House of Commons
Thursday 12 March 2015
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
1. What steps she is taking to assist dairy farmers. 
The dairy industry is a vital part of food and farming and of our national life. With farmers struggling with low prices, we are doing all we can to help with cash flow. We are working with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to help farmers delay their tax payments; we are urging banks to treat dairy farmers sympathetically; and we have prioritised dairy farmers for payments from the Rural Payments Agency.
I am grateful for that answer. My right hon. Friend will know that Shropshire has some of the most productive and best dairy farms in the whole country, and I very much hope to invite her to visit Shropshire after the election, when she will continue to be a great Secretary of State. Will she explain what additional help she is giving to dairy farmers to ensure that more milk is used in our schools and hospitals, and exported?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend about how productive dairy farmers in Shropshire are. We want to see more dairy products sold here in Britain and overseas. That is why we launched the Bonfield plan, which will open up £400 million-worth of business across the public sector. I strongly encourage schools, hospitals and caterers to use the balanced scorecard, so that they can buy from great producers in Shropshire.
May I applaud the work the Secretary of State and her Department have done on exporting dairy and other products? What urgent action can she take to rebalance the relationship in the supply chain between the very small dairy producer and the often very large processor in this business?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. Since 2009, we have seen a 50% increase in dairy exports. There is still more to do, however, which is why we have appointed our first ever agriculture and food counsellor at the Beijing embassy—China will be the world’s largest importer of food and drink by 2018. There is, of course, more work to do, and we have given the Groceries Code Adjudicator further powers, including the power to impose fines of 1% of turnover.
A key plank of the Government’s assistance to dairy farmers is the LEADER programme. After the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs failed to answer pleas for advice on the Isle of Wight’s application, will my right hon. Friend agree to an urgent meeting, so we can discuss this matter with Ministers?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and he is right about the vital support the LEADER programme brings. DEFRA Ministers are already looking at this issue, and I would be delighted to discuss it with him.
With milk at 20p a litre, farmers across Wiltshire are suffering most dreadfully, and many of them are going out of business, but they accept that it is a question of worldwide supply. They ask me questions, however, about whether the Irish quota is larger than it need be, and about whether milk products, particularly cheese, are being re-imported from Ireland—possibly illegally across a porous border—and depressing British prices.
Currently, 50% of the dairy products consumed in Britain are imported. I want to see more British products produced and sold in this country. That is why I am pushing the European Commission for compulsory country of origin labelling to make sure that British consumers can go into supermarkets and find out which products are from Britain.
Inshore Fishing Fleet (Discard Ban)
2. What assessment she has made of the potential effect of a discard ban on the inshore fishing fleet. 
We recently launched a consultation on the implementation of the discard ban, which will help us to make that assessment. The consultation is being used to identify how to phase in the ban, how to allocate increases in quotas, where to introduce exemptions and how to manage the under-10 metre quota pool. The discard ban can provide significant benefits for all sectors of the fleet.
Trawlermen in Folkestone, Hythe and Dungeness have raised with me their concerns about the lack of quota for the inshore fishing fleet and the potentially devastating impact of the discard ban. Will the Minister urgently consider making more quota available for the inshore fishing fleet and granting an exemption from the discard ban?
While the common fisheries policy does not allow the exemption of a whole fleet, there are other exemptions—for instance, exemptions for species that survive after being discarded, and if handling discards is disproportionately costly. On quota, we are in the process of permanently realigning some of it from producer organisations to the inshore fleet. In addition, as part of this consultation, we are considering giving the inshore fleet a greater share of the quota uplift that forms part of the CFP.
Given the collapse of our bass stocks, and the fact that the latest figures show a worrying 30% increase in the number of commercial landings of bass, will the Minister please finally take meaningful action to save our bass? Will he, for instance, provide for an immediate increase in the minimum landing size, which is something that I signed off 10 years ago when I was the fisheries Minister?
I know that the right hon. Gentleman has been pursuing this issue. As he will know, at the December Council we argued strongly for measures to be taken on bass. We pressed the European Commission to take emergency measures to ban pair trawling, which was done in the new year. We are currently discussing with other member states and the Commission the possibility of a bag limit for anglers, and also catch limits for the remainder of the commercial fleet. I can also tell the right hon. Gentleman that we are considering raising the minimum landing size nationally.
May I urge my hon. Friend to review the application of the rules relating to the ban on the return of fish that might survive, particularly hand-lined mackerel? I have some experience of this, and I know that the vast majority survive. It is absurd for fishermen to be told that they cannot return those fish.
Mackerel were included in the pelagic discard ban that was considered last year, but we are giving serious consideration to the survivability rates of white fish, particularly flatfish such as sole and plaice. I shall be happy to look into the specific issue of mackerel hand-lining in Cornwall, and to keep it under constant review. We did manage to secure an exemption for the Cornish sardine industry, which was a big success.
There is still a huge amount of uncertainty about how the ban can be made workable in the context of mixed fisheries in the North sea. What are Ministers doing to ensure that so-called choke species do not end up choking off the livelihoods of not just the fishermen in the white fish fleet, but the onshore processors?
I know that people are concerned about the challenges involved in the implementation of a discard ban. That is why we have had to start thinking about it at an early stage, and why we have issued the consultation in the way that we have. As for choke species such as hake, which is often cited in Scotland, we will be phasing in the ban over five years, and we will start with the species that define the fishery, so the ban on some of those species would not apply until a date closer to 2020.
I believe that the discard ban is absolutely right, although it will obviously take some time to get its implementation right. What will be done about fish that are landed and may or may not be fit for human consumption, but could be used as fish food, or even for farming purposes?
We are discussing that with processors and port authorities, but we believe that we have enough processing capacity to create fishmeal, although there may be problems with transport from the ports to the locations where the fishmeal is processed. We want to change fishing behaviour, and to reduce the amount of unwanted fish that is landed by means of more selective gears and changes in fishing patterns.
I am sure that the Minister is aware of the regional discrepancy in net configurations. The Northern Ireland requirement is 300 mm, while the requirement in the Republic of Ireland is 80 mm, and there are different requirements in Scotland, Wales and England. Has the Minister discussed with regional authorities and the Government of the Republic the introduction of more uniformity in net configuration, in the context of the discard ban?
I shall be happy to look into that. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the nephrops industry is particularly important in Northern Ireland, and we managed, against the odds, to secure an increase in the total allowable catch at the December Council. That will be good for the Northern Ireland fleet. Different countries take different approaches when it comes to technical measures; that is an important aspect of the devolved entity that we want the common fisheries policy to become.
Bees and Pollinators
3. What assessment she has made of the role the public can play in supporting bees and pollinators. 
6. What assessment she has made of the role the public can play in supporting bees and pollinators 
In November we published the national pollinator strategy, a 10-year plan to help pollinators to thrive, which involves farmers, major landowners and the public. People can help in their gardens, schools or local parks by leaving areas wild for pollinators, or ensuring that food sources are available throughout the year.
Will the Secretary of State update me on how the 2013 United Kingdom national action plan for sustainable use of pesticides is being reviewed, so that the use of pesticides by local authorities in particular can be reduced?
We will update the action plan by 2017 in line with European Union requirements. Many local authorities are involved in our national pollinator strategy: Bristol, Wyre Forest and Peterborough are all taking measures to plant pollinator-friendly wild flowers.
Last month, at the Stafford green arts festival, “There is no planet B”, I was presented with a book that contained a number of concerns raised by my constituents, including the threat to bees and pollinators. What news can I give them of the work being done across the country to protect and preserve pollinators, which are so essential for food production?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: pollinators are vital for our £100 billion food and farming industry, and are estimated to be worth £430 million to our economy in services alone. That is why we launched the national pollinator strategy, which will include a wild pollinator and wildlife element in the new countryside stewardship scheme. That means that farmers will have a strong incentive to help pollinators on their land.
I am pleased to see that Network Rail has joined the Government’s strategy on pollinators, but is my right hon. Friend aware that its practice of removing all vegetation along the railway embankments destroys the habitats of bees and pollinators, and no assurances have been given to my constituents in Hampton-in-Arden that there will be an offset for this biodiversity loss?
I thank my right hon. Friend for making that point. It is good news that Network Rail, the Highways Agency and other major organisations, including the National Trust, have signed up to the pollinator strategy, and I am certainly very happy to take up that specific point with Network Rail, because major landowners can do so much to make sure that areas are available for pollinators to thrive.
Rural Payments Agency
4. What assessment she has made of trends in the performance of the Rural Payments Agency since 2010. 
Under this Government, the Rural Payments Agency has dealt with the historical issues of late payments to farmers, which were a feature under the last Government. This year it released payments to 97.4% of claimants within the first month, and 2013-14 was the agency’s most successful year to date, with more customers being paid on the first day than ever before, and with high customer satisfaction scores.
I must declare my interest in farming. Will the basic payments system be ready by 15 May? Why are farmers expected to draw ineligible features, instead of satellite mapping being used? What sort of support is there if they make any errors in the process, so that they are not being set up to fail?
There were three questions there, but at least each was brief.
On the first point, I can report that over 75% of farmers are now registered on the system. Some of them are experiencing issues with the slowness of the mapping system, and we are working to address that. On my hon. Friend’s question about why they have to map, they have always had to map ineligible features—that is a requirement of the EU regulations—but they are entered on to the final application by digitisers, who check that the area is mapped correctly.
Stephen Wyrill, national chairman of the Tenant Farmers Association, says that the Department’s online system for farmers to claim under the basic payment scheme is “heading for carnage”, and Guy Smith, vice-president of the National Farmers Union, says that its concern will turn to “justified alarm” if full mapping functionality is not operating by this weekend as promised. Many farmers depend for their survival on this payment. Can the Minister give an undertaking that all farmers will be able to make their claim online by 15 May?
We have been working closely with the farming industry on this. Under this system, this was always going to be an iterative process. We wanted to put the system in place in stages and instalments. We have 75% of farmers on already, we are addressing the issue of the speed of the system, and we are looking at ways of expediting things for certain land types, so that they can bypass parts of the land eligibility criteria. I should also point out that we have a network of 50 digital support centres to help those farmers who require help.
With 25% of farmers not yet registered and the deadline fast approaching, Farmers Weekly is reporting that only 236 farmers have gone for help to the 50 support centres, which is fewer than five per centre. Those who have registered—96% of them did so by phone, not online—are reporting that the online system has constant error messages and general slowness, that field information is not appearing, and that the mapping function does not work. Is the Minister planning a paper-based plan B, in case his online system collapses or is not fit for purpose?
Our plan is to make the system work and to ensure that those farmers who need help can go into digital support centres. We anticipate that those centres will be busier in April, but we have ensured that they have sufficient capacity to upscale and to help farmers. It is important to recognise that about half of all farmers have only permanent pasture, and the requirement for them to map their details is lesser than it is for arable farmers. We are looking at ways of expediting this process.
This Government should be hugely proud of the massive improvement in the Rural Payments Agency, compared with the chaos of a few years ago. We should also give thanks to its chief executive, Mark Grimshaw, for his work on making that happen. It is a fact that the IT systems will be critical in future. They will have to work, but we also need to enable farmers to use IT out in rural areas of the country that often have no access. The Minister will of course do everything he can to make the system work, but will he also redouble his efforts to persuade other Government Departments that rural broadband is absolutely critical to this important industry?
Yes. We recognise the importance of rural broadband, which is why Broadband Delivery UK has invested hundreds of millions of pounds to bring broadband to rural areas. I know that my hon. Friend was involved in commissioning the Cap D system—the common agricultural policy delivery system—and he will recognise that we have ensured that it can operate at quite low speeds of around 2 megabits per second. That will ensure that most farmers are able to use it, but we have established the network of digital support centres for those who are not.
Key Performance Indicators
5. What steps she is taking to ensure that her Department’s environmental key performance indicators are met. 
The core Department has reduced the size of its core estate to three properties and implemented measures such as LED lighting and improved insulation to reduce energy use. Carbon emissions, the quantity of waste we generate and the amount of water we use have reduced by 39%, 30% and 2% respectively. In the coming year, we are looking to use energy performance contracts to make our buildings more efficient and potentially to introduce renewable generation.
The environment is clearly a key part of preventing and combating climate change, and that was one of the performance indicators. However, the Secretary of State has reduced from 38 to six the number of people working on climate change, and the Committee on Climate Change gave her Department a mere three out of 10. Does the Minister agree that in so trivialising climate change, the Secretary of State is putting at risk our long-term economic and environmental future?
Mr Speaker, you will not be surprised to hear that I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s contention. I have a meeting this afternoon with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change on the important work that we are doing on mitigation and adaptation. That remains a priority for this Government, which is why we are delivering on making a difference on this important range of issues.
Could one of the Department’s environmental key performance indicators be the simplification of uplands entry-level stewardship agreements? I have several hill farmers who are struggling with unhelpful interpretations of those agreements by Natural England, and they need to be clarified and simplified.
It is absolutely right that we should do all we can to ensure that these important new schemes are brought in properly, and that the existing schemes are functioning correctly. If my hon. Friend has particular concerns about the schemes, I would be happy to receive a letter from him that I can share with my colleague who deals primarily with these matters.
The Select Committee on Environmental Audit has used a traffic light system to assess the Government’s performance over the past five years. On air pollution, it has given the Government a red light; on biodiversity and wildlife, it has given the Government a red light; and on climate change adaptation, flooding and coastal protection, it has also given the Government a red light. This Government were supposed to be the greenest Government ever, so why are they ending their time in office without being awarded a single green light?
During my time in office, I have been happy to give evidence repeatedly to the Environmental Audit Committee, though I might disagree with some of its conclusions. I am happy to say that this Government are making improvements on air quality. There are issues with nitrogen dioxide, but they are being addressed at European level. We are improving our status in the important area of biodiversity in this country. We are improving our water quality. Across a whole range of areas, this Government are taking action to improve the quality of our environment and to establish, through the processes of the Natural Capital Committee, the importance of our natural capital now and in the future.
7. How many flood defence schemes are planned to be built under the Government's flood defence programme. 
Our six-year flood defence programme, announced in December, includes more than 1,400 projects across the country. This £2.3 billion investment is a real-terms increase in capital spending and will mean that 300,000 homes are better protected.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that. She will be aware of local authorities’ proposals to strengthen defences around the Humber estuary, and the autumn statement allocated £80 million for initial expenditure. Will she update us on when her officials will have made a full assessment of the proposals and when she will be able to make an announcement?
I was delighted that in December we could announce £80 million for schemes on the Humber estuary, which will improve protection for more than 50,000 households. We are examining the ambitious proposals put forward by my hon. Friend, his colleagues and local authorities in the area, and we will publish the results in July.
12. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for publishing the flood protection investment figures as official statistics, for which I asked in the House more than a year ago. They show, as I claimed, that over the past three years the Government have cut the amount spent on flood protection by £350 million, compared with the amount they inherited. The really interesting thing is that although the figures show the amount rising this year to £469 million, they show it falling immediately after the election to £370 million. Is that because the Government believe flood risks will fall by 20% next year—or is it just pre-election cynicism? 
Let us be clear: the amount we are spending in our six-year programme—£2.3 billion—is a real-terms increase on the capital expenditure this Parliament, which again is a real-terms increase from that in the previous Parliament. The result of that is we will end up reducing flood risk, including the impact of climate change, by 5%.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that it is not just the sea we need to protect against, but flooding from excessive rain. What action is she taking to encourage the Environment Agency to ensure that drainage ditches are regularly dredged?
First, we are putting additional funding into maintenance—an additional £35 million this year and next year for those types of activity. We are also running pilot projects so that local landowners and farmers can be involved in that work, as well as the Environment Agency. In addition, local environment agencies are spending more time now on issues such as dredging to make sure that that work happens.
The residents of Morpeth in my constituency are delighted with the actions of the Environment Agency and the near completion of the flood alleviation scheme, but they are really concerned about flood risk insurance. What stage are we at in the discussions and negotiations on Flood Re and other affordable insurance schemes?
We are on track for Flood Re to be established this summer—we are currently working on that. In the interim, we have the 2008 statement of principles, which will make sure that people in those areas do have flood insurance.
I call Kerry McCarthy. She is not here.
9. What assessment she has made of the lessons that can be learned from the experiences of other countries in dealing with bovine tuberculosis. 
The success of the bovine TB eradication policies pursued in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, the United States and the Republic of Ireland demonstrates the need to bear down on the disease effectively in both cattle and wildlife.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he agree that lessons from Ireland, in particular, show that where there is TB in wildlife it must be tackled through culling as part of any comprehensive strategy to tackle TB? If that had happened years ago when TB was known to be moving towards Cheshire at the rate of 1 mile a year, Cheshire’s farmers would not be suffering the difficulties they are today. Does he also agree that this should not be such a political issue? It is about supporting our farmers and eradicating TB.
My hon. Friend makes an important point: it is not possible to eradicate this disease without tackling the reservoir of the disease in the wildlife population. She rightly says that the previous Government put their head in the sand and did nothing. This is a slow-moving, difficult disease and it has to be hit hard and early, which the previous Government failed to do. At a recent NFU conference Labour confirmed again that, irrespective of the evidence and the advice of the chief veterinary officer, it would abandon the culls.
Despite the Government’s protestations, the previous Labour Government killed more badgers than any other Government. [Laughter.] Yes. The £50 million trial over 10 years concluded that such action gave no meaningful contribution to the eradication of tuberculosis. The Government’s badger culls have not just been a disaster for wildlife, but come at a huge financial cost. In the first year of the culls, the Government spent £9.8 million. With Ministers proposing to extend the badger culls, possibly to 10 areas and after that to 40 areas, how much more can taxpayers expect to fork out for these ineffective and inhumane badger culls?
The random badger cull trials that were carried out demonstrated incontrovertibly that, over time, the cull did lead to a significant reduction in the disease, which is why the experts in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recommend a cull as part of the strategy. It is absolutely wrong for Labour to say that it will ignore the evidence and the advice of the chief veterinary officer. On the costs in the first year, the cull clearly had elements of analysis, post mortem, research and policing that will not be present when we roll it out more widely. We are committed to having a badger cull as part of our 25-year strategy.
10. If she will take steps to increase the number of Natura 2000 sites in England. 
A review of the network of special protection areas classified under the wild birds directive is currently under way and will inform decisions on the need to classify further sites. The network of special areas of conservation designated under the habitats directive is essentially complete, but is continually under review to ensure that it remains sufficient. Further work has been undertaken to identify additional SACs for harbour porpoise and is expected to deliver later this year.
I thank the Minister for his answer. In that review, will he consider extending the status of Natura 2000 to the area of outstanding natural beauty in the Chilterns, particularly as it has precious ancient woodland, really fragile chalk streams and the majestic sight of the successfully re-introduced red kites soaring over our Chiltern hills? Surely we should be a candidate for Natura 2000 designation.
I can reassure my right hon. Friend that the work of the AONBs is very much recognised by Government. On considering further protections, we must look at the evidence on those particular species and take any decision very carefully. Natural England is considering designating more ancient woodland as sites of special scientific interest, which will increase the protection afforded to the best ancient woodlands above and beyond that which is already accorded to ancient woodlands through the national planning policy framework.
Hunting Act 2004
11. What her policy is on repeal of the Hunting Act 2004. 
My support for fox hunting is well known. The Hunting Act was a mistake, and I strongly support repeal. Acknowledging the strong views on both sides of this debate, I am pleased that the Prime Minister has said that a Conservative Government will give Parliament the opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act on a free vote with a Government Bill in Government time.
Despite Tory hysteria, the Hunting Act did not reduce the pageantry of hunting or result in the mass slaughter of horses or hounds. What it did do was reduce greatly the sadistic torment of the chase and the kill. Is the nasty party really going to campaign in the election to bring cruelty back into hunting?
I am not prepared to listen to the advice of a party that has a shadow farming Minister who will not listen to the chief veterinary officer and who has said publicly that he will not follow his advice on animal welfare issues.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating members of the Holcombe hunt, whose hounds have their kennels in my constituency, on maintaining their activities within the law since the hunting ban was introduced and preserving this most traditional of rural pursuits?
I completely agree that hunting is important for rural communities. It is traditional and part of the fabric of our countryside.
Why will the Secretary of State not recognise the huge opposition to the idea of repealing the Hunting Act? Instead of proposing yet more cruelty to animals, why will she not look at extending the Act to grouse shooting and hare coursing, which also are cruel and hugely opposed in this country?
Our approach is that we will introduce a Government Bill in Government time to repeal the Hunting Act on a free vote.
If that is indeed our approach, can the Secretary of State tell us why there has not been a free vote in this Parliament, as set out in the coalition agreement?
I want to see repeal of the Act, and I am pleased to say that the Prime Minister has said that a Conservative Government will give the opportunity for that.
T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. 
The Government are delivering on their priorities of growing the economy and improving the environment. Since 2010, we have cut farm inspections by 34,000 a year. We have helped create 150,000 acres of priority habitats. We have planted more than 11 million trees. We have cleaned up more than 10,000 miles of river. We have reformed the common fisheries policy, invested £3.2 billion in our flood defences, providing protection to an additional 230,000 homes, and put in place a strategy to eradicate bovine TB. This is a record we can be proud of.
Will the Secretary of State join me in applauding the work of the Forestry Commission to secure a criminal conviction against those who illegally felled more than 500 trees in Basingstoke in a failed attempt to establish a Traveller site? Will she look at ways to encourage the courts to use the fining powers that are available to them to help stop this sort of appalling environmental vandalism?
I welcome the fact that the Forestry Commission’s enforcement action has been successful, and I applaud its exercise of these important powers. We take protection of our woodlands seriously, and no doubt the Commission will pursue the restocking requirements vigorously. It is for the courts to determine sentences, but I fully expect the restocking burden to act as a key deterrent.
If the Government’s record in tackling lethal air pollution is as good as the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), claimed earlier, why is Britain facing unprecedented fines and legal action in the European courts for failing on every single air quality measure?
I am happy that the right hon. Gentleman is focusing attention on this. As he will no doubt be aware, one of the key factors is transport fuels, especially diesel, and the failure of vehicles to meet in real-world conditions what was shown by testing when they were approved for use. We must make improvements at the European level on vehicles standards and testing. We also make funds available to local authorities to help them take measures locally to deal with air quality. It is a crucial issue.
T3. Will the Secretary of State confirm that her Department is on course to have cut red tape for farmers by cutting guidance by 80% and by reducing the number of farm inspections by 34,000 during this Parliament? When she is returned after 7 May, will she ensure that cutting red tape includes making it easier and cheaper for my Nottinghamshire farmers and riparian owners to maintain the streams and rivers that protect the countryside? 
I agree with my hon. Friend. We have seen a reduction of 34,000 farm inspections per year and an 80% reduction in red tape from DEFRA. That is vital for our £100 billion food and farming industry. A future Conservative Government would continue to bear down on red tape. We are considering pilots for landowners and farmers to manage water courses themselves, to get rid of a lot of bureaucracy.
T5. I hope that the Minister’s office passed on notice of my question; I appreciate that it is quite obscure. Musicians face anxiety when they travel to the United States because if their instruments contain even small amounts of ivory they fall foul of the convention on international trade in endangered species regulations. Will the Minister assure me that CITES certificates will be recognised by the US authorities and, in the longer term, may we perhaps look at an exemption for vintage instruments? I think that mother of pearl as well as ivory is an issue. 
We are aware of these concerns and certainly want the US Government to recognise CITES musical instrument certificates, to ease the task of musicians travelling to the US with instruments that contain small amounts of legal ivory. Ultimately, these are matters for the US Government to determine. However, we intend to approach the European Commission and other EU member states to propose a joint approach to ask the US to clarify its position, with the aim of providing the reassurances the hon. Lady seeks.
T4. So much done, so much still to do. Will my right hon. Friend commit to giving statutory status as consultees to water companies for fracking, major developments and houses and roads? In the time available, what will she look back on and see as her Department’s major achievement over the past five years? 
I certainly commit to my hon. Friend that we will ensure that there are proper environmental protections for water, as part of the Environment Agency’s work on protection for fracking areas. On the Department’s achievements, we have put food and farming at the heart of the long-term economic plan. We have seen food exports rise to £19 billion. That is vital for the one in eight people in this country who work in food and farming.
May I ask the Secretary of State not to be too complacent about our streams and rivers in this country? Has she seen recent research? I have registered interests as the initiator of Greenstreams, which cleans up the rivers in my part of the world, and in environmental waste. Does she know that the old landfills are leaching tonnes of ammonia into our rivers every year? If we do not do something about it, the 27.5 tonnes of ammonia that go into one Oxford river every year will continue to do so, and that will happen all over the country.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Since 2010, phosphates and sulphides in water have reduced. That is positive progress, but of course he is absolutely right: there is more to do. That is why we have just launched the water element of the countryside stewardship programme, which provides incentives to do just that.
T6. With so many large infrastructure projects in the pipeline, what input has the Secretary of State had in looking at the cumulative environmental impact of projects such as High Speed 2 and airport expansion? How many meetings has she had with the Department for Transport and HS2 Ltd, and how regular are those meetings? 
Ministers, including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, have regular meetings throughout the year with Ministers from other Departments, and of course, at official level, we engage very strongly across Departments on such issues. Planning guidance on the need to protect our environment is absolutely clear.
The Minister will be aware of the current price war in the supermarkets with regard to the price of a loaf of bread. Sainsbury’s is selling Hovis at 75p a loaf. What can Ministers do to ensure that that does not adversely impact people working in the baking industry?
The supermarket adjudicator requires retailers to stick to the terms of contracts, not retrospectively to hit suppliers or unreasonably request them to take part in promotions. Through the groceries code and the adjudicator, we have measures in place to deal with the problems that the hon. Gentleman cites.
T7. Shoreham in my constituency has a flourishing houseboat community, which adds to the colour of our town. Alas, it also adds to the colour of the water flowing into Shoreham harbour until high tide washes it away, as few boats have sewage tanks or are linked to drainage on the shore. Do the Government have any plans to tighten up on pollution from boats used as homes? 
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight potential risks from sewage pollution in water. If the Environment Agency can demonstrate a problem, it can issue a notice within 3 nautical miles of an area of operation. Since 1994, all new recreational craft should be fitted with holding tanks that allow managed discharge. Larger vessels are covered by maritime conventions. If there are specific issues in his area and he would like to write to me about them, I will get him a more detailed answer from the agency.
We heard earlier of the broadband and other problems of those trying to access rural payments. I know personally the dire experience of broadband services across much of Northumberland, so three years after Labour’s universal broadband commitment would have come into force, will the Secretary of State admit that this Government have sacrificed the rural economy in order to subsidise a monopoly roll-out by BT of superfast broadband mainly in urban and semi-urban areas?
During this Parliament, we have seen superfast broadband coverage rise from 43% to 80%, and we are seeing connectivity improving in rural areas and the gap between rural and urban areas close in terms of productivity and earnings, as well as better road connections, such as the dualling of the A11.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s help for dairy farming through exports, public procurement and general support, but what talks has she had with the banks? I think milk prices will improve, but the banks need to support farmers in the meantime.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. There will be short-term cash-flow pressures on farmers who are currently receiving low prices and in some cases have quite high costs. I have had a meeting already with the banks to discuss this and to encourage them to show forbearance. As the Secretary of State said earlier, we have also been encouraging HMRC to show forbearance to those farmers facing difficulties, and I will continue to monitor the issue closely.
May I urge the Government to reconsider their policy? Although they offer support for bovine TB badger vaccination projects in edge areas, they do not provide that same support in so-called hot-spot areas. I have been working with the Zoological Society of London on a project which has just been very successfully rolled out for its first pilot this year in Penwith. I urge the Government to look at that seriously, because projects in hot spots could make a telling and important contribution to bearing down on bovine TB.
I have met the hon. Gentleman to discuss this issue. He is aware that we have made an offer at DEFRA to give some support to that project in his constituency, notably to provide it with free vaccines and some equipment. However, the edge area vaccination scheme is in the edge area for a very good reason: the vaccine does not cure badgers that already have the disease. There is logic to using the vaccine in the edge area, to create a buffer to prevent the spread of the disease, but less so in the high-risk areas.
The right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
House of Bishops
1. What steps the Church Commissioners plan to take in response to the House of Bishops’ pastoral letter on the 2015 general election. 
A copy of the House of Bishops’ pastoral letter has been sent to every Member of Parliament. The letter makes it clear that it is not a shopping list of policies that the bishops would like to see, and that if anyone claims that the pastoral letter is saying, “Vote for this party or that party”, they have misunderstood it, but that there is a need to focus on the common good and the participation of more people in developing a political vision.
As this is the last Church Commissioners questions before Dissolution when my right hon. Friend leaves this House, may I place on record my thanks for all his work as the Second Church Estates Commissioner?
Is my right hon. Friend concerned that this letter, which is actually a 52-page booklet, may have been misrepresented in some quarters by some commentators, who have cherry-picked certain phrases and passages rather than looking at the document as a whole?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I hope every parliamentary colleague will read the bishops’ pastoral letter. I do not expect everyone to agree with everything in it, but it is a thoughtful and thought-provoking document which makes it clear that the bishops believe that
“the great majority of politicians and candidates enter politics with a passion to improve the lives of their fellow men and women.”
Only yesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury made this observation:
“It’s just the reality; decisions have to be made and it is often unbelievably difficult. Politicians know that quite often they are doing the best they can and the more I see of them the more I reckon that it’s very rare to find one who isn’t doing the best they can but often in incredibly difficult situations.”
St George's Cathedral (Jerusalem)
2. If the Church Commissioners will take steps to support St George's cathedral in Jerusalem. 
Like any Anglican cathedral overseas, St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem is financially independent of the Church Commissioners. However, I would hope that everyone possible would support the work of the friends of St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem, a UK registered charity that has the Archbishop of Canterbury as patron.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer and join my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) in paying tribute to the work that he has done as the Second Church Estates Commissioner.
On a visit with the International Development Committee last year in the area, I had the privilege of being invited by my constituent, Mrs Hifsa Iqbal, to an interfaith conference hosted by St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem. May I encourage the Church Commissioners to look at the very important work that St George’s is doing in the middle east and see what support they can give?
My hon. Friend makes a good point and I entirely agree with him. St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem seeks to support everyone in need irrespective of their faith, but its support for Palestinian Christians is particularly important as they often feel themselves to be twice a minority. It is a sad fact that the number of Christians in the Holy Land has dwindled significantly in recent years, so I hope that we will all do what we can to support the work of St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem, and the schools and hospitals that it runs for everyone in the west bank and in Gaza.
That is indeed a sad fact. I was fortunate to be able to join worshippers for evensong at St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem and I still remember the prayer that evening, that we should pray not just for the Israelis or for the Palestinians, but for ourselves—that we should not separate them in our prayers. Does that not illustrate the vital contribution that St George’s can make to both civic and spiritual life in Jerusalem?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I commend to every colleague psalm 122, which includes the words:
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”
Christianity (Rural Areas)
3. What steps the Church of England plans to take to maintain and support a Christian presence in every rural community. 
The Church of England is committed to being a Christian presence in every community. The recently published “Growing the Rural Church” report identifies a number of recommendations to help rural multi-church groups to flourish.
As well as being places of worship, especially in rural areas, churches are community hubs, and with priests being spread over so many parishes now, there are increasing problems. Will my right hon. Friend do everything he possibly can to ensure that the Church provides as many clergy as possible for our rural parishes?
Yes, indeed. We certainly seek to recruit more stipendiary and self-supporting clergy. My hon. Friend makes an important point. The vibrancy of churches is important to rural life. There are 635 churches in the diocese of Lincoln. They all play an important part in the vibrancy and vitality of the countryside of Lincolnshire.
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Church Commissioners dig deep into their resources to ensure that the jewels of the rural crown of the multiple parish churches in a constituency such as Thirsk and Malton will be preserved and kept in the best possible state of maintenance?
One of the tasks I will take on when I leave the House is to chair a statutory body, the Church Buildings Council, which is responsible for the maintenance, repair and restoration of all 16,000 parish churches throughout England. I want to make sure that they are always seen as a blessing, not as a burden. We must acknowledge that the majority of English churches are in rural areas, which cover only a sixth of the population, so we have some challenges, but they play an important part in the lives of every village community.
4. If the Church Commissioners will discuss with Church of England bishops initiatives involving other faith leaders on instilling citizenship values throughout the population. 
Bishops throughout England work closely with other faith leaders in their diocese to uphold citizenship values throughout their communities.
The right hon. Gentleman has always been more of a blessing than a burden in these sessions, and today especially so.
On a serious note, citizenship is taught patchily in schools in our country. We have a wonderful interfaith group in Huddersfield which leads this positive move to share faith and interests. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if the hard work is done in such organisations all the time, when crises arrive it will stand us in good stead?
I entirely agree. Indeed, I am glad that during this Parliament the Government, through the Department for Communities and Local Government, have supported three programmes to help promote faith communities: Near Neighbours, which is operated by the Church Urban Fund; Together in Service, which is operated by FaithAction; and the work of the Inter Faith Network for the UK. Another challenge that I am taking on after standing down is chairing the trustees of the St Ethelburga’s centre for reconciliation and peace, based in the City of London, which works with many interfaith institutions right across the country, whether in Huddersfield, Manchester or elsewhere. There is an enormous amount of really good practice going on in interfaith work across the United Kingdom, of which we can all be proud.
Mr Fitzpatrick, are you seeking to come in on this question?
No, Mr Speaker. I was anticipating Dr Offord’s question.
Anticipation is clearly one of the hon. Gentleman’s strengths.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
5. What steps the Electoral Commission is taking to tackle electoral fraud. 
The Electoral Commission has worked with the College of Policing to publish detailed guidance for police forces on preventing and detecting electoral fraud. Additional measures are also being put in place by returning officers and police forces in areas where there have been allegations of electoral fraud at previous elections. The Electoral Commission has worked with political parties to agree a code of conduct for campaigners and is developing a simple guide for voters on how to protect their vote and report electoral fraud.
My Labour opponent in Hendon has registered himself, and just himself, in a flat he owns in the constituency, even though he lives in Notting Hill with his wife. Does my hon. Friend think that is open, honest and transparent?
That is not, directly speaking, a matter for the Electoral Commission, although I certainly agree that transparency in all politics is very important. It might be something that my hon. Friend can raise during the course of the coming campaign.
Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Electoral Commission is monitoring events at the election court examining electoral fraud allegations relating to the Tower Hamlets mayoral election last year and that, given that the case is due to finish before the general election, any lessons to help improve the conduct of the election will be communicated to the police, the returning officer and the commissioners in Tower Hamlets?
I can certainly confirm that the Electoral Commission is watching that case very carefully indeed. There will be a study of the outcome once the judge has determined it. Obviously, I cannot comment on the details, as the case is ongoing. The report will be provided by the Electoral Commission as quickly as possible and lessons for the entire democratic system in our country will be learnt.
My hon. Friend will be aware that in the past there have been cases of electoral fraud and abuse in Bradford West. Will the Electoral Commission be keeping a particularly close eye on Bradford West in the forthcoming general election to ensure that no sharp practices are employed? If so, what additional measures are in place to ensure that the election in Bradford West will be free and fair?
Bradford is one of the 17 areas of the country that are receiving special attention from the Electoral Commission and the police in the run-up to the general election. There will be a greater police presence in those areas and firm guidance will be given to campaigners. Every police force in the country now has a specialist electoral fraud officer. The public will be issued with clear guidance on how to protect their vote and report any suspected electoral fraud, either to the police or to Crimestoppers.
In all the years that I have been voting, I have never noticed any clearly displayed signs in polling stations indicating the penalties for electoral fraud. Will my hon. Friend look into that and perhaps arrange to have a clear sign in every polling station explaining that people can go to prison for electoral fraud? Perhaps that will put off anyone intending to defraud the electorate.
I must confess to being as unobservant as my right hon. Friend, because I have not noticed any such displays either. I will pass her suggestion to the Electoral Commission immediately. If action is required, of course it will be taken.
The right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
6. What support is available for the upkeep of historic churches in local communities. 
The Heritage Lottery Fund makes money available for church repair and restoration. The Chancellor of the Exchequer recently announced a £15 million fund to assist churches with roof repairs. There are other sources of funding, such as help from landfill tax credits, to a number of charities and foundations that regularly and generously support repair, reordering and restoration work in parish churches. Details of possible funding can be found at www.churchcare.co.uk.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that parish churches such as St Michael’s in Middlewich in my constituency are an invaluable community resource, and that the cost of repairing and maintaining such listed church buildings should not just fall on the shoulders of church congregations but be shared more widely?
I agree that parish churches are an invaluable community asset. We ought to thank the Chancellor for what he has done during the course of this Parliament. There is gift aid; there is the small gift relief legislation that we passed; there is the listed places of worship scheme, which effectively relieves churches of the cost of VAT on repairs and restoration; and there is the recent £15 million roof fund that the Chancellor made available for helping to repair church roofs. Churches are part of our national heritage, and the whole community has a responsibility to help to maintain and restore them.
In my constituency, the friends of the Presbyterian church in Portaferry have a wonderful historic church. They applied for, and were successful in getting, a grant of some £900,000 from the Big Lottery Fund. Those moneys enabled the church to be refurbished, retained and restored to its former glory. What contact have the Church Commissioners had with the Big Lottery Fund scheme to ensure that all churches can do the same?
May I write to the hon. Gentleman, because I need to pick through that question? I have responsibility only for the Church of England, and I do not think my responsibilities stretch to Northern Ireland, so I need to see what help I can offer him.
8. Five years ago, I started nagging my right hon. Friend about money required to maintain the fabric of Lichfield cathedral, and I do not intend his retirement to stop me. What hope can he give Lichfield cathedral that we will receive funding in order to maintain the wiring—and when will he come and visit Lichfield? 
My hon. Friend’s question on the Order Paper was whether I would visit Lichfield cathedral, to which the answer is yes. The answer to his supplementary question is that, as the House will know, the Chancellor made £20 million available so that we could ensure that all our cathedrals were in a good state to commemorate the centenary of the first world war. Lichfield cathedral needs some serious money to help rewire it, because otherwise it will be unable to function. I am looking forward to visiting Lichfield cathedral shortly to see Lichfield’s treasures, including the Lichfield angel and my hon. Friend.
The right hon. Gentleman may be looking forward to his visit to Lichfield cathedral, but I do not suppose he is looking forward to it as much as the people of Lichfield.
7. What the Church Commissioners’ policy is on paying the living wage. 
The Church Commissioners and the Archbishops Council are committed to paying the living wage and ensuring that all staff and contractors who are employed at directly owned commercial and residential properties are paid at least the living wage. Other parts of the national institutions, including the Church of England, are committed to paying the living wage and are following the Living Wage Commission’s recommendations to put in place a transitional programme that involves all staff being paid the living wage by 2017.
Given that completely satisfactory answer, Mr Speaker, may I dispense with my supplementary question and simply, through you, thank the right hon. Gentleman for the superb job he has done as Second Church Estates Commissioner? He should be aware that millions of Anglicans and non-Anglicans across the world, but particularly our fantastic women priests, have him to thank for having saved the Church of England from itself in its original debacle over women bishops. On their behalf, thank you.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for those very kind comments. On this, as I hope on much, the work has benefited from cross-party collaboration, and much of what we have achieved we have achieved only by people in this House working together.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Online Voter Registration (Young and Student Voters)
9. What assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the effect of online registration on young and student voters. 
The Electoral Commission informs me that 18 to 24-year-olds are the second most active age group in making use of the online registration system, comprising about a quarter of all applications. Research conducted by YouGov for the Electoral Commission in January showed that 53% of 18 to 24-year-olds are still unaware that they can register to vote online. The commission is working with a wide range of organisations to encourage young people to register to vote and to raise awareness of how easy it is to do so online.
I am very concerned that, on 1 December, the electoral register appeared to have reduced by 900,000. Is my right hon. Friend aware that party-branded material is being circulated in schools to encourage 18-year-olds to register to vote? What can be done to ensure that there is political balance with young voters?
Since 1 December, more than 2 million applications to register to vote have been made, so it is almost certain that the numbers will be rebalanced by the time we get to 7 May.
You said that with a straight face!
The Electoral Commission is about to launch, on Monday, its TV awareness campaign, which I know the hon. Lady will support, to drive home the message that if you do not register, you cannot vote. The Electoral Commission is working with a number of organisations to make sure that this message has been put across to young people.
The right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
10. What the Church Commissioners’ policy is on investing their funds in petrochemical companies. 
The Church Commissioners do invest in petrochemical companies. These investments are managed in line with our ethical investment policy. The commissioners intend to continue to engage collaboratively with other shareholders and the industry to encourage greater transparency and transition to a lower-carbon economy.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. It is an honour to be the last person ever to ask him a question. It is just a shame that we are not talking about bats, as we usually do.
I know that the right hon. Gentleman feels that some progress has been made on this issue, but others have said that the Church of England is rather dragging its feet. Will he heed the calls of Archbishop Desmond Tutu to show strong moral leadership on this issue and report back sooner rather than later?
I am not quite sure on what specific issue the hon. Lady wants us to show strong moral leadership. The fact is that we have a vibrant North sea oil industry in this country, so we all have an interest in investing in the petrochemical industry. We need to ensure that we work with other shareholders and institutions to try to ensure that the oil companies act as transparently as possible and move as fast as possible to a lower-carbon economy.
In simply adding to the very proper tributes that have been paid to the right hon. Gentleman, I would like to take the opportunity to say that he has been assiduous, accomplished and avuncular in equal measures, which has been hugely appreciated across the House. I think he is aware that I am visiting Bloxham school in his constituency tomorrow. I cannot claim that I am doing so specifically to pay tribute to him, but it will be a pleasure to be in his constituency. On behalf of the whole House, I would like to thank him for his 32 years’ service in this place.
Business of the House
Mr Speaker, may I associate myself with your remarks about the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry)?
Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week?
Mr Speaker, may I, too, associate myself with your remarks about my right hon. Friend?
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 16 March—Motion to approve statutory instruments relating to counter-terrorism, followed by a motion to approve the draft Drug Driving (Specified Limits) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2015, followed by opposed private business which the Chairman of Ways and Means has named for consideration.
Tuesday 17 March—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Modern Slavery Bill, followed by a debate on motions relating to the reports from the Committee on Standards on the code of conduct and on the standards system in the House of Commons, followed by a debate on a motion relating to Shaker Aamer. The subject for this debate was recommended by the Backbench Business Committee.
Wednesday 18 March—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.
Thursday 19 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.
Friday 20 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.
The provisional business for the week commencing 23 March will include:
Monday 23 March—Conclusion of the Budget debate.
Tuesday 24 March—Consideration of a business of the House motion, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Recall of MPs Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to counter-terrorism.
Wednesday 25 March—All stages of the Finance (No. 2) Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to terrorism. The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages which may be received.
Thursday 26 March—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by an opportunity for Members to make short valedictory speeches, as recommended by the Backbench Business Committee. The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages which may be received.
Before I call the shadow Leader of the House, it might be helpful for the House if I say this: the Leader of the House has just announced that the Backbench Business Committee debate to be held on the morning of Thursday 26 March is intended to give retiring Members an opportunity to make a short valedictory speech. I gather that there will be many retiring Members who wish to take part and, inevitably, the time will be constrained. I therefore draw their attention to the opportunity offered by the four-day Budget debate, also just announced for Wednesday 18, Thursday 19, Friday 20 and Monday 23 March, in which my colleagues and I are minded to permit some latitude to retiring Members wishing to make valedictory remarks, although without any derogation from any time limits that may be in place.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for the remainder of the Parliament. In the blizzard of last-minute statutory instruments that have appeared on the Order Paper, the Registration of Consultant Lobbyists Regulations 2015 were laid on 26 February. Despite the Prime Minister’s pre-election pledge to shine the light of transparency on lobbying, it is expected that the new register will cover just 1% of ministerial meetings organised by lobbyists and would not have stopped any of the lobbying scandals that have hit the Government. We are committed to an effective register of all professional lobbyists, backed by a code of conduct and sanctions, so we will pray against these regulations. Will the Leader guarantee us time for a debate on them?
The Government have a clear track record of avoiding scrutiny. On the European arrest warrant, on the Agricultural Wages Board and now on plain packaging of cigarettes, instead of trying to win the argument, they just try to avoid having it altogether. Last week, the Leader of the House rejected my request for a debate on plain packaging on the Floor of the House, and this week we can see why. A majority of Tory MPs failed to vote in favour of this common-sense measure to protect public health, including eight Ministers, three members of the Cabinet and even the Tory deputy Chief Whip. This morning, an analysis by The Independent has revealed that one in four MPs who voted against have declared links to the tobacco industry. Does it not say everything about today’s Tory party that a majority of its MPs is more interested in the rights of global tobacco companies than the health of Britain’s children? Is not the Prime Minister’s refusal to defend his record in the TV debates symptomatic of this Government? Instead of trying to win the argument, they just run away from it.
Next week, we will have the charade of the Chancellor’s pre-election Budget, which will reportedly contain large chunks of the Tory manifesto. Perhaps the Leader of the House can tell us whether both parties of Government have signed up to it? It is clear that the real omnishambles is this Chancellor’s record. He has broken every promise and missed every target he has ever set himself on the economy. For the first time in nearly 100 years working people are worse off at the end of a Parliament than they were at the beginning. Not only would Tory plans cut public spending back to pre-war levels, the reality would be extreme and dangerous cuts of up to £70 billion.
The Prime Minister is an expert at evading scrutiny and the Chancellor yet again excused himself from Treasury questions this week, but I am sure that, as an honourable man, the Leader of the House will be willing to answer some simple questions. To meet their target, is it not the case that a Tory Government would have to cut spending on day-to-day public services by significantly more than they will admit? Is it not the case that to meet their target they will have to either raise VAT or cut the NHS? Is it not right that the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) was speaking for growing numbers in the Conservative party when he said that he did not agree with protecting the NHS budget? Is it not also the case that Tory plans would mean that we would have the smallest police force since records began and the smallest Army since Cromwell?
There are only nine more days of this Parliament and I can see that the Leader of the House is eagerly counting them down. He has led his party, he has toured the world, he has become best mates with Angelina Jolie. However, in a rather disappointing end to his glittering career it seems that Conservative party headquarters has got him doing its e-mails. This week, in a message to Tory Members, he warned of the dangers of entering government on the coat tails of a small party that does not keep its promises. He should know quite enough about that already.
It has not been a good week for the Liberal Democrats either. They have been embroiled in a cash-for-access scandal, but the country is mainly just in shock that anyone wants to donate any money to them at all. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) has apparently been sending leaflets out in his constituency that spell the word “failure” incorrectly. I would have thought that every single Liberal Democrat would know how to spell that word. Lord Ashdown, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and the man in charge of their campaign, declared on the radio this morning that he was going to be very busy during the general election campaign and that he doubted he would get to do any campaigning. This gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
Things are looking bad for the Prime Minister, too. His latest ploy to escape the scrutiny of the TV debates was to say that radio hosts can grill him “as hot as they like”. Mr Speaker, I prefer a long slow burn. There are just eight weeks to go until the general election and the only person from Chipping Norton who has come out fighting has just been suspended by the BBC.
I think the reference to a long slow burn was a reference to the shadow Chancellor’s personal life, although I think we can be confident that it would be a very rapid and immediate crash if he were to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. I am not going to join the hon. Lady in making fun of my Liberal Democrat colleagues—I am going to wait for election night. [Laughter.] There will be a moment for all of us to join in that. I have enjoyed working with them immensely. It has been one of the high points of all the things I have done in my career to be able to work with them in government over the past five years. I will certainly continue to send out e-mails to people about the dangers of the coming together in government of a party that wants to bankrupt the country with a party that wants to break up the country. That is the real threat.
The hon. Lady asked about a number of matters. On the plain packaging vote, the Conservatives had a free vote, which was absolutely the right thing to have done. The regulations were carried by a very large majority in the House. I voted for them myself and I am pleased that they have been passed.
The hon. Lady asked about the register of lobbyists that is being set up under this Government, as is the declaration of transparency of all ministerial meetings with outside organisations. There have been very important improvements on this issue in the past few years.
The hon. Lady asked about the Budget. I can assure her that the Budget that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will present next Wednesday will be agreed across the coalition: it will be the Budget of the coalition Government. We will, of course, all be able to set out in our party manifestos what we will do after the general election. When the Chancellor stands up to deliver the Budget on Wednesday, he will be highly unusual in the ranks of Chancellors of the Exchequer in the history of this country in being able to say that during his tenure nearly 2 million jobs have been created, that there is lower inflation than when he began, that he presides over the fastest growth in the G7, and that he has halved the deficit of this country. It is a very long time since a Chancellor of the Exchequer could stand up on Budget day with that as his starting point. That is what he will be able to do next Wednesday.
There will be four days to debate the Budget. That is a great deal of time, so there will be a great opportunity to explore all the issues the hon. Lady has raised. She asked about protecting the national health service budget. I seem to remember that the party that did not offer to protect the national health service budget at the last general election was the Labour party. Indeed, what has happened over the past five years is that its budget has been protected in England but cut in Wales, where it has been under the management of the Labour party— that is the advert. But there will be plenty of time to discuss these issues during the Budget debate.
It has been an interesting week for the Opposition. Shadow Ministers have briefed against their own disastrous tuition fees policies, saying they have other uses for £3 billion. Lord Mandelson has managed to brief against the entire Labour party, saying it will fail to win a majority. According to the New Statesman, the shadow Chancellor has briefed against the Leader of the Opposition, saying he has not grown into the job and he feels dreadfully sorry for him. The shadow Chancellor then managed the most unusual feat of briefing against himself, by setting out a number of scenarios for a future Conservative Government and then saying he disagreed with those scenarios. And the whole Labour party briefed against itself over whether to do a deal with the Scottish National party. Meanwhile, the Leader of the Opposition sits rudderless in the middle, not knowing what to say. We hope at least that the shadow Leader of the House will rule out a deal with the SNP, as many of her own Back Benchers wish her to do—perhaps we can look forward to that at next week’s business questions.
May we have a debate on easier access to funding from local government for community charity organisations such as the Blue Box group in Belper, in my constituency, which is trying to raise funds to rebuild its facilities after they were burnt out?
I was sorry to learn of the challenging circumstances facing Blue Box and the shocking events that led up to them. We are committed to making it easier for charities and community groups such as Blue Box to gain access to the funding they need. The Cabinet Office is funding the “funding central” portal, a free service offering a simple, searchable database of funding opportunities for charities and community groups. We have also offered fundraising training for small charities. So I hope, through one or other of these means, Blue Box can find a sustainable way forward.
The Government are imposing a 25% cut on further education colleges, despite it having a disastrous impact on colleges. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State to come to the House for a debate on the impact of this policy? Since 2010, my own college, Riverside college, has faced a 47% cut in its adult budget.
I cannot offer a special debate. As the shadow Leader of the House pointed out, there are only nine days of business left, nearly half of which time will be taken up with the Budget debates, but of course questions about spending and taxation can be highly relevant to those debates, so the hon. Gentleman might find the opportunity to raise the matter then.
My right hon. Friend has announced a valedictory debate on Thursday 26 March. Will he do me and others who hope to catch your eye in that debate, Mr Speaker, the honour of responding to it?
Yes, it is my intention to give a valedictory response to the valedictory debate at the final valedictory moment of the Parliament. By the end of that, I think we will all be pretty confident we have said goodbye to each other.
For the avoidance of doubt, I intend to be back here after 7 May—so there will be no valedictory speech from me.
There is an extraordinary mismatch between the amount of money raised by the licence fee and the BBC’s investment in the regions in which it is raised. May we have a debate on making it part of the charter negotiations that regional commissioners of programmes be matched to their areas, so that areas such as Birmingham and the midlands can get a fair share of the money raised?
The hon. Lady raises two interesting points. First, it might be that some Members are giving valedictory speeches who do not know they are—but it is up to the electorate to determine that.
Secondly, on the BBC, I absolutely agree that investment in the regions is vital and that the BBC has a varied record over the past few decades of doing it. The Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee made a statement to the House a few weeks ago about the future funding of the BBC, so the House had a limited opportunity to consider the matter then. Realistically, further consideration will have to await the new Parliament, of which the hon. Lady might or might not be a Member.
In reply to a written question on 23 February, the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws), indicated an intention to publish the Government’s review of asbestos policy for schools very shortly. Yesterday, the Prime Minister, in answer to my question, said it would be published in due course. Can the Leader of the House tell us today when this really important review will be published? If he cannot, given the proximity to Dissolution, may I request an urgent debate on the whole issue?
I can tell my hon. Friend that the Government are publishing the review today. We have been working hard to prepare it, and we will place copies of it in the Library. We will write to Members, such as my hon. Friend, who have a particular interest in the subject, and we will follow that up with a written statement on Monday, so that the House is made fully aware of the publication. The subject of next Tuesday’s Adjournment debate is the report on asbestos in schools and I am sure that my hon. Friend will take a close interest in that.
Last week, I raised with the Leader of the House the question of a statement by the Government on the future of the Chagos islands in respect of the feasibility of return report that has been done. The right hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that tomorrow I am attending a meeting at the Foreign Office with Mr Olivier Bancoult, the leader of the Chagos Refugee Association. Will he please ensure that between now and Dissolution, the Government make a statement on their policy on the right of return in order to allow the historical wrong of the expulsion of the islanders from those islands finally to be put right, as promised by his Government at the start of this Parliament? We were promised that a decision would be made in this Parliament. There is a week to go.
The hon. Gentleman is a long-standing champion of this cause and is very assiduous in pursuing it. As he knows and as we have discussed before, there has been an extensive and major report—one I initiated when I was Foreign Secretary—on the feasibility or otherwise of habitation of the Chagos islands or parts of them. That is being considered very seriously by the Government. I cannot guarantee to the hon. Gentleman a statement about it before Dissolution, given that we have nearly arrived there. I can tell him that the Government are giving detailed consideration at the highest level to the report, but I do not know when a decision will be made.
May we have a debate on phone hacking at the Mirror Group? I am surprised that I need to ask for one, as I would have thought that the Leader of the Opposition, given his considerable previous interest in phone hacking, would have been all over this like a rash. In such a debate, we could find out why the Labour party needed a judge-led inquiry into phone hacking at the News of the World, but does not raise a breath about the extensive phone hacking at the Mirror Group.
My hon. Friend raises an interesting comparison. It is important, of course, that all such allegations are fairly and thoroughly investigated, and we expect the relevant authorities to do so. There are many theories with which to answer my hon. Friend’s question. It could be that the Leader of the Opposition does not want to offend the one news organisation that is still arguing in his favour.
With Budget debates, we normally have a theme for each different day of debate, so we know who will be opening and winding it up. May we have as one theme the growing disparity between the wealthy people of this country and the rest of us, so that we have one day of debate in which the losers over these last five years—there are so many of them—can be compared with those who evade their taxes, evade their responsibilities and seem to get away with it?
Who opens which day of the Budget debate will, of course, be decided. Indeed, the Opposition often have a major influence on the decision. During the Budget debate there will be an opportunity to raise all those issues, and many others. I think that the everyday theme of the Budget debate will be that there are nearly 2 million more jobs in this country than there were five years ago. That is really the dominant theme of the British economy at the moment.
On 5 February at column 426 of Hansard, my right hon. Friend told me that he intended “later” in February to set out the draft changes to Standing Orders to implement English votes for English laws. Why was he not able to meet his own target deadline of the end of February? May I seek an assurance from him that he will meet it before his final departure from this place?
My right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young) asked about this last week. It is true that February has stretched into March, and I am conscious of the commitment that was made to my hon. Friend, so I do intend to publish the proposed Standing Order changes.
May we have a statement from the Health Secretary about the Government’s plans to intervene in and support the most financially challenged NHS areas in England? As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) told the Prime Minister yesterday, his area faces a £200 million deficit, and my own area of Devon faces a deficit of £430 million. I was told that an announcement would be made this week, alongside the new integration pilots, but that did not happen. Will the Leader of the House assure us that the Government are not seeking to bury bad news in the run-up to the general election?
The House has had innumerable opportunities to debate health matters over the last few months, and I am sure that they will be discussed further during the Budget debates. The national health service is benefiting from 9,500 more doctors and 7,500 more nurses than it had in 2010, but if my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary has any further announcements to make before the election, he will of course be able to come to the House and make a statement in the usual way.
Southend police are doing a wonderful job in keeping local residents safe. Will my right hon. Friend find time for another debate on police funding? I very much want our excellent neighbourhood policing to be kept at its present levels.
Police reform is clearly working. According to the independent Crime Survey, crime has fallen by more than a fifth under this Government, and I am pleased to say that that includes a fall in Essex.
While we acknowledge that the police funding settlement is challenging, a further debate on it would allow us to point out that chief constables and police and crime commissioners have shown that it is possible to deliver more with less, and to prioritise available resources. However, the best remaining opportunity to pursue the issue on the Floor of the House during the present Parliament will be provided by the four days of debate on the Budget.
I remind the House of my membership of, and support from, Unite, which is recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The National Union of British Sign Language Interpreters is a branch of that union.
Will the Leader of the House arrange an urgent debate on the proposed national framework agreement relating to language interpretation and translation services? I understand that the Crown Commercial Service is due to issue a tender for such services before Dissolution, but there is serious concern about the effect of the framework on British sign language interpretation and on the profession. Will it be possible for a debate to take place before the tender is issued?
At this stage of the Parliament, it is difficult for me to arrange debates in addition to those that I have already announced, but I know from my own experience as Minister for Disabled People—a long time ago—what outstanding work sign language interpreters do, and how important that work is. The best that I can do to assist the hon. Lady is draw her question to the attention of my ministerial colleagues, and ask them to respond to her directly.
Town centres throughout the country are under pressure from internet purchasers and out-of-town retailers. They can respond either by doing nothing or by getting together to promote themselves and build up the trade, which is what traders and retailers in my constituency have done. They have launched a “first Thursdays” initiative, which began last week: there were street entertainers and musicians, and shops were open until eight o’clock in the evening. May we have a debate about the important role that town centres play in our communities?
I applaud everyone in Rugby for that initiative, and I applaud my hon. Friend for his strong support for it.
The Government are committed to helping high streets to adapt. Our Future High Streets Forum brings together business leaders from the various high street sectors so that they can understand the issues and drive forward new ideas. When people work together locally, they can really be successful in that regard. Although we will not have time for a specific debate before the dissolution of Parliament, the issue is very important, and I am sure that there will be further opportunities for Members to expand on it during the Budget debates.
The official data revealed today on the state of children’s mental health services is clearly shocking. Despite the Budget, we do not have an excess of business between now and the end of the Parliament, so will the Leader of the House organise one final debate so that we can agree a joint plan to tackle this disgrace? In that way we could end this Parliament by doing something genuinely worth while.
That is a very important issue. The hon. Gentleman makes a point about whether the parliamentary agenda is full between now and Dissolution, and I think it is, since there are many Bills that will come back from the House of Lords, there will be a Finance Bill to consider after the Budget and the Backbench Business Committee has utilised all its opportunities for further debate. But of course this will continue to be an important issue during and after the general election. The Government have a strong record on it: funding for mental health is estimated to have increased by £302 million in the last financial year compared to the previous one, and we have legislated to ensure that improving mental health and treating mental illness is given the same priority as treatment for physical health. So this Government have a strong record, but further debate is now most likely to take place in the next Parliament.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the concerns of potential fracking across Ryedale. There is a grey area as the law currently stands, because the regulations to apply the Infrastructure Act 2015 will not now be brought forward until July, yet an application may be lodged by the end of this month. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to ensure that this grey area does not remain in place? The grey area relates to whether or not there will be opportunities to frack, or whether there will be protected areas. All the concessions that were given to the national parks, the sites of special scientific interest and the areas of outstanding natural beauty were withdrawn in the Lords.
Well, we have of course now passed the relevant legislation through Parliament, after considerable debate over the last few months. There will be further opportunities to raise these issues with my ministerial colleagues, because in the remaining days of the Parliament there will be questions to the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Communities and Local Government. That will provide the best opportunity for my hon. Friend to seek clarification on these issues.
The Leader of the House may be aware that Boris Johnson in his own inimitable way once said that he fought Clwyd South and that Clwyd South fought back, and he was helped in so doing by the Leader of the House. My constituents in Clwyd South are rather concerned because this time the Conservatives have selected a councillor, David Nicholls, who is a commercial lawyer of the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea. There is much concern that he may get lost around our 240 square mile constituency. We are confident that the Leader of the House knows the constituency rather better than the said gentleman, so could he find a little time to come across from his retirement home in mid-Wales and show the gentleman around?
I think the hon. Lady was also asking for a statement, but whether she was asking for one or not, she is going to get one.
I think that was a question not about the business of the House of Commons, but about the general election campaign, but I am sure this candidate will be a splendid candidate for Clwyd South, as Boris Johnson was—I remember that very well. I assure the hon. Lady that I will be stepping out from my new home in mid-Wales to support Conservative candidates the length and breadth of Wales, to help continue the very strong performance in recent years of the Welsh Conservative party.
On 30 March, there will be no more Members of Parliament, but I understand that the Government will continue and that there will still be Ministers. May we have a statement from the Leader of the House on what is going to happen after the general election? When will Parliament assemble? What would happen if there were a hung Parliament and therefore some delay in forming a Government? In those circumstances, would existing Ministers continue in post? Taking a random example, let us say that the Deputy Prime Minister lost his seat. Would he continue as Deputy Prime Minister until the new Government had been formed?
The technical answer to my hon. Friend is that when Parliament is dissolved, it is normal at the same time to set out when it will meet again. Indeed, the writs that go out around the country requesting new Members of Parliament will set out when those Members should report to the House of Commons. That happens then, however, and it is not for me to set out such details now. I hope that there will be no doubt whatever about who is the next Prime Minister or about which party has the majority in the House of Commons, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be part of that majority. I do not think it would be helpful to get into other, more chaotic scenarios when discussing the outcome of the election. One has to think about them only for a moment to understand the importance of averting the possibility of their happening at all.
I should like to draw the House’s attention to early-day motion 633.
[That this House believes that asylum seekers should be homed widely in the country to assist community assimilation and to share fairly the strains and burdens on services that newcomers create; is astonished that Cardiff has 976 section 95 migrants, double the total in all of South East England outside of London and that Newport has 391, while the constituency of the Home Secretary has one and those of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister have none; and calls on hon. Members to encourage their areas to accept their responsibilities and welcome at least the average total of migrants homed elsewhere.]
The motion seeks the better assimilation of asylum seekers by spreading them more evenly throughout the country so that all areas can have the benefits and the burdens of having asylum seekers. At the moment, Cardiff has about 900 section 95 asylum seekers and Newport has nearly 400, yet the constituency of one of the United Kingdom Independence party MPs has none and the constituencies of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Home Secretary have a grand total of two. Would it not be a great advantage if those who were shouting the loudest about immigration could have the experience of having asylum seekers in their constituencies? In that way, they might know what they were talking about.
I think the hon. Gentleman has made his point without a debate. Indeed, he has conducted a short debate on the issue. There will not be time for a debate in the remaining days of this Parliament, although there will be Home Office questions on Monday 23 March, so he will have a further opportunity to advertise his early-day motion and his arguments. I am sure that these issues are well understood by many hon. Members, irrespective of the number of asylum seekers living in their constituencies.
While I accept the success of the cancer drugs fund, recent changes have resulted in the drug regorafenib, which is effective against gastro-intestinal tumours, no longer being funded. One of my constituents, whose partner suffers from a rare form of cancer, has collected more than 45,000 signatures in support of the drug’s reinstatement. It is a last resort that offers treatment when others have failed, and it gives patients precious extra time until a lasting cure can be found. Given that we are running out of time in this Parliament, can the Leader of the House advise me on how we can get this matter debated?
There is little scope for additional debates, as I have been saying in relation to other issues, but I can tell my hon. Friend that NHS England, which manages the cancer drugs fund, has assured the Department of Health that no patient whose treatment is currently being funded through the cancer drugs fund will have their funding withdrawn as long as it is clinically appropriate that they continue to receive that treatment, and that in addition no drug will be removed from the fund when it is the only therapy available for the condition in question. Furthermore, clinicians can still apply for individual patients to receive a particular drug on an exceptional basis. I would recommend that my hon. Friend pursues the matter directly with Ministers at the Department of Health in order to get further details.
In recent weeks, a constituent of mine travelled to Kenya, where immigration control accidentally swapped her passport with someone else’s. When she attempted to travel back, she was refused entry to the plane, but the person who had her passport had already returned to the United Kingdom. Will a Minister come to the Dispatch Box to tell us what measures are in place to ensure that this does not happen?
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern about that. Border Force officers carry out comprehensive checks on all passengers arriving at passport control, and those checks are set out in an operating mandate approved by Home Office Ministers. They are, of course, meant to include a visual examination of the passenger and their passport to ensure that they are the right holder of the document. The best way to pursue this is for my hon. Friend to give me all the details and I will ensure that it is dealt with by my ministerial colleagues as a matter of urgency.
As I have previously mentioned in the House, my constituent Laura Thomas was tragically killed in an accident with a truck whose driver was using a mobile phone at the time. The current sanctions for such dangerous driving are too lenient, as are the penalties for using a hand-held mobile phone. May we have a debate on the need to discourage, through stiffer penalties, the epidemic of using hand-held phones while driving?
My hon. Friend is assiduous in raising this important issue, highlighting the devastating impact that driving while on a mobile phone can have. The Government remain concerned about this. The Department for Transport has commissioned research on the prevalence of such phone use and the report of the survey was published on gov.uk on 25 February. That will help to shape future policy decisions. As for the penalties that are applied, there will be Ministry of Justice questions next week on the Floor of the House, so there are one or two remaining opportunities to pursue this.
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to update the House on the Ebola outbreak in west Africa. First, I refer the House to yesterday’s statement from Public Health England, which confirmed that a military health care worker has tested positive and is being flown back, and will shortly be in the Royal Free hospital in London. Our thoughts are with her and her family at this time. We are also assessing four other military health care workers who had been in close contact with the patient. That is a purely precautionary move.
Our armed forces, our health workers, our diplomatic staff and my development staff are risking their lives to help Sierra Leone defeat this terrible disease and stop it spreading beyond west Africa. It is vital that we do that. Halting the rise of the disease in west Africa is by far the most effective way of preventing Ebola from infecting people in the UK. We are indebted to those UK personnel for their efforts; their commitment and bravery, which I have had the chance to see at first hand, have been outstanding.
As the Secretary of State for Health has said previously, the UK remains well placed to respond to this threat. The chief medical officer confirms that the risk to the UK remains low. An enormous amount of work has gone into making sure that we are prepared in the UK, now and in the future. The NHS has world-leading infection control procedures, and we have put in place robust screening and monitoring arrangements to detect and isolate cases at home.
A few weeks ago, I returned from my third visit to Sierra Leone in five months. In that time, there have been significant improvements. The number of cases per week has reduced from well over 500 in November to fewer than 60 now. Our strategy is working, and President Koroma and others have thanked the UK Government and the UK public for our critical and unwavering support. I am extremely proud that Britain’s support means that there are now enough Ebola beds, testing labs and trained burial teams, and an effective command and control structure to track down the disease across Sierra Leone and prevent it from spreading further.
The challenge now is to get to zero cases as quickly as possible. That will not be easy—we are looking at months, not weeks, till the end of this crisis—but we have the right people and the right plan in place to deal with this. The UK will continue to provide critical support to this response, particularly in the health sector, through which we will help Sierra Leone to tackle future disease outbreaks. We will hold our nerve and stay the course. This ongoing package of support will bring our total commitment to this response and to the country’s early recovery to £427 million.
The UK response will change as we transition to the next phase. After the best part of six months on station, RFA Argus will sail by the end of this month, as previously planned, having provided critical support to military and civilian volunteers on the ground. We will maintain the health care capabilities that it has provided through continued UK military support at an enhanced Ministry of Defence clinic in Freetown. The helicopter capabilities will be replaced by commercial providers. Military personnel will also continue to play an important role at the dedicated Kerry Town Ebola treatment facility for health care workers, and in supporting our Sierra Leonean partners with command and control to respond to district-level outbreaks.
Although the last planned deployment of NHS staff is due to end this month, we are mindful of further spikes in the case load. To that end, we have arranged for an NHS stand-by team to be on call to deploy within 48 hours. Throughout this response, the co-operation of the NHS, NHS trusts and Public Health England has been tremendous, both in Sierra Leone and at home, and for that I give them my heartfelt thanks. More than 150 NHS staff have so far been deployed to fight Ebola, which is testament to the superb flexibility of its staff at all levels. Our support for labs, through Public Health England, will continue, as testing capacity is vital to the continued effort.
We are also planning for recovery. The Ebola crisis has disrupted markets and access to food and other essentials for many families. It has put an enormous strain on the country’s health care system, and it has caused a generation of children to miss nearly a year of school. For too many children, the Ebola crisis has resulted in a breakdown of family and community protection systems. More than 9,000 children are registered as having lost one or both parents in this crisis, and they are vulnerable to neglect, abuse and exploitation.
Continued leadership from the Governments in the region will be crucial to maintain the momentum. I welcome President Koroma’s leadership, and his clear message that there can be no half-victories. We will work with the Government of Sierra Leone to reopen schools and hospitals safely, and ensure that those most at risk of stigma, including orphans, have the support that they need.
Throughout the response, we have received critical support from international partners to help us staff treatment centres and labs across the country. I was in Brussels last week to ensure that the international community remains engaged in defeating Ebola, and in helping Sierra Leone and the countries of the region back on to a path to sustainable recovery.
The international community must also learn lessons from this outbreak and, together with the Governments of the affected countries, build a more resilient system for the future. We must do everything that we can to ensure that a crisis of this nature never happens again.
In conclusion, the UK did not stand on the sidelines when Sierra Leone needed us, and our strategy has saved thousands of lives and protected millions more around the world. That response, though far from over, has shown the very best of what the UK can do overseas. I am incredibly proud of the way that we have stepped up to this challenge and delivered in the toughest of circumstances. I am pleased to confirm that Her Majesty has agreed to honour this tremendous effort with the striking of a medal. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving me a copy of her statement in advance, and for advance warning of the statement. I join her in paying tribute to the military health care worker who has tested positive for Ebola. We wish her a speedy and full recovery. Our thoughts are with her and her family and friends. I am sure that the good wishes of the whole House are with her as she returns home to Britain.
The Secretary of State mentioned four other military health care workers who are being assessed. Are they also being flown home to Britain and, if so, in which hospitals will they be assessed? We also pay tribute to the dedication and bravery of the British troops, health workers, charity workers and Department for International Development personnel who have travelled to west Africa to tackle Ebola. They have selflessly put themselves on the front line against this disease. We thank them for their work and salute their courage.
Labour continues to support the Government’s efforts to tackle Ebola and get to zero cases as soon as possible. We agree with the Public Accounts Committee that the Department should take a lead role in global efforts to reach that target. The Ebola outbreak has been devastating for the people of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. There have been more than 24,000 reported cases, and nearly 10,000 deaths. More than 20,000 children are now orphans; they are vulnerable, traumatised and often stigmatised. We welcome what the Secretary of State has said about tackling the stigma of Ebola and services for Ebola orphans. Will the Government ensure that their Ebola response prioritises long-lasting psycho-social and child protection services and the education sector in Sierra Leone?
Ebola has revealed the problems that are created when countries do not have sustainable and resilient health systems. It has shown the limitations of the global community’s approach to health care in developing countries. It has triggered a huge debate on how we should reform the World Health Organisation so that it meets disease challenges better.
Save the Children’s report last week found that 28 countries had worse health coverage than Liberia had at the start of the Ebola outbreak. The world today is globalised; disease outbreaks are everyone’s concern, and preventing them is in everyone’s interests. Can the Secretary of State tell the House how much of the £427 million that the UK Government have committed to fighting Ebola has been disbursed? The previous figure that she mentioned was £325 million. What will the extra £100 million be spent on?
The Secretary of State mentioned a contract with civilian helicopter providers. How much will that cost each month, and for how long will the contract continue? What steps has she taken to persuade other countries to fill the urgent $400 million funding gap for immediate response, and the $900 million gap identified by the United Nations for activities over the next six months? What conversations has she had with her ministerial colleagues about restoring direct flights from the United Kingdom to Sierra Leone, and when will they begin operating again?
Our NHS has shown that the best way to protect against disease is to build a resilient, Government-controlled, Government-funded health service, so how much bilateral funding will the UK give to support the Sierra Leonean and Liberian health sectors next year? How will the Secretary of State and her Department lead reform of the global health system to move organisations away from concentrating on specific diseases and vaccines to a much broader focus on supporting public health systems?
The global community must never again find itself with another Ebola outbreak, no vaccine to prevent spread, and no treatment to preserve life. At the last DFID questions, I asked the Secretary of State if she agreed that we needed urgently to roll out the Ebola vaccine trials from Liberia to Sierra Leone and Guinea to discover which vaccines work. Have those trials started, and if so, how many people are enrolled in them? What conversations has she had with the World Health Organisation about treatment trials?
There is consensus that the global community failed to respond adequately to this Ebola outbreak. As the Secretary of State rightly said, we need to learn the lessons and ensure that we are better prepared. Lasting health care systems are about more than the delivery of commodities such as vaccines and bed nets, vital though those things are. The WHO, the World Bank and non-governmental organisations in countries such as France and Japan are all clear that universal health coverage is the right answer. Does she agree that that is the way forward?
The hon. Lady asked, understandably, about the four other health care workers. They are now in the process of being flown home, purely on a precautionary basis, and will be dealt with at the Royal Free hospital and the Royal Victoria infirmary in Newcastle.
I had a chance to meet some of the orphans from this crisis when I was in Sierra Leone just before Christmas. They were of all ages, of course. Some of our work is to help UNICEF to provide the psycho-social support that they need and to keep the orphanages going. We are also helping to provide dedicated centres where children can be looked after safely if their parents go to community care centres to be tested because they are concerned that they have Ebola; if the parents end up being taken into care, they cannot look after their children.
There are huge child protection issues. I can reassure the hon. Lady that we are mindful of them, and mindful of the need to work not just with the Government of Sierra Leone but with civil society and the NGO sector to make sure that they are properly addressed.
The hon. Lady asks about the extent of our commitment. The £427 million that I have talked about is essentially the money that we are spending on providing ongoing support, including what we have already done, which has now cost more than £200 million. Over the coming months, we need to keep supporting the beds and the safe burials and all the very practical work that we are doing—social mobilisation, talking to communities—and also put in place a budget, which is about half the increase, for the initial planning on early recovery. We are steadily shifting our strategy to ensure that we have the capacity on the ground still to cope and deal with Ebola and get to zero. That is the principal objective that we have to meet, while transitioning to look at how we can safely open schools and hospitals and deal with some of the issues that the hon. Lady talks about in relation to communities.
The helicopter support has been absolutely vital. The road network is part of the development progress, but there is no doubt that fantastic work has been done by the Merlin helicopters. I had a chance during my trips to Sierra Leone to get to know some of the pilots—I was there regularly enough—and they have been working round the clock. I want personally to say a massive thank you to them. They were incredibly impressive and have really put in the flying hours over the past six months. The civilian helicopter provision will ensure that we can continue to get around Sierra Leone rapidly and that the district-level response is working effectively, which is why we have kept it in place.
On the important point about ensuring that, frankly, we get the international community to step up to the plate, particularly as recovery takes place, we are indeed investing a lot of time and effort in lobbying. The Brussels conference, which happened a couple of weeks ago, was absolutely key in really making sure that we got international focus on the need to get to zero, avoiding complacency and starting to present the forward look at what those recovery plans will need. The $400 million part is really the initial absolute priority investment that is required to start the recovery process and kick it off. There will be a follow-up conference at the UN, which will be more focused on pledging. We have worked directly with the Government of Sierra Leone to talk to them about how we can ensure that their recovery plan is of good quality and essentially investable and prioritised, and we will continue to do all that work.
The hon. Lady also asks about the Ebola vaccine trials. In fact, we had some vaccines ready to go for phase 2 trials because the UK and DFID had already worked with the Medical Research Council and Glaxo Wellcome to help to support Ebola vaccines in the phase 1 trials. One of the learnings from my perspective is being clearer as an international community about what kinds of vaccine we want to have in stock at phase 1 stage, in order to be able to put them rapidly into phase 2, which is more expensive, if crisis hits. Also, streamlining the regulatory procedures is important, so that we can get the vaccines tested more rapidly when there is a real public health crisis element to them. Obviously, we all appreciate that the regulatory environment is there for a reason, which is to protect patients, but in this case, it was vital that we looked at how we could fast-track the Ebola vaccines. The trials have started in Liberia already. They are about to be started in Sierra Leone and Guinea.
On the number of patients, if anything we have a challenge, because fewer people are suffering from Ebola, but as the hon. Lady will understand, that is the patient population on whom we are testing the vaccines.
On WHO reform, I have had a chance now on a number of occasions to see Margaret Chan, both in London and, most recently, in Brussels. The UK has been a leading player, most recently in the special session on WHO reform, playing a constructive a role in helping us all to learn about how not only the WHO but the international community can better respond to such a public health crisis in the future.
I join the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State in paying tribute to all those who have tackled this terrible disease, some losing their lives in doing so—Sierra Leoneans, Liberians, Guineans and all others, including the British workers. I pay tribute, too, to the Secretary of State for the leadership that she has shown in this crisis. In a video conference which I chaired last month with the president of the World Bank and parliamentarians from affected countries, all stressed the need, which the shadow Secretary of State mentioned, to strengthen health systems. We also talked about the possibility of doing stress tests of those health systems, in the way that has been modelled for the banking sector, to ensure that they are robust enough. Parliamentarians all agreed on this vital point. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the United Kingdom will continue to work with Sierra Leone and the Governments of the other affected countries over the coming months and years, and ensure that we do not leave them at this time of need?
Yes, I can. The Ebola crisis has shown why the work that we do in development is so important. We saw that countries in parts of west Africa that had better developed health care systems were able to withstand this unprecedented Ebola outbreak. However, in the case of Sierra Leone and Liberia particularly, which had experienced terrible civil wars and comparatively recently come out of them, although their health systems had dramatically improved, they were still at a nascent stage and were unable to withstand such an unprecedented outbreak. I can assure my hon. Friend that the UK will play a leading role, particularly in our relationship with Sierra Leone, which is unique.
I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the bravery of the Sierra Leonean community, who were the ones on the front line, many of them volunteers, who ran towards the crisis and were part of the effort to tackle it, at the very time when most people would have wanted to run in the opposite direction. They were overwhelmingly the ones who helped get the crisis under control, but I am proud of the UK effort in supporting that.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her statement, affording the House the opportunity to say thank you and to pay tribute to all those who have played their part in tackling this appalling disease, not least the staff of the isolation unit in the Royal Free hospital in my constituency and everyone in that hospital. I was delighted to hear that the Secretary of State is prioritising the next great step that will be needed—the restoration of health services in the countries affected—and addressing the issue of orphans. I welcome her commitment to working with the international community on these issues. Will she also commit to ensuring that all the voluntary agencies, NGOs and charities begin to work together rather more positively than they have done in the past?
The Royal Free hospital has provided world-class treatment for the patients whom it has looked after, and I pay tribute to it. On the restoration of health services, it is important that there is a Government-owned strategy in Sierra Leone on health care priorities. Perhaps some of the most pressing priorities right now are malaria—we are about to enter another rainy season, which is a high risk—getting vaccinations back up to combat diseases such as measles, and maternal health, making sure that women are able to give birth safely.
I had a chance to visit a hospital that just about managed to keep going through the crisis, but we know that teenage pregnancy, which is partly due to the fact that children have been out of school, has been a huge problem that will need to be addressed. It is important that the NGO community works as part of that overall Government of Sierra Leone-owned health care strategy and we will play our part in helping to deliver it. It has to focus on some short-term imperative deliverables and look at the longer term. That includes making sure that the Ministry of Health in Sierra Leone has the capacity to continue to develop policy.
I welcome the statement, commend the work of all those combating the crisis, and echo the good wishes to the British military in its work of flying personnel home for emergency treatment at the Royal Free hospital. The Secretary of State mentioned the figure of 12,000 orphans created during the crisis, which is probably a vast underestimate, particularly in the rural areas. There will be so much to do afterwards—getting the health system and the transport links sorted and getting the economy going again—but can we make a particular commitment from the UK to help clear up the profound legacy that those orphans will represent?
I can reassure my hon. Friend that we are already working on that alongside prioritising work to get health care systems back up and running. Interestingly, as part of the response, we have had to improve water, sanitation and hand-washing. We now hope that some of the health care workers whom we trained to be part of the response who were originally teachers can take that into schools, so that as children get back into school we can keep embedded those positive behaviours that are good for health.
The magnificent courage and professionalism of all those involved have earned the gratitude and admiration of all of us, and that includes the work of the Secretary of State herself. Are not the lessons that we must persuade the World Health Organisation to move away from its dominance by commercial interests and reshape our armed forces to concentrate on what we do so well in these humanitarian situations? The challenges in future will be more diseases; the need for clean water; all the impact of global warming. Should we not concentrate on a future not of warring tribes among the nations, but of one human family, which is in deadly peril?
I am grateful for that wide-ranging question. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that what we have learned from this crisis is not to see problems such as Ebola as someone else’s. They are absolutely relevant to us. We can fly from that part of west Africa to the UK in under six hours. He talked about this new model of development, if I can call it that, particularly in response to humanitarian crises: the work that DFID has done with critical support from the Ministry of Defence and the NHS. This triumvirate departmental response shows that the Department can bring to bear a much broader UK offer in responding to these crises in future than we have ever been able to do in the past. I pay tribute to the willingness of both the Department of Health and the MOD in working with DFID. It is a fantastic working relationship, which has gone from strength to strength.
The hon. Gentleman also talked about the role of the private sector in global health security and the WHO. Some of the lessons that we are learning are as much about the WHO’s command and control, and its ability to drive projects from the centre down into the regions, but there is no doubt in my mind that the private sector does have a key role to play, particularly given some of the important ways in which we might more significantly combat Ebola, for example through the development of a vaccine. The key is to find the right role for the private sector. In my previous answer I referred to sanitation and hand-washing, and clearly companies such as Unilever have long played a role in helping to educate the public.
These are extremely important and sensitive matters, but we have a heavily subscribed defence debate, to which I wish to move without delay.
The contribution made by the armed services, 750 of them, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Argus and the Merlin helicopters, has been superb, and it would not have been possible to battle against Ebola in this way without them. I look forward to welcoming them back here to Parliament in the autumn perhaps. In the meantime, does the Secretary of State, or perhaps the Minister for the Armed Forces who is sitting next to her, agree that if we were to see unwelcome defence cuts, such operations in the future and elsewhere in the world would not be possible?
This case shows that the work of the MOD is intrinsically linked to the work on development. We need to see the UK foreign affairs strategy in the round and to be prepared to look at it in that light.
The right hon. Lady says that she will hold her nerve, stay the course and support the recovery of health services, but House of Commons Library figures show that she cut health care support to Sierra Leone and Liberia by more than £10 million during this Parliament, only for the Prime Minister to have to top it up by £80 million to deal with the crisis. Does she not need to admit that that is evidence of poor judgment on her part, rather than evidence of her holding her nerve and staying the course?
Since 2010 the UK has spent a total of £64 million in the health sector in Sierra Leone, compared with a total of £23 million spent between 2005 and 2010 under the previous Government. I think that a more constructive approach in this sort of discussion is more productive.
A significant number of the service personnel serving in west Africa are from Northern Ireland. Obviously their families and loved ones want them to return safe and healthy. I understand that the incubation period for Ebola can be up to a month. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that a quarantine period is initiated?
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we have to follow Public Health England’s guidelines. Our duty of care to all the people involved in the UK response is obviously a top priority.
I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State and to colleagues for their helpful co-operation.
[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Defence Committee, Towards the next Defence and Security Review: Part Two–NATO, HC 358, and the Government response, HC 755.]
I will very likely want to impose some time limit, but I will make a judgment on that after the debate has been opened by the hon. Gentleman moving the motion. I know that he is suffering from the Westminster cold, but I very much doubt that any cold will dare to impede him. I call Mr John Baron.
I beg to move,
That this House believes that defence spending should be set to a minimum of two per cent of GDP in accordance with the UK’s NATO commitment.
Thank you for those kind words, Mr Speaker. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate and those MPs who supported the application. We live in times of heightened international tensions. We would do well to remember that the adage about defence being the first duty of Government has been forged by events, and we ignore the lessons of history at our peril. The world remains a dangerous and unstable place, and a growing number of countries that are not necessarily friendly to the west are not only rearming at an alarming rate, but becoming more assertive. We need to spend more on defence not only to better protect our interests and support key alliances, but to deter potential aggressors and ensure that we try to avoid conflict in future.
The motion calls on the Government to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence, in line with our NATO commitment. Defence spending as a share of GDP has been falling in recent years, and it is widely believed that Britain will shortly fall below the 2% figure. We all know that 2% is an arbitrary figure; spending should reflect desired capability. I believe that defence spending should be much more than 2%—I suggest 3% to 4%. But the 2% figure does have symbolic value. Having lectured other NATO members about its importance, we should lead by example.
In short, we need to rediscover the political will for strong defence, and that political will transcends the political divide here. Some demons may need to be vanquished first, most notably our recent misguided military interventions, which have probably distracted us from greater dangers, but banished those demons must be. That we have the political will to ring-fence the international aid budget at 0.7% of GDP suggests that such will can be found; it is simply a question of priorities.
We have in this country, I believe, a political disconnect that needs to be put right. None of the main parties seems to question that Britain has global interests and needs to remain a global power, both to protect them and to uphold our international obligations as a member of NATO and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Yet the political establishment, across the political divide, appears unwilling properly to resource these commitments.
So why the disconnect? I can only put it down, in large part, to our misguided military interventions of the past decade, which have led some to question the value of spending on defence. These interventions have been very costly in terms of blood and treasure, and have rarely achieved their original aims, with the extent of civilian casualties and the persecution of minorities being two such examples.
While I disagree with my hon. Friend about misguided previous military engagements—I do not think that either was misguided—we did see what happens when we try to deploy troops abroad on the cheap without their being properly equipped. We lost a lot of good people because of that, and there were a lot of injuries. We should never put our people in that position again.
My hon. Friend and I may disagree about whether our interventions were misguided, but he makes a very valid point, which is that we have been intervening with increasingly marginal effect. Helmand in Afghanistan was a classic case of that. It took the Americans putting in another 20,000 troops before we pulled that situation round.
Let me return to the point about disconnect. The military interventions over the past decade have distracted us from the greater danger. Too often in these military interventions, we have failed to take the long view in favour of short-term foreign policy fixes that give rise to as many problems as they solve. A key reason is a deficit of strategic analysis at the heart of our foreign policy making, in large part because of continual underfunding—but perhaps that is a debate for another day.
There is little doubt that we went to war in Iraq on a false premise, and that we foolishly allowed the mission in Afghanistan to morph into one of nation building after we had achieved our original objective of ridding the country of al-Qaeda. Our Libyan intervention has not ended well courtesy of a vicious civil war. Speaking as someone who opposed them all, we must dispel these demons when thinking about defence more generally, because, in addition to being mistakes in themselves, these interventions have distracted us from, and blinded us to, the greater danger of traditional state-on-state threats.
For example, recent events in Ukraine reveal a resurgent Russia that is once again making its presence felt around NATO’s borders. Russian bomber aircraft and submarines have resumed their aggressive patrols, some near UK waters and airspace. The Defence Secretary correctly observed last month that Russia posed a real and current danger to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia—all NATO members covered by article 5. Only by dispelling these previous intervention demons and recognising the bigger danger can we mend the political disconnect between commitments, on the one hand, and funding, on the other. It is absolutely essential that we do that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that two of the most chilling interventions in recent weeks have been, first, from the chief of staff of the American army, who said that he thought that a diminished UK defence capability would serve not alongside, but as part of, an American division; and secondly, from the Europeans, who indicated that the best deterrent against Mr Putin was a European army? Are not both those interventions extremely telling?
I can only agree with my hon. Friend. The idea that British brigades would serve within American divisions would probably have been unthinkable only 10 years ago. That is testament to the alarm in Washington, expressed—this is highly unusual—as we head into a general election. The extent of that alarm is clear for all to see.
Like my hon. Friend, I am suffering from flu.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the intervention in Iraq has allowed Iran to get away with its own nuclear programme, which is what our emphasis should have been on?
I agree with my hon. Friend. One of the intended consequences of our misguided intervention in Iraq was that we fundamentally altered the balance of power in the region, and we have been playing catch-up ever since.
There are significant benefits to strong defence. As no one can predict with any certainty from where the next substantial threat will emerge, we require armed forces of sufficient capability and capacity to respond to any challenge. The straits of Hormuz or the South China sea may seem a long way away, but we would soon realise their importance should sea lanes become closed, given the fact that the majority of our goods and trade arrive by sea. Argentina is looking to buy sophisticated fighter jets, and that reminds us that our capacity must include the ability to act independently, if necessary.
The heft of a strong military underpins a successful foreign policy. By contrast, a shrinking defence budget threatens our ability to lead global opinion, reduces our foreign policy options and, crucially, sends the wrong message both to our allies and to potential adversaries. It is doubtful that President Putin would operate as he is now if he thought that NATO, especially the European NATO members, would robustly stand up to him. [Interruption.] That is very kind.
In deference to the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), I think that that is called coalition co-operation.
Whatever it is called, the glass of water is gratefully received.
Test it first.
If I go down, hon. Members will know why.
Falling defence budgets across NATO have emboldened the Russian President, who has concluded that the heart has gone out of the alliance. This is dangerous, and it underlines the point that well-resourced and capable armed forces can, by deterring potential aggressors, make future conflict less likely. How many times have we foolishly discounted or underestimated that fact?
As we heard in the statement, the benefits of strong defence are not confined just to deterring potential aggressors. Strong armed forces can help us and others to face many of the emerging global challenges for which we need to be better prepared. Armed forces training has a wide skill base—everything from medicine and catering to construction and telecoms—and is a key component of our disaster relief capabilities, as shown by our response to the hurricane in the Philippines and the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone.
That skill base will be in increasing demand because the emerging global challenges include those posed by the fact that Africa’s population will be two and a half times that of Europe’s by 2050, the reverse of the proportions in only 1950; by resource scarcity, including water scarcity, which now affects one in three people; by temperature anomalies, which increasingly affect north Africa and the middle east; by fast-emerging middle classes who question political systems that struggle to deliver the goods; and by a growing tendency, aided by social media, for social unrest. Yet it could be argued that this is happening at a time when, in large measure, the international community is failing to produce co-ordinated responses on the scale needed to meet many of the most pressing challenges facing mankind, including poverty, organised crime, conflict, disease, hunger and inequalities. All that points to the need for investment in our foreign policy making and defence capabilities not only so that we are better sighted, but so that we can retain the maximum possible number of policy options by way of response.
How are we faring? Following a strategic defence and security review driven largely by financial pressures, rather than strategic design, the current Government have markedly reduced our armed forces. Plans to replace 20,000 regular troops with 30,000 reservists have created unacceptable capability gaps in the short term and false economies in the long term. Particularly given the fact that the original idea was to hold on to the 20,000 regulars until we knew that the plan to replace them with 30,000 reservists was going to work, I suggest that it was incompetent to let 20,000 regulars march out of the door while only adding 500 to the trained strength of the Army Reserve in the two years that the plan has been in operation.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech and I agree with every word he has said so far. If trends continue, all the problems that he has just identified will get worse, not better. In that context, he will surely agree that any move to cut expenditure on defence would be sheer lunacy. Clearly, we need to move in the opposite direction.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. That point is best encapsulated in the recent statistic from the Library, which suggests that if the international aid budget continues to grow as it is, it will be as big as the defence budget by 2030—in only 15 years’ time. That is nonsense.
I am sympathetic to many of my hon. Friend’s arguments, but does he not need to make it clear that the Government had a £38 billion black hole to deal with, and many major challenges had to be addressed in 2010?
I agree that we inherited a financial shambles, as I have said many times before, but if we are prepared to ring-fence the international aid budget, it becomes a question of priorities. My point is that we need to spend more on defence and we need to reflect what is happening on the international stage: we are failing to do that.
It may be worth reflecting on the fact that in 2010 we spent 2.5% of GDP on defence, so considerable cuts have already been made. The 2% is a marker.
I made the point earlier that defence spending as a percentage of GDP has been falling under this Government, but my message is not just to my own Government. There is a political disconnect between the extent of our commitments and the lack of funding that is not being recognised across the political divide. I do not hear either of the main political parties saying that we should scale back our ambitions in the world, but nor has either party made it clear that it is committed to at least 2% in the future. I personally would like to see much more than that, but everyone can see the terms of the motion.
The reservist plan has been a disaster, in my opinion, resulting in unacceptable capability gaps in the short term and false economies in the long term, as we throw yet more money at it to try to make it work. Matters are not much better in the Royal Navy, which has been reduced to a mere 19 surface ships, although a recent SDSR suggested that 30 would be more appropriate. In addition to problems with the new aircraft carrier, the lack of a replacement for Nimrod means that we are in the ridiculous situation of having no maritime patrol aircraft. We have to go cap in hand to the Americans and the French to police our waters against potentially hostile submarines. That is a ridiculous state of affairs for a country of our standing.
I agree with the point that my hon. Friend makes about maritime patrol aircraft. It is urgent if we intend to deploy aircraft carriers, which are currently being constructed and fitted out in order to come into service in a couple of years.
My right hon. and learned Friend makes a valid point.
With these major shortcomings in our defence, it was alarming that a report by the Royal United Services Institute published this week suggests that the defence budget might be cut by 10% after the next election. Talk that Britain has the fifth largest defence budget—and the second largest in NATO—rings hollow when MOD reforms are cutting manpower, capabilities and the armed forces’ capacity to deploy force. Some estimates suggest that we rank 30th in the world in our ability to deploy force overseas, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) told us of the extent of the American concern about this issue.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. If we see defence cuts of another 10% after the election, another major concern will be the impact on our special forces. If we have an Army of 50,000 or 60,000, we will reduce the ability to recruit men into our special forces—currently probably the most respected in the world—and that will have a significant effect on our ability to project force.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. He makes a very valid point, but time is pressing and this is a popular debate, so I will bring my remarks to a conclusion.
At the very least, the British Government should fulfil their NATO commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence. Having implored fellow NATO members to reach this level at last year’s NATO summit, which we hosted, falling below this level ourselves would be a grave mistake as well as a national embarrassment. Given current levels, it would be a dangerous message to send to the Kremlin.
The past decade of questionable military interventions may have bred a reticence among the political establishment on defence. This must end. We must banish these demons and recognise the greater danger of state-on-state threats, which never really went away. It is essential that we have the capability to protect ourselves, our interests and our allies. Reassessing our defence spending should go hand in hand with a wider reappraisal of how we approach foreign policy generally. Budgets have fallen at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Our key soft power institutions, such as the BBC World Service and the British Council, have suffered accordingly. This has resulted in a dilution of skills that has hindered policy making and reduced our options.
I am following the hon. Gentleman’s speech with great admiration. He talks about banishing demons. There are 632 demons that we cannot banish: those who will be commemorated tomorrow; those who died as a result of terrible mistakes made in this Chamber that sent them to Helmand and Iraq. Should we not acknowledge the dreadful delusions, under which we have been operating for the past 12 years, which created those disasters, before we repeat them?
Order. In fairness, Mr Flynn, you have just asked to be put on the speaking list. I want to hear your speech later rather than now.
All I will say is that we can have our own opinions about those misguided interventions, or interventions generally. I do not think any of us would say that it has been the fault of the troops on the ground. They did a sterling job in their operations. If the fault lies anywhere, it is with the politicians and the generals who perhaps promised too much and delivered too little.
In closing, I call on both main parties—I do mean both main parties—to recognise their reluctance to commit to spending at least 2% of GDP on defence. As an ex-solider and an MP now of 14 years, I find it difficult to believe that I am still, with others, having to try to make this case. I make no apologies for repeating that the adage about defence of the realm being the first duty of Government has been forged by events. We ignore the lessons of history at our peril. Whereas previous generations have perhaps had time to recover from such adverse situations, time may be a luxury we can no longer afford. We must learn those lessons.
I would guess that many hon. Members will make contributions about the symbolism of the 2% target and its relationship with foreign policy and so on. I will try to restrict my remarks to its utility: the purpose for it, the benefits of having the process, and some predictions—guesses may be a better word—and advice on what we might do.
The 2% of GDP NATO target can be defined in all sorts of ways, and there have been many discussions on that recently. It is largely, but not totally arbitrary. It is largely the basis on which we currently spend our money, and so it informs our current decisions. I do not want to discuss what we have done in the past, however. I want to discuss what we are going to do in the future, and why it is important as a mechanism for the future. It should not necessarily be driven by NATO or US ambitions. It should be a matter of deliberate choice for particular strategic reasons, and there should be merit to it.
That is why I want to talk about this. We need certainty with which to plan against the uncertainty, and, in my opinion, the 2% mechanism would help and perhaps provide some structure and context. The truth is that we need a threat-based assessment. No doubt, there will be a new national security strategy, but we can no longer say, “We’ll have a long war over here, and then we’ll have a short war over there. Can you lot hold on until Christmas, and then we’ll come and fight you, because we haven’t quite finished this one yet?” That world is dead. We now have a series of threats and concurrent difficulties to deal with, and they will continue to be concurrent. The way we plan against that uncertainty has changed. Our methodologies are different—there was a great example in the Ebola statement earlier. We need an integrated process, not just within the military, but across the other Departments, if we are to deploy and do this properly. That is the big discussion. I have said to boys from my constituency in the military, “I’ll tell you two things, right—buy a thermal vest and a pair of shorts, because you’ll be in Estonia in the winter and no doubt somewhere warm a bit later. You’re going to be around the place, because there are going to be concurrent reasons to be deployed in different places at different times.”
I want to set out the benefits of the 2% mechanism. We now have five procurers in the MOD: we have the three chiefs—Army, Navy and Air Force; we now have this joint command; and we still have large projects done centrally. So there are five procurement organisations. I have been involved in the many discussions about how we buy equipment, but the real question is: how do we decide what to buy in the first place? We know where the inefficiencies have been, so the managerial structures have changed and we have a different set of relationships. We have chief executives now who are chiefs of services. These are the people who are going to buy this stuff. They told the Defence Committee, “Well, we have redone the structures in the original plans you gave us”, and I said to General Nick Carter when he redid the Army one, “Well done, Nick—you’ve provided a structure that protects you from me.” What do I mean by that? I mean we have this structure—adaptive and reactive forces—and it has some utility and it could be made to work, but it will work well only if we make the right decisions about how to fund and resource it and allow it to operate properly. Currently, the chiefs are telling us, “Unless we get 1% uplift on procurement and flat real, we cannot make those resources work. If you change that, we will have to change your plans or come back with advice on how you will change them.”
There are also questions about how we build this capability. The industrial agenda is really important, but it is not as well described as it could be. It needs to be better described. The defence growth partnership is a great thing, but it concerns applied research, not the whole business of how we deal with industry. Industry needs to plan. All the contractors—whether their function is to go to war or to provide support so that we can release other people to go to war—have to be factored in and they have to plan. This mechanism could produce some rigour, some tools, a language, an understanding and some certainty with which to plan. It might then allow us to plan strategically and even come together and find this magical thing—integration—that will give us the collaboration we need and which we talk about here and on the National Security Council.
The mechanism would test all sorts of things. It would test individual capabilities too. It could go up and down—because GDP increases and decreases—so some people might say, “Well, Trident—difficult question. It’s been set aside really—it’s a given; and therefore we’re arguing about the rest of it.” The mechanism would have to test itself against all others, and the military would have to decide its continued capability and utility. Everything would be in a process of iterative, continual assessment. In the future, these processes have to be iterative; they cannot be linear, they are not binary and they will not be spasmodic.
If we do that, this is what I think will happen: we will spend 2%, we have spent 2% and we will continue to spend more than 2%. But will we do it well? Will we do it in a strategic and planned fashion? Or will we do it just because we are responding to events? The “dogs of war”, as I call them, are a clear example—all these vehicles we now have: the Jackals, the Bulldogs, the Foxhounds. They are all individually important and useful, but they all came out of what? Urgent operational requirements—that is where they came from; they did not come from any proper strategic planning process. We now have to reintegrate this legacy equipment and fit it into the discussion about future planning. You could have avoided being in that position, if you had done some things differently—not you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am not blaming you personally. We could all have been in a better position if we had done those things.
On urgent operational requirements, the key is in the wording. We do not necessarily have any idea of the threats or requirements in advance. Our soldiers, sailors and airmen will suddenly be in a situation where we have to find a piece of kit to protect them better. That is the key—
Order. Again, the hon. Gentleman wishes to speak later. Please keep something back. Do not use it all at once.
Obviously, yes, we will continue to need them. I am trying to make the point that this became the process, rather than the exception to the process—it should be the exception—and the money came out of the contingency fund, not the core budget.
The budget should be 2%. As hon. Members might remember, when Labour was in Government and people said, “You should give more money to defence”, I used to say, “Well, if I was Gordon Brown, I’d say, ‘When you can spend the money I’ve given you properly, come back and ask for some more.’” That is the same debate, and it is the debate for the future. How do we plan for it properly? I think that 2% might give us a way of structuring the discussion. Spent well, the 2% could give us ways of planning and the right language, tools and transparency.
I have something to say to us in Parliament. This is probably the last time I will speak in this Parliament, so I will say something to the next one. The next Parliament will have to debate this better than we have debated it up till now. As I have said several times, we do not have structures any more and we do not discuss defence properly. We can make all the criticisms we like of other people and how well they do things, but we would do well to look at ourselves and consider how well we do them. In my opinion, the 2% could give us, if not certainty, at least some process by which to start to plan against the uncertainty, and it could enable other people to plan for themselves. For me, this is iterative; it will have to deal with the concurrence issue; and it is more than just a declaratory or arbitrary figure—it has a purpose.
That was a perfect example of taking up to 10 minutes. If we all stick to that, everybody will get in with the same amount of time.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard) both for his service on the Defence Committee and for having set out very clearly the two central questions in the debate about defence spending: first, the focus on threat—what is the threat we face?—and secondly the fact that these threats are now concurrent.
The reason we need to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence is that the entire defence planning assumptions created in 1998 and in 2010—those in the national security strategy and strategic defence and security review, leading up to Future Force 2020—have been bypassed by events; they no longer hold. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the world has changed fundamentally, and those assumptions—this is why we cannot just tweak the NSS or be complacent about the SDSR—were essentially developed on two bases. The first was that the cold war had ended. The NSS stated again and again that the cold war had ended and that we needed to be much bolder about getting rid of cold war capacities.
The second assumption was that what we will be doing in the future is the same kind of things that were happening in 2010—primarily Afghanistan. Absolutely central to the SDSR was the idea that what we need is something called “enduring stabilisation operations”. That meant that we were planning to go into a single country—or, at most, in US planning, two countries at a time—for a very long time with a large number of troops. The concept was: Iraq and Afghanistan; 100,000 to 130,000 troops on the ground; Britain contributing 10,000 of those troops—or, in the latest Future Force 2020 structure, 6,600 troops. All our brigade structures were set up to sustain that. The idea was that we would have force structures to keep 6,600 troops on the ground for a decade.
The world has changed completely, however, and as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, it has changed in two ways. First, we have a return to a threat from a conventional state with an advanced military capacity—Russia. That is a major change: it reshapes the entire assumptions from 1998 to 2010. Secondly, as the hon. Gentleman also pointed out, we now have concurrent threats that are not just happening in one state at a time. General Sir Peter Wall pointed out that the basic assumption of the SDSR was for a benign security environment. We had come out of Afghanistan, and we assumed that there would not be anything looking like Afghanistan again very soon. Of course, if we look around the world, we see developments—I shall deal with them in greater detail later—in Yemen, Libya, Syria, to some extent in South Sudan and certainly in western Iraq and still in Afghanistan. We are seeing exactly the same threats, but they now happening in half a dozen countries at one time.
Let me deal briefly with this threat assumption. We need more defence spending because we need to deal with those two things: the conventional threat from Russia and the concurrent threats from all the fragile states that are currently harbouring Islamist groups, terrorist groups—groups that appear to threaten the west. Dealing with this requires imagination, new force structures and spending.
Is not part of the problem of dealing with these threats having a strategy in the first place? There has been an absence of a real strategy.
That is a fundamental point, so let me deal with it briefly. We need to work from the assumption of three things. First, we must agree that these things are threats. There is a huge debate within the civil service, where some people are beginning to say, “Perhaps failed states and terrorist groups are not really threats at all; perhaps everything we have done in Afghanistan and Iraq was mistaken, and we do not need to worry about what is happening in Libya, Iraq and Syria.” Secondly, we need to assume that Britain wants to do something and actually wishes to be a global power. There is another danger in this whole debate, with people in Whitehall saying, “Perhaps this is none of our business; perhaps these things are threats, but somebody else such as the United States will deal with those threats for us”—a freeloader problem. Thirdly and most importantly—this comes to the centre of the strategy—we need to believe that we have a doctrine that can deal with these things. We need to believe that we can deal with them and that we have the capability to engage.
I shall deal with resources needs separately. First, the threat posed by Russia’s recent actions requires serious imagination. We have had “reassurance measures”—the grisly jargon we produced in Wales, essentially to talk about setting up a high-readiness joint taskforce, about exercising in NATO at a divisional level and about air policing operations. Those things need to be resourced. It will be surprisingly difficult in practice to have that very high-readiness joint taskforce, with all its enablers in place and functioning, particularly when some of the framework nations are still insisting that they can take their forces out of that very high-readiness joint taskforce and deploy them somewhere else such as in the Central African Republic.
It is much more than that, however. This House will have heard that we need to invest. Here, however, the idea that flat real plus 1% is somehow going to be enough cannot be the case if we are serious about the threats. Let me run through some of the requirements. Maritime surveillance is an obvious one, so there is no point debating it here today. Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear capacity is another. Any Members present who were in the armed forces will remember training, walking around in NBC suits and thinking about how to deal with that kind of threat. All that capacity has gone out the window. We do not do that anymore, because we have been fighting for nearly 15 years against lightly-armed insurgents, and most of our planning was based on counter-insurgency warfare operations that did not require that kind of training.
Ballistic missile defence is a third requirement. If we are serious about taking on a country such as Russia, which has tactical nuclear weapons as part of its normal operational doctrine, we need ballistic missile defence. That will probably mean—I do not want to pre-empt procurement decisions made by the Ministry—finding some way of buying into an existing US system and persuading the US to locate it not just in continental Europe, but in the United Kingdom.
If we look at our Navy, we find that it is currently down to 19 frigates and destroyers. That is pretty radical. What we have heard in the other place from Lord Astor is that our attrition calculations are currently zero. That means that we function on the assumption that we are not going to lose any of these frigates or destroyers. Lord Astor said that we have not lost any of those things since the Falklands war, so we do not need to worry about that. Of course, the Falklands war was the last time that we were fighting a navy, so it does not provide a basis for making this sort of calculation if we are thinking about taking on Russia.
It is the same for the Royal Air Force. As we move down to just seven squadrons, our attrition calculations are again pretty close to zero. If we are serious about carriers, we need to realise that they cost a lot of money. If we are to put one carrier at sea, we need to think about how to resupply it and how to get the fuel and weapons to it. The fuel and weaponry supply vessels will be moving along at 9 knots, which poses a huge challenge to us. We need to work out where to get the money to buy the planes to put on that carrier. How can we have a comprehensive carrier strike capacity? We have not yet paid for it.
Then there is the Army. If we are thinking about manoeuvre warfare again, it amounts to a huge spending commitment. It means thinking about heavy armour and whether we want to relocate the Royal Air Force at an Army headquarters level rather than two levels up. It means wide water bridging capacity and all the things that any Members present who operated during the NATO era will be able to think of much better than me.
Then there is ambiguous warfare. If we are thinking about dealing with Russia, we are going to have to think about what to do on cyber, information operations, strategic communications; and we will need to think about whether we have the special forces capacity right the way around the edge of Russia to deal with the phenomenon of these “green men” in these insurgency operations. We need the knowledge of places such as Narva in Estonia.
That is the easy stuff. That is before we get on to the concurrent threats, mentioned by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. If we in this country take seriously the idea that we care about threats from failed states, terrorists and Islamist groups, we are going to have to think about northern Nigeria, Libya and Yemen, and we are going to have to think much more seriously about Syria and Iraq. We are going to have to think about continuing to support Afghanistan and, potentially, Pakistan, and if we do not do something about these places now as a coalition, it is just going to get worse. We will be reporting back to the House in two years’ time, and the Nigerian problem will have spread into Chad and Niger; the Libyan problem will have re-exploded back into Mali; Syria and Iraq will be destabilising Lebanon and Jordan even more profoundly than they are now.
Unfortunately, in dealing with these problems, we cannot base what we do on the Future Force 2020 structure. That was about the enduring stabilisation operations and heavy investment in counter-insurgency operations, with 100,000 people retained for a decade or more. That works if we have only one of these problems, but it simply does not work if we are dealing with a dozen of them at one time. So we need a much lighter, smarter approach to dealing with these countries. That will mean moving out of the world view of “one at a time” and not losing confidence. That is central; it cannot be about despair. It is about recognising that in Bosnia and Sierra Leone, we did these things quite well, but that if we are serious about them, we are going to have to upgrade our special forces and potentially look at—again, these are just ideas—type 2 special forces of the “green beret” type that they have in the United States. We may need to develop the idea of the Chief of the General Staff on defence engagement, but much more ambitiously, much more imaginatively and much more aggressively, including pre-posting officers into a dozen countries. We may be talking about 50 or 100 officers at a time, not about just one defence attaché covering three Baltic countries, and we may need to rethink the whole force structure that lies behind that.
I have run out of time, so let me say a few things in conclusion. I have sketched out a world which, as was made clear by the hon. Gentleman, is very different now. It is different in terms of the conventional threat, but—and this is something that we have only touched on so far—it is, above all, different in terms of the concurrent threats that are emerging from all the fragile states. We have not begun to think those through. We have not begun to consider the deep implications of the skills set, the force structures and the capacity that we would need in order to deal with those states simultaneously.
The 2% of GDP matters for several reasons. First, we can deal with these problems only as a coalition, because they are beyond the sort of problems that Britain can deal with on its own. The 2% matters because it is a way of raising the commitment of more than 20 NATO countries to matching that expenditure themselves. It is essential to keep the United States bound into the system, because it is currently spending 70% of the NATO money. The President, the chief of the United States army, and the United States ambassador to the United Nations have all made it clear that they view the 2% as a sign of seriousness and of Britain’s commitment to keep the United States involved. Above all, however, the 2% is needed because the threats are real. The world is genuinely becoming more dangerous, and Britain cannot be a freeloader.
One of the sad aspects of what I feel is happening is our growing obsession with kit. People stand up and list all the different bits of kit that we have bought, but they do not intend ever to use it. They are freeloading on the idea that Britain will never act alone, that the United States will somehow fill in all the gaps, and that therefore we do not need to be serious about what we are actually doing in countries such as Libya. The challenge to Ministers should be, “Explain how we are to deal with a situation like the one in Libya. Explain what we are going to do in Yemen and northern Nigeria. Explain how this kit will really prevent us from letting the Russians into Mariupol.” Do we care about those issues, or are we creating an isolationist world view?
That 2% of GDP will return confidence to the military. It is an increasing budget, so the military will have £1 billion a year more every year to finance imaginative ideas. They will be able to restructure our forces, invest in defence engagement rather than scrimping and saving around the edges, and give us back the confidence that we need as a nation.
We have heard three excellent speeches, and I found very little to disagree with in any of them, but perhaps I did disagree with the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) when he spoke of our “misguided” interventions. Surely it was not our interventions but the way in which we carried them through that was misguided. We generally did not carry them through with enough stamina and enough commitment to the action that we needed to take.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard), who serves on the Defence Committee and who has provided us with some extraordinary insights. We have occasionally wished that we could edit some of what he said, or make it a little quicker—we ribbed him about that mercilessly at times—but I think that the whole Committee learned from his long-term, strategic way of looking at things and pulling them together.
It might have been beneficial for the entire defence team to listen to today’s debate, for, as I look around the Chamber, it seems to me that it will turn out to be a debate worth listening to. The same applied to our last debate on defence spending: every speech contributed something. Even if Ministers take in what is said by Members on both sides of the House, they do not make it clear that they are taking any notice of some of the friendly advice that is given to them. A classic example arose during Prime Minister’s Question Time, when I raised the subject of the 2% target. It was the Prime Minister who, at the Wales summit, lectured other countries and told them that they should step up to the plate. I suggested that he might just feel a tiny bit embarrassed, but all that he could come back with was some reference to the Scottish National party. Defence is not a party political issue; it is an issue for which the House has a collective responsibility. It seems that Back-Bench debates are required to bring Members together to discuss an issue that the Government ought to encourage us to talk about, but do so very rarely.
Let me return to the question of why the 2% matters. We all agree that it is an arbitrary figure, but it is part of an international commitment: it is part of article 5. Article 5 contains no mandate for a particular kind of response, but if we continue like this, we shall have no response except sanctions. We shall not be able to respond militarily except via the Americans. It is deeply irresponsible for the mainland European NATO members to keep cutting defence spending and keep telling their publics that, while their aspirations have not changed, everything will be done through much smarter methods and in co-operation, so they will continue to deliver more by investing less.
A few years ago, someone in the Pentagon described European countries as “no-good, crummy allies”. If we continue on our present trajectory, we shall join the ranks of no-good, crummy allies, and I do not want to see that day. The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay spoke of national and international interests, to which I would add “national and international responsibilities”. If we wish to be a significant player in the world and to fulfil those international interests, we must possess not only capacity, but reliability and steadiness.
I do not want to repeat the speech that I made last week. My last point concerns political leadership. It is true that defence is not a vote-winner. I would not like to live in a country where people demonstrate in the streets, demanding more weapons and military action. It is in the nature of our people to want peace, but the leaders must show that they are responsive to the needs of the defence of the realm, and are conscious of their international responsibilities.
The hon. Lady is making some characteristically wise observations, and I think we all agree about the 2%. Surely, however, leadership is not just about calling on all NATO members to match that 2%, but about calling for effective use of that money. Many people feel that if the 2% is not spent wisely, it is not really the end of the story. We need to be sure that it is being spent properly.
The hon. Gentleman is right: it must be spent properly. The 2% commitment sends signals, and gives the services and the supply chain certainly, about what is going to happen. It is no good trying to massage the figures and suddenly include war pensions in order to arrive at the 2% figure, because that would render it absolutely meaningless.
I said that I would be brief. Let me end by saying that the 2% is part of our North Atlantic treaty commitment, because part of our commitment is to a capacity that will enable us to respond to an article 5 threat. It is up to all parties in the House—and, in particular, Front Benchers—to show leadership, so that we can bring our voters with us in relation to our commitment. Without leadership, that simply will not happen.
I strongly agree with what has just been said by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart). I also pay particular tribute to the impressive and remarkable speech that we heard from the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), the Chairman of the Select Committee, who explained the practical implications of our situation in a very detailed and convincing way. I shall not repeat the points that he made, because they were made so well by him.
Let me begin by emphasising that this debate is not just about defence expenditure, but something far wider. If we continue to make cuts in our defence budget of the kind that are being contemplated, we shall find that we are making a profound and irreversible change not just to our defence capability, but to the ability of the United Kingdom to conduct a global foreign policy with authority, conviction and credibility. That, in essence, is the fundamental choice that we are being asked to contemplate.
We have had these cuts over a number of years. I have not until now criticised the Government for their defence cuts over the five years of this Parliament, for several reasons. First, I have recognised—as have most of us—that in a period of great austerity it is of course impossible to remove the contribution that the Ministry of Defence, given the size of its budget, might be able to make to resolving matters. I was privileged to serve as Secretary of State for Defence, and I had to implement defence cuts myself, so I am very conscious of the pressures that exist, and the need to try to find a way of resolving them.
May I counter that argument by saying that, with defence, if we cut ships, regiments or planes, we cannot just reinvent them when we need them? It takes months or years to bring them back.
My hon. Friend helps to take me to exactly the next point I was going to make. What also enabled me to modify my concerns—to not feel the need to speak out during those few years—was the way in which the MOD addressed the difficult decisions it had to make. To a considerable extent, it tried to preserve the major improvements to our overall capability —our carrier capability, for example, and the need to renew the Trident submarines because of our strategic requirements. A lot of the reductions were made in the areas of manpower. That is painful and difficult, but the reality is that if we had cancelled the carriers, they could never have been reintroduced. That would be gone for ever, with profound and permanent impacts on our maritime capability. When we reduce Army manpower, it is painful, but the changes can be reversed, if the resources are available and the need is there, over not too long a period. That will still be difficult, but it can be done without the implications that come from a major reduction in capability.
Perhaps the most important thing that reassured me—rightly, I hope—over the last five years was the clear assurance that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave that once we had resolved the immediate economic crisis, and had economic growth and economic development, there would be, as an absolute necessity, real-terms increases, year on year, in our defence expenditure. That was, so far as anything can seem to be a commitment, a commitment at the very highest levels of our Government five years ago, and we have been told ever since that that remains the Prime Minister’s view.
We face a most extraordinary situation. The Government say—I happen to agree with them—that the United Kingdom is going through a period of remarkable economic recovery. We are now one of the strongest economies in Europe, we are told; our economic growth is now higher than that of almost any other country in Europe, and our employment situation has improved. All these economic developments, which will rightly be very important in the forthcoming general election, are being shown as examples of how we have succeeded in our strategy, and how the UK is therefore stronger than many other countries in the western world. Yet ironically, simultaneously, precisely because our GDP is growing substantially, meeting that 2% requirement becomes that much more difficult, if not unattainable. It is a great irony that the more our economy improves, the more we seem likely to fall below the 2% requirement, when the reverse should be the case: if our economy is growing and doing well, it should be easier to find the resources required, because the revenues coming into Government will also increase considerably. That irony is not one that I have yet heard explained.
I hope that when the Minister winds up, he can reassure us on how we will benefit from the remarkable economic growth for which we are taking the credit. We certainly did not expect increases in defence spending when the economy was in a mess. Now it seems to be much healthier. I recognise that the budget deficit continues, but that is only part of the overall economic situation.
Something else worries me, too, and it has been mentioned by colleagues and those outside this House. Of course this 2% is a nominal figure, a totem, and it is the real resources that are important, but I find it difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile a cavalier approach towards the 2% objective, which we have held for many years, with saying that overseas development is somehow untouchable, and indeed may have to be given statutory protection in the current economic circumstances. Indeed, it now has statutory protection of a kind that I find extraordinary. These are very curious situations.
The consequence of what is happening, particularly if it continues after the general election, will be not just pain for our armed forces and their capability, but an irreversible change to Britain’s ability to conduct a credible foreign policy. After the United States, our armed forces and those of France are unique around the world. We are the only other two countries that have been able to make a meaningful contribution—albeit that we come far behind the United States—to providing a global deployment of armed forces to assist with overall issues of global security. Our role and credibility in the Security Council of the United Nations as not just a member, but a permanent member, is because of our ability to contribute towards security. That is what the Security Council is all about.
Our foreign policy is conducted on the basis of three assets that we have: first, of course, our diplomatic capability, which is impressive, although it has been under considerable strain in recent years; secondly, our intelligence capability, which is strong, and I pay credit to the Government for the resources provided there; and, thirdly, our military capability. The UK’s military capability is in a serious condition, of a kind that we are all familiar with, and that has an impact on our diplomatic credibility.
I read some years ago a remark that I have used since—colleagues may have heard me use it. It is attributed to Frederick the Great: “Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.” That remains true, not because we will necessarily always wish to use our armed forces, but because if we are pursuing, with good faith, a desire to develop a political and diplomatic solution to some intractable problem—there is a perfect example in our relations with Russia and Mr Putin at present—the fact that we have as the ultimate back-stop a military capability has a significant and profound impact on the likelihood of our delivering the result that we are trying to obtain. However, if we are seen as once having had that military capability, but as having opted, as a deliberate act of Government policy, to reduce that capability so that it remains significant but is not in any profound sense impressive, we will have seriously reduced our diplomatic clout and made the ultimate problem that much greater.
It is always dangerous to draw comparisons with the 1930s, but we know perfectly well that those in Berlin who were planning aggression believed that the western democracies were incapable of providing the resources required for a strong defence, and that influenced their foreign policy. I am not saying that the threats that we face today are of that order, or that the individuals concerned are comparable to the people who led Germany at that time—of course that would be unfair—but the fundamental principle is nevertheless the same.
What I beg of the Government, or any Government who emerge after the general election, is that they do not ask the facile question, “Does this win votes? Are the public demanding it? Is this therefore something we must respond to, or it will hurt us politically?” If a Government have one justification in a democratic society, it is that they do not just follow, or seek to follow, public opinion, but occasionally recognise the need to lead public opinion, and to take decisions that may involve painful choices, and that may be difficult in terms of newspaper headlines, but may have profound and beneficial impacts on our ability to make our contribution to sorting out some of the problems of the world.
Looking around the world, there are very few countries indeed that combine strong democratic institutions, genuine respect for the rule of law, and a military capability that can help build up security, restore peace and achieve the global objectives with which this country has always been proud to be associated. Let it not be the legacy of this Government, or any Government who emerge after this election, that we can no longer say that or make that contribution, not because the public rejected the idea, but because politicians failed to provide the right level of leadership.
It is a pleasure to participate in this debate. I commend all who have spoken, especially the Chair of the Select Committee on Defence, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). I have the privilege of being a member of the Committee but do not attend as often as I might like because of other commitments back home in Northern Ireland to do with the peace process, but what he said made a lot of sense. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard), vice-Chair of the Committee, made an excellent contribution, too. It has been a pleasure to serve on the Committee during this Parliament. The work that it has done has been of real value, and when a cross-party Committee of this nature comes together and says clearly to the Government that a minimum of 2% of GDP should be allotted to defence spending, the Government should listen to the wisdom of that Committee. We look at these issues week in and week out, taking evidence and examining all the facts.
Judging by what I have heard today, there is a high degree of support for the need to get on with the task of strengthening our armed forces and the United Kingdom’s defences, especially in the light of our improved economic conditions. Other speakers have rightly said that the world around us is changing, as is the nature of the threat against the United Kingdom and our allies. That threat emerges in various locations, and our capacity is being spread and stretched. I know that there are plans to enhance and improve our armed forces, but we believe that it will be critical for the incoming Government to make a clear commitment to spending 2% of our GDP on defence.
I shall go further than that. I acknowledge what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) said about the debate not being party political, and I entirely accept that. However, the Democratic Unionists are a small regional party in this Parliament and we might have some influence over who forms the next Government. Let me therefore place clearly on record, so that there can be no doubt, and so that this does not become a bargaining chip—it will not—that we will only support a Government of this nation who make the commitment to a minimum of 2% of GDP being spent on defence. That is not a party political comment; it is simply something that we believe to be important.
We have been accused in the past of focusing our interest narrowly on Northern Ireland. It has been said that when it comes to negotiating with coalition Governments or in confidence and supply arrangements, we will always be there with the begging bowl on behalf of Northern Ireland, but that is not the case. We have spelled out today certain key areas on which we want the next Government to make commitments on national issues. We are focusing on the national need and what is in the interests of the United Kingdom, and right at the top of that list are the defence and security of this nation and the need for a commitment to 2% of our national income being spent on defence. I agree that it is not enough just to make that commitment, and that it needs to be made clear how the money will be spent. It must be spent wisely and it must be prioritised towards the areas in which it is required.
Looking at the world around us, we see that we have two aircraft carriers under construction. The Queen Elizabeth is now being fitted out and the Prince of Wales is being built. There must be certainty that both ships will be brought into service and properly equipped with airframes and aircraft. We need a credible carrier force. That will be an essential component of our defence strategy’s capacity and global reach, not only in defending this nation’s security but in providing security to our allies. That needs to be a priority.
If I may say so, one of the mistakes that this Government made was to scrap our surveillance aircraft and to cut up the Nimrod aircraft. That was frankly an act of madness. We now have Russian aircraft flying around the coastline of the United Kingdom but we do not have the capacity to deal with it properly. We need to do something about that. That is an area of our armed forces that could, with extra expenditure, be re-equipped, to enable surveillance globally but particularly around the shores of the United Kingdom. The British Isles need defending—they need watching in the most literal sense—but our maritime surveillance capabilities are currently well below par. Vladimir Putin respects force, and we need to respect it too. We need to be able to show that we as a nation have the military capacity to defend ourselves against any possible attack.
Beyond equipment, we need to get the strategy right. Many Members have already referred to the strategic defence and security review. I stated in an earlier debate that we needed to bring forward that review, but in any event it is clear that the current SDSR is not fit for purpose, because the world has changed and things have moved on. It is therefore essential that we get the next SDSR absolutely right. We will need to know why and on what the 2% of national income will be spent, and to set that in the context of our strategic needs and defence requirements. That is not just some marketing commitment to be waved around as a policy commitment during the election. We need to know exactly what the policy will mean in terms of the numbers, what the money will be spent on, and what our strategic requirements are for national defence and security.
Beyond capabilities and strategy, we have to consider the daily needs of the men and women who serve in our armed forces. I get worried when I see the provision of housing and catering for our armed forces personnel, because decisions on these matters are often taken on the basis of the lowest tender that comes into the Department. I have had many complaints from members of the armed forces about the quality of the services that are put in place to support them. We need to improve on that. It should not always be about the lowest tender.
I am listening intently to the right hon. Gentleman’s excellent speech. Does he agree that we do not give sufficient consideration to the funding for treating those who have been wounded once they return to this country? Does he acknowledge how much our armed forces have to rely on charity to take care of those who have been wounded, both physically and mentally?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The military charities play an important role in supporting our veterans, but the military covenant must mean something and it must be real. I still meet too many armed forces veterans who feel, rightly or wrongly, that they have been abandoned after a number of years. That applies particularly to those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Sadly, as a result of Operation Banner being conducted in Northern Ireland for more than 30 years, we have a large number of ex-security force and ex-military personnel suffering from PTSD, and recent research has shown that the number is growing. The armed forces charities are really struggling to support those personnel, and more needs to be done. The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that if we are going to increase our spending we should ensure that our veterans, especially those who have been injured on operational deployment, get the support, care and treatment that they need, and that they can continue to do so.
Specifically on injured service personnel, I would like to give the House just one example of how we have tried to do better. We managed to get £6.5 million from the Treasury special reserve, with the Treasury’s full approval, to provide the latest generation of prosthetics—the so-called geniums, or what The Sun describes as “bionic” legs—for our wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan. They set the world standard in prosthetics. We spent £6.5 million of taxpayers’ money—which no one would object to—to give our wounded service personnel the best that money could buy.
I appreciate that. I have the greatest respect for the Minister and I know from our conversations how deeply and strongly he feels about supporting those who have served in our armed forces. I take on board the point that he has made. My concern, however, is for those who are beyond that point, particularly those who are suffering from mental trauma. There is a need to do more to support those members of our armed forces. We need to support, through infrastructure, those who serve our nation.
I want to conclude by mentioning the reserve forces. We have put a lot of emphasis on their work and there is an urgent need to embed more regular personnel into the reserve forces to help with the training regime there, so that they are better trained and so that we improve the levels of manpower retention. As Ministers know, we have been very successful in Northern Ireland in our recruitment capacity. Many of our units are already fully recruited and we want to build on that work.
I welcome this debate. The Chancellor recently said:
“We can afford whatever it takes to provide adequate security. Defence comes first.”
If in the next Parliament my party is called upon to support a Government, that Government will need to be one who mean just what the Chancellor said.
Several hon. Members
Order, I call Sir Menzies Campbell.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am not sure whether to call you colonel on this occasion.
I, like others, have been greatly impressed by the quality of the debate so far. I agree with much of what has been said, but let me pick up on a couple of points. First, it is right to say that defence does not win votes, but poor defence can certainly lose them if the public form the view that we are not fulfilling our primary objective—their protection. Secondly, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) made an extremely eloquent speech, but I say to him that there was no option but to abandon the maritime patrol aircraft. The original decision to go with Nimrod was questioned by the Defence Committee at the time. Other alternatives were available, for example, the P-3 Orion, but the decision was taken, I believe by Mr Secretary Portillo, that Nimrod it should be. A final irony was that Nimrod, the mighty hunter, never actually fulfilled his responsibility.
Let us consider the following:
“The Ministry of Defence is being led by the nose by the Treasury towards reductions in Britain’s armed forces which have no rational basis”.
The House will not recognise that quotation, and neither did I until the BBC drew to my attention, in an article written for its website, that in my capacity as defence spokesman for the Liberal Democrats in August 1991 I had said just that. I do not introduce that to offer some support for the view that I am wise; I do so to point out that nothing seems to have changed. My proposition was put rather more pithily by my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), who said that after four years as Minister of State for the Armed Forces he formed the clear view that the enemy was not the Russians, but the Treasury.
Some things have changed, though, and the point has been made by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard). When I first came into this House and took an interest in these matters, we had five days of the parliamentary year to consider defence. We had a two-day debate on the annual White Paper at the beginning of October, and then each of the services had a single day of discussion devoted to them. When the three service days were amalgamated we were confidently assured that it would not result in fewer opportunities to hold the Government to account—people can form their own view about the value of that assurance.
I have been through it all: “Options for Change”; Front Line First; and Labour’s so-called defence review of 1998. That came closest of all to being a proper defence review, except for one thing: Labour refused to publish its foreign policy baseline attributes or intentions. As a consequence, what was otherwise a first-class exercise, with consultation the length and breadth of the country, driven by the then Secretary of State, now Lord Robertson, and with Lord Reid, as he now is, a very important part of it, that was the closest we have come to a defence review. We have not, even in this Parliament, had a defence review. It is an open secret that in 2010 the MOD was told, “Here is a metaphorical envelope containing money. Go away and find a defence policy that fits that sum of money.”
It is a fact that in spring 2010 the Labour Government produced a Green Paper, which would have fed into the defence—[Interruption.] What happened afterwards was what the Conservatives did with it, but we did produce the Green Paper to start the process.
The hon. Gentleman is right about that. I know a bit about this because I was invited by the then Defence Secretary to be part of the group of politicians, of all parties, who participated in debates with officials as to what should be in the Green Paper.
A defence review is not a hugely impossible concept to understand. What one needs to do is set out one’s foreign policy objectives; decide what military resources are necessary to fulfil those objectives; and then allocate the financial resources necessary to provide the military capability. We have not had a defence review that fulfils those three principles in all the time I have been in the House of Commons.
The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney made a sound point when he said that 2% cannot be described as a panacea for all the ills of defence. If 2% is to be spent, it must be spent wisely. We do not have to go far in Europe to see that several of our allies spend money, perhaps getting up towards 2%—there are not enough of those countries—which could much more readily be spent otherwise. For example, it could be spent on a greater amount of interoperability, force specialisation and such things. There is no point Mr Juncker talking about a European defence policy when European states have not yet properly fulfilled their responsibilities to NATO, of which almost all of them are members.
May I take the right hon. and learned Gentleman back a little to the defence and security review? We can have a defence review and we can have a security review, or we can have an integrated process that looks at the whole business of future resilience, which I think is what he is suggesting we have not done and are not doing now. Does he think that when the new Parliament forms, the circumstances will be such that the current budgets for defence might be maintained in order to allow time for a proper, integrated assessment of defence and security, possibly in the next calendar year, if not this one?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very sound point. I am sorry that I cannot give any commitments in relation to the next Parliament, as I shall not be here, but as a spectator outside I shall firmly cling to the view that a proper, full-scale defence review of the kind I have described, and with which he agrees, is necessary if we are to provide ourselves with the proper defences for the foreseeable future.
The situation is worse than I have described, in a way. Not only is the 2% a public commitment, but it was restated at Celtic Manor during the NATO summit and in the final communiqué from that summit. Of course, it is also one that the British Government have been at pains to emphasise to other allies. How are we going to explain away the fact that in recent months, even years, we have been complaining about the level of defence expenditure of other allies yet we are about to breach the very standard we signed up to and advocated only a few months ago? It is a bit worse than that, too, because we know that the possibility that we should fall below 2% has caused great anxiety, particularly in the United States, which is our closely military ally. Senior official after senior official has made exactly that point.
I have another source of embarrassment: in about 10 days’ time, the United Kingdom delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, which I have the honour to lead, will be the hosts of the Standing Committee of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. We have in the past 12 months, with the encouragement of Ministers, sought to persuade the other members of the Assembly of the importance of the 2% figure. We will look rather embarrassed in 10 days if the consequences of the actions that appear to be taken in this country are that we will fall below the very figure which we have been advocating and on which we have been seeking to hold the feet of others to the fire.
Let me finish by saying this: if we do not have sufficient defence—and 2% may not be enough—we will diminish our capability, we will reduce our influence and we will limit the options of government. We cannot afford any of those.
When the cold war ended in the early 1990s, the established view was that there would be a peace dividend. Defence spending would decline as countries spent money on initiatives that would create peace and stability rather than on arms. Russia was expected to become a fully integrated member of the international community; deadlock in the UN Security Council would become a thing of the past; and Russia would engage productively with its European neighbours. There was even talk of it joining NATO.
Those aspirations have since dissolved, and the illusion that we live in relative peace has now been lifted. The hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) painted a very good picture of this new insecurity in the world. The most pressing concern is the continued ambition of Russian President Vladimir Putin to establish his dominance over eastern Europe. His tactics go beyond conventional warfare. Using subversive tactics such as political destabilisation, informal military units, information warfare and energy blockades, he has destabilised and partly occupied Ukraine. We saw such tactics for the first time in the 2008 Georgian war in which, under the pretext of aiding Russian citizens, he annexed South Ossetia and Abkhazia. We have now seen him do the same with Crimea and large parts of eastern Ukraine.
Russia seeks to flex its military muscles across the whole of Europe, as we have seen recently with the incursion into our airspace by Russian bombers. That is not the first time that that has happened and it will not be the last. In 2013 and 2014, there were eight similar incidents of Russian military aircraft invading UK airspace.
Aside from Russia, we are also once again faced with the threat of the spread of nuclear weapons and the question of nuclear proliferation. Since 2006, North Korea has conducted three nuclear weapons tests, and Iran, while at the negotiating table, continues to work on its nuclear weapons programme.
International terrorism has taken on a new form with the rise of Islamic State, which, every day, conducts grotesque, barbaric and despicable acts. Now is certainly not the time for Britain to shirk its responsibilities. After all, we pride ourselves on being a world power. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a member of the European Union and a member of NATO, we should make a minimum 2% GDP commitment to defence. Listening to the debate today, I get the impression that one or two Members think that 2% of GDP is a target, but it is not; it is a floor below which spending should not drop.
In endorsing that important point, may I point out that, during the cold war in the 1980s, we were spending, at times, more than 5% of GDP on defence?
I was not aware of that fact, but I totally concur with the idea of spending anything up to 5%. As I said, 2% should be considered the floor. I am very concerned that some of our NATO and European partners are not getting anywhere near that figure. How can it be argued that we should shut our doors to Europe and, at the same time, commit to working closer with European nations if we cannot work together to reach at least that 2% figure?
The recent report by the Royal United Services Institute says that the strength of our Army, Navy and Air Force could fall from 145,000 to 115,000 by 2020, which is a 26% decline. If we follow that trajectory, we could face a situation in which our armed forces numbers drop below 100,000. If we consider that Wembley stadium can accommodate 90,000 people, our entire armed forces might soon be able to fit into the stadium, which does not bear thinking about. There are also around 92,000 people currently in prison in Britain. We could well end up with more people incarcerated than in our armed forces.
This country has always had a powerful air force. We have always built and supplied the best military aircraft in the world, from the Harrier to the Typhoon. Yet air support today accounts for only £13.8 billion of our £162.9 billion defence budget, which is 8.8%. The numbers of RAF servicemen have been continually cut over the past few years. There are 8,810 fewer servicemen in the RAF in 2015 than there were in 2010, which is a decline of nearly 25%. That is despite the fact that limited military intervention via the deployment of aircraft for bombing campaigns has once again become the norm. We saw that in Libya and we now see it in Iraq where Tornadoes and Reaper drones have flown 374 missions and released 206 weapons against ISIL targets.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point about the continual use of the Air Force. That pressure on the Air Force coupled with the cuts that are taking place means that we will not be able to sustain that sort of use in the long term.
That is the point I am making. As I have said, we may soon be in a position where all our defence forces will fit into a football stadium and where our prison population will outnumber our military personnel.
The technological edge that we have in military aerospace has created huge dividends for our economy and is an indispensable part of our economic infrastructure. That is particularly evident in my region in the north-west of England where BAE Systems employs around 15,000 people at sites in Lancashire, Cumbria and Cheshire. Some 10,000 people, including many of my constituents, make military jets at Samlesbury and Warton just outside Preston, which means a great deal for the local economy. BAE Systems currently trains 264 apprentices across those sites and young people are trained to use the high-technology equipment and to develop engineering skills that will secure them permanent jobs into the future.
To maintain our existing military air superiority, our priority is twofold: the upgrading of the existing Typhoon fleet and the purchasing of the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighters. The upgrading of our Typhoon fleet has to be of the upmost importance. Our RAF pilots currently rely on our ageing fleet of Tornado GR4 bombers to conduct missions against ISIL positions in Iraq. That is because of delays to the RAF's upgrade programme for the Typhoon fleet, principally caused by the lack of funding available for the new equipment.
The next UK Government will decide the size of our new fleet of F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighters. So far, the Government have approved the purchase of 14 aircraft to provide the first operational squadron, plus four aircraft for testing and training. The current cost of their development is more than £5 billion and their completion is vital for our economy and the future of our security. The next Government must commit to offering clarity over the size of our F-35 fleet and a timetable for its completion.
There can be no doubt that the future security of Europe should be our main priority. Irrespective of whether we are in the EU, Britain will always be a European power and an internationally strong mid-league military power. The threats to European security are threats to Britain’s security. We must maintain our technological edge. Technological advancements and investment in skills not only have a direct spin off into other industries in our economy, but support thousands of independent small to medium-sized businesses in the supply chain.
The key to security for the future is our mastery of technology and our ability to stay one step ahead. We see that now with the development of unmanned aerial vehicles. We are leading the way with projects such as BAE Systems Taranis stealth attack drone, which is part of an Anglo-French project to develop unmanned capability by pooling technology from each nation’s work so far. In November 2014, a £120 million contract was awarded to six industry partners across the UK and France to invest in the development of future unmanned combat aerial vehicle technology.
A commitment from the next Government in the strategic defence spending review for the next generation of drones would reinvigorate our domestic aerospace industry. Without it, says one BAE senior executive, there will be no UK aerospace industry to speak of in the future. Our military aerospace industry is a source of jobs, skills and pride for many in this country. It is an area where, technologically, we are leading the way. I fear that, if our spending commitment falls below 2%, we could put many of these skills and jobs in jeopardy, not to mention our national security. Therefore, I strongly believe that the next Government, whichever colour they are, should commit to meeting that target and going beyond it. We cannot put too high a price on our security. Our security must come first.
As for others who have spoken in this debate, it is likely that this will be my last debate in Parliament. I am glad that it is on defence—the defining purpose of the state and of Parliament. I will seek not to repeat what others have said, but I want to say this. We have no more important role than to keep those who elect us safe from our enemies. This view is not as popular as it was. Elections, we are told, are not won and lost on defence; there are no votes in defence. I am not so sure. If the political establishment is seen to be playing fast and loose with our security, we will all pay a heavy price in further disillusionment and alienation.
The 2% NATO floor or target, to which we are all politically and morally committed, is the minimum that we should spend, yet it is far from safe. I do not generally favour targets for spending of any kind, and I certainly do not favour writing them into law, but the unavoidable truth is that if we are to achieve our current objectives, spending of that order is needed. I understand the scope for increased efficiency in the area of human activity; indeed the increased sophistication of the technology behind military equipment enables us to do more with less, which means that fewer people are needed to deliver the same effect than even a decade ago.
A Type 45 destroyer is considerably more capable than the Type 42 that it replaces and needs a smaller crew. And there are opportunities to do more with less. That is one of the purposes of the UK-French defence relationship. The application of the whole force concept could increase the effect and efficiency of defence. So our debate about national security must not lapse into sentimentality. It is not sentimental to speak up for defence. I want to do so by addressing three things—the financial background, the fact that defence is a long-term game and the threat to essential investment in science and technology.
The Chancellor is right to say that strong defence depends on a strong economy. That is why as a Minister in 2010, I swallowed hard and accepted significant cuts to defence capabilities, even though they led to some very challenging gaps in capability. But for a trading nation like ours, the protection of the sea lanes and the maintenance of an open rules-based trading system are crucial. So a strong economy also depends on strong defence. Prosperity is built on peace. The urgent question to both Front-Bench teams today is this. The funding post-2015 that is needed just to achieve Future Force 2020 is based on a 1% per annum increase in the equipment budget and flat real for the non-equipment budget. That is what the chiefs of staff and Ministers were promised at the time. So will Ministers and shadow Ministers commit today to both the equipment and non-equipment figures that we were promised?
The commitment on the equipment budget made only by my party is welcome. There is a long list of very important capabilities, but it is not enough on its own. The significant cuts that appear to be pencilled in for current expenditure—RDEL, or resource departmental expenditure limit—are deeply worrying. I commend Professor Malcolm Chalmers excellent paper, “Mind the gap; the MOD’s emerging budgetary challenge.” It is an objective, factual assessment of the cost pressures facing defence. I doubt that the Minister can offer reasons to disagree with any of its deeply worrying conclusions, but even in the optimistic scenario that Professor Chalmers outlines, under which defence is given the same protection as health and education, those cost pressures would still force a total cut of 8.7% over the next 10 years—about £35 billion in total.
If further cuts are to be made, they would sadly have to be based on a refreshed and less ambitious strategic approach. The decisions in the 2015 review, then, could redefine Britain’s role in the world. There are other strategies, depending more on diplomacy, soft power and development assistance, for example. They are all vital components of our national security, but are they credible without strong defences too? No. Not when, for the first time since the cold war, Europe faces a real military threat on its borders. The world is more dangerous than it has been for decades.
In some ways, though, the 2015 SDSR will be easier than the last one. Crucially, a major programme of reform has rebuilt the MOD’s credibility, and its performance on equipment acquisition has been transformed. From both the industrial and security perspectives, the 2010 SDSR succeeded in protecting the very special US-UK defence relationship, but will this last? President Obama, the US Chief of Staff and the US ambassador to the UN have all warned us and are sending us a clear message about what they fear is the future of UK defence spending.
So to my second theme—the need to take long-term decisions to protect our operational advantage and our freedom of action. In layman’s terms, that means making sure that we have superior capabilities to our enemies and that we can use them and sustain them whenever we want to. At the heart of this for me is the alarming engineering skills shortage that we face as a nation, especially in defence. This is the area of the 2012 White Paper on defence acquisition, to which I put my name, with which I am least satisfied. The ingredients were all there, but the urgency of the issue was not properly articulated and opportunities were missed. Crucially, commentators did not understand what the White Paper said. It made it clear that
“We will take action to protect our operational advantages and freedom of action, but only where this is essential for national security.”
Here is the commitment to invest in what industry calls the body of knowledge essential to sustain capabilities in the long terms. We cannot protect all the skills and capabilities that we need and would like to on current budgets, but there are areas of capability that we simply must invest in to sustain our security. Short-term budget cuts make this White Paper promise, which is essential to our security, impossible to deliver, with serious long-term consequences.
My third theme is the priority that we must attach to sustaining investment in technology. The centrality of research investment to UK national security takes on greater significance in a new global security context—a context defined by state fragmentation, asymmetric threats and technology proliferation. Belligerent non-state actors are increasingly using technology to counter the traditional technological advantage of conventional military and security forces. Since the end of the cold war, we have seen widespread development of technology by commercial organisations and individuals driven by a consumer society and business sector hungry for tomorrow’s technology today. This has lowered the bar for entry to conflict, espionage, terrorism and serious and organised crime, meaning that there are far more threats out there now than there were. As a result “conflict” will be far less predictable than we have seen before. It simply will not conform to set-piece scenarios in the same way that the west planned for in the last century or in the last SDSR.
If we are not committing to investing a realistic amount in science and technology, I see several things happening. First, we will become less relevant to our key strategic allies—the United States and France. Secondly, we will miss the opportunities to build capability by adapting the best of the commercial and international technology sector because we simply will not know what the cutting edge looks like. Thirdly, we will cease to act as an intelligent client. How do you know what you are buying if you do not know what good looks like? Fourthly, we will be unable to evolve during a conflict. This is potentially the most serious if we cannot defeat the novel threats deployed against us.
If the 2015 SDSR correctly prioritises science and technology, logically the MOD must spend more on it.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. The Defence Committee in reports in this Parliament and the previous Parliament has talked about the MOD devoting 2% of the money that it has to S and T as well as R and D so that such spending is structured into budgets.
I could not agree with the hon. Gentleman more strongly. That is the precise figure that I have in mind for the level of resources from the defence budget that should be spent on S and T. It was 2.6% under the previous Government, but it declined under them to 1.2%. The White Paper on technology put a floor under it of 1.2%. It is far too low a floor, and what is more, as defence budgets have shrunk, the sum being spent has gone down too. It is only a third higher than what the Department for International Development now spends on research. Two per cent. is the bare minimum, of rising budgets as well. The trouble is that the Department sees S and T as the cash cow of the spending round. It is a resource that is easily cut because contracts are short term, but the consequences for our security are devastating.
If cuts to revenue spending happen, the science and technology budget will go straight back into the firing line of the Treasury and the bean counters of the MOD. We must not let that happen. Maintaining operational advantage is a race against time to take innovation from the lab and into the battle-space.
Our partners envy our ability to do more with less. Key to this is understanding the operational advantage of technology and moving it quickly into the hands of the military. As Bernard Gray, Chief of Defence Matériel, put it recently,
“The key question is, of all the desirable things in the world, which are the ones you can afford?”
But the country can afford more, as it should choose to do. In the end, this is not about votes, it is about leadership. We must all in this place do everything we can to sustain the national understanding that we maintain peace through strength, not weakness. That is why it is imperative that the next SDSR is well argued, persuasive and properly funded, and why all the political leaders of our nation must show their deep personal commitment to this outcome.
After every major conflict we have cut defence and regretted it. The Crimean war, the first world war, the second world war, the cold war—cut and regret, cut and regret, cut and regret, cut and regret. As Hegel said,
“We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”
In 2015 we celebrate the 800th anniversary of the foundation of our freedoms, Magna Carta, and the 750th anniversary of the beginning of our representative democracy and Simon de Montfort. It would be depressingly ironic if in 2015 of all years a timid Parliament, an intellectually feeble SDSR and another round of austerity combined further to weaken our defences and threaten our freedoms at such a dangerous moment in world history.
It is a happy coincidence that this debate follows the statement on the Ebola crisis and what will be a magnificent page in the history of the armed forces and government. I believe that we have performed splendidly there, with great courage and with great professionalism, and it is what we do best. We also have a great deal to be proud of in the military intervention in the same country—Sierra Leone—and in other countries and in Bosnia. We are very good at humanitarian work, and that is what our role should be.
I would be happy to see 2% being spent if we reshaped our Army to concentrate on what will be the real problems of the world, not on repeating all the divisions of past centuries and the tribal wars between nations, and accepted what the real challenges are for the future. They are mostly environmental. They are the shortage of clean water—a challenge for us all—and all the other environmental tasks that will probably overwhelm us because the future is one in which we should see ourselves not as groups who are plotting against one another and carrying on traditional wars, but as one human family whose future is in deadly peril from various sources.
We are carrying out this debate again with a sense of delusion. We are talking as we could have done 100 years ago or 50 years ago. The 2% Newport pledge was agreed in my constituency, not that the Government were very keen to see me at the summit. I think that the 30 foot wall around it was intended more to keep me out than anyone else. They would not have welcomed my views there, but it had an element of pantomime and farce. How many of the 28 countries will spend up to 2%? Well, I will tell the House: none. How many of the 28 countries will get nuclear weapons. Twenty-five of them are without nuclear weapons at the moment. There will still be 25 in the future. It is all a bit of window dressing and it is fairly meaningless.
What we should be doing, before we decide on continuing to repeat the errors of the past and celebrating them, is looking at the mistakes that we have made in the House. It was not that long ago when we were told that we had to go to war to eliminate non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We were also told that we had to intervene in Helmand to protect our streets in Britain from a non-existent Taliban terrorist threat. About 18 months ago, we were told to prepare against Iran, which was threatening us with its non-existent long-range missiles, carrying its non-existent nuclear weapons.
Tomorrow, there will be a commemoration of those who died in the Afghan war. I think that we all had a letter from the Secretary of State for Defence that says:
“We can be very proud of what we have achieved, which has eliminated the terrorist threat to the UK and from Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan”.
It has also done something else: it has multiplied the terrorist threat. In March 2003, I wrote to Tony Blair and said that, if we carried on with what we were planning to do in Iraq, we would deepen the divide between the Muslim eastern world and the Christian western world. That is precisely what we did. I suggested in that letter that it would deepen the antagonism not only in the far corners of the world, but in the mosques on the corners of our local streets. Now, it has happened. It is unbelievable that young children born and brought up here in Britain think it right to go out and join the barbarous operations of ISIS. Who is responsible for that? There is an element in which the hubris of past Prime Ministers is responsible.
It was not that long ago—29 August 2013—when we were being asked in the Chamber to go to war against Assad, the deadly enemy of ISIL. Now, we are in that area attacking ISIL, which is the deadly enemy of Assad. If we are to take decisions here, we cannot rely on the hubris of leaders or others who are here talking about these great plans. Someone thinks that we should spend money to avoid him embarrassment at an international meeting that he is going to.
We should look at what happened in Afghanistan. We could not look at the truth then. What are we saying now? A number of statements have been made since we pulled out militarily from Afghanistan. Brigadier Ed Butler said that the UK was under-prepared and under-resourced. General Sir Paul Wall said that the calculus was wrong. Major General Andrew Mackay said that the war was a series of shifting plans, unobtainable objectives, propaganda and spin. The former ambassador, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles said that the UK operation was a massive act of collective self-deception by the military and politicians unable to admit how badly it was going. General Lord Dannatt said that the UK knew it was heading for two considerable-sized operations and really only had organisation and manpower for one.
I am sure that all those gentlemen will be there tomorrow at the ceremony with a tear in their eye, sincerely regretting the deaths of 453 of our brave soldiers. Where were they when they could have done something about it? Why were their mouths bandaged when those decisions were taken and we were sending those young men to die in vain. They were silent: cowardice by those military men against the reality. They knew that Afghanistan was a hopeless war. They knew that we were not protecting our streets from Taliban terrorism. Yet they remained silent, and that is something that should be on our consciences and teach us that we should never do it again, as we blindly go forward with the delusions that we have here.
A great problem that we have had is this myth, coming back from the 19th century, that we must punch above our weight. We have heard about our role in the world. Punching above our weight has meant in the past 20 years that we spend beyond our interests and we die beyond our responsibilities. We are in the ignominious position now where we pride ourselves on having an independent nuclear weapon, worth spending £100 billion on, but we do not have an independent foreign policy.
No one protests that we have an American general telling us what to do with our budget. When he tells us to spend more on defence, he is also telling us to spend less on the health service and education. What has it got to do with him? America, of course, is our great partner and an admirable nation in many ways. It has lost more of its sons and daughters in wars to bring democracy and freedom to other countries than any other nation in the world, but we must not be tied to the United States. What it did in the Afghan war—the cause of that link there—and our refusal to part from American policy cost us at least 200 of those 453 lives.
Countries such as Canada and Holland pulled out of Afghanistan after making very honourable sacrifices in blood and treasure in the war, but they could see the hopelessness of it. Why did we not do the same? Are we going to do it again? Will we continue to aim for this mythical 2% target? We can have a great role in the world. We have great riches in skills, money and imagination and in our technical equipment, and I believe that we need to redraw the whole purposes of our defence forces.
No one can claim that we were in Iraq or Helmand to defend Britain. It was part of supporting the United States and trying to build a new world. It has gone terribly wrong, and it was counter-productive because we have created and spread these terrible wars. Al-Qaeda is virtually gone. It had gone from Afghanistan by 2002, and we went into Helmand in 2006. What has happened is that we have got the daughter organisations of al-Qaeda. They are more blood-thirsty and more vicious. Can we not understand that the battle for world peace is a battle for hearts and minds and that we can never win hearts and minds with bombs and bullets?
I enjoyed listening to the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). It is 32 years since I first came to the House and made my maiden speech on defence and this is probably the last speech that I will make in the Chamber, but during those 32 years, I have never agreed with a word that he has ever said. None the less, I enjoy listening to him.
I cannot resist pointing out that the second name on the motion today, which is
“That this House believes that defence spending should be set to a minimum of two per cent of GDP in accordance with the UK’s NATO commitment,”
is indeed that of the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn).
Perhaps I can start again.
What is behind this debate, I think, is a fear of cuts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who is a valued member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, on bringing this debate. I agree with much of what he said during his opening remarks, except for the points that he made about intervention. It is a debate that we have had in the Foreign Affairs Committee and our latest report on the finances of the Foreign Office makes the point that the Foreign Office, like the defence budget, is at a crossroads. We have such a thinly spread diplomatic service around the world that either it needs to have more resources or it has to narrow its bandwidth and match its aspirations to the budget available.
Linking a percentage of GDP to any policy is, in my view, bad politics. It is not the way to run Government, and that applies equally to the aid budget and the defence budget. Economies go up, economies come down. Of course, we are not going to have the defence and aid budgets going up and down like a yoyo. These things have to be evened out over an economic cycle. As many colleagues have said, the defence budget has to match our requirements. We must look at it in the context of the threat. What is the threat to the United Kingdom?
I do not think anyone is arguing at present that there is any serious existential threat to the United Kingdom. If there were, the figure on the motion today would be 20%, not 2%. We can safely say that NATO and the EU have given us the longest period of peace for centuries. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said very effectively on the “Today” programme today, we cannot ignore the impact and the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons.
May I clarify one important point of detail? Early-day motion 757 as originally printed referred to a 20% target. Desirable as that would be, it was a mistake. I think 2% will do for the time being.
I used the figure of 20% for effect, rather than for any serious argument.
On the defence budget in the context of NATO, the same point applies. Russia is now spending heavily. I believe that nearly a third of its federal budget is being spent on defence, though no one is arguing that we are going to see Russian tanks rolling across the central European plain in the foreseeable future. With hindsight, Russia’s intentions have been flagged up for longer than we realise. We should have realised that when the intervention in Georgia started. Then Russia’s focus moved to Syria and later to Crimea. Russia’s human rights record is appalling. It is a country under authoritarian and unpredictable rule at the top and in the Kremlin.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I give way, for the last time.