House of Commons
Monday 8 June 2015
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Strategic Defence and Security Review
I hope you will allow me, Mr Speaker, to welcome the new Minister for the Armed Forces and the new Minister for defence personnel and veterans, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), to their places.
Work has now begun on the 2015 strategic defence and security review, led by the Cabinet Office, and we expect the review to report towards the end of the year.
But before we had seen any timetable for the SDSR, the Chancellor last week announced £500 million-worth of defence cuts. Leaving aside our NATO commitments and the fundamental importance of keeping this nation safe, should we not assess our security needs first and then set the budget?
The savings announced last week were in-year savings that do not affect the core baseline defence budget, from which we will negotiate spending for the next three years; they do not affect manpower numbers; they do not affect our commitment to increase the equipment programme by 1% ahead of inflation; and they will have no effect on current operations. The strategic review on which we have now embarked will be, quite properly, aligned with the spending review, because defence, to be deliverable, has to be affordable.
Surely my right hon. Friend must accept that, as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) made clear, we need to establish the security requirements—the strategic prospects for the United Kingdom in a very dangerous world. I am extremely alarmed, as others are, at the prospect of another Treasury-driven review, at a time when we face a much more dangerous world than we did in 2010.
My hon. Friend speaks with great experience on these matters, as a former Defence Minister. Let me be clear with the House: this is a strategic defence and security review. It is not a Treasury-led review. It is a review across the whole of government to assess the threats to our country—and the future threats to it that may emerge; the capabilities we need to address those threats; and, of course, the resources we need to finance those capabilities.
Absolutely. This five-yearly review gives us the opportunity to look again at our defence industry to see how it is competing with our major defence competitors and whether enough is being done to advance those exports in certain markets, and to ensure that our smaller and medium-sized companies also enjoy the benefit. The defence industry is a major employer and this will be a key part of the review.
In 2010, the SDSR largely neglected the threat from Russia. That situation has now changed. It was also not able to address the upheavals in the middle east, because they had not happened, but we now face a serious threat emanating from the middle east. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that those two factors will be clearly placed as assumptions in the next SDSR?
I can reassure my hon. Friend on that. We are building on the foundations of the 2010 review, much of whose analysis holds good, but, as he has told the House, it did not predict the sudden rise of ISIL in the middle east or the return of Russian aggression, with the attempt to change international borders by force in Europe. Let me assure him that both those threats will be a key part of this review.
In the forthcoming SDSR, what cognisance will the Secretary of State give to the fact that in last month’s general election a clear majority of the Scottish electorate voted for parties that put opposition to Trident at the forefront of their manifesto and that 57 of 59 Members returned from Scotland do not want Trident renewal to go ahead? What cognisance will he give to the fact that the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Churches and the Scottish trade unions are also opposed to Trident—
Successive Governments have supported the renewal of our nuclear deterrent that has helped to keep this country safe, and we are committed to replacing all four Vanguard submarines with new submarines that will serve this country until at least 2060. The deterrent is a major employer. Thousands of jobs are at stake in Faslane, in the hon. Gentleman’s own constituency, so I hope that he will consider the consequences of his policy on his own constituents.
Given that there was precious little strategy involved in the 2010 SDSR and that it was in fact little more than a cost-cutting exercise, will the Minister ensure that the process of renewing and purchasing United Kingdom maritime patrol aircraft will be undertaken immediately and that those aircraft will then be based where they should be historically and logically—in Scotland?
The 2010 review necessarily involved some tough decisions because we had to balance the budget as a result of the mess that we inherited from Labour. Let me assure the hon. Gentleman that we will be looking again at all these different capabilities and at the importance of Scotland. I hope that he noted that I was able to be on the Clyde this morning cutting the first steel on our very latest warship, HMS Medway, which is being built on the Clyde to defend the whole of the United Kingdom.
When the SDSR finally arrives, it must incorporate three promises: the Prime Minister’s promise during the general election campaign that there will be no cuts whatsoever in the regular forces; the promise that the Prime Minister made shortly after the last election that there will be real growth in defence spending; and the promise recently reiterated by the Secretary of State about the 1% increase in real terms in defence equipment spending from now onwards. Given those three commitments—leaving aside for a moment the 2% commitment to NATO—where will the Secretary of State find any cash at all to save if he is asked to by the comprehensive spending review?
My hon. Friend is right that he and I were elected on a mandate to replace the nuclear deterrent with four new nuclear ballistic submarines; to maintain the current size of the regular armed forces; and to increase our spending on the equipment programme by inflation plus 1% each year. It is our task now in this review to ensure that those commitments are held to and that our armed forces have the equipment and the resources that they need.
I congratulate the Defence Secretary on his reappointment and wish him and his ministerial team well for the future. I also pay tribute to all the crew on HMS Bulwark who are doing such a fantastic job in the Mediterranean at this time.
Owing to a lack of transparency—almost secrecy—nobody outside a small inner circle in the Government has a real clue about what is going on with respect to the forthcoming strategic defence and security review. At a time when Britain is being accused of resigning as a world power, should the Government not get a grip, abandon warm rhetoric and set out a clear timetable for discussing how we address our role in the world and the military capability that we need to match it?
I am grateful to the shadow Defence Secretary for what he said and congratulate him on hanging on in there, at least for the moment. I thank him for his tribute, which I hope the whole House will echo, to the crew and the air crew on HMS Bulwark. I visited Bulwark myself on Saturday afternoon and saw at first hand how the crews were preparing to cope with this extraordinary number of migrants who need rescuing from the sea.
As far as the strategic review is concerned, I have set out the timetable to the House today, and the scope and the ambition of the review, which has already started and will be concluded towards the end of this year. We will also consult key external voices, such as academics and those in other areas who have something to contribute to the review. I hope that will include the hon. Gentleman.
That answer really shows just how complacent the Government are. Just yesterday, the US President spoke to the Prime Minister. The US Defence Secretary said that our actions seemed to indicate disengagement. I ask the Secretary of State again: when will the Government set out their plans to discuss, with Parliament and the rest of the country, the threats we face, our global role and the military capability we need? For example, when will they discuss the lack of a maritime patrol aircraft and what the availability of two aircraft carriers actually means—just two examples of the decisions facing the country? This is the Defence Secretary’s chance to launch a wide-ranging debate about the forthcoming SDSR. Will he do it?
Yes, of course we will engage with Parliament and I look forward to engaging with the newly established Select Committee on Defence. However, the hon. Gentleman has chosen two rather odd capabilities to put on the table. We are addressing the gap in maritime patrol aircraft because the previous Labour Government were supposed to deliver 23 Nimrods but, when we came into office in 2010, the programme was eight years behind schedule, £800 million over budget and not a single Nimrod had been delivered. He then went on to mention aircraft carriers, but it is this Government that are building two aircraft carriers and this Government that are committed to sailing them both.
The UK contributes significantly to the coalition against ISIL by providing sophisticated aircraft such as Tornado, Reaper, Rivet Joint and Sentinel from across the middle east and Cyprus to support Iraqi ground forces. We lead the coalition’s counter-improvised explosive device training programme and have trained more than 1,400 Iraqis in counter-IED and other infantry skills. Yesterday, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) will have heard, we offered to expand that counter-IED and other training to additional coalition training sites.
Major General Tim Cross, who was the senior British officer involved in post-war planning in Iraq, attributed the fall of Ramadi to a lack of will or, as he put it, “moral cohesion” on the part of Iraqi forces. What is my right hon. Friend’s Department doing to help promote that moral cohesion in an Iraqi army that frequently heavily outnumbers its ISIL opponents?
The partners in the coalition and Prime Minister al-Abadi recognise that the Iraqi security forces need support to help them take the fight to ISIL on the ground. That is why we are contributing not simply to air support but to the building partner capacity programme, which aims to boost the capabilities and confidence of the Iraqi security forces.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced at the weekend, we have offered a further 125 troops to join the coalition troops training the Iraqi security forces, including more than 60 counter-IED trainers. Those additional troops will be the first UK personnel deployed to training sites outside Irbil or Baghdad and, subject to the needs of the coalition, will take our presence in Iraq to more than 275 troops. As well as further counter-IED trainers, we are offering specialist training in areas such as medical skills, equipment maintenance, manoeuvre support and information operations.
Building and strengthening partner capacity is happening not just in Iraq but in neighbouring countries. Will the Secretary of State say a little more about what we are doing with Jordan and whether we are expanding our capability there?
We have begun the training of moderate Syrian forces in bases outside Syria and a number of people are contributing to that training. Progress will depend on identifying suitable moderate forces that are prepared to take the fight to ISIL, particularly in the north of Syria, and ensuring that once they are trained they are ready to rejoin that fight. We are making that contribution to the training effort being led by the Americans and proposed for four different sites, all outside Syria.
What steps is the Department taking to work with other Departments, particularly the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, to ensure that measures being taken to counter extremism include aid to support education, not just military action?
The hon. Lady is quite right. The effort has to be spread across diplomatic activity, political activity and communications activity. We have to make efforts to deradicalise extremists in our societies, so we have to take measures across the board. ISIL cannot simply be defeated militarily, and I can assure her that this is an effort that is spread across the Whitehall Departments to which she referred.
Will the Secretary of State clarify, with the additional deployment, how many UK troops will serve in Iraq? Will he confirm that they are working not just with the Kurdistan Regional Government and in Baghdad but with the very varied ethnic groups in Iraq whose support is essential to a successful coalition effort?
The number involved, as I told the House, is about 275, but it will vary as the training forces begin and end service. The significance of the announcement at the weekend is that we will—[Interruption.] Two hundred and seventy five is the number that I have given the House. The significance of the announcement at the weekend is that some of those trainers will train at the building partner capacity bases outside the Kurdish areas.
Reserve Forces (Recruitment)
Six thousand eight hundred and ten personnel joined the reserves in financial year 2014-15, a rise of 65% on the previous financial year. For 2012-13, the only statistics available are for the Army reserve, with 3,960 joining that year. We have made significant improvements to the recruiting process, the offer to reservists and the support we give to employers. We continue to look at further improvements to build on this considerable growth.
Reserves day is an important opportunity for colleagues in the House to support the reserves. It was called uniform to work day, and a number of hon. Members took part in it. Reserve forces and cadets associations will tell colleagues about opportunities to support the event, including an opportunity in the House of Commons for Members and researchers, both existing members of the reserves and those who are interested in joining.
The 37 Signal Regiment reservists, who are based in my constituency, do an amazing job and have been awarded the freedom of our borough. Will my hon. Friend inform the House how future reserve proposals will help the regiment to continue its brilliant work?
I join my hon. Friend in her tribute to the 37 Signal Regiment, which has deployed personnel on operations to Afghanistan, as well as on recent exercises in Belize, Gibraltar, Germany and Cyprus, and has provided essential work to the civil authorities in the UK. Army reserve units are paired with, and train alongside, regular units and, when required, may deploy with them—in 37’s case, with 16 Signal Regiment, as she knows. Reserves have the same access to equipment and technology as their regular counterparts, and receive high-quality, challenging training, including more opportunities to exercise overseas.
May I first congratulate my hon. Friend on his tremendous support and enthusiasm for the reserves, which is very well taken? He is aware of my connection with the Royal Yeomanry, but is he aware that it is the best recruiting regiment in the reserves? That is not just because it has made good use of what the central facility provides but because it does a lot of it itself, and takes a lot of trouble over recruiting. Will he emphasise to all the other reserve units that they can do a great deal themselves to encourage people in their regimental family to get more people into the reserves?
I am always delighted to take a question from my right hon. Friend, whose illustrious grandfather was a long-serving member of the Territorial Army. He is quite right about the Royal Yeomanry’s achievements. I visited it twice in the past year, and in many ways it is a trailblazer. The key point that he makes about empowering units to do more to help themselves, including devolving some of the marketing budgets—something that we have begun to do—is very well taken.
There is no single bullet. The armed forces have come through a difficult time, with a combination of downsizing of the numbers in the Army as a result of the £38 billion black hole, and the end of operations in Afghanistan, which for many young men and women was an attractor. But measures ranging from the purchase of new equipment to an almost unparalleled number of overseas exercises, together with a fresh look at the terms and conditions of service, are all designed to address the issue that the hon. Gentleman points to.
I welcome the Minister back to his position and congratulate the two new members of the Defence team. In the run-up to the election the Prime Minister pledged that regular personnel numbers would not be reduced, but we heard last week about the first down payment from the Defence budget as a result of the Chancellor’s cuts. Can the Minister give an assurance that the target set by the previous Government for reservists will be met and funded?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome, and the same applies to him. It is always a pleasure to spar across the Dispatch Box. The Conservative manifesto was clear about expanding the number of reservists across the three services to 35,000. The funding is there through the £1.8 billion that was provided over a 10-year period, and the current strengths are running ahead of schedule in all three volunteer reserve services.
Defence Storage and Distribution Agency
I know that my hon. Friend takes a keen interest in the Ministry of Defence presence at Ashchurch in his constituency. I am pleased to be able to inform him and the House that a land sale development partnership contract was signed with Vinci St Modwen in March this year to promote the site through the planning process and ultimately to enable its redevelopment, subject to planning consent. We expect to commence transfer of the site to our development partner in phases from early 2018.
I thank the Minister for that response and for the interest he has taken in the site. He will be aware that the threat of closure has hung over employees on that site for very many years. Can the redevelopment be moved along as quickly as possible with due regard to the future of those employees?
My hon. Friend rightly takes a great interest in the site for the welfare and future prospects of the employees from his constituency there. The 160 former employees and 80 agency staff within the Defence Support Group at Ashchurch were all transferred under the TUPE process across to Babcock on completion of that transaction on 31 March, and we have continuous and regular engagement with the trade union representatives to make sure that they are all fully informed.
I would like to make the House aware that I have a declarable interest as a member of the Royal Navy Reserve. The Navy is investigating the most appropriate way for me to remain a reservist for the duration of my appointment as Minister for the Armed Forces. I will update the House in due course.
I thank my hon. Friend for enabling me to pay tribute to our armed forces who have served on Operation Gritrock, one of the most challenging operations in recent times, during which our medical professionals demonstrated tremendous skill and courage. Recent statistics show just 12 new cases of Ebola a week, well down from the more than 500 in November last year. The World Health Organisation currently assesses that Sierra Leone will be free from Ebola in a matter of weeks, and I am sure the whole House will want to join me in thanking our armed forces and our MOD civilians for all they have done in achieving that.
The Minister will be aware that personnel from RNAS Culdrose in my constituency sailed with RFA Argus last year as part of the Government’s reaction to the fight against Ebola. What assurances can she give that RNAS Culdrose will continue to be adequately resourced so that it can play a similar role in future crises?
Culdrose is certainly resourced for similar crises. In fact, only recently we deployed further personnel and three helicopters from there to assist in our operations to deal with the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, where they are providing valuable information to the search and rescue operation. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to champion them.
I welcome the Minister to her new post, but may I gently remind her that the British Army’s capacity to intervene, even in helping with the Ebola crisis, will become more limited as time goes on, as America retreats as a pushy world power and we are more on our own in Europe and the world? The fact of the matter, as she knows, is that we could fit the whole of our defence forces into Wembley stadium, yet still she is in favour of cutting defence spending to below 2% of GDP.
As I speak, we have over 3,600 personnel deployed on 21 operations across 19 countries. We are actually doing more operations, although they might not have the profile of some recent operations, so our armed forces are still incredibly busy. We are also regenerating capability that was lost under the Labour Administration.
6. What plans the armed forces have to commemorate VJ Day. (900120)
As this is my first Defence Question Time, I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Although I remain a member of the Army Reserve, I have requested that I be placed on the unposted list for the duration of my appointment as a Defence Minister.
The MOD will be supporting the national commemorative and thanksgiving events that will take place in central London on Saturday 15 August. The Government are committed to providing their full support to those events, which will provide an opportunity for the public, and the nation at large, to honour and pay their respects to those who fought during the far east campaigns.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer and welcome him to his new post. Men such as my late grandfather fought in the east, enduring the harshest conditions, and of course many never returned home. Will the Minister commit to working with colleagues across the Government to ensure that schools, organisations and communities have all the support they need to recognise the bravery and commitment of our veterans?
I am delighted that the hon. Lady clearly shares my passion and determination to ensure that this year’s events will be a fitting tribute to veterans and their families, such as hers, who will be very much the focus. We are committed to marking the 70th anniversary of VJ Day and ensuring that veterans of the far east campaigns have a national event that provides an opportunity for the public and the nation to pay their respects and offer their gratitude. I will be delighted to work with any Member of the House who wishes to pursue that.
Last year I received a very moving letter from a veteran in Goole, Edgar Sheppard, whom I subsequently visited in his care home. He told me how concerned he was that young people did not know the sacrifice that he and his Burma veterans had endured. Can we ensure that our cadet forces and the Ministry of Defence work with the Department for Education to ensure that the school children of today know about the sacrifices of yesterday?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. He will be aware of the Government’s commitment to the cadet forces expansion programme. We increased the number of cadet forces by over 100 during the previous Parliament, and we are committed to increasing it to 500. I am a great fan of the cadet force, having previously been a member of it, and am determined that we should expand it.
Defence Spending (NATO Target)
We will be spending 2% of GDP on defence this financial year. Spending beyond that will be determined in the spending review. The Government were elected with a mandate to maintain the size of our regular armed forces, increase the equipment budget in real terms every year and replace our four nuclear ballistic submarines. Those commitments will secure the shape and power of our armed forces throughout this Parliament.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but I think he is aware from the comments already made that there is deep concern on both sides of the House about the fact that the Prime Minister, having asked other NATO countries to commit themselves to spending 2% of GDP on defence, is unable to commit to that beyond 2015-16. I hope we will all urge the Secretary of State to make certain that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is aware of that concern, given the threats that have been outlined and the fact that our capacity to deal with them is stretched pretty thin.
Let me assure my hon. Friend that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is fully aware of the commitments that were made at the NATO summit and has been even more fully aware during recent negotiations over the in-year savings, which have not taken us below 2%. It is important to note, though, that seven of the 28 NATO members do not even spend 1% on their defence and 20 of the 28 do not even spend 1.5%.
As NATO now requires us to pay 2%, and apparently other member states the same, and has since 2006 given itself a global role, whose interests is it defending worldwide, and is it demanding that we replace the Trident nuclear missile system, or is that a self-grown decision?
The purpose of the alliance is to defend its members. That is why our troops were exercising last week in Estonia and will shortly be exercising in Romania and the Baltic sea, and why our Typhoons are flying with the Norwegians to protect the skies over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the face of Russian aggression. We are one of the nuclear members of the NATO alliance, and that nuclear shield helps to protect all members of the alliance.
When the Secretary of State is next having a word in the shell-like ear of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will he mention that it does not make a lot of sense for any Government to say that defence is the first duty of Government if they protect other Departments’ spending but not defence spending?
I know of my right hon. Friend’s long-standing commitment to defence and to defence expenditure. He is right, of course, that the first duty of Government is to defend our country and our people. I reminded him earlier of the commitments in the manifesto to protect the size and power of our armed forces right through this Parliament. However, I note what he has said. Those commitments are for the remaining three financial years, from 2016-17 onwards. These are matters for negotiation in the autumn.
Given the £500 million of cuts announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer last week in this House, will the Secretary of State advise us whether they will affect Trident replacement? If not, will that mean a cut to conventional forces?
Let me assure the hon. Gentleman that the in-year savings that we have been asked to find for the current financial year are way below the original demand of the Treasury. They do not affect the 2% target that we are continuing to meet, they will have no effect on manpower numbers or on current operations—I have just explained to the House that we are extending one of our current operations in Iraq—and they will have no effect on the baseline of defence expenditure before the negotiations begin in the autumn. These savings will fall on some in-year expenditure on travel costs and on consultancy, and we will defer some spending on infrastructure and equipment from this financial year to the next—
We are all waiting for the National Security Council risk assessment that the Government are carrying out at the moment. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that there will be an intellectual and coherent thread from that through to the strategic defence and security review, and from that to the comprehensive spending review?
Yes, I can. The review will be based on the risk assessment that is now being updated from the 2010 assessment. That will take us through the work that is being done under the review, which is being undertaken at the same time as the spending review, so all these things come together in identifying the threats we face and the capabilities we need to address them.
Given the lack of success by the leader of the free world at the G7 in extracting the 2% commitment that he desired from the Prime Minister, I am realistic about my own chances, but will the Secretary of State at least accept that if the UK falls below 2%, it will do significant damage to our standing in NATO and our defence relationship with the United States?
It is nice to hear so many Opposition Members championing the cause of 2%. I did not hear that quite so loudly during the general election; perhaps I was listening to the wrong people, and perhaps the Opposition were due to explain exactly how they would finance it. Let us be clear what was agreed last September. In response to the threats from Russian aggression and the rise of ISIL—direct threats to us here in western Europe—the United States wants European members of NATO to shoulder a greater proportion of the burden.
Armed Forces Covenant
The armed forces covenant is one of this Government’s most important priorities; I will endeavour to drive it forward with the same passion and commitment as my predecessors. This year sees the implementation of a permanent commitment to the covenant through a £10 million per annum fund. Over the coming months, we will focus on how best to communicate the aims of the covenant and continue to work with industry and the voluntary sector to ensure that it goes from strength to strength.
Forces Help to Buy gives service personnel the opportunity to get on the housing ladder, not only giving them and their families stability during their military service but helping them form a foundation for future life. I am pleased to say that since April 2014, more than 3,500 service personnel have received funds totalling £53.7 million. A further 1,800 service personnel have had their applications approved fully and are awaiting the completion of property purchases.
More than 20,000 skilled men and women, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude, leave the armed forces each year. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that local skills and economic strategies work effectively to realise the full potential of that highly trained, well disciplined and adaptable workforce?
All those who join as junior ranks receive key skills training and complete professional apprenticeships. All personnel can access routes to higher and further education, are provided with some financial assistance and are given time to study. All personnel leaving the armed forces—about 20,000 a year—are entitled to resettlement provision to help their transition into future careers.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is rightly proud that Oxfordshire has led the way in delivering on our community covenant by being the first local authority to change its schools admissions policy to make it easier for the children of service families to secure school places by using base addresses before their postings. I know that she has played a key role in driving that forward, and I thank her for it.
I am sure that the Minister agrees that support for our veterans is fundamental to the armed forces covenant. There are 500,000 veterans in the north-west of England, many of them in my constituency, but not one penny of the £40 million veterans accommodation fund went to any organisation in the north-west. Will he ensure that funding for veterans organisations is fairly distributed across the country, and that there are mechanisms in place to do so?
Yes, of course. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that over the past three years, some £150 million of LIBOR funding has been used for the military covenant. I am determined that that should be spread equally across the country, and I will look into the matter that he has raised.
I too welcome the Minister to his post, and I welcome his support for the armed forces covenant, but does the rhetoric match the reality on the ground? My local authority in Wigan is investing £500,000 to provide a veterans hub to create a single point of contact for veterans, in recognition of the current, confusing patchwork of provision. What is the Minister doing to ensure that such good practice is recognised and resourced throughout the country, ending the current postcode lottery for veterans?
The hon. Lady will be aware that all local authorities in Great Britain have signed the community covenant. In my new role, I am very keen to ensure that best practice is spread across the United Kingdom. This is a partnership between the Ministry of Defence and, indeed, other Government Departments. If the hon. Lady feels that her own local authority has best practices that can be shared more widely, I shall be delighted to talk to her.
The Royal British Legion was recently awarded £10 million LIBOR funding over five years to address long-term hearing issues. Work has already started with key stakeholders, and the Legion aims to launch the fund in early autumn. From summer 2015, the MOD will introduce new hearing protection measures for UK armed forces personnel, which will reduce the number of veterans with service-attributable hearing issues.
NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Force
Significant progress has been made on the very high readiness joint task force. The interim force is established and the operational force will be ready by the Warsaw summit next year. We will contribute a battle group to the Spanish-led task force next year, and we will lead a fully operational task force brigade from January 2017. Our contribution that year will increase from 2,500 to 3,000 personnel.
We are continuing to press for sanctions to be upheld against Russia. We are helping Ukrainian armed forces with trainers at six different sites in western Ukraine, training and improving the capacity of the Ukrainian armed forces. We have troops exercising in eastern Europe—in Romania and the Baltic—and our Typhoons are flying every day this summer to help to protect Baltic airspace.
23. The need for the development of a NATO very high readiness joint task force is reflected in the deteriorating wider security situation, particularly with the Russians. That is not wholly consistent with relying on 30,000 reservists as part of our armed forces. If the wider security situation continues to deteriorate, will the Secretary of State review that reliance? (900139)
We have not yet got to the stage where Future Force 2020 has been completed. We have time enough to ensure that our total of 30,000 reservists is reached, but my hon. Friend will recall our manifesto commitment of no further cuts in the size of the regular armed forces.
Type 26 Frigates
As my hon. Friend knows, in February this year the Prime Minister announced the awarding of a contract for the demonstration phase of the Type 26 programme, valued at £859 million, to complete the detailed design for the ship and engage the maritime supply chain to procure essential long-lead items. This is an incremental programme and detailed discussions with the contractors continue. We intend to award a contract for the manufacture phase next year.
That is welcome news for many manufacturers and specialist engineers. Can my hon. Friend confirm that there is no danger of falling behind our manifesto commitment for a 1% plus inflation equipment plan for our defence, and that that will not fall victim to any deferring of expenditure referred to by the Defence Secretary?
The current contract is completely taken into account in the equipment plan, which, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, is due to increase by 1% a year in excess of inflation for each of the next five years, and we have planned for it to do so during the currency of the 10-year plan.
My immediate priorities are: our operations against ISIL; the strategic defence and security review; and delivering our manifesto commitments to maintain the size of the armed forces, build four successor ballistic missile submarines and increase the equipment budget every year, ensuring the shape and power of our armed forces to keep Britain safe.
Given the recent naming of the TS Royalist—the sea cadets’ flagship—what importance does the Secretary of State attach to our cadet forces in providing training and discipline to young people? Will he join me in visiting one of the cadet centres in my constituency?
Let me congratulate my hon. Friend on his election to this place. I am delighted that Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal recently named training ship Royalist. Cadet forces are hugely influential in the development of young people and in raising awareness of the armed forces. That is why I increased funding for 100 new cadet units in schools last year, and why we have committed to increasing the total number to 500 by 2020. I would be delighted to join my hon. Friend one day on a visit in his constituency.
The Defence Secretary recently attended a conference in Singapore, where the ongoing tensions in the South China sea were discussed. I recently visited Japan, where concerns were also raised. Does he agree that Britain has considerable interests in this area of the world, and that we all need to work together to defuse potential problems before they escalate? Is it not yet another example of where we need to be clear about what the Government’s actual strategy is in dealing with a very real potential problem?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Nearly half the world’s trade passes through the South China sea. When I spoke at that conference, I called on all those involved in land reclamation, not simply China, to exercise restraint, to pursue these claims through proper legal frameworks and to avoid the danger—the very real danger—of some local miscalculation that could escalate. He is right: this is a very serious issue, and this is a part of world in which we have a very strong commercial interest.
T3. What help is being given by our forces to aid reconstruction in Nepal? May I commend members of the Gurkha regiment and the Gurkha welfare scheme for overseeing the excellent water project that I and other members of the International Development Committee saw this spring? Will Ministers liaise with their counterparts to discuss supporting additional, desperately needed projects? (900142)
I thank my hon. Friend for again allowing me to pay tribute to the work not just of the Gurkhas—the Royal Gurkha Rifles and the Gurkha engineers—but to the superb job done by the RAF in transporting 148 tonnes of aid and equipment. We are funding the engineers who remain in Nepal supporting the Gurkha communities, and we are working closely with the Gurkha Welfare Trust to deliver further reconstruction work in the area. We are very clear that we are there for the long haul.
T4. Will the Defence Secretary clarify something he said earlier about the number of boots currently on the ground in Iraq? He said 250 troops were currently deployed, whereas The Guardian reports that the deployment of an additional 125 troops will take the number of“UK military personnel involved in Iraq-related missions to 900.”The Daily Telegraph and The Independent mention similar figures. Will he clarify why those press reports are different from what he told the House earlier? (900143)
Let me explain to the hon. Gentleman. The figure of 900 relates to the total mission—all those involved in helping to defeat ISIL—which of course includes our air crews in Akrotiri in Cyprus and at other bases in the Gulf. We expect the numbers on the ground in Iraq to reach about 275, with the increase that was announced at the weekend. As he said, the total mission will then involve about 900 people.
T5. Further to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will know that post-conflict reconstruction and renewal costs borne by his Department do not currently count towards the 2% of GDP spending. Does he have any plans to lobby the OECD and/or NATO on this, and what is the Government’s position? (900144)
My hon. and learned Friend makes a fair and interesting point. We need to look at where expenditure from the defence and development budgets is security expenditure in the round. Where it is preventing conflict, helping to stabilise countries and avoiding the future commitment of British troops, there is a very strong case for looking at all these things together. The House will know that a sizeable part of our operation in Sierra Leone and indeed the humanitarian work in Nepal, to which the Minister for the Armed Forces referred, is classified as humanitarian assistance to those two countries and will be recouped from the overseas aid budget.
Given that hairline fissures and radioactive leaks from the test reactor at Vulcan have necessitated the expenditure of several hundred million pounds to render the current Trident submarine fleet safe, how can the Government possibly justify going ahead with another generation of nuclear weapons without a test reactor? Has not that cavalier attitude towards the safety of the Scottish population resulted in 57 of the 59 Scottish MPs being against the renewal of Trident?
I absolutely reject that. The safety of the reactors is paramount and is consistently assessed at every stage of their life, from design and build through to operation and disposal. That is independently regulated in accordance with the law and by our own independent nuclear regulator.
T6. Does the Secretary of State agree that some of the most severe threats we face emanate from cyberspace, and that the strategic defence and security review should include our cyber-security capability to ensure that we have both offensive and defensive cyber capability? (900145)
I agree with my hon. Friend. Following the 2010 strategic defence and security review, the Government put in place a national cyber-security programme backed by £860 million of Government investment up to 2016. It is for the current SDSR to decide where cyber sits in the overall prioritisation of security threats and responses. However, we have been clear that we will continue to invest in our cyber-defence capabilities, partly because, as he knows, it is a rapidly developing area and we need to keep up.
We all know that the French navy is being used to plug gaps in military operations in the Gulf, and that in that context the US military has taken to describing our country as “Great shrinking Britain”. Surely the Secretary of State is concerned about that view of this country. What is he going to do about it?
I must tell the hon. Lady that HMS Kent was recently part of the carrier screen around the Charles de Gaulle in the Gulf. We have worked with the French to help lift their troops into Mali, and the French in turn help us. That is part of the alliance—France, the United States, ourselves and the Norwegians work together on these threats.
T8. After the announcement last week of further troops to train indigenous forces in northern Iraq, and with the possible opportunities to stem the flow of economic migrants through Libya by building capacity in the security forces there, will my right hon. Friend confirm what resources are being made available to the Army so that it can develop that increasingly important capability? (900147)
I congratulate my hon. Friend not just on his election but on his magnificent maiden speech last week, in which he brought his own regimental experience to the House’s attention.
As my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces told the House, our personnel are engaged in some 21 operations around the world in 19 different countries, and we are ready to expand those operations where necessary. Just this weekend, we have announced an enlargement of our mission and our work in Iraq, and I have today told the House of an enlargement of our contribution to the very high readiness task force. We are able to do that only because we have balanced the defence budget and set out the right priorities for it.
How does the Secretary of State reconcile his warm words about veterans with the fact that one of my constituents, whose hearing was profoundly damaged during his time in the Army, cannot get any financial support because the support available for the armed forces is very different from that for people who work in, say, a factory, and have their hearing damaged there? How can that be right?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the investment that we mentioned earlier of £10 million for veterans with hearing loss. I am unaware of the details of the specific case he mentions, but I would be delighted to meet him to discuss it.
T9. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the gap in provision in Northumberland to support the growing number of veterans on my patch who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder? (900148)
I would be happy to discuss any cases my hon. Friend has in mind, but I am not aware of any gaps in service provision in the Northumberland area. A wide range of services is available to those suffering from PTSD in that region, including the Veterans Wellbeing Assessment and Liaison Service, run by the local NHS foundation trust, which provides outreach and assessment workers and utilises existing community, primary and secondary care mental health services across the north-east.
I am incredibly proud of the work carried out by local government, especially by the Greater Manchester authorities and the combined authority in my city region, to implement the armed forces covenant at a local level, but may I urge the Minister to speak to his colleagues in government to ensure consistency across all Government Departments? Too many decisions are still being taken by Government Departments and Government agencies that are not consistent with the principles of the armed forces covenant.
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the fact that the community covenant is the responsibility of not just the Ministry of Defence but all Government Departments. That is precisely why the Government have instigated a new working group that cross-cuts Government Departments to address the very issues he raises.
Order. May I very gently point out that we are not in the reading room of the Bearsden public library and that hon. Members should not read a newspaper unless it relates to the matter currently under consideration by the House? I say that in a jocular spirit to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson), who is a literate fellow. I am sure he will savour his enjoyment on a subsequent occasion.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: defence engagement is of pivotal importance. We are in the process of “upgunning” the role of defence attachés worldwide, with more language training and a proper career structure to make it more attractive. That is part of a wider attempt to raise the importance of defence diplomacy. Soldiers, sailors and airmen can so often reach parts of our allies that others cannot.
This House voted on the renewal of Trident with an overwhelming majority back in January—I think the largest majority for some years. I am very happy to set out in the House the details of the current expenditure. I think about £3 billion has been earmarked so far. I think, from memory, about £1.5 billion has been spent so far, but if I am wrong I will write to the hon. Gentleman.
HMS Bulwark and three Merlin helicopters are conducting search and rescue in the Mediterranean. To date, they have rescued 2,909 migrants from the sea. I hope the whole House will pay tribute to the professionalism and bravery of those involved in this extraordinarily large rescue mission. As well as rescuing those at sea, we now need to address this problem further back by tackling the trafficking gangs who are making money out of this misery, and discouraging people from leaving their countries to make this long and very dangerous journey.
May I tell the Secretary of State how much I enjoyed our exchange of letters during the election campaign—less so the 20,000 letters he sent to my constituents? Now that he has finished unsettling the carefully constructed supply chain, will he give a statement on the timetable for maingate? Is there a prospect of bringing it forward?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on surviving the election campaign. It is good to see him back in his place; indeed, it is good to hear him championing the renewal of the nuclear deterrent. I hope he will continue to do so throughout this Parliament. We expect the maingate decision to be taken in this Parliament—next year, I hope.
The Secretary of State set out the importance of cadet forces around the UK, but cadets in Heanor, in my constituency, report that they lack the funds to get the full experience they want and deserve. Is there a way of squeezing out more money so that cadets can get the experience they need?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his commitment to supporting the community cadet force in his constituency. The Army Cadet Force receives £81 million a year distributed between the various detachments across UK counties. Derbyshire has a vibrant cadet representation. All three detachments in his constituency—Alfreton, Ripley and Heanor—see healthy attendance and are funded appropriately.
Clandestine Migrants (Harwich)
Last Thursday evening, Border Force officers at the port of Harwich detected and intercepted 68 migrants seeking to enter the UK illegally and clandestinely. The discovery came after four lorries were selected for examination and for searching through Border Force’s normal operating procedures. Among the 68 migrants were two pregnant women and 15 children. Seven migrants complained of chest pains and nausea and were taken to hospital as a precautionary measure. All four drivers of the lorries involved were arrested on suspicion of facilitating illegal immigration. They have been bailed but remain under investigation by law enforcement bodies, including the National Crime Agency.
Of the 68 people found, 35 were Afghans, 22 Chinese, 10 Vietnamese and one Russian. None of those taken to hospital, including the two pregnant women, was found to have a substantive medical condition of concern. Some of the individuals have claimed asylum, and UK Visas and Immigration is considering their claims, including suitability for the “detained fast track” process. Two of the asylum seekers are unaccompanied minors and have been placed in the care of Essex social services. We have already begun the work to seek the removal of the remaining migrants from the UK, and 15 have already been successfully removed. If we can show that those claiming asylum have also claimed in another EU member state, we will seek to remove them under the Dublin regulations. The Government are clear that the EU’s approach to migratory flows must include the proper management of the external border, the prompt return of those not in genuine need of protection and action to tackle the efforts of the smugglers and traffickers who profit from human misery.
I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) visited the port, which is in his constituency, on Friday, and I endorse and echo his positive words about the work of Border Force. It conducts rigorous checks, on a targeted basis, on lorries and other vehicles as they arrive at UK ports of entry, as was the case at Harwich on Thursday evening. Such checks are undertaken by skilled officers who have the expertise to identify individuals often well hidden in vehicles and they involve the use of state-of-the-art scanning and X-ray technology. Thursday night’s incident at Harwich comes on the back of several other good results for the Border Force team at that port. Among other successful operations in recent years, the team has made some significant seizures, including 15 kg of heroin in December, 17 kg of cocaine in May and 2.9 million cigarettes in March.
On the specific problems of clandestine immigrants, Border Force concentrates significant resources at the juxtaposed ports in northern France, where the vast majority of illegal border crossings are attempted. All lorries undergo enhanced screening at these locations, but our approach is flexible and intelligence led. Border Force can and does move its resources around on the basis of threat to ensure we keep one step ahead of the criminal gangs that exploit vulnerable people and try to circumvent our immigration laws.
The important work that Border Force officers carry out, detecting and intercepting those who attempt to enter the UK illegally, in conjunction with law enforcement agencies in the UK and internationally, is vital in the fight against organised criminal networks engaged in people smuggling. These gangs show a callous disregard for human life and seek to make a profit out of other people’s misery. I commend Border Force for its discovery last week and the work it does day in, day out to protect the UK’s border, and I commend this statement to the House.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Can he confirm that this is, in fact, one of the largest discoveries of clandestines ever at a port of entry into the UK? I join him in his praise for Border Force and the effectiveness of its operation. I also join him in underlining what a pitiful sight these individuals were and in remembering that they are the victims of people traffickers as much as they are seeking to exploit the system themselves.
Does the Minister share public concern about the immediate implications of this discovery, which perhaps arise under three main issues? How much does this incident demonstrate the increasing pressures on Border Force and the UK authorities, and do they have adequate manpower and equipment? Harwich international port is able to stop and search only about 6% of the 250,000 commercial vehicles entering the UK at Harwich each year. It does not know and cannot know how many unchecked vehicles might contain undetected clandestines. Seeking out illegal entrants is not its first priority, which is to swipe passports of known passengers and carry out anti-terrorist measures.
Secondly, although Border Force was able to reassure me that it has effective working relationships with its counterparts in Holland and elsewhere across the continent, the UK does not have an agreement with Holland on what is known as—the Minister referred to it—juxtaposed controls, similar to those with France, which enable the UK authorities to operate on the ground at Calais and other French channel ports. Without criticising the Dutch Government in any way, this incident raises the question of whether arrangements at Hook of Holland need to be reviewed?
Thirdly, what signal does this send? Yes, we found these individuals, and I am delighted that the Minister has been able to tell us that 15 of these clandestine migrants have already been deported, but out of the 68, what is the likelihood that many will end up achieving what they wanted and be allowed to stay here? Why do clandestines cross continents of free countries to claim asylum here? While we must honour our obligations under the tightly defined criteria for asylum claims laid down in the 1951 Geneva convention, how much does the way that we adjudicate on the much wider provisions of the European convention on human rights unreasonably inflate asylum claims so that the UK attracts people to claim asylum here rather than elsewhere, and what should be done about that?
I thank my hon. Friend for the manner in which he has approached this issue. I know of the direct stance he has taken in visiting the port and ensuring that he represents his constituents effectively. He makes a powerful point about the pitiful sight of those discovered in these four lorries and about how those seeking to exploit migrants really have no care or consideration—even at times as to whether these people will live or die. That is the callous and harsh reality of the organised crime groups to which we are responding. That is also why it is right that we have enforcement activity both in this country, leveraging with the work of the National Crime Agency, and with other European partners.
My hon. Friend highlights his concerns about the immediate aftermath of the detection, and this has certainly been a very significant detection of illicit migrants, although we have worked hard across the whole of the juxtaposed and other port controls, with just over 39,000 detections being made last year. That shows the vigilance and hard work of Border Force—both in country and elsewhere.
My hon. Friend highlights the need to work internationally, which is certainly what we are doing with the Dutch and others, and asks why people are claiming asylum here rather than in other countries. I would point to the fact that, last year, there were 200,000 asylum claims in Germany—much more than the approximately 30,000 we saw in this country—and 81,000 in Sweden and 63,000 in France. A large majority of asylum claimants are thus going to other European countries rather than here. I can certainly assure my hon. Friend on the work that Border Force is undertaking and the work we will continue to do to secure our border, using technology and flexibly deploying our resources in respect of intelligence where we need it, and ensuring that we are doing all we can to secure our border.
First, may I thank you, Mr Speaker, and the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) for raising this important issue here today? It remains one of the most serious humanitarian issues facing not just this Government but Europe as a whole. We must ensure that we maintain, as the Minister wants to do, the integrity of our borders. The people found at Harwich this weekend are as much victims of criminal gangs as those found on boats in the Mediterranean, or indeed at the border in Calais. As the Minister has said, we need concerted UK and EU action to ensure we stop this trade in human beings at source.
We on this side of the House warned in October that the removal of Operation Triton would lead to further pressure on European borders, and the lack of effective action taken in Calais by the French authorities and their failure to identify and to remove correctly those at the French border is leading to attempts at other borders, including those in Holland. The measures taken earlier this year by the Government and European Governments are welcome, and I also pay tribute to the armed forces for their help in the Mediterranean, but some questions remain.
First, will the Minister outline in detail what steps he is taking with our European partners and Europol to establish where the people traffickers are operating from, to follow the money raised by payment to these individuals back to source, and to establish further intelligence-led operations to close down this business? How many prosecutions of people traffickers have taken place in the past 12 months both in the UK and internationally? Will he now arrange an urgent meeting of the EU police forces and Ministers to look at this issue again, and to track, identify and prosecute those involved in this trade? Might we look particularly at the issues of north Africa and the middle east, and the Governments and regimes there, to help stop this trade at source?
Like the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex, I briefly want to look at what we are doing in the UK. We need to intensify the checks on vehicles, particularly lorries at UK ports of entry. Can the Minister confirm what percentage of lorries and containers are routinely checked at UK ports of entry, and say whether the figure of 6% for Harwich is accurate? Can he confirm whether the statement of the former inspector of borders, John Vine, at the weekend that
“good intelligence and experienced staff were critical, but a lot of experienced staff were leaving and not being replaced”
Can the Minister confirm whether Border Force funding is ring-fenced from the £30 million Home Office cut announced by the Chancellor last week? A further reduction in funding, even in these hard times, will put pressure on Border Force staff. Will he indicate, if not now then in writing in the Library of the House, how many staff were in post in May 2010 and how many staff are in post now? Does he accept that the pressures on Calais and the work done is Calais are now displacing people to other ports, as we warned last year? Will he look at the issue of the Dublin convention to make sure arrangements are put in place so that those whose first port of entry is not in the UK are dealt with elsewhere?
Finally, as the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex has asked, will the Minister indicate what steps he is taking to work with the Government of Holland in particular, but also those in Belgium, Spain and Ireland who have direct sea routes to the UK, to put in place stronger mechanisms, as we have in France, to stop the traffickers in mainland Europe?
This is a criminal trade, and the people at Harwich are victims. We need to make sure that the UK Government work hand in hand with our European partners because we need, collectively with the support of the Opposition, to close down this vile trade.
The right hon. Gentleman has asked a series of questions. I may not be able to answer all of them in the time available, but I welcome his constructive approach.
The right hon. Gentleman highlights the need to work jointly with other European countries, and I agree. That is why we have a dedicated UK taskforce in Dover which provides real-time intelligence and investigation response to all operations. For example with links to France and Belgium, 32 live investigations and 22 organised crime groups have already been disrupted since February 2014, and the total custodial sentences to date is 148 years. I hope that answers his question about the body of work.
The right hon. Gentleman highlights the work that we have rightly undertaken in Calais with the French authorities—the £12 million joint investment with the French Government to strengthen security at that port. That is on top of additional investment in screening and other detection equipment, which underlines our strong, practical response.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the number of Border Force officers—there are around 8,000. They are deployed flexibly, by which I mean that it is dependent on the intelligence that we see for a particular port at any one time. Therefore, it is not appropriate to give the breakdown or percentages that he seeks, but we rightly take a responsive stance to deal with such issues.
The right hon. Gentleman also highlighted the need to ensure adherence to the Dublin regulations that allow us to return people who may have been able to claim asylum in other countries. We take that responsibility seriously and we continue to press other European countries in that regard.
One of the key things is to ensure that those who arrive in the European Union are properly fingerprinted and that we identify those who come to our shores. More work needs to be done on that and we will continue to press other European countries to fulfil their responsibilities.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the work that the Government have done through the Immigration Act 2014—to put in place clarification of article 8, for example, on the right to a family life, to ensure that it is properly balanced—so that we can seek removal. I am sure that such issues of fundamental and human rights are ones that we shall return to during the course of the Parliament.
Order. Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), the Minister and the shadow Minister all significantly exceeded their allotted time. I am keen to accommodate the very proper interest of colleagues, and I will try to do so, but I am also conscious—I hope that the House will be sensitive to the fact—of an important Second Reading debate to follow, which is well subscribed and of which I must therefore take proper account.
The Minister has one of the toughest jobs in Government. I congratulate him on being the first Immigration Minister to be reappointed after a general election.
I fully support what Charles Montgomery and his team have done at the border. They do an excellent job, as does Wagtail UK, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary. This is fundamentally an EU problem, in terms of not only tackling the human traffickers, but protecting the border. Will the Minister ensure that Frontex is made to do the job that it is supposed to do, which is to protect the external border of the EU so that people such as those caught in the containers are not allowed to be treated in that way?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. I fully recognise the importance of this work, of EU action and of the role that Frontex has to play. This is certainly something that the Home Secretary has continued to advance at Justice and Home Affairs Council meetings. Indeed, there were discussions at the G6 last week, when the Home Secretary spoke to a number of her European counterparts. I assure the right hon. Gentleman of the importance that we attach to the work of Frontex and to ensuring that the external border is strengthened.
It is slightly alarming that it is now public knowledge that clandestine migrants have a 94% chance of getting in through Harwich. When the Home Affairs Committee in the previous Parliament visited Calais, we saw all lorries routinely subject to carbon dioxide sensors, motion sensors, sniffer dogs and X-rays. When will similar thoroughness be applied to Harwich, where clearly displacement has happened?
We have those controls juxtaposed at ports where we see the majority of the problem. Clearly we keep under review the way in which we apply our resourcing to particular ports. I do not comment on specific percentages or ways in which resources are deployed. The right thing to do is to look at the intelligence and the threat and to ensure that we are doing our utmost. That is precisely what we are doing.
Reports suggest that the migrants had been stowed for a long time, with many tired and dehydrated. The Minister said that they included two pregnant women and 15 children, and that some were taken to hospital as a precautionary measure but none was found to have a substantial “medical condition of concern.” What assurances can he give that those migrants who remain in the UK have continuing access to appropriate healthcare? What updates can he provide, particularly on the condition of the pregnant women and children reported to have been among their number?
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her question and welcome her to her place today. I have given the House an update on the medical condition of the children and the others rescued at Harwich. Obviously, continuing medical support will be made available should it be required, but, again, I am pleased to say that no further intervention was needed.
As I hope my hon. Friend will recognise, it would not be appropriate for me to identify or set out alternative routes for others to take. I can say to him that Border Force is vigilant and is always looking at different ways in which those who seek to get to this country may stow away or hide themselves. The real concern is the extent to which people are prepared to put their lives at risk, sometimes in really dangerous conditions. We take that extremely seriously, in terms not simply of trying to identify individuals but of ensuring that they are safeguarded.
The Minister has talked about how some people who have been smuggled are being returned and how the drivers of the lorries have been arrested, but he has not told us what has happened to the organisers of this operation. In preparation for this question, I looked to see how many criminal gangs that are smuggling people into Britain had been prosecuted. The Minister said he is disrupting their operations, but is he going to prosecute any of them?
When the right hon. Lady looks back at a previous answer I gave about the work of operation groundbreaker, she will see that prosecutions have been achieved, with a significant number of years’ imprisonment secured against those involved.
As I said in my statement, the National Crime Agency is involved in this area, working with immigration enforcement. The hon. Lady rightly says that this is about going against the trafficking groups—the organised crime groups—and looking overseas to where the facilitation is taking place. This is a pernicious and appalling trade, which is why we are fusing intelligence and working jointly with European partners to go after those responsible for putting people in such dangerous conditions.
Does my right hon. Friend recognise the importance of immigration removal centres? The whole House has recognised that the people involved at Harwich were clearly the victims. As the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) said, it is important that there is somewhere safe and secure for people to be held and looked after, which is why the IRCs are important.
I recognise and support the need for detention as part of a removals policy, and IRCs play an important role in ensuring that that takes place in a safe manner. Obviously, we are concerned to ensure that detention in an IRC is for the most limited period possible and that appropriate welfare is provided, but it is absolutely right that we have our IRCs to do the job on facilitation and removal.
Given that these were intelligence-led operations, may I return to John Vine’s comments about Border Force? His concerns were that too many staff with long experience have been lost and that although we may have the numbers, these people are not sufficiently experienced. Will the Minister return to the issue to satisfy himself that that is not happening?
The success of Border Force is clear to see, with more than 39,000 attempts to cross the channel illegally having been stopped in 2014-15. Indeed, its successful work last week underpins its activity. We continue to strengthen the security at our border to stop those who have no right to enter the UK, and our highly trained staff in Border Force are doing that precise job.
Helping fragile states is expensive, but helping failed states is even more expensive in terms of blood, treasure and mass migration—often illegal mass migration. Although these clandestines are arguably not from failed states, many more who come to this country are. Does that not underline the importance of the Government’s commitment to the Department for International Development budget, particularly in doing more for conflict prevention and conflict resolution?
My hon. Friend makes an important and powerful point. Our international and regional development assistance plays a key part in providing long-term solutions to help prevent the flows of people across continents and in confronting and combating the traffickers who are engaged in this pernicious trade. Yes, he is correct, and we certainly do want to see that focus on international development assistance to support our own domestic priorities.
As the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) said, only 6% of vehicles are stopped. We know that there is an issue around infrastructure as well as around resources at ports. What conversation is the Minister having with the ferry companies, which often plead commercial pressures as well, to ensure that there is space and willingness to engage with the Border Force to tackle this issue?
As I have already told the House, it is not correct to talk about any specific percentages at any one port given the very flexible way in which resources are directed to meet the threat, but we continue to discuss the matter with the maritime and other sectors. Indeed the round-table discussion that I had with the hauliers in March focused on how we could work with them, the need for greater security and the support they need to help them with their role. We will certainly continue those discussions.
This country should be proud of its record of granting asylum to those who are fleeing persecution and those whose lives would be at risk if they were returned to their countries of origin. This Government have taken significant steps to improve the way we process asylum cases and deal with the backlogs. We now have a six-month service standard for processing straightforward claims. Obviously, we remain vigilant against those who abuse our asylum system and our hospitality, which is why we are following the Dublin regulation and ensuring that those who are coming here not for asylum are processed effectively and removed if they have no right to be here.
I ask the Minister to think quite deeply about this issue. Those poor people who were taken into Harwich are but the tip of an iceberg. There are hundreds of thousands of people around the world who are victims of war, oppression, and human rights abuses. Apparently, many of them come from Afghanistan, which we have occupied for the past 14 years. Does he not think that there is a worldwide humanitarian crisis here that we should be addressing to save lives? It is fine to condemn people traffickers—we can all do that—but we must look at the consequences for those desperate and very poor people.
The hon. Gentleman will have heard what I said in relation to a previous question on the use of international and regional development assistance, and I believe very strongly in that. It is an end-to-end approach that we need here. Yes, of course we have the immediate issue that we were confronted with on Thursday of those who have arrived on our shores. Equally we need to look at the external border in dealing with Frontex and some of the other European institutions. But it is also about stopping people making these journeys. It is not only about confronting the organised crime groups; it is also about regional assistance and development and ensuring that we have solid states so that people do not need to make those perilous journeys.
Certainly, we recognise that a number of areas around the UK are under significant pressure from migration. That is why the Prime Minister has said that we are examining the creation of a special fund to make money available to those areas of the country that are particularly affected. Certainly, that is something that we are considering further, and we will come back to the House with further information in due course.
Will the Minister set out what co-operation is being undertaken with the Dutch authorities to ensure that checks on lorries take place at the earliest possible opportunity to reduce the risk to migrants? What percentage of checks are taking place in Holland and what investment is planned to ensure that, as has been illustrated in Calais, early intervention reduces the risks?
The relationship with the authorities in the Netherlands is particularly strong and has resulted in a joint action plan that will embed regular data and intelligence sharing between Border Force and its Dutch equivalent. Intelligence is already being shared that is helping to improve Border Force targeting and in the future we plan to run joint operational activities on common threats in the Netherlands to enhance security. The strong joint working that we see already will be enhanced.
Earlier this year, a case was reported of a failed asylum seeker whose application had been refused in 1997 but who, incredibly, was still here in 2015, mainly owing to the Human Rights Act. Will the Minister please confirm that all the illegal immigrants found at Harwich will be returned within 18 days, never mind 18 weeks, 18 months or 18 years? If that is not possible because of the Human Rights Act, it will be yet further evidence of why we urgently need to review our human rights legislation.
It is right that any asylum claims should be appropriately considered, and that is what will happen. As I have already said, the Government have done a great deal to speed up and improve the process of examining those claims. My hon. Friend has a good point about the ability to appeal. We believe that further steps are needed on various different routes, so that appeal rights can be maintained, but out of the country. That is what we have done with foreign national offenders and we want to extend it further into other routes.
Stopping this revolting trade requires action at source and my right hon. Friend has spoken about the importance of the use of our international aid budget. What discussions has he had with Foreign Office Ministers about taking concerted action across the globe?
We have joint action on this and the Home Office does not simply work in isolation. We work with the Department for International Development and Ministers from the Foreign Office, so I can certainly assure my hon. and learned Friend that the Government take our responsibilities in combating this issue seriously. That requires work overseas as well as in this country, and Foreign Office Ministers are certainly playing their part.
Given that only 6% of lorries are being searched at major ports such as Harwich, is it not time to recruit more personnel from the increasing reservoir of former police officers and armed forces personnel so that more searches can be undertaken? Is it not now time to make it absolutely clear that this country will not accept fresh asylum claims from those who have travelled through many other safe countries before arriving at our shores?
My hon. Friend has rightly raised the effective use of the Dublin regulation on a number of occasions. We want it to be strengthened further, which is why I made the comment earlier about ensuring that we fingerprint those who arrive within the EU. I have already dealt with how Border Force uses its resources. It is right that it should do that. We certainly remain focused on the clandestine threat as well as on other threats to the UK border and on how we use Border Force resources and technology to meet those threats.
It is quite clear that human traffickers are evil, brutal gangs, but one problem that we came across when I was chairman of the all-party group on human trafficking was that illegal immigrants were coming through the porous eastern borders of the European Union and travelling across the EU unchallenged, partly because of freedom of movement and partly because there are no border checks. The main reason, however, was that there were no incentives for those countries to intervene and stop those people because they would then become their problem. What discussion has the Minister had with his European Union colleagues to correct this problem?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the work that he did in the last Parliament to highlight the trafficking of human beings. His work was instrumental in shaping the Modern Slavery Act 2015, for example, and ensuring that we take this issue as seriously as possible. We underline those themes, and one of the Home Secretary’s priorities at European Council of Ministers meetings is the need to confront and combat trafficking—that pernicious trade, which is exploitative, has no regard for individuals’ welfare or wellbeing, and sees them transited across countries to make money for people. It is utterly sick, and it is an issue that we shall retain as a priority. I can assure my hon. Friend that we will return to it on future Justice and Home Affairs Council meetings, given the importance that we rightly attach to it.
[Relevant document: The Ninth Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Session 2014-15, on Constitutional Implications of the Government’s draft Scotland clauses, HC 1022.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
May I begin by offering my warmest congratulations to all new MPs from Scotland on winning their seats? This Government respect the results from Scotland in the general election, just as we respect the result of the referendum last year. As the Prime Minister said, this is a one-nation Government. That is why one of our chief priorities is to bring the four nations of our United Kingdom together. The Bill is an important part of a package of measures that we believe does just that. If the House agrees to give the Bill a Second Reading it will be subject to four days of line-by-line scrutiny on the Floor of the House. I am happy to have my feet held to the fire, and for the Bill to receive full scrutiny, because I am confident that it delivers the Smith commission recommendations in full, but that does not mean that we will not listen carefully to contributions as it is debated.
Let me progress a little.
Let us not allow bluff and bluster to obscure the fact that there is already substantial agreement on the most significant aspects of the Bill. The UK and Scottish Governments agree on the devolution of income tax, representing £11 billion in revenue, and on the principle, if not yet the detail, of devolving £2.5 billion in welfare.
Has the Secretary of State seen today’s edition of the Daily Record, in which there is an excellent eight-page supplement? The paper, after all, offered the vow, and more than any other newspaper, was influential in securing a no vote in the referendum. In its editorial today, the Daily Record describes the Bill as “unacceptable” for not implementing the promises of the Smith commission. Why does the Secretary of State believe that the Daily Record describes his Bill as unacceptable and accuses him of reneging on the Smith commission’s recommendations?
I am afraid that that is the right hon. Gentleman’s interpretation. There is an excellent piece, which I commend to him, by Professor Adam Tomkins, in that very edition, in which he sets out the argument that the Bill clearly meets the Smith commission recommendations.
Let me continue. We are going to debate the Bill in full. We are going to scrutinise, over four days, every line and every clause. I am satisfied that the editor and readers of the Daily Record will be confident that the Bill meets the Smith commission recommendations in full when we complete that process. [Interruption.] No, we have dealt with that issue. [Interruption.]
Order. We cannot have argument by gesticulation. The right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) is a seasoned observer—he does not have the excuse that he is a newcomer to the House—and he has a sort of cheeky chappie countenance, but I am afraid that it will not wash at this stage. He will have to try his luck later.
I fear there is a lot of cheek still to come.
Over 18 years, the devolution of power and decision making from this Parliament to the Assemblies of Wales and Northern Ireland and to the Parliament in Scotland has changed the constitutional make-up of the United Kingdom fundamentally. I was proud to be elected as a Member of the new Scottish Parliament at its inception in 1999—indeed, I was the first MSP to ask a question in that Parliament on the opening day, so I draw from my experience of the Scottish devolution settlement as I take this Bill forward.
Even though some had doubts at the time, few would now deny that devolution has been a success story for Scotland. It has ensured that decisions affecting our homes and our families, from schools to hospitals to our police service, have been taken closer to the people they affect. As today’s Bill makes clear, the Scottish Parliament is a permanent part of the UK’s constitutional arrangements. The Bill recognises that, and rightly so.
I anticipate that the Bill will be a very stable settlement for Scotland as it was signed up to by all five of the political parties represented in the Scottish Parliament, including the Scottish National party.
That does not mean that the devolution settlement is or ever was perfect. From the start the settlement contained an imbalance, with a Scottish Parliament responsible for spending money which another Parliament—this one—was chiefly accountable for raising. It is one of the most important features of the Bill that it seeks to redress that balance. I will go into that in more detail later in my remarks.
In my opening comments, I mentioned that there had been a referendum in Scotland last year in which the people of Scotland voted to remain within the United Kingdom as part of this United Kingdom Parliament, but with a strong Scottish Parliament. The Scottish National party was part of the Smith commission which signed up to the tax powers. I find it interesting that the Scottish Government made a 61-page submission to the Committee in the Scottish Parliament about this Bill. How many lines were dedicated to the £11 billion of tax measures? Two lines, because the Scottish Government agree with those measures.
Indeed. I hope these measures will allow the debate to move from process to action and policy, and that we can finally hear from the Scottish Government how they intend to deploy the significant powers that are provided in the Bill and in the Scotland Act 2012.
The hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) said that the deficiency of the Bill is that it does not allow Scotland to raise all the money it spends. I am confused. I thought the SNP did not want full fiscal and financial autonomy because that would get rid of the Barnett formula. Is the Secretary of State any the wiser?
I think the hon. Gentleman, like me, looks forward to amendments to the Bill being tabled, setting out the SNP position on full fiscal autonomy. I have heard that issue raised on numerous occasions but I am still not absolutely clear what it means in the SNP’s terms. The Institute for Fiscal Studies identifies a black hole of between £7 billion and £10 billion in Scotland’s finances.
With respect—[Interruption.] Actually, I am going to make a point that might be quite positive. With respect to my right hon. Friend’s arguments, what worries me is that this might not be the end of the story, because it does not get to the kernel of the problem, which is that the Scottish Parliament will raise only about 50% of what it spends and, therefore, will be fundamentally a spending Parliament, not a tax-raising Parliament. There is a good Conservative case to be made for full fiscal autonomy, because it would breed responsibility.
I do not believe that there is a Conservative case, or indeed any case, to be made for an outcome that would leave Scotland with a gap of between £7 billion and £10 billion in its finances, which would affect every school, every hospital and every person in Scotland.
The independence referendum on 18 September 2014 was a truly historic moment, and I am proud that the people of Scotland voted decisively to remain part of our United Kingdom. The debates were passionate, as many here today will attest, and extensive, and the level of participation was a credit to Scotland. The result was clear and decisive. It represented the sovereign will of the Scottish people. In voting no on independence, we Scots, for the first time in our history, made the positive, conscious and collective choice to pool our sovereignty with our neighbours in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. We made the positive choice to enjoy the best of both worlds. We chose to continue to share the benefits of being part of a strong United Kingdom while enjoying the benefits of a strong devolved Parliament in Edinburgh delivering Scottish solutions to Scottish issues. However, a no vote was not a vote for no change. The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats all published extensive proposals for more powers for the Scottish Parliament in the months before the referendum.
The SNP accepted the result of the Scottish people but, during the referendum campaign, when Gordon Brown spoke on behalf of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal parties, we were promised that we would get as close to federalism as possible; that we would have home rule in the spirit of Keir Hardie. We hear about respect. The SNP won the election in Scotland conclusively. We stood on a mandate of powers for a purpose. Why does the Secretary of State not deliver what the people of Scotland voted for: a powerhouse Parliament with full economic powers?
I have heard the hon. Gentleman make his points before. The facts of the matter are that the SNP took part in the Smith commission after the referendum, signed up to a package of measures set out in the commission’s report and then, during the election, argued that its MPs would come to this Parliament to ensure that it was delivered.
It will clearly be the case that the Scottish Parliament will have significantly greater powers over income tax and welfare than it has now, but the Scottish Parliament is currently able to introduce policies that are significantly different from policies that are adopted in Northern Ireland. That is the nature of devolution and the devolution settlement.
It will depend on the policies that are pursued in the Scottish Parliament. For example, were my colleague Ruth Davidson to become First Minister of Scotland, we would see taxes reduced in Scotland, which I think would have a positive effect in Northern Ireland, because it would be an incentive to see business done in a compatible manner. But devolution is about taking decisions in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, and increasingly in different parts of England.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, at a time when we are devolving more powers to Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom, we also need a fair and equitable settlement for the people of England, starting with English votes for English laws?
As my hon. Friend is aware, that proposal was in the Conservative party manifesto and it will be brought to this Parliament. [Interruption.] I think we have concluded on the issue of what devolution means throughout the United Kingdom.
The Conservative-led coalition Government passed the Scotland Act 2012—the biggest single transfer of fiscal responsibility to Edinburgh in 300 years. They also oversaw significant further devolution to Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as groundbreaking work on city deals and a step change across England with the work towards the creation of the northern powerhouse. The Bill before the House today represents a further step forward in the governance of Scotland and our United Kingdom.
The settled will of the Scottish people is now that Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom. As such, this Bill demonstrates the Government’s determination that the Scottish Parliament should be made more powerful, more accountable yet autonomous, and better equipped to serve the people of Scotland. It is the fulfilment of our manifesto commitment that the all-party Smith commission agreement should be implemented in full. The fact that the Bill was introduced on the first day after the Queen’s Speech and that its Second Reading is taking place at the first opportunity since the general election speaks volumes for the Government’s determination to honour that manifesto commitment and get on with the job.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his new position and on beating off the opposition that he no doubt had in getting it. Does he not have cause to reflect that, whereas the previous Government in which he served as a Minister had the support of about a quarter of the elected Members of this House from Scotland, he is now this Government’s sole representative in Scotland? Does not that place on him a moral obligation to discuss with the elected representatives of the people of Scotland how to take forward this Bill? Is he not concerned that the all-party group in the Scottish Parliament that considered his draft proposals says that they do not equate to the proposals made by the Smith commission?