Previous Section Index Home Page

1 Feb 2010 : Column 35

David Miliband: The steps towards the shared goal of all parties in the House are: for the Afghans to take on lead security responsibility-a clear timetable has been set for that-and for a political settlement to take the place of the combat in which British troops from all parts of the UK have been engaged for the past eight years. The hon. Gentleman knows that the efforts of soldiers from Scotland are part of an effort to keep all citizens of this country safe, and therefore deserve all-party support.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Is the Foreign Secretary aware that, if we are to get out of this war, we must make bigger philosophical shifts than have been announced today? However, a few cautious sentences from him and others over the weekend indicate that maybe the political strategy is more important than continuing the war. With Northern Ireland, we had to make shabby compromises, let prisoners out and all the rest, which the media regarded as bad at the time. Yet that is now accepted as something that was right to do at the time. That is what we must do with Afghanistan. It may be that, in this thinly attended House, a few words have been said today that mark the end, and getting out of Afghanistan much sooner.

David Miliband: I appreciate my hon. Friend's perspective. The military and civilian effort is in the service of a political strategy. A political settlement in Afghanistan involves three things: al-Qaeda being kept out, the tribes being kept on side, and the neighbours supporting stability. That is the sort of political settlement that my hon. Friend recognises, and that we are seeking.

David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): Do not the peace and reintegration programme and the Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund represent a dramatic shift in Government policy? Are we not attempting to buy some aspects of the enemy? Given that we have now reached that point, why did we not reach it earlier? How many British lives would have been saved if the Government had examined that option more closely earlier?

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman will know from my speeches and those of the Prime Minister that the Government have advocated such a strategy for a long time. However, it is not right to say that it is only just being tried. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who speaks for the Opposition on such matters, referred to the 2006 attempts at reintegration and reconciliation, which were done in a way that included some of the perverse incentives to which the right hon. Gentleman referred and were not administered correctly. However, the unity of effort to achieve a political settlement is more coherent and clearer, and we welcome that. In that sense, last Thursday's conference was a signal event for the international community, because it represented a clear recognition on the part of all countries there of the need for all parts of the Afghan effort to be directed towards the durable political settlement that is needed.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is growing impatience in this country with such a long-standing war-as he stated, it has been going on for eight years-when there is no sight of any kind of military victory in the
1 Feb 2010 : Column 36
recognisable sense? Therefore, is it not right to put as much emphasis as possible on a political settlement, which must involve, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) indicated, all insurgents? We must speak to the enemy at some stage-the sooner the better.

David Miliband: With the caveat that it must be led by the Afghan Government, we are in complete agreement on the need for an Afghan political settlement that separates those with political grievances from those who are determined to pursue global jihad. The latter group is a small minority who are currently attacking their own communities, never mind our own forces, so the Government adhere very strongly indeed to the commitment to a political strategy and a settlement of the sort my hon. Friend advocates.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Given that the Pakistani armed forces are configured for state-on-state conflict with India rather than counter-insurgency, what will be the strategy on the Pakistani side of the border with regard to the Taliban? Will it be the military strategy on which the Pakistanis have just embarked, or will they, too, change to a political tack?

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I think the Pakistani forces are being reconfigured to take care of what the Pakistani Government would call twin threats, but he is right to say that the sort of effort, training and structures that are needed for a counter-insurgency are quite different from those for traditional warfare. The evidence from Pakistan shows the folly of pursuing a political strategy on its own-a deal-making strategy will not work, and it has not worked in the federally administered tribal areas over the past two decades-but equally, a military strategy on its own will not work either. The absence of any sort of political process in the FATAs is as dangerous to their stability as the absence of any kind of security and order. The Pakistani experience shows the importance of combining military and civilian effort in the service of a durable political settlement. The fact that for, I think, the first time ever, that is happening on both sides of the Durand line, in a complementary fashion, is a significant change in the past year.

David Cairns (Inverclyde) (Lab): Other than the very welcome additional debt relief that my right hon. Friend mentioned in his statement, did any discussion take place during the conference about ways in which to enhance the alternative livelihoods programme in tackling the lethal narcotics trade? The alternative livelihoods programme is the only thing that has made any impact at all in halting the expansion of opium cultivation in Afghanistan.

David Miliband: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. He will know that the fall of some 22 per cent. in poppy production across the whole of Afghanistan last year-33 per cent. in Helmand province-reflects two things: first, the increasing efforts on security; but, secondly and vitally, higher wheat prices and the wheat seed distribution programme, which has been such an important part of the effort to get Afghan farmers on to legal production and away from illegal production. That is the sort of twin-track approach that will be
1 Feb 2010 : Column 37
absolutely essential. I am pleased to say that there was very widespread support for that. Significantly, American efforts on the agricultural side are being scaled up to unprecedented levels. The US Secretary of Agriculture was in Afghanistan two weeks ago to spearhead that effort.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to the Royal Anglian Regiment, which is serving in Afghanistan so valiantly?

What confidence does the Foreign Secretary have that significant international focus is being placed on, and help and funding directed to, Pakistan and the border regions?

David Miliband: The honest answer is that I have more confidence than I had a year ago. The passage of the Kerry-Lugar Bill-notwithstanding the controversy that that stirred up in Pakistan-represents a signal change in the American attitude towards its relationship with Pakistan, and a rebalancing away from military hardware towards comprehensive development. The exchange of letters between President Obama and President Zardari, which has now been publicised, needs to represent a further opening up of a dialogue between Pakistan and the US that leads to a completely different relationship between those two countries.

1 Feb 2010 : Column 38

Standards and Privileges

4.19 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Barbara Keeley): I beg to move,

This motion has been tabled by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House to facilitate the debate on the seventh report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. I thank the Parliamentary Commissioner, Sir John Lyon; the Chairman of the Committee, the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind); and the members of the Committee who worked on this report.

It is a substantial report, and its recommendations are laid out on page 8. The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) made his apology to the House on Friday, and I ask the House to support the motion.

4.20 pm

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): I contribute to this debate as Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee. The Committee's report on the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) was published on 22 January. As the House has just heard, on Friday last the hon. Member made a personal statement in which he fully apologised to the House and accepted the recommendations of the Committee. I would like to echo what the Deputy Leader of the House said in congratulating the commissioner and those who helped him in the preparatory work needed for us to make our report to the House.

The background to this case, briefly, is that over a five-year period the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead had claimed additional costs allowance for his designated second home in his constituency, having identified his main home as a house in Colchester. It is very relevant in understanding the background to this case, and was a matter of agreement between the hon. Member and the Committee, that the hon. Member's wife experienced a series of debilitating health-related incidents at frequent intervals from 2003, including a stroke in March 2004.

The hon. Member and his wife felt that they had to spend more time at their constituency home from 2003 in order that he could care for his wife while continuing to carry out his parliamentary duties and to make it easier for Mrs. Cohen to receive necessary medical treatment at a specialist hospital in north London. Unfortunately, Mrs. Cohen continued to experience bad health from time to time and she and her husband therefore continued to live mostly in the constituency in London, letting the Colchester house for periods, but always hoping to return there.

From early 2004 until August 2008, the hon. Member periodically let the Colchester house on six-month leases. That was not a secret arrangement. In 2001, he actually
1 Feb 2010 : Column 39
registered the fact that he owned and had received rental income from the Colchester property. He did not, however, subsequently declare any further income as he should have done. It was the hon. Member himself who drew this omission to the commissioner's attention and non-registration did not form part of the original complaint.

The commissioner concluded that the hon. Member was in breach of the rules in relation to the registration of Members' financial interests in not registering his Colchester house and the fact that he received substantial rental income from it in each year from 2004 to 2008. The hon. Member has apologised for that breach and has now made an appropriate entry in the Register of Members' Financial Interests.

According to the best estimate that it has been possible to make in the absence of proper records, in 2002-03 the hon. Member spent 55 per cent. of nights in his designated main home in Colchester. The following year, he spent 45 per cent. of nights there. In 2005-06, the hon. Member did not stay in his designated main home at all. In other years, he spent well below half of nights there. For long periods, the hon. Member did not even have the option of using the house in Colchester because it was occupied by tenants.

The commissioner concluded, and the Committee agreed, that the hon. Member was in breach of the rules of the House in identifying for allowance purposes his house in Colchester as one of his two homes from April 2004 to August 2008, because his use of the property was in fact constrained by regular and substantial periods when it was let to others. The Committee has concluded that the hon. Member's arrangements for his properties over the period of four and a half years represented a particularly serious breach of the rules.

The hon. Member sent us written evidence in which he stated his views. His main points were as follows. He had always regarded the house in Colchester as his main home. His circumstances were not normal because of his wife's serious health problems, and it would be unfair to apply to his case the rule that a Member's main home will normally be where he spends most nights.

During the four and a half years when the Colchester house was let for periods, the hon. Member said that there were also periods when it was not let, but used by him and his wife. He said that claiming the London supplement instead of the additional costs allowance would not have saved the taxpayer a penny, because he could also have claimed other expenses. He also claimed that it was not necessarily against the rules for a tenant for periods of time to occupy a house that was subject to claims for the additional costs allowance.

Although the Committee had great sympathy with the hon. Member's difficulties arising out of his wife's health, we had no hesitation in concluding that his house in Colchester could not be regarded as his home for the purposes of claiming parliamentary allowances during the time in question. For most of that time he was not living there and the house was let, so for long periods it was not even accessible to him. In our view the hon. Member is also wrong to argue that letting a home for extended temporary periods is in accordance with the rules.

1 Feb 2010 : Column 40

It follows that the hon. Member's constituency home in Leyton and Wanstead was his main home-and for long periods his only home-throughout the four and a half years when he was making little use of the house in Colchester. We entirely accept that he and his wife were continually hoping to move back to Colchester, but as the commissioner has pointed out, it should have been clear to the hon. Gentleman that that was not going to happen in the short term. The fact that the house was let and re-let on a six-month lease suggests that he understood that. We calculate that during the period when his Colchester house was let between 2004 and 2008, the hon. Gentleman claimed and received more than £70,000 in total from his additional costs allowance. Over the same period, as a Member for an outer London constituency with only one home, he could instead have claimed about £9,000 in the London supplement. Taking the latter sum from the former, the Committee concluded that he had received more than £60,000 from parliamentary allowances over those four years to which he was not entitled.

We have considerable sympathy with the hon. Member and Mrs. Cohen for the difficulties that they have faced in recent years. We believe that we understand their strong attachment to the house, to which they plan to retire. We certainly understand the pressures on the hon. Member, not only as a Member dealing with a heavy work load created by a busy constituency, but as one who has had to cope with considerable stress and demands on his time caused by the ill health of his partner. The House will wish to bear his personal situation very much in mind.

In our second report of the current Session, we responded to the recommendation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life that the House should be prepared to withhold the resettlement grant from Members who commit serious breaches of the rules. We stated that we would regard a recommendation to withhold the resettlement grant as an option available to us in cases where it appeared to be the right sanction to apply in light of the breach that had occurred. We consider this to be just such a case. The hon. Member's breach was particularly serious and involved a large sum of public money. Withholding of the resettlement grant is a severe sanction that will effectively recover from him a similarly large sum of public money. We understand that the resettlement grant payable to a Member with his length of service is about £65,000, which is the maximum. He has announced that he will stand down at the next general election, so implementation of the sanction will not be unduly delayed.

We recommended in our report that for committing a particularly serious breach of the rules on claiming parliamentary allowances the hon. Member be required to apologise by means of a personal statement on the Floor of the House. This he did last Friday. We further recommended that the full amount of the resettlement grant, which would be payable to him when he leaves the House, be withheld. I therefore commend the motion to the House.

4.28 pm

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): As we have heard, the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) made a personal statement of apology to the House last Friday. In that statement he
1 Feb 2010 : Column 41
accepted the decision and ruling of the Standards and Privileges Committee "without proviso," as he put it. That is to be welcomed. We have also heard that the Standards and Privileges Committee report says that the Committee had sympathy for his personal circumstances in recent years and that this, too, should be borne in mind when the House responds to that report. Although he did not draw on that paragraph in his statement last week, I am sure that all Members will have taken note of the Committee's view and will sympathise with him for having to look after his wife, who is not well.

No one can doubt the severity of the sanction in this case-the withholding of the resettlement grant-due to the amount of money involved. The withholding of a Member's resettlement grant in some cases was one of Sir Christopher Kelly's recommendations. The Kelly proposals have yet to be implemented, but the fact that the sanction is already being used should send a clear message about how seriously the House takes all his proposals.

I thank the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, John Lyon, for carrying out a thorough investigation into this case. Thanks are also due to the Standards and Privileges Committee for all its work. I extend especial appreciation to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), who has only recently stepped up to the plate as the Committee's Chairman.

4.30 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): As a former member of the Standards and Privileges Committee, I know just how difficult that job is, so I also extend my gratitude to the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and his Committee for their work on this case and others. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has very properly set out the circumstances of this case. As he said, the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) has already made his apology to the House in accordance with the Committee's recommendation. We all hope that Mrs. Cohen will quickly be restored to full health, but I think that further comment from Members of the House is probably otiose, as is often the case in such circumstances. We have a clear recommendation before us, and unless there are strong reasons to disagree with the view of the Standards and Privileges Committee, it is proper for the House to agree to its recommendation. That is certainly what I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to do.

Question put and agreed to.

Next Section Index Home Page