House of Commons
Monday 8 July 2019
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
My Department commemorates the contribution and sacrifices of our armed forces veterans through occasions such as D-day and Armed Forces Day. We keep such events under review and ensure that veterans are properly considered and represented.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Next year, the early May bank holiday will move to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Does she agree with me that we should do much more to recognise the service and sacrifices of our veterans, and that it would be a fitting tribute permanently to rename one of our existing UK bank holidays Veterans Day?
We should always look to do more to honour the sacrifices that individuals have made. Armed Forces Day is supposed to be the day that we do that, and I have asked my officials to undertake some work so we can ensure that Armed Forces Day is a day for them, not just about them. It is incredibly important that we ensure that our veterans, our service personnel and their families can really enjoy the day, not have to do extra shifts. On that point, I would praise Salisbury, which held Armed Forces Day this year for the nation. It arranged some amazing events for the public and also put on some spectacular events for serving personnel, families and veterans, including free concerts.
I know the Secretary of State would agree that there is a real need for a permanent memorial for veterans who have fallen in the two world wars and in all the wars that have followed. Will she join me in praising the communities of Evanstown and Gilfach Goch in my constituency, which have spent the last 18 months refurbishing the memorial and tracing veterans from the Gilfach valley? Will she ensure, where memorials have fallen into disrepair, as some have, that the MOD has funding to help refurbish them?
I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating that organisation and all the organisations across the country that are not just looking after historic monuments to and commemorations of our armed forces, but ensuring that the history of those individuals is properly recorded. Support for different memorials is split across Government Departments, and local government is involved, as obviously is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for certain memorials. If he writes to me about the specifics, I will ensure that the relevant Department hears his plea.
One group of veterans who undoubtedly deserve our respect are the veterans of Northern Ireland who served for years on Operation Banner to uphold the rule of law against the IRA, yet some of them now face subsequent investigation—even up to 50 years on, even including Chelsea Pensioners—while those in the IRA are off scot-free with letters of comfort from Tony Blair. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that, as some have recently suggested, to
“treat both sides the same”
is not only patently ludicrous, but a deep insult to all those veterans without whose courage there would never have been a Good Friday agreement in the first place?
My right hon. Friend will know my views on this matter. Although we have obligations under the Stormont House agreement and have to approach these things in different ways, our obligations to our veterans—whether they have served in an operation on UK soil or overseas—are the same.
Throughout his brave service in our forces in Northern Ireland, Germany and Kenya, my constituent Tony Pitt was exposed to asbestos that led to a cancer diagnosis in 2017. He is now in the impossible position that he has just six months before the immunotherapy treatment that is keeping him going runs out. Will the relevant Minister meet Tony and me to discuss his case, as surely the high standards set by the armed forces covenant do not envisage our veterans crowdfunding to stay alive?
That sounds like an appalling situation, and I thank the hon. Lady for raising it. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), will be very happy to meet Tony, and I will get my officials to talk to her after this session.
May I ask my right hon. Friend to ensure that, all these years later, someone in the Ministry of Defence checks on veterans from Northern Ireland who were grievously hurt there—such as Lance Corporal William Bell and Private Mark Young from my own company, when 17 people were killed—to make sure that they are having a good life, or as good a life as possible?
I would be very happy to look at the cases of those two individuals. It is vital that we have a clear line of sight on what is happening with individual cases. We still need to make improvements to veterans support, and part of the problem relates to the need for continuity and to ensure proactively that people are getting the care they need.
The best way to recognise our veterans is to ensure that they are well served today, yet SSAFA research shows that only 16% of veterans believe they are well served by the armed forces covenant. How is the Secretary of State auditing the armed forces covenant, to ensure that local authorities are applying it proactively?
The prime organisation that holds everyone to account for delivering the covenant is the Veterans Board, which will meet again very shortly.
The whole of Wiltshire was delighted to welcome the Secretary of State, together with the Princess Royal and a whole host of other luminaries, to Salisbury last Saturday to celebrate Armed Forces Day. Of course, it is right that we think very carefully about veterans and their needs, particularly those suffering from the physical or mental after-effects of warfare. None the less, does the Secretary of State agree that the purpose of Armed Forces Day is to think very carefully about the 200,000 fit, healthy and committed young men and women who are today serving our armed forces, to celebrate their commitment to their duties, and to wish them well as they do it?
I agree with my hon. Friend and again praise Salisbury for its work in ensuring that service personnel and their families had an amazing few days. As we take the event forward, however, we need to ensure that, as an additional Saturday on which to work, it does not put a burden on our armed forces. We should be doing more free events, and businesses across the land should consider how they can contribute to making that day special.
The Secretary of State will know that one way to honour our veterans population is by fully implementing the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland. She will also know that the reason why our Departments do not adhere to the spirit of the covenant is the sectarian intransigence of Sinn Féin. Is it not wrong that the people from whom our armed forces community protected us are precluding our offering service to our armed forces in return? Will she take steps to ensure full implementation?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman completely. We are talking about the armed forces of the United Kingdom. Wherever they are serving, wherever they are based and wherever they are from, I want them to be able to take part in events, and I also want to ensure that the public services provided to them are as they should be.
The importance of support for veterans should unite the whole House. Given the appalling track record of outsourcing, will the Secretary of State explain why her Government have invited private contractors to bid to run the medal office and certain veterans services?
I acknowledge the work that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) has done on veterans support, including through the gateway and the veterans strategy, on which we are currently consulting. I have also been doing work in the Department, looking at our obligations and how we are constituted.
Veterans: Universal Credit
As veterans are civilians, the majority of care comes from other Government Departments and devolved Administrations. The Ministry of Defence works closely with other stakeholders to target and improve veterans’ access to services, including those who are eligible for universal credit.
The Minister has just spoken about the relationship between the MOD and other Departments. A study by the Forces in Mind Trust charity has found that ex-service personnel have an overwhelmingly negative experience of universal credit and the fit for work test. What is he going to do about that?
When those who have served in uniform depart for civilian street it is very important that they are aware of the benefits for which they may or may not be eligible. Our transition programme now includes making sure that we improve the understanding of what armed forces personnel veterans can receive. I am pleased to say that the Secretary of State is working with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to make very clear that universal credit is available for those who are eligible.
Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss further how we can create the position of an armed forces covenant ombudsman, who would be an advocate for those who, like the constituent of the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), cannot get the resources they need from our public services and whose MPs are also unable to make progress?
I am aware that my hon. Friend has done a huge amount of work on this important matter, not least by lobbying me many times. She will be aware that the armed forces covenant is growing—we now have almost 4,000 signatories—but it is important that if somebody signs the covenant it meets their expectations. If it fails or falls foul of that, we need a system to recognise that. She raises a very interesting idea. I have spoken to the Secretary of State about it and we would be delighted to meet her to discuss it further.
Does the Minister recognise that the question raised by the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) is an addition to the litany of failures for those leaving the armed forces trying to access universal credit? Let us bring this issue to a head. Does he not now agree that it is time to support my Armed Forces Representative Body Bill to ensure that the armed forces can speak with one strong voice when they leave the armed forces as veterans?
The hon. Gentleman raises this matter almost weekly, but he misses the point. We ensure that we look after our veterans and they know whether they are eligible for universal credit. We do that by ensuring synergy and joint working between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Defence, not just in this area but in health and education and right across the piece. The armed forces can push these issues forward. We need to hold Government Departments to account and we do that through the Veterans Board.
For the benefit of people observing our proceedings who are not Members of the House I would simply add, non-pejoratively, that raising something weekly in the Chamber is a very modest effort. Raising things daily, or in some cases several times a day, is by no means unknown in, or condemned by, the House of Commons. It is perfectly normal.
Has the Minister had the opportunity to discuss with the Department for Work and Pensions the symptoms and expectations relating to post-traumatic stress disorder, and how it impacts on veterans applying for benefits and occasionally having to visit offices to receive the benefits they deserve?
I am grateful for that question. It has been raised many times and it is important to put it in context and in perspective. Not everybody who joins the armed forces will be affected—just two in every 1,000 people —but they need the attention and support that they absolutely deserve. The Secretary of State is meeting the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to discuss that very matter.
The Ministry of Defence regularly monitors the performance of all contractors, including outsourced key services. This is done via the use of contract performance indicators and action is taken when standards are not met.
Capita has completely failed to fulfil its contract for Army recruitment. This service should now be brought back in-house. When will the Government accept that their dogmatic insistence on outsourcing everything imaginable to the private sector is failing our armed forces and the taxpayer?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s assessment. The Minister for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend right hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) may have the opportunity to speak on this matter in a little bit more detail in a later question, but we are seeing a change in the trend. More people are showing an indication of interest in the armed forces. It is important we translate that into ensuring they actually sign up, but last year alone we had 77,000 applications of interest for the armed forces. I think that is a good step forward.
The Ministry of Defence has a target of spending 25% of its budget with small and medium-sized enterprises by 2022. What progress has been made towards achieving that target?
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. It is not just the big companies—aerospace and defence companies—we must look to support, but the SMEs, which are in every one of our constituencies. I am assured by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), the Minister with responsibility for procurement, that that is exactly what is happening.
It was good to see members of the armed forces and the Secretary of State herself at the Pride event in London at the weekend.
Last year, a departmental assessment of the privatisation of the fire and rescue service at the Ministry of Defence gave Capita the highest possible risk rate. Two months ago, following a court challenge and an £80,000 payment to Serco, the lead competitor, Capita was finally given a contract worth millions to deliver services all over the world, despite the huge financial risk. Why was £80,000 paid to Serco to allow that to go ahead? Does that not show up the whole problem with privatisation at the Ministry of Defence?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s assessment; it is important that we provide value for money. The defence budget is under pressure, as are all other Government Departments. He is absolutely right to say that Capita was going to be given the contract. It is subject to a legal challenge and we have to wait to see that mature, but let us not forget that even on Labour’s watch we had the outsourcing of fire contracts to other organisations, not least in Cyprus as well as at other bases including Aldermaston. This is not new; it is something that we have to advance.
A recent report by the Public Accounts Committee found that less than half of personnel would recommend the housing maintenance service provided by the company, Amey. Amey’s performance is so bad that the MOD has introduced a compensation scheme for maintenance issues, but unbelievably, the Department pays even when Amey is at fault. Will the Minister outline why hard-working taxpayers are expected to foot the bill when the MOD’s contract has failed to deliver?
The issue is to do with the key performance indicators, as I think the hon. Gentleman will agree. According to the standards that we see, 97% meet the requirements. We find that those indicators are set too low, and the Secretary of State is very conscious of that and of the need to raise them. We are reconciling the defence real estate to make sure that we improve accommodation, but I will not hide away from the fact that this has been very difficult, and we owe our armed forces personnel much, much better.
Veterans: Monitoring Schemes
Our resettlement programmes continue to develop to ensure that the transition from service to civilian life for all personnel is conducted as smoothly as possible. I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming the fact that 95% of personnel who participate in our career transition programme are in work or education within six months of departure.
I am grateful to the Minister for that encouraging reply. What case will he be making, as part of the forthcoming comprehensive spending review, to increase support for charities that provide mentoring for veterans, including particularly those in the criminal justice system, such as Care after Combat, which does brilliant work in that area?
My hon. Friend raises two issues. I join him in paying tribute to Care after Combat; what it does to provide support for those who find themselves imprisoned or on the wrong side of the law is absolutely brilliant, and we should all tip our hats to that. However, we must also recognise that the defence budget is under strain. It was affected by the spending review and austerity measures. In 2011 and 2016, we were obliged to find £5 billion-worth of efficiencies, which we did. We have subsequently been asked to find another £7 billion-worth of efficiencies. There is only so long that we can do this before it starts having an impact, and that is why it is important that we argue now, with the next spending review coming up, that we need more money for defence.
If we are to get this resettlement programme right for all our veterans, do we not need to make sure that we have properly assessed the medical injuries that they sustained during their period of service? In that light, is it not a shame that while the United States of America makes sure that every single person in the perimeter of a bomb blast is assessed for brain injury, we are not yet able to do that? We may still be misdiagnosing people who are suffering from PTSD when they have actually had a brain injury.
I know that the hon. Gentleman knows a lot about this issue. He is absolutely right to say that the advancement in the science now reflects the fact that even if someone can walk away from a blast, they can be affected long term by what has happened, and we are learning from the Americans on that. We have our transition programme, which can last up to two years to make sure that we manage the transition from the world of the armed forces to civilian life, but I absolutely agree with him that more can be done in this area.
Armed Services: Optimal Size
This Government have invested heavily in strengthening the UK’s armed forces so that we can deliver the tasks that we require of them, from maintaining the nuclear deterrent to defending against threats in airspace, and from supporting the police in counter-terrorism to providing disaster relief. We are committed to maintaining the size of the armed forces and Joint Force 2025 will offer us choice, agility and global reach.
The Secretary of State might be aware that my father and two brothers served in the British Army, and I am very concerned at the moment should we be threatened with invasion. Our Army is down to 82,000 men and women, yet the Russians have 1 million in their army and 1.5 million in reserves. Could we really defend this country if push came to shove?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s family members who have served, but yes we could defend ourselves. Just the other week, I was with HMS Albion and others from the nine Joint Expeditionary Force nations. There were 44 ships and submarines. It was the largest Royal Navy deployment in that region—just off Lithuania—for 100 years. Yes, we could defend ourselves, and the size of our trained and untrained strength is growing.
It is positive policies that this Conservative Government have implemented, such as the armed forces income tax compensation for those serving in Scotland and the decision to secure the long-term future of my base, RM Condor in Angus, that mean we can continue to recruit in Scotland. Will the Secretary of State commit to visiting RM Condor to see at first hand the Government’s great work in Angus?
These are the armed forces of the United Kingdom. We should celebrate them and ensure that our basing is spread across the four nations, and I would be delighted to visit at the earliest occasion.
With Devonport-based HMS Montrose forward deployed, we now need to consider how we can rotate crews effectively, not just on the Type 23s, but on the Type 31s, which hopefully will also be Devonport based. What advances and learnings have arisen from the forward deployment of HMS Montrose that could be applied elsewhere?
The hon. Gentleman is right. We can ensure that we are much more operationally effective and that people have a better quality of life while serving in the armed forces by enabling crews to be sent out and rotations to happen without their having to come back to base port. We continually learn from those exercises. It is another example of how the fleet is changing, and I think it suits everyone that it does.
I call the good doctor, Dr Julian Lewis.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I am pleased that the Secretary of State mentioned HMS Albion in an earlier answer. Does she recall that it is not that many months since her predecessor had to fend off moves to scrap HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark and to reduce the size of the Army by 11,000, the Royal Marines by 2,000 and the RAF by 1,250? Does she accept that there is a fight to be had with the real enemy here, and that is the Treasury?
I should declare an interest, as HMS Bulwark was the last ship I served on. I am very glad that she and Albion are still going. We are approaching a spending review, and I think we need to do more to tell the Treasury and the nation how much defence brings to this country—to the prosperity agenda, social mobility, research and development, innovation, and many other things. We need to tell that story because we need to keep our armed forces strong.
When the Treasury is up against the right hon. Gentleman, they ought to know when they are beaten. I say that having known him for 36 years in October.
Not only have RAF personnel numbers fallen by more than a quarter since 2010, but the Government are consistently failing to train enough pilots. Some 350 are currently on the waiting list, and the problem is going from bad to worse, the backlog having doubled in the past year. When will the Secretary of State get a grip on this situation and ensure that things are put right?
The pipeline for our pilots is one of the first things I asked about when I entered the Department. The numbers are improving, but it is an area where we are fragile; it is probably one of the areas where we are most fragile. That said, I would gently point out to the hon. Lady and the Opposition Front-Bench team that last I heard the leader of her party wished to reduce the headcount of our armed forces to zero.
I thank my hon. Friend for his cunning plan to get recruitment numbers up, although, given the Leader of the Opposition’s stance towards our armed forces, there might not be any places to be vacant.
UK Personnel: Local Support Services
Every local authority has signed the armed forces covenant, and the MOD works with local authorities and partner organisations to ensure that there is fair access to local support services.
MPs provide a valuable local service, not least for our military personnel, and I am grateful to Lieutenant Colonel Fraser McLeman and his team at Leuchars for the help that they have given me in that regard. The MOD recently sought to cancel one of my surgeries before the decision was overturned at the last minute. Will the Minister explain why there is a four-week wait following requests for surgeries by military families, and will he ensure that surgeries are cancelled only in exceptional circumstances—not least when they are held in local community facilities, where surgeries such as my own have been held in the past?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the tone in which he has raised this matter. He had the courtesy to raise it before questions. I should be delighted to meet him afterwards to see whether we can bring about some reconciliation, and make this work.
Armed Forces Personnel
We remain committed to maintaining the overall size of the armed forces, including the Army. A range of measures are under way to improve recruitment and retention, and those measures are kept under constant review. Importantly, the services continue to meet all their current commitments, keeping the country and its interests safe.
The Minister, along with every other Conservative Member of Parliament who was elected or re-elected in 2015, was elected on a manifesto promise that there would be a standing Army of 82,000. That has never been achieved since 2015, and, indeed, on 1 April the size of the fully trained Army was down to 75,000. The Minister may claim that the Government are meeting their commitments, but one commitment that they are not meeting is the commitment to an Army of the size that they promised in their manifesto. Is that still their policy, and, if not, can the Minister tell us at what point the policy was dropped?
Let us just see whether we can debunk this myth that Army numbers are somehow in freefall. On 1 May, the total size of the British Army, including the Brigade of Gurkhas, both trained and untrained, was 85,430. As of 1 June, one month later, according to the most recent figures that we have, the total size of the British Army, including the Brigade of Gurkhas, both trained and untrained, was 85,730. That is an increase of 300.
In 2010, there were 30,000 more fully trained armed forces personnel than there are today. Does that concern the Minister and does it concern the Government, and if it does not, why not?
As we enter the 21st century, we must accept that the armed forces are about more than simply mass. That is precisely why we are investing in technology, and it is why the battlefield of the 21st century will be a very different beast from that of the 20th. I am concerned about the drop below that figure that we have seen in recent years, but, as I have just demonstrated, we are turning the supertanker around. The size of the trained strength of the British Army can only be increased if it has untrained recruits. As I have demonstrated, we are now seeing an increase in the number of people joining the Army, and that is a positive development.
By when does the Minister think that the size of the Army will reach the Government’s target of just 82,000 fully trained personnel?
I am not going to predict exactly what that date will be. We are seeing an increase month on month, but that does not apply to all establishments: for example, Sandhurst has only three intakes per year and Harrogate has only one. I cannot give the exact date when the target will be hit, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would really expect me to, but I believe that we are now heading firmly in the right direction.
I visited Carterton Community College last week and observed the striking success of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics programme set up there by RAF Brize Norton. Does the Minister agree that such programmes not only teach young people important life skills, but provide the inspiration that may lead them to take up careers in the Royal Air Force or other armed forces, which will help to increase service numbers?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Indeed, there are many good reasons why young people would wish to join the armed forces, not least because our armed forces are now the largest provider of apprenticeships in the United Kingdom.
In 2012 we had 220,000 armed forces personnel; that number is now 190,000. Are there things that we were doing that we are no longer doing, or have we maintained operational readiness with fewer people?
That is quite a complicated question, particularly when we get into the question of readiness and the ability to hold people at the appropriate readiness for the threat that we face. As I have said, technology has changed significantly; for example, not every aircraft we have in the air is now manned by a pilot. We are investing in a number of things which mean that we require less overall manpower to deliver the effect we require in the 21st century.
When armed forces personnel put their hand up and decide to leave the armed forces, most of them participate in a transition programme, and that includes the opportunity to complete examinations such as A-levels and GCSEs—or O-levels in our old language—as well as tertiary education. It is very important to give them the best opportunity once they depart into civilian street.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that veterans having better access to education could be of huge benefit to them and upskill them so that they are ready to get back into the workforce? Furthermore, it would help reduce the barriers many veterans face on their return to civilian life.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. As the Secretary of State said, one of the advantages of having an armed force is that personnel provide such important skill sets while serving, but they can all be translated back into civilian street. It is important that we make people and society in general aware of the skill sets that are available—grip, tenacity, leadership and determination—and we must also make sure we translate military qualifications into civilian ones, to give personnel the best opportunity in life.
Mental Health Provision
We can be proud of the changes we have introduced through the armed forces mental health and wellbeing strategy—which I inherited when I came into this job from my predecessor as armed forces Minister. Of all the things we have been involved in, we can be particularly proud of changing the stigma associated with mental health issues in the armed forces, getting more people to talk about it and moving it towards parity with physical injury. There is still much work to do, but we are heading in the right direction.
I thank the Minister for that response and congratulate the Government on what they are doing. Will the Minister set out what steps his Department is taking in order to achieve that parity of esteem, which is so important to serving personnel?
The challenge we faced was that people were reluctant to come forward. They thought that if they put their hand up and said there was something wrong with their mind, that would somehow impact on their ability to be promoted or hold them back in some way. They would keep their problems to themselves, which would then incubate and eventually they would have to quit the very thing they loved: the armed forces itself. We have changed that with our focus on promoting better resilience, prevention to stop these things happening, and earlier detection and treatment. From putting that all together we are seeing far better results with people staying in the armed forces and not being hindered or affected by mental health issues.
According to the Centre for Mental Health, there is not a greater likelihood of veterans experiencing mental ill health than the rest of the population, but there is a significant increase in the likelihood of their having problems with alcohol, so can the Minister tell us what he is doing specifically on the issue of alcohol misuse among veterans, which is something I see in my community?
I am really pleased that the hon. Lady has put this in context because a myth is perpetuated that those who join the armed forces will be affected by mental challenges, but she is right that there are other challenges that we face, not least with alcoholism. We work closely with a number of charities, and we are also doing work as part of the transition services so that people are aware of where they can get treatment early on.
Fleet Solid Support Ships
Subject to normal approvals, we anticipate that a design and build contract will be awarded in 2020.
This has been a shambolic process in which overseas bidders have dropped out and the Government have begged them to rejoin the bidding process. Have Ministers not read the report by the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne) on the importance of defence spending to the UK economy? Is it not about time that the Government stopped this whole process and started offering the bids to UK-based shipyards, so that we can get the benefits of this major Government contract?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that we do have a team UK bid in there, and I am pleased to see that. As I have said on many occasions, we are trying to ensure that we get the very best price for all the capability we need. If we were to cancel this competition now, we would put at risk the services that we need for the carrier. That being said, we have been listening to all the debates and the many questions on this matter, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union stating that the option to support onshore defence funding for shipbuilding should be a red line in our future relationship with the EU. Of course, that will apply only to future programmes.
Other countries such as France and Italy classify these vessels as warships, meaning that they have to be built in domestic yards. Why will the Minister not just guarantee that a UK contractor will be the successful bidder and give a much-needed boost to UK industry?
As I have said, the EU has raised questions about the classification of some of those countries and the decisions that they have made. Also, some of those vessels are manned by those countries’ navies, whereas ours will be manned by the auxiliaries.
All of us on the Opposition Benches were heartened to hear the Defence Secretary say recently of the Ministry of Defence that
“we can and we must buy British”.
That would represent a welcome shift from her predecessor’s tendency to simply buy off the shelf from abroad, but the British shipbuilding industry needs action, not just warm words. So will the Minister now reconsider the Government’s short-sighted decision to put these ships out to international tender, and build them here instead?
As I have just announced, my right hon. Friend has made that policy decision. I also remind the hon. Gentleman that we have significant orders in UK shipyards. There is 20 years of work on the Clyde, for example. I cannot think of any other industry in the UK that can say that it has 20 years of work on its order books.
VE and VJ Days: Anniversary
The nation will be forever grateful to the greatest generation, who lived and fought through the second world war. The Government will provide opportunities to mark the 75th anniversaries of both VE and VJ Days next year. The move of the May bank holiday to Friday 8 May has already been announced, and planning is under way for the commemorative events. Details will follow very soon.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. My father is a veteran of the second world war; he served in India and Burma. Like many other veterans, he will be unable to get to any of the national VE Day celebrations due to his fragility. What more can be done to ensure that all our brave veterans feel part of these important commemorations?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s father for his service. Those who have served in our armed forces must be able to take part in those commemorative events. Indeed, they make those events; it is their stories and their presence that make them what they are. My Department will be writing to local government, and particularly to the armed forces covenant champions, to remind them that events must be accessible and that we must think about how to include in those events veterans who are too frail to travel.
I am absolutely delighted with my right hon. Friend’s announcement, but will she please reassure me that equal expenditure and prominence will be given to VJ Day? These heroes have been forgotten for too long, as the late Lord Louis Mountbatten said, and they suffered terrible atrocities in the Japanese prisoner of war camps.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The events are tailored in regard to their tone and scale and the number of people attending them, and we might not be able to guarantee that the cost will be split exactly between the two events. That might differ, but the prominence of the events will not differ. That will be the same.
Defence Procurement: Jobs
MOD official statistics show that our spending with UK industry in 2017-18 directly supported 115,000 jobs across the country.
I thank the Minister for his work to ensure that the propulsion systems for the Navy’s Type 26 frigates will continue to be built in Rugby and for the security and future opportunities that that will give much of the workforce. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that we train up the next generation of skilled engineers to continue that vital work?
I recognise the important role that my hon. Friend played in ensuring that the GE facilities were maintained in Rugby. I agree that it is absolutely vital to ensure that the defence sector has the right skills to meet all our needs. Many of our suppliers have well established programmes and schemes to ensure that that happens, and we continue to work through the Defence Suppliers Forum and the Defence Growth Partnership to ensure that those skills and training are maintained.
Ah! Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Or, as one might say, R2-D2 and C-3PO.
The Secretary of State highlighted in an earlier answer the importance of the prosperity agenda for defence contracts. I know that the Minister has read the recent report on shipbuilding and ship procurement in the UK by the all-party parliamentary group on shipbuilding. Will he tell the House what weighting will be given to prosperity in awarding the fleet solid support contracts?
I was looking at the two right hon. Gentlemen and wondering whether it was more like Waldorf and Statler, but I will not be so rude—although I have just have been. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: when we look at the contracts, not just for the shipbuilding but for the content within, there are huge opportunities for the UK supply chain, where much more of the value exists. I recognised that in his all-party group’s recent report, and his and other right hon. and hon. Members’ work will inform much of the decision making on our future policy.
Come, come, young Spellar—your turn now.
I hope that the Minister will also acknowledge the great role of the Defence Committee, under the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) as Chairman, and the trade unions in maintaining the facility at GE Rugby and seeing off GE’s attempts to close it. May I bring the Minister back to the solid support ship contract and ask him to answer the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones)? What weighting is given to prosperity? Will he please stop blaming the European Union, when every other country in the European Union looks after its own industry and supports its own yards and its own steel industry? Why will he not show some gumption and do the same?
I thought I had shown some gumption. As I have said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said that the policy will be changing—
Why don’t you change it now?
I have just explained that the timelines are critical in the current competition, because the existing fleet that will offer support to the carrier will be coming to the end of its life. We have to have that capability. Surely he thinks that is more important than just trying to score a political point.
Royal Fleet Auxiliary
Members of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary are MOD civil servants. Their terms and conditions, including their pay, are subject to civilian rules for the wider public sector. As such, pay is subject to HM Treasury civil servant pay guidance. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary continues to engage with the maritime trade unions and has further meetings planned to discuss pay.
I point out to the Minister that in 2018 the Royal Fleet Auxiliary carried out about 64% of the tasks credited to the Royal Navy. Nevertheless, the pay cap, which has been lifted for Royal Navy personnel, is being maintained for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. We in this House value the contribution and dedication of the seafarers who keep our Royal Navy at sea. What steps has the Minister taken to resolve the current dispute?
I think it is fair to say that the whole House values the role of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. Indeed, last summer I spent the most fascinating week on board RFA Mounts Bay in the Caribbean to see the work being done in preparation for the hurricane season. I have explained the conditions under which the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s pay is reviewed, as civil servants, but I reassure the House that of course we would like to see a constructive end to this dispute, and I am confident that that will be the case.
I welcome The Sun’s campaign. We will shortly bring forward the first stage to legislate on closing down litigation against our armed forces for historical allegations. Although we hold our armed forces to the highest standards, we have seen that so much litigation against them has not been in the pursuit of justice. Although I note and pay tribute to the work of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), on the veterans strategy and the veterans gateway, the MOD is not constitutionally responsible for veterans. The MOD, as a consequence, has not directly commissioned services and support for veterans, which has meant that some services we provide for serving members of the armed forces that could benefit veterans have not been available to them. I believe that needs to change, so we are consulting partners on changing the MOD’s constitutional role with regard to veterans.
The all-party parliamentary group on the British Council, which I chair, has been overseeing an inquiry into aspects of the UK’s soft power capabilities. How does defence diplomacy fit into the Government’s overall soft power strategy?
Defence engagement, in all its forms, is vital to promoting the UK’s influence, values and intentions around the world, whether it is promoting stability and prosperity, tackling environmental challenges or responding to natural disasters and humanitarian need. Our strongest relationships with some nations are military to military, and we need to make sure that the contribution of defence to the objectives of One HMG is really understood.
At a time when Army numbers are consistently falling, it is all the more important that we draw on the widest possible pool of recruits. Why, then, has there been a 45% increase in the number of officer cadets admitted to Sandhurst from independent schools, compared with just a 7% increase from state schools? I know the Secretary of State is personally committed to creating a level playing field, so could she set out what she will do to seek out the brightest and best from all backgrounds?
If the hon. Lady had listened to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces earlier, she would know that our trained and untrained strength is actually not decreasing. The number of recruits coming in is actually going up, but social mobility is important. Of course the MOD can always do more, but our armed forces are one of the greatest agents for social mobility in this country. They are one of the largest education providers in this country, and we ought to continue encouraging them to do more.
I am a little disappointed by that answer because when it comes to officers, there is a lot more that can be done. It is not just those from state schools who face barriers: just 10 of this year’s 600-strong cadet intake to Sandhurst are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds—just 10. According to the MOD’s own statistics, the regulars and the reserves are also missing the Government’s 2020 target for BAME representation.
Will the Secretary of State now commit to a root-and-branch review of recruitment barriers to ensure that we have properly staffed and fully representative armed forces?
We already have a very clear idea of the barriers that exist and of the barriers that existed in the past, which is why our community engagement programmes are so important and why, since coming to the Department, I have protected those budgets.
I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in thanking everyone who took part in Armed Forces Day at Queen’s Park. I understand that regular personnel, veterans, reservists and cadets were all represented in that celebration, and I applaud the county, too, for its work on several events held across Staffordshire.
I agree that more needs to be done, and indeed Members of this House can help us do this as well. Community engagement is vital—[Interruption.] Indeed, I understand that the hon. Gentleman is doing his bit to ensure that that happens. We have to ensure that our armed forces look like the individuals they are there to defend and protect. They are there for all of us; they are our armed forces, and that must be the view and sentiment in every community in the UK.
My hon. Friend raises an important point, and the MOD takes the threat of the nefarious use of drones very seriously. Using the defence transformation fund, we are working with the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, international partners and industry to further develop our counter-drone capabilities, and of course they will be used to protect defence infrastructure wherever they are needed. More broadly, a lot of the responsibility for protecting other sites in the UK lies with the police, but we will always be there to help if needed.
The last time the Secretary of State was at the Dispatch Box, we discussed an internal MOD policy on torture that contravenes domestic and international law. She promised a review. Has the review happened? Has the policy been dumped?
That review has concluded. I have looked at it and the policy will be changing.
There is something unique about our armed forces: the sense of belonging, duty and pride one has in working in such a collegiate operation. Leaving that armed forces environment and going into the civilian world can be a culture shock, which is why we have our transition programme, which can last up to two years, in order to support people. Occasionally, however, extra help is needed, and I pay tribute to Combat Stress for the work it does in providing that support if it is required.
I think the figures I have quoted speak for themselves; we are now increasing the size of the British Army.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. We have a rebuild programme, whereby £4 billion is being put in to make sure we provide that state-of-the-art accommodation for our future defence capability. However, I agree with him that we need to do more to make sure we provide the type of housing that the recruits we want to bring in to the force deserve.
I should just clarify the difference between those who are serving and those who are veterans. In the case of veterans, each health authority now provides the transition, intervention and liaison service, to give veterans the mental health support that they deserve. In the case of those who are serving, as I touched on before, our mental health and wellbeing strategy is doing far more, which is why more people are putting their hand up to say, “I need help.” That is a good thing.
Having achieved initial operating capability from land in December 2018, and with the successful completion of its first operation, the Lightning programme is now focused on delivering initial operational capability for carrier strike, which is planned for December 2020.
Within four weeks of the Salisbury incident last year, Russia Today and Sputnik published 138 separate and contradictory narratives and 735 articles about the chemical weapons poisoning of the Skripals by Russian agents. There were dozens of different narratives on the rise of Novichok, its use, how it was not Russia’s fault and how Russia was the victim of a witch hunt. It is one of the examples that Russia is deploying in hybrid warfare. What plans does the Secretary of State have to announce the role of the cross-Government use of the Fusion doctrine? How able are the Government to expand the use of the 77 Brigade, if needed?
I declare my interest as deputy commander of the 77 Brigade, which means this is a subject close to my heart. Hybrid threats present themselves in many domains, so we utilise a whole-of-Government approach to protecting the UK against such activity. The MOD works collaboratively with other Government Departments, in line with the Fusion doctrine, to support that approach.
Just a couple of weeks ago, we saw the RAF livery on the first of the UK’s new Poseidon P-8 aircraft. Will the Secretary of State come up to RAF Lossiemouth to see how the base is preparing for the new aircraft and for hundreds of additional personnel? She will also be able to see the work done by Boeing and local firm Robertson to construct the Poseidon facility.
I would be happy to visit Lossiemouth. This is a critical capability that is returning to us. The manufacture of the second aircraft is on delivery for January 2020.
Will the Secretary of State commit to spend more to protect UK intellectual property, which is the underpinning of our high-tech defence industry?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We had that extra £1.8 billion in the most recent Budget because this is the exactly the sort of area we will look at. I assure him that I have regular meetings with industry and with the forces to talk about those very issues.
I am sure my right hon Friend the Secretary of State would agree that the reserve forces are a crucial component of our armed forces generally, so will she update the House on how retention and recruitment is going? Specifically, are we managing to get former regulars to rejoin as reserves and bring their expertise with them?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We continue to utilise reserves and now have a target to ensure that they are used on operations, which helps with retention. I am pleased to say that the size of our reserve forces continues to grow.
Defence Equipment and Support procures for the Ministry of Defence, but constituents who work there tell me that morale has plummeted since it became a bespoke trading entity, and it is now the joint worst-performing department in the civil service top people survey index. Will Ministers look into this?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. The staff survey results were frankly disappointing, but I assure her that a tremendous amount of work has been done with the workforce to improve the situation. We look forward to seeing improved results in the next survey.
I think I should call a shy and understated Member who requires encouragement: Mr Mark Francois.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The A400M is an emerging procurement disaster. We have paid £2.6 billion for an aircraft with appalling reliability, bad engines, a virtually broken gearbox, problem propellers, massive vibration problems and an inability to deliver paratroops. There was recently a NATO ministerial meeting of the partner nations to decide what to do about the disaster. What was the outcome of that meeting?
My right hon. Friend is right to highlight the issues with the A400M. I can assure him that I attended that ministerial meeting: it was an extremely robust meeting with industry. The performance has been totally unacceptable. We are now expecting EuroProp International, the engine manufacturer, to be more empowered to negotiate the support solutions that we need. Airbus Defence and Space has also been held to account, but, following the problems with the engines and gear boxes, those parts will be replaced on each of the aircraft by the middle of next year.
Coming back to the fleet support ships, will the Minister tell us whether the savings from tax and national insurance of workers building these ships will be one of the criteria used for a successful UK bid?
As I have said on many occasions when answering these questions, we follow the Green Book rules with the Treasury, but we will continue to have those conversations with the Treasury about the wider prosperity agenda that our defence industry brings to the UK.
Rates of pay have an important role to play in retention and recruitment, particularly perhaps among the younger, newly recruited members. What consideration has my right hon. Friend given to introducing the concept of the living wage to our armed forces?
I think that that is what we should be doing. Our armed forces have been exempt from that, so I have said that we must do it. It would mean a pay increase of a couple of thousand pounds for the lowest paid soldiers, sailors, airmen and women, but I think that that is what we should be doing. That is certainly my policy.
The Canadians and Australians are applying to build more Type 26 frigates than the United Kingdom now is. Part of the reason is that they have invested in world-class purpose-built new shipyards whereas the UK has not. Will the Secretary of State review our 2015 decision to cancel the purpose-built shipyard for Type 26 and ensure that we get the investment needed to make our industry world class?
The hon. Gentleman will know that that was a decision made by BAE Systems, and it is ultimately responsible for it. The fact is, as I said earlier, that we have 20 years of work at those shipyards. I cannot remember them having such significant orders under the previous Government.
There does not seem to be any lack of applicants to join the armed forces, so can the Minister tell us what progress is being made to shorten the time between application and the start of basic training?
I thank my hon. Friend for the question. May I also thank him for inviting me to Armed Forces Day in Stirling last weekend? He was a wonderful host.
There has been a project to try to reduce what we call the time of flight. I am delighted to say that that has had good results, with the time of flight now being halved, and we are looking to roll that out across the whole of the recruiting programme.
If the future accommodation model is pushed through by the Government, which looks very likely, will the Minister guarantee that no member of the armed forces will be pushed into the private rented sector against their wishes?
No, the purpose of the future accommodation model is to provide opportunity and a series of options, whether people live inside the wire, rent or get on the housing ladder. That will enable us to attract more people to join the armed forces.
Ah, the three musketeers.
The number of service personnel in the highlands has fallen by 22% since 2012 and 10% over the past year alone. Is that a sign that the Government are starting the early rundown of Fort George?
The announcement on Fort George under the better defence estate strategy remains as it is, but the hon. Gentleman will know of our commitment to our armed forces personnel in Scotland. I am sure that he is delighted that he will shortly have the whole of the submarine fleet based in Scotland.
In a ministerial response to my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), the Minister stated a whole raft of subjects on which armed forces personnel need support and advice. Did he not make the case for a representative body for the armed forces?
I do not need to do that, because we have had this question so many times that I have given the answer so many times.
Let me change the tone. A service is taking place in Tallinn today to commemorate the 107 members of the Royal Navy and the five members of the Royal Air Force who fought and died for the independence of Estonia and Latvia. I am sure that the Secretary of State wishes to come to the Dispatch Box to pay tribute to those who gave their lives and to reinforce the United Kingdom’s commitment to the Baltic states in their battles today.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to do exactly that. We owe those individuals a huge debt of gratitude. I was recently on board HMS Albion with the chiefs and Ministers of those nations and the other joint expeditionary force nations, discussing how we can take our partnership forward.
UK Ambassador to USA: Leaked Emails
(Urgent Question): Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I know that many in the House, and no doubt—[Interruption.] Oh, sorry.
Blurt it out, man.
To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement about the leaks from the UK ambassador’s office in Washington.
Thankfully we will hear more from the hon. Gentleman erelong—hopefully very fully.
Her Majesty’s Government utterly deplore the serious breach of classified information; it is totally unacceptable. As the Prime Minister has already said, we retain full confidence in the British ambassador to Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, for whom we have enormous respect as a distinguished and long-serving diplomat.
The Prime Minister and the British public expect our ambassadors to provide Ministers with an honest and unvarnished assessment of the politics in their country. We pay our ambassadors to be candid, just as the US ambassador here will send back his candid reading of Westminster politics and personalities. But it does not mean that this is the same as what the British Government think. A cross-Government investigation led by the Cabinet Office has been launched, which I can reassure the whole House will be thorough and wide-ranging.
I apologise for the slightly false start. I am extremely concerned, as I know many others in the House are, by the leaking of communications from the UK ambassador’s office in Washington that has been widely reported over the weekend. I fear that we are developing a culture of leaks, and that will be extremely detrimental to the UK because leaks damage our reputation, have an impact on our ability to function effectively and undermine our relationships with our allies.
Although I understand that the Foreign Office has opened an inquiry into this leak, I have today written to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police to ask that she also opens a criminal investigation into the leak. I have asked her for reassurance that all necessary resources will be made available to ensure that the source of the leak is determined, as a priority. I have also today asked the Foreign Secretary for details of the leak inquiry: who commissioned it; whom it will report to; whether it will be published; whether serving Ministers, officials and their predecessors will be compelled to participate; and what happens if they do not.
This leak is not just a problem for the Foreign Office; it affects the entire Government. I have heard already today reports of senior serving military officers who are increasingly concerned that the reports that they write may also not be kept secret. I have written to the Prime Minister to share this view and to ask her to ensure that all relevant parts of Government are asked to help to investigate the leak, and to urge her to respond robustly to prevent similar incidents from occurring. I want confirmation from the Minister that this issue is being treated with the seriousness it requires, at the heart of Government. He has already spoken powerfully to condemn it. I would like him to treat the issue with the seriousness with which he has already begun, and to order a criminal inquiry. Does he agree that whichever parts of the Government can help to look into the source of this leak—including the security services—should be asked to assist with the matter urgently, and that any actions short of these steps will send out a dangerous message that the UK is reckless with information and cavalier with the trust placed in it?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and supportive statements over the weekend. I share his deep concerns about this unacceptable leak for exactly the reasons that he has clearly set out, and I reassure him that it is being treated with the full seriousness that it deserves. There will be a cross-Government investigation, led by the Cabinet Office. Obviously it is not for me to prejudge the inquiry, but I can assure him, and the House, that it will be comprehensive and that, as with all leak inquiries, it will endeavour to report its findings clearly—and if evidence of criminality is found, then yes, the police could be involved. The most important focus is to establish who is responsible for this despicable leak.
Again, I am grateful that my hon. Friend’s experience in the Army and in international affairs has been able to lend a voice of authority to the condemnation that we should all wish to express.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I also thank the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for securing it. We have already heard powerful statements from him, from the Minister of State, and indeed from the Minister’s current boss—the Foreign Secretary—and the Prime Minister denouncing the leak and the damage that it is going to do to the confidence of our civil servants working abroad to honestly feed back their insights and opinions on the situations that they are best placed to assess.
Let us remember why this is so important. Forty years ago, the Iranian revolution reached its climax. The Shah’s army withdrew to barracks rather than fight their fellow citizens in the streets of Tehran and effectively ceded control of the country to Ayatollah Khomeini. It was an event that sent shockwaves through the middle east and triggered deep soul searching at the Foreign Office: how had it failed to see this coming in in a country that was regarded as such a close ally and such a vital trading partner? The concern was great enough that the Foreign Secretary, David Owen, commissioned an internal inquiry conducted by the late Sir Nicholas Browne into what had gone wrong.
The conclusions from Sir Nicholas became a cautionary tale for the entire diplomatic corps about the need for UK representatives abroad to keep making sound objective judgments about the countries in which they are based, oblivious to political bias or strategic interests. Kim Darroch was working in the Foreign Office when that report was published. He learned the lessons from it, and now he has been betrayed. He has been hung out to dry even though his only crime was to tell the truth. He told the truth about Donald Trump, and that was because it was his job.
I do not want to get into all the conspiracy theories as to where the leaks came from or whatever personal ambitions or rivalries have driven them. Instead, I have a simple question for the Minister: as well as the leak inquiry that the Government are now undertaking, will he also commit to providing an update of Nicholas Browne’s recommendations to reassure all our diplomats abroad that when they feed back their reports they do not need to fear politically motivated leaks and they can—as, for the good of our country, they must—keep telling the truth?
First, may I thank the right hon. Lady for her very measured response to this? I am very grateful, particularly as I know that she personally has some quite strong views about America and the current regime. She is absolutely right that the importance of candid advice is paramount. If that does not exist, our really wonderful diplomatic network is seriously diminished. Indeed, I remember—I am just old enough—the Iranian revolution and the conclusion reached that the then ambassador, Sir Anthony Parsons, had painted too rosy a picture, in his telegrams, of the Shah’s regime. Therefore, frank reporting is absolutely crucial.
I can give the right hon. Lady the assurance she seeks that we, as Ministers in the Foreign Office, can always reassure ambassadors that, if they speak truth unto power, they will never be personally criticised for doing so. Indeed, sometimes the more awkward it is, the more we respect and praise them for their honesty and their perceptions.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that all our ambassadors are expected to report frankly and privately, especially on the substance of incoming Administrations in the country to which they are accredited? Will he confirm that Sir Kim Darroch, who was only doing his job, should not be pilloried for that? Should not my right hon. Friend also send a message from this House that Sir Kim has not only the confidence of Her Majesty’s Government but the confidence of Parliament?
I think that the ambassador will be very heartened by the message that my right hon. Friend is asking the whole House to give him, and I hope that all in it share the view expressed by my right hon. Friend. Indeed, we do have full confidence in Sir Kim. He is expected to report, and it is unfair that little bits have been taken out of context, in some cases to sensationalise the contents of his diptels—diplomatic telegrams. Over the two and a half years of this Administration, his telegrams have been extremely balanced, and if they were ever to be seen in their entirety, which they might be in 30 years’ time, the picture painted of what he has been saying would be very different.
I thank the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for raising this issue and for the action that he has rightly taken. I also thank the Minister for making a strong statement; that is the correct thing to do. That said, there are Members in his own party for whom everyone else is collateral in this Brexit mess and the damaging infighting it has caused, which has nothing to do with the best interests of the citizens they are supposed to serve.
Officials, and especially ambassadors, must be able to provide frank advice to Ministers about foreign leaders. The Minister recognises the value of officials being open to Ministers without fear or favour, even if others in his party do not. Given the seriousness of this leak, what action does he feel should be taken? If an elected official is involved, does he feel that that person is worthy of ministerial office?
Furthermore, I have seen some reports that people think it is a good idea to have Mr Farage as the UK ambassador in Washington. He is leading his second party that has been overwhelmingly rejected both by the people of North East Fife and by Scotland as a whole, and it will be rejected again, should he stand. Does the Minister agree that Mr Farage, with his extreme views, is utterly unfit for the post of UK ambassador to the USA and should have no place in any Administration of which the Minister is a part?
This is not about Brexit. This is about an utterly disgraceful leak, and whoever is responsible needs to be traced and punished. We would make no distinction between a Member of Parliament, a Minister, an official or anybody else in trying to trace and punish who has leaked these documents. In respect of the hon. Gentleman’s comments about Nigel Farage, fortunately, for the good of our diplomatic reputation, he has ruled himself out of wanting to be ambassador to Washington.
Although Mr Farage has ruled himself out, the question still arises of what the effect would be if Sir Kim felt that his position had become untenable and, instead of retiring in a few months’ time as planned, he had to go earlier. One effect would surely be that an outgoing Prime Minister had a say in the replacement, rather than the new Prime Minister. Would it not be sensible for Sir Kim to be encouraged to stay in post, so that there is no temptation for an outgoing Prime Minister to appoint to a plum job one of her inner circle?
I have no wish whatsoever to comment on the process by which any future ambassador to Washington will be chosen. All I will say is what I said earlier: we have full confidence in Sir Kim Darroch, and he retains the entire confidence of the Government and all of us who serve as Ministers in the Foreign Office.
It is clear that whoever was responsible for this was not thinking of the national interest. The whole House supports Sir Kim Darroch in doing his job, which is to report home without fear or favour. Does the Minister think that the expression of support for the ambassador’s position from the Prime Minister and others has been slightly undermined by the Foreign Secretary saying that he did not agree with the ambassador’s assessment? It would be helpful to the House if the Minister could explain why that is the case, because it seems to many of us that Sir Kim was only reporting what lots of other people can see for themselves.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was making a distinction between what is analytical reporting and what is said to be the view of the Government. In that sense, he was absolutely right to try to draw that distinction and he, I and everybody else have full confidence in Sir Kim Darroch.
These toxic and unjustified attacks on the President of the United States and his Administration are completely—[Interruption.]
They are regarded by many people as completely unjustified. As Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, I was more than well aware of Sir Kim’s own prejudices in relation to the EU. Surely it is not his so-called frankness that should be the issue, but his lack of judgment that disqualifies him from his post.
I regret to have to say that I consider my hon. Friend’s intervention deeply unworthy. Sir Kim Darroch is a diplomat of calibre and of integrity. Nothing in his reporting from the embassy could ever be construed as an attack on the President of the United States. All of it was reporting of the highest quality, which we expect of our diplomats and diplomatic network.
May I commend the Minister and indeed the Secretary of State for International Trade for defending our ambassador? Will the Minister take this opportunity to guarantee that our need—our desperate need—for a trade deal with the US is not going to stop our ambassador from speaking frankly, and will he also take this opportunity to dismiss the idea of the conspiracy theorists that this is some deep-state, anti-Brexit plot by the establishment?
Rather, I would say that everything we are witnessing is a sign of a very deep and serious relationship between our two countries, in which so much between us is assumed, on so many layers in so many areas, on a basis of trust that nothing—incidents such as this could be listed among such things—will ever get between us in that way. So the relationship is solid and no conspiracies can be put forward to suggest that this is either a Brexit plot or a trade deal plot: this is straightforwardly a despicable leak and we will endeavour to find out who did it.
Inevitably, however, there will be aspects of the ambassador’s role that will now be much more difficult to carry out, won’t they?
But as with so many diplomats, Sir Kim Darroch has the style and confidence that will make sure that he can.
It is inconceivable that a leak intended to damage our serving ambassador in Washington came from a fellow civil servant, so will the Minister confirm that the telephone and email records of serving and former Ministers and special advisers in the Foreign Office will be part of the investigation? Given the close relationship between the journalist who received this leak and leading pro-Brexit politicians, what does he think was the motivation behind it?
I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that I have been rather puzzled over the weekend about what the motivation could be, because any kind of scenario I put into my head does not seem to add up. On his question, that will of course be for the inquiry. I would merely point out that one of the leaked documents was from two years ago and three were from about eight to 10 days ago.
Does my right hon. Friend share my confidence that this episode is most unlikely to have any lasting effect on our relationship either with this Administration or with the United States in general? May I commend the Government for taking the right tack, which is to condemn the leaker and to back our diplomat?
I certainly condemn the leaker, and I certainly back our ambassador and his entire team in what is an excellent embassy. I very much hope that this causes no upset. I imagine that some of the reports from the US embassy in London will be saying some quite interesting things about the state of our politics. That will not necessarily represent the view of the ambassador or the US Administration; it will be people reporting from post back to the capital about what they think is going on. That is what they are there to do.
The Foreign Office simply cannot function or do its job properly on behalf of all of us unless a confidentiality guarantee is written into the whole fundamental system. In the 1930s, the British ambassador in Berlin regularly reported back in a way that sought to please the Prime Minister here, as well as the Führer in Germany. Is it not absolutely vital that all our ambassadors and high commissioners around the world are certain that their job is to tell the truth, not only about the country in which they are resident, but to Ministers here, whatever those Ministers may think?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who, of course, has experience as a Foreign Minister, so he knows this process very well. It is not the purpose of an ambassador to ingratiate themselves with anybody; they are there to tell the truth, and it benefits everybody when they do, but leaks of this sort make that more difficult. I very much hope that our ambassador to Washington will not in any way feel browbeaten by the media onslaught. He has the full support of every single person in this House of Commons.
When the Minister for the Americas first saw these leaked diptels, was there anything in them that surprised him?
No, because obviously I had seen them before. I have had the benefit over two and a half years of seeing all reporting of this nature from Washington. I say again to the House that it is very balanced. Picking out a few little bits that can be construed as critical of what were, in fact, analyses at a critical time in Washington politics is a distortion of the broad picture of support and understanding, of a very high quality, that has come from Washington over the past two and a half years.
As the Minister has said, Sir Kim Darroch was doing his job, and the kinds of things that have been reported have been reflected in many other accounts of the White House, including in published books. What is more interesting is why this was leaked and what the consequences might be. We have already seen this morning a full, broad, nationalist, right-wing attack on the civil service as a result of this. What guarantee can we have that the new regime taking over Government at the end of the month will not indulge in that kind of nationalist, right-wing attack on institutions such as the civil service and the judiciary, which are essential for a representative parliamentary democracy?
The new regime, as the right hon. Gentleman calls it, will have to speak for itself when it has taken its place. There is something else that this House should condemn very strongly: the comments of Nigel Farage, who immediately jumped on the political bandwagon, as he saw it, and called for the ambassador to be sacked. For many people, what little respect they might have had for him will have evaporated even further when they heard that.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply to the extraordinary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash). Those of us who have had briefings from Sir Kim, both in his current role and when he was at UKRep, will know how balanced and professional they are, so I am very grateful to the Minister for the position he has taken. I also hope that a message will go out right across the diplomatic service, and to Ministers and potential future Ministers, that all the agencies resourced by our Government will be used in inquiries, and that those found to have done this will really regret having done so.
My right hon. Friend serves on the Intelligence and Security Committee, and so is familiar with the organisations that I think he is suggesting should be deployed. The Cabinet Office will use all its means to delve into this matter and try to find the culprit. I wholly agree with him that if we succeed in tracing who did this, they should regret that moment for the rest of their life.
Sir Kim Darroch has always given honest and frank reports, no matter which party he has represented. Whenever delegations go to the US, it is vital that the briefings they receive are honest and impartial, and they always have been. A positive thing happened this morning during my journey to the station: so many people I spoke to who had tuned into Radio 4 turned off the minute Nigel Farage was brought on to comment, because they felt his opinion on Sir Kim was so appalling.
I would rather like to echo everything the hon. Lady has said. I also heard him on the radio, and after throwing something at it, I switched it off. The Washington embassy is a remarkable institution. The number of people who go through it every year is enormous, yet the staff and the diplomatic team cope marvellously—with style, dignity and a warm welcome—and make everybody feel they have been paid proper attention to. I commend them for everything they do; long may it continue.
Does the Minister agree that if the person leaking has signed a declaration on the Official Secrets Act, then the Act would appear to have been broken, and a breach of the law will have taken place? The police will have to be called, because the matter appears to be criminal.
The inquiry will be thorough, and whatever the law says, it will be followed appropriately.
I thank the Minister for his responses to these questions. He is always very balanced. Does he not agree that the leak of this information is simply not good enough, and that steps need to be taken to prevent such leaks? Will consideration be given to amending disciplinary proceedings for those in public service to underline the severity of the consequences for their personal career, and the fact that they may have to answer a case in law?
We have the Official Secrets Act so that people can answer in law. Ministers are bound by the ministerial code. Whether there should be any increase in the severity of punishments that might be applied is probably a longer-term question. In the meantime, it is important that the inquiry finds out who did it and absolutely nails them.
Does my right hon. Friend see any link at all between the timing of this appalling leak, and the fact that just over a week ago it was announced in the media that Sir Mark Sedwill coveted the position of ambassador in Washington?
Forgive me, but I find these conspiracy theories rather tiresome. They are a diversion from the focus we should have, which is to appreciate the severity of what has happened; find the culprit; and unite, across the House, in making sure that we all agree on the matter and support our ambassador to Washington.
The Minister and I share something in common: we both throw things at the radio when Nigel Farage comes on. Why the BBC continues to persist with him as a commentator is completely beyond my comprehension. That leads me to my question. Can the Minister assure the House that this leak was not politically motivated, and did not aim to ensure that senior members of his Government could place a political ambassador in our most important embassy in the world?
I have to give the same answer I gave some moments ago, which is that that smacks a bit of a conspiracy theory. The motivation behind the leak is difficult to analyse and assess. What matters is the fact that there was a leak. That is what we have to focus on and address.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress the enduring links between the United States Administration and ours, but can I pick him up on one small point? He said in answer to a question that if it was found—as it clearly should be—that a criminal offence had taken place with this leak, there could be a prosecution. Surely there should be a prosecution.
Any decision to prosecute, as my hon. Friend appreciates, is a matter for those authorities who assess the evidence and then make the decision, so it would be inappropriate for me to suggest that something is certain, although I accept that he was asking about what would happen, conditionally. However, I hope he will appreciate that our view is that the investigation should be deep, thorough and severe, and that we should follow the law if we find the culprit.
We need to call this out for what it is: the individual or individuals responsible for this leak have betrayed this country, and those attempting to justify it and to attack our ambassador and our civil servants are guilty of deeply un-British and deeply unpatriotic behaviour. I have been on the receiving end of diptels, and I agree with the Minister about how balanced they are and how crucial they are to good decision making in Government—not least after the Chilcot report and what that taught us about decision making. Will the Minister therefore tell us what steps are being taken to increase the security around the circulation and handling of diplomatic telegrams?
On the preamble to the hon. Gentleman’s question, I say: well said, in every conceivable respect. I agree with what he said. A review of classifications and security decisions of this sort in our communications, and their distribution, will, I am sure, be looked at, but I hope that he appreciates that our first priority must be to investigate the leak.
This is an extremely serious leak of not just one highly sensitive diplomatic cable, but a number of them over a relatively long period. I endorse the request from the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), and several other hon. Members that the police be called in, and that a criminal investigation take place. However, until that happens, will the Minister confirm that the Cabinet Office inquiry, which he has announced today, will be led by the Cabinet Secretary personally, who, of course, has had experience of heading up sensitive inquiries in recent months?
The Cabinet Office inquiry will be cross-Whitehall, and will report in the normal way up the line of seniority.
There has been some speculation about how long Kim Darroch will remain in his post. Given his excellent record, and the fact that he is clearly talking truth, regardless of the possible implications for the relationships with the country concerned, would not the best answer to President Trump and some in this House be for the Minister to recommend that Sir Kim Darroch’s term be extended beyond the end of this year, so that he can continue to comment on the uniquely dysfunctional and inept Trump presidency?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his extremely unhelpful ingenuity. Any decision about when Sir Kim finishes in Washington will not, I hope, in any way be influenced by the events over the weekend.
Whoever leaked these signals will have signed the Official Secrets Act, which means that they should not divulge anything “confidential”, “secret”, “top secret” or above. This is the act of a traitor and, whoever has done it, we should deploy everything that we have against that person under the Official Secrets Act.
Yes; our Government, diplomacy, ministerial activity and the actions of civil servants all need to be underpinned by trust, and trust means that people have to be able to keep confidences, not leak inappropriately—or leak at all—and not divulge information that should not be leaked. This is a total and inexcusable breach of trust, and without that trust, Government cannot function. I hope that the investigation that has been started will be able to find out who did this.
The Minister’s tone today is spot-on, and right and proper. Given that the leaks took place over two and a half years, will he examine how many people have had access to all that material? Will he also confirm that the United Kingdom Government, not the American Government, choose the ambassador to the United States?
We of course appoint ambassadors as we see fit, in the interests of the country and the bilateral relationships they serve. As I understand it, the leaked emails are two years apart—one cluster is very recent and one is from two years ago—so it is not quite right to say they have been leaked consistently throughout that period, but we do not know if there are any others in the wrong hands that might subsequently be leaked. I say for the umpteenth time that I hope the investigation is successful, and that we get to the bottom of this breach of trust.
Typically, how many named individuals would be on the circulation list for a diplomatic telegram from Washington—10, 50, 100, 1,000?
Once the telegram has done all the rounds to all posts and various layers, I would guess the number is probably well in excess of 100. It will be quite a large number, but depending on the classification of a document, it will either be restricted or more widely distributed, so the numbers vary a lot.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) pointed out, the journalist behind these stories has close links to the Leave.EU campaign, and specifically to Arron Banks, who is being investigated by the National Crime Agency in relation to overseas donations in elections in this country. Given that backdrop, does the Minister agree that it is essential that we also look at the possible role of hostile powers in this leak?
We do not at this stage see any evidence of third-party intervention of that sort. The first premise is that it is a leak from within, but we do not rule out any options, and that is what the investigation is there to study closely.
This leak is both reprehensible and deeply unpatriotic. Once the investigation is concluded, will its outcomes be reported to the House, along with the lessons to be learned?
I imagine that the results, whatever the outcomes, would definitely be made public—in what form, I am not in a position to say, but I am sure that if someone is found, the world will soon find out about it.
Cui bono? Given the untrustworthiness of the American Administration, and their filleting of their own Departments, such as the State Department, in a way that is ideologically driven, because they do not find them trustworthy, what assurance can the Minister give the House—I hope he is blunt, because I think I know the answer—that the future occupant of 10 Downing Street will not carry out the exact same type of ideological purge in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the end of the month?
Appointments in any subsequent Administration will be a matter for that Administration. We will of course have to wait to see who is in it.
In common with other right hon. and hon. Members, I have had meetings with Sir Kim Darroch in the past, and they have been both a pleasure and an honour. We have a convention in this place that we do not name officials, which is why today’s statement is all the more frustrating. Does the Minister share my concern that this is part of a trend? A clique within British politics is undermining the civil service, as was referenced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden). It has attacked Olly Robbins and called for him to be sacked, it has attacked Sir Mark Sedwill, and now it is deliberately seeking to undermine our ambassador to Washington. Is it not about time we put a stop to these people who are undermining how British politics works?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Standards of decency are slipping, and they need to be restored.
This is an unprecedented leak, but is the Minister at least relieved that the incompetency and failure of the man who is likely to become the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is in the public domain, and he does not have to worry about the ambassadors of other nations doing a similar job?
The hon. Gentleman is, of course, permitted to make whatever judgments he wishes to make.
It would appear that that was the last question. Let me say to the House, first, that I am very grateful for the cross-party support that has been displayed. It is a credit to the House that this exchange has been so dignified and purposeful. Secondly, let me reiterate once again our full support for Sir Kim Darroch as our ambassador. Thirdly, I hope that through your channels, Mr Speaker, we can also convey to the President of the United States our respect for him personally, for his office, and for the enduring relationship—which I hope will endure for ever—between the United Kingdom and the United States.
I am very grateful to the Minister of State for the way in which he has handled this important set of exchanges, and I thank all colleagues for participating in the last 41 minutes of expressions of opinion and questioning of the Minister.
For my own part, let me say that this is an extremely serious matter. I last saw Sir Kim Darroch when I was in Washington in May, and had an extremely good and informative meeting with him. He is not merely a highly capable but, frankly, an outstanding public servant. I simply want to express the hope, in the light of the rather venomous and misplaced personal attacks that have been lobbed in his direction today, that he will not in any way be cowed; rather, I hope and trust that he will be fortified by the expressions of opinion about that public service that we have heard this afternoon.
NHS Pensions: Taxation
To ask the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to make a statement on the implications for patients of the taxation of NHS pensions.
The Government keep public sector pay and pensions policy under constant review in the context of the wider public finances. For the majority of savers, pension contributions are tax-free. The annual allowance is a fiscal measure which operates across all registered pension schemes in both the public and private sectors, alongside the lifetime allowance. The measure is kept under review by the Government to ensure that the benefit of tax relief on pension schemes remains affordable.
Some senior clinicians face pension tax charges owing to the increase in the value of their pension accrual. I understand that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care is currently engaged in discussions with senior representatives of the British Medical Association. The Government are taking this issue very seriously, and that is the right place for those discussions to be held. However, the House will recognise that the same tax rules must apply identically to everyone in the same situation, regardless of their employer. It is simply not possible for the tax rules applying to senior clinicians in the NHS to be different from those that apply everywhere else.
I understand that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care is to publish a consultation on proposals for a new 50:50 scheme providing pension flexibility for clinicians in the NHS. The scheme will give senior clinicians in England and Wales more choice in respect of their pension accrual, and will thus control tax charges. Since last autumn, all members of the NHS scheme on the taper have been able to elect for the pension scheme to pay any tax charges now, and so avoid any impacts on take-home pay, in return for an actuarially fair reduction in their pensions.
I recognise the concerns that have been raised, and I assure the House that the Government will continue to monitor the impact of pensions policies on public service delivery.
The unforeseen consequences of recent pensions legislation, initially supported in all parts of the House, are now resulting in very worrying consequences for the NHS as hospital doctors who have regularly worked weekend overtime in order to get waiting lists down, are understandably refusing to continue to do so because they are being made worse off as a result. Can we imagine a conversation between couples along the lines of, “So you are leaving me and the children again this weekend to go voluntarily to work to make our family worse off?” It is not going to happen, is it? The same applies for GPs, many of whom are now doing fewer sessions each week than they want to and their patients desperately need in order not to be made worse off by breaching their annual pension allowance.
We do not have conscription for healthcare staff; we cannot force them to do weekend overtime or more sessions than they want to, and it is not surprising that they choose not to if they are being made worse off as a result. For example, in The Guardian this morning we learned of one senior anaesthetist who worked 27 Saturdays last year in order to reduce waiting lists and has now said he cannot afford to work any extra Saturday shifts this year because it would give him a large tax bill he cannot afford to pay.
Very few doctors have earnings that exceed the adjusted income threshold of £150,000 but due to the inclusion of hypothetical pension growth as income, doctors are being affected by tapering. This is different from what the Chancellor said in Treasury questions on 21 May when he said that someone has to be earning over £150,000 a year before the tapered annual allowance affects them. Taxable income and adjusted income are very different as regards pensions taxation.
The Government should also be aware that members of the imposed 2015 pension scheme had no option but to become a member of multiple schemes including the GP CARE—career average revalued earnings—scheme and as a result incur significantly higher annual allowance tax bills than those members who are protected members in only the final salary scheme. This means that all full-time consultants who are a member of more than one NHS pension scheme will be affected by the tapered annual allowance and will need to reconsider how much work they do for the NHS to mitigate these tax charges. Furthermore this punitive pensions tax penalty means that doctors are not just working less but are retiring earlier than they would like to in order to avoid significant additional tax charges. In a survey of more than 2,400 consultants, more than half cited pensions taxation as a reason for their decision to retire early.
I therefore have five questions for the Chief Secretary. As the 50-50 pensions accrual option proposed does not remove the unintended consequences that are forcing doctors to reduce the work they do, can this be included in the consultation so that this issue is raised? Once the scope of the consultation has been extended to cover this essential aspect can it then be launched as quickly as possible? Can the consultation be brief as the issues are well-known and well-rehearsed, and can the Government then respond quickly to it and if necessary legislate given that there is likely to be cross-party support for these important measures to protect the NHS? Can timely pensions statements be provided to all NHS staff who are affected by these measures? Finally, can the Government confirm that they understand the urgency and importance of this issue and that they will act without delay to prevent a deteriorating situation from getting even more acute?
The answer to my hon. Friend’s first question is that the Health Secretary is currently in discussions with the British Medical Association and other health representatives about precisely what can be done, and of course the consultation will come out shortly. Some of the issues he mentioned in terms of legislation will clearly be a matter for the new Prime Minister and Administration, but the fact that my hon. Friend has raised this urgent question today will draw to people’s attention the urgency of this issue and one would expect it to be considered very early on by a new Administration. The point I was trying to make earlier is that there is a fundamental distinction between how we deal with the issues in the NHS, on which the Health Secretary is leading, and the broader issue of our pension system, which is there to encourage people to save. That has to be considered in a holistic manner so we cannot just design it around one workforce. It has to be designed to work for everybody in both the public and private sectors. That takes time of course, and we are working through some of the conclusions of the reforms that took place a few years ago.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for asking this urgent question. It follows a Westminster Hall debate two weeks ago on this issue, when Members from across the House raised concerns about the Government’s mismanagement of the interaction between their pensions relief policies and the NHS pension schemes.
The worst-case scenario that we all feared has become a reality. Hospital leaders are raising the alarm that waiting lists for routine surgery have risen by up to 50%. Unless this issue is dealt with, there is a risk that the approach of the end of the financial year will lead to even greater levels of working to rule after the summer.
The changes that have led to these issues relate to the interaction of the taper, which George Osborne introduced in the summer Budget of 2015, with other rules on tax reliefs and the three NHS pension schemes. Despite decisions being taken around these measures some time ago, there appears to have been next to no communication by the Government with representative groups about this issue until the crisis had already begun. That is very different from the “constant review” that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has just referred to.
It is fair that tax reliefs should be consistent with other core principles of taxation, and that the pension allowance should decline progressively for those people who earn high incomes. However, at issue here is the interaction of that system with the NHS pension schemes, on which the representative organisations maintain they were not properly consulted. Many consultants are only now becoming aware of their liabilities. I asked two weeks ago, and I ask again, whether the Government believe that their communication with those affected has been sufficient? Furthermore, does the Chief Secretary to the Treasury believe it is acceptable that many of those affected have not even received pension statements in a timely manner, due to delays by Capita? Surely that is only exacerbating these problems.
The Government have maintained—the Chief Secretary to the Treasury did this again a moment ago—that this issue will be solved by the 50:50 pension option proposed in the NHS people plan released last month. However, a number of representative bodies have already expressed concerns about this option. So my third and last question to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is: what discussions has her Department had with the Department of Health and with those representative bodies about the 50:50 scheme? It has been painfully clear from the Westminster Hall debate, and again this afternoon, that there has been an abject lack of co-ordination across Departments on this issue.
I am sure that many of us are concerned about the lasting impact of today’s crisis. NHS staff retention is already poor. This issue is one of many affecting dedicated senior staff, with large numbers raising concerns about levels of stress and a general lack of resource. A whole variety of Government failures is driving these retention problems. Today’s crisis is likely to add to this, with confusion over pension relief pushing many to retire earlier than they previously would have done, or encouraging some to opt to take on additional private work. I am concerned not only for those consultants but for their patients. There are currently 100,000 NHS staff vacancies; that is one in 11 of all NHS posts. This latest failure will see yet more delays for people in desperate need of care, unless the whole of this Government, working together, get a grip.
We acknowledge that there is an issue. That is why the Health Secretary is poised to launch the consultation—
That is also why the Secretary of State is meeting representatives of the medical profession today. The hon. Lady asks whether the 50:50 scheme is enough and whether more can be done. Those are precisely the issues that the Health Secretary is discussing with those representatives of the medical profession. Of course he is working hand in hand with the Treasury to find NHS-specific solutions to deal with the problems that we all acknowledge, and which have been raised today by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). We all acknowledge that.
The important thing to remember is that, while we need to look for NHS-specific solutions—which is precisely what the Health Secretary is working on—the broader issue of taxation cannot be looked at just for one profession. The broader issue of the pension system has to be looked at in the round and in the whole. I am not going to stand at the Dispatch Box today and announce an entirely new pensions policy. We are pragmatically dealing with the situation that has arisen in the NHS, and of course we continue to review our pensions system to ensure that it makes financial sense for those people contributing to it as well as for the Exchequer. We pay more than £50 billion-worth of pension tax relief and it is important that we get value for money for that—that is why the reforms were conducted earlier—but of course we continue to review the arrangements to ensure that they are providing value for money as well as the right incentives for people to save for their later age.
In west Berkshire and Wokingham we desperately need to recruit and retain more doctors and other senior medical personnel. Will the Treasury look at the 60% tax rate that kicks in at £100,000 for a band of income above that? A lot of important public service workers, not just in the NHS, are caught in that band and are paying higher marginal tax rates than people earning a lot more.
My right hon. Friend makes an interesting point. In general I am in favour of lower taxes and a simpler tax system that always rewards those who go out to work.
Tapering lifetime allowances have already driven many senior doctors out of the NHS in their late 50s. The issue now is the tapering annual allowance, which is reduced by £1 for every extra £2 earned. This issue was raised in 2017; it has not just come to light. In May the Chancellor talked about a threshold of £150,000, yet the problem kicks in at £110,000, and many senior consultants and GPs earn above that. The average extra bill is £18,500, but many have faced tax bills of almost £100,000. The British Medical Association survey shows that three quarters are citing this as a reason to retire. At the moment all income, including non-pensionable income, is included. That does not make sense, so can that be changed? It is not just earnings, but the growth of a pension, yet people might not live long enough for that to be income, so why is it counted? The BMA does not think that the 50:50 approach will solve the issue, so will the Treasury have open consultation and, because this is about interaction with the pension system, look at all the options? Otherwise, we will face a workforce meltdown.
As I said, the consultation will be launched fairly soon—the Health Secretary is looking at that—and people will of course be able to feed their views into it.
It is welcome to see a Treasury Minister answering this question; it was a Health Minister in the Westminster Hall debate. As a former cancer Minister, I was incredibly proud of our Government’s 75% ambition, and I doubt whether there is a Member in this House who does not support that. The news from my trust is that this pension issue is hitting radiology, which is hitting cancer diagnoses. Theatre lists are being cancelled because we cannot get anaesthetic cover, as my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) mentioned earlier, so may I stress to the Minister the urgency of the situation? We need to grip this and fast, because the longer this goes on and the further it falls, the harder it will be to retrieve. Urgency is the key word here.
I can assure my hon. Friend that I spoke with the Health Secretary earlier today. We are seeking to get the consultation out as soon as possible. The Government have been working on this now for a number of weeks.
This matters first and foremost because of the impact on patient care, not only through increased waiting times in hospitals but in patient’s ability to see a general practitioner out of hours. May I stress the urgency of the situation, as others have? Patients cannot afford to wait for the extended process of finding a new leader of the Conservative party.
May I briefly flag up another issue? One of my constituents, who wrote to me recently to say that he had requested an update on his pension, was told that it would take three months. He was then informed that Primary Care Support England had not updated his pension records for three years and that he would have to wait a further three months once they had been updated. Will the Minister also look at the delays facing doctors trying to get an update on their situation?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I will raise that matter with the Health Secretary. It is for the NHS to make sure that its pensions are properly administrated. As I have said, we are dealing with this issue urgently. We are not waiting for the election of a new Conservative Prime Minister to do that. My point about a new Prime Minister was that general tax and pension reforms are not likely to be happening in the next two weeks.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement. Will she confirm that this problem, as she said at the beginning, was created in 2016? Working hard for a few weeks now is probably necessary, but it ought to have been possible, by paying attention to the representatives of consultants and GPs and to those in these sorts of areas with similar earnings, to realise that this problem should not have been allowed to continue for quite so long. Will the Minister’s advisers look at the British Medical Association’s “Frequently asked questions”, which in February spelt out many of these issues? I ask, for the sake of those involved and the patients they wish to serve, that there should be a bit more speed—I almost gave it in Latin, but I might have sounded like a Tory leadership candidate. Get on with it, please.
I am strongly receiving the message in favour of urgency.
My local hospital made it clear today that the 50:50 contribution proposal will not solve this problem because, as other Members have said, the problem is the taper. The problem is in the Treasury, not in the Department of Health and Social Care. How many more people have to wait longer for their operations before the Chief Secretary to the Treasury focuses on her day job and gets a solution to this problem?
The answers to the problems within the NHS lie within the Department of Health and Social Care, which is why the Department is launching a consultation. As I said earlier, we need to make sure that the pension tax system is designed around all employees. Of course NHS employees are extremely important, but we need to make sure the system works for all employees. That is a longer-term task, but we are specifically looking at the 50:50 idea in the consultation. No doubt the Health Secretary is talking about other ideas that could be introduced, and I am sure he is very interested in the right hon. Gentleman’s views, too.
We have created the most unbelievably complicated tax system. If working additional time makes the pension pot larger, there could be a 55% tax charge when taking those surplus benefits, and restrictions on the annual allowance are resulting in these large tax bills.
It is not surprising that many health professionals are choosing not to do the extra work or are simply retiring earlier. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) makes a key point, because extra earnings would take many of these people into the slice above £100,000 to £125,000, where a 62% tax charge applies.
This is not just an NHS problem. My concern is that we are putting a brake on those entrepreneurs who want to create enterprise, jobs and the tax payments of the future. A simple step would be to get rid of the lifetime allowance.
I agree with my hon. Friend that we need a simpler tax system that has the right incentives throughout. It is a major task for the new Prime Minister to ensure that our tax system is simpler and has proper incentives. My hon. Friend can raise these issues during the consultation, but there is no doubt in my mind that the British tax system is too complex at present.
I am taken aback by the Minister’s complacency. We all know that patients are suffering because of this policy. What can be done to ensure that doctors who want to do the right thing by taking extra work and doing extra shifts are not left out of pocket?
I disagree with the hon. Lady. We are taking steps to deal with this issue, and the Health Secretary is currently meeting representatives from the medical profession to discuss this in more detail. Wide-ranging reforms to the taxation and pension systems are not things to be wished overnight; they have to be properly worked through.
May I add to the sense of urgency by speaking up on behalf of the chief executive of my local community hospital trust? This is affecting not only clinicians but senior staff, too. They want to continue in many cases, but now they are leaving. These are highly valuable, experienced people whom we need to run these trusts. Please can we sort this out as soon as we can?
My hon. Friend is right about ensuring these people do not face very high marginal rates and an undue tax burden, which is precisely what the Opposition propose—they want to see taxes raised for higher earners.
The Chief Secretary keeps saying this is a matter for the NHS, and certainly the problems it has created for waiting lists and operation times are a problem for the NHS, but does she not accept that this problem has been created by the Treasury? The Treasury needs to look at how to resolve the problem, and it needs to consider what is creating these problems within the NHS, rather than passing the buck to the Health Secretary.
There are specific issues affecting the NHS that the Health Secretary is rightly looking at and is about to conduct the consultation on. As I have said, the Treasury constantly reviews our tax system to make sure that it has the right incentives in it and that it is helping people to save for later years.
In addition to the important points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay), would it not be simpler and fairer to restrict pension relief to the basic rate and scrap all annual and lifetime allowances?
I thank my hon. Friend for his policy suggestion. I am afraid that during this urgent question I will be unable to commit to it, but it is certainly an interesting idea.
Constituents have been raising this issue with me. Not only have clinicians been affected, but patients have been left waiting longer for treatment, which seems totally unnecessary, given that the problem is that clinicians who are willing and wanting to work are in a position where they would not be earning money for working. They are not prepared to sacrifice that family time to come in to do those extra hours that they have been doing for many, many years. This problem could be fixed very quickly if urgent action was taken by the Treasury. I am glad the Health Secretary is meeting representatives from the BMA, but will the Chief Secretary make a commitment that someone from the Treasury will meet the BMA? After all, this was a problem created in the Treasury.
I would be interested to hear precisely what the hon. Lady is suggesting the Treasury does. The Treasury has to look at the pension tax system for all professions and occupations, and it is right that the Health Secretary speaks specifically to those operating in the medical sphere and the Treasury looks at the broad overview.
For the first time, I find myself in agreement with the contributions from the Front Benchers from the Opposition and the Scottish National party. This problem has been coming down the track for at least three years and nothing has been done to stop it. The last thing the NHS needs is senior doctors refusing to work overtime at the weekends and our waiting lists getting worse, not better. The Chief Secretary has bravely come out to bat for the Treasury today, but we must avoid this silo mentality between the Treasury and the Department of Health and Social Care. This is a problem for the whole of the Government, and she and the Health Secretary need to get it sorted out urgently.
We are working closely with the Health Secretary on this issue, and that is the right way to do things; it is right for the Health Secretary to deal with organisations such as the BMA and it is right for the Treasury to look at the overview. The Chancellor has looked at this over the past three years, and I am sure the representations my hon. Friend has made today will be taken very seriously by him.
It is the responsibility of the Treasury to ensure that all public services are operating as efficiently as they can be, and that remit extends beyond NHS England; it extends across all parts of the NHS in the United Kingdom. Indeed, a friend who is a trainee surgeon in Glasgow was just telling me that the entire ear, nose and throat elective list was cancelled this weekend in Glasgow because of a shortage of anaesthetists. That arose because cover could not be found, owing to this perverse incentive we are discussing. Will the Chief Secretary therefore ensure that she writes not only to NHS England but to her counterpart in Scotland to ensure that this issue is effectively understood and the evidence is collated from all parts of the NHS in the UK?
I will certainly make sure that is the case.
The workforce is the No. 1 priority in the NHS, along with delivering the NHS plan, but we seem to be dealing here with a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. When the right hand of the NHS is rightly commissioning Baroness Dido Harding to do a workforce plan, the left hand of Treasury policy is undermining that. Will the Chief Secretary make sure that Baroness Dido Harding’s work is fully integrated into the work she is doing on this.
Around six weeks ago, I raised this issue with the Prime Minister, who was sitting next to the Chancellor at the time, and I was told that they would come back to me. Since then, nothing has happened, and lots of my constituents—consultants and members of the public—are concerned about the deterioration in the situation at the hospitals. Surely the Chief Secretary or the Chancellor could sit down together with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and thrash this out.
I will make sure this is immediately drawn to the attention of the Prime Minister.
I place on record the fact that I am married to a GP, although she is unlikely to be affected by the changes.
I recently attended a briefing for Fife’s elected representatives at which Fife Health and Social Care Partnership confirmed that an inability to recruit GPs means that the out-of-hours GP service in Glenrothes will remain closed almost permanently. We were given an update on the worrying number of GP practices—more than one in five—that are having difficulty recruiting and retaining GPs. The director of the partnership told us in terms that the pensions issue is a real one for medical staff, not just for GPs. In that context, it is not acceptable for the Treasury or, indeed, the Home Office, under reserved powers, to lob a hand grenade into our health service and expect the four devolved health services to fix the problem. Will the Chief Secretary tell us what assessment was made of the impact of the changes on the health service? Will she undertake to publish that assessment in full?
This is a matter that took place before I was a Minister in the Treasury, but I commit to find the relevant paperwork and send it to the hon. Gentleman.
Will the Chief Secretary accept that such changes to the pensions process make it seem not worth while for consultants to do overtime, as they are taxed at a high rate multiple times? Furthermore, this will have a detrimental effect on waiting lists and, more importantly, on people’s lives. Will she be prepared to rethink the changes to ensure that those whom we need to work overtime and go the extra mile are not horrifically penalised for doing so?
A number of issues have been raised in respect of the complexity of the tax system and the need for further tax reform. I am sure the Treasury will take that seriously.
Higher Technical Education Reform
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the consultation on higher technical education in England at levels 4 and 5, which we have launched today.
Over the past year, the Government have undertaken a comprehensive review of classroom-based higher technical education, which provides an alternative to apprenticeships at levels 4 and 5. Qualifications at this level sit between level 3 qualifications, such as A-levels and the new T-levels, and level 6 qualifications, such as bachelor’s degrees. As part of the review, we gathered evidence and listened to many further and higher education providers, awarding organisations, employers and others. The consultation launched today sets out our proposals to address the multiple related challenges and opportunities that we have identified through the review.
We want higher technical education to be a prestigious choice that delivers the skills that employers need, that encourages more students to continue to study after A-levels or T-levels and that attracts people of all ages who are looking to upskill and retrain. The proposals in the consultation are the next step in our programme to reform technical education. We want to build on the introduction of T-levels and our investment in apprenticeships as part of our modern industrial strategy to improve productivity and help people to progress in their work and in their lives.
The Government’s review of higher technical education found that there is growing employer demand for the skills provided by higher technical education, but we also found that the uptake of higher technical qualifications is low by international standards, has fallen over time, and is low by comparison with other levels of education. Some higher technical qualifications and courses are well recognised and valued by employers and students, but overall there is low awareness and varying quality, with the range of terminology, qualifications and provider types creating a complex picture that is hard for employers and students to navigate.
The starting point for our reforms is to raise the prestige of higher technical education more widely and strengthen its value to employers by putting their needs and quality first. Improving quality now—to demonstrate the value of higher technical qualifications—will lead to increased uptake of higher technical education in the future. To do this, we are proposing an approach to make it clearer which higher technical qualifications provide the skills that employers want. This will be delivered through the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, signalling which qualifications deliver the knowledge, skills and behaviours set out in employer-led national standards. As we want qualifications at this level to be understood and recognised as high quality by employers, their involvement in qualification design is crucial, so they will be at the centre of our reforms.
Alongside our proposals on qualifications, we also want to grow high-quality higher technical education provision, boost leadership and encourage greater specialisation and close collaboration so that providers can more effectively and efficiently respond to the local skills needs of employers. We will do that by working with the Office for Students to demonstrate the quality of providers, so that there is more high-quality provision delivered across higher and further education, including through our flagship employer-led national colleges and institutes of technology. The Office for Students will develop a set of technical ongoing registration conditions specifically for providers delivering courses leading to higher technical qualifications. These will align with the model used to assess the quality of applications for the institutes of technology programme and act as a precursor to access full public funding for approved higher technical qualification provision.
Finally, we want to make higher technical education a positive and more popular choice by raising awareness and understanding of the new suite of qualifications approved by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education in colleges and universities and among potential students and, of course, their employers. We will improve the information, advice and guidance available to potential students and boost employer knowledge of how these qualifications can address their skills needs. At the same time, we will improve the accessibility of higher technical education through flexible delivery and improve signposting of financial support, so that as many students as possible have the chance to get the qualifications that are right for them.
We know that change will not happen overnight. Higher technical education has been an area of relative neglect over decades, and we want to work with everyone who wants to improve higher technical education. I strongly encourage everyone with an interest to contribute to the debate so that we can build the world-class technical education system that our students deserve and our country needs. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for giving me advance sight of his statement following on from the media coverage today.
Last year, the Secretary of State made a speech at Battersea power station, which foreshadowed the Government’s announcement of this review today. Since 2010, Labour has said repeatedly that vocational and technical education must be put on an equal footing with academic routes to get the high-skilled workforce that we need. That imperative, given Brexit, has now accelerated, so we welcome the Government’s statement, but while we welcome the words, a lot of the details are still lacking. Will this be an entirely new suite of qualifications, or a rebadging of existing ones? Will the Minister confirm whether the Government are unveiling a plan to rebrand the existing qualifications rather than actually delivering meaningful policy change, and where do degree apprenticeships fit in with this?
The Department’s own policy paper acknowledges that Britain’s departure from the EU and the end of free movement may also accelerate demands for higher technical skills, so does the Minister agree that the reckless no-deal policies advocated by both candidates for his party’s leadership would damage our economy and create even greater skill shortages? Julian Gravatt, deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges, has said that
“we’re nervous that the focus on reforming qualifications … could divert attention from the post-18 review recommendations”,
which Mark Dawe at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers has echoed. Can the Minister tell the sector which of these recommendations his Department will implement?
All year, Members from across the House have been telling the Department that FE funding has fallen to critical levels. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found it was £3 billion down in real terms between 2010 and 2017-18. Will the Minister commit urgently to a funding uplift to ensure those world-class colleges and providers can produce the skilled workforce we need? Is the Department proposing a national approval of qualifications, and will those qualifications be given additional funding?
The Minister talks about the role of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education and of the Office for Students in his consultation, but with resources already stretched and concerns from the sector about delays in standard approvals and registration, how does the Minister envisage the IfA taking on this extra responsibility? What additional resources will be allocated to it? Will the IfA or the OfS be in the driving seat on delivery?
The Minister said that improving information, advice and guidance would be crucial to deliver the skills base we need, but how does the Department intend to do this with no extra resources available? This morning, the Secretary of State told The Guardian that he would be happy for his own son, aged nine, to take one of the new HTQs. Is it therefore not imperative that we start looking at and talking about information, advice and guidance in schools at a much earlier age—at just that sort of age—to spark inspiration and aspiration in technical careers?
What will be the status of the qualifications getting swept up in these changes? Will the Department ensure that qualifications are not just future-proofed but back-proofed? I ask because the Department tells us that mature students make up the majority of current higher technical students, and in 2015 over half of all HT students were studying on a part-time basis. Can we be clear that these qualifications will not be junked by the Government and employers if they have to retrain?
The Labour party has been developing our national education service and lifelong learning commission with the principle of progression at the heart of skills policy. To do that, we must have a proper feeder process for social mobility and social justice. This comes substantially through level 2 apprenticeships, but we have seen a 21% drop in them recently. How will the Department address that and get people to these higher-level qualifications? The Secretary of State says that students will move on from T-levels to a higher technical qualification, but can the Minister or the Secretary of State, who have failed so far to outline how students will transition from GCSEs to T-levels, tell us how students will move on from T-levels to HTQs?
A review of these qualifications is welcome but, given existing take-up failure with advanced learner loans, there is no guarantee it will be a game changer. How will the Government make it possible for institutions to get the staff they need to deliver more level 4 and level 5 qualifications? If T-levels are going to be a feeder into them, who is going to teach them: existing FE, school, college or training staff, recent providers, or perhaps graduates doing crash courses in T-level teaching?
This announcement will require a big infusion of money beyond the existing £500 million by 2022 and a whole new approach to prioritising continuous professional development for FE staff, which the Government have consistently ignored, will be needed. The Department’s policy paper says that providers struggle to recruit and retain staff, so when will the Department address the fact that FE lecturers and other staff have seen their pay fall by thousands of pounds a year in real terms since 2010 and are still being paid thousands of pounds less than their colleagues teaching in schools?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. He asked a number of questions. I will attempt to address most of them, and if I do not I will happily write to him after this statement. He asked whether there will continue to be one type of recognised qualification at this level. Of course, he will know that there are individual examples of high-quality qualifications that are well recognised by employers—pharmacy, for example. These qualifications cater for a diverse set of situations and students, including people from a range of backgrounds studying for various purposes and a large volume of adult learners. We propose to maintain this diverse and competitive market through an opt-in system that enables more than one qualification to be approved against a given occupational standard. We want all higher technical qualifications that provide the knowledge, skills and behaviours that employers need to get the recognition they deserve. This is in contrast to the position for T-levels, where, as recommended by the Independent Panel on Technical Education, only one qualification is approved per occupation or group of occupations.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the issue of wider funding to deliver reforms. Of course we recognise that financial arrangements, or incentives, are important in delivering these reforms. We want to ensure that public funding for the delivery of higher technical education is focused on providers that meet the Office for Students’ proposed technical ongoing registration conditions.
We will be considering funding proposals as part of the spending review. The hon. Gentleman has heard that from the Dispatch Box on many occasions, but it is an important consideration. We are also seeking views through the consultation on how we can support providers to develop their workforce and engage with employers through non-financial incentives. I remind the Opposition that the funding that is available for investment in apprenticeships will reach over £2.5 billion in 2019-20—double what it was in 2010-11. So more money is going into the system for these apprenticeships.
On the hon. Gentleman’s slightly frivolous point about the negotiations with the EU, we do need to deliver a Brexit by 31 October. I am surprised that the Opposition have changed their position on this considering how many of their heartlands in the north feel about that issue, but I will leave it there. We have made no-deal preparations in the Department and I feel confident that we will be ready if that is the position—not that we want it to be. We want a deal, of course.
I thank my hon. Friend for his statement. I very much agree that we have to make sure that employers, families and those who might take these qualifications will understand that we are making the greatest advance perhaps not in the last 70 years—perhaps in the last 110 years, since people like William Garnett started getting technical colleges going all over the country.
I hope that we will avoid the mistakes that were made a few years ago in the recognition of training centres, where Worthing College and Northbrook College, which is now part of the Met, in my constituency were disqualified from recognition because some stupid question had a tick-box exercise where, if the right word was not included, the college was disqualified. In the same way, no college in Birmingham was approved. That had to be put right. We have to watch what the apparent invigilators are doing and make sure that they see common sense in all they do.
Lastly, my hon. Friend’s advisers ought to look at the words by Graham Hasting-Evans of the charity NOCN in FE Week today about the importance of making sure that the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education has the capacity to do the job it is being asked to do.
I take on board my hon. Friend’s comments and advice that we make sure that this is not a tick-box exercise. I will certainly look at the words of Graham Hasting-Evans on the capacity of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. We obviously want to get this right through the consultation.
The Minister acknowledged that take-up of higher technical qualifications is lower in this country compared with our international competitors. I commend him for the statement and its curriculum objectives, but would he acknowledge that the low take-up is not just a result of the curriculum but is about a deep-seated cultural resistance to young people going into technical education? It needs buy-in from parents, teachers and the careers service, and the capacity of further education to deliver. Will he undertake to ensure that those issues are addressed as well?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I know that he has been a passionate advocate for technical qualifications for many years, since before my time in this place. I served under him when he was Chairman of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, and he advocated a similar view then. He is right to talk about the aspirational value of technical qualifications. Part of the reason for the move towards degree apprenticeships was to begin to deliver that aspirational value to not only potential students but their parents. I take on board everything he says. He is right that, if we look at the take-up, something like one in 10 adults in this country holds these qualifications, versus one in five in countries such as Germany. Some will say that Germany has a very different economic model, but the evidence suggests that employers in our country have a real appetite for these qualifications and, therefore, it is only right that we do this, and do it well.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. John Ruskin said that the value of learning is not in what one gains from it, but what one becomes by it. People, through the acquisition of practical accomplishments and skills, grow and add to the nation’s productivity. I simply say to the Minister these two things. First, the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden) is right about the pathway from entry-level practical skills through to higher-level qualifications. Secondly, good existing qualifications such as the HND and BTEC must be valued, because they are well understood by employers, learners and providers alike. I hope that, in this review, we will not end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and we will take account of all the good work that is done in our FE sector.
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s comments. He is right to warn the House that we do not want to lose excellent qualifications that are clearly recognised. I hope that my comments in response to the hon. Member for Blackpool South reassured him.