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T8. [1882] Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): As Ministers are no doubt aware, the withdrawal rate of housing benefit and council tax benefit combined can be up
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to 85p in every pound earned, thereby contributing significantly to the poverty trap. Do the Government have any plans to review the withdrawal rate and the tapers?

Steve Webb: My hon. Friend puts his finger on a crucial point. We both believe that work needs to pay, but one of the crucial problems at the moment is that as people improve themselves, work harder, train and do overtime, too much of that money is clawed back through the benefit tapers and tax rates that he has described. My right hon. and hon. Friends will be bringing forward quite radical proposals for benefit reform that are designed to tackle precisely the point that he has raised.

Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire) (Lab): I know that this will surprise everyone, but I want to return to the future jobs fund and the answer that the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) gave earlier about not having received any representations on it. Has he at least made the effort to consult, for example, some of the voluntary and charitable sector organisations that represent young people and support them into work on the effect that cutting the future jobs fund will have on their work? If so, what have they said to him?

Chris Grayling: Yes, we have indeed spoken to those organisations, which will continue to create thousands of new jobs under the future jobs fund during the remainder of this year. However, there is general agreement, particularly among those who have been working with us on the Work programme, that we need apprenticeships, lower employment costs and sustainable long-term jobs in the private sector, not in the public sector-too many of the future jobs fund jobs are in the public sector. We need to create sustainable, long-term employment opportunities for young people and older people on benefits in this country.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Is the Minister aware of early-day motion 159, which is about jobcentres and foodbanks? Is he also aware that charities in my constituency, such as the excellent Harlow foodbank, have been stopped by Jobcentre Plus from giving out food vouchers to the unemployed because of regulations introduced by the previous Government? Does he agree that that is an example of Labour bureaucracy hurting the poor most, and will he take steps to reverse this policy as soon as possible?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Miller): I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. Foodbanks have an important role to play in our local communities. It is important that we ensure that people who might benefit from the services that they offer know that they are available, and we will certainly be reviewing whether it is possible to highlight the availability of local foodbanks through Jobcentre Plus.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr Speaker: Order. Brief questions and brief answers are now of the essence.

Liz Kendall (Leicester West) (Lab): Will the Minister say what help to get off benefits and into work will be available for young people between the future jobs fund ending, which he said would happen in a couple of
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months, and the Government's new single Work programme, which he said would not be available until March 2011?

Chris Grayling: We will be maintaining all the existing programmes, and in particular the flexible new deal, right up until the start of the Work programme next year. The flexible new deal is by far the largest programme that the previous Government put in place to support young people and older people into employment. It is important to ensure that we maintain continuity of support right up to the point when the Work programme is ready to be launched.

Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove) (Con): The Minister will know that spending on welfare doubled under the previous Administration, yet the number of those living in poverty increased. Does he agree that what the previous Administration succeeded in doing was to create the most expensive poverty in history?

Maria Miller: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Record levels of spending on benefits have left us with 100,000 extra children living in poverty since 2004, and the gap between the richest and the poorest has grown wider than at any time since the 1960s. What we need to do is tackle the root causes of poverty to break that cycle of disadvantage, and not do what the previous Government did.

Mr Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw) (Lab): What income guarantee will the Secretary of State give to the worried father who wrote to me last week who gave up his job to look after his disabled son and is now a carer?

Mr Duncan Smith: I would be happy to speak to the hon. Gentleman's constituent with him, but I also guarantee to the hon. Gentleman that the role of carers in society will be one that we continue to support and value. The reality is that if we did not have that informal care in society, the state could never pick up the bill. We look to enhance and support that role, ensuring that carers are valued throughout what we do, and I should be happy to see the hon. Gentleman's constituent, if he wishes.

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): The Secretary of State knows as well as anyone that what he calls notional jobs are nevertheless factored into the Government's spending projections. Can he tell the House how long it will be before the proposed savings in the future jobs fund will be wiped out by the increased cost of keeping more young people on the dole?

Mr Duncan Smith: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, he is playing a game of notional figures- [ Interruption. ] I know what it is like in opposition, and I must tell Labour Members that they must start to get real about the fact that they were in government three months ago and it was they who went on the spending spree. They would also have had to find savings. We need to use the savings that we have found for this year, and ensure that we do not have the job tax. There will also be a much better chance for longer-term jobs through the apprenticeship scheme, involving some 50,000 people. That is real decision making.

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Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State give a guarantee that every job that is found through any Government-backed scheme to move someone from benefits into work will be paid at or above the national minimum wage?

Chris Grayling: Self-evidently, if the providers who work for us under the Work programme are successful in getting someone into work, we will reward them on the basis that they provide post-employment mentoring and stay with the person to ensure that they stay in work-

Clive Efford: Yes or no?

Chris Grayling: Of course, by law, they will have to pay the national minimum wage. That is the requirement for any employer in this country; it is not going to change.

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Mr Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford South) (Lab): One of the successes of the future jobs fund has been in the area of sports. I heard the Minister say earlier that he would stop future contracts, but full-time jobs in sport have been found at the end of the period, and I hope that he will look again at that decision.

Chris Grayling: Absolutely; I also expect sport to take advantage of some of the apprenticeship opportunities. There will be tens of thousands of further opportunities under the future jobs fund, as well as additional apprenticeships and further opportunities provided through the Work programme. We intend to do everything we can to ensure that, when this Government leave office, youth unemployment is lower than it is today-unlike the record of the Labour party in its 13 years in government.

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3.31 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr David Cameron): With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Afghanistan. First, I am sure that the whole House will want to join with me in paying tribute to Private Jonathan Monk from 2nd Battalion the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment and Lance Corporal Andrew Breeze from 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment, who have both died in Afghanistan. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and friends. Their service and sacrifice for our country must never be forgotten.

It was my fifth visit to Afghanistan, but my first as Prime Minister. I held talks with President Karzai and visited our troops in Helmand. I want to set out for the House how this Government will approach our mission in Afghanistan, and how that mission is progressing, but first let me stress the importance of such updates. The whole nation is touched by the heroism of this generation of our armed forces, who are fighting to protect us in harsh conditions far from home, and I believe that the country, and this House, are entitled to the facts. That is why this statement will be the start of a pattern. There will be regular updates to the House, with quarterly statements by the Foreign Secretary or the Defence Secretary, and we will publish on a monthly basis much more information on the progress we are making. This will include updates on the security situation, on recruiting, training and retaining the Afghan security forces, on progress in appointing and supporting provincial and district governors, and on progress in development work, including health and education.

Our main focus, however, will be on the security situation. For example, in the six months to March 2010, the Afghan national army grew by almost 20 %, with more than 17,000 people joining the ranks, but the Afghan police are assessed to be ineffective or barely able to operate in six of the 13 key provinces in General McChrystal's plan. Good news or bad, we want to take the country with us in what is this Government's top foreign policy priority.

Let me address the first question that people are asking. Why are we in Afghanistan? I can answer in two words: national security. Our forces are in Afghanistan to prevent Afghan territory from again being used by al-Qaeda as a base from which to plan attacks on the UK or on our allies. Of course, the al-Qaeda training camps and the Taliban regime that protected them were removed from Afghanistan in the months after 9/11, and the presence of NATO forces prevents them from returning, but Afghanistan is not yet strong enough to look after its own security. That is why we are there, and with the help of the greater efforts of the Pakistanis to hunt down al-Qaeda in their own country, we are now placing al-Qaeda under pressure on both sides of the border. Eighteen months ago, the then Prime Minister told this House that some three quarters of the most serious terrorist plots against Britain had links to the border area. Today I am advised that the threat from al-Qaeda from Afghanistan and Pakistan has reduced, but I am also advised that if it were not for the current presence of UK and international coalition forces, al-Qaeda would return to Afghanistan and the threat to the UK would rise.

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The next question is how long must we stay. The Afghan people do not want foreign forces on their soil any longer than necessary, and the British people are rightly impatient for progress. Our forces will not remain in Afghanistan a day longer than is necessary, and I want to bring them home the moment it is safe to do so. The key to success is training and equipping the Afghan security forces at every level to take on the task of securing their country, so that Afghans can chart their own way in the world without their country posing a threat to others, and our forces can come home, the job done, their heads held high.

That is why we back the strategy developed by General McChrystal, commander of the international security assistance force, and endorsed by President Obama and NATO. That strategy involves protecting the civilian population from the insurgents, supporting more effective government at every level, and building up the Afghan national security forces as rapidly as is feasible. We want to transfer security responsibility for districts and provinces to Afghan control as soon as they are ready, but that must be done on the basis of the facts on the ground, not a pre-announced timetable.

The current year is the vital year. We are six months into an 18-month military surge, and we must now redouble our efforts to drive progress. Central Helmand has, along with Kandahar, been the heartland of the Taliban. It is from there that they gave safe haven to the al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan. That is why the operation in central Helmand is crucial to the success of the whole mission. Four years ago, we went into Helmand with 3,000 troops. I do not think anyone now seriously argues that that was sufficient. Today, there are around 30,000 troops there, with 8,000 British working alongside 20,000 US Marines. In total, we have more than 10,000 troops in the country as a whole. With the arrival of reinforcements and the continued growth of the Afghan security forces, we are now evening out the ISAF presence in the main populated areas in Helmand.

That is an absolutely crucial point. In the past, we have simply not had enough soldiers per head of population for an effective counter-insurgency campaign. Today, although the rebalancing is still work in progress, the situation is much improved. The arrival of a US Marine expeditionary force, combined with additional contributions from other ISAF partners including the UK, has given a huge boost to the resources available to ISAF in Helmand. For example, the Marines have arrived with some 80 aircraft and helicopters of their own, which are now available to support all ISAF forces in Helmand.

It is clear that we have made real progress in central Helmand this year. A degree of normal life has returned to places such as Nad Ali, where the bazaar is open again and people are going about their daily business in an area that was until recently completely infested with insurgents, but the progress is not yet irreversible. Inevitably, there will be tough fighting as Afghan forces, with ISAF support, hold the ground we have taken and push the insurgents out of further towns and villages.

During my visit, I was able to announce a further £67 million to double the number of counter-improvised explosive device teams, to tackle the most serious threat facing our young men and women. So with the improvements made in the past year, many of the acute shortages that hampered us so severely in our initial deployment in Helmand have been dealt with, but I do
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not pretend that every equipment shortage has been resolved. We will need to adapt constantly and deal with problems as they arise.

The whole country is incredibly proud of our armed forces, and I believe we need to do more to recognise these remarkable men and women and place them at the front and centre of our society. That is why I announced a doubling of the operational allowance for service in Afghanistan, backdated to 6 May; and that is why I believe it is right that we renew and reaffirm our commitment to the military covenant, that crucial contract between our country and those who risk their lives to ensure our security.

I do not pretend that we can succeed, either in Helmand or in Afghanistan, by military means alone. Insurgencies usually end with political settlements, not military victories, and that is why I have always said that we need a political surge to accompany the military one. We need better to align our development spending with our overall strategy, and I have announced £200 million to be spent on training, strengthening the police services and government institutions; and, crucially, we need a political process to help bring the insurgency to an end.

As a first step, that means getting individual Taliban fighters to put down their weapons, renounce violence and reintegrate into Afghan society, and the successful peace jirga earlier this month should enable that process to move ahead more swiftly. However, it means more than that. For there to be long-term political stability, everyone in Afghanistan, including those in the south, must feel that the Government is theirs, that it is their country, and that they have a role to play. As I agreed with President Karzai, we must start working towards a wider reconciliation process, leading to a political settlement that works for all the peoples of Afghanistan.

We are seeing a good example of that in Kandahar where, importantly, the process getting under way is largely Afghan-led. Alongside military operations by Afghan security forces together with international forces, it includes, for example, the shura of several hundred local elders conducted yesterday by the local governor, which President Karzai attended, and a major drive by the Afghan Government, with our support, to improve public services and the rule of law. From now on, what is happening around Kandahar and in Helmand should reflect a deeper understanding of the influence of tribal structures in Afghanistan. In the past, we simply have not paid enough attention to that and to the unintended consequences of some of our policies. I want us, for example, to take a careful look at the contracting policy of ISAF, to ensure that the money going into the local economy from the huge contracts that are let has a positive impact and does not help fund local militias or, even worse, the insurgents.

This is the vital year. We have the forces needed on the ground and we have our very best people, not just those in the military, but those leading on the diplomatic and development front. I do not pretend that it will be easy and I must warn the House that we must be ready for further casualties over the summer months, as the so called "fighting season" resumes and as ISAF extends its activity. But I say to the House what I said to our young servicemen and women in the dust and heat of Helmand on Friday: they are fighting thousands of miles away to protect our national security here at home. Like their predecessors, they have the support and gratitude of the whole nation. When we have
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succeeded in enabling the Afghans to take control of their own security, our troops can begin to come home. Even after our troops have left Afghanistan, the relationship between Britain and Afghanistan must continue as a strong and close one. Likewise, we want to continue to build on our relationship with Pakistan. These long-term relationships are, quite simply, essential for our national security. I commend this statement to the House.

Ms Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham) (Lab): I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the two soldiers who have been killed, Private Jonathan Monk from 2nd Battalion The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment and Lance Corporal Andrew Breeze from 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment. Our thoughts are with their families and on the grief of their loss.

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. I welcome both his early visit to Afghanistan since coming into government and the increase in the operational allowance that he announced. All those serving in Afghanistan should know that they have the admiration and respect of the whole country and of Members from all parts of the House. Will he continue with Armed Forces day on 26 June?

May I restate Labour's support for our mission in Afghanistan, which is, as the Prime Minister rightly said, first and foremost to protect our national security. As this was his first statement to the House on Afghanistan and the first occasion on which we have responded as the official Opposition, may I assure him that as he proceeds to take difficult decisions in the best interests of our mission in Afghanistan and of our troops, he will have our full support. In that spirit, I welcome the £67 million that he has announced to help tackle the IED threat. Will he inform the House in more detail as to what that will be spent on? We understand that there will be 13 extra Mastiff vehicles, and we welcome that. Will they be in addition to the £67 million? As there is also a need for well protected vehicles with greater manoeuvrability, will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government will proceed with a second batch of 200 light protected patrol vehicles?

On the strategy in Afghanistan, the Prime Minister has reaffirmed that, despite the challenges, progress has been made. Will he confirm that the Government are continuing the strategy that the UK has been pursuing and that it has not changed? If it has changed, will he tell us in what respects? It is common ground that our work in Afghanistan needs to bring together security, development and diplomatic efforts. Will the Prime Minister update the House on the discussions he has had with President Karzai? I assure him that the Government will have our support to take through a strategy that sees that the Afghans are strong enough to take responsibility for their own security and prosperity. I welcome the £200 million that he announced for building up the Afghan army, police and civil service. Will he reassure the House that that will not be at the expense of vital existing development programmes elsewhere in the world?

Will the Prime Minister update the House on discussions that he has had with US Defence Secretary Gates and on whether they have addressed the proposed withdrawal of Canadian forces in 2011? A stable Afghanistan requires a stable Pakistan. Will the Prime Minister update the House on the discussions he has had with President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani of Pakistan?

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