Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that although there are things to welcome in this statement—to call it a strategy would be to over-egg the pudding—as so often with the Prime Minister, the rhetoric collides with the reality? We no longer have strong, balanced and flexible armed forces—they are grossly overstretched and underfunded, and we cannot go on paying retention bonuses for anything other than a sticking plaster operation. The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), the leader of the Liberal Democrats, is right to call for a
19 Mar 2008 : Column 937
defence review so that some necessary major procurement decisions may be taken for the future. We cannot run a procurement policy on urgent operational requirements. We must be able to take the decisions about the carriers and about Trident, areas that all need examining again.

The Prime Minister: We have already made our decisions about Trident and have set aside the money for that to happen. We have set aside money for aircraft carriers as well. We have the biggest equipment budget in history and, at the same time, we are spending more current money on our defence forces every year. That is why we have the second largest defence budget in the world. I believe that the hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that our defence forces are not strong—they are strong and we are proud of them for being strong, and they are flexible and we are proud of them for being flexible. I know that he is a prolific reader, but I doubt whether he has read the full national security strategy in the past few minutes. I hope that on reflection, once he has read it, he will be able to praise the work that we have done and contribute to the debate on it for the future. We will annually update the national security strategy, and obviously we welcome any comments from him.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): I very strongly welcome the parts in my right hon. Friend’s statement about nuclear weapons, not least because the terrorists’ capacity to obtain them is a serious one. In the same vein, does he recognise that biological and chemical weapons possibly pose an even bigger threat? It is probably easier for terrorists to obtain access to those weapons because of the nature of them. Will he give the same urgency to dealing with chemical and biological weapons—the so-called “poor man’s nuclear weapons”?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who takes a huge interest in these matters having been a Minister at the Foreign Office. He rightly says that although I emphasised in my statement the measures that we wish to take to promote nuclear disarmament, references are also made in the national security strategy document to the dangers and risks posed by chemical and biological weapons. He is right to say that the dangers of those weapons falling into the hands of potential terrorists mean that we have to examine not only the owners of those weapons but who is supplying them. We now have excellent ability to do post-fact detection of who the supplier is, which should enable us to locate the suppliers of chemical, biological and nuclear weapon parts and take strong action against them. That is an important part of the national security strategy that we have published.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): What role does the Prime Minister foresee for Her Majesty’s Coastguard in national security?

I was in Darfur a few weeks ago, where I was briefed by some African Union’s senior military figures. They told me that a no-fly zone and a dozen attack helicopters were urgently necessary. Both of those points were raised 12 months ago, but people are still dying who would not be dying if those things were put in place.

Finally, the Prime Minister refers to a more robust implementation of the non-proliferation treaty. Is the renewal of Trident not a breach of that treaty anyway?
19 Mar 2008 : Column 938

The Prime Minister: No is the answer to the third question.

I praise the work of Her Majesty’s coastguards—indeed, I visited many of them some weeks ago to thank them for the work they do both on rescue and on the security of the country.

As for Darfur, I agree with the hon. Gentleman: this is a human tragedy that is being acted out, involving a threat to the lives of young children as well as to those of adults. He rightly says that we should consider a no-fly zone. The problem with such a zone, as I have said before in this House, is that we are dealing with an area the size of France—a massive geographical area. Therefore, the aircraft requirement to be able to police a no-fly zone is way beyond what countries are prepared—or able at this time, because of other action in Afghanistan and elsewhere—to supply. That is the problem in respect of a no-fly zone at the moment. People must be realistic enough to recognise that it is difficult enough to get the supply of helicopters that he is talking about, so staffing and policing a no-fly zone is very difficult, even when aerial bombings, which are completely unacceptable, are taking place.

As I said last week in the House, the way forward in Darfur is to get the peace negotiations started again, to get both sides—not only the Government, but the rebel groups that never came to the original proposals for the peace talks only a few weeks ago—to the talks and to get the African Union and United Nations force in to back up whatever settlement can be agreed. Those are the priorities, and I hope that we can move forward on them with speed.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): The Prime Minister mentioned the new civilian capability. Can he tell me whether he intends UK industry to participate in that organisation so that it, too, can play its part?

The Prime Minister: We have an industrial strategy for the defence industries that was published a few months ago. It will be regularly updated, it is the source of a great deal of consultation with the defence manufacturers and it is a very important part of building confidence in this country’s defence manufacturing industries. We will continue this collaboration, which has been of great use to us in the past and has been intensified in recent years.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Although I welcome the Prime Minister’s earlier answer on the Territorial Army and reserves, may I urge him to look across the Atlantic at the model of the National Guard, which, besides making a remarkable contribution in dealing with both Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath of 9/11, also provides highly effective combat brigades and fast jet fighter squadrons for use in Iraq? May I suggest that the basic lesson that we can learn from America is that an organisation is most successful—the National Guard is the only part of the American armed forces that is fully recruited—when it is led at all levels by volunteer reserves, when it has a real footprint in every part of the country and, above all, when it is used as a force in its own right, be that for combat, peacekeeping, disaster relief and so on, and not merely as a provision of spare parts for the regular counterparts?


19 Mar 2008 : Column 939

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is a great champion of the Territorial Army and I understand his deep interest in these matters. I believe that the proposals that he puts forward and his desire that we look at what is successful in other countries, including the United States of America, are things that we can draw on during this review. I hope that he will contribute his thoughts to the Defence Secretary as he moves forward with the review.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): I particularly welcome the support that the Prime Minister will be giving to our armed forces and the £20 million homes investment plan, although more may be needed in respect of social housing. On climate change, it is essential that we develop a strategy for sustainable global security. Will he have talks with the Oxford Research Group in delivering the new role that climate change will play at the heart of our global strategy?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right about the importance of taking action on climate change. That is why not only are we making proposals for international action to secure a post-2012 agreement, but we are proposing that the World Bank should take on a new role as a world bank for the environment, as well as for development, so that it can provide money for energy-efficiency schemes and for alternative sources of energy to be invested in by some of the poorer countries in the world. International co-operation is vital to deal with the problems of climate change. She probably knows that we are sponsoring a major afforestation project in the Congo basin. It is one of many projects that we are prepared to support with the environmental transformation fund.

My hon. Friend also raises the issue of armed forces’ accommodation. In total, £5 billion has been allocated for improvements in accommodation over many years, but is important that we make a start as quickly as possible with some of the schemes that can give the greatest results. That is why the £20 million set aside for these armed forces equity sharing and home ownership pilots is important to send a message to members of the armed forces that as they prepare to move to new careers later, we will help them to buy their first home.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): Could the Prime Minister give some indication of the implications of this statement for the Department for International Development, which plays a key role in fragile and failing states and in conflict prevention, resolution and stabilisation? Does he agree that it may be an appropriate time to review the fairly severe staffing constraints on that Department, if it is to be able to provide civilian support and co-ordination, as well as poverty reduction?

Can the Prime Minister also give me an indication of the proposal for Helmand for an integrated civilian-military headquarters headed by a civilian? How will that relate to the provincial reconstruction team that is already established? Is it a replacement for that or something that will have to co-ordinate with it? Is he able to give a clearer steer on how that will operate?

The Prime Minister: They will work together. The right hon. Gentleman may know that we are determined to move as quickly as possible to appoint a development co-ordinator in Afghanistan, as that is urgently needed. As he will know, Lord Ashdown would have been a
19 Mar 2008 : Column 940
great appointment to that job, but that was not possible. Now we have a proposal for a regional appointment and I hope that that will make quick progress.

On aid, I have to disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. The budget of DFID, and Britain’s aid budget generally, has quadrupled from £2.1 billion to nearly £9 billion by 2011, so there is additional money available for the priorities of the Department. He is right to say that in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan—as well as in Africa and in Israel, and in dealing with the Palestinian authorities—we will need DFID. If we are to combine humanitarian aid, peacekeeping, stabilisation and reconstruction, it has a key role to play.

Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South) (Lab): I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to climate change. Will he support my proposals for a world environment court and review the work of the working group chaired by Stephen Hockman QC to ensure that the Kyoto targets and the post-Kyoto targets are enforceable?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful for the interest that my hon. Friend has taken in this matter and the effort he makes in his constituency to persuade young people, especially schoolchildren, to take an interest in the environment. His proposal for the world environment court is an interesting one. We have to get to the first stage first, and that is persuading all countries to accept binding targets. That will be our priority in the post-2012 negotiations, and we will ally to that our proposal that funding be made available to developing countries to persuade them that it is in their interests to sign up to those agreements. How we make those agreements binding is a matter for the discussions, and obviously his proposal is one that will be taken into account.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): I note with interest the Prime Minister’s comments about recruitment and retention, and about supporting servicemen’s families. Part of that package is facing up to things that go wrong, and the coroner’s inquest is where many of those things are brought to light, as happened in the case of Captain James Philippson, who was sadly let down by a lack of equipment. Will the Prime Minister request the Secretary of State for Defence to row back in trying to gag our coroners and dilute their comments? Will the Prime Minister also ask that the Minister for the Armed Forces retract the comments that appeared to cast a slur on Captain James Philippson’s comrade-in-arms, Major Bristow?

The Prime Minister: I hope the hon. Lady will acknowledge that we have made more money available to make it possible for coroners’ inquests to move more quickly. We understand the grief that is experienced by relatives, the desire for closure and the problems that arise if inquests are delayed or are slow in happening. However, I do not agree with her interpretation of the letter from the Secretary of State for Defence. It is important that the coroner’s inquest does the work it is intended to do by statute.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will know that today the security agencies are watching more than 2,000 people whom they believe have serious terrorist intent. Those people will
19 Mar 2008 : Column 941
have multiple identities and their behaviour is little known to us. It is therefore important for the House to hear the argument for pre-charge detention clearly and carefully put so that we can be confident in supporting it, because it is definitely needed.

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because the balance between the needs of liberty and security is an important issue. It is also important to recognise that our constitution is founded on the liberty of the individual, but all parties now seem to have accepted that there may be occasions when it is necessary to go beyond 28 days for the pre-charge interviews, if that is necessary for a proper charge to be laid. That is what the debate is about. All parties agree that there may be circumstances in which that might have to happen. The question is whether we can agree on the mechanics of it, and that is what the debate will be about.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): I join others in paying tribute to the fantastic job done by our servicemen and women, and the police services, in keeping our country safe both at home and abroad. I welcome many elements of this comprehensive statement today, in particular the help given to service personnel and their families, although I am sure that the Prime Minister will agree that more could and should be done on that front.

On the specific issue of the national security forum, the Prime Minister referred to the threat posed to this country’s security by the IRA over many years. Indeed, the threat continues in relation to dissident groups in Northern Ireland. He talks of drawing on experience from outside government. Would he undertake to consider the experience and expertise available in Northern Ireland, which—tragically—have been built up over many years? I am sure that they would be made available to assist in protecting the country from the current more diverse but very challenging threat to its security.

The Prime Minister: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. We have to draw on the expertise that is available from all parts of the United Kingdom. I assure him that what he says will be taken into account in formulating the membership of the national security forum, but also in learning the lessons from the actions that had to be taken against terrorism in Northern Ireland.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. We must move on.


19 Mar 2008 : Column 942

Point of Order

1.26 pm

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I point out that the Prime Minister has misled this House, both about the position of my party but more importantly—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot say that. He must withdraw that remark.

Chris Huhne: On your advice, Mr. Speaker, I withdraw that point, but it is clear—

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman must withdraw the remark without qualification. My ruling is that that is not a point of order. Are there any other points of order?

Chris Huhne rose—

Mr. Speaker: It had better not be on the same issue, because the hon. Gentleman has just made a mess of it. Points of order are not about extending the statement that we have just heard.

Chris Huhne: Please hear what I have to say.

Mr. Speaker: I will hear what he has to say, but I warn him that I will stop him if it is not a point of order.

Chris Huhne: This morning on the “Today” programme, a Minister made exactly the same point as the Prime Minister just made and was subsequently corrected by Liberty about its position. Liberty does not have the ability to correct the matter in the House—

Mr. Speaker: Order. If there is one thing that I am not responsible for, it is the organisation Liberty. It can speak for itself.


19 Mar 2008 : Column 943

Local Authority Powers (Election Campaigns)

1.28 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I beg to move,

I hope not to take up the full 10 minutes, because I know that we are coming to an important debate on post office closures to which many of my hon. Friends wish to contribute. Many Ministers have also been working hard in their constituencies and no doubt they, too, will want to get their views on the record.

The objective of the Bill is to bring local councils in line with Parliament and to prevent any major decisions from being taken during the period of a local election campaign. For Parliament, there is Cabinet Office guidance for what is known as the pre-election period about the types of decisions that can be made. It states:


Next Section Index Home Page