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15 Mar 2010 : Column 609

Points of Order

3.30 pm

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Further to the point of order that I raised last week, I wonder whether you have had an opportunity to look at the advice provided. I understand that there is a convention of the House that members of the Panel of Chairs who chair Bill Committees and report them to this place are supposed to remain neutral and are not supposed to object. It was therefore wrong for the objection to the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill made by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) to be taken.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: Order. Before the hon. Gentleman speaks further to the point of order, may I establish from the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) whether she notified the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) that she intended to raise this matter?

Ms Keeble: Yes, I did. I put a note in his pigeonhole.

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful- [Interruption.] Order. I can look after these matters myself, I assure the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). It is important that the Member about whom a complaint is being made is given reasonable notice. I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who says that she left a note-

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: In a minute.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for confirming that she has done that, and for raising this matter. I am well aware that objections to private Members' Bills on Fridays are often the cause of frustration. It has not hitherto been the practice of the House to require the identification of an objector at that time or on other occasions. At this stage, I am not aware that anything disorderly occurred.

On the specific point about whether the Chair of a Public Bill Committee could or should object to a Bill proceeding, if that is what happened-and I emphasise the word "if"-I suggest that that is a matter for study by the Procedure Committee. As the hon. Lady has raised the matter with me, I will discuss it further with the Chairman of Ways and Means.

On the future progress of the hon. Lady's Bill, I am sure that she will seek the advice of the Public Bill Office.

Ms Keeble: I have a second point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: I will take another point of order from the hon. Lady.

Ms Keeble: I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker.

The House is a sovereign body and is entitled under our constitution to make decisions unfettered by anything, I understand. Therefore, I ask for the decision made on
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Friday-that further consideration should take place this Thursday, 18 March, which was agreed to by Madam Deputy Speaker, was not objected to by the Conservative party, and was printed in Hansard-to be adhered to. We should then have enough time for a vote on the Bill.

Mr. Speaker: The date to which the hon. Lady refers is not a private Members' day. Therefore, it is not immediately obvious to me that the situation is as she describes. I think that the fairest thing that I can say to the hon. Lady, whose two points of order I have listened to very attentively, is that I will inquire further into the matter, and I am happy to revert to her and other Members raising points of order on it, and indeed to the House as a whole.

Sir Gerald Kaufman: Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have been a Member of the House for a considerable number of years, and never have I come across a situation in which a person who has been Chairman of a Public Bill Committee through which a Bill proceeded on a Tuesday comes down to the House of Commons on a Friday to object to a Bill of which he was in charge in Committee. I will not go into the fact that that Bill was supported by all three political parties whose MPs were members of that Committee, but it strikes me as unprecedented, and unparliamentary, for the Chairman of a Committee to block the Bill whose proceedings he chaired. In view of the fact that we may have very little time in which the Bill can go through its stages, it is essential that the matter be dealt with speedily-and, frankly, that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) be called to order, because he seems to me, rather than being in charge of parliamentary procedure, to be in need of psychiatric help.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The last comment was unfortunate. I ask the right hon. Gentleman, whose very long service in the House I and others respect, to withdraw that last statement. He allowed his tongue to carry him away.

Sir Gerald Kaufman: I will be guided by you always, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: Thank you. I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He expressed himself with the freedom and force for which he is renowned in all parts of the House. I hope that he will understand if I simply sound a cautionary note at this point. It is not clear that the hon. Gentleman who is "accused" of objecting to the Bill did so; I do not have that information. It is right that the matter be looked into further. I understand what the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) said about precedent, the chairmanship of Committees and subsequent performance, or non-performance, at the later stages of Bills, and that is clearly on the record. I reiterate very clearly for the right hon. Gentleman, whose point of order I take very seriously, that I will look further into the matter. I will discuss it as appropriate and I will revert to the House as a whole speedily, to use his word.

Mr. Allen: Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would you accept that private Members' Bills Fridays are a shambles, and that, as one of our most public-facing means of communication, they should be, to use your phrase, referred to the Procedure Committee, as was
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recommended by the Wright Committee-the Reform of the House of Commons Committee-so that we can look at the matter in the round, as well as at the behaviour of a member of the Panel of Chairs on Friday?

Mr. Speaker: I said what I have said about the possible locus of the Procedure Committee in relation to at least a part of the matter. The hon. Gentleman is a highly active and very experienced parliamentarian, and I know that he is extremely exercised about the issue; I understand that. I have ruled on the matter, and I know that the hon. Gentleman would not for one moment seek to inveigle me into a debate in which I should not join.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I absolutely take the point that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) is a senior Member of this House and will be well aware of the convention relating to members of the Panel of Chairs. However, my understanding is that the other two Opposition Members who were present in the House, and who might equally have shouted "Object", are members of the Opposition Front-Bench team. A way of removing the aspersion cast on the hon. Member for Christchurch forthwith would be for one or other of those two Members to admit now that it was them who shouted "Object".

Mr. Speaker: I do not think that it is my suspicious mind; I have now come to the view that there is an attempt to inveigle me into further participation in this debate. I feel sure that the attempt was an inadvertent one, and I am sure that it will not persist. I have been very fair on the subject. I have said clearly what I intend to do, but I really cannot properly or safely add to what I have said.

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have no wish to inveigle you into any further involvement in today's discussion, but I want to draw to your attention and that of the House the fact that the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) was not the only one blocked on Friday. The Local Authorities (Overview and Scrutiny) Bill, which I have been taking through its later stages-it was introduced initially by the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor)-also had all-party support but was also blocked, despite having completed all its stages other than Third Reading.

Mr. Speaker: The right hon. Gentleman has made his own point in his own way, but I know that he will understand, and others will accept, that the point of order procedure cannot be an occasion for individual complaints about the failure of particular measures to progress.

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David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As a young and relatively inexperienced Member, may I say that I am looking forward very much to discussing in this House the important subject of defence? I am getting worried that we will be unable to do so because of these ludicrous points of order. If the Government wanted the Bill, whatever it was-I do not even know what Members are talking about-to go through its stages, they could have found time to enable that to happen on some other day during the week, and not through the private Members' Bill process, could they not?

Mr. Speaker: First, that is not a point of order. Secondly, I say to the hon. Gentleman, for the avoidance of doubt, that he should not make more likely the fulfilment of a self-fulfilling prophecy by further taking up time that he does not need to take up.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Last Thursday, the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) came to the House and informed all Members of "alarming stories" of the diversion of aid from the Department for International Development into the pockets of Ministers in Sierra Leone. That hugely damaging statement was totally inaccurate and, moreover, the DFID office has just been subjected to a rigorous National Audit Office audit, which went very well. Will you advise me, Mr. Speaker, what means exist to enable Members to correct wholly inaccurate statements in the House, particularly that statement, which has unnecessarily damaged reputations and undermined the good work and offices of the presidential and DFID offices in Sierra Leone?

Mr. Speaker: I am genuinely sorry to have to say to the hon. Lady, having heard her remarks, that that is not a point of order. It is a very real expression of concern, but what she is considering and commenting on is ultimately a matter of debate. She has, however, very clearly put her thoughts and concerns on the record, which will be there for everyone to see.

If we have no further points of order-

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. If the House had not decided to suspend Standing Orders and reduce the number of days available for private Members' Bills, there would be more time. Unfortunately, the Members who have raised points of order today all voted for that suspension.

Mr. Speaker: The House has decided what it has decided-to which, as the hon. Gentleman would expect, I have nothing to add. If the enthusiasm for points of order has been exhausted, we shall proceed to the main business, which is a general debate on defence in the world. I call the Secretary of State for Defence to move the motion.

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Defence in the World

3.41 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I beg to move,

The armed forces of the United Kingdom provide the country with a unique instrument for the protection of Britain's national security and the promotion of our national interests. Whether it is protecting the shipping lanes from piracy, defending our dependent territories on land, in the air or at sea, providing humanitarian assistance, keeping the peace in areas of conflict, or fighting to protect national and international security, they are a force for good, and the people of Britain are rightly proud of them.

As we have said before, the main effort for our armed forces is Afghanistan-it is also the main effort for the Ministry of Defence. We are in Afghanistan to ensure that the country cannot be used again as a base to export terrorism, which is a proven threat to our citizens. We will achieve that by supporting the growth of an Afghan Government who reject violent extremism, and who can deny terrorists a haven by maintaining their own security. We must see this job through. The consequences of premature withdrawal would be profoundly dangerous.

This is the context in which the brave men and women of our armed forces are risking life and limb on our behalf. So far this year, 27 UK personnel have been killed, and many more injured. We can minimise, but we can never eliminate, the risks that our armed forces face-this is hard soldiering at the sharp end, and there will be further sacrifice ahead. I was with our forces in Helmand and Kandahar last week, and I met senior allied military commanders, civilian officials and Afghan Ministers in Kabul. There is clear progress on both the security front and the political front, which I shall take in turn.

First, on security, over the past 12 months the number of international security assistance force troops in Helmand has risen from about 7,700 to more than 20,000. The Regional Commander South, Major-General Nick Carter, will therefore continue to review the balance of forces across southern Afghanistan. As announced last week, as part of that, responsibility for Musa Qala will be transferred from UK forces to other ISAF forces. The transfer gives ISAF the opportunity to redeploy UK troops to central Helmand, thickening our forces in the most heavily populated area of the province, where the majority of our troops are already based. Further changes in Helmand are likely in due course to ensure that force lay-down is in line with the campaign priorities set by Major-General Carter.

The early stages of Operation Moshtarak are now complete. We have achieved significant success. The operation has created the space for district Afghan governance to emerge, removing the Taliban's hold over a large area of central Helmand. Immediate stabilisation activity has begun. The Afghan Government, supported by the UK-led provincial reconstruction team, have launched their district stabilisation plan. This has set priorities and committed resources and manpower to deliver key services in Nad Ali. Three thousand local
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Afghans have been employed to work on development projects in cash-for-work programmes.

Last week the Secretary of State for International Development and I walked down a lane that only weeks earlier had been known as "IED alley". The Afghan police were on patrol where previously they had been absent. Locals were selling fruit from stalls where previously commerce had been too dangerous. The Royal Anglians told me how different things were from their first tour in 2006, when they were involved in head-on fighting with Taliban units. This time, they had settled in with speed. The response from the locals had been warm. In total, 1,000 Afghan national security forces personnel have taken part in the latest operations across Helmand, and we expect more than 2,500 to take part in the next phase, including 1,000 Afghan gendarmerie.

But let nobody underestimate the task ahead. Only the first part of Operation Moshtarak has been done. The area has been cleared, but we now have to hold and build. Together with our partners, and in particular the Afghans themselves, we have to provide security for confidence and governance to grow. As the suicide attacks in Kandahar show, the Taliban will come back at us. We cannot take our eye off the ball.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I, too, have just come back from a visit to Afghanistan and share the Secretary of State's cautious optimism that things are progressing and moving in the right direction. However, Operation Moshtarak does not include the Sangin area, and I am concerned that as areas of responsibility are handed over to the Americans, Sangin, which is very much a British focus, seems to be left out and is turning into our Achilles heel. My former regiment, the Rifles Regiment, is based there. Can the right hon. Gentleman provide more information about that area, which seems to be left out in the cold?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman anticipates me. I am coming to the issue of Sangin, as people would expect me to do.

We cannot take our eye off the ball. In other parts of Helmand, UK forces are continuing to support the Afghan Government to bring security and governance to their people. It is a difficult task, which our forces face with resilience and courage. Sangin in particular is one of the most difficult places where our forces are operating. Sangin is Afghanistan in microcosm-an extraordinarily complex situation where poor governance, the drug trade and tribal grievances fuel the insurgency. 3 Rifles are doing a remarkable job in the most difficult circumstances, and the casualties, sadly, reflect that.

The answers to the problem in Sangin will not be provided by the security effort on its own. The problems are political, and the answers will be political. Governor Mangal has acted with determination. He has replaced those who have fallen short or who have abused power-the district governor, the chief of police and other senior security officials. Progress in Sangin is slow and it has, sadly, been hard won. Providing security is difficult and dangerous work and we should expect these challenges to endure for some time.

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