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28 Apr 2009 : Column 713

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): May I read back to the Minister part of his statement? He said, “People wrongly say that this is about tackling stretch by using the reserve to plug gaps in the regular forces.” Although we understand that he has to put a brave face on the decisions that he is having to take today, will he at least be realistic? Where would we be without the medics, the helicopter pilots and even the infantry reservists, and the professional Army had to try to manage current operations on its own? The reserves are filling gaps, and reducing reserve and TA forces further means that fewer gaps will be filled when we need to fill them.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman talks as though we should not augment the regular forces with the reserve—as though we should stand them aside in readiness for the old cold war scenario of the Russians coming over the western plains. That was the purpose of the reserves for a period in our history, but that is not what they want to do or what they have been doing for some time. We will not attract the individuals we want to attract if we do not make them relevant to current operations. Yes of course we want to use the reserve, and it is appropriate that we do so.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend mentioned the Defence Estates review. In 2006, the National Audit Office’s report found that there was “little understanding” in defence of the overall “costs of Reserve Forces”. Will he say whether the review has cast light on those costs, either apart from or including the Defence Estates part of them, and will the money freed be used for the investment that must be needed if the new proposition is to be achieved?

Mr. Ainsworth: The review team looked at the National Audit Office findings, and there is comment on that. Of course there is potential in some areas to make savings, if not on the properties themselves, then on the overheads for things that are under-utilised. However, there is a need for investment, so we have to try to see to it that the reconfiguration gets due priority in our planning rounds in future. We also have to see to it that reserves get the funds that they need, so that they can have the estate that they need, so that they can get the training that they need to be effective.

Sir Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): Is the Minister aware that his statement this afternoon was deeply unreassuring? I fear for the future of General Cottam’s careful report. The Minister made many references to using reserves to fill gaps in the armed forces; he made no reference at all to formed units, which are absolutely essential if we are to continue to develop leadership and have the structure around which our armed forces can be re-expanded in times of emergency. History has shown that we need that insurance policy. Not to insure is a false economy.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman might remember that I said to the House that we would reconfigure training so that people would be able to train as a unit within six months. He now tells me that I did not mention units at all.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I echo my right hon. Friend’s praise for our remarkable reservists and the employers who support them, and echo what I thought sounded like an expression of regret for the loss of TA numbers in Signals. May I ask him to say a
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little about his ambition to improve training, which he mentioned in his statement, with regard to the times and places of training and, where appropriate, the engagement of reservists’ employers in planning it?

Mr. Ainsworth: Throughout the review, training plays a central role. Providing training that is better placed geographically; integrating training with regular training, where appropriate, so that reserves can train alongside regulars; and reservist units and sub-units being able to use regular training capacity and facilities, and take up that capacity effectively, are all issues covered by the review. One of the things that we will need to talk to employers and reservists about is our growing need to try to attract people into the reserves to provide niche capabilities. Generally speaking, people want to go into the reserves to do something different; they do not want to do what they do in their day job. In stabilisation operations, we will sometimes need them to do what they have an expertise in. They and their employers will need to be consulted about that.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): I remind the House of my interest, which is in the Register of Members’ Interests.

The reduction of the TA estate is a mistake, and I fear that the driver is financial. In 2002, I took command of a bomb disposal squadron that had recently been amalgamated with another squadron. The assumption was that the personnel from the closed TA centre would commute to the new TA centre. That never happened, and the new unit was immediately under-strength. Given that the Minister has repeatedly reassured the all-party group on reserve forces that cost was not the driver for the review, will he simply confirm to the House that the £75 million that will be saved, as a result of selling off that estate, will be reinvested in the TA, not the regular Army?

Mr. Ainsworth: The review was not cost-led, and I have repeatedly told the all-party group that. The review could not and did not seek to protect the reserves entirely from the pressures on the rest of defence. The proposals that came forward from the planning round were not of General Cottam’s making, and not of the reserves’ making. It would have been wrong to say, “Because we have a strategic review, we’re going to ring-fence the reserves, and they will not bear any of the pressure for change within the rest of defence.”

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): The TA, alongside which I had the pleasure of serving as a regular soldier, will regard the statement as an insult—not the review, but the statement—because of its complete lack of content. The Minister could not bear to say that 2,000 soldiers—it will be over 2,000 soldiers—will be cut from the British Army. That was not in his paperwork. The way forward is to have a review about how we will keep those soldiers in the TA. That should have been done before the cuts were announced today.

Mr. Ainsworth: If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that it is good practice that individuals or the TA would want to maintain capability that is no longer required, I disagree, and I think that every sensible individual listening to him would disagree too.

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Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): May I just ask the Minister whether he has ever heard of retraining? If people are in the TA, we should keep them in the TA, not cut the numbers, because at the moment we desperately need them. However, may I ask him whether it is possible to calculate in the review the exact number of volunteer reserve mobilisations in any one year, because we cannot do so currently? Will he bear in mind, while praising the reservists for all that they do, that they can choose whether or not they go on a deployment, but regulars cannot do so? It is important that the relationship between the regular Army and the reservists is kept on an even keel.

Mr. Ainsworth: I have said it before, and I will say it again: where we can keep those individuals who are affected by the proposals on the Signals Regiments in the TA and offer them other opportunities, we will do so. That applies to all of them, so the point that the hon. Lady makes has been taken on board. I do not think that we should discard those individuals in any way. Some of them may choose not to do other jobs—that is a matter for them—but we will do everything that we can to keep them.

Regarding mobilisation and the way in which we mobilise, the hon. Lady will see that there are proposals for changes in mobilisation in the reserves, and she will want to look at them.

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Points of Order

4.32 pm

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Please, please, may we have a statement on sixth-form funding? Many Members have expressed concern, both before and after the Easter recess, but we have not yet had a statement from the relevant Minister. Would you use your offices, Mr. Speaker, to bring the Secretary of State to the House?

Mr. Speaker: The appropriate Minister will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You have often dealt with points of order from Conservative MPs complaining that other MPs visited their constituencies without giving them proper notice. The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) visited my constituency last week, but I learned about it from my local Echo, receiving notice from the hon. Gentleman only today. This is the third time that Conservative MPs have visited my constituency in recent months to electioneer without giving me proper notice. Perhaps all hon. Members ought to practise what they preach.

Mr. Speaker: I have to be careful, but I shall make it quite clear for the record that if a Member of Parliament goes to a private constituency meeting—in another life, I used to be in the Labour party, so I know about these things—there is no need to notify the local MP. As for any public engagement—and I appeal to all Members of Parliament, as they have enough to do in their own constituencies without worrying about others—if Members believe that they have to go into another Member’s constituency, proper notice is important. I do not expect an e-mail on the day of the visit—proper courtesy is all that we ask for. I appeal to Members, so that I am not brought into this argument.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I echo the request from my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) for clarity regarding the Learning and Skills Council? I have three schools that are confused about the situation, and that will continue until a Minister comes to the House to tell us exactly what is happening regarding the funding shortfalls that our schools do not deserve.

Mr. Speaker: Further to what I said to the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), the matter will appear in Hansard and the Minister will have heard. Hon. Members can ask for an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall, which can give them an hour and a half in some cases, or half an hour here on the Floor of the House, where I usually chair proceedings and enjoy very much the contributions that hon. Members make.

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Protection of Children (Publicity)

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

4.35 pm

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): I beg to move,

It would be a rare adult who was not appalled to discover that a mother could plot with other members of her extended family to kidnap her daughter for financial gain, and I, for one, was relieved that the plot was discovered and the mother and her accomplice jailed. Not much later, the story broke of the alleged 13-year-old father, and we had to endure the spectacle of him, the baby, the mother and other claimants to fatherhood all over the world’s media.

I ought to declare an interest as my husband is leader of East Sussex county council, which was involved in that case. Senior officers in the council have done much devilling work for me and I am grateful to them for their help and advice, as I am to the Clerks and the Library of the House. I am also grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) and for Wealden (Charles Hendry), among others, for sponsoring the Bill, and I hope they do not think I am treading on their toes. I regard this as potentially a nationwide issue.

I also alerted the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik) to the fact that I was planning this Bill. I quite understand that, as a Minister in the Ministry of Justice, he cannot be involved, but I hope he hears my argument and acts on it. I am also hugely grateful to the Centre for Social Justice for its analytical work, which has opened up the whole debate on the impact of family breakdown on society

Those two cases had in common the misguided desire of a self-interested adult member of a dysfunctional family to profit by exposing their child to a media storm. I shall not refer any more to the details of those cases as those involved have had the protection of the law to regain their anonymity. What alarmed me about them was the damage that would inevitably be caused to the youngsters who were exposed to the full glare of publicity.

I want to emphasise that this is not a routine attack on the media. I used to be in that business, and when I was I would have given my eye teeth to be in on such a story. Luckily, however, I have not had to face the media pack in full cry and I hope I never have to, but I have heard about the horrors of it from adults who have had to endure it, whether for good or for bad reasons. For vulnerable children to be exposed to it is appalling. To have lots of strangers doorstepping them, asking for comments and interviews, shouting at them, having flashing cameras pointed at them and being followed by the press pack must have been a nightmare, and I commend the relevant authorities for acting as quickly as they could within the ponderous processes of the law to protect the youngsters in a way that any normal person would expect the parents to do.

What concerns me more than anything else is that the parents could even dream that they could make money from their own vulnerable children. This is a new extension
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of the many abuses that children have suffered over the years and which we have tried to address. We have spent many hours in the House and much printers’ ink in trying to come up with foolproof systems of protection for children from physical abuse, and I am fairly certain that we have not succeeded yet.

Such abuse by the media is an extension of the abuses to which children are already subjected. I do not want to see other adults thinking that there may be some financial gain to be had by doing this. I want to stop a terrible trend of abuse that could be emerging, and I want to stop it before it can take hold. In this simple Bill, therefore, I want to put in place a measure of protection for any other children who may become the victims of their parents.

We all know of dysfunctional families from our constituency casework. I doubt that there is a single Member who has not met in their constituency large, extended and informal families: some work as families, many do not. We are probably all aware of the impact on families of lack of work and benefit dependency, debt and financial challenges, drug or alcohol addiction, mental health problems, poor neighbourhoods and poor parenting skills. I have not designed the Bill to sort out those fundamental problems; that will take a Parliament of legislation and work on the ground across many years and many generations. It is not a Bill to control the media, and I do not want it to stop child prodigies and their parents benefiting from their achievements in music, maths, dance, sport or whatever they excel at—good luck to them. We will need them to do well in the Olympics and to get us out of our current economic mess.

My Bill simply puts back on parents the responsibility not to exploit their vulnerable children by amending the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, so that anybody who has responsibility for any child or young person and causes the publication of any information in respect of the child, including photographs or digital images, that is likely to cause significant harm to the child should be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine and/or imprisonment of up to two years. I define a child or young person as someone under 18 years old. I also include in significant harm both physical and psychological harm.

We protect our children in the family courts from publicity, notwithstanding the changes that were brought in yesterday. We also protect those involved in the youth justice system, however horrible the crime they may have committed. Most young people in trying circumstances are already protected from media exposure, and none of us probably expected or envisaged that this horrible loophole would emerge, whereby parents intentionally try to make money out of their children in ways that would harm them. I doubt that in 1933, when the Act to protect young people was drawn up, anybody thought that we would need to extend it to stop parents exploiting and abusing their children for the money that they could make from publicity. It is a sad indictment of our society that, some 70 years later, we need to introduce such an amendment.

It is our responsibility as legislators to ensure that our young children are able to grow up as normally as possible, but that, as we all know, is quite a stretch, given the record of family breakdown and dysfunctionality throughout the UK. The wider challenge is to help to
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heal those wounds, but that is well beyond the scope of the Bill. This is a small Bill; it is a one-paragraph Bill, but it could prevent more abuse of young and vulnerable children by their parents. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mrs. Jacqui Lait, Charles Hendry, Mr. Nigel Waterson, Mr. Iain Duncan Smith, Mrs. Maria Miller and Tim Loughton present the Bill.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 June and to be printed (Bill 88).

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Ways and Means

Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation

Amendment of the law

Debate resumed (Order, 22 April).

Question again proposed,

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