House of Commons
Monday 18 April 2016
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
2. What discussions he has had with the Leader of the House on the timetable for a vote in the House on replacement of the Trident missile submarines. (904478)
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear on 10 February, we will bring forward a debate and vote in the House at the appropriate moment, and announce it in the usual way.
Can the Minister tell the House where Trident falls in value terms in regard to the cost-benefit ratio using the Government’s own standard appraisal mechanism? Can he confirm that an appraisal has been conducted, and will he make it available to Members in the Commons Library?
I will of course make available what figures I can to the hon. Gentleman, but let me be clear that the overall cost of the Successor programme was set out in the strategic defence and security review that we published in November. It is £31 billion, which should be seen in the context of a deterrent that will serve us for over 30 years.
It is an open secret that the Ministry of Defence wanted this debate to take place in the spring, so I do not blame the Secretary of State for the fact that it has not happened. However, he is on record as saying that people are worried about the wavering position of the Labour Opposition on this matter. Would it not assist us to restore bipartisanship to the issue if the debate were to be brought forward, at least to before the Labour party’s conference, or do the Government—by which I mean No. 10—prefer dissension at a Labour party conference to bipartisanship on a particularly important issue?
Well, no. The position is that in November we announced our commitment to replacing the existing four Vanguard submarines, and we would like that principle to be endorsed by a vote in this House. I would obviously like that vote to take place as soon as possible, respecting of course the periods of purdah that will exist this spring and summer.
Does the Secretary of State understand that, unlike some on the Opposition Benches, we will not allow any individual questions over cost—valid though they might be in and of themselves—to be used as an excuse to wriggle out of our commitment to the British people? Those who remain true to the spirit of Attlee will do the right thing for Britain.
I am very glad to hear that. I would certainly caution the Labour party against moving away from the moderate mainstream support for a deterrent that every previous Labour Government have expressed. Indeed, I note that the advisers of the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) told journalists that her review would be fudged, as the
“last thing we want…is another reason for those who oppose Jeremy to call for him to go”.
The hon. Lady seems to be the only person who thinks that defending our country means defending the Labour leader.
Last Monday, I had the privilege of visiting Rolls-Royce in Derby, which is working on the Successor programme, and meeting members of the unions and the management. The one thing that they all want is certainty on the decision on this programme and on provision for the future. Does the Secretary of State agree that any notion that we would have an easy option to cancel the programme at some point in the future—say, at the next general election—would be disastrous not only for our defence but for the workforces in Derby and other places that are reliant on it?
It would be disastrous for our defence and for jobs in this country. It would also be disastrous for our relationship with all our principal allies. Let me be very clear that this programme is already going ahead. We have spent nearly £4 billion, as authorised by the House, on the Successor programme. Work is under way in Barrow, in Derby and in a number of other locations across the country, including those in Scotland, and the programme is already employing several thousand people in small companies.
The Minister for Defence Procurement wrote in November 2014:
“The security requirement to source and sustain certain capabilities within the UK—for instance nuclear submarines…means that single source procurement is and will remain a significant activity… The taxpayer is entitled to know that this money is being spent properly…That is why the Single Source Regulations Office (SSRO) has been established”.
So can the Secretary of State please tell the House how many meetings his Department has had so far with the SSRO about the Successor programme?
I am very happy to write to the hon. Lady about the number of meetings that may or may not have taken place. Let me be clear, however, that the programme is now under way and it is time she made up her mind as to whether she will support it or will we be taking a message to our allies, including the President of the United States, who visits on Friday, that the Opposition are no longer prepared to support a deterrent that they have always supported in the past?
I asked the Secretary of State specifically about the SSRO and the Successor programme. I appreciate that he does not know the answer, so let me tell him that there have been no meetings—I have a letter here from the Ministry of Defence. The SSRO was tasked with saving at least £200 million last year through its scrutiny of MOD contracts. However, because the Secretary of State will not allow it to do its job properly, it has agreed savings of only £100,000. Why is it not being allowed to scrutinise the Successor contract? Is it because, as the Department has said:
“The government needs a safe space away from the public gaze to allow it to consider policy options… unfettered from public comment about”
their “affordability”? That is not good enough. We demand that the Secretary of State reverse the decision and open up the Successor programme to the independent scrutiny that it requires.
The hon. Lady appears to misunderstand completely the function of the Single Source Regulations Office, which is to supervise contracts once they are signed. This particular contract is still under negotiation, and I am certainly not going to go into the details with her or, indeed, in the House until it is signed. Once it is signed, we will of course ensure that it is properly scrutinised.
Defence Attaché Network
Our growing defence budget allows us to expand the defence attaché network, including new posts in Finland, Albania and Senegal, also covering the Gambia, Mali and Niger. We are also creating new deputy posts in Qatar, Afghanistan, Latvia, Lithuania and Georgia. The expansion of the DA network will increase our global defensive reach and influence and will strengthen our partnerships around the world, as set out in the 2015 strategic defence and security review.
I thank the Minister for that reply. It is critical that we continue to be vigilant about the security threat coming from Russia. Will he ensure that there are sufficient numbers of defence attachés in the Baltic states, central Europe and, in particular, Ukraine and Poland to provide the analysis and expertise required to understand fully the security and defence dynamics of the region?
Indeed. I am sure my hon. Friend welcomed the announcement of the new DA in Finland and the new deputy posts in two of the Baltic states.
On expertise, I should stress that we are expanding not only the number of DAs, but their career path and expertise. For example, we have opened a new defence attaché and loan service centre in Shrivenham and have reviewed and enhanced their terms and conditions of service.
I am a big supporter of our DA network, but it is also important that defence attachés are robust in their relationships with their host countries. Will the Minister tell us what representations the defence attaché in Riyadh has made regarding the allegations of civilians being targeted in Yemen following claims that a UK-made PGM 500 missile was located at one of those sites?
Does my hon. Friend agree that Army 2020 and the creation of regional forces will help to grow future defence attachés and will enable officers to follow a career path that includes a substantial element of foreign service, allowing them to get the skills necessary to be effective defence attachés?
My hon. Friend is exactly right on that matter, as he of course knows, having previously done the international brief in the Ministry of Defence. The new approach of having brigades facing particular parts of the world means that expertise and institutional memory on particular regions will grow. Combining that with the greatly improved career prospects for DAs should in the medium term greatly enhance our representation.
May I, through the Minister, thank the DA to Tunisia and Libya for the excellent, candid and rigorous briefing he gave the Foreign Affairs Committee on our visit about a month ago? What can the Minister tell the House about any envisaged deployment to the Libyan international assistance mission? What British contribution is being considered?
My hon. Friend has shown ingenuity in managing to work that question in as a supplementary. As he knows very well, this matter has not yet been decided, but I am delighted that he has received such typically excellent assistance from the DA who covers Tunisia.
As from this month, the Ministry of Defence’s budget has risen to more than £35 billion—that is an increase of £800 million on the year just ended. This is the first real-terms increase in six years, reflecting the priority set out by this Government in the 2015 spending review to increase defence spending by 0.5% above inflation every year to 2020-21. This Government have clearly committed this country to meeting the NATO guideline of spending 2% of GDP on defence each and every year of this decade.
My hon. Friend is right to identify that the threats we face are growing in scale, complexity and concurrency, and a failure to meet this commitment would have a significant adverse impact on our ability to deliver the capability we need to face those threats and would send a very wrong message to our adversaries. Our commitment to spending 2% of GDP on defence enables us to deliver one of the most capable armed forces in the world; to spend more than £178 billion on equipment and equipment support over the next decade; and to fund an increase in the number of regular personnel for both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, and of reservists for the British Army.
19. But the Minister cannot pull the wool over our eyes on this one, because we all know that defence spending was set to fall below 2% of GDP, but for the Government including things that had never been included in the NATO analysis before, such as war pensions and the pension contributions of MOD civilian staff. Will he now come clean? Will he have to resort to these sorts of accounting gimmicks to be able to assure NATO that in future we will maintain 2% spending? (904497)
The hon. Gentleman, in characteristic style, is looking for smoke where there is no fire. We use the NATO definition to make the calculation of our proportion of GDP spent on defence, and it assesses the figure and then publishes it. We have done that in the past under previous Administrations and we will do it again under this one.
18. The Government’s defence review set out a £178 billion programme of investment in equipment for our armed forces over the next decade. Will the Minister ignore calls from the other parties to cut defence spending, which would mean smaller, weaker armed forces and the loss of highly skilled jobs in the defence sector? (904496)
I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the chance to rehearse again our commitment to increased spending on defence and security for each and every year of this Parliament—that will be a real-terms increase. We have published our 10-year forward equipment plan, which shows the contribution that defence will be making to the prosperity of the nation—that is another objective we have taken on in the defence review for the first time. That will benefit both the security of our nation and the economy as a whole.
Despite the claims by the Minister’s Department, the reality is that, between 2010 and 2015, the Royal Navy has had a 33% decline in carriers and amphibious ships, a 17% decline in submarines and a 17% decline in destroyers and frigates. We are a maritime nation, and yet our Navy is declining. Is it not time that we placed greater investment in our maritime capabilities?
The hon. Lady is very experienced in these matters, and she will know that, in 2010, the then coalition Government inherited a dire financial situation across the public sector, and especially in defence, and some very difficult decisions had to be taken to reduce certain front-line elements, including our aircraft carriers. She is also fully aware that we are in the midst of the largest shipbuilding programme that this country has ever known. Early next year, we expect to see the first of the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers moved out of Rosyth to take up their position with the Royal Navy.
I proposed a private Member’s Bill last year requiring the Government to enshrine in law that we spend at least 2% of GDP on defence. May I welcome today’s announcement and hope that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) is wrong and that this really does represent new money? May I also take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend on the important work that he has done, under the lead of the Prime Minister, in promoting defence exports, and to welcome the 24 Typhoons that have been sold to Kuwait and hope that that will contribute to the Ministry of Defence’s budget?
This Government have undertaken a new set of procurement guidelines for steel, which we have implemented through the Ministry of Defence through a combination of briefings to the Defence Suppliers Forum undertaken by the Secretary of State. I have also written to the chief executives of the 15 largest contractors. We are cascading that through the supply chain to ensure that, for future defence procurement, there is every opportunity for UK steel manufacturers to bid for tenders.
Government Members appear to be insinuating that the Labour party is advocating a reduction in defence spending, which is entirely untrue. It is perhaps unfortunate that the hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) talked about the impact that defence cuts have on the morale of our armed forces, because I have here a letter from the Secretary of State confirming that the MOD agreed to make £500 million of in-year savings after the Budget this year. The Government, of which this Minister is a part, has overseen a 17% cut in those Royal Navy warships and now, for the first time since 1982, have left the Falklands without a Royal Navy frigate protecting it. Can he clarify the record that we have a Government who are cutting defence spending—massively in recent years—and leaving the nation less protected as a result of it?
The hon. Gentleman really needs to read those letters more carefully. The reduction to which he referred related to the in-year spending of the Department, which ended at the beginning of this month. The defence budget for the current year, and for each future year, is going up, and the question that he and his colleagues need to answer is this: why will his party not commit, as our party has, to the 2% NATO commitment?
My next regular meeting with my counterparts in the coalition is on 4 May. The campaign against Daesh is making progress. With coalition support, Iraqi forces hold Ramadi, are clearing Hit, and have begun preparatory operations for the retaking of Mosul. In Syria, Daesh has been driven from al-Shadadi, cutting a key supply route from Mosul to Raqqa.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. With the advent of a new unity Government in Libya, does he believe that they are preparing the ground to request military assistance from the UK, and does he think that, as part of that request, they will require assistance with airstrikes against Daesh targets in Libya?
It is early days. The Foreign Secretary visited Tripoli this morning in support of the new Government, and I and fellow European Union Defence Ministers will be meeting in Luxembourg tonight to hear directly from Prime Minister Sarraj as to how he thinks we can best help stabilise that new Government. We urgently need to engage with them, not least to help close down the very dangerous migration route that is seeing so many lives lost in the Mediterranean, and to help that Government tackle the spread of Daesh along the coast.
My hon. Friend is right. With coalition support, Iraqi security forces have retaken around 40% of the populated areas that Daesh once held in Iraq, including Tikrit, Sinjar and Ramadi, and as I said, Hit is in the process of being cleared. We are continuing to provide vital air support, as well as specialist training and equipment.
Experience tells us that unless we get civil institutions up and running quickly after a conflict ends, we can end up with a failed state. What steps is my right hon. Friend’s Department taking to make sure that that does not happen in Syria once Daesh has been driven out?
Following the Syria conference held in London in February, there is now a stabilisation plan for Syria that we are working to deliver with our international partners. We are already working with existing Syrian institutions to try and restore stability, and we are working with communities on local government and civil defence, but stabilisation in Syria depends on a sustainable peace deal that protects communities from attack either by Daesh or by the regime. We are supporting that peace deal through the International Syria Support Group.
Tomorrow the Mayor of London will unveil in Trafalgar Square a reconstruction of the arch of the temple of Bel from Palmyra, as the symbol of our defiance against Daesh and also of our commitment to protect culture in war zones when it is reasonably possible to do so. In December my right hon. Friend announced that he was commissioning a group within the armed forces of modern-day “monuments men” to lead this agenda and to bring the UK into compliance with The Hague convention, and I hope that will be in the Queen’s Speech shortly. Will he update the House on that?
Yes, the Government have announced that they will ratify The Hague convention at the earliest opportunity. That includes the establishment of a military cultural property protection unit, and my Ministry is already engaging with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the stabilisation unit to further develop plans for that capability to help better protect such important monuments in future. It is also important to deny Daesh the revenue that it has earned from selling artefacts and coins from archaeological sites.
It is up to the new Government of national accord being established in Libya with our support, led by Prime Minister Sarraj, to make it clear what assistance he needs. A number of countries, including ourselves, have already indicated that we will be part of a Libyan international assistance mission, but it is far too early to speculate about what form that assistance might take, whether it is training, advice from the Ministries, or other support.
22. My right hon. Friend will be all too aware of the evidence of atrocities being committed by Daesh against religious minorities and the destruction of antiquities in the areas that it controls. What specific actions have been undertaken in the military campaign against Daesh to prevent both of those? (904500)
We have to continue to degrade and eventually defeat Daesh to bring to an end the horrific attacks that we have seen and the persecution of those of other faiths that we have witnessed, particularly the persecution of the Yazidi minority. In the end, Daesh has to be defeated so that we can have a tolerant and comprehensive settlement in Syria that protects all minorities.
Let me begin by sending my sincere best wishes to the Royal Regiment of Scotland, which will celebrate its 10th birthday on Friday with a celebratory service at Canongate kirk. I am sure that the whole House will join me in passing on our congratulations.
Libya is increasingly becoming the focus of a campaign by the international community to defeat Daesh. Given that the UK’s last intervention in Libya was by any measure a catastrophic failure, what plans do the Government have to ensure that we have clear, stated objectives, an exit strategy and a coherent and transparent policy for rebuilding the country afterwards?
I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in wishing the Royal Regiment of Scotland a very happy 10th birthday and acknowledge the enormous contribution it makes to the military tradition in Scotland.
Let me be clear that no decisions in respect of any involvement in Libya have yet been taken. We are waiting to hear from the new Government of national accord what kind of assistance they need. We have a very strong interest in helping them rapidly stabilise the country, not least because of the spread of Daesh along the coastline, which is a direct threat to western Europe and to ourselves.
First, let me be very clear that no such decision has been taken, and we are not contemplating at the moment a commitment of that kind. What I can say is that if we are, in future, to deploy military forces in a combat role into a conflict zone, we would of course, as the Prime Minister has made clear, come to this House first.
This is a very important constitutional issue, as I am sure the Secretary of State understands. How can it be that we read in the media that the Government have already drawn up plans to send 1,000 troops to aid the Libyan unity Government in fighting Daesh? When asked whether or not they would be deployed in hostile areas, a defence source told the Daily Mail that that was not yet clear. Surely it is important that the Secretary of State, instead of briefing the media, commits to coming to this House and answering questions directly. I am very concerned that in a written answer published today he has said that he reserves the right to take military action without parliamentary approval. Does that mean that we will not have a proper debate on proposed deployment, or will he come to the House, allow us to have a proper debate, answer questions and allow us to have a proper vote?
First, let me caution the hon. Lady against believing everything she reads in the Daily Mail. Secondly, let me make it very clear that we are not currently planning a deployment, as reported in that newspaper. Thirdly, I am always prepared to answer questions in this House, as indeed I am doing at the moment. Fourthly, the written answer published today makes very clear the circumstances in which we would of course come back to Parliament for its approval. However, I should also emphasise that the Prime Minister and I have to take decisions about the deployment of ships, planes and troops, and we do not want, as the House will understand, to be artificially constrained in action that would keep this country safe. We will keep Parliament informed and we will of course seek its approval before deploying British forces in combat roles into a conflict situation.
EU Withdrawal: Effect on National Security
NATO remains the cornerstone of the United Kingdom’s defence, but the European Union has an important complementary role in addressing and managing international crises, especially where NATO cannot, or chooses not to, act. Our response to the complex security threats we face requires a united, comprehensive approach, including the European Union’s diplomatic, humanitarian and economic levers.
Our most important defence allies, including a certain US President, who will visit this week, have recognised that leadership and membership of the EU are vital for Britain’s national security and place in the world. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the implications of leaving the EU for our transatlantic alliance and our national defence?
I cannot think of one ally—never mind the United States—that thinks that the world would be safer or that we would be safer if we left the European Union. Let me be clear: our central defence rests on our membership of NATO, but there are things that the European Union can add to that—not least, for example, the recent action taken against Russia after its annexation of Crimea and its interference in eastern Ukraine. It was the European Union that was able to apply economic sanctions—something NATO cannot do.
President Obama is indeed visiting the country later this week. Nobody doubts for a second the total commitment of the United States to NATO, and nobody claims for a second that, just because the United States is not in the EU, it is any less committed to national defence, NATO or anything else—indeed, it would never surrender a jot of its sovereignty. The fact is that our security depends on NATO, not the EU, and if we leave the EU, we will be just as safe as we are now.
My hon. Friend and I, although we have been friends for many years, differ on this matter. Let us be clear: the United States, as we do, shares its sovereignty by its membership of NATO—by being prepared to come to the aid of other NATO members under the obligations in article 5. There are many international ways in which we decide to share our sovereignty for the common good and for the better security of our country.
Does the Secretary of State recognise the enormous value of EU membership to our defence industry? That was recently reflected in an ADS survey, which showed that 70% of companies want Britain to remain in the EU. Does he agree that access to the European funding—particularly in research and development—is critical for British defence companies to maintain a leading edge in the global market?
I do agree with much of that. We heard earlier this afternoon of the success of the Typhoon sales to Kuwait. That European consortium was put together with four different European countries and is now successfully selling aircraft to eight separate nations. There are projects and programmes of such a scale that European collaboration is only beneficial.
I do not anticipate this country actually taking such a dramatic step. Let me repeat: I do not know any of my Defence Minister colleagues around the world who would like this country suddenly to start leaving the international alliances and partnerships that it has entered, so I do not think the money my hon. Friend thinks might be available will be.
Successor Ballistic Missile Submarines
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State indicated earlier, the nuclear deterrent is at the apex of the UK’s full spectrum of defence capability. The UK’s defence nuclear enterprise is gearing up to deliver the successor to the Vanguard class submarines. Last month we announced a further £642 million of preparatory work ahead of the investment decision for this £31 billion programme. That investment in Successor submarines will not only help keep Britain safe but support over 30,000 jobs across the UK.
With Russia openly menacing our allies, and with us on the cusp of the centenary of the greatest sacrifices ever made by our armed forces in defending this country, would it not be foolish and totally inappropriate for us no longer to be prepared to make a relatively small financial sacrifice to maintain the only asset that can guarantee the freedom of this country?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As the Secretary of State indicated in his speech on nuclear deterrence before Easter, we have both a political and a moral responsibility to protect our people and allies. The nuclear deterrent is assigned to NATO, and as a leading member of NATO we cannot and should not outsource our commitments to others. There has been broad political consensus for decades in this House on the need to maintain the UK’s independent strategic deterrent. Government Members are clear where we stand. This remains the official policy of Her Majesty’s official Opposition, and it is in our view irresponsible that the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and her leader appear determined to put the ultimate security of our nation at risk.
The Minister and, indeed, the Secretary of State have referred to the long-held and well-known views of the Leader of the Opposition on this issue, but it is the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister who will put the resolution to the House. Given that there is overwhelming support for the renewal from the Ministry of Defence, the forces, industry, the workforce and the majority of this House, will the Minister get the message through to dithering Dave in No. 10 to stop playing party politics with this issue of national security and to put the vote to this House?
Two weeks ago I had the great privilege of visiting Rolls-Royce up the road in Bristol, where I met apprentices and workers at the defence aerospace operations and turbine manufacturing facility. I witnessed the important work that Rolls-Royce is doing around the country on manufacturing nuclear engines for servicing naval vessels. Does the Minister agree that Trident stands to benefit the economy by virtue of the many jobs it will create?
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the fact that that programme will benefit not just those folks working for Rolls-Royce in various plants, particularly around Derby, or those employees of BAE Systems, the prime contractor, but companies in constituencies right across the breadth of this country, including his own.
Armed Forces: Protection from Persistent Legal Claims
Although we will always investigate serious allegations of wrongdoing, we are committed to ending the large amount of opportunist litigation brought against our armed forces, which places great stress on them, undermines human rights and corrupts our operations. The Prime Minister chaired a National Security Council meeting on the subject in February, which looked at a range of options we have developed, and tasked the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), who has responsibility for human rights, and me to produce a comprehensive package to address the problem. We expect to make announcements very shortly.
Two weeks ago Justice Leggatt said that Public Interest Lawyers showed
“a serious failure to observe essential ethical standards”
when it claimed that British soldiers were responsible for the death of a child. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is simply the latest example of the hounding of our forces—something we committed in our manifesto to clamp down on—and that it must now be investigated by the regulator?
I agree with my hon. Friend and it is right that Public Interest Lawyers has been referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal. Justice Leggatt criticised them for failing to take action when they discovered inconsistencies between their claimants’ accounts and, worse, for ignoring those inconsistencies when they were pointed out to them and for continuing to advance the case. In his words,
“no responsible lawyer…conscious of their duties to their client and the court would have felt able to advance the original allegation.”
Would it not help to deter future legal cases against our soldiers if the House read the remarkable speech made in this House last Thursday by the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway), who said, from his authoritative position as a former soldier and journalist, that many untruths by Ministers, civil servants and the military resulted in grave errors in the war in Afghanistan? When can we start a full inquiry into the reasons we went into Helmand?
I know that the hon. Gentleman cares passionately about these issues. I point him to a number of investigations that have gone on, both very lengthy investigations by the Ministry of Defence and investigations by Committees of the House into Afghanistan and, in particular, Helmand in 2006. It is important that we learn the lessons from those inquiries. I hope that he will be able to see from operations today, in particular Op Shader, that we are acting on those lessons learned.
NATO Countries: Defence Spending
The UK is proud to be one of five NATO countries that meet the commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence. Since the defence investment pledge was made at the Wales summit in 2014, progress has been made, with 16 allies increasing defence spending in real terms and 24 allies now spending more of their defence budgets on equipment. As it happens, the leadership role that the UK is given in NATO on this issue was warmly welcomed once again by the US Deputy Defence Secretary in my bilateral discussions with him last Friday.
What signal would it send to our NATO partners, and to our adversaries, ahead of the Warsaw summit if the Government took the advice of some in the House and failed to commit to spending 2% of GDP on defence? Will my hon. Friend update the House on the Libya and wider middle east situation?
I am not sure that the Speaker will give me enough time to answer both those issues, so I will focus on the first, if I may. The NATO Secretary-General was here last week and he praised the United Kingdom for our leadership on defence spending and our contribution to NATO. By the NATO summit in Warsaw in July, we expect to see further progress on the part of our allies in working to meet NATO’s 2% guideline. By contrast, the deafening failure to match that commitment by the Labour party sends precisely the wrong message to our allies and, even worse, to our adversaries.
The Minister and many other hon. Members make much of this 2%, but 2% in the United Kingdom is quite different from a measurement of 2% for other NATO allies. Does the Minister not agree that this process of self-assessment, which NATO seems to tick off, has profound implications for the alliance’s method of calculation of GDP expenditure on the military?
In the recent strategic defence and security review, the Ministry of Defence agreed a new strategic objective of contributing to the nation’s prosperity. We do that in many ways, not least by spending some £20 billion a year with industry, around half of which is in the manufacturing sector, and some £4 billion with small and medium-sized enterprises.
I am in a position to update the House on the steel component of the aircraft carrier contract, which is much the largest defence procurement contract. Of the structural steel, some 95,000 tonnes have been procured from UK steel mills over the period of that contract.
Can the Minister confirm that the United Kingdom works very closely with countries such as Pakistan on defence procurement? Will he join me in welcoming the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, who is sitting at the top of the Public Gallery?
My Department is committed to improving the quality of service family accommodation provided to our service personnel and their families. We have been working closely with Carillion Amey to deliver those improvements. Work to improve accommodation has resulted in the upgrading of some 3,000 homes through complete refurbishment and the separate installation of around 10,000 new kitchens, bathrooms, and central heating systems.
I will be short, Mr Speaker—which may be why you did not see me earlier.
Service housing is absolutely critical not only to the wellbeing of our servicemen and women and their families, but to their morale. Carillion Amey has been an appalling contractor, and I know that the Department has taken this issue seriously. May I encourage my hon. Friend to continue to be robust, and to take the contract away from it unless and until it starts to discharge its obligations properly?
My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right to highlight the poor performance of Carillion Amey to date. I am determined, as indeed is the Secretary of State, to improve this matter, which is why we will continue to work closely with Carillion Amey. I can reassure my hon. and learned Friend that Carillion Amey has committed to meet all the key performance indicators across the suite of the next generation estate contracts, including the national housing prime contract, by the end of May 2016.
My immediate priorities remain success in our operations against Daesh and implementing our SDSR commitments. This month, the defence budget increases for the first time in six years, and it will increase in every year of this Parliament. Our choice to spend more on stronger defence will help keep us safe.
The Secretary of State will know about the worrying number of cancers and terminal illnesses among groups of former RAF personnel working in Scotland in the 1980s and 1990s who worked in a toxic soup of chemicals with precious few safety precautions, and he will surely know of the distressing inconsistencies in financial support for those affected. Will he confirm that the Government’s duty of care under the armed forces covenant extends to investigating this properly and to compensating victims fully and consistently?
Yes. When a veteran considers that their service has led to an illness or injury, they are entitled to make a claim for compensation through our legal claims department, or to apply for enhancements to their pensions. Let me assure the hon. Lady that the Veterans Welfare Service will listen and will provide all necessary support.
T2. Last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), responded to a debate in Westminster Hall secured by our hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) on air cadet training facilities. In Southend, 1312 Air Training Corps uses the facilities for gliding in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly). Will the Under-Secretary of State make sure that those facilities are still made available to our cadets? (904503)
Wethersfield, the facility to which my hon. Friend is referring, has been identified for disposal, and the new site is yet to be selected. However, I can reassure him that we are strongly committed to gliding, and 614 Volunteer Gliding Squadron, when it moves from Wethersfield, will expand into its new role as a regional hub. Our immediate priority is to get cadets back flying again, after a gap of about two years. That will start again this year, and should be fully delivered by 2018.
Those injured in the course of their duties should receive the financial support they need, but currently the value of compensation payments is being eroded by a comparative third under the armed forces compensation scheme’s guaranteed income payments and the war disablement pensions supplement. Applying the triple lock to military compensation payments would ensure that the highest of earnings, inflation or 2.5% was paid. When will the Government take evidence to review this payment and examine the impact of the real-term loss under the current system?
We always keep our payments systems under review. The hon. Lady will of course be aware that, in the recent Budget, the Chancellor decided that, for the first time, payments under the war pensions scheme would be set aside for care costs. These are the sort of positive measures that we keep under review in support of our veterans.
T3. Does my hon. Friend agree that Kuwait’s decision to buy 28 world-beating Typhoons is testament to the skill of the BAE workforce at Warton, many of whom live in my constituency, and this Government’s commitment to defence exports? (904504)
We welcome wholeheartedly this month’s contract signed by Kuwait for 28 Typhoon aircraft. Kuwait thereby becomes the eighth country to select the Eurofighter Typhoon and the third in the Gulf to do so. It is very positive both for our bilateral and defence relationship and, as my hon. Friend indicates, for jobs across the British aerospace and defence industry, including the thousands employed by BAE Systems at Warton in Lancashire, many of whom are her constituents. It is excellent news for the whole supply chain right across the UK.
T5. Following the Foreign Secretary’s statement that we“stand ready to provide further assistance to Libya and its people”,will the Secretary of State confirm what kind of assistance the UK would be willing to provide and how much notice this House would have before a vote on military action in Libya? (904506)
I have made it clear that we are waiting to hear from Prime Minister Sarraj and the new Government, who have only been established over the past few days, what kind of assistance they want, whether it be training or other support. On notice to this House, I repeat that there is no plan to deploy British troops in any kind of combat role. If there were a plan to deploy troops in a combat role in a conflict zone anywhere in the world, we would come to the House first.
T4. A particularly nasty Daesh force has seized territory at the top of the Bekaa valley in Lebanon. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the British Government are doing everything they can to support the Government of Lebanon in tackling this particularly nasty group of people, who are inflicting misery on local people? (904505)
Yes. Last week, I discussed with the Lebanese Defence Minister, Samir Mokbel, the threats that Lebanon faces and the importance of its security. We recently committed to spend a further £23 million on equipment, mentoring and training to help the Lebanese armed forces secure their entire border with Syria. We plan to spend an additional £4.5 million on urban and rural operations training so that by 2019, some 10,000 Lebanese soldiers will have received British training.
T6. Will the Minister say a little more about what progress is being made to ensure that a very high percentage of UK steel is used in defence procurement? In particular, will he say what steps he has taken to ensure that there is the capacity and capability for UK steel to be used to build any Successor Trident submarines, should the House determine that that is what it wishes to happen? (904508)
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government as a whole are committed to supporting the UK steel industry. The Ministry of Defence has issued new policy guidance to the prime contractors to address barriers to the open market. I am working closely with our contractors to ensure that they support the new policy. In relation to the submarine contracts, as and when they are placed, UK suppliers have an important role to play in the supply of some specialist steels, but at present we do not have manufacturers that are capable of supplying other specialist steels, so there is a balance.
T7. Is the Secretary of State aware that the standard of food for the military at HMS Sultan and similar naval establishments has become such a source of complaints that service personnel have been banned from taking photographs and using social media to critique it? What is he doing to ensure that our servicemen and women are properly looked after in such a basic area as food? (904509)
Defence personnel are offered core meals, covering breakfast, lunch and dinner, with set calorific and nutritional standards. That includes unlimited access to carbohydrates and vegetables. I confess that I experience the food that is served to our armed forces personnel on a regular basis, and I have not experienced a poor standard. The normal process is for complaints to be made via the chain of command, but I am more than happy to look into the matter for my hon. Friend.
Ministers have been remarkably coy this afternoon about the timing of the maingate decision for the Trident Successor programme. I understand entirely the point about purdah, but will one Minister at least help the House by indicating whether we are likely to get a vote after 24 June and before the House rises for the summer recess on 21 July?
I hope we will have an early debate and vote on the principle of supporting the replacement of our four existing submarines. I should explain to the hon. Lady that it will not be on the maingate decision, because there is not one maingate decision. We are obviously negotiating with our suppliers for four separate submarines.
T8. The Secretary of State is a suave and polished parliamentary performer, which is why the Defence Committee would like to see a little more of him and why it is doubly disappointing that, despite trying since the beginning of March to agree with his private office to two two-hour slots before the end of May, so far we have achieved only one and the offer of a second on what happens to be local government election day, which is far from ideal. Will he kindly have a word with his private office, ask them to extract their proverbial digit, and thus avoid our two quite important inquiries on the middle east and Russia being either delayed or written without his valuable input? (904510)
I always enjoy my appearances before my right hon. Friend and his colleagues on the Select Committee. It is not always easy to reconcile the dates he offers with some of my international travel commitments but I will certainly have another look at the diary today.
I recently announced a new support contract for the Hawk aircraft that takes it up to November 2020. We have time to decide how to sustain Hawks beyond that. That is much as I can say. However, I will tell the hon. Lady that the Red Arrows are due to commence a substantial programme of displays in this country and overseas this summer. I hope that many Members have the opportunity to watch them.
T9. One hundred years ago, Porton Down was established as a centre to deal with nerve gas attacks during the Somme; 100 years later, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory continues to do a fantastic job, now tackling the growing threats we face in this country from Daesh. Following the visit by the Secretary of State and other Ministers, what reflections do they have on the continuing role of DSTL at Porton Down in my constituency? (904511)
DSTL’s remit to defend our nation and armed forces against a wide range of threats is just as crucial today as it was 100 years ago. We need to continue to invest in science and technology to stay ahead of our adversaries. I congratulate all our staff at Porton Down, Portsdown West and Fort Halstead, which is in my own constituency, on reaching this milestone and on the remarkable work they do to help keep our country safe.
The Department places the safety of our nuclear fleet at the highest possible level. There are continuous attempts to ensure that any potential threats to our submarines are monitored. If the hon. Gentleman has something specific he would like to draw to our attention he should do so, and I am happy to meet him to discuss it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the success of Tata Steel in supplying steel for the aircraft carrier. Other grades and types of steel are not currently available in this country and we would be happy to talk to the industry about what steps it can take to make such steel types available.
The Army Reserve centre in Cobridge in my constituency is home to the A detachment 202 (M) field hospital. I have been in correspondence with the Minister but have yet to receive a response to rumours about its imminent closure, something that is yet to be confirmed or consulted about with the wider community. May I have a response from the Minister?
Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), the 1206 Air Training Corps squadron in Lichfield is one of the biggest in the west midlands, but it too has been suffering from a lack of glider training provision. What hope can the Minister give my friends and corps members that that training will be resumed?
I am delighted to answer a question from the distinguished president of that squadron. Nearly two years ago, all gliding had to be suspended for safety reasons. We have been unable to find a contractor who could credibly take on the repair of the Vigilants, but the Vikings are all on their way up, together with a very small number of Vigilants. By 2018 we will be delivering a full programme of gliding, with an enhanced level of powered flying with more Grob Tutors, and that will start this summer.
Some 5,000 service personnel who serve overseas have applied for postal votes. They tell me that by the time the postal votes are sent to the regiment, those serving overseas are disadvantaged. How will the Minister ensure that postal votes are received by those serving overseas who wish to vote?
We partook in the Government-wide scheme launched on 1 February to try to ensure that our service personnel were aware that they could register, and we will do the same again through a defence information notice on the EU referendum that will be issued in May. Ultimately, it is down to individual service voters whether they register or vote.
May I ask the Secretary of State, or perhaps my hon. and very gallant Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces—[Interruption] Gallant because she is in the Royal Navy reserves—to assure the House that no investigator used by Leigh Day or Public Interest Lawyers is paid for by the Ministry of Defence for any service?
I can give the assurance that, although the Ministry of Defence does not direct the investigations of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, it is responsible for ensuring that public money is spent well and efficiently. While we can clearly justify investigations into wrongdoing and those that exonerate our armed forces, we cannot justify spending money on processes that frustrate those investigations. We have given clear ministerial direction that those agents are not to be paid with public money, and we have received assurances that that is the case.
Junior Doctors Contracts
This House has been updated regularly on all developments relating to the junior doctors contract, and there has been no change whatsoever in the Government’s position since my statement to the House in February. I refer Members to my statement in Hansard on 11 February, and to answers to parliamentary questions from my ministerial colleagues on 3 March, which set out the position clearly. Nevertheless, I am happy to reiterate those statements to the hon. Lady.
The Government have been concerned for some time about higher mortality rates at weekends in our hospitals, which is one reason why we pledged a seven-day NHS in our manifesto. We have been discussing how to achieve that through contract reform with the British Medical Association for more than three years without success. In January, I asked Sir David Dalton, the highly respected chief executive of Salford Royal, to lead the negotiating team for the Government as a final attempt to resolve outstanding issues. He had some success, with agreement reached in 90% of areas.
However, despite having agreed in writing in November to negotiate on Saturday pay, and despite many concessions from the Government on this issue, the BMA went back on that agreement to negotiate, leading Sir David to conclude that
“there was no realistic prospect of a negotiated outcome.”
He therefore asked me to end the uncertainty for the service by proceeding with the introduction of a new contract without further delay. That is what I agreed to, and what we will be doing. It will start with those in foundation year 1 from this August, and proceed with a phased implementation for other trainees as their current contracts expire through rotation to other NHS organisations.
Let me be very clear: it has never been the Government’s plan to insist on changes to existing contracts. The plan was only to offer new contracts as people changed employer and progressed through training. This is something that the Secretary of State, with NHS organisations as employers, is entitled to do according even to the BMA’s own legal advice. NHS foundation trusts are technically able to determine pay and conditions for the staff they employ, but the reality within the NHS is that we have a strong tradition of collective bargaining, so in practice trusts opt to use national contracts. Health Education England has made it clear that a single national approach is essential to safeguard the delivery of medical training and that implementation of the national contract will be a key criterion in deciding its financial investment in training posts. As the Secretary of State is entitled to do, I have approved the terms of the national contract.
The Government have a mandate from the electorate to introduce a seven-day NHS, and there will be no retreat from reforms that save lives and improve patient care. Modern contracts for trainee doctors are an essential part of that programme, and it is a matter of great regret that obstructive behaviour from the BMA has made it impossible to achieve that through a negotiated outcome.
Just when we thought this whole sorry saga could not get any worse, it now appears that Government policy is in complete disarray. Despite the Health Secretary giving us all the impression back in February that he was going to railroad through a new contract, it now appears that he is simply making a suggestion—or, as his lawyers would say, approving the terms of a model contract. Last night, the Health Secretary took to Twitter to claim that this was not a change of approach, and we have heard the same again today, so, on behalf of patients, I have to ask him: what on earth is going on?
We need a straightforward answer to a simple question: is the Health Secretary imposing a new contract—yes or no? If he is not, but merely suggesting a template, why did he not make it clearer beforehand, and why, in his oral statement on 11 February, did he lead Parliament, the media, the public and, crucially, 50,000 junior doctors to believe that he was announcing imposition? The junior doctors committee took the unprecedented step of escalating its industrial action on the back of his decision to force through a contract. How can he possibly justify a situation whereby his rhetoric, underpinned by nothing but misplaced bravado and bullishness, could lead to the first ever all-out strike of junior doctors in the history of the NHS? He must get back to the negotiating table, and quickly.
We also need answers to the following questions. Do all NHS employers have free rein to amend the terms of the Health Secretary’s so-called model contract? Does this include non-foundation trusts? Is it legal for Health Education England effectively to blackmail trusts on the part of the Health Secretary by withholding funding, if that is what Government policy now is? Finally, it seems there are two basic scenarios: either he has known all along that he does not have the power to impose a new contract, and so all this is part of a cynical attempt to take on a trade union, or he was oblivious to the fact that he did not have the power, in which case, what is going on in his Department? This is no way to run the NHS. Today’s revelations call into question the motives, judgment and competence of the Health Secretary, and the House, doctors and patients deserve some answers.
That is a truly desperate attempt to divert attention from the single biggest question that people in this House want answered: does the Labour party support or not support a strike that will see the care of thousands of people up and down the country suffer?
Let me answer the hon. Lady’s question very directly. Yes, we are imposing a new contract, and we are doing it with the greatest of regret, because over three years—with three independent processes, 75 meetings and 73 concessions that we made in a huge effort to try to come to a negotiated settlement—the BMA refused to talk. With respect, I think Sir David Dalton, the trusted chief executive of Salford Royal, understands these things better than the hon. Lady has shown she does today. After working very hard, he concluded that a negotiated settlement was not possible. That is why I announced on 11 February that I would introduce a new contract.
As for foundation trusts, if the hon. Lady had listened to my statement she would know that it is true that foundation trusts have the freedom to introduce new contracts on pay and conditions. They can choose to exercise that freedom, but none of them has done so. She asked about non-foundation trusts. They do not have that freedom, and that is why we will be introducing a new contract for everyone.
Let me say this to the hon. Lady. There has been a lot of talk about this, but none of it as specious as the story that she planted in The Guardian this morning about the Government changing their position, which was absolute nonsense. We have not changed our position. The fact of the matter is that the Government have bent over backwards to avoid this strike. Right now, the people refusing to talk, whether it be on rota design with hospital managers or training reform with the academy, are not the Government but the BMA. Had it negotiated on Saturday pay, as it said it would, we would have had an agreement by now. Instead, we have a strike—the first ever withdrawal of emergency care in NHS history. [Interruption.]
Rather than try to fabricate some story about the Government changing their position, which the hon. Lady knows perfectly well they are not, she might think about the words that do need to be said in this Chamber this week—about whether or not it is appropriate for the BMA to be telling people to deny life-saving care to patients.
Some people in the NHS have shown great courage in speaking out, even against their own profession: Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, the NHS England medical director, Lord Darzi, the former Labour Minister, and Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer. But there is one person on the public stage who has not had the courage to condemn those emergency strikes, and that is the shadow Health Secretary. I hope that, for the sake of her constituents and the reputation of the Labour party, she will say at the earliest opportunity that withdrawing emergency care in pursuance of a pay dispute is wrong, disproportionate and inappropriate, and that the right thing to do now is to show courage to reform these contracts for the benefit of patients and a seven-day NHS.
The BMA has always been a very militant trade union. It has had bitter political battles with just about every Secretary of State that the national health service has had since it started. It has, however, never previously contemplated strike action, withdrawing urgent services in pursuit of what is essentially a pay claim. I do not believe that before this year the Labour party would ever have supported the BMA if it had done so. Does my right hon. Friend agree that as the pressures on the NHS are obviously mounting, with the ageing population and the rising level of demand, it is urgent to move towards a fuller seven-day service, and that it would be totally wrong for him to delay that in the face industrial action or nit-picking legalisms from a shadow Secretary of State who has just discovered what the legal status of foundation hospitals actually is?
My right hon. and learned Friend speaks with huge wisdom and experience. He makes a point about what happened under previous Labour Governments. He might also have said that those were the same Governments that gave us the current badly flawed contracts. Because those previous Labour Governments did not stand up to the BMA and because they ducked difficult decisions, we saw the pay bill balloon and some shocking failures of care. Leadership is not just about talking and negotiating; it is also about acting. That is what Ministers have to do, and in this situation we have a very simple decision to make after three years of talks: do we proceed with the measures necessary to deliver a seven-day NHS and better care for patients, or do we duck those decisions? This Government choose to act.
Yet again, I must pull up the Secretary of State. It is not a case of excess deaths at weekends; it is a case of people admitted at weekends dying within 30 days. He said the same thing again today, and it is being repeated over and over.
The Secretary of State has described, within the same pay envelope, having more doctors at weekends, not fewer during the week, and reducing a maximum of 91 hours to 72 hours. I do not see how the maths of that can possibly add up. We are not managing to cover the rotas that we have, and those rota gaps pose a danger to patients.
I was very disappointed that the equality impact assessment dismissed the impact on women and other people who train less than full-time as acceptable collateral damage. We are facing the first ever all-out strike next week, and I cannot believe that we are not in negotiations. We should be at the table trying to prevent that strike. May I ask the Secretary of State how he plans to get us out of this? He should come back to the table, because that is the only way in which an impasse can ever end.
Let me gently ask the hon. Lady how long she expects us to sit round the table. We have been trying to discuss this for three years. She asked how the maths added up. I will tell her how the maths adds up. It adds up because we are putting an extra £10 billion, in real terms, into the NHS over the course of this Parliament. Conservatives put money into the NHS. The Scottish National party, incidentally, takes money out of the NHS.
The hon. Lady referred to the equality impact assessment selectively. She normally pays very good attention to detail, but the paragraphs from which she quoted related to changes that were agreed to by the BMA. What she did not quote was paragraph 95, which says that the overall assessment of the new contract is that it is “fair and justified” and will promote “equality of opportunity”. Why is that? Because shorter hours, fewer consecutive nights and fewer consecutive weekends make this a pro-women contract that will help people who are juggling important home and work responsibilities.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, notwithstanding the appalling nature of the decision that, for the first time during strike action, junior doctors may not provide life-saving care for young children and other vulnerable patients, that decision is also totally incomprehensible, given that the doctors’ own leader has said that it is indefensible to take such action?
It is totally incomprehensible, and I know that many doctors will be wrestling with their consciences. However, I think that, in the context of the House, this could be an occasion for us to put aside party differences. I think that there was a time when Members in all parts of the House would have condemned the withdrawal of life-saving care in a pay dispute, but that day has sadly passed, and it is the Conservatives who must now show leadership in this regard. As we heard from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), the NHS faces huge challenges, but we will not tackle those challenges if we allow obstructive unions to hold a gun to the Government’s head and refuse to allow us to proceed with really important changes—modern contracts that will allow safer care for patients and better terms for doctors. We are determined to do the right thing for the NHS, and, indeed, to be the party of the NHS.
If the Secretary of State wanted to do a deal with anybody, does he not think it is a bit unwise to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) that she planted a story in a newspaper? That is accusing her of reprehensible conduct. I think he ought to be looking at withdrawing that. I am an expert on this subject. Somebody said to me on the picket line, “Do you know what sums up this Government, Dennis? ‘When first they practise to deceive’”—I had better not finish it. [Interruption.] “Oh what a magic web they weave, when first they practise to deceive.” That is what they are.
Well, if planting a story in a newspaper is reprehensible, I do not think many Members of this House would survive the scrutiny of the hon. Gentleman’s very high code of moral conduct for long. Let me say this to him and to all Labour Members: we should be honest about the problems we face in the NHS, whatever those problems might be, and we should not sweep them under the carpet. One problem that we face—not the only one—is the excess mortality rates for people admitted at weekends. There was a time when Labour Members would have recognised that their own constituents were the people who depended most on services such as the NHS and who had the most to gain from a full seven-day NHS. Labour Members should be supporting us, not opposing us.
We are eight days away from an unprecedented full walkout of junior doctors, including the withdrawal of emergency care. Our constituents want to know whether they will be safe on the strike days. Will the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State join me in calling on the BMA at least to exempt casualty departments and maternity units from this walkout? We know that, even with goodwill arrangements in place to bring people back in when hospitals are overwhelmed, the delays will cost lives.
As ever, my hon. Friend speaks very constructively on this issue. She is absolutely right to say that the departments at most risk are emergency departments, maternity departments and intensive care units. Those are the areas that we are most keen to ensure will maintain critical doctor cover over the two strike days that are planned. I really hope that the BMA will co-operate with NHS England as we identify where we think the gaps might be. We will share that information with the BMA and I hope very much that it will help us to plug those gaps with junior doctors, because in the end no one wants there to be any kind of tragedy. We all have a responsibility to work to ensure that that happens.
The Secretary of State will be aware that, when it comes to a medical diagnosis, words and clarity matter. The same applies to us as politicians. He has said today that he is imposing a contract, in contrast with what his legal team are saying to the doctors. For the avoidance of doubt, will he set out explicitly what legal powers he thinks he has to do that?
I am very happy to do so. We are introducing a new contract from this August, and it will be for all junior doctors. It will go progressively through the different ranks of junior doctors and, over the course of the next year, the vast majority of new doctors will move on to the new contracts. The reason that we did not use the word “impose” in the original statement was not a matter of semantics. We are proceeding with this new contract and everyone will move on to it, which is the gist of what most people mean by this. What we are not doing is changing existing contracts, so when people move trust or move to a new position, they will move on to a new contract. That is why we have used the term “introduction” of new contracts. However, it would have been much better if the introduction of the new contracts had been done through a negotiated process. That is why we took such trouble: we went to 75 meetings and made 73 different concessions in order to try to do this on a negotiated basis. Very regrettably, that proved not to be possible, which is why we took the difficult decision to proceed with these new contracts anyway.
Does the Secretary of State agree that it is totally unjustified for doctors to demand higher premium rates at weekends when almost all other NHS workers, and indeed most other working people across the economy, do not get them? It is completely disrespectful for the BMA to suggest that doctors’ lives are somehow uniquely disproportionately inconvenienced by Saturday shifts and that those of other people are not.
It is true that the BMA rejected Saturday premium pay that was more generous than the Saturday premium pay offered to nurses, healthcare assistants or paramedics working in the same hospitals and operating theatres as those doctors. Many people will ask whether that was a reasonable position to take, given that the doctors’ overall pay was protected. I think they will also ask whether, even if the doctors disagreed with the Government on that point, it was appropriate or proportionate for them to withdraw life-saving emergency care from patients in the pursuance of their disagreement. I wonder whether that is something that will shape many people’s confidence in what the NHS stands for.
I have been disappointed by the Secretary of State, and by his language and tone, during this urgent question. Looking at how he has responded here, we can understand why the discussions and talks have ended up as they have done. He asked how long we should do this for; I would say, “As long as it takes.” The problem with the negotiations so far has been the Government’s failure to respond to the BMA and to work with junior doctors, who do care about their patients and do want to provide a good quality of care.
I think that sums up the difference between the two parties. It is true that Labour would take “as long it as takes” to negotiate the changes, which is why we ended up with poor contracts in 1999, 2003 and 2004. After three years of trying to get reforms to contracts to make the NHS safer for patients and better for doctors, we need to proceed with a manifesto commitment. Ministers have to decide and act as well as talk. We did not choose this outcome and tried hard for a negotiated decision, but when the hon. Lady says that talks should go on for “as long as it takes”, she is actually saying that the other party has a veto over change. No one should have a veto over an elected Government’s manifesto commitments.
One thing that the whole House can agree on is that the postponement of treatment or operations is never cost-free for patients. Every hospital has an ethics committee, so does my right hon. Friend agree that all striking doctors should consult their hospital’s ethics committee? Does he agree that the removal of emergency cover by any doctor for industrial reasons would be unlikely to meet with the approval of any medical ethic committee? Finally, does he agree that it is unacceptable for any doctor to act unethically, and that that would place him or her in serious jeopardy?
My right hon. Friend speaks wisely. A whole chorus of senior doctors, from Professor Sir Bruce Keogh to Dame Sally Davies to Lord Darzi, have urged doctors to think hard about the ethics involved. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that consulting the ethics committee in the trust is a wise thing to do. Doctors might also take note of what the General Medical Council said about it being increasingly difficult to justify the withdrawal of emergency care and about the ethics involved. In the end, this is a personal decision for doctors, and it is about whether it is right to withdraw emergency care from patients in an industrial dispute about pay. This is a bridge that the NHS has never crossed before. It is a very big decision, not only for the NHS, but for every single doctor inside it.
No, it has not. If it had, I do not think that we would be having a strike. I think we would have a negotiated settlement, and the NHS would be able to proceed with the contracts, which have important benefits for doctors, such as reducing the number of consecutive nights or consecutive long days that they can be asked to work. The refusal to negotiate on the crucial issue of Saturday pay, which is not a reduction in take-home pay because the reduction in Saturday premiums was made up for with an increase in basic pay, was what led Sir David Dalton to say that a negotiated settlement was not possible. It is a matter of huge regret, but I am afraid that it leaves the Government with no option but to proceed in the way that we are doing.
A senior executive at Babcock once said to me that there are employers who could pick a fight with themselves. During 30 years in the world of work, I cannot remember a legitimate sense of grievance so grotesquely mishandled. Does the Secretary of State not recognise that he is poisoning relationships with a generation of junior doctors? Will he not get back to the negotiating table and stay there until the dispute is resolved?
Without going over the previous points about the three years we have been around the negotiating table, I just say this to the hon. Gentleman: I think there are legitimate grievances for junior doctors, and they extend well beyond the contract. There are some big issues with the way training has changed over the years, and there are some serious issues we need to address about the quality of life for junior doctors—sometimes they have a partner working in a different city and they are unable to get training posts nearby to each other. We want to address those issues, which is why we set up a review, led by Professor Dame Sue Bailey, the president of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges. Who is refusing to talk to that review, and refusing to co-operate with it? It is the BMA. That is why it is so important that people get around the table and start to talk about how we resolve these problems, rather than remaining in entrenched positions.
Absolutely. One of the key changes in the new contract that we hope to see is much more predictability about weekend working, and a sense for junior doctors that when they do go into work at the weekends they will get the same support around them as they would during the week; it can be incredibly stressful when junior doctors are called into work at the moment. All these things are improvements, and what has made it very difficult is that these improvements have been misrepresented by the BMA to its own members, so that people have become very suspicious about these changes. That is why we tried so hard to get a negotiated outcome, and why we have been so disappointed that that has not been possible.
Can the Secretary of State confirm that the studies of mortality rates within 30 days of weekend admissions have in no case said that the rostering of junior doctors is a problem? Instead of talking about others negotiating, why does he not take responsibility and get around the negotiating table himself?
With respect, not very far away from the hon. Lady’s constituency is the Salford Royal, whose very respected chief executive concluded that a negotiated outcome was not possible. That is why I reluctantly took the decision to proceed with the new contracts. As for the studies on mortality rates, we have had eight studies in the past six years, six of which have said that staffing levels at weekends are one of the things that need to be investigated. The clinical standards say that we need senior decision makers to check people who are admitted at the weekends, and junior doctors, when they are experienced, count as senior decision makers, which is why they have a very important role to play in delivering seven-day care.
Does the Secretary of State accept that we need closure on the junior doctors’ strike, for patients and for doctors, to enable the NHS to concentrate on issues such as the projected £8 billion shortfall in the NHS; the GP out-of-hours services, which are under real pressure; the worst ever NHS performance in the first month of this year; and the long-term threat to the financial viability of our whole health and social care system?
We do face many challenges; the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we need to focus on those, and so the sooner we resolve this dispute with the BMA, the better. I simply say to him that if we were to carry on negotiations that were clearly not going anywhere at all, this dispute would go on for even longer. We have been trying to resolve these issues for a very, very long time, and in the end one has to decide if one is going to do what it takes to move forward.
Mr Speaker, if every one of the 650 MPs came to you and said that one of their constituents was dying unnecessarily every five weeks—that is the lower estimated number of excess deaths; it would be once every two weeks at the higher estimated number—I would hope that you would grant this kind of debate every day until we had a system that was safer for patients and junior doctors, and until we brought into the open the nameless characters behind the BMA negotiators. They refuse to come out into the open and argue their case on its merits, and to say why they will not discuss Saturday pay.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Part of the hallmark of this Government’s approach to the NHS has to be honesty about where we have too many avoidable deaths, and where there is the weekend effect for people admitted to hospital at the weekends. We have a big responsibility in that regard. The reason why we discharge that responsibility is that we believe in the NHS. We want the NHS to be the safest, highest-quality system in the world. Just as this Government have pioneered reforms that have dramatically improved the quality of state education, so too we need equal reforms in the NHS. That is why it is absolutely right to say that we have to focus on these things and debate them in this House. We should not automatically say that there is someone who must be blamed when we are dealing with these difficult situations. Unfortunately, one of the things that has led to feelings running high in this dispute has been the sense of blame being tossed around, when what the Government want to do is try to solve the problem.
May I tell the Secretary of State about my admission to hospital in the early hours of a Saturday morning? I spent five and a half weeks in intensive care. I had many conversations with doctors during the time I was in St Mary’s hospital, Paddington. I ask him to look at the circumstances of those doctors today, as they do work weekends. We do have a weekend NHS. It is not true to say that the lives of people like me who are admitted at the weekend are not saved, because it is the doctors who make it possible for us to survive. Will he stop talking down the medical profession and start defending the doctors?
With respect, that precisely encapsulates the problem. The hon. Gentleman has interpreted the fact that I want to do something about excess mortality rates, which mean that a person admitted at the weekend has an 11% to 15% higher chance of death than if they were admitted in the week—that is proven in a very comprehensive study—as an attack on the medical profession. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was actually the medical profession—the royal colleges and Professor Sir Bruce Keogh—that first pointed out this problem of the weekend effect. We are simply doing something about it.
The Health Secretary rightly mentioned the excellent Salford Royal, which the BMA has used to suggest that the new contract is not necessary, because of the progress that it has made on seven-day working and on Sir Bruce Keogh’s clinical standards. However, is it not the case that what might be right in a large hospital in a densely urban centre might not be applicable right across our national health service? Is that not why the very radical changes to working practices that he is rightly prosecuting are necessary?
Yes, there are some hospitals that have managed to eliminate the difference between weekend and weekday mortality under the current contracts, but there are only a few. Having talked more widely with the medical profession, it is clear that we need a sustained national effort—contract reform is part of that effort—if we are to promise uniformly across the NHS that we will provide every patient with the same high-quality care, every day of the week. Part of that is having a modern contract for junior doctors that deals with the anomalies that they themselves recognise in the current contract; that is why this is the moment for wider reforms.
This is clearly a fight that the Secretary of State went looking for because he expected to put himself on the side of the patients. The trouble is that it has not worked out like that, because the patients, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), use these services and know that junior doctors are in work at the weekend; it is some other procedures that are sometimes not available. Their feelings now will be fear and anxiety that they, their children or their elderly relatives will get sick, fall or need help on strike day. They will be seriously, seriously worried about that. Does the Secretary of State take any responsibility for the situation that he has caused?
On the contrary, I take full responsibility for delivering a safer NHS for patients. That is my job. If the hon. Lady wants to talk about patients, perhaps she might listen to the comments of one of the most famous patient safety campaigners in the country, James Titcombe, who tragically lost his son because of mistakes made at Morecambe Bay. He said that there has been
“much progress towards a safer NHS in recent years”,
but that there is
“much more to do to reverse the cover-up culture that flourished under Labour.”
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that on the last occasion that the BMA called on junior doctors to take strike action, that call was rejected by 47% of junior doctors? Now the BMA wants junior doctors to remove emergency cover. What does he think it will say about the BMA’s mandate for future action if fewer than half of junior doctors support its call for further strikes?
That is a very important point to make. On the BMA’s mandate for the current strike action, many hon. Members have said today that we should get round the negotiating table. They may not be aware that the BMA decided to ballot for strike action before even sitting down to talk to the Government about our plans. It decided to go straight to a ballot for industrial action on a false prospectus of the Government’s planned changes. That sowed many of the misunderstandings in the current dispute.
Like most hon. Members, I have had many doctors coming to my constituency surgery—not junior doctors, but registrars, on whom our hospitals rely. They have sometimes been in tears. They have asked me if the Secretary of State will define exactly what he means by a seven-day NHS, because clearly there is seven-day care. Is it just an ideological mantra?
I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman’s definition of “ideological” is. If “ideological” is giving safer care to patients, it is an ideology that we can all share, but I will tell him exactly the answer to his question, which he can relay to his constituents. What we want to do is reduce the difference between the mortality rates for people admitted in the week and at weekends. We have identified four key clinical standards that we believe are necessary to do that. It is by making sure that we can deliver those four clinical standards across the NHS that we will deliver this strategy.
Can my right hon. Friend imagine the distress and the anxiety felt by constituents who have come to see me over the past six years because they are concerned about the treatment of their relatives admitted at the weekend, when they see the BMA and the Labour party appearing to use them and other patients as hostages in a long-running dispute that must come to an end?
My hon. Friend is right. What patients want is a safe NHS where it does not matter on which day of the week they are admitted if something goes badly wrong. The big surprise here is that this is not something that the whole House can unite behind. It is something that people who believe in the NHS, as I think we all do, should strongly support. We are standing up for those patients, and I hope Labour, the party that founded the NHS, might do the same.
I, too, have been contacted by a number of junior doctors who are increasingly disillusioned by the way that the BMA is handling the dispute, and especially by the militant tendency, which has been hell-bent on strike action for many months. Will the Secretary of State meet other groups of junior doctors who want to resolve the dispute, recognise that a reformed contract is needed, and want to get back to looking after patients?
Of course I am delighted to engage with junior doctors, and I have been talking to a number of them over recent months. I agree with my hon. Friend. My observation from talking to junior doctors is that most of the time I am with them, they are not talking about things they do not like about the new contracts. They are concerned about things to do with their training and quality of life—things that I think we can sort out outside the current contractual negotiations. As my hon. Friend has correctly been passing on to them, there are many things in the new contract that will benefit junior doctors, and we should make sure that everyone knows about them.
How can the Secretary of State claim that he is motivated by a desire for a seven-day NHS when he and others in the coalition Government legislated to allow hospitals to make up to 49% of their money from private patients? If hospitals achieve that 49%, what impact will that have on mortality rates for NHS patients?
The difference between those of us on the Government side of the House and those on the Opposition side is that we do not have an ideological view about a trust wanting to offer some private treatment in order to benefit its NHS patients. That is what some trusts are doing, within very strict constraints. I think that most people know that all the scare stories that were put out about the Health and Social Care Bill in 2012 have not materialised. We are finding that trusts are being very sensible about making sure they get that balance right. Indeed, in certain circumstances it makes a big difference to improving NHS care.
The key thing is looking after patient safety, so will my right hon. Friend consider changing the law so that hospitals such as Derriford hospital can make use of dedicated military doctors to fulfil that service if it is needed?
My hon. Friend always makes important suggestions that can benefit his constituency, and rightly so. I do not think that there is a need to change the law for that to happen; if military help were needed, I think the military would stand ready to offer it. At the moment, we are making contingency plans by drawing on the consultant workforce, who are not involved in industrial action, and our hope is that A&E departments throughout the country will be covered by that extra support.
If the Health Secretary is unable to impose the original contract, how can people be expected to abide by a new contract that is not legally binding? Does he agree that maintaining a constant approach is absolutely vital, particularly in a fifth walkout, which could involve everyone? What actions is he taking to restore faith in the NHS among both the staff and the general public?
Just to be absolutely clear, the new contract is legally binding and it will apply to all junior doctors in the NHS. On restoring confidence, obviously morale is low at the height of an industrial relations dispute. I think the real way to restore confidence is to point out to the doctors who work incredibly hard inside the NHS that the Government are this year giving the NHS the sixth biggest funding increase in its history, that we are committed to making the NHS the safest and highest-quality system in the world, and that we believe that if that happens it will also be a better place for them to work. I believe that all those things will come together, but obviously there is a very difficult period that we have to get through first.
Against the background of Kettering general hospital being under huge pressure, there is a great deal of local sympathy for junior doctors, but increasingly people are bemused as to what the strike is about, given that the contract involves a reduction in hours from 91 to 72 and a 13.5% increase in basic pay. My constituents are opposed to strike action, and they are completely opposed to any strike action that involves the withdrawal of emergency cover.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am sure that that position is shared by many members of the public. I think people are very perplexed, because both sides in the January negotiations concluded that there was only one area of outstanding difference, which was Saturday pay. I adopted a compromise position on Saturday pay, which I thought was the fairest thing to do, but the BMA was not prepared to countenance any flexibility on that whatsoever. I therefore had to make the very difficult decision of whether we go forward, or whether we do not address the big issues that we need to address for a seven-day NHS. I share his concern about whether the strikes are really worth it, and I am concerned about the impact on the residents of Kettering.