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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
12 December 2016
Volume 618

House of Commons

Monday 12 December 2016

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

US Administration: NATO

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1. What discussions he has had with the incoming US Administration on their policy on article 5 of the NATO treaty. [907771]

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5. What discussions he has had with the incoming US Administration on their policy on article 5 of the NATO treaty. [907775]

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8. What discussions he has had with the incoming US Administration on their role in NATO. [907779]

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9. What discussions he has had with the incoming US Administration on their role in NATO. [907780]

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President-elect Trump has confirmed the importance of NATO during telephone calls with the Prime Minister and the NATO Secretary-General. I have written to General James Mattis to congratulate him on his nomination as Secretary of Defence, and I look forward to meeting him after his confirmation hearing.

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General James Mattis has warned against appeasing the Russian regime and has said it is President Putin’s intention to break NATO apart. Does the Secretary of State agree that President-elect Trump would do well to listen to his general and to recommit the US unequivocally not just to NATO but to article 5?

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General Mattis is not only experienced in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan but has served as a NATO commander. He is well aware of the importance of the alliance not only to our security but to the United States itself, and it is the unity of the alliance that sends the most powerful message to President Putin.

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At the recent Warsaw summit, NATO leaders made a commitment to step up collective action against Daesh. What assurances has the Secretary of State had from the incoming Administration that they remain committed to that and to the principle of collective defence in working with allies in the fight against Daesh?

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I shall be hosting the counter-Daesh coalition ministerial meeting in London on Thursday. I have seen nothing from the incoming Administration’s plans to indicate that they would take any different approach. The United States is leading the coalition work against Daesh. Considerable progress is being made in Iraq and starting to be made in Syria. NATO, too, now has a contribution to make to that.

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Given the precision airdrop capability of the US and NATO, what conversations has the Secretary of State had with the incoming US Administration and with other allies on the feasibility of using this specific capability to alleviate the suffering in Aleppo?

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We have continually examined options for getting aid into Aleppo, where people are now in the most appalling situation. It is almost impossible to get food or medicines in by airdrop, when the air defences are controlled by Russia and the Syrian regime and permissions are not forthcoming. We have looked at other options, such as using the airfield—but it is outside the control of the moderate opposition—and militarised convoys. We will continue to look at all kinds of options, but it is already very, very late for the people of eastern Aleppo.

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I call Sir George Howarth. Where is he? I call Mr Bob Stewart.

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When I was a young officer serving in the British Army of the Rhine and in West Berlin, I made the assumption that article 5 was a trigger: if anyone attacked a NATO nation, every member would automatically go to war. I am wondering whether that is exactly right now or whether we have just a commitment to consult, which would take much longer than an automatic reversion to war.

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Article 5 was last invoked after 9/11, when the rest of the alliance pledged to do everything possible to help the United States following the most appalling attack on the twin towers. The answer to my hon. Friend's question, of course, is that once article 5 is triggered, each member state has to examine its obligations to the alliance as a whole. Before that stage, as tensions escalate, I would expect the deployments that we have prepared, including the very high readiness taskforce, to be enacted.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that the new Administration will be much more interested in deeds than in words when it comes to NATO and article 5, and that Britain is setting an example for the rest of Europe not just on the 2% but with the troop deployments we plan for Poland and the Baltic states?

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I agree with my hon. Friend, and, indeed, we agree with President-elect Trump’s call for other European countries to do more. It is true that eight of the 28 members have now set in place firm plans to reach the 2% figure. We reach 2%, but some 19 members of NATO do not even do 1.5%, and four or five of them do not even do 1%. So European country members of NATO, in particular, still have a long way to go to fulfil the pledges on which we all agreed at the Wales summit.

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It was a pleasure to read recently of the work that HMS Torbay has been doing in helping to secure the maritime security of our allies. Does the Secretary of State agree, though, that it is vital that the incoming US Administration in January recognise that there is no such thing as a peripheral NATO state, because an attack on one is an attack on all?

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Absolutely; that is the principle of collective defence, and it is the best possible message to send on any further aggression from Russia—we have seen a huge increase in Russian submarine activity in recent years—or indeed on the threat from terrorism. We stand together.

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On Friday, the head of MI6, Alex Younger, warned about Russian meddling in UK domestic politics. Given the revelations from the CIA about the Kremlin’s involvement in influencing the outcome of the US election, what discussions has the Secretary of State had with our NATO allies—US and European—to tackle this type of hybrid warfare interfering in other countries’ democratic electoral processes?

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We are now seeing a rather disturbing pattern of allegations of direct Russian interference in areas as far apart as Bulgaria, the referendum in the Netherlands, and continuing pressure on the Baltic states. We agreed at Warsaw that the European Union and NATO would come together to co-operate on hybrid warfare, in particular, and to look at the various techniques that were necessary to help us all resist that kind of pressure.

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For many years in this Chamber, people have been asking why European countries that are members of NATO are not spending 2%, and we are always told that it will happen, but it just does not seem to happen. What pressure can we put on other members of NATO to fulfil their commitment?

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We agreed this commitment at the Wales summit back in the autumn of 2014. That, at least, has halted the decline in defence spending across the alliance. As I said, a number of member states—roughly half the alliance—are now committed to increasing their spending, and eight of the 28 are firmly planning to get up to 2%. The transparency involved in publishing the table every year in itself stiffens the arm of Defence Ministers when they are tackling their Finance Ministers. It is certainly encouraging to see the increase in defence spending by the countries that feel most vulnerable: the Baltic states, for example, with increases also in Bulgaria and Romania.

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May I press the Secretary of State on this issue? The question was about the discussions he has had with the President-elect, and his answer was that the President-elect “confirmed the importance of NATO”. What does that actually mean for article 5 and for the policies that President-elect Trump will pursue when he becomes President? NATO and the defenders of the west need to know the answers on that. What are the Government actually saying to President-elect Trump about what policies he should pursue, and what are the answers that the Secretary of State is getting? We need a bit more than “confirmed the importance of NATO”.

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That was a lot of questions to which I am sure a dextrous and pithy reply will trip forth from the tongue of the Secretary of State.

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As I indicated, there have been two phone calls with the Prime Minister. The incoming President has not yet taken office, and his nominees for the different offices have yet to be confirmed, but there is a clear understanding between us and the United States Administration of the importance of NATO not simply to us here but to the United States itself.

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My colleagues and I on Labour’s defence team recently returned from a briefing visit to NATO in Brussels and to SHAPE—Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe—in Mons, where we were told about plans to ensure the security of the Baltic states and, of course, about our armed forces’ leading role in helping to defend Estonia. May I press the Secretary of State further on what assessment he and his Department have made of the impact that President-elect Trump’s policies may have on the ability of NATO to implement article 5, should that ever be necessary?

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The United States itself will be leading one of the four forward battalions next year. It will be leading the battalion in Poland, and we will be adding a company of our own troops to that battalion. We, as the hon. Gentleman said, will be leading in Estonia, and Canada and Germany will be leading in the other two countries. We have absolutely no evidence at the moment that the United States is going to alter its position on that; on the contrary, I have been over the Atlantic twice in the past three weeks, and from my discussions with the US military and with Senators and Congressmen who take an interest in defence, I have every reason to believe that the United States will confirm its commitment to the alliance.

Armed Forces: Legal Claims

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2. What progress his Department has made on protecting the armed forces from persistent legal claims. [907772]

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We have made significant progress in recent months: we announced our intention to derogate from the relevant articles of the European convention on human rights in future conflicts where appropriate, and I have launched a consultation on enhanced compensation for soldiers injured or killed in combat, so that members of the armed forces and their families do not have to spend years waiting to pursue claims against the Ministry of Defence. We hope to announce further measures shortly.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. My constituent 87-year-old Arnold Hustwick, himself a former soldier, will also welcome that news, because he has expressed his outrage about some of these claims. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if it was not for the MOD submitting evidence of malpractice by Mr Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers, and the Ministry of Justice cancelling Mr Shiner’s legal aid contract, this man would still be hounding our soldiers?

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I was at the Ministry of Justice when we revoked the legal aid, and if it was not for this Secretary of State and my former colleague sending submissions to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, Mr Shiner would probably still be pursuing our soldiers and servicemen. Mr Shiner should probably do exactly what the Secretary of State called for him to do in December 2014 and apologise to our former servicemen.

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As someone who has served with distinction in Northern Ireland, the Minister of State must be disgusted by the industrial-scale abuse of the legal process against former soldiers, which has impugned the reputation of every single soldier who has served in Ulster over the last 40 years. Will he and his Department undertake to be a bulwark against that abuse and against that witch hunt, and will he stand up and make sure that it is stopped forthwith?

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I had the honour of serving in the Province and—I hope—I was part of the peace process. The vast majority of our servicemen and women served with distinction in Northern Ireland. The MOD and I will continue to support the police force in Northern Ireland with its ongoing inquiries. That is what was said on the radio at the weekend: these are not new investigations; they are ongoing investigations. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the work that he has done in the past, and I wish him a happy 50th birthday today.

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I had thought that the hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) was stirring in his seat. If he were standing, I would call him, but if he is not, I will not. He is not, so I will not.

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I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) for not standing.

In the last few years, some 3,500 soldiers have had their lives wrecked by the investigations of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team. That has been at a cost of some £90 million to Her Majesty’s Treasury, and I think one single prosecution has resulted from it. Surely, now that we have seen the back of Mr Shiner, it is time for the Government to bring to an end the dreadful IHAT organisation.

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The Secretary of State and I are doing everything we can to get IHAT to come to its conclusions and decide what it is going to do. The vast majority of those investigations will be concluded, and we hope and expect that in the vast majority of cases, IHAT will feel that there is no action to be taken. We must make sure that the investigations take place correctly so that they do not end up in some European court somewhere.

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It is not just a question of the IHAT inquiry and the disgraceful behaviour of the disreputable solicitor Phil Shiner; we are now faced with the prospect of hundreds of British soldiers who served in Northern Ireland again being brought before the court, as the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) has just said. It is wholly unacceptable that nearly half a century on, men who have served their country to the best of their ability should face possible prosecution. Does my right hon. Friend accept that it is not good enough to say that this is a matter for the Police Service of Northern Ireland? This is a matter of public policy, for which Ministers must personally be accountable.

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We must make sure that if the police decide—I repeat that this is for the police to decide—that they need to investigate something, they can do so. As we bring forward proposals, we will help the police, but we will also ensure that we protect as much as possible those who have served their country—alongside me and other colleagues—throughout the years.

Defence Suppliers: Innovation

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3. What steps he is taking to encourage innovation by defence suppliers. [907773]

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With a rising defence budget and an equipment plan worth £178 billion over the next 10 years, we are renewing our capabilities. We spend up to 20% of our science and technology budget on research, and we have launched an £800 million innovation fund.

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The Minister will be aware that the Ministry has a reputation among some suppliers of being somewhat challenging to work with. What is she doing to try to improve working relationships, particularly with small and medium-sized enterprises, including many of the defence industry suppliers in Worcestershire?

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My hon. Friend and constituency neighbour is absolutely right that it can be challenging to work with Ministry of Defence procurement processes. We are particularly keen to encourage small and medium-sized businesses to apply for business with us. We want to increase the level of our spending that we procure from small businesses from 19% to 25%. Acting on direct feedback from small businesses, we have introduced a network of supply chain advocates to help smaller businesses through the maze of defence procurement, and their contact details are available to my hon. Friend and other Members on request.

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The Minister has referred to renewing our capabilities. I have previously asked her about the programme to renew the Type 45 power and propulsion systems. I recognise that there are commercial sensitivities, but will she tell us whether there is a budget for the programme of improvements to the Type 45 power and propulsion systems, and when does she expect all six vessels to be improved?

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I am very pleased to be able to confirm to the hon. Gentleman that there is a budget, and that progress is being made. These incredibly capable ships are performing a wide range of tasks. For example, HMS Daring is now in the Gulf, acting as part of our deployment there.

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21. Small firms in my constituency, such as GSI ExoTec Precision, which specialises in producing beryllium-based products, have the technology and the ideas that could help us to maintain our defence advantage. Will the Minister confirm how such firms can access the £800 million innovation fund, and when might the first competition stage start? [907792]

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I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that I was able to launch the first competition on Thursday at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. In the first competition—for up to £3 million—we are looking for new ways of exploring data to inform decisions. It does not sound as though that is exactly the area of specialisation with which the business my hon. Friend mentioned is engaged, but there will of course be further competitions, and applications are also open for a wide range of different ideas to be fed in directly.

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No one would deny that it is vital to do everything we can to encourage innovation in the defence sector. Does the Minister agree with me that to foster an environment in which innovation can flourish, business and industry have to be able to trust what they are told by the Government? Given that, will she take this opportunity to explain to the shipbuilding industry exactly why she did not deliver on the copper-bottomed assurances, which she gave on at least four occasions, that the national shipbuilding strategy would be published before the autumn statement?

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Mr Speaker, did you pick up in that question any congratulations on or delight at the fact that I was at the shipyards on the Clyde on Thursday, cutting steel for two new offshore patrol vessels? I remain astonished at the very grudging way in which the Scottish National party fails to recognise the billions of pounds of work that is being sent to shipyards on the Clyde.

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For the record, I am absolutely delighted that the OPVs are being built on the Clyde. Will the Minister take this opportunity to apologise to workers and management across the UK shipbuilding industry for the misleading and contradictory statements that have come from the Ministry of Defence during the past few months? Will she also take this opportunity to explain why the shipbuilding strategy did not appear when she promised it would appear?

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It is lucky the hon. Gentleman gets a supplementary, so that he can say some vague, grudging words of welcome for the fact that we have just announced two decades’ worth of work on the Type 26 frigates in Scotland. He is complaining about the lack of publication of a report that has been published; the Government will provide their response next year. [Interruption.] Sir John Parker’s report on shipbuilding was published on 29 November. I am sorry the hon. Gentleman has not had a chance to read it, and will send him a personally signed copy.

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The hon. Gentleman is a very excitable burgher of this House. I am not sure that he has quite attained the apogee of statesmanship to which he should aspire. He must try to calm himself and take some sort of soothing medicament. That will probably do the trick. Let us hear from a calm person. I call Maria Miller.

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The Minister’s focus on innovation is absolutely right. Will she look at the excellent work of the National Aerospace Technology Exploitation Programme, which is already running more than 100 innovation projects, and establish how she can help to continue that work?

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Mr Speaker, you were absolutely right to call my right hon. Friend, who has asked such a calm and helpful question about the excellent work of that organisation. She also will be familiar with the work of the Defence Growth Partnership at Farnborough and the fantastic way in which it works to promote the excellence of the UK aerospace industry to people all around the world.

RAF Operations: Iraq and Syria

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4. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the RAF’s military operations in Iraq and Syria. [907774]

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The Royal Air Force has made a vital contribution to the counter-Daesh coalition, carrying out 1,092 strikes in Iraq and 75 in Syria, and providing essential intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. In Iraq, the RAF has helped Iraqi security forces reclaim significant territory, including supporting operations to liberate Mosul. In Syria, the RAF has already attacked Daesh’s capital in Raqqa while supporting opposition groups pushing back Daesh on the ground.

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The RAF is making real progress in tackling Daesh in Iraq and Syria, and our thoughts at this time of year must be with our brave servicemen and women. Once Mosul has been liberated by the Iraqi Government what role does the Secretary of State anticipate for the RAF in Iraq?

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We shall be reviewing progress in Iraq and Syria with the military commanders at the counter-Daesh coalition meeting in London on Thursday, and will map out a road to longer-term peace in Iraq, including potential future deployments in different parts of Iraq that may help to continue the training we have been offering Iraqi forces, and further work on counter-terrorism. We will also discuss the need to control the spread of the return of foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria to the different countries that they came from.

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At a time when our RAF is at full stretch on operations, the Secretary of State will be as concerned as I was to hear the announcement that RAF Halton is to close, not because the long-term defence estate consolidation is not the right direction of travel, but because the closure seems to have been sprung on the civilian and military personnel in order to meet the local council land bank deadline. Will he reassure personnel about timescale and staff support so that the decision does not create a serious retention risk?

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Notably in relation to operations in Iraq and Syria, to which I am sure the hon. Lady intended to allude but did not quite get round to doing so.

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Decisions on closing some of the bases and airfields that we no longer need have been taken on the basis of military capability and on the advice of service chiefs. I am sure that the whole House will join my hon. Friend, and indeed the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), in paying tribute to the work of the RAF—both the sustained tempo of its operations, which is probably at its highest for more than 25 years, and the enormous job it is doing to keep our country safe.

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May I press the Defence Secretary on the level of defeatism in his statement that it is nearly impossible to envisage successful airdrops if Russia does not allow them? For all its belligerence, Russia does not want to trigger a conflict with the UK and our NATO allies. The longer that that cowardice, in essence, goes on in the face of Russia’s posturing, the more Russia will push and the harder it will be for any resolution to come to the dreadful tragedy happening in Syria.

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We continue to consider all possibilities for getting either food or medicine into Aleppo, or indeed some of the other besieged areas, but it is not simply a question of Russian permission; we would also have to make sure that any drops were feasible, considering the vulnerability of aircraft to ground-to-air defence systems.

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The Secretary of State said that it was very late for the people of eastern Aleppo, but it is not too late, and I would second the calls for airdrops. RAF planes could be flying over and providing humanitarian airdrops. Some 200 Members on both sides of the House, including Front-Benchers and Back-Benchers in the Labour party, have signed a letter calling for airdrops. Leading humanitarian organisations have done likewise. Will he look at it again?

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We continue to look, almost daily, at the various ways we might get food aid in, but it is not possible, in a contested airspace, with ground-to-air missile systems and Russian aircraft flying overhead, denying permission, to fly coalition aircraft over Aleppo. Without that security, we cannot drop food where it is most needed, but we continue to look at all the options.

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I thank the Secretary of State for his answer on Aleppo to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), and I recognise the RAF capabilities that he mentioned, but I share the concerns raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) and for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) that we really need to look at this again. Will the Secretary of State continue to look—and not at any stage give up looking—for a way to alleviate the terrible suffering in east Aleppo?

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I can give the hon. Lady that assurance. We continue to look at these options and to talk to non-governmental organisations willing to help us provide food and medicine. Some food and medicine is getting into other cities in Syria, but it is not getting into Aleppo itself, simply because of the impossibility of flying aircraft in the airspace over Aleppo and the very real risk of aircraft being shot down.

Apprenticeships

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6. What support the armed forces provide to apprenticeships. [907777]

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The armed forces are Britain’s biggest provider of apprenticeships. We have around 20,000 apprentices on programmes at any one time, ranging from engineering and IT to construction and driving. Defence has pledged to start 50,000 apprenticeships during this Parliament and will seize the new Treasury co-investment opportunity to work with the Department for Education, expanding and improving the current range of apprenticeships we offer.

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That is indeed impressive. I was expecting a good reply but not to find out that the armed forces were the largest provider in the country. What assurance can the Minister give those residents of mine who might want to take up an apprenticeship with the Ministry of Defence that they offer quality as well as quantity?

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My hon. Friend is right to focus on quality, and I am delighted to say that following the last Ofsted inspections both the Army and the naval service were graded as “good”, with some individual programmes being graded as “outstanding”, while the RAF’s programme was graded as “outstanding”.

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The Minister mentioned the Department for Education, and the Government website refers to England, so will he assure me that apprenticeships are available throughout the UK for people in the devolved regions where apprenticeships are a devolved matter to the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly or the Welsh Assembly?

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Of course, we are always happy to work with devolved Assemblies, and I can absolutely reassure the right hon. Gentleman that apprenticeships are available to all our armed forces personnel.

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I thank the Secretary of State for coming to my constituency on Friday to open the Type 26 facility at David Brown Santasalo, the gear manufacturer, where he met and spoke to some of its many young apprentices. Will he and his Ministers continue to make sure that quality apprenticeships are a key part of the defence supply chain?

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My hon. Friend makes a good point. Indeed, I understand that the visit was a great success. Absolutely, as we look to the future, this is not just about apprenticeships in the armed forces, but about the transition for service personnel when they leave. We have a duty to prepare them for work potentially in the supply chain after their service. After all, this is a partnership with industry.

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This time last week, the SNP’s defence team visited BAE Systems on the Clyde and talked to apprentices about their future. What reassurances can the Government give to these skilled young men and women who are waiting to hear if the promised Type 31s will be built entirely on the Clyde?

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It is worth remembering that the apprentice who will work on the last Type 26 is yet to be born, but we continue to work closely with industry. As the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), said just a few moments ago, the investment made in Scotland for many years to come should be celebrated.

Battle Tanks

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7. For what reasons his Department plans to reduce the Army’s number of main battle tanks. [907778]

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The strategic defence and security review 2015 committed us to a more adaptive force to meet the range of future threats. This means having the best mix of Challenger 2 tanks and the new Ajax multi-purpose armoured vehicles to deliver the Army’s contribution to future threats. We are planning to spend £700 million to extend the Challenger 2 capability out to 2035.

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I thank the Minister for that answer. While we should warmly welcome the very large order for Ajax fighting vehicles, does he accept that these will be no match for the armour and the armament of enemy main battle tanks? Will he therefore confirm how many of our existing 227 tanks will go forward to the Challenger 2 life extension programme, bearing in mind the need to have capacity for regeneration in the event of a crisis?

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My right hon. Friend is the Chair of the Defence Committee and has taken a keen interest in defence matters for so many years. He knows very well that it is for the military to decide exactly what the capabilities are, but having £700 million available for Challenger 2 going forward to 2035 shows a clear commitment to Challenger.

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While I support having a diversity of vehicles available, there are reports that the Army is planning to reduce its number of tanks by a third. At a time when Russia has announced a new generation of vehicles, ours will reduce from 227 to 170. Does the Minister agree that now is not the right time for this sort of announcement to be made, because it sends out completely the wrong message about our defence?

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We should not believe everything we read in the press—as a former journalist, I might have written it in the past. We need to trust the armed forces to tell us exactly what they want. The Russian Armata tank, which I think is what the hon. Gentleman is alluding to, is an unmanned vehicle. We are making sure that innovation and adaptation is there. I would have thought that we would hear more cheers from Labour Members, particularly those in Wales, about the fact that the Ajax vehicle is going to be built in Wales.

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The Minister mentions the Ajax vehicle. When David Cameron was Prime Minister, he announced that the new Ajax fighting vehicle would be a “boost for British manufacturing”. While I welcome the fact that many of the vehicles will be assembled in Merthyr Tydfil, they are being built using Swedish steel and will have their hulls built in Spain—and some are to be completely built in Spain. Does the Minister accept that Mr David Cameron was somewhat inaccurate in his statement?

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No, I do not think so. The issue is about jobs in Wales, which are coming to Merthyr Tydfil, and making sure that the Army has the vehicle it wants. That is what this Government are going to guarantee. Unless the Labour party commits to spending 2% of GDP on defence, they are never going to reach this sort of expenditure.

NATO

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10. What steps he is taking to strengthen the UK’s commitment to NATO. [907781]

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Next year, we are sending nearly 800 troops to Estonia and 150 personnel of the Light Dragoons to Poland. We are leading the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, and undertaking air policing, based in Romania, with the four Typhoons we are committing to NATO.

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I welcome the Government’s commitment, particularly to the Polish Prime Minister last month, of additional UK troops and armoured vehicles in the face of concerns about the Russian threat. Does the Minister agree that we should stand shoulder to shoulder with our Polish friends, and that this shows how Britain can be an even stronger European ally—irrespective of Brexit?

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On behalf of the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, I had extensive talks with the Polish Defence Minister and his colleagues, who were thrilled that we were committed to being with them, which is what came out from the statement afterwards. The Light Dragoons, which will have their Jackals in Poland, are really looking forward to going there as well.

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On the day we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the end of the USSR, can we do more to educate our people about the importance of defending the security of the states—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—that regained their independence and were able to make a free, democratic decision to associate with NATO, and to end the nonsense we hear in some quarters, perhaps on both sides of the Atlantic, that NATO is not a voluntary alliance?

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Order. I am sure the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) is as interested in hearing other contributions on his question as he was in hearing his own views. It is customary for colleagues to remain until the end of the exchanges on their own question, which does not seem unreasonable.

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The whole success of NATO lies in the fact that countries join freely. The hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) is right that the countries he mentioned—Latvia, Estonia and so on—are particularly worried about their protection. It is not like the British Army of the Rhine, which I had the honour and privilege to serve with and which sat there, static, for long periods; what we and our allies in NATO are sending is a significant force to make sure the Russians know that we are serious.

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Part of the strength of any alliance is sometimes being a critical friend of other members of that alliance. Will the Minister, on behalf of the Secretary of State, assure me that the next time they speak to the future leader of the free world, they might request that he starts reading his CIA briefings daily and so does us all a favour?

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I am sure that the future President of the United States will read the CIA briefings when he becomes the President of the United States. I am sure the hon. Gentleman saw this morning’s press coverage showing that the future President of the United States does not believe everything that he is told by the press.

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The additional support to NATO is welcome, but for our land forces that requires high-end armoured formations. Will the MOD be making new money available to properly regrow and train with that capability?

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The armed forces, particularly the Army, have the money they require. Only recently, I visited the Light Dragoons and the Rifles, which will be deploying to Poland. The equipment they have is second to none, but we will keep their equipment under review, to make sure it is fit for purpose, particularly in view of the inclement weather in Poland.

Royal Navy

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11. What steps he is taking to increase the size and power of the Royal Navy. [907782]

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What a busy time for me, Mr Speaker. I am proud to say that, for the first time in a generation, the Royal Navy is growing. This Government are committed to increasing our maritime power to project our influence across the world and to promote our prosperity. That can clearly be seen in the personnel numbers we are aiming to reach—30,600—as well as the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, 19 frigates and destroyers, and further offshore patrol vessels, new tankers and support ships by 2030.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that to fulfil the Government’s commitment to increase the size of the fleet specifically in relation to frigates and destroyers, we have to replace the Type 23 at a rate of one a year? Will he commit to that?

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What we will commit to is the new frigates that will replace the Type 23s. Having been on a Type 23 only in the past couple of weeks, when we were shadowing the Russian aircraft carrier in the English channel, I know we must not underestimate the capabilities of the Type 23s, not least because many other countries are looking to purchase them when we can sell them off. At the end of the day, the Type 23s are doing a fantastic job, and we will make sure that the new frigates do just as well.

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24. Will the new Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships be built in the UK? If so, will the right hon. Gentleman give a further commitment to buying British in defence procurement, and guarantee the use of British steel to build those ships? [907795]

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Importantly, last week’s report stated that what we needed to achieve was the best value for the Navy. We must make sure that shipyards bid for the work—previously, they have not done so. Let us see what bids come forward and who wins.

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When does my right hon. Friend expect to be able to announce the basing and maintenance options for the Type 26 and Type 23 frigates? Will he confirm that Portsmouth is being considered for at least some of those welcome new ships?

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Of course we recognise that bids are coming in. As soon as the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), who is responsible for defence procurement, has the ability to make that announcement, I am sure she will do so. We are looking forward to the new frigates, not least because, as I said earlier, we can sell off the Type 23s to countries that particularly want them.

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Today I received my first Christmas present: a Royal Navy calendar. [Interruption.] A calendar showing platforms, obviously. January features HMS Ocean. Can the Minister inform us how its decommissioning in the next 18 months, after years of impressive service, adds to the strength and power of our Royal Navy?

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While procurement does not fall within my bailiwick, I am reliably informed that HMS Ocean was always due to go out of service in 2018, and at the same time the new Elizabeth class carriers will come into force. She has done fantastic work, and we must praise the work the ship and, most importantly, her crew have done over the years, but her time is coming towards its end and she will go in 2018.

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Well, I have to say that the answer from the Minister for defence procurement, the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) on the publication of the national shipbuilding strategy is simply not good enough—not good enough for our Royal Navy, not good enough for workers in our shipbuilding industries, and not good enough for our international allies. The fact is that on 29 November the Government only published Sir John Parker’s independent review to inform the strategy, when just last year the Government promised to

“publish a new national shipbuilding strategy in 2016”.

With just six parliamentary days left until the end of the year, will the Minister tell us exactly when we are going to see that strategy?

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We will see it in spring 2017, but I do find it slightly difficult to be lectured on defence procurement by a party that will not even commit itself to 2% of GDP. The key to this is making sure that we get the ships built in the shipyards, that we get the apprentices we need, and that the whole community benefits from it.

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I do not know where the Minister gets his information from; I do not know whether he reads Westminster Hall debates, and I do not know if he has been listening to what we have been saying very clearly from this Dispatch Box, but we are fully committed to a 2% spend of GDP to meet our NATO commitments and to spend it on defence, as is required.

May we now turn to a more specific issue to do with the naval fleet, and in particular the Type 26 frigates, which have faced very long delays with all the attendant risks to our naval capabilities? The Defence Committee recently said that the national shipbuilding strategy

“must include strict timelines for the delivery of the new Type 26 class of frigates and an indicative timeframe for the General Purpose Frigate.”

Will the Minister confirm that when we see this in the spring, it really will include those details?

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I did a little bit of research and it appears that the Labour Government started looking at Type 26s in 1997; they had 13 further years in government, yet it will be us who will be cutting steel, in spring next year.

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I think we will hear the voice of Gainsborough on this matter.

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15. With increasing demands for frigates worldwide, does my right hon. Friend agree with Sir John Parker that we should focus on building ships that other countries actually want to buy, something the Royal Navy has signally failed to do in the past? [907786]

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My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head: the Type 26 is not just for our Navy, but is for our allies around the world as well. It will be exactly the type of ship that will replace the 26 around the world if we get the build right and actually get it out there, which is something the previous Administration forgot to do.

Daesh

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12. What recent assessment he has made of progress in the military campaign against Daesh. [907783]

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In Iraq, operations to liberate Mosul are progressing, with Iraqi security forces reclaiming increasing areas of eastern Mosul. Many of those involved in the operation are among more than 31,000 Iraqi troops trained by the UK in counter-IED, engineering and medical skills. In Syria, coalition support has helped push Daesh back from the Turkish border and is now taking the fight to Daesh’s heartland, with the move on Raqqa.

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When my right hon. Friend meets many of his counterparts later this week, will he confirm that he will focus the discussion on how the threat of Daesh can be defeated, particularly in Iraq?

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Yes, we will be reviewing the military progress being made, which is substantial in Iraq: Daesh has less than 10% of Iraq now. We will also be mapping out the long-term plan to bring peace and stability, in particular to western Iraq. We will be working, too, as a coalition to monitor the dispersal of Daesh fighters from Iraq who may be moving to other theatres.

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Does Daesh’s move into Palmyra this week not show that there is a lack of a coherent strategy? In our debate on airstrikes 12 months ago, Members argued that more boots on the ground were required. Should not the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister argue strongly for that in the United Nations? Otherwise, the slaughter of countless innocent individuals, which we have seen in the last 12 months, will just go on and on.

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Well, there is no support at the United Nations for the deployment of UN troops in Syria, and there may not be support in this House for the deployment of British troops on the ground in combat in Syria. Our role has been to provide the intelligence gathering from the air and the airstrikes on the ground. I can tell the House that the second front has begun to be opened up now, with a move by the Syrian Democratic Forces towards Raqqa, which is in effect the capital of the caliphate. That began at the end of last week.

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How many fighters originating from the UK have been killed in the various regions? How many remain and how many have returned to the UK?

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If I may, I will write to my right hon. Friend with the exact numbers involved, but we believe that several hundred British fighters remain in either Iraq or Syria. Altogether there are many thousand foreign fighters from western Europe and further afield. One of the issues we will consider this week is how we properly monitor their dispersal either to other theatres or back to our respective countries, and how those who have fought for a proscribed organisation such as Daesh can be properly brought to justice.

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There is no need to write.

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That is very generous-spirited of the right hon. Gentleman.

Armed Forces: Equipment

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14. What plans he has to invest in equipment for the armed forces until 2020. [907785]

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The Government are committed to increasing the defence budget by 0.5% a year in real terms, as well as increasing our equipment budget by 1% above inflation each year until 2020. Put simply, that means more ships, more planes and an increase in cutting-edge equipment for our Special Forces.

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One of the great merits of having the Clerk in front of me is that I am on the receiving end of his specialist advice. May I say, for the benefit both of the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne), who takes an interest in these matters, I know, and of the House, that the letter to which reference was made is strictly speaking a letter to the House and for its benefit? Notwithstanding the motivation of the right hon. Gentleman in saying, “You need not write,” may I with the greatest respect say to the right hon. Gentleman, a distinguished former Minister, that that is not for him to judge—the letter is for the House’s benefit. He may be disinterested in it, but others may be interested. We will leave it there.

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How will we get to see it?

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The hon. Gentleman chunters from a sedentary position, “How will we see it?” Toddle along to the Library and you will find it, man.

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Will my hon. Friend the Minister reassure me that we will continue to provide our armed forces with the best possible equipment and that, where appropriate and where that standard is met, that will be equipment developed and manufactured in the UK?

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My hon. Friend is right that we need to focus on the best equipment and getting the right capability for our armed forces. We will also always seek the best value for money for the taxpayer, but we will seek to get that UK content as strong as possible. The F-35 is an example. Fifteen per cent. of each of the 3,000 planes in the global programme are made at Warton in the north-west, and the UK has been selected as the global hub for a large number of elements for the maintenance, repair, overhaul and upgrade of those fantastic aircraft. [Official Report, 14 December 2016, Vol. 618, c. 5-6MC.]

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [907796]

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Our priorities remain success in our operations against Daesh and implementing our strategic defence and security review. As I have told the House, on Thursday I will chair the next meeting of Defence Ministers from across the coalition against Daesh, reviewing progress in Iraq and now in Syria and mapping out longer-term plans for peace and stability in the region.

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On Saturday, I visited my constituent, 27-year-old father of two Shahbaz Saleem, a brave RAF serviceman who has dedicated the past 10 years of his life to the RAF, but tragically is now in Pendleside hospice with terminal bowel cancer. Despite that devastating diagnosis, he has taken on another challenge: he has raised over £15,000 so far for the hospice. Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to Shahbaz for his service in the RAF and for raising so much money for that very worthwhile cause?

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I am very happy to pay that tribute. Senior Aircraftman Saleem is an airman of the highest calibre who has supported our operations in Afghanistan and, indeed, in Libya. His wife and young daughter should be in no doubt about the highest regard in which the Royal Air Force holds him. We are all impressed and inspired by the courage that he has shown from his sickbed in raising so much money for Pendleside hospice.

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Following the Government’s announcement of base closures, what guarantees has the Ministry of Defence given to civilian staff regarding their future employment?

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As the hon. Gentleman knows and, I think, supported at the time, we have had to reduce the number of bases to ensure that our servicemen and women are in better accommodation in fewer remote areas, and in places where their spouses and partners have more chance of getting into employment. Obviously, civilian jobs may be affected. We have plenty of time. We have set out the generous timescales for discussion. The moves are not immediate and we will certainly do everything we can to ensure that those civilians are properly looked after.

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T4. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to increase Britain’s defence representation around the world, to promote our security and prosperity? [907799]

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This year we have established regional defence staffs in the Gulf, based in Dubai; in Asia-Pacific, based in Singapore; and in Africa, based in Abuja. That fulfils the defence engagement commitment that we made in the strategic defence review last year. The new regional defence staffs will work with our international partners to protect and advance our interests by reinforcing bilateral and multilateral defence relationships.

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T2. I welcome the role that UK forces will play in Estonia as part of NATO’s forward presence. It is vital that we provide reassurance in facing the threat from Russia. What further steps will we take to bolster security in the Baltic states and in Poland? [907797]

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Our allies in NATO look very carefully at what we can do and where we can do it. Other nations are also joining in. The French are coming with us into Estonia, with 200 troops in the first six-month tranche. As I said in response to an earlier question, as a coalition we will look carefully at what capabilities we need and where we need them, and we will step up to the mark as we always do.

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T5. Is my right hon. Friend able to offer any hope that 2017 will be a better year for soldiers who either have been or are being investigated for decisions taken in the heat of battle, particularly Royal Marine Sergeant Blackman, who faces another Christmas in jail? [907800]

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The Ministry of Defence has co-operated with the legal process and will continue to do so. Now that that case has moved to the court martial appeal court, it would be inappropriate to comment.

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T3. What assessment have the Government made of the threat of the use of tactical nuclear weapons by Russia, and what action is Britain taking with NATO allies to resist it? [907798]

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Russia has chosen to deploy Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad area that it controls. Part of the purpose of our deployment next year of troops to Estonia and Poland, and of RAF Typhoons down to Romania, is to reassure our allies that we all in NATO absolutely stand by the right to collective defence. We will continue not only to reassure, but to make it very clear to Russia that we will come to the aid of any member state that is attacked.

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T8. As we approach Christmas, a time that many members of our armed forces will spend away from their families, will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking them and their families for all that they do to protect us in this country and for the sacrifices they all make? [907804]

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As the Minister for the Armed Forces, or for ops, it is very appropriate for me to ask the House to join me in wishing everyone in our armed forces, and their families and loved ones, a very merry Christmas. We all hope that they will come home safe.

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T7. Does the Minister support Sir John Parker’s recommendation that the construction of the Type 31 frigate be opened up to a much wider range of defence contractors, rather than just BAE Systems, and that in doing so we can end the defence cartel and embrace more competition? [907802]

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for having read that excellent report, for which we thank Sir John Parker. The Government will respond to his 34 recommendations in spring 2017.

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T9. At RAF Odiham in my constituency, 97% of the outdated junior-rank accommodation either has the worst grading or has been condemned. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss meeting the approved requirement that has already been determined? [907805]

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I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend, but I am pleased to report that a funded programme to rebuild or repair the five worst accommodation blocks will start next year for completion by 2022.

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We have already heard how Russian military activity in support of the Assad regime prevents aid from getting into Aleppo, but it also prevents people and medics who want to leave from getting out safely. What discussions are we having with our allies to ensure safe passage in this intolerable situation?

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It is an intolerable situation: hospitals are being bombed and humanitarian aid convoys are being attacked. It is clear that Russia and the Syrian regime are not prepared to allow the aid that should get in to get in. There were discussions at the meeting of Foreign Ministers in Paris on Saturday, and there will be further discussions in the days ahead, but until Russia lifts its bar on getting aid into parts of eastern Aleppo, my fear is that a large number of people are going to die.

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Will the Secretary of State join me—I am sorry; I have lost my voice, which will please many people in this House. Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning those who have condemned in turn our deployment of troops in Estonia as provocative? Does he agree that the Baltic states themselves have welcomed it in the face of Russian aggression?

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A very good croak indeed in the circumstances.

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My hon. Friend will have noted the leader of the Labour party’s call for a demilitarised zone between NATO and Russia. It will be interesting to hear at some point whether the rest of the Labour party agrees with that, because President Putin certainly would.

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The unit cost of the five P-8 Poseidon aircraft that Norway is buying is $300 million, including the data uplink. After the Brexit devaluation, the unit cost of the nine P-8s that the UK is buying is nearer to $400 million dollars. Does the Minister call that value for money?

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I am not quite sure of the hon. Gentleman’s exact point, because if it were up to him and his party, we would not be buying P-8s or basing them in Scotland.

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Will my hon. Friend support me in obtaining Department for Communities and Local Government sponsorship for the lion’s share of funding to bring forward the iAero innovation hub in Yeovil? Rapid innovation in unmanned aerial vehicles could help the MOD to deliver aid and support our military.

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I thank my hon. Friend for his tireless campaigning on behalf of the excellent work done in his constituency on interesting, innovative projects, such as the unmanned helicopter system. We have committed to spend some £3 billion with Leonardo over the next 10 years as part of our long-term partnering arrangement.

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The Israeli and US navies have recently been attacked with anti-ship missiles by Hezbollah and the Houthis. Is it not time to look again at the River-class offshore patrol vehicles and the Type 31 frigate to ensure that they have ASAM capability?

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It is important that the Royal Navy continually assesses the capabilities with which ships are fitted. I cannot go into some sensitive details at the Dispatch Box owing to operational requirements.

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The UK’s frigates and destroyers are currently protected with Harpoon missiles with a range of 80 miles. Those missiles will be coming out of service in 2018, leaving our frigates and destroyers defended by Mark 8 guns with a range of 17 miles and, from 2020, Sea Venom missiles with a range of just 11 miles. Will the Minister reconsider extending the service life of the Harpoon missiles to ensure that our ships are properly defended?

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The Royal Navy is, of course, continuously assessing the capabilities it requires, and work is ongoing across the Department to consider the options for the Harpoon replacement.

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Thanks to the Cluster Munitions (Prohibitions) Act 2010, brought in by the Labour Government, we do not use or sell cluster munitions any more, but the Government are also required under the Act to persuade their allies not to use cluster munitions either. What are the Government doing to try to stop the Saudis from using cluster munitions in Yemen?

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In line with our obligations under the cluster munitions convention, we continue actively to discourage all states that are not party to the convention from using cluster munitions and we encourage them to accede to it without delay. We have raised the issue of ratification of the convention at ministerial level with Saudi Arabia.

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I was disappointed to learn of staff reductions at BAE Systems, including at the site in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend outline what support his Department can offer to our local suppliers to ensure that the skills behind the innovation are secured in my constituency?

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I share my hon. Friend’s disappointment at the news that BAE Systems is reducing employment at the Rochester site—after all, we are spending quite a lot of money with BAE at the moment. But I am sure that the people she mentions have exemplary skills, and I can say on behalf of the Government that we will do everything we can to make sure that those valuable skills are redeployed in other areas of this avionics speciality.

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Further to the hon. Lady’s answer to me earlier, I am glad that she gave confirmation about the budget, but can she tell us when the last of the six Type 45 destroyers will have the new power and propulsion system fitted?

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I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an exact timetable, because that has not been finalised, but I can tell him that the budget is in place, the contract will be competed for in the normal way, and that ongoing improvements are being made—as they have been made—all the time to that power and propulsion system.

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Ah yes, the good doctor—the Chair of the Select Committee no less: Dr Julian Lewis.

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Do Ministers accept that the Type 31 general purpose frigates are the only chance we will have for a generation to raise the number of escorts from the pathetic total of 19 back to the sort of figures we used to have when we really had an ocean-going Navy with enough escorts to protect it? Will the Minister therefore ensure that the design of these frigates is chosen to be of the most economical nature? All the bells and whistles can be added later but the maximum number of hulls must be commissioned.

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I say to the Chairman of the Committee that we have some 29 ships serving on the seven seas around the world at the moment, and I am sure that that has his support. He makes a very good point about the exportability of the Type 31 frigate, and our ambition to raise the number of frigates and destroyers above the current 19.

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(West Dunbartonshire) (SNP): On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

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Exceptionally, as I understand that it flows in some way legitimately from the exchanges that have already taken place, I will hear the point of order now. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not abuse his privilege.

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I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker. During Defence questions, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), advised that the shipbuilding strategy had been published and said she would send a signed copy to my delighted friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara). Yet, when cross-examined by the shadow Defence Secretary, the Minister for the Armed Forces stated that publication would take place in spring 2017. Will the Secretary of State now answer the question: which one is it?

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rose—

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No response from the Secretary of State is required. The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) had, a moment ago, a beaming countenance, as he obviously felt he had unearthed a crucial nugget. If he is satisfied with his prodigious efforts, I am glad to bring a little happiness into his life. We will leave it there for now.

New Member

The following Member took and subscribed the Oath required by law:

Dr Caroline Elizabeth Johnson, for Sleaford and North Hykeham.

Social Care Funding

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will make a statement on the crisis in funding in social care, and the effect it is having on the NHS and on the care of vulnerable older people.

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I thank the hon. Lady for raising today’s question. All Members of this House will agree that there are few areas of domestic policy that touch on so many lives and that are so important to so many of our constituents.

I wish to start by acknowledging the work of more than 1.4 million professional carers, the vast majority of whom provide excellent, compassionate care. I also wish to acknowledge the 6 million informal carers who also do so much.

Spending on long-term care in our country is more than the OECD average—in particular, it is more than comparable economies such as France and Germany. Nevertheless, I accept that our system is under strain, and that pressure has been building for some years now.

The Government response has been to ensure that councils have access to funding to increase social care spend by the end of this Parliament. We estimate that the increase could be around 5% in real terms. Additional funding comes from the better care fund, the additional better care fund and changes to the precept.

Another response has been to put into place and enforce a robust regulatory system. Between 2014 and early next year, all homes and domiciliary providers will have been re-inspected. Seventy-two per cent are classified by the Care Quality Commission as good or outstanding. Where homes are inadequate, powers now exist to ensure improvement or force closure. Those powers are being used.

Another Government response has been to work with local authorities to ensure that a continuing market exists. In the past six years, the total number of beds has remained constant, and there are 40% more domiciliary care agencies now than in 2010. Finally, the Government have responded by driving further and faster the integration of the care and health systems. We have seen that those councils that do that best demonstrate far fewer delayed transfers than those who adopt best practice more slowly.

Any system would benefit from higher budgets, and social care is no exception—but quality matters too. Today is not a budget statement or a local government settlement. I wish to end by commending again the many hundreds of thousands of carers who work hard to make the current system work for so many.

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That was a disappointment. Before the autumn statement, we debated the funding crisis in social care—it is not a strain but a crisis—and the serious concerns expressed by local government health and clinical leaders. We on the Labour Benches called on the Government urgently to bring forward promised funding to address that crisis. The Chancellor did not listen and did not bring forward any funding for social care—he did not even mention it. Will the Minister tell us in his response why Health Ministers do not stand up for vulnerable and older people in this country and fight harder to get extra vital funding for social care?

Over 1 million older people in this country have unmet care needs, 400,000 fewer people have publicly funded care than did so in 2010 and, as he recognises, a heavier burden now falls on unpaid family carers. The crisis in social care has been made by this Government as a result of £5 billion being cut from adult social care budgets. Can the Minister confirm what is reported by The Times—that the Government intend to dump this funding crisis on local councils and council tax payers by increasing the social care precept?

The King’s Fund has called that proposal “deeply flawed” because local councils in the least deprived areas would be able to raise more than twice as much as those in the most deprived areas. This year that means that the precept raises £15 per head of the adult population in Richmond, but only £5 per head in Newham and Manchester. That would widen inequality of access to social care across the country. Is it the care Minister’s intention to support a solution that widens inequality of access and denies social care to hundreds and thousands of vulnerable older people?

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The hon. Lady fought the last election on a manifesto that said not one penny more for local government spending. She is against the change to the precept that we brought in in the spending review. She talked this morning about being against taxpayers and council tax payers having to meet the cost of increased social care. That raises the question who she thinks should be paying for it. Is it borrowing, or is it the magic money tree? She said that the precept increases inequalities because some councils are able to raise more than others from it. That would be true, if it were not for the fact that the additional better care fund is distributed in a way that balances that. That is precisely what we do.

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Order. I should advise the House that there are three urgent questions to be taken today and I want all to be properly contributed to, but it is important that we also provide time for subsequent business, so I am looking at finishing the UQs by 5.30 or thereabouts. Perhaps colleagues could tailor their contributions accordingly. We will be led in this matter by Mr Andrew Selous.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. I hope that in looking at co-ordinated policy across Government, the Minister will look not only at good join-up between the Department of Health and local government, but at other policies, such as lifetime homes, family strengthening and flexible employment policies, all of which will help us deal with these issues. Can he give us some encouragement on that score?

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My hon. Friend is right. There is a raft of measures that need to be taken on informal carers and on the holy grail of better integration of health and social care funding, and we are pursuing that vigorously.

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This was the substance of the letter from the Health Committee to the Chancellor, calling for extra money not for the NHS, but particularly for the capital budget and social care, because the back pressure from social care is what is causing the NHS to struggle. I totally agree with the Minister as regards integration. In Scotland, where we have the integrated joint boards, it has brought a change more quickly than we would have hoped. Our delayed discharges are down 9% in a year; in England they are up more than 30%. But this is not easy and it needs to be funded. We have debated the sustainability and transformation plans, which could be the basis for the future integration of the NHS, but all we hear within those plans is community hospitals being shut, losing the opportunity to have step-up and step-down beds, A & E departments being shut, and beds within hospitals being shut. This is the wrong way round. STPs could work, but they cannot start with the number they must reach—they have to design themselves around a service that keeps patients at home and keeps them well.

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The hon. Lady made two points, both of which I agree with. The first was that in Scotland there has been a 9% reduction in delayed transfers of care. It is also true that in England many parts of our system, particularly those that have integrated most quickly, have achieved reductions of that size and more. She is right that the STPs are part of the process of re-engineering the system. Adult social care and the integration of adult social care are a big part of that and we need to ensure that we deliver.

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Does the Minister agree that better integration could be driven by better patient data, which could help to show us where quality practices exist and how to spread best practice?

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I do agree. I had a discussion with the Care Quality Commission on the dataset that is reported, and I hope that over the next months and years we can improve how we do that.

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I think that the Minister completely missed the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) from the Front Bench about the unfairness of asking councils to deal with the problem. A 1% rise in council tax in Doncaster raises 21% less than would the same rise in a council in the Prime Minister’s constituency. Does that not mean that the problem is being pushed on to the areas that can least afford it?

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The right hon. Lady would be right that I had missed the point, had I not said that that issue is addressed by how we distribute the additional better care funding, which uses a formula that takes into account relative need.

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The Minister will know that following recent events I have taken a particular interest in this issue. Does he agree that saying that it is just about money is too simplistic, and we see a wide variety of the quality of care from homes with the same funding packages? Does he also agree that we need to improve the inspection regime to ensure that concerns are taken seriously?

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I agree and I commend my hon. Friend for his work on the Morleigh homes in his constituency, which had significant issues and have now been substantially closed down. He is right that the issues there were not principally about money; they were about quality and about people doing their jobs properly.

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Does the Minister share the view of the CQC that the system is close to tipping point, and does he understand the impact that has on many frail elderly people? Does he not agree that now is the time to bury our differences and work together to come up with a long-term settlement for the health and care system?

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Today is not the day on which to announce a royal commission on the funding of care in the future, but I do agree that it is important that we put care funding on to a better structural footing for the future. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that.

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I applaud the Government’s commitment to £10 billion to the NHS by 2020, but does my hon. Friend agree that social care and healthcare must be better integrated across the whole country? Somerset County Council’s sustainability and transformation plan has that at its heart. It is a good model. Does my hon. Friend agree that such models should be copied, but that councils must be given the tools?

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The STP for Somerset is excellent in that regard and my hon. Friend is right to raise it. She is also right to emphasise again the integration of health and social care, which is the holy grail of this. Those councils and health systems that do it best are making a huge difference.

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But is the Minister aware that in the course of the past few years local authorities—let us say in Derbyshire—have lost more than £200 million from cuts promulgated by the Government? On top of that, they are closing community hospitals in Derbyshire, including Bolsover, with a total of more than 100 beds between them. Does it make sense when those community hospitals bear the burden of looking after people who cannot occupy other hospital beds?

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The hon. Gentleman is right that there have been changes to the funding regime, but councils such as Knowsley and St Helens have virtually no delayed transfers of care and they have the same budget issues as his council.

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An ageing population, the welcome introduction of the national living wage and the rightly greater expectations on services provided are causing exponential growth in adult social care costs, to a far greater amount than can simply be found through efficiency savings. Although the council tax cap has delivered financial discipline, we have to be realistic, so may I urge the Minister to explore further flexibility with the social care precept?

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I said in my answer to the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) that this is not a spending statement or a statement on the local government settlement, so I will just leave it at that.

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It would be a huge mistake to think that the Minister can plug the gaping hole in care funding with the social care precept alone. The poorest areas, which most need publicly funded social care, are the least likely to be able to get it by raising council tax. If not today, when will the Minister come to the House with a plan to solve this crisis and help families, care users and the NHS?

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I have acknowledged that the system is under pressure, but I have also acknowledged that different councils respond to that pressure in different ways. For example, Leicester City Council has increased its adult social care budget for next year—2016-17—by 7% in real terms.

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Shroud waving by the Labour party is particularly depressing given that it did virtually nothing on this issue during 13 years in power. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important for the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Treasury to use fiscal incentives to encourage the construction of more extra care facilities? Does he also agree that it is important to iron out the disparities between different local authorities in the quality of care delivered?

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Yes, there is disparity—still—in the marketplace and between local authorities, and we need to do everything we can, working with the CQC, to ensure that it is eliminated.

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Does the Minister not realise that his statement today is totally inadequate for the crisis in social care and that the complacency he shows is totally unrealistic, given what has happened in the country? What we require is a very different response from what we have been given today.

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I am tempted just to say, “No, I don’t acknowledge that,” but I make the point again that I am not complacent. We understand that the system is under pressure, and we acknowledge and accept that. That is not the same as saying that there are not things that we can do in terms of quality provision to manage better, and that is what we are trying to do.

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Adult social care accounts for about 45% of Lancashire County Council’s budget, and that is a growing share. The key to addressing this challenge will be the better integration of health and social care to better manage demand. What funding is being provided to Lancashire County Council to allow that transformation to take place?

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The better care fund is predicated on the assumption that we will drive that integration. I also make the point that not just Leicester, for example, but many councils right across the country—something like 40%—have increased, and will increase, their social care budget in real terms next year.

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By 2020, we will see a national shortfall of £2.6 billion in adult social care funding. If the Government are forcing councils to increase council tax, what percentage will they be expected to increase it by? How much of that percentage increase would go solely to adult social care services? How will the Government ensure that that happens?

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The spending review increased the precept by 2%—that is what we brought in at that time. As I said earlier, this is not the local government settlement, and I have nothing to say on council tax.

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Many people on, I think, both sides of the House feel that the social care system is broken because we have councils and the health service involved. Would it not be a good idea for the Secretary of State or the Minister to work with Members on both sides of the House, with good will on both sides, rather than for us to have this petty point-scoring from the Opposition? [Interruption.] No, this is much more serious than politics—we have to get this right for future generations. Should we not work together and come up with a solution that both sides of the House can agree on?

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My hon. Friend is right that this whole system is more important than politics: there is nothing more important to more people—and more old people in terms of the dignity and quality of their lives—than getting this right, and it is essential that we do that.

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I call an Eagle—Maria Eagle.

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Liverpool City Council has seen £330 million cut from its budget since 2010—58% of all its money. A further £90 million has to be found by 2020. In those circumstances, how will it be possible for the council to increase, as we all wish it could, the money it spends on adult social services, when it already spends more on them— £146 million—than it can raise in council tax?

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It is not my role to lecture Liverpool City Council on how to deliver adult social care. I make the point, though, that Knowsley and St Helens, which are very close to Liverpool, have virtually no delayed transfers of care, and so possibly some best-practice sharing would be in order.

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I do not want to see a festering sibling rivalry. Angela Eagle.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. I think it is right that you chose the younger before the older this time, because you did the opposite last time.

In the Wirral we have an above-average number of older people, yet we have a very low council tax base, which means that we cannot raise enough money through council tax to deal with the shortfalls in adult social care. As the Minister knows, £5 billion has been cut from social care since 2010, and his better care budget is £3.5 billion, so there are huge issues here. Why was this not mentioned in the autumn statement, and what is the Government’s response to this ongoing crisis?

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I have made the point already, and I will make it again, that we acknowledge that the precept is uneven in the way that it was announced in the spending review. That is why the additional better care fund component is allocated on a basis that remedies that.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker; this is a timely moment to call me, given what the Minister says about remedies. I put in a freedom of information request about the adult residential weekly rate across every single council in the country. Buckinghamshire gets £615 a week, while Birmingham, including the home where my grandparents both died, gets £436 and has to make an additional charge of £55 per week on the residents who live there, who are no doubt poorer than those who live in Buckinghamshire. Does that sound like a discrepancy that is being solved by the Government’s system? Are nans and granddads in Buckinghamshire worth more than they are in Birmingham, Yardley?

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In terms of quality in Buckinghamshire and Birmingham, we look at the CQC reports right across the system, and we are not finding a geographic variation based on those sorts of statistics. That is just the fact of the matter.

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I have heard nothing from the Minister to demonstrate that he understands the severity of the situation facing social care. Last week, the Local Government Association met a cross-party of group of MPs. It said that local government needs £1.3 billion to stabilise social care, and pointed out that that money cannot be raised by a council tax increase, especially because that raises the least money in the areas with the highest need.

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In terms of council tax increases, this is not about the local government settlement that has already been announced. The additional better care fund will start to deliver more money from next April, and will deliver more money after that. During the course of this Parliament, there will be a 5% increase, in real terms, in money spent on adult social care.

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I hear what the Minister says about the better care fund, but that obviously applies from next April. How is it fair that this year the area I represent—the 19th most disadvantaged constituency in the country—will be able to raise only half of what an area like Kingston upon Thames can raise? We can raise about £5; it can raise about £10. How can that be fair for social care?

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This year, 42% of councils are increasing their adult social care funding in real terms. The discrepancy caused by the precept is addressed by the way in which we allocate the additional better care fund component and the formula that is used for that.

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I think the Minister recognises that there is a crisis and that the precept alone will not address it, so does he agree with the former Health Secretary, Stephen Dorrell, who said this morning that it was a missed opportunity in the autumn statement not to invest in social care?

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I am not giving the autumn statement, but I will say again that there is a 5% increase in real terms in adult social care funding during this Parliament, and that 42% of councils are increasing the budget in real terms this year.

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The Minister needs to recognise that not only can it be more difficult for cities to raise money—we have already heard from colleagues comparing the amount that would be raised by increasing council tax in cities as opposed to more affluent rural areas—but demographic concerns make delivering health services more challenging in cities such as Bristol. We are already looking at £92 million of cuts or savings that we have got to find over the next five years. Will the Minister come to Bristol to talk to the Mayor and see what challenges we are facing?

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Cities do have issues with delivering social care, but so do rural areas, which quite often have a very high proportion of older people. That, in itself, can absorb a great deal of cost. The truth is that, as I have acknowledged, the whole system is under pressure, including in Bristol. We acknowledge that, and we are increasing the total spend by 5% during this Parliament.

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We have heard from my hon. Friends about the failings of the social care precept model to address this issue, but what of councils such as Cambridgeshire, which chose not even to take the meagre resources available? Offered 4%, the council took just 2% this year, leaving the local hospital with 100 over-85-year-olds with nowhere to go. When are the Government going to stand up for older people in Cambridgeshire?

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That was a decision made by Cambridgeshire County Council, and a number of other councils, such as Hammersmith and Fulham, made the same choice not to increase the precept. Presumably, they did not feel as though they needed to use that money for adult social care. That is a choice that those councils have, and it is a choice that they must take to their voters.

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Sheffield is about to lose its last emergency respite care centre for patients with complex dementia needs. Those patients cannot be cared for in the community, and people desperately do not want to see that centre go. Sheffield already has the second-largest better care fund in the country. If today is not the day for the Minister to issue a royal commission, when will he act?

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I am not aware of the specific issue that the hon. Lady has raised about the respite care centre in Sheffield that is on the point of closure, and I would be happy to discuss that with her so that I understand it better. I can only repeat that today is not the day that we are going to announce a royal commission into funding.

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Care providers in my constituency tell me that they are losing staff to Asda because they cannot compete on pay and conditions, because the council cannot commission care at a price that enables them to do so. What is the Minister going to do to stem the haemorrhaging of careworkers from the profession and, therefore, the haemorrhaging of the provision of care?

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There is an issue with that, and that issue exists in various parts of the country. We acknowledge it and we need to manage it. We also need to manage the total number of beds in the system and the total number of domiciliary providers in the system. The total number of beds, as I said earlier, is the same now as it was six years ago. The total number of domiciliary providers is around 40% higher.

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The Minister, in a debate on 16 November, congratulated

“both Halton and Warrington Councils on being two of the best performing councils in the country on delayed transfers of care and on increasing their budget.”—[Official Report, 16 November 2016; Vol. 617, c. 350.]

Halton still has a massive shortfall, because the precept goes nowhere near meeting the demand on the services in the area. The simple fact is this: there is no coherent national strategy or funding package in place to solve this crisis we now face. The Government are abrogating their responsibility, and the system will tip over.

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The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I congratulated Halton and Warrington Councils on being two councils that have particularly low rates of delayed transfers of care. The fact that they are achieving that in spite of the budget constraints that he mentions demonstrates that this is not just about money; it is about quality, it is about leadership and it is about best practice.

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The chief executive of Care England has said that under the current regime,

“about 40% of care services will no longer be viable,”

meaning that a number of services will be lost. When does the Minister intend to do something about this crisis?

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The number of beds available in the system right now is about the same as it was six years ago. There is an issue with managing the financial performance of significant care providers. One thing we brought in two years ago was a robust process, led by the CQC, to look at the financial performance of the biggest providers and to warn us of any issues that may arise. We are very keen on pursuing that and making sure that it happens.

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This is a national crisis that this Government have wilfully ignored for years. The Minister said in his opening statement that there is no issue that cannot be solved by throwing money at it. Is it not about time that he put his money where his mouth is?

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The hon. Lady paraphrases what I said rather inaccurately. I said that money would help with any system, but the issues are about quality, leadership and best practice as well. All those things are within the ambit of my job, and that is what I am pursuing.

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Everything we have heard today from the Minister seems fundamentally to deny that the council tax precept is no solution to the problem and in fact exacerbates it. Is he aware that Ray James of the Association of Directors of Social Services has said:

“The Council Tax precept will raise least money in areas of greatest need which risks heightening inequality”?

If that is what experts in the field are saying, why does the Minister think he knows better?

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I often discuss this and other issues with Ray James. It is true that the precept on its own would result in an uneven distribution of revenue, which is why the additional moneys coming from the better care fund will be allocated using a formula that corrects that.

Sky: 21st Century Fox Takeover Bid

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport if she will make a statement on 21st Century Fox’s bid to take over the remaining 61% of Sky.

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As the House will know, Sky announced on Friday that it had received an approach from 21st Century Fox to acquire the 61% share of Sky that it does not yet already own. The announcement made it clear that the independent directors of Sky and 21st Century Fox have reached an agreement on price. However, the offer is subject to further discussion, and Sky has advised that there is no certainty at this stage that an offer will be made. The terms of any deal will obviously need to be agreed by the non-21st Century Fox shareholders of Sky. The announcement also said that under the takeover code, 21st Century Fox is required to set out its intentions by 6 January 2017.

The Secretary of State has powers to intervene in certain media mergers on public interest grounds, as set out in the Enterprise Act 2002. Government guidance on the operation of the public interest merger provisions under the Act indicates how the intervention regime will operate in practice and the approach that the Secretary of State is likely to adopt in considering cases. Any transaction will be looked at on its merits, on a case-by-case basis. The guidance makes it clear that the Secretary of State will aim to take an initial decision on whether to intervene within 10 working days of formal notification of the merger to the competition authorities, or of the transaction being brought to her attention. No such formal notification has yet been received.

The role of the Secretary of State is a quasi-judicial one, and it is important that she acts independently and is not subject to improper influence. It would be inappropriate for me or the Secretary of State to comment further on the proposed bid under the Act. In the light of Friday’s statement and given the role of the Secretary of State, the Department is putting in place procedures to ensure that her decision-making process is scrupulously fair and impartial should a decision be necessary. This will include guidance for other Ministers and officials on dealing with the parties to the bid or any other interested parties. We are of course aware of the wider interest of Parliament in these matters, and we will keep the House updated as appropriate within the legal framework.

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I thank the Minister for his response. Late on Friday, a new bid for Sky was revealed. Five years ago, an equivalent bid was abandoned, after Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation were engulfed in the phone hacking storm. At that time the House was united behind a substantive motion calling on Rupert Murdoch to withdraw his bid. The concerns back in 2011 were not only about the serious wrongdoing being uncovered in the phone hacking scandal but about the concentration of media power and ownership in fewer and fewer hands. I have re-read the motion—which we all supported, on both sides of the House—and nowhere does it say that we should sit quietly for five years and come back when we have forgotten all about it. We have not forgotten about it, and we also have not forgotten that when the Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street this summer she said to the people of this country:

“When we take the big calls we will think not of the powerful, but you.”

This is a big call, so we need to know whose side the Government are on.

Ofcom’s original assessment was that the deal may

“operate against the public interest”.

Will the Minister commit the Government, here and now, to issuing a public interest intervention notice and referring the bid to Ofcom? Remember that, back in 2012, Ofcom’s assessment was that the chief executive officer of Fox, James Murdoch,

“repeatedly fell short of the exercise of responsibility to be expected of him as CEO and chairman.”

The Prime Minister met Rupert Murdoch in New York in September. Was the bid discussed then? Did she give him any assurances about the bid, or discuss his future support for her and/or for her Government?

I understand that, as the Minister said, this is a quasi-judicial decision, and that the words he says today will be scrutinised by some of the highest-paid lawyers on at least two continents. Nevertheless, will he assure us that the Secretary of State is prepared to stand up to powerful interests and ensure that this deal is properly and independently scrutinised?

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I am grateful for the acknowledgment by the Opposition Front-Bench team that, owing to the quasi-judicial nature of the decision, procedures have to be followed properly. That is what we fully intend to do. Formal notification of this proposal has not been received, and the Secretary of State cannot make a decision prior to that. As I said, the rules are that she should aim to take such a decision within 10 days of formal notification.

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I thank the Minister for his answer. I also recognise the quasi-judicial nature of the decision the Secretary of State has to make. I have two technical questions. Since the bid in 2010, which was withdrawn, the Murdoch empire has been divided, with the newspaper operations separated from the broadcast and film operations. How much weight will the Secretary of State give to that separation in determining any questions of plurality in the UK media? Secondly, given that separation has happened, to some extent, how much weight will she place on it when determining whether to issue a public interest intervention notice?

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The plurality rules are clearly set out, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and the Secretary of State will follow them very carefully in this determination.

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Does my right hon. Friend accept that in the event of a bid there is a strong case for asking the regulators to provide advice about any concerns on competition or plurality grounds? Does he agree that this bid would essentially be an investment decision rather than an acquisition, as 21st Century Fox already has effective control of Sky? Does he also agree that since the last bid, which was approved by Ofcom subject to certain remedies, there has been a considerable increase in competition in the pay TV market?

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The decision has to be taken in the context of the world as we find it. The situation, as we find it, in terms of ownership is that 21st Century Fox owns 39% of Sky, and the notification to the stock exchange on Friday was about the proposal to buy the other 61%. Those issues will be taken into account when the decision is made.

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I understand the Minister’s complex position on these matters, but will he take into account the fact that when we compare the situation now with five years ago, when the House passed unanimously the motion saying that the bid should not go ahead, we see that we still have unresolved phone hacking issues in the courts and a system of self-regulation that has not satisfied the victims of phone hacking? Will he bear in mind this question—what has really changed since the House passed the motion five years ago? In my view, very little, which is why I believe the bid should be rejected.

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It is enjoyable to be at the rerun of one of the right hon. Gentleman’s greatest hits. He says that my position today is complex, but actually it is very simple: we have not yet received a formal notification, and when we do, the Secretary of State will have 10 days to consider, under the Enterprise Act and other legislation, whether it is necessary to take action.

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At this early stage, is the Department considering whether some of the conditions that Ofcom attached to the deal last time, such as the guarantee of editorial independence for Sky News, would be required this time around, given the restructuring of the Murdoch companies?

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The notification was given to the stock market on Friday morning, but no formal notification to the competition authorities has been received, so it is fair to say that we are quite early on in the process, but all things that it is appropriate to consider will be considered.

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What differences can the Minister see between this bid and the one referred to the competition authorities by Vince Cable in 2010?

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It will be quite hard, until formal notification, to know the shape of the proposals. When we do, we will have a look at them.

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I congratulate the shadow Minister on tabling the urgent question, and I completely understand the Minister’s problem of not wanting to judge an application of which notification has not actually been given, but will he take it from today that there is a concern across the House about this issue and will he undertake to keep the House fully informed? That is the message coming across.

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Yes, of course, I would be delighted to keep the House as informed as is appropriate under the legislation the House has passed. I apologise to the House if some of my remarks sound a little reticent, but it will understand that this is a quasi-judicial decision. The Secretary of State does not want her position prejudiced—I do not want to do that—but all these considerations will be taken into account.

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From whom will the Secretary of State take advice about the competition implications of the bid?

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Of course, advice will be taken from officials in the Department, and procedures are being put in place to ensure that there are no conflicts of interest and that the decision is taken appropriately.

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I would like to give the Minister a second chance to answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan). Did the Prime Minister discuss this deal with Murdoch back in September in New York?

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Surely the only thing that really matters is the public interest. When one man controlled 40% of the newspapers in this country, including the largest daily newspaper and Sunday newspaper, and by far the largest broadcaster—by value—in the country, it poisoned the well of British politics. I urge Ministers, as they go through this business, in the quasi-judicial manner the Minister suggests, that they keep that close to the front of their minds.

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I am grateful for the wisdom of the hon. Gentleman, who I know has taken a great interest in these affairs for a long time.

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More than 8,000 people work at Sky’s headquarters in my constituency, and many will be concerned about this news, particularly those in journalism. Is the Minister at all concerned that through this deal one man would take 100% ownership of one of the UK’s biggest media outlets?

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I want to make it clear that the Secretary of State’s decision relates to media plurality. Of course, there are competition and labour market issues, but the Enterprise Act rules are clear about the breadth of the decision she will take, and she will follow those procedures very carefully.

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I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said about the public interest in and concern about this issue. Phone hacking has not died in people’s memories, and anyone who watched the American elections would have had real concerns about the way in which Fox News operates. I urge the Minister to realise that in the public’s mind, this man is not a fit and proper person to have control of our media.

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I can assure the hon. Lady that the Secretary of State is a fit and proper person to take this decision. Members of all parties have made their views clear, and we will operate carefully, with appropriate guidance in place for both Ministers and officials, to make sure that this decision is taken in the proper way.

Yemen

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(Urgent Question): Will the Minister provide an answer to the urgent question of which I have given him notice?

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As the Foreign Secretary made clear during his trip to the region this weekend, Britain supports the Saudi-led campaign to restore the legitimate Government in Yemen. Ultimately, a political solution is the best way to bring long-term stability to Yemen and end the conflict.

We continue to have deep concern for the suffering of the people of Yemen, which is why making progress on peace talks is the top priority. As with all negotiations of this kind, they will not be quick or indeed easy, and a lot of tough discussions will need to be had. The United Nations has drawn up a road map for ending the conflict, which outlines the security and political steps the parties must take. The UK is playing a central role in this process.

The Foreign Secretary hosted the last meeting of the Quad, comprising Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, the United States and the United Kingdom, which UN Special Envoy Ismail Ahmed attended, in London on 16 October. In addition, I travelled to Riyadh on 20 November to discuss the road map with President Hadi and to seek ways to find a political solution to the conflict. Most recently, the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary raised the issue of Yemen during their visits to the region, and I met Vice-President General Ali Mohsen on Saturday during the Manama dialogue.

As the House will be aware, Yemen is one of the most serious humanitarian crises in the world. So, in addition to our considerable diplomatic efforts to try and bring an end to the conflict, the UK is the fourth-largest donor to Yemen, committing £100 million to Yemen for 2016-17. UK aid is already making a difference there; last year we helped more than 1.3 million Yemenis with food, medical supplies, water and emergency shelter.

The situation in Yemen is indeed grave, which is why we are debating this matter today. There are now plans for the Quad to meet in the very near future, so that we can move this very important process forward.

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I appreciate the great pithiness of the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) in referring to the urgent question of which he had given the Minister advance notice, but in the name of transparency and for the benefit of those attending to our proceedings from outside the Chamber, I should advise that the question is “To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement to clarify the United Kingdom’s policy on the conflict in Yemen.”

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I am grateful to you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker, and to the Minister for his answer.

Until now, our foreign policy objectives in Yemen have been crystal clear: pursuing a cessation of hostilities and backing a UN mandated intervention. Last week, the Foreign Secretary was absolutely right to speak of his profound concern for the Yemeni people and correct to say that this conflict could not be solved by force alone. However, his words also revealed an inconsistency in our foreign policy, which if not addressed immediately, threatens to wreck everything that we are trying to accomplish.

Will the Minister please confirm that we would never be involved in any puppeteering or proxy wars anywhere in the world, including in Yemen? Our influence and credibility as an honest broker is now being seriously questioned. We criticised Russia’s bombing of Aleppo; the Russians accuse us of supporting the same thing in Yemen.

Further to the Minister’s reply, can he clarify that our objective is an immediate ceasefire, and can he lay out the detail of how we will get to that position? As the Foreign Secretary has said, we hold the pens on Yemen at the United Nations. There is already a draft Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, resumption of peace talks and humanitarian access. Where is that resolution now? Will it be tabled before the Security Council before the end of the year? We must not fiddle as Yemen burns. On Saturday, Islamic State bombed a military camp in Aden, killing 35 soldiers. The UN humanitarian co-ordinator, Stephen O’Brien, calls Yemen a “man-made brutal humanitarian disaster”, with four fifths of the population in desperate need of emergency aid.

On Wednesday, the House, including the Minister, will show its support for the incredible work of the humanitarian agencies at “Yemen Day”. Today, the Disasters Emergency Committee announced a long overdue emergency appeal, but if the fighting does not stop that will not be enough. The Government must speak with one voice and with one aim for Yemen, and that should be an immediate ceasefire. Anything else only plays into the hands of terrorist organisations, damages our diplomacy and increases the suffering of the Yemeni people.

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I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his continuing work and interest in Yemen and for bringing it to the attention of the House. I can confirm that we remain resolute in working toward a cessation of hostilities, developing confidence-building measures, working with the United Nations and supporting the UN envoy. I absolutely agree that we will not win by military means alone; we need a long-term political solution for a country that, as he knows, has been fragmented since its beginning.

The right hon. Gentleman is right that as well as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, we are the UN penholder and therefore take a lead on these matters. Humanitarian access is vital. I made it clear that we are investing more funds to support the UN agencies and others. The UN Security Council resolution is being discussed in New York as we speak, and as I mentioned, the Quad meeting that will take these matters further takes place in the very near future.

The right hon. Gentleman touched on a comparison between Yemen and Syria. President Hadi and the coalition that has been created to support him has the backing of the United Nations through resolution 2216, so there is a legitimate call to support President Hadi and the work he has done. Without that, the Houthi advance would have pushed much further, through the capital and down to the port of Aden, and we would have had a full-scale civil war. In contrast, there is no UN resolution to support Russia’s involvement in Syria. The Russians are supporting a brutal regime, which has used chemical weapons and barrel bombs against its own people; they have compounded the situation. The two are not comparable in any way.

Britain remains resolute in its support for President Hadi and for the United Nations and its envoy in bringing the necessary stakeholders back to the table. I hope that we will see some developments in the very near future.

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Given that I have only just come down from the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, I thank you for calling me, Mr Speaker.

May I ask my hon. Friend the Minister not only to work hard to get the macro-deal on a ceasefire between the competing parties at the top level, but to make sure that the work of all the international agencies is engaged with all the subsidiary interests in Yemen—a nation of enormous complexity? We must not just get a political track at the top level and ignore all the consequences that may flow regionally and more locally in Yemen.

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My hon. Friend is right to point to the complexities of Yemen and what is going on there. On the face of it, the Houthis are against President Hadi, but as those who have visited or are familiar with the country will know, there is a complex network of tribal loyalties which are not necessarily supportive of any circumstance at the time, and those loyalties move depending on movements of funds, weapons, interests and so forth. It is a very complicated situation.

The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who raised the urgent question, spoke of the attack at the weekend. Reports suggest Daesh was responsible for it, although we still await confirmation. That shows how al-Qaeda, which is firmly based in the peninsula, and, indeed, Daesh, are taking advantage of the vacuum created by the absence of governance. That is all the more reason why we are encouraging the necessary stakeholders to come to the table.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) is right to say co-ordination of humanitarian aid is needed. The port of Hudaydah is currently under Houthi control, and until we can open it up, ships with humanitarian aid will continue to queue up and be unable to get in to provide that important aid for the rest of the country.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker, for calling me in the circumstances. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for securing the urgent question. The authority and passion he brings to the issue of Yemen is without equal in this House. For the last year and a half my right hon. Friend has been consistent and principled in his advice. Let us be clear that the difference between that and what we have heard this week from the Government could not be more stark. On Yemen, there is no consistency and no principle.

Last Thursday, we heard the Foreign Secretary say that Saudi Arabia was fighting proxy wars in countries like Yemen, and we know the consequences all too well: thousands of civilians killed, the country’s agricultural infrastructure destroyed, millions of Yemeni children facing starvation. Let us be clear: the Foreign Secretary was absolutely right on this, and we say, “Good for you, Boris.” Yet he has still been slapped down by Downing Street and forced to go to Riyadh to “clarify his remarks”—and he has sent his junior Minister here today to support Saudi Arabia’s actions to the hilt. It seems that he will not support our calls for an independent UN investigation into Saudi Arabia’s alleged war crimes, and he will continue selling it arms to prosecute its proxy wars. There is no consistency, there is no principle, there is just more shabby hypocrisy.

There are many questions I would like to ask the Minister today, but let me just ask one. It is the same question asked of him by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East, and he has not had an answer, so I will ask it again. For two months now the UN Security Council has been waiting for the United Kingdom to present its proposed resolution to effect a ceasefire in Yemen to allow access for humanitarian relief. For two months, a draft resolution has been in circulation, so let me ask the Minister again: why has the resolution not been presented and who is holding it up, because the people of Yemen cannot afford any more delay?

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I am not sure where to start. I will focus on the serious questions the hon. Lady poses rather than the political point-scoring she tries to involve in all these things, which I am afraid means I take on board less and less the points she actually made. Because she has obviously run out of questions to ask this week, she is regurgitating last week’s questions, instead of focusing on what is needed today.

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Answer the question.

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If the hon. Lady holds on to her seat, I will answer all the questions—not just one question, but all the questions.

First, the Foreign Secretary made it clear—the hon. Lady should read the full passage of what he was saying—that there are concerns about the leadership needed in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, and that needs to be pushed forward; we need strong leadership in those places. As I said to the right hon. Member for Leicester East, the UN Security Council resolution is being discussed, but the hon. Lady should be aware of the details of how they are put together: we do not simply do it as a paper exercise; we do it by ensuring the work has been done to make sure it can stand. If the homework has not been done to make sure that the stakeholders are supportive of the resolution, what is the point of having the resolution anyway, other than to pat ourselves on the back and make ourselves look good? That may be good enough for the Labour party but it is certainly not good enough for the Government.

The hon. Lady did not mention the challenges we face with the Houthis themselves. I do not dispute that this has been a difficult campaign for the coalition. It has been new to conducting sustained warfare and has had to learn very difficult lessons in how to do that, governed by 21st-century rules. However, I make it clear that the Houthis are causing huge problems in that country. That needs to be acknowledged by this House as well. They have committed extrajudicial killings, unlawful arrests, detentions, abductions, enforced disappearances and the shelling of civilians in places such as Taiz. Landmines have also been used. Those are all things that have prolonged this conflict; the Houthis have not been brought to the table. What is required now is for all sides to work with the Quad and the UN to ensure that we can get the necessary ceasefire in place, which will lead us to the UN resolution that the hon. Lady is calling for.

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To what extent is intransigence on the part of President Hadi a block to a ceasefire?

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The President is the legitimate leader of the country at the moment and we have to work with the stakeholders that he is representing to ensure that the road map is compatible with the needs and support of the people he represents. That is why we have had long discussions with him and the vice-president to ensure that we can bring them to the table. I take this opportunity to thank the Omanis, who have played such an important role in bringing the Houthis forward so that they can accept a long-term deal to take us away from military action to a political dialogue.

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It is regrettable that the humanitarian situation has worsened to such an extent that the Disasters Emergency Committee has had to launch an appeal. We hope that it will be widely supported so that the people of Yemen do not, as has been predicted, literally run out of food in the coming months.

What more will the Government do to co-ordinate with the DEC and responders on the ground on the humanitarian response? What steps are the Government taking to ensure that that humanitarian response is not undermined by their continued laissez-faire attitude to the behaviour of Saudi Arabia? Calls for arms sales are only getting louder. Although we keep hearing that UK military officials are not carrying out strikes and are not directing operations, it begs the question, what are they doing on the ground to ensure that the coalition respects international humanitarian law? We hear so much about the Government’s positive relationship with Saudi Arabia, although it not clear whether that extends to the Foreign Secretary, but what good is that relationship if the Government cannot or will not use their influence to prevent the killing and starvation of innocent civilians?

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Perhaps I can start with the hon. Gentleman’s last point. I would be happy to present to him the speeches that the Foreign Secretary made during the Manama dialogue, which confirmed not only our important working relationship with our close ally Saudi Arabia, but the frank conversations we have with that country and the work we do in stopping terrorist attacks from taking place. The hon. Gentleman could then become familiar with why that relationship is important. If we broke that relationship, the Gulf and, one could argue, the region and the UK could easily become a more dangerous place. That is not something he would advocate.

The hon. Gentleman speaks about the war itself. He has made the point in the Chamber before—he has been consistent on this—about concerns over the errors that have been made. I share those concerns. Forgive me; I did not respond to the point that was made earlier about the call for an independent investigation into the incidents that have taken place, but I have made it clear that I will support the call for a UN independent investigation if it is deemed that the reports—[Interruption.] Would the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) let me finish the point? If it is deemed that the reports that are coming forward—that is the way any country conducting sustained warfare operates—are not worthy, we will call for an independent investigation, but that is the process that we follow, that the United States is following right now on incidents that have taken place in Afghanistan, and indeed that Saudi Arabia follows: they conduct their own investigations. If those investigations are found wanting, I will support a UN independent investigation.

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May I ask my hon. Friend what chance he would give President Hadi if Saudi Arabia were to withdraw from its engagement—a proper engagement under UN resolutions—in Yemen?

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My hon. Friend is right in implying that, were President Hadi not to receive the legitimate support through UN Security Council resolution 2216, the country would be in full-scale civil war. The complete breakdown in governance would provide incubation for organisations such as Daesh, al-Nusra and al-Qaeda. That would spill out way beyond the peninsula into the region. That is not something that we would want to contest. It is right that the coalition was formed and it is why we support the coalition. However, we absolutely share the concerns raised in the House that the conduct of that war needs to be scrutinised very carefully indeed.

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On Saturday, Liverpool Friends of Yemen held our fourth monthly vigil in solidarity with the people of Yemen and for peace in that country. I have spoken to the Yemeni diaspora in Liverpool and their very clear message is that they fear for the lives of people back home. This is a country on the edge of famine. May I urge the Government—it is good to see the Minister of State, Department for International Development, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), present—to ensure that we do everything we can as a country to relieve the humanitarian crisis in Yemen? And when will we support an independent UN inquiry into alleged violations on both sides of the conflict?

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On the hon. Gentleman’s last point, we will not support an independent report until we allow the Saudi Arabians to do their reports. That is the process that we face. They have never actually undertaken such publications and reports, so they are having to learn themselves. As we know, it is a conservative country that is unused to the limelight that is now being thrown on it. They must act responsibly, respectfully and transparently, as we would in the same situation.

On humanitarian aid, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. This House and this country can be proud of the work that we are doing, not just here but right across the piece. He is right to say that the DFID Minister and, indeed, the Secretary of State for International Development are very much engaged with that. At the UN General Assembly in September, it was us who held a donors conference to encourage other countries to match our funding so that we can provide support to the people of Yemen. However, it is not a lack of funds or equipment that is the problem—

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It is a lack of peace.

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That is absolutely right: it is a lack of peace and a lack of access, particularly through the central port on the Red sea.

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Charity agencies report that it is very difficult both to get into Yemen and, once there, to get aid out, because of all the bureaucratic challenges, arrests of charity workers, suspensions of programmes and difficulties in obtaining new programmes. Will my hon. Friend bring that up directly with all parties in the conflict, as it is the charity sector that is doing much of the delivery and it should be allowed to have rapid and unimpeded humanitarian access throughout the country?

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I think that that is the point that everybody is most concerned about. Although it can take time for both parties to come to the table and work out the details, there is a sense of urgency in making sure that the humanitarian aid can get in as early as possible. That will be the focus of the next Quad meeting. Yes, we want parties to come together, but we immediately need access routes. We need the port to be opened fully so that container ships can go in and equipment can be distributed right across the country, not just through the port of Aden, which is how the material currently goes in.

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Now that the Foreign Secretary is encouraging transparency and honesty in foreign affairs policy, does the Minister accept that, by signing up to the convention on cluster munitions, the UK is taking a stance that cluster munitions are always in violation of international humanitarian law owing to their indiscriminate and disproportionate nature? If so, arguing that the Saudi use of them is legitimate, as the Minister does, is completely contradictory and in violation of the convention, which states that the UK should always encourage Saudi Arabia not to use them. Why are the UK Government adopting that position?

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To be clear, it is against international law only if the country has signed the convention, and there are countries across the world that have yet to do so. We have signed it and it is our policy to encourage others to do so. I had a meeting last Sunday with all the Foreign Ministers of the Gulf Co-operation Council nations, and I formally invited every single one of the Gulf countries to consider signing the convention. I hope that we will be able to move forward on this.

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I welcome the fact that the UK has doubled its humanitarian commitment to Yemen to £85 million. Does my hon. Friend believe that the UN General Assembly can be of more help in actively resolving the situation?

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If I understand my hon. Friend’s question correctly, she is asking about the General Assembly, as opposed to the UN Security Council, in which case there is no veto. In this arena, it is not so much about the challenge that we face from other permanent members in getting a UN resolution through. If we are going to draft a UN resolution, the important thing is that it needs to work; otherwise, it is simply a paper exercise. That is the homework that our head of mission is currently undertaking with other nations, to make sure that what we write on paper will lead to the cessation of hostilities, confidence-building measures and access to humanitarian aid, which are important; otherwise, it is not worth writing a UN Security Council resolution.

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What representations have Her Majesty’s Government made to the Iranian Government about stopping the flow of arms to the Houthis? At the same time, what representations have been made to facilitate with the Iranians the opening of the ports so that much-needed aid can get through to the Yemenis who are suffering in this civil war?

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The hon. Gentleman raises an important point: what is Iran’s involvement in Yemen? Is it helpful or is it hindering events? The Prime Minister made it clear that Iran can play a more constructive role in ensuring that weapons systems are not entering the country, that the Houthis are encouraged to come to the table, that the Red sea remains free of ships that may want to arm the Houthis, and that the port is opened. Those are the messages that we are asking Iran to recognise.

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There is no doubt that the conflict in Yemen is a war of proxies, and the Foreign Secretary was absolutely right to criticise Saudi Arabia in the way that he did. However, there had been no mention of Iran until the previous question. The United Kingdom must take some responsibility for the continuing and escalating violence in Yemen, because if we had not agreed to the nuclear deal, the billions of pounds of resources would not have been able to enter this conflict and others in Syria, Lebanon and other parts of the middle east.

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The signing of the joint comprehensive plan of action represents an opportunity for Iran to take a more responsible role on the international stage. We know that it has an influence from Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut and, indeed, to Sana’a. We want Iran to step forward and recognise that it is in the region’s interests for it to be more secure and more prosperous. It should elevate itself and rejoin the international community, not continue to hinder the peace process right across the region.

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What is particularly pernicious about the use of cluster munitions is that many of the bomblets lie around for a long time, effectively creating minefields where many thousands of innocent civilians, including children, are killed. I am therefore slightly confused by the Government’s position. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), who is fortunately still here, said in Defence questions earlier that the matter had been raised with the Saudis, but this Minister seemed to indicate just now that he does not oppose the Saudis’ use of cluster munitions. Surely we are opposed to their using such munitions and surely the Minister will be happy to condemn it from the Dispatch Box.

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I think the hon. Gentleman is trying to put words in my mouth. I made it very clear that our policy is to discourage the use of cluster munitions across the world and to encourage people to sign up to and support the convention. In fact, I think I said in my answer that I absolutely condemn the use of cluster munitions. As he said, they are a legacy that lie around on the battlefield long after it has turned back into a civilian arena, and that is why they cause damage. That is why we signed this important convention and why I have invited all Gulf Co-operation Council nations to support its signing.

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My hon. Friend has already said that there are issues around tribal agreement with the framework, but what measures has he taken to engage all relevant parties in the region to test the framework’s robustness?

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We need a collective approach to ensure that stakeholders are supported in coming to the table to discuss not only Yemen but stabilisation, which applies to Iraq, Yemen and Syria. That is where the Gulf nations have a responsibility not only to support legitimate governance, but to take an interest in and commit to stabilisation, post-conflict planning and peacekeeping resolutions after the guns fall silent.

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The first 1,000 days of a child’s life are vital in their lifelong development. Not only are Yemeni children’s basic human rights not being met now in this awful conflict, but they will not have a chance even when the conflict ends. What are the Government doing to ensure that Yemeni children have access to vital nutritious food for the duration of the conflict?

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The hon. Lady is right; the travesty is that the length of this conflict is denying a generation, in terms not only of health but education. This is the generation that needs to rebuild the country in the longer term, which is why, as the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), has confirmed, we are working with UNICEF specifically to make sure that we can provide the necessary nutritional meals to support those infants in the important years in the first 1,000 days of their lives.

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Let me congratulate the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who asked the urgent question, as I believe the whole House would recognise that he has almost single-handedly kept the issue of Yemen before this House. May I say to the shadow Minister that it was not right to make party political points on Yemen? May I ask our excellent Minister, who has a lot of knowledge of this issue, whether I am right in thinking that the humanitarian aid problem is not the amount—the money for it—but the fact that we cannot get it through? If that is the case, how can we try to open up the blockage?

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I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments. He is right to point out the difficulties in getting access to these areas. There are a series of checkpoints on roads which mean that humanitarian aid is denied. There are non-governmental organisations and commercial organisations—we are not forgetting those—that do have access in some cases, but some of the aid is taken away as a punishment or penalty, or as the cost of getting into the country. The port is not running properly; the cranes are not working—not one of the old cranes is working there. If we get them working, we will be able suddenly to increase tenfold the aid that can get into the country.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

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A point of order on cluster musicians? Very well, I will take it now. [Interruption.] Not on musicians, no—I am sorry if I misspoke. It is on cluster munitions, which was what Jack Straw would have called the gravamen of the right hon. Gentleman’s concern. Let us hear it.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. You will have heard, just a couple of minutes ago, the Minister say that the Government are against cluster munitions, but I have before me a letter from the Minister dated 3 November 2016, in which he states:

“The UK maintains the view that cluster munitions are not prima facie illegal, and can be used in compliance with international law by States that are not party to the Convention…provided that they are used in a manner that is compatible with international humanitarian law, including distinction, proportionality and the obligation to take all feasible precautions.”

I am confused, because the Minister says that the Government are completely opposed to cluster munitions and yet in this letter he sets out a view that in some circumstances they are perfectly legitimate and acceptable to use.

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The answer to the right hon. Gentleman is twofold. If what he wants is personal reassurance, I suggest that his appropriate recourse is to sidle up to the junior Minister and ask to have a cup of tea with him. Secondly, if he is concerned for the benefit of the House as a whole and he wants something formally on the record—as a former Deputy Leader of the House, I doubt he particularly needs my advice, but I will proffer it—he should table a written question on this substantive point upon which he requires clarification, and I think he will probably find his salvation coming pretty soon.

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indicated assent.

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A helpful nod from a sedentary position from the Minister confirms that my expectation is correct. If there are no further points of order, I shall in a moment call—

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rose—

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I do beg the hon. Lady’s pardon. Patience is a virtue, and I thank her for waiting.

Point of Order

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday afternoon, I attended a Christmas fayre in my constituency at which a 76-year-old man with diabetes fell and broke his shoulder. He had to wait almost two hours for an ambulance. When I spoke to the emergency services, they said that they were “re-triaging” as they were experiencing high levels of delay, with 162 calls across London unattended and awaiting ambulances, and that the situation had been worse before. The latest figures seem to show that not one ambulance trust in the country met its targets in October. Perhaps you could tell me whether you have received any advance notice or indication of the intention of a Minister to make a statement to this House on ambulance delays and on the Government’s plans to address NHS capacity issues as we near the Christmas period.

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From memory—I apologise if I am incorrect, but I do not think that I am—there are questions to the Secretary of State for Health before we rise for the Christmas recess. That is extremely fortuitous as far as the hon. Lady is concerned. I predict with complete confidence that she will be in her place on that occasion bobbing with the required intensity to be called to put this matter to a relevant Minister. If she does so, I do not think that it is the revelation of a state secret to say that she is likely to be successful. I hope that that is helpful in relation to what—all levity aside—is an extremely serious matter.

East Aleppo: Evacuation

Application for emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)

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I rise to propose that the House should debate a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely the need for immediate and concerted international action to evacuate from east Aleppo approximately 40 doctors and 70 nursing staff, up to 500 children, at least 100 of whom have been wounded and are receiving rudimentary care, and thousands of terrified civilians caught between the different fighting groups in a 10 km by 10 km enclave where most of those who are trapped now are.

Mr Speaker, I make no apology to the House for raising this vital issue again. You granted a debate on these matters two months ago. On that occasion, the Foreign Secretary made his first major speech from the Dispatch Box and expressed the horror so many feel at what is happening in Syria and Aleppo.

I am sure, Mr Speaker, that if you grant this emergency debate the whole House will hope to hear an update from the Foreign Secretary who has already shown his deep and principled concern about what is taking place. The debate will enable us to explore, with the Government, how Britain’s immense diplomatic muscle—the finest foreign service in the world—can do more to secure a deal that will ensure a ceasefire for at least 24 hours to enable innocent civilians to be rescued from the hideous circumstances that now prevail in east Aleppo.

Britain took a lead some years ago at the United Nations in developing the international community’s responsibility to protect. We said after Srebrenica, Darfur and Rwanda, “Never again.” It is happening today as we meet. There are reports this afternoon, accompanied by the most hideous photographs, of the use of sarin—a nerve gas—by the regime in Hama. At dawn today, a chlorine bomb, the second in three days, hit a medical point at Kallaseh. There is no escape from chlorine bombs—civilians are forced to come out from the rubble and cellars where they are hiding. The use of chlorine munitions is a war crime. Their use defies every facet of international humanitarian law.

Many of these terrified civilians trapped in this hellhole, which now resembles Stalingrad at the end of its destruction, are children. They have few places to hide. Tomorrow night in Aleppo, the temperature is expected to reach minus 4°.

Mr Speaker, as we contemplate a warm and secure Christmas here in Britain, I hope you will agree that the House should urgently discuss not “Something must be done,” but “What in the name of humanity we, the international community, will do to save those who today are in such dreadful jeopardy.”

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The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) asks leave to propose a debate on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely international action to protect civilians in Aleppo and more widely across Syria. I have listened carefully to the application and I am satisfied that the matter raised by him is proper to be discussed under Standing Order No. 24. I now put it to the House.

Application agreed to.