home discount, and an increase in pensions. We will improve the warmth of 1 million homes by March 2015. That provides real help to older people by taking money off their bills and insulating their homes to ensure that they are able to keep warm this winter.
That is an interesting response, but my constituent William Sullivan has written to me to say how appalled he is that last year more than 18,000 people in England and Wales died simply because of the cold. What guarantee can the Prime Minister give me that no more of my constituents will suffer in the cold this winter for want of a properly insulated home?
Every excess winter death is a tragedy, and 18,200 deaths last year was too many. However, that is half the level of excess winter deaths in 2008-09, when the Leader of the Opposition was the Energy Secretary. We will continue with the long-term patient work of the warm home discount, keeping the winter fuel and cold weather payments, and schemes to insulate people’s homes. That is the right way forward.
Will the Prime Minister confirm that NHS spending under the coalition Government has risen by 4% in real terms? That has been passed on to Scotland, where spending has in fact been cut by 1%. Is he also aware that Grampian has a £70 million two-year shortfall in funding? Consequently, the responsibility for the crisis in the health service in the north-east of Scotland lies firmly with the Scottish Government, led until a few weeks ago by Alex Salmond, the MSP for Aberdeenshire East.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have increased spending by £12.7 billion. That translates into a real-terms increase. Scotland and Wales have had the extra money to spend, but Labour in Wales chose to cut the NHS rather than to invest in it, and in Scotland the SNP Government have not translated the full amount of money. That is why, when we look at figures for such things as accident and emergency, yes, we need to do better in England, but our performance is still well better than it is in Wales, Scotland, or, indeed, in Northern Ireland. The moral of this story is that you need a long-term economic plan and a Conservative-led Government to deliver these advances.
Al-Sweady Inquiry Report
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the report into the al-Sweady inquiry into allegations that British forces tortured and executed up to 20 Iraqi men on 14 and 15 May 2004, and mistreated nine others between 14 May and 23 September 2004.
I am today laying before the House the independent report published this morning by Sir Thayne Forbes, the chairman of the public inquiry into these incidents. I am grateful to Sir Thayne and his team for their painstaking work, and for producing a report that puts to rest once and for all these shocking and, as we now know, completely baseless allegations. As I know Sir Thayne will acknowledge, the Ministry of Defence has provided unstinting support for his inquiry. During 169 days of hearings, Sir Thayne heard evidence from 55 Iraqi witnesses, 222 current and former service personnel and four expert witnesses. He also considered the written statements of a further 328 witnesses. His findings are incontrovertible.
It was alleged that, following a planned and co-ordinated ambush of British troops by heavily armed Iraqi insurgents around the Danny Boy permanent vehicle checkpoint on the main road between Basra and al-Amarah, British service personnel captured up to 20 Iraqi men alive, took them back to Camp Abu Naji, and then tortured and killed them in cold blood. These are allegations of the most serious nature and they are untrue.
The allegations have changed several times over the years. This is how Mr Phil Shiner, of the firm Public Interest Lawyers, presented them at a press conference in 2008:
“What you have heard is evidence that these 5 survivors have witnessed, seemingly in three separate venues at close hand:
The execution of up to 15 men
Between 4 and 5 of these executions involving shots at close range and the remainder some sort of strangulation or throat cutting
Some of these executions preceded by torture or mutilations that are so horrific that our clients could not describe the prolonged screaming without breaking down.”
Today it has been confirmed that British soldiers did not carry out the atrocities falsely attributed to them. Sir Thayne deals unequivocally with the soldiers’ actions and the falsity of the allegations. I quote:
“this Inquiry has established beyond doubt that all the most serious allegations, made against the British soldiers involved in the Battle of Danny Boy and its aftermath and which have been hanging over those soldiers for the last 10 years, have been found to be wholly without foundation and entirely the product of deliberate lies, reckless speculation and ingrained hostility.”
He indeed contrasts the falsity of the Iraqi accounts with the truthfulness of the military witnesses:
“the vast majority of the allegations made against the British military, which this Inquiry was required to investigate (including, without exception, all the most serious allegations), were wholly and entirely without merit or justification. Very many of those baseless allegations were the product of deliberate and calculated lies on the part of those who made them and who then gave evidence to this Inquiry in order to support and perpetuate them.”
The counsel for the nine former detainees and the relatives of the deceased conceded only as late as March this year that the evidence pointed overwhelmingly to the fact that, as the Government maintained throughout the inquiry and preceding judicial review, all those whose bodies were handed over to the Iraqi authorities for burial on 15 May died on the battlefield. The delay in making this concession is both inexplicable and shameful. By 4 July last year, expert witnesses had already demonstrated unequivocally that the Iraqis had died as a result of wounds sustained in the fighting. Had the concession been made then, it would not have been necessary for so many soldiers to give evidence, Sir Thayne could have concluded his hearings more quickly, and there would have been a significantly smaller bill to the taxpayer.
I turn now to the issue of detention. Following the battle, the nine detainees were taken to Camp Abu Naji. Sir Thayne has rejected most of the allegations made in connection with their treatment at the camp, including a lack of adequate medical care, assaults, the withholding of drinking water in contravention of the Geneva conventions and the use of white noise. However, I accept Sir Thayne’s conclusion that some instances of ill treatment did occur: the detainees were not provided with adequate food, and such food as was given was not provided until they had been tactically questioned; they were prevented from sleeping until three to four hours after they arrived at the camp; their sight was restricted almost continuously; and the use of “harsh” tactical questioning techniques—since withdrawn—amounted to ill treatment. Importantly, Sir Thayne observes that as a result of changes made by the MOD over the past several years, such ill treatment should not occur in future.
Sir Thayne also concluded that the requirement for detainees to undress fully as part of their medical examination and concurrent search for prohibited items amounted to ill treatment, and he did criticise the attitude of the regimental medical officer towards the medical examination of the detainees on their arrival at Shaibah, but he also concluded that only one of the detainees, who suffered discomfort for longer than he might otherwise have done, suffered any adverse consequences as a result of deficiencies in the medical examination. I wish to express my regret to the House that these instances of ill treatment should have occurred.
Sir Thayne Forbes has made just nine recommendations, and he acknowledges the progress that the Ministry has made since 2004 to improve all aspects of the prisoner-handling system—from policy and doctrine to unit-level instructions and procedures as well as training and oversight—and to ensure it complies with domestic and international law. I accept all nine recommendations in principle. I have commissioned urgent work on their practical implications—in particular, we will need to ensure that they will not prevent the armed forces from carrying out vital tasks—and I will announce to the House my detailed conclusions as soon as I can.
The Iraqi detainees, their accomplices and their lawyers must bear the brunt of the criticism for the protracted nature and £31 million cost of this unnecessary public inquiry. The falsity of the overwhelming majority of their allegations, the extraordinarily late disclosure of a document showing the nine detainees to have been insurgents and the delay by their lawyers in withdrawing the allegations of torture and murder have prompted the Solicitors Regulation Authority to investigate possible breaches of professional standards. The authority is expected to complete its investigation into the two firms responsible, Public Interest Lawyers and Leigh Day and Co., early next year.
Had the Legal Services Commission been aware in 2008 of this document it would have refused legal aid for the judicial review that took place then. That would have spared the service personnel a further six years of uncertainty and anxiety. It would have spared the relatives of the deceased a further six years of false hope, and it would have saved the British taxpayer a very high bill.
Although procedural failures by the MOD led to the public inquiry being established, it is those who made these false allegations who bear the responsibility for saddling the taxpayer with what has turned out to be a £31 million bill. Although there is no provision in the Inquiries Act 2005 for recovering the costs of a public inquiry, my Ministry is exploring whether the claimants’ failure to disclose the militia document will allow us to recover some of the costs of the judicial review.
In conclusion, I regret that it was found necessary to hold a public inquiry to disprove these allegations. This is not another Baha Mousa or an Abu Ghraib. No one died in British custody and there was no deliberate ill treatment. The few instances of ill treatment that did occur were rather the result of failings in doctrine and training that have already been or are being corrected. This was a shameful attempt to use our legal system—our legal system—to attack and falsely impugn our armed forces. That it has failed reflects the diligence and skill with which Sir Thayne has uncovered the facts.
I quoted earlier the accusations made by Mr Shiner of Public Interest Lawyers in calling for this inquiry. At that time he said:
“Do not believe for one second that we make these allegations lightly or without the evidence available to substantiate every single word of what we say.”
It is now beyond doubt that those allegations were without foundation. I challenge Mr Shiner and the other lawyers involved, from both firms, to issue an unequivocal apology to the soldiers whose reputations they attempted to traduce and to the taxpayers who have had to pay the costs of exposing these lies.
I add only one final comment. Following the battle of Danny Boy, five soldiers were awarded the military cross and one the conspicuous gallantry cross for their conduct there and in other engagements in early 2004. Other acts of bravery emerge clearly in the accounts of the battle. This is who our servicemen and women are. The reputation of our armed forces has been hard won in the service of our nation. It will survive the baseless slurs of those who seek to undermine those on whom we all depend. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and for providing a copy of the inquiry report this morning. I also join him in thanking Sir Thayne Forbes and his team for their diligent work and comprehensive and conclusive report.
As the Defence Secretary said, our armed forces are the best in the world. British servicemen and women carry out their duties with bravery and distinction, and we owe them all a debt of gratitude for their service to our country. They often face the most difficult and challenging conditions. The battle of Danny Boy in southern Iraq in 2004 was one such occasion when the battle was ferocious and our troops were in great danger.
As the Defence Secretary rightly pointed out, five soldiers were awarded the military cross and one the conspicuous gallantry cross. As well as their courage, British soldiers pride themselves on their conduct in battle and the high standards to which they are held and indeed hold themselves. Does he agree that they are and will remain accountable both to international law and to the Geneva convention?
Does the Defence Secretary also agree that this House and any UK Government are not afraid to be open and frank when those high standards are not met and our armed forces do not adhere to the conduct expected of the British military? There are many examples of that—most strikingly, the statement of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in 2010 after the publication of the report of the Saville inquiry into the events known as Bloody Sunday, and the response to the Baha Mousa inquiry. It should be a source of pride that we are a country where that can happen.
Does the Defence Secretary agree that, likewise, we will not tolerate calculated, malicious and baseless untruths against our servicemen and women? This report states in those very terms that the serious allegations that precipitated the inquiry were just that. There were no unlawful killings on the battlefield, no mutilation of bodies and no executions in custody. I want to establish that very clearly before I ask him some questions about the report’s findings.
In dismissing the serious allegations made against British troops, the report nevertheless draws attention to some areas where we should learn lessons. Opposition Members support the conclusions and recommendations of the report. Does the Defence Secretary agree that the implementation of its nine recommendations can be achieved with speed and efficiency? We will support him in achieving that.
The report says that the conduct of some individual soldiers did amount to actual or possible ill treatment. I of course join the Defence Secretary in expressing regret that that occurred. It is not acceptable. Have the soldiers been identified? Are they still in service and, if so, what steps are being taken to address those concerns? The report states that Ministry of Defence procedures in place at the time might have contributed to what happened. Can the Defence Secretary confirm that, if those procedures have not been updated already, they will be reviewed now?
The report identifies ways in which we might be able to avoid the need for such costly inquiries in future. I share with the Defence Secretary the concerns about the legal representatives and the legal process in this instance. In that sense, the recommendations in the report will ensure a better way of examining allegations against the armed forces, avoiding unnecessarily cumbersome processes and, as he pointed out, significant financial costs.
What progress has been made on the collection and storage of and ability to search documents and other records? Has the shooting incident policy been reviewed and updated? Are there plans to do so? What changes have been made to the recording of the circumstances of a prisoner’s detention? More generally, how does the Defence Secretary plan to review any shortcomings in existing practices and procedures, and ensure that they are updated and amended?
In its conclusion, the report compared, as did the Defence Secretary, the testimony of those alleging and those being accused. The report said that the Iraqi witnesses were
“unprincipled in the extreme and wholly without regard for the truth”
while the British military witnesses were, by contrast, “truthful and reliable”, despite the difficulty and distress caused by recalling traumatic events of battle. I think the House will join me in saying that that speaks for itself—and it speaks volumes.
I am grateful to the shadow Defence Secretary for what he has said and for the tone in which he said it. I agree with his comment about the baseless untruths. He started by saying that our armed forces must be accountable to the law, and it is important to emphasise that—that they are accountable under both domestic law and the law of armed conflict, and that where there are allegations they will always be investigated. We should be open and frank about that. Where instances of some ill treatment or harsh treatment occur, they should be fully and honestly investigated. I do think that there are very few countries and judicial systems that would put themselves through this kind of inquiry to get to the truth.
The hon. Gentleman asked me some specific questions. On the recommendations, I am studying the report in detail and I will respond, as is customary, within the next few weeks on the detail of the recommendations. I hope it is clear that I accept the spirit of them all and the principle behind them all. I just have to look at some of the practicalities of implementing at least one or two of them.
I do not have any up-to-date information about where the personnel are currently serving. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would allow me to write to him on that specific point.
On the procedural changes, these were the procedures that applied 10 years ago, in 2004. Sir Thayne himself acknowledges that many of the procedural changes have already been introduced. On the public inquiry, it might have been easy for the incoming Government—the inquiry was set up under the previous Government—simply to halt the public inquiry, but I believe that it was the right decision to allow it to run its course. However, we now have the Iraq historic allegations team, which will be able to get at the truth of these allegations probably in a different format and a little more quickly than a public inquiry, inevitably. That is not a criticism of Sir Thayne—far from it.
I join the Secretary of State in absolutely commending the report for reinforcing the honour and respect of the British soldiers. Having been based in Abu Naji and Maysan at the time, I encourage the Secretary of State to focus on the broader political context. It was completely tragic that not just a few Iraqis, but most of the Iraqi leadership in the province were convinced of these unimaginable atrocities. I encourage the Secretary of State to ensure that in future we have the right role for political officers on the ground to ensure that bodies are treated in the correct fashion, that the survivors’ families are reached out to in the correct fashion and that trust is built between the British military and the local political leaders to ensure that our soldiers are protected from these baseless allegations.
My hon. Friend makes the very important point that we need to reflect on the extent to which these lies and untruths were believed by the local community in the area. He makes the point all the more powerfully because of his personal experience and knowledge—not simply of Iraq, but of that particular province of Iraq. I will certainly reflect further on the point he makes about the role of political officers.
I commissioned this report only after the Department was very heavily criticised in the courts for having failed properly to investigate the allegations that were being made. I believed then, as I believe now, that the main reason for that failure was not a lack of will on our part, but a refusal to co-operate with an inquiry by the representatives of the Iraqis, public interest lawyers and Mr Phil Shiner. I have no way of knowing or proving what the motives were for that lack of co-operation, but I do know that public interest lawyers have a very lucrative business model.
We have to ensure that when serious allegations are made, they are properly investigated. That is the kind of nation we are and it is the way in which we manage to ensure that our armed forces maintain the very highest levels attainable. Equally, however, we have to protect the public purse from misuse. I urge the Secretary of State, his Government colleagues and the other parties in the House to think about how we can ensure that both those things happen. We need to continue to impose the rule of law in very difficult circumstances, but also to ensure that our systems are not being systematically abused.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for explaining the circumstances in which the public inquiry came into being. He has much closer knowledge of it than others, because he was responsible for setting it up. He is right: the price that we pay for the reputation of our armed forces is that when such allegations are made—wherever they come from—they must be investigated, and they are investigated immediately in the field by the Royal Military Police and their special investigators. It is right that that happens.
The right hon. Gentleman made an important point about costs, and the fact that certain unscrupulous lawyers appear to be benefiting directly, at public expense, from their ability to trigger inquiries such as this. We need to look into how that might be curtailed, and I welcome his suggestion that the matter might be pursued on a genuinely bipartisan basis.
Does my right hon. Friend agree—he appears to—that, while it is essential for a country with values such as ours to hold inquiries into the serious allegations against our armed forces or our intelligence services that are made from time to time, there is always the danger that a tiny minority of the legal profession will create something of an industry in pursuing them to the point of a long and difficult inquiry such as this? Will he ask our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice to take the matter up with the leaders of the judiciary and the leaders of the profession, who I am sure will agree with him that there is a danger that needs to be tackled?
As I have already emphasised, when there are allegations they need to be investigated and when there are failings they need to be put right, but what has emerged very clearly from the report is that all those serious allegations had no foundation whatever. My right hon. and learned Friend has made the constructive suggestion that we should discuss not just with my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary but with the leaders of the profession how we can curtail some of the abuse and cost involved. His point is all the more powerful given that he is a member of that profession; it is good to hear such a suggestion from the profession itself.
I fully accept the report’s conclusions, and I am delighted on behalf of the individual members of the armed forces who were accused of these vile atrocities. They have been completely exonerated, which is good for them and good for the armed forces generally. However—this point was raised by the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker)—while I recognise that instances of ill treatment are few and far between and are relatively minor in comparison with the awful accusations that were levelled at the troops, I trust that they will be addressed by the Secretary of State.
Yes. As I said earlier, we have already made a series of changes in our procedures, and we will continue to do so. The report makes some important points about retrieval of information from the battlefield, archiving and the use of information systems to make it easier to get more quickly to the truth of what actually happened. Let me emphasise again, however, that when there are allegations they will be properly and fully investigated, and when there are failings we should own up to them and put the procedures right.
It is of course an absolute outrage that it has taken 10 stress-filled years to clear these young soldiers of the baseless slurs against them, but is there not a wider point to be made? Does the Secretary of State agree that allowing further claims and allegations of this kind—the baseless ones and even, perhaps, the slightly less baseless ones—to be pursued in the same way might interfere with the perfectly legitimate conduct of warfare, and that there is a real risk that legitimate warfare will be replaced with “lawfare”?
I am, of course, concerned that the operational efficiency of commanders in the field should not be inhibited by additional legal complications, such as fresh rulings by the European Court of Human Rights or attempts to extend a health and safety regime that would apply in civilian life to the battlefield. We must think carefully about the weight of law imposed on those whom we ask to do very dangerous things in our name and to react very quickly. This was a battlefield, and I think it important for the House to bear that in mind.
Obviously we should all support our armed forces, and I welcome what the Secretary of State said in his statement. We have very courageous, professional and decent armed forces who have to perform in some terrible and traumatic circumstances, and we have seen yet again that they are forces of whom we should all be proud. May I ask, however, whether the Secretary of State feels that improvements could be made in the chain of command to enable situations such as this to be dealt with properly in the first place, rather than developing to such an extent that an inquiry is necessary?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. He speaks with particular authority as a former defence Minister, and I will consider what he has said about the chain of command. As we heard from his right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), a number of interlocking issues were involved. There was the judicial review and the public inquiry, and so on. However, I think that we would all want to avoid putting members of our armed forces through this process, given the time and cost that were involved in exposing an allegation—the major allegation—that turned out to be completely untrue.
I welcome the statement, and the very clear outcome of an inquiry that was far more credible because it was judge-led. When he established the Gibson inquiry, the Prime Minister said:
“For public confidence, and for independence from Parliament, party and government, it is right to have a judge-led inquiry.”
Does the Secretary of State agree with that principle, and would he like it to be extended to other inquiries into allegations of British involvement in torture?
In all my time in the House, I have seldom been more shocked than I was by the statement today. I cannot even imagine how those service people have coped for 10 years with such a cloud hanging over them. What support are the Government giving them and their families?
The hon. Lady’s question gives me an opportunity to update an earlier answer. One of the soldiers named in the report is still serving, but I understand that the rest have left the armed forces.
The hon. Lady has made a good point about the support available to soldiers who must either serve or, if they have left the forces, bear the brunt of allegations of this kind. If I may, I will look into the matter further and write to her.
I, too, welcome the statement. It is important that we should inquire into serious allegations when they are made, and that we should have the sort of judge-led inquiry that we have had in this case.
I agree with what was said by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), and I share the sense of shock that I think the whole House feels about the people who made up such shocking lies about our armed forces. It is good that the forces have been cleared, but is there any indication of what the motivation was? Was it hostility to our country? [Hon. Members: “Money!”] Was it money? Does anything in the report explain this outrageous behaviour?
I am not sure that I should comment on the motives involved—I think that the report speaks for itself in that regard—but I believe that the House would be with me in questioning the motives of some of the advisers involved. I do not think that they have helped the reputation of the British legal system in any respect.
I welcome the statement. The untrue and false allegations affected the British Army and directly affected these soldiers and their families; for many, they led to both physical and emotional changes. What can be done even now, 10 years later, to undo the untold harm done to the British Army personnel and their families who have been affected?
As I have said, I will certainly look at what support was provided to the soldiers against whom the allegations were made and whether we can improve our procedures in that respect. They do now, as of today, have the knowledge that those allegations turned out to be completely untrue, but I think the House will agree that it should not have taken 10 years and all this money for the truth to emerge.
May I remind the House of just how difficult it is for a soldier in combat to change within milliseconds from a duty to kill the enemy to a duty to protect the enemy under the Geneva conventions? I am extremely proud that our soldiers from both the two infantry battalions concerned have acted so professionally on this occasion and I am very pleased by the outcome of this report. I thank the judge and I am very happy for the British Army.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who, of course, brings to this House very direct experience of the battlefield and the instant decisions that have to be taken on it. He has particular knowledge of the obligation on our soldiers—which they accept gladly—to do their very best, when the battle is over, for the wounded and for those detained.
I speak as someone who served in Iraq in both 2003 and 2004. While any mistreatment of detainees is completely unacceptable —the Secretary of State has referred to procedural changes that have been made—is it not the case that the overwhelming majority of our servicemen and women have served with distinction and honour, and that, regardless of people’s different views on the conflict, as a country we owe them a debt of gratitude? I ask the Secretary of State to give an assurance that any British soldier who has been materially affected by their service in Iraq will, whatever the point in their life when they have been affected, be properly looked after by our country.
On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, he is right to draw the House’s attention to the fact that thousands of British troops served in Iraq. They did so with distinction and they did us proud, and only a very small handful had these allegations made against them. We should remember that.
On supporting our servicemen and ex-servicemen, I am delighted that the armed forces covenant is now enshrined in law; we must now make a reality of that covenant. The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), has written to all colleagues in the House drawing attention to the role we can play in making sure that the covenant is properly implemented by our local authorities, GPs, jobcentres and the others involved in looking after our armed forces. Just yesterday, I think, we published the annual report on the covenant and its operation.
My right hon. Friend is, of course, right that we must hold our servicemen to the highest possible standards. He will remember that by April 2004 the detention of people in that region was already a point of controversy, but by then—when the Defence Committee visited Shaibah in April 2004—it was clear that any deficiencies had been seriously gripped by the chain of command. When we hold ourselves to such high standards, it is particularly outrageous that the consequences of what perhaps happened to Baha Mousa and the trials that then followed have been thoroughly and unscrupulously abused by extension by the representatives of these people. My right hon. Friend has made absolutely clear what actions he expects the Solicitors Regulation Authority to take, and may I tell him that I absolutely agree with that?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The events investigated by Sir Thayne were from 10 years ago, just at the beginning of some of the hardest fighting in Helmand, and it is noteworthy that right from the beginning the procedures were being examined and were improved. They have certainly improved significantly over the 10 years.
On the solicitors involved, as I have told the House, there is now an investigation into both firms by the SRA, but I think that before we see the result of that investigation the very least the lawyers involved in this case can do is apologise to the soldiers—and, indeed, to the taxpayer.
Order. May I just point out to the House that questions thus far have been on the full side, very understandably as colleagues have wished to express their indignation about the matters concerned? I am keen to accommodate all remaining questioners, but I simply advise the House that there are two very heavily subscribed Opposition day debates to follow, before which, of course, there is a ten-minute rule motion, and I should be grateful if colleagues would tailor their contributions accordingly.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. He will be aware of allegations of wrongdoing in relation to Northern Ireland back in the 1970s, where men were tortured and detained without charge. What actions will the UK Government now take to redress the imbalance in relation to that, which has been identified as involving hooded men being subjected to the five techniques of torture?
I understand the significance of this issue in Northern Ireland. It is not, of course, the subject of this report, but I know it is part of the discussions into the past that are now being conducted. I hope that will soon be resolved, but the hon. Lady is, quite reasonably, tempting me into areas outside my particular field.
Will my right hon. Friend suggest to the Lord Chancellor that, when the SRA concludes its investigation, the Lord Chancellor comes to the House to make a statement, so that the SRA knows that the eyes of Parliament are going to be on its conduct of this investigation, and not least the question of how the firms of solicitors got their clients? There are suggestions that they were paying agents to go around Iraq to drum up business, often not knowing who their clients were. This seems to me to be yet another issue that needs to be properly investigated by the SRA.
As a former special envoy on human rights to Iraq, I am particularly pleased that we put ourselves in the dock, we answered the allegations, and we were not guilty of most of them. The reputation of the British Government and British forces is very high indeed in Iraq, and this incident has not detracted in any way from the strong feelings and admiration people in Iraq have for Britain and its forces. The MOD has made changes because there were some instances of ill-treatment. What precisely are these changes and how can the Secretary of State assure us that they will result in such ill-treatment not happening again?
I agree with the right hon. Lady about the reputation of our troops; I heard that for myself on my visits to Baghdad and Irbil. They did an impressively good job in Iraq.
I hope, Mr Speaker, you will also allow me to make a correction. I think I misspoke a moment ago: I referred to Helmand. I am afraid that was the pressure of making this statement. I of course meant to refer to the early years of fighting in Iraq.
Improvements have been made to the procedures, and there are important recommendations, particularly about the retrieval and archiving of information to make it easier to find out exactly what happened and for that information to be brought back to the United Kingdom, so that when these allegations are made, they can be quickly and properly investigated.
On behalf of all Members, I thank the Secretary of State for the outstanding tone and substance of the statement. I hope the Solicitors Regulation Authority will restore some standing to the profession of which I am a member, as we are all ashamed of the actions of certain members of it in the background. Will he discuss with the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary whether there has been an examination of those organisations, including some charities, to which the Government continue to give funds, and which use that money to instruct solicitors or to front actions against the Government or our armed forces?
Will the Secretary of State expand on the answer that he just gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis)? What assurances can he give to the public that not only will the recommendations result in the protection and humane treatment of detainees, but that our armed forces will get protection when they need to be able to operate effectively in very difficult circumstances where lives are at risk?
On the first point, Sir Thayne Forbes himself has accepted that some of the procedures involved have already been improved. Corrections have been made and the procedures are now operating far better than in the very early years 10 years ago, but the hon. Gentleman makes an important point. There is a balance to be struck between the obligations that we ask our soldiers to accept when they are involved in very dangerous tasks, particularly on the battlefield. That is why I am concerned about the encroachment of other kinds of law on what is already a satisfactory basis of law—the law of armed conflict and our own domestic law.
Further to the excellent question from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), a truly dreadful abuse of the legal system has caused untold stress to our loyal troops. Is there an argument for a civil claim against the two lawyers? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the two law firms in question and the lawyers involved should have their practice certificates suspended, pending the SRA inquiry?
I was interested to hear Sir Thayne Forbes say that the reason for gathering the bodies of the combatants was
“to see if there was amongst them an individual, known by the codename Bravo 1, who was suspected of having been involved in the murder of the six Royal Military Policemen in Majar Al Kabir in June 2003.”
The Defence Secretary will know that my constituent, Corporal Simon Miller, was among the Red Caps murdered in that massacre. Does he therefore agree with me that the attempt to identify Bravo 1 was justified? Can he tell us whether the suspect in question was indeed identified that day?
As I understand it—I am open to correction—all the detainees were revealed to have been insurgents. One of the things that the inquiry has thrown up is the distinction between general interrogation and what is called tactical questioning, where people need very quickly to get as much information as they can in order to save lives or to prevent further bloodshed on the battlefield. It is that distinction that Sir Thayne discusses when he comes to the various procedures. As I understand it, in terms of the very specific identification on that day, it did not take place.
We are the only country in the world that pays legal aid to sue our own Army. We then pay millions to defend our Army in those cases. Public Interest Lawyers has made over £1 million a year from such cases in each of the past four years. Is there a realistic opportunity for us to get some of that money back? Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that if there is, he will go after it as best he can?
We all regret the amount of time and the cost of this inquiry, but I am still proud to live in a country where these things can be fully investigated. It has taken far too long and cost far too much money, but I would rather the truth came out, however painful it has been. On the recovery of costs, as I said, we are looking at whether some of the costs involved in the earlier judicial review claim can now be recouped.
One question that has not yet been raised relates to the asymmetric nature of so much modern warfare. When our troops go into battle, more often than not it is not against another nation state that observes international law and the Geneva convention, but against irregulars who do not observe the rule of law. This must put our soldiers in the heat of battle under immense psychological pressure. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that the lessons from this report will be fed into the way our soldiers are trained, which has enabled them to maintain very high standards when fighting against people who do not maintain the same standards against them?
That is already part of the training that our servicemen and women now undergo, but the hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The House should wonder whether the Taliban or ISIL would rush to provide bottled water before they were asked to do so if they had British detainees in their custody, or indeed if those detainees had survived to be in their custody.
The Secretary of State said that the cost of the public inquiry was £31 million, but that of course is not the total cost. Can he give us a figure for the total cost, including the costs before the public inquiry? Does this come out of the MOD’s budget or the Ministry of Justice’s budget? How many ships, planes and service personnel have we lost as a result of those firms taking this money?
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the figures for the earlier costs. The figure of £31 million is specifically for the public inquiry. As he said, that is a huge and unacceptable amount. It comes directly from the defence budget and he is right—it could otherwise have been spent on providing more equipment for our troops and on many other things that people might have regarded as having a higher priority.
The Secretary of State may recall that in 2004 a number of nationalist MPs gave £14,000 of taxpayers’ money to that law firm for an earlier case. Does he think there is merit in the MOD raising this with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to ensure that nationalist MPs never again squander taxpayers’ money on those ambulance-chasers?
I welcome the clarity and the robustness of the statement. On dealing with the aftermath of a battlefield situation and the handling of prisoners, the Secretary of State has mentioned on a couple of occasions that one of the lessons learned relates to data and intelligence gathering from the battlefield. Are there further lessons to be put in place in training or procedures?
There are a number of recommendations which we want to study in detail. I have made it clear to the House that I accept the principle and the intent that lie behind them. We have to work through some of the practicalities—for example, video recording and how that would work in a situation very close to the battlefield. I will, of course, come back to the House with my detailed conclusions within a few weeks, I hope.
I commend the Secretary of State on an extremely well-judged statement, in which I believe he spoke not just on behalf of his Department, but on behalf of the whole House. What more can be done to get the clear message out—particularly to communities and individuals, among whom I would count myself, who vehemently opposed the Iraq war in 2003—that British troops in Iraq did not torture or murder,?
That is indeed an important point. I will consider not only how we might disseminate the findings of this report across the United Kingdom but, as the Chairman of the Select Committee said, what more we can do to reassure the Iraqi communities that British troops do not behave in the way that was alleged.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will have noticed that I was somewhat disgruntled at being cut off and told that my question was too long at Prime Minister’s questions. I take everyone who visits me at the House of Commons to see the picture of Speaker Lenthall. I know that it is difficult to apply a principle to all cases proportionately, but will you find the time to meet me to discuss the fact that I do not believe that the principle of defending the ability of Back Benchers to ask questions of the Executive was upheld proportionately in all cases today?
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I say in response that the Speaker does not refuse to see hon. or right hon. Members. If a Member wishes to see the Speaker, the Speaker will be happy to see that Member at a mutually convenient time. I say in the very gentlest way to the hon. Gentleman, first, that the Chair has to be the judge of whether a question is too long. With the greatest of respect, no Member can be judge in his own cause. Secondly, I intend no discourtesy to him, but he was in my view—and I have to make the judgment, not he—taking too long to get to the gravamen of his question. I say very kindly to him that he ought not immediately to think, “Where did the Chair go wrong?” but perhaps to think, “Where did I go wrong and how might I do better?” But of course I will happily see him—[Interruption.] I am not debating the matter with him now. I am telling him, in a very gentle and understated way, what the position is. With that statement, the hon. Gentleman will have to rest content. We will leave it there.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This morning it has been announced that Rev. Libby Lane is to become the Bishop of Stockport, and therefore the first woman bishop of the Church of England. At a time when there are more women in work than ever before and more women taking leadership positions, I am sure that the whole House will want to take a moment to welcome such an important first step towards ensuring that the extraordinary talents of the 1,700 women clergy in the Church of England are recognised and used to the full.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I warmly endorse my right hon. Friend’s point of order. Rev. Libby Lane is currently the vicar of St Peter’s in Hale in my constituency, an office that she has conducted with outstanding ability. She has made a great contribution to the community, and I am sure that she will continue to do so in her new role as Bishop of Stockport.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her point of order, and the hon. Gentleman for his follow-up point of order. I think that they speak for Members on both sides of the House and throughout it in offering the warmest congratulations to Rev. Libby Lane on her appointment. It is a wonderful and joyous occasion of celebration for her and also, I hope, a sign of great and progressive change within the Church.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. A distinguished former British ambassador to Afghanistan said yesterday of our conduct of that war that it was
“a massive act of collective self-deception”
by politicians and generals. We must recall that 453 brave British soldiers lost their lives in that war. A major inquiry was promised by the Leader of the House into the war and into why we went into Helmand in the belief that not a shot would be fired. Is it not essential that we should hold that inquiry before we contemplate sending more British soldiers to risk their lives in foreign lands?
The hon. Gentleman is a wily operator if ever there was one. I think he knows that his question was directed not at me but at the Secretary of State for Defence and at tomorrow’s Official Report. In that respect, he has achieved his objective. He has made his point and it will be recorded; it has also been heard by those on the Treasury Bench.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Eugene Lukjanenko-Soifertis is a concert pianist. I have here a copy of the draft agenda of the European Parliament committee on petitions, dated 11 November. At item 15, Mr Lukjanenko-Soifertis petitioned the committee. I have attempted to table an early-day motion referring to what happened at that petitions committee—
Order. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I cannot know what he is about to say, but I should like to establish this point. I hope that he is not seeking to use the device of a point of order to say what he would have said if he had gone ahead in the way that I was advised he should not do—[Interruption.] He has a smile on his face, and this is occasioning gentle and wry amusement in the House. I understand that, but it would be quite disorderly and improper if he were to use a point of order in that way. I am sure that he is not going to try to do that—is he?
No. I do not think that I have been told not to refer to the fact that Mr Lukjanenko-Soifertis is a concert pianist or to the agenda. I have, however, been told not to refer to what happened at the European Parliament’s petitions committee, despite the fact that it is available on the internet and can be looked at very easily. I am not allowed to refer to what happened in a motion. I would therefore like to ask my first question of the Speaker. If I were to come here with a copy of the minutes of that petitions committee meeting, would it be in order for me to refer to their contents? Secondly, given that when I tried to table a petition referring to the same issue, I was told that it could not be tabled for the same reason of sub judice, will the Speaker please explain why we, uniquely as a jurisdiction, have a rule of sub judice in respect of petitions and tell me what is happening about that?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I say in the most positive of spirits that his words are his choice and my words, by way of response, must be mine. He sought a waiver of the sub judice resolution from me in connection with a proposed early-day motion about a matter before the petitions committee of the European Parliament. Of course I took advice, as colleagues will appreciate, but I was not persuaded of the case for such a waiver. Subsequently, it was brought to my attention that another Member, the hon. Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle), had sought to present a public petition on behalf of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) that essentially repeated the terms of his proposed early-day motion. I concluded that the presentation of a petition was not an appropriate way to circumvent the sub judice rule, and was not what the House intended to happen when it made its resolution concerning sub judice.
The right to petition this House is an ancient one. It can be an important last resort after all other efforts to address a grievance have been exhausted, but if a case to which a petition relates is active in the courts, all other avenues have not been exhausted. A petition must seek a remedy that it is within the power of the House to grant, and it is hard to see how that requirement could be satisfied when the matter in question is actively before the courts. In these circumstances, I have taken the view that a petition should not be received. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley might wish to take this matter up with the Procedure Committee, of which he is a distinguished ornament—[Laughter.] That is a compliment to the hon. Gentleman. The application of the sub judice rule to public petitions seems to me to be an appropriate matter for that Committee to consider. When people raise points of order, they want a reply and, preferably, some advice from the Chair. In the best possible spirit, I am advising the hon. Gentleman on a constructive way forward under the auspices of that Committee, which is chaired with distinction by the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker). I hope that if the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley wants a resolution to the matter, he will follow that course.
I thank the Speaker for his advice. In fact, the matter is to be discussed in the Procedure Committee later today, which is why I wished to raise this point of order to clarify the issue specifically in respect of petitions before that meeting took place.
I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:
Childcare Payments Act 2014
Wales Act 2014
Taxation of Pensions Act 2014
Buckinghamshire County Council (Filming on Highways) Act 2014.
Women’s Refuges (Provision and Eligibility)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require provision of women’s refuges in certain areas; to set out requirements of local councils relating to women’s refuges; and for connected purposes.
It is a sad fact of our society that violence against women is all too common—far too common. Women’s Aid estimates that one in four women experiences domestic violence at some point in their lives. I believe that the coalition Government has a good record on this matter, and I am pleased to have played a part in delivering some action, including the creation of domestic violence protection orders, the domestic violence disclosure scheme and the actions taken to get the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to take matters of domestic violence far more seriously. I have to say, however, that there is a crucial gap in delivery of these services: the provision of refuges in our society. The gap has emerged because of local authority budgets, which of course are very challenging, and because some local authorities have decided that it is appropriate—I do not believe it is—to make cuts in refuge provision. In addition, because domestic violence has rightly gone up the agenda, we are now seeing more women having the confidence to come forward to access the services, as is their right, and that is putting further pressure on the services themselves.
Women’s refuges are crucial. They are not just a bed for the night; specialist refuges provide secure accommodation, usually at a secret address, and a range of specialist and holistic support services. Uprooting lives, often including those of children, is a last resort for women when they feel that nothing else will keep them safe—when there is nowhere else for them to go.
Unfortunately, we are seeing challenges to the provision of refuges across our country. Since 2010, we have seen a 17% reduction, from 187 to 155, in the number of specialist domestic violence refuges. Nearly a third of referrals to refuges across the country were turned down last year because of a lack of space, and on one day in 2013, 155 women and 103 children were turned away from the first refuge they called because there was no space for them. That is quite unacceptable and nobody in this House can be satisfied with that situation.
This is not simply about the number of refuges; it is also about the way in which local authorities are commissioning services for the refuges. According to the Women’s Aid “Gold Book” of domestic violence services, since 2011 there has been a 30% reduction in the number of refuge services listed saying that they can accept emergency overnight referrals and a 28% reduction in the number of domestic violence services that have 24-hour staffing. So the commissioning practices of local authorities are also severely affecting those who need to access the services.
One particularly pernicious and unhelpful development is that some local authorities have decided, for reasons best known to themselves, no doubt, that they should impose conditions on which women can access the services. Some authorities are imposing “local connection” requirements, but the last place that someone who has been subject to domestic violence wants to be is very local. They need to be somewhere safe, which is not next to where the perpetrator of violence may be. Local connections are absolutely not what we need to see in refuge provision.
Between April and October 2014, four local authorities issued tenders that included local connection rules saying that 70% to 80% of the refuge spaces in the service have to be reserved for women and children who live in the local area. Four local authority tenders for domestic violence services run by a non-specialist organisation did not include refuge provision, which is the second problem we face in commissioning. Commissioning practices tend to exclude specialist provision and appeal to much larger companies, of a more generalist nature, which sometimes do not understand what they are providing and for whom. So the specialist nature of provision, which is key to delivery, is also being eroded in an unhelpful way.
One local authority awarded a tender for refuge accommodation to a non-specialist service outside the local area, even though the submission from its specialist domestic violence service locally was less expensive. Local authorities are not only failing to provide sufficiently for women who need to access the services, but losing money unnecessarily for the council tax payer in some cases. In the worst cases, women are being refused access to refuges because they do not have a local connection and they are then given emergency accommodation at council expense while beds sometimes lie empty in those refuges—that cannot make sense.
My Bill would require the Government to set a minimum network standard across the country on the number of refuges and by local authority area, and it would end, with immediate effect, any further closures of refuges by a local authority. A woman who needs to access a refuge must be able to do so; we cannot have women turned away in the way that has been happening recently.
Secondly, my Bill would make it a statutory duty on local authorities to provide such services. We are seeing cuts and we will in the future, as cuts are coming down the track whoever is in government after the next election, and local authorities are bound to be looking at refuge provision as part of their savings. I know that in my East Sussex county council area there were plans to cut refuge provision. Thankfully, they have been headed off for the time being, but I imagine such plans will come back, both there and elsewhere, unless there is a statutory duty to make such provision.
Thirdly, I want the Government to issue statutory guidance, which would, for example, ban the local connection criterion and do other more sensible work on how local authorities are commissioning services.
I welcome the £10 million lifeline the Government has provided to help refuge provision in the short term, which was announced in late November. I had pressed for it inside government when I was in the Home Office, but I am sure Ministers recognise that it is only a stop gap and that a more permanent solution is required. I am concerned that the bidding arrangements that have been put in place require us to go through housing authorities, and that in a two-tier local authority area, such as mine, Lewes district council or Wealden district council would have to handle the bid, although the refuge provision is handled by East Sussex county council. That seems to make no sense and creates an unnecessary bureaucratic hurdle. I welcome the fact that the temporary stop-gap Government money prevents the geographical restrictions I have referred to as being very unhelpful, and I note that the commissioning help which I helped to initiate when I was a Home Office Minister is already being given to local authorities.
The Government has done a lot to help women who are subject to domestic violence in our society—as the Home Secretary knows, they get a very clear steer that it is not acceptable. It is a great pity that, having done such a great deal of work, there is one gap in provision, which is so crucial: the fact that local authority cuts are leading to a reduction in refuge provision or to bad commissioning. There is a gaping hole that needs to be filled. My Bill closes that gap.
Question put and agreed to.
That Norman Baker, Jenny Willott, Caroline Lucas, Dr Julian Huppert, Sarah Champion, Dr Sarah Wollaston, Annette Brooke and Mr Jeremy Browne presented the Bill.
Norman Baker accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 January 2015, and to be printed (Bill 141).
[11th Allotted Day]