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House of Commons

Wednesday 27 October 2010

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked-

Consumer Focus

1. Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on the future provision of services currently provided by Consumer Focus Scotland. [18971]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Mundell): The Government carried out a review of the landscape of consumer protection bodies and will publish a consultation early next year with proposals to streamline and transfer the functions of Consumer Focus Scotland to Citizens Advice Scotland.

Cathy Jamieson: I thank the Minister for his answer. I know that he will be aware of the significant work done by Consumer Focus Scotland and indeed of the very worthy work of citizens rights bureaux in Scotland in upholding citizens' rights. A report published today highlights one trend of serious concern: the number of people approaching citizens advice bureaux regarding employment support allowance has almost doubled in the last 12 months. In the light of the damaging cuts to the welfare budget announced last week and the significant additional pressures it will put on citizens advice bureaux, what discussions have the Minister and Secretary of State had directly with Citizens Advice Scotland regarding the transfer of these functions?

David Mundell: The Scotland Office has been in dialogue with Citizens Advice Scotland-and, indeed, with the Scottish Government-about the services it currently provides and those it will provide if the functions from Consumer Focus Scotland are transferred to it. The hon. Lady makes an important point about the provision of advice, not just about the benefit she mentioned, but about all benefits.

Labour Statistics

2. Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on trends in levels of employment in Ayrshire; and if he will make a statement. [18972]

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The Secretary of State for Scotland (Michael Moore): The Government are committed to creating the right conditions in Ayrshire and elsewhere to ensure sustainable economic growth and, with it, employment opportunities.

Katy Clark: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Has he had the opportunity to look at the Experian report, which has received some coverage in the press over the last few days? It says that, owing to the high dependence on public sector jobs and the poor performance in other sectors of the economy, North Ayrshire will be the part of Scotland that finds it most difficult to recover from the recession. Will he look at that report, consider what impact the loss of public sector jobs will have in North Ayrshire and meet colleagues who represent the area to discuss what needs to be done to protect the economy?

Michael Moore: I have seen the report and I appreciate the challenges faced in North Ayrshire and elsewhere. Our challenge as a Government is to tackle the deficit we inherited from the previous Labour Government, under whom unemployment was rising significantly. All the measures we have announced in the Budget and the spending review are designed to tackle that, but I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady and other colleagues to discuss the situation.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow North) (Lab): The Government have repeatedly stated that they always want to make work pay, but in areas such as North Ayrshire, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) represents, many families that desperately want to work can find only temporary or part-time jobs. The charity Gingerbread reported this week that one third of all jobcentre vacancies are for jobs offering fewer than 16 hours a week, yet the Secretary of State's Government propose to remove working tax credits for all families working between 16 and 24 hours a week. How many hard-working families in Scotland will lose their credit because of this change? Will the right hon. Gentleman stand up and urge the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to abandon this draconian measure?

Michael Moore: I welcome the hon. Lady to her post. She knows the Scotland Office well from her previous position as a Minister. I look forward to working with her on issues where we agree, although we will also have robust exchanges where there is room for disagreement. I am afraid that this issue is one such area. As I said to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) a moment ago, we inherited from the Labour Government the largest deficit in peacetime history-£155,000 million. The measures we announced in the Budget to help reduce corporation tax and the burden of national insurance and now the measures in the comprehensive spending review to invest in energy projects for the future show that we are setting out on our plan to get sustainable employment for the whole of Scotland.

Ann McKechin: I thank the Secretary of State for his initial remarks. I am sure there will be areas where we can work together, but on this issue his answer is certainly disappointing. Yet again his Government admit to taking twice as much from people with families as they do from our banks. His Government now propose a 10% cut in housing benefit entitlement for those on
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jobseeker's allowance for more than 12 months-regardless of the fact that they have complied with all the rules and looked for work at every opportunity. Most people regard this as no better than a form of punishment. The Secretary of State missed the vote on the VAT rise; is he going to miss this vote, too, or will he now stand up for decency and fairness?

Michael Moore: What matters is for us to have a welfare system that supports those in need, helps them to get back into work, and, when they get back into work, makes work pay. All too rarely have the existing arrangements met those tests. We are determined to support those in need on an ongoing basis, and to ensure that the system is fair to those who need it and fair to those who pay for it.

Local Television Networks

3. David Cairns (Inverclyde) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the broadcasting industry in Scotland on the Government's plans for local television networks. [18973]

4. Greg Hands (Chelsea and Fulham) (Con): What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on the likely effects in Scotland of the implementation of the Government's proposals for local television networks. [18974]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Mundell): Both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have met broadcasters to discuss a range of issues. We also have regular exchanges on broadcasting with ministerial colleagues.

David Cairns: Given the inevitable adverse implications for the BBC's programme-making budget of the massive real-terms cut in the licence fee, is it not more important than ever for us to encourage television production from all sources in Scotland? Can the Minister update me on the progress of the plan initiated by the last Government to grant qualifying independent producer status to STV?

David Mundell: I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's interest and expertise in broadcasting in Scotland. In answer to his question, I can tell him that an announcement will be made shortly.

Greg Hands: Local television is popular, and will make a real difference to communities in Scotland. The Minister will be aware that even the Scottish Government's own Scottish Broadcasting Commission has concluded that television should remain a reserved matter. Will the Minister undertake to work with his DCMS colleagues to ensure that any framework resulting from the Shott review takes account of Scotland's specific needs?

David Mundell: I agree with my hon. Friend. It was interesting to note that both the broadcasting commission established by the SNP Government and the Calman commission concluded that broadcasting should remain reserved. Nicholas Shott has visited Scotland, and has met various interested parties in the broadcasting sector
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there. I am sure that Scotland's particular needs will be taken into account when his final report is issued later this year.

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): The television channel BBC Alba manages to be both local and national, but its funds are already parsimonious, and it is able to broadcast for only part of the day. May we have a assurance from the Government that its funding-already cut to the marrow-will be defended, and that the process of putting it on to Freeview, which has been delayed still further, will be sorted out soon?

David Mundell: The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to learn that I shall visit the offices of BBC Alba during a visit to the Western Isles on 5 November. The Freeview issue is clearly one for the BBC Trust, but I understand that it has not yet made a decision.

Renewable Energy

5. John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on expenditure on port infrastructure in Scotland for the development of marine renewable energy projects; and if he will make a statement. [18975]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Michael Moore): I was delighted to visit my hon. Friend's constituency last month, and to find out more about the plans there for the development of marine renewable energy projects.

Scottish Ministers can direct Ofgem to pay an amount from the Scottish fossil fuel levy account to the Scottish Consolidated Fund, which could be used for such projects. If Scottish Ministers do that, they will benefit from our arrangements for the devolution of at least £250 million for Scotland from the green investment bank.

John Thurso: I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the immense potential of the Nigg yard in Easter Ross. Is he also aware that its current owner, KBR, has declined to use it, and is dragging its feet over selling it? Will he make it clear to KBR that a speedy completion is necessary to return the yard to use and create important jobs?

Michael Moore: When we visited Scrabster and other parts of my hon. Friend's constituency, I was impressed by the serious efforts that are already being made to develop marine renewable projects in the far north. I recognise my hon. Friend's concern about the situation at Nigg, and his comments will have been heard by the management team there. It is important for us to secure, across Scotland, as much investment as possible in the new renewables projects. I hope that the Scottish Government will respond positively now that we have ring-fenced money in the green investment bank.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): What representations has the Secretary of State made on behalf of Scotland for the green investment bank to be located there?

Michael Moore: The hon. Gentleman and others are making a strong case for that, and I am certainly interested in working with colleagues in all parts of the House to make the strongest possible case for it as well.

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Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I am sure that the Secretary of State will be aware of the announcement earlier this week that Danish company Skykon has suspended payments to creditors. Skykon owns a factory in my constituency that makes towers for wind turbines and it was building a new factory. Will he do his best to ensure that that partially completed factory is completed and goes into production, protecting badly needed jobs and producing towers for the wind industry?

Michael Moore: Like my hon. Friend, I regret the announcement that was made. I realise that that will have a huge impact on that community in his constituency. It is important that we get to the bottom of this and understand the reasons behind it, but I hope that, working with the Scottish Government and through any meetings that he and I might have, we will be able to work our way through this.

Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): I ask the Secretary of State to join me in pressing for the green investment bank to be based in Scotland, to take a bit of initiative and to put some urgency and energy into that matter, because, given the level of expertise and knowledge in Scotland, it is the ideal place for the green investment bank to be based.

Michael Moore: First, I am delighted to have the opportunity to welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities. Like the shadow Secretary of State, he knows the Scotland Office very well and I look forward to our encounters across the Dispatch Box and to working together where we can. The decision on the location of the green investment bank has still to be taken. His comments, those of his hon. Friends and those of Members on the Government Benches are strongly made, and I will work with everyone to make the best possible case for Scotland.

Universal Credit

6. John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): what discussions he has had with the Department for Work and Pensions on the implementation in Scotland of proposals to establish a universal credit. [18976]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Mundell): The Secretary of State and I have been in contact with Ministers from the Department for Work and Pensions about a number of aspects of welfare reform in relation to Scotland.

John Glen: I thank my right hon. Friend to that reply. Many areas of Scotland, notably Glasgow, have suffered from the previous Government's shameful failure to reform welfare over the past 13 years. Does he agree that, far from fearing the universal credit and the work programme, those areas, particularly Glasgow, will benefit because it will pay to be in work and there will be more help into employment for those who need it?

David Mundell: I do agree with my hon. Friend. Our programme is designed to support those who are in the most need but also to ensure that work always pays.

Mr Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): On the question of work, or the lack of it, the Minister will have doubtless seen the national publicity around Irvine,
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because of the demise of the development corporation, created by a previous Conservative Administration. Does he believe that it is now time to bring back the Irvine development corporation?

David Mundell: The hon. Gentleman is always a strong advocate for interests in his constituency, but he will know that responsibility for that particular one rests with the Scottish Government.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): The Minister will be aware that the pilot scheme for getting people off incapacity benefit and into work is under way in Aberdeen, and it will be a desirable outcome if people can be freed from benefit. May I share with him the experience of a constituent who came to see me this week? He said that he had just successfully got DLA, incapacity benefit and carer's allowance, but it required three separate applications and two medical examinations, which involved two separate doctors being sent from Glasgow to carry out the examinations. Is that not an example of how incompetently inefficient the system currently is?

David Mundell: Yes. The right hon. Gentleman is correct to highlight the inefficiencies of the current system, which is why the coalition Government are committed to the reform of the welfare system. It is an issue that I will draw to the attention of the Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions who will visit Scotland tomorrow.


7. Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): if he will discuss with the Deputy Prime Minister the merits of enabling UK-resident Scots living outside Scotland to vote in any future referendums on the relationship between the UK Government and the Scottish Executive. [18977]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Mundell): The Government have no plans for a referendum on the relationship between Scotland and the rest the United Kingdom and, as far as I know, neither do the Scottish Government. The franchise for a referendum is normally provided for in the legislation setting the referendum question and rules.

Ian Lucas: I thank the Minister for that reply. My constituent, Mrs Massey, is a Scot and British. Why should she be excluded from any future vote on the arrangements for Scotland within the UK?

David Mundell: I am sure that, like me, the hon. Gentleman will do everything he can to campaign to retain Scotland's place in the United Kingdom, and I see no immediate prospect of any such referendum.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): I am an enthusiastic campaigner for British people living abroad obtaining the vote in all elections after they have lived abroad for 25 years. Can my right hon. Friend explain what the Labour Government spent the previous 13 years doing and why they did not implement this policy before the general election?

David Mundell rose-

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Mr Speaker: Order. May I suggest that the Minister's reply should be focused exclusively-and, I hope, briefly-on the policy of the Government rather than on that of the official Opposition?

David Mundell: The Government will have noted my hon. Friend's representations.

Comprehensive Spending Review

8. Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the implications of the mechanisms for calculating the effects of the comprehensive spending review year on year in Scotland. [18978]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Michael Moore): The Scottish Government's budget is calculated using the Barnett formula. The Chancellor has set out a decisive plan to reduce the UK's unprecedented deficit and restore confidence in the UK economy. For Scotland, the spending review provides a fair deal in tough times.

Michael Connarty: The Secretary of State has not answered the question. I was asking about the year-on-year calculations. Is it not a fact that his Tory puppet-masters offered the Scottish National party Government a deal whereby there is less of a cut in the first year and more of a cut in future years to help the SNP in its efforts to get re-elected as the Scottish Government? Will the Secretary of State talk about the implications year on year for future years, when Scotland will be punished more than it is being this year?

Michael Moore: May I reassure the hon. Gentleman that his fears about political machinations are ill founded? I can confirm, however, that, in response to a request from the Scottish Government, flexibility was given to transfer some of the in-year savings from the current financial year to future years. It is for the Scottish Government to respond to, and make decisions on, such matters, and they are accountable for the spending choices they will make for the next four years.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): The UK Government have known for months the social and economic consequences of defence cuts in Scotland, so will the Secretary of State confirm what specific resources were allocated as part of the comprehensive spending review to mitigate the effects of base closures?

Michael Moore: I welcomed the opportunity to meet the hon. Gentleman in Moray last week. I recognise that the decisions taken in the defence review following an overall assessment of Britain's national security needs have not been good for him and his constituents, and I appreciate that there is a lot of concern about the future. I repeat today what I said in Moray: I am happy to work with the hon. Gentleman to ensure we work through the consequences of this.

Angus Robertson: So, one week after the closure announcement, is the Secretary of State confirming to the House today that no specific resources have been put in place and that the UK Government are providing no support on the ground in places such as Moray?

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Michael Moore: I am happy to repeat what I made clear to the hon. Gentleman when we were in Moray: we will work with him, the taskforce and others who are interested in the future of the Moray bases to ensure we resolve things as well as possible. May I also assure the hon. Gentleman, particularly since he has raised this issue separately this week, that no decision has been taken on the future of the Tornadoes at RAF Lossiemouth?

Mr Speaker: Order. As usual at this time, far too many private conversations are taking place in the Chamber. That is very unfair on the hon. Member asking the question and the Minister answering it. Let us have a bit of order, therefore.

Higher Education

9. Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on the implications for cross-border students of the Government's proposals for higher education funding. [18979]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Mundell): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills announced the publication of Lord Browne's report on higher education and student finance on 12 October 2010. The Government plan to publish a White Paper outlining detailed proposals in the winter.

Sheila Gilmore: There are obviously considerable consequences for Scotland in any proposals to reduce the teaching grant because of the proposals on loans. What discussions have taken place about the possibility of large numbers of English students wishing to study in Scotland, to the detriment of Scottish students?

David Mundell: The hon. Lady raises an important point. Her question is one of those posed by Lord Browne's report, and it will need to be addressed through debate and consultation. We intend to publish a White Paper in the winter leading, subject to parliamentary time, to a higher education Bill in autumn 2011.

Election Dates

10. Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con): What discussions he has had with the Deputy Prime Minister on whether to hold elections to the Scottish Parliament on the same day as the proposed UK general election in 2015. [18980]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Mundell): The Government have made it clear that they will work with all the devolved Administrations and legislatures to consider the issues raised by the coincidence of elections in 2015.

Mark Menzies: Does the Minister agree that when we get to the 2015 elections the new equal-sized boundaries will ensure a far fairer result than those held under the current set-up?

David Mundell: Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend, and I am sure that he will welcome, as I do, the protection of important constituencies in Scotland such as Orkney and Shetland, and the Western Isles.

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Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I recognise that the Minister has read the Gould report. Is he now saying that he disagrees with its central finding that two ballots on different issues in different systems should not be held on the same date?

David Mundell: I agree with Ron Gould's submission to the Scottish Affairs Committee, in which he said that although he would prefer the referendum on AV and the Scottish elections to be held on different days, he saw no reason why they should not be held on the same day and did not anticipate that causing the same confusion that arose in 2007.


11. Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the relationship between the UK Government and the Scottish Executive under the devolution settlement. [18981]

15. Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the relationship between the UK Government and the Scottish Executive under the devolution settlement. [18985]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Michael Moore): I have discussions with ministerial colleagues on a range of issues, including the relationship between the UK Government and the Scottish Government under the devolution settlement. We will introduce a Scotland Bill in the near future, which will implement our proposals for strengthening and deepening the devolution settlement for Scotland.

Alun Cairns: Does the Secretary of State believe that the public in Scotland recognise the need to tackle the budget deficit? If so, will he condemn the Scottish Executive for manufacturing disagreements with the Westminster Government and encourage them to work constructively with the Scotland Office on tackling the budget deficit?

Michael Moore: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that the settlement for Scotland was better than the Scottish Government anticipated, and it should now be for them to get on with setting out their plans for not only the next year, but the next four years.

Robert Halfon: Does the Secretary of State recognise that residents in my constituency and elsewhere believe that alongside his plans for Scottish devolution, England deserves a fair constitutional settlement, with English votes for English laws?

Michael Moore: The hon. Gentleman's passionate case has been heard in a very busy Chamber, but I am concentrating on getting on with the continuation of Scottish devolution.

Mr Jim Hood (Lanark and Hamilton East) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State accept that this would be an excellent subject for discussion in the Scottish Grand Committee? Can he have a word with the Leader of the House, who is sitting two up from him, so that we can immediately initiate the next meeting of that Committee, which has not sat for many a year?

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Michael Moore: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his unhesitating campaigning on this issue, but may I gently point out to him that the imminent publication of the Scotland Bill means that there will be more than a little chance to debate these issues?

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Does the Secretary of State not agree that the relationship between Westminster and the Scottish Government has gone from being one of respect to one of almost total contempt? Why will the UK Government not consult the Scottish Government in advance about very important constitutional issues?

Michael Moore: I am absolutely astounded by the hon. Gentleman's charge because, unlike the previous Government, we have gone out of our way to work with the Scottish Government to ensure that this takes place. [Interruption.] We cannot get around the fact that there are fundamental disagreements about the way we see the constitutional settlement developing, but I say to him that we have been sharing information and discussing things with his ministerial colleagues in Scotland regularly, and we will continue to do so-I hope that they will engage.

Mr Speaker: Order. There is still far too much noise in the Chamber. I want to hear Mr Frank Doran.

Mr Frank Doran (Aberdeen North) (Lab): Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State will be aware that-

Mr Speaker: First, we must take Question 12.

Oil and Gas Industries

12. Mr Frank Doran (Aberdeen North) (Lab): When he last had discussions with representatives of the oil and gas industries on the future of that industry in Aberdeen. [18982]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Mundell): Both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I meet frequently representatives of the oil and gas industry. The UK Government recognise the ongoing needs of the industry and its commitment to the future of the UK continental shelf.

Mr Doran: I am sorry for that, Mr Speaker, but it is what happens when we do not expect to be called.

The Secretary of State will be well aware that the oil and gas industry is a global one and that its European headquarters is in my constituency. He will also be aware of the serious problem of skills shortages, and of the fact that the industry depends on the skilled people it can bring in from other countries and on exporting our knowledge. What is he doing to assist with the removal of the cap, which is seriously damaging the oil and gas industry and other industries in this country?

David Mundell: Oil & Gas UK has submitted replies to both consultations run by the Home Office and the Migration Advisory Committee. The consultation responses are now being considered and early outcomes are expected before the end of December. Lin Homer, the UK Border Agency chief executive, met representatives of the oil and gas sector on 9 September.

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Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): I remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members' Financial Interests as a shareholder of Shell. May I reinforce to the Minister the concerns in that global industry now that it is so much into the export market? Not only is there the problem of work permits and getting people into this country, but, because of the way we treat people coming to this country, it is more difficult to get skilled people into other countries where we have an export market.

David Mundell: I take the hon. Gentleman's points on board. He will recognise that the potential of the industry has been recognised again this morning with a statement to the House about the potential award of 144 seaward production licences in the 26th oil and gas licensing round.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked-


Q1. [19518] Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 27 October.

The Prime Minister (Mr David Cameron): I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Corporal David Barnsdale from 33 Engineer Regiment (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), who died on 19 October. He was a brave and highly skilled member of our armed forces whose service and sacrifice must not be forgotten. Our thoughts must be with his family, his friends and his colleagues.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Harriett Baldwin: May I associate myself with the condolences expressed by my right hon. Friend?

Does the Prime Minister agree that yesterday's excellent growth numbers show that the private sector is growing and will create the jobs that my constituents need? [ Interruption. ]

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is entirely right. The growth figures yesterday were twice as good as market expectation. Of course, Opposition Members do not like good news, but they should celebrate it when it comes. This was strong growth, largely driven by the private sector, and it was accompanied by the Standard & Poor's agency saying that we should no longer be in the danger zone for our credit rating, which is welcome news. Opposition Members who are waiting for a double dip have had a bit of double depression, but I am sure that we will get lots of questions about the economy this morning.

Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab): May I start by joining the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal David Barnsdale from 33 Engineer Regiment (Explosive Ordnance Disposal)? He died serving his country; we honour his memory and send the deepest of condolences to his family.

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There are reports this morning that the Government are reconsidering aspects of their housing benefit reforms. Are they?

The Prime Minister: No, we are bringing forward our plans for housing benefit reform. Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman why we are doing that. Housing benefit for working-age people over the last five years has gone up by 50%. This is a budget that is completely out of control. The proposals we are bringing forward are difficult, but they need to be done, not least because we want to make sure that we protect the schools budget. We want to make sure that we protect the NHS budget. That is why we are taking difficult decisions about welfare and I hope that he will be able to tell us this morning whether he is going to support them.

Edward Miliband: I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. Let me get complete clarity from him. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is reported as saying that the Government are "open to suggestions" on the issue of housing benefit. Is the Prime Minister saying that all the aspects of housing benefit reform are fixed and are not going to change?

The Prime Minister: We are going forward with all the proposals that we put in the spending review and in the Budget. I am sure that we would all love some suggestions from the right hon. Gentleman.

Edward Miliband: This is Prime Minister's questions-the clue is in the title. He is supposed to answer the questions. I have a specific question for him on one aspect of the housing benefit changes. The plan is to cut by 10% the housing benefit-the help with rent-that someone receives after they have been out of work for a year, even as they have been searching for work. Does the Prime Minister think that that is fair?

The Prime Minister: These are difficult changes, but I think that they are right. Everyone on jobseeker's allowance is expected to work, and everyone knows that there is a problem when people claim jobseeker's allowance and maximum housing benefit for long periods of time, which creates a serious disincentive to work. That is why we are making this change, and that is why it is right.

The key change that we are looking at is the £20,000 cap on maximum housing benefit claims. Is the right hon. Gentleman really saying- [ Interruption. ] I am answering the question. I know that Labour Members do not like the answer that we are sticking to our plans, but we are sticking to our plans. The point that everyone in this House must consider is whether we are happy to go on paying housing benefit of £30,000, £40,000 or £50,000. Our constituents are working hard to give benefits to other people to live in homes that they themselves cannot dream of, and I do not think that is fair.

Edward Miliband: The whole House has heard that the Prime Minister has dug himself in on the proposal to cut by 10% the help that people receive with rent after they have been out of work for a year. I ask him, because he will have obviously thought about this, what advice he would give to a family who are seeing 10% of their income from housing benefit being taken away.
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What advice would he give them, when they are seeing such a large cut in their income, on how they should make ends meet?

The Prime Minister: In the Work programme, we will have the best and biggest programme to help those people back into work. It will not just be the state doing it; we are going to get training companies and voluntary bodies to help those people into work. I know that the right hon. Gentleman likes figures, so let me give him the figures for London. There are 37,390 people who have been on jobseeker's allowance for more than a year, and those people would be affected by this change-I accept that; it is difficult. Every month, there are 30,000 new vacancies in London, which makes 400,000 vacancies a year. We want to get those people back into work. What does he want to do?

Edward Miliband: The Prime Minister is about to make 500,000 people redundant as a result of the cuts announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is clear that his policy on housing benefit is a complete shambles. He has talked about London, but in London alone councils are saying that 82,000 people will lose their homes-they are already booking the bed-and-breakfast accommodation. How many people does he think will lose their homes as a result of that policy?

The Prime Minister: If we are prepared to pay-as we are-£20,000 in housing benefit, there is no reason why anyone should be left without a home. The Leader of the Opposition has talked about economic policy and cuts, and we now know from the Labour party's own memorandum what its cuts would be. This is not the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Government or the Conservative party; this is a Labour memorandum. It said that the cuts- [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. I apologise for interrupting the Prime Minister. Members must remain calm-if they are not serene, then they must at any rate be calm at all times. We must hear the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister: The people responsible for making the mess should be quiet when they are told how it will be cleared up. The Labour memorandum states that the cuts implied by its spending plans would have been £44 billion in 2014-15. Those are the Labour party's cuts, which we are having to implement. I was always told that if you have got nothing to say, it is better not to say it.

Edward Miliband: We can see the faces on the Liberal Democrat Benches. The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) has described that policy as "harsh and draconian". No wonder he looks glum. Then we have glummer, the Deputy Prime Minister-it is no wonder that he is back on the fags. Is not the truth that the Prime Minister just does not get it? He is out of touch. Other people will pay the price for his cuts. Is it not time that he thought again on housing benefit?

The Prime Minister: We all had the chance to read about it in The Times this morning-the advice to the Leader of the Opposition:

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You have to have something that


The right hon. Gentleman has a plan for Prime Minister's questions, but he has no plan for the economy, no plan for the debt and no plan for the mess Labour made-absolutely nothing worth while to say. That is it.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Ocado on creating 2,000 much-needed new jobs on the edge of Tamworth? While he is at it, will he congratulate the chief executive, Tim Steiner, on making it clear that he supports the difficult decisions that the Government are making to fix our finances and promote growth-decisions that the Labour party flunked?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Business leaders in Britain who are going to create the jobs that will employ thousands of people in our country support what the Government are doing and they want us to follow it through. I am happy to congratulate the person running Ocado, not least because I am one of its customers.

Q2. [19519] Mr David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab): The Prime Minister sets great store by devolving decision making to ordinary people. That already exists, of course, with the Welsh Assembly-population 3 million and devolved budget of £14.5 billion -and the Scottish Parliament, with a population of 5 million and, even after the cuts, a budget, through the block grant, of £27.3 billion. Using the formula applied to Wales, the 5.2 million people of Yorkshire would be entitled to a devolved budget of £24 billion. Can he think of one single reason why the people of Yorkshire should not determine their own priorities and, mischievously, one reason why they should not have their own white rose Parliament?

The Prime Minister: I did not know that the right hon. Gentleman, for whom I have considerable respect, was making these arguments all through the past 13 years. This is a revelation. We are saying to councils in Yorkshire and up and down the country, "We're getting rid of the ring-fences and giving you the power to spend your money in the way that you choose." We have got rid of the bossy, centralising, interfering approach that I am afraid he was rather part of.

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): Is the Prime Minister aware that more than 420 people died in Somerset last winter from causes related to cold and poor living conditions? Will he join me in supporting a local charity, the Somerset Community Foundation, which has a surviving winter appeal whereby all those who can forgo all or part of their winter fuel payment can donate the money for redistribution to those for whom it is not nearly enough?

The Prime Minister: I will certainly join the hon. Lady in congratulating the charity on the work it does. It sounds absolutely essential. I know that she will welcome, as I did, the decision by the Chancellor in the
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spending statement that cold weather payments would be put on the higher level permanently, not just before an election.

Q3. [19520] Mr Eric Illsley (Barnsley Central) (Lab): Yorkshire Forward, the Yorkshire regional development agency, owns assets in my constituency in Barnsley that are crucial for a major redevelopment programme in the town centre. Will the Prime Minister look urgently at ensuring that the ownership of those assets is transferred from Yorkshire Forward to the local authority so that the programme can go ahead? Could that transfer be facilitated before the body's abolition in 2012?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The transition from regional development agencies to the new local enterprise partnerships has to be handled carefully, ensuring that such assets are put to good use. So far, the proposals for local enterprise partnerships that are coming in are extremely encouraging and will lead to more of what the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) talked about-more control locally rather than in distant regions that people do not identify with.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): It is claimed that the EU will need a new treaty to legitimise money going to Greece. What is the Prime Minister's response?

The Prime Minister: The argument being put forward, particularly by the Germans, is that a new treaty clause is needed to put the eurozone on a stronger footing. Clearly, from our point of view, we are not in the euro and we are not planning to join the euro, so any treaty change would not apply to us-just as, in terms of the new rules on the stability and funding mechanism, we have always had a carve-out from them. We shall be discussing that at the European Council this week.

The greatest priority for Britain should be to fight very hard to get the EU budget under control. It is completely unacceptable, at a time when we are making tough budget decisions here, that we are seeing spending rise consistently in the European Union. I think that is wrong and I shall be doing everything I can to try to sort out the budget for next year, and also to look at the future financing of the European Union, where we want to see strict controls. That should be our priority.

Q4. [19521] Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): The Prime Minister must realise that the British public are facing cuts in services and in their livelihoods. They do not want to see a single penny more given to the EU. In fact, they would like to see brought back some of the money that was given away, unfortunately, by our Prime Minister. Will this Prime Minister please ensure that when he goes into battle for our money, he does not-as happens to many leaders when they are involved in that bloated bureaucracy-roll over? Will he promise that if the EU demands that money, we will just say, "Sorry, we're not paying"?

The Prime Minister: As ever, the hon. Lady talks a good deal of sense. It is worth recalling that since Margaret Thatcher won that rebate at Fontainebleau it has saved Britain £88 billion. That is what tough negotiation achieved. The European Parliament has insisted on a higher budget than the one set by the Council, so the first thing we have to do is to say that is not acceptable,
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and build a majority on the Council to get the budget down again. It pains me to say this to the hon. Lady, but we would be assisted if Labour MEPs did not keep voting for higher budgets, which is exactly what they did this week.

Q5. [19523] Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): Last year, the Prime Minister saw how High Peak borough council, through a pioneering alliance with Staffordshire Moorlands, had delivered efficiency savings of almost £2.4 million over the past two years. Will he assure the House that he will strive to support councils such as High Peak, which have sought to deliver better value for money and ensure that local people benefit as a result?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. My council does exactly the same thing: it shares a chief executive, and soon more of the management team, with a neighbouring council. All councils can look at that. Frankly, it is not just councils-police forces and other organisations can look at shared services to drive down costs, so that we make sure we focus on the front line. Those are some of the reforms we need, to make sure that at a time of tight budgets we keep the good services we want.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): In a few weeks' time, the Prime Minister will decide whether he will close RAF Lossiemouth, in addition to closing RAF Kinloss, which would lead to the biggest loss of jobs in Scotland since the Tories closed manufacturing industry in the 1980s. As a consequence, that would mean that Scotland would have fewer service personnel, fewer military bases, aircraft, vessels and Army battalions and less defence spending than all our independent Scandinavian neighbours of comparable size. Will the Prime Minister explain why he is concentrating defence spending in the south and cutting defence spending disproportionately in Scotland?

The Prime Minister: We are going ahead with the aircraft carriers, which are being built in Scotland. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that if we had an independent Scotland, he would not be flying planes but flying by the seat of his pants.

Q6. [19524] Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): Can the Prime Minister reassure the House that the Government have no plans to revive Labour's intercept modernisation programme, whether in name or in function, and that he remains fully committed to the pledge in the coalition agreement to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and to roll back state intrusion?

The Prime Minister: I would argue that we have made good progress on rolling back state intrusion in terms of getting rid of ID cards and in terms of the right to enter a person's home. We are not considering a central Government database to store all communications information, and we shall be working with the Information Commissioner's Office on anything we do in that area.

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): Ending child trust funds will close off a route for children in care to build up a modest nest egg, with which they could start their future life as adults. Will the Prime Minister ask his Treasury colleagues to work with me and others to devise an affordable alternative that will give looked after-children the prospect of an asset they can rely on?

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The Prime Minister: I am very happy to ask my colleagues to work with the right hon. Gentleman because we all want to see saving encouraged, but I am afraid that when it came to the child trust fund we had to take a difficult decision, which was that that was £500 million we needed to save. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor and I sat on the Committee considering the Bill that introduced child trust funds, but we have to take some difficult decisions on spending, and that was one of them. Can we look at alternative ways of encouraging saving? Yes, we can. We are happy to work with the right hon. Gentleman.

Q7. [19525] David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): I know the Prime Minister is aware that last week's decision to cancel the Nimrod programme will lead to the early closure of the BAE Systems Woodford site near Macclesfield. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is now an important priority for the Ministry of Defence to work closely with BAE to ensure that the dedicated and highly skilled staff get the best possible support for both retraining and redeployment?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is entirely right. The MOD should work closely with BAE and with his constituents, who have worked extremely hard over many years to produce that equipment, to make sure there is a strong future. We have had to make difficult decisions in the defence review, and we have made the difficult decision about Nimrod, but in terms of BAE as a whole, we will be spending £17 billion with that company between now and 2015 on a range of projects, including the A400M. But my hon. Friend is right-we should make sure that we help those people to find new jobs.

Q8. [19526] Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/ Co-op): Video games development is a highly skilled, low-carbon creative industry that provides more than 600 jobs in my constituency and is important for the north-west as a whole. Before the election, all three main parties pledged to introduce a video games tax relief so that we can compete internationally on a level playing field. Why have the Government reneged on that promise?

The Prime Minister: We had to make difficult decisions about tax relief- [Interruption.] Opposition Members groan. Can we think of one thing they will support to get the deficit down? I cannot think of a single thing. We have to take difficult decisions, and I am afraid that that tax relief, which was not particularly successful or well targeted, must go. Those are the difficult decisions that we have to take.

Q9. [19527] Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): Can the Prime Minister confirm that the Government have no plans at all to build an airport in the Thames estuary, or in Medway or Kent?

The Prime Minister: The Department for Transport has no plans for a new airport in the Thames estuary or in any other part of Medway or Kent and, as my hon. Friend knows, we have scrapped the plan to build a third runway at Heathrow.

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): As a former PR man, does the Prime Minister agree that no matter how much Bell Pottinger tries to spin the
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Sri Lankan Government, the demands for an international independent war crimes tribunal intensify as more evidence of alleged assassination and civil rights abuses comes out?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Lady makes a fair point. We need to see an independent investigation of what happened. Everyone has read the papers and seen the TV footage, but we need an independent investigation to work out whether what she suggests is right.

Q10. [19528] Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): The development of land without planning permission for use as Gypsy and Traveller sites is of concern to many communities, including the villages of Barnacle and Bulkington in my constituency, where local residents have had to put up with illegal developments on their doorstep, although they are pleased with the proposals of the coalition Government to give additional powers to local authorities to deal with the matter. Will the Prime Minister acknowledge the wish of my constituents to see those powers made available at the earliest opportunity?

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend probably knows, we will bring forward the localism Bill. It is important, as I have said before, that everyone obeys the law of the land, including that on planning. That should apply to Gypsies and Travellers as well. In the localism Bill we will make sure that it is worth while for local authorities to go ahead with development-they should see a benefit when houses are built, whereas at present there is so little benefit for local areas in getting businesses in and getting homes built. There should be a benefit where they make available sites for Gypsies and Travellers, but that should not be done on the basis of lawbreaking, which it all too often is at present.

Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): In July the Education Secretary promised that Wolverhampton's Building Schools for the Future programme would be unaffected by cuts. Can the Prime Minister confirm that the much needed refurbishment of secondary schools across the city will go ahead as planned, and not suffer devastating cuts of 40%?

The Prime Minister: I am afraid that what happened was that the previous Government set out 50% cuts- [Interruption.] I know the Opposition do not like hearing it. They set out 50% cuts in capital spending, but did not tell us where one penny piece was going to come from. That is what happened. We have had to scrap the unaffordable and badly put forward Building Schools for the Future programme, but in the spending plans for the next four years are £15 billion additional capital for school building, so there are plenty of opportunities for additional school building, and not just secondary schools, but primary schools as well. That is what we will be making available.

Q11. [19529] Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): In my constituency, Stroud college, a further education college, has launched an engineering centre to encourage training and apprenticeships. Does the Prime Minister agree that in the light of the encouraging economic figures, such programmes should be supported by business?

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The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are making sure that money goes into FE colleges. That is essential for the skills agenda of the future, and we want to free up those colleges to have more agreements with business. In the past they were over-regulated in respect of the courses they could run and the qualifications they could offer. We want to see much greater collaboration between FE colleges so that we get the skills that we actually need.

Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab): Until 18 months before the general election, the Prime Minister supported Labour's spending plans. At what point did he decide to rewrite history?

The Prime Minister: We realised that the spending plans were unaffordable, and we came off them. We went into the last election promising to make spending reductions. It needed to be done, and I remember sitting where the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) is, week after week, asking the former Prime Minister, "Aren't you really saying there are going to be cuts?", and he said, "No, no cuts. There won't be any cuts." Do you remember? It happened week after week. Now we have the evidence from Labour's own memo. It was planning £44 billion in cuts, and not a word about it to anyone. That is thoroughly dishonest.

Q12. [19530] Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove) (Con): Yesterday, the international credit rating agency Standard & Poor's said something that would make Opposition Members quite upset. It upgraded our nation's credit outlook from negative to stable, but will the Prime Minister also heed its warning that that credit rating upgrade would be at risk if, in its own words,

The Prime Minister: That is an absolutely vital point. It was this Government's changes that took the British economy out of the danger zone, and since the election we have seen interest rates coming down in Britain, whereas in some other countries they have been going up. Why? Because they have not taken the necessary action to get their budget and their deficit under control. What we are now seeing is businesses throughout the world recognising that this is a great country to invest in, because we are sorting out the mess that we inherited.

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): The Prime Minister will be aware that by 7 July the Education Secretary would have already understood the financial situation and the "state of the books", as the Prime Minister is so keen to keep stating, so why on 7 July, in this House, did the Education Secretary say:

Is there some confusion between the Prime Minister and the Education Secretary?

The Prime Minister: We were left a complete mess in terms of Building Schools for the Future. Here was a programme that took up three years and hundreds of millions of pounds before a single brick was laid. The cost of building those schools was twice what it should have been, so we have scrapped that programme and made available £15 billion for the next four years. That
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means that school building will be higher under this Government than it was under the Labour Government starting in 1997.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): Rubbish!

The Prime Minister: Yes, it will be. Go and check the figures.

Ed Balls (Morley and Outwood) (Lab/Co-op) indicated dissent.

The Prime Minister: Do your maths. You'll find out that's the case.

Q13. [19531] Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): Figures published this week show that four fifths of economic growth is coming from the private sector. Does the Prime Minister accept that it is wrong to say that public spending is propping up economic development? Does he further recognise that more work needs to be done in supporting the private sector throughout the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister: This is the news that the Opposition do not want to hear. Four fifths of that growth was coming from the private sector, and that is an encouraging sign that we should celebrate rather than look miserable about.

Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): The Prime Minister talks of difficult decisions, and last week the Chancellor said that government is about choices. The Opposition agree, but we would have made different choices-

Hon. Members: What?

Mr Speaker: Order.

Mrs Hodgson: For instance, we would have chosen to tax the bankers more heavily in order to avoid the shameful attack yesterday on women and children in the form of the abolition of the child trust fund and the health in pregnancy grant. Does the Prime Minister agree with his Chancellor's choices continually to penalise women and children in that way?

Please, Mr Speaker -

Hon. Members: Speech!

Mr Speaker: Order.

Mrs Hodgson: Please, Mr Speaker, will you ask the Prime Minister not continually to blame the Opposition? He is in government now-

Mr Speaker: Order. I am grateful. I call the Prime Minister to reply.

The Prime Minister: I am afraid to say that the choice the Opposition have made is not to make any choices-absolutely none at all. The hon. Lady mentions the importance of taxing the banks, but the point I would make is that we introduced a bank levy-within six months of taking office, that has been sorted out. The Opposition
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had 13 years. The Leader of the Opposition either sat in the Treasury, as one of the chief economic advisers, or sat in the Government, and they did absolutely nothing to introduce that bank levy. Was he arguing for it across the Cabinet table? We have no idea. It did not happen; we have done it. We are asking the banks to pay a fair amount. What we should be focusing on is getting the revenue out of banks so that they contribute to rebuilding our country after, frankly, the mess it was left in.

Mr Speaker: I call Bob Russell. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"] Order. I want to hear Mr Russell too.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Earlier the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition had fun and games over housing benefit cuts. This is not a laughing matter for the thousands of children who could well become homeless. I am confident that this was an
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unintended consequence because the cost of putting children in bed-and-breakfast accommodation is greater than housing benefit. Will the Prime Minister look at this again, please?

The Prime Minister: I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman; this is an incredibly serious issue. We have a housing benefit bill that is out of control-up 50% over the past five years for working-age adults. The key change that we are suggesting is a cap of £20,000-let me repeat that: £20,000-that a family can get for their rent. The fact is that there will be many people working in Colchester, Doncaster or west Oxfordshire who are paying their taxes and who could not dream of living in a house that cost £20,000 to rent each year. It is an issue of fairness that we tackle this budget, get it under control, and do not ask hard-working people to support benefit levels to get things they simply could not have themselves.

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Speaker's Statement

12.32 pm

Mr Speaker: I have a short statement to make. Yesterday a point of order was raised by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) about the title of his proposed early-day motion. The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, who was in the Chair, undertook to look into the matter. I am allowing the proposed motion on the Order Paper with an amended title, but I want to remind the House of the right way of pursuing such matters. If any Member is not content with the advice given by the Table Office, he or she should first discuss the matter directly with the Principal Clerk of the Table Office. If still dissatisfied, the Member can ask for it to be referred to me. I would not expect such an issue to be raised on the Floor of the House until I had had the opportunity to consider the matter and all these steps had been exhausted.

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Economic Governance (EU)

12.33 pm

Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): (Urgent Question): I have an urgent question for the Prime Minister, which is being answered in the name of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as to what negotiating position the Government intend to adopt on the conclusion of the taskforce on strengthening economic governance in the European Union that was presented to the European Council on 21 October with the claim that the endorsement- [ Interruption. ]

Mr Speaker: Order. First, I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly. Secondly, may I say to the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash), who has 26 years' experience in the House, that this is not the point at which he is supposed to dilate? He will have his opportunity. He has said what the substance of the matter is, and we look forward to the Minister responding.

Mr Cash rose-

Mr Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must not get too excited: he will have his opportunity. I have granted him his chance, and he should not worry: we will come to him in due course.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr Mark Hoban): I am very grateful for the opportunity to update the House on the conclusion of the taskforce on strengthening the economic governance of the European Union, and to report on the UK's position on the taskforce. In particular, I wish to restate that the UK is exempt from the current and future sanctions regime.

Heads of State and Heads of Government commissioned the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, to produce a report on EU economic governance and report back to the October Economic Council. Mr Van Rompuy chaired a taskforce meeting consisting of EU Finance Ministers, and the Chancellor represented the UK on the taskforce. The report has been agreed by the taskforce, and the European Council is expected to endorse it tomorrow. Copies of the report, along with the Chancellor's submission to the taskforce, have been placed in the Library of the House this morning.

The report concludes that the EU should take steps to reinforce fiscal discipline and that the euro area in particular must face tougher surveillance of its fiscal policies, with sanctions for non-compliance with the pact where appropriate. It also recommends measures to improve EU-level co-ordination of macro-economic policies. That will ensure that any harmful macro-economic imbalances between member states can be identified and corrective action taken. Finally, the report notes that there should be a permanent crisis resolution mechanism for the euro area. The UK supports its conclusions.

A strong and stable euro area is firmly in the UK's own economic interests, given the high level of UK exports to those countries and our close economic ties. In the years before the crisis, fiscal discipline was absent, and not just in states in the eurozone. High levels of debt have exacerbated the problems that some member
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states face during the economic downturn. The taskforce recommends that there should be greater focus on member states' public debt levels in future, and the Government agree with that approach.

I am pleased to note that the report explicitly states that sanctions cannot be applied to the UK under the stability and growth pact. Domestic fiscal frameworks play a crucial role in ensuring that member states act responsibly. EU surveillance is useful, but as the House knows, national Parliaments and national institutions must hold Governments to account for their economic and budgetary policies.

Let us be absolutely clear: yes, we want to see a strong and stable eurozone. That is in our interests just as much as those of our neighbours. The UK has led the way on economic governance. Multi-year budgets and independent statistics and forecasting have already been introduced, and we have a clear fiscal mandate to eliminate our structural deficit. We are leading the eurozone, and our high standards have already received international endorsement. We will examine any proposals to help the eurozone overcome its problems.

However, as the Prime Minister has just said, we will not agree to any changes to EU treaties that move more powers from this country to the EU. The UK's exemption from the sanctions proposal will be explicit, and there will be no shift of sovereignty from Westminster to Brussels. The report makes that clear, agreeing that

While we are looking at problems in the EU, I should like to say that we have serious concerns about the proposed size of the 2011 EU budget. I was shocked to see that on the day of the spending review, the vast majority of Labour MEPs voted against a freeze in the EU budget. When countries across Europe are taking tough decisions to put their public finances in order, it would be wrong-unjust, even-to have a 6% rise in next year's EU budget, as has been suggested. We cannot accept that and will fight it hard. We are protecting British interests in the EU and doing what is right for our country and our people, and the Prime Minister will update the House next week.

Mr Cash: I am most grateful. Unfortunately, the explanation that we have just heard from the Minister does not answer all the questions that arise in this matter. In particular, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was on the taskforce, and the Council's recommendation is that these moves should strengthen economic governance

in other words not excluding the UK,

I am grateful to the Minister for agreeing, as I suggested, that he should place in the Library a copy of the taskforce report and the Chancellor's submission to the taskforce on 9 July, so that everybody can read them.

The point remains that the six regulations and directives that the European Scrutiny Committee will consider this afternoon are still on the table. Mr Van Rompuy indicated yesterday at a meeting of COSAC-the chairmen of European scrutiny committees-which I attended, that there are uncertainties about the legal position. I think I am getting his words correct and that he said
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that the situation did not totally respect all the traditional rules of the European Union. Mr Van Rompuy also called for agreement because, he said, people are our citizens and not just voters.

Given that there are now six legislative proposals-it is claimed that they are based on the existing treaty, but we cannot assume that they are-and that the ESC will consider them today, and that they appear to carry forward in part the Van Rompuy recommendations, what requires a new treaty?

The treaty will affect the UK and our sovereign Parliament in respect of its control over UK fiscal policy, tax and economic governance, including the question of the rebate. We are glad to hear that the Government reject the increase proposed by the European Parliament, but will the Minister reply to this simple question: will the Government veto the treaty, and if not, will they guarantee that, in accordance with the wishes of the voters in the United Kingdom, we have a referendum on that issue?

Mr Hoban: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising those points. May I just advise him that the final meeting of the taskforce took place on 18 October? I attended that taskforce, as did my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. We ensured that the language in the taskforce report guaranteed that sanctions would not apply to the UK. Paragraph 18 of the taskforce report refers

In addition, paragraph 4 states that the measures set out in the taskforce report can be implemented through

so nothing in the report requires a treaty change. I am aware that France and Germany have suggested that there may be treaty changes, but we have yet to see the details of such proposals, which would be made to the European Council at the weekend.

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Minister explain why the Prime Minister needs a further week before he updates the House on those matters? Could that be because he has yet to figure out exactly what the Government's position is? Surely after looking at those negotiations, he recognises that this is an embarrassing position for the Government to be in, because the coalition's policy on new European initiatives as they are introduced is far from clear.

We are still none the wiser, even though this issue was supposed to be debated today. It remains under "Future Business" on the Order Paper under a motion tabled by the Minister, which proposes that the House

If the Government are asking us to support their approach, could the Minister tell us what his policy is? It is clear to the House that one lesson we need to learn from the financial crisis is the need for better co-operation between Governments at European and global-G20-level, obviously to ensure that we address the imbalances in the worldwide economy that were the root cause of the crisis.

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Of course, the euro area needs to sort out its own difficulties. We have supported eurozone countries in that respect in the past while making it clear that the UK taxpayer cannot be expected to bear the burden, but does the Minister agree that our focus in this country needs to be on jobs, housing and growth, not further rounds of navel-gazing on European governance?

If the Government were regarded as a serious player in Europe, they would have led and not followed these developments over the weekend. There are several reports from various quarters about a set of different policy outcomes-the President of the EU says one thing, and the French President and German Chancellor look set to propose changes to the treaty-but where was the Prime Minister during those conversations?

The Government are quite clearly too scared to talk even to some of their own Back Benchers on that question, but has the Prime Minister spoken to the Deputy Prime Minister about these matters? Whatever the Minister says, there are three wings to the coalition: half of the Conservative party want to leave the EU, the Lib Dems want to go head first into the euro, and the rump of the Government, represented by the Minister, are left straddling those two positions-they are the only ones with nothing to say. Is it not clear that the Prime Minister is isolated within his own coalition? It is no wonder that he is isolated in Europe.

Mr Hoban: I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has been absent from the House for some time, and he is a little rusty on some of these things, but I am sure that he will recollect that the practice followed by previous Prime Ministers was to report back to the House on the Monday after a European Council, not before. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will make the statement that would be customarily expected of him.

It is important to ensure that we learn the lessons from the financial crisis. It was clear in the run-up to that crisis that fiscal discipline was lax not just in the euro area, but in the UK and other states. We have led the way in this debate by introducing the Office for Budget Responsibility, with a clear fiscal mandate for eliminating the structural deficit by 2014-15. The fact that we have led the debate is recognised by international bodies such as the OECD, the International Monetary Fund and others. We have set our mark on the debate in Europe, which is the right thing to do. It is right that other member states should achieve the same high standards of fiscal discipline as we do. We are leading the debate in Europe, not following it. The previous Government were silent on that, so what is the Opposition's position now?

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr Speaker: Order. I would remind the House that if I am to accommodate a reasonable number of colleagues within the very limited time frame available, brevity in both questions and answers is essential.

Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): Can the Minister confirm that even if the proposed treaty concerns only and exclusively the member states of the eurozone, it would still require the support of the British Government to go ahead? Can he assure me that that
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support will not be given without obtaining concessions in return, such as the return of powers to this country that were unnecessarily given? Can he assure me that we will not give that support without demanding a price? This is the ideal opportunity to obtain that price.

Mr Hoban: My right hon. Friend makes an important point, but I would point out to him that, at the moment, there are no proposed treaty changes on the table. That may happen at the European Council next weekend, and we should respond to those treaty changes as they arise. However, I go back to the comments that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made: we will not agree to any changes to EU treaties that move more powers from this country to the EU.

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): The Minister says that there are no treaty changes on the table. Theoretically that is true, but he must be aware that in the statement issued after the meeting between Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy last week in Deauville, they made it explicit that they intended to put forward treaty changes and that the ambition of those changes would extend beyond simply the eurozone, which will have clear implications for the United Kingdom. In that case, will the Minister re-emphasise his clear statement-which I welcome-that the United Kingdom will not contemplate treaty changes that interfere with the right of the British Government and of this House to determine our own economic policy, including our own exchange rate policy?

Mr Hoban: Indeed, that is why we have secured a clear and explicit exclusion in the report from the Van Rompuy taskforce-an exclusion based on the Lisbon treaty, but also based on the opt-out that we secured from the Maastricht treaty-so that the sanctions do not apply to the UK. As I have said, at the moment there are no detailed treaty changes on the table. We will have to wait and see what the French and Germans put forward at the weekend.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): May I remind my hon. Friend that those of us who opposed the formation of the euro in principle warned that it would be a disaster, and that we have been vindicated by events? May I warn him now that the Government's aspiration somehow to assist in creating a stable and strong euro area will be a vain attempt? The Government had better plan for the continuing disaster of a currency without a state, which is bound to be unstable in the long term.

Mr Hoban: My hon. Friend makes an important point. There are many sound arguments against the euro, and that is why we have ruled out joining it. However, it does us no favours to see a weak and unstable eurozone. It is important for eurozone countries to have strong fiscal discipline to ensure stability. The taskforce introduces a mechanism for eurozone countries to try to deliver that.

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Have you noticed, Mr Speaker, that all the Liberal Democrats have mysteriously disappeared from the Treasury Bench as this subject has been debated? I would welcome the views of the right hon. Gentlemen on the Treasury Bench on housing benefit, but may I say to the Minister that I welcome, I think, his clear statement to the House
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that he is not prepared to go and dwell on planet Cash? He has made it absolutely clear that the Government are not going to veto the treaty, and I welcome that sensible Euro-pragmatism from the new Government.

Mr Hoban: I am not entirely sure which planet the right hon. Gentleman is on at the moment. We need to ensure that the eurozone functions effectively, but we have secured an opt-out from the sanctions proposals, originally through the opt-out in the Maastricht treaty and reinforced by the Lisbon treaty. That is the right place for this country to be in, and that is why the coalition Government are right behind that position.

Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): May I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on their refreshing approach of standing up for Britain's interests in Europe, in contrast to that of Labour Members and their MEPs? Will they bear in mind, however, that there is little appetite for any extension of the competence of the EU into economic governance through any legal framework, whether by treaty or otherwise? There is still less trust in the institutions of the European Union, including the Commission, given the way in which the competence of the EU is for ever being expanded and the fact that previous safeguards in other areas have turned to dust.

Mr Hoban: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I know that he thinks about these issues very deeply, and I would encourage him to read the final report of the taskforce. It sets out our exemptions explicitly, and he will recognise that they will protect the UK's position and help to develop a strong and stable eurozone, which is also in our long-term economic interests. The document makes it clear that we are outside the sanctions regime that applies to members of the eurozone and others.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): I spent yesterday in Berlin talking to German politicians, and I think that the British Government will discover treaty changes pretty quickly. Those politicians feel that the stability and growth plan is dead, and that it is not the mechanism to take us forward. May I urge the Minister to answer a specific question? Given that 25 of the 27 member states either are members of the eurozone or will have to become members under treaty obligation, and that only two have an opt-out, does he agree that anything that would strengthen the financial and economic co-ordination of the 25, plus the two with opt-outs, would represent a diminution of our sovereign ability to exert our influence and would therefore be subject to a referendum here?

Mr Hoban: As I reiterated earlier-and as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear-we will not endorse a treaty that transfers sovereignty from Westminster to the EU. The hon. Lady takes a close interest in these matters, and I know that she will recognise that views among member states about the desirability of treaty changes vary, and that the UK is not the only one that is concerned about this.

Mr Douglas Carswell (Clacton) (Con): In June, Ministers made a big deal of the fact that the UK Budget would not need to be submitted to EU institutions before it was brought to the House of Commons. Will the Minister
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confirm that, in fact, the UK pre-Budget report data are part of the European semester process, and that, while we might be exempt from sanctions, we are part of that surveillance? Will he be honest and admit that we are part of the EU fiscal scrutiny process?

Mr Hoban: I believe that this Parliament should hear news about this country's finances before the EU does. We have secured that situation and that was the right thing to do.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): The Minister also mentioned the increase in the EU's budget by 6%. Does he agree that many people in this country-in fact, the vast majority-will be deeply disappointed by the Prime Minister's reply to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) during Prime Minister's questions, in which he seemed to be limiting his ambition to reduce the size of the increase in the EU budget? Should not the Government just go there and argue for, and deliver, a cut in the EU budget?

Mr Hoban: The right hon. Gentleman needs to remember that we voted against the budget increase in Council. We have taken a tough line, not only by arguing against it but by voting against it as well.

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): The Minister has drawn our attention to paragraph 18 of the report. I am curious about paragraph 16, which refers to "New reputational and political measures", including the threat of "enhanced surveillance". Would the British fiscal position be subject to enhanced surveillance in certain circumstances, and what would that mean?

Mr Hoban: I take the view that the measures that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has announced in relation to strengthening the fiscal framework, and the consolidation that he announced last week, will ensure that we will not be subject to any surveillance whatever.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): It is all very well for this taskforce to report on the fiscal discipline of eurozone countries, but what about the fiscal discipline of the European Union generally? It has not even got its accounts properly audited. What are we going to do not only to stop the budget going up but to achieve a cut in the amount of money that we have to pay to the European Union? If we want to ask people what they feel about this, let us have a referendum on whether we should be paying more to the European Union.

Mr Hoban: The hon. Lady makes some sensible points about this matter, but she needs to speak to some of her own colleagues in the European Parliament, because they voted against the freeze on the budget. And of course it was her right hon. and hon. Friends who gave away some of our rebate as well. That is part of the problem that this Government are trying to sort out.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Whenever the Minister defends this country from a power grab and a cash grab by the European Union, he will have the enthusiastic support of Members on these Benches. Some of us are rather nervous, however, because when the Conservatives were in opposition, they opposed the European External
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Action Service, yet they sang its praises when introducing it in the House not long ago. They also opposed giving more money to the European Union, yet they recently rubber-stamped an increase through this House that had been agreed by the previous Government. Does the Minister agree that his Government should be judged on what they do, and not on what they say?

Mr Hoban: Absolutely. That is why I would encourage my hon. Friend to read this document. He will see the gains that we have managed to secure in Europe to defend our position.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Does the Minister welcome the united approach of the coalition Government working together, under which the Prime Minister sent the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) to Brussels yesterday to duff over the EU President and soften up the EU so that the Prime Minister can finish the job this weekend?

Mr Hoban: The coalition is at its best when all Members are united behind it.

Mr Speaker: I reserve judgment at this stage as to whether the expression "duff over" constitutes parliamentary language, but the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) has got away with it on this occasion.

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12.56 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): With permission, Mr Speaker, I will report to the House the Government's assessment of progress towards UK objectives in Afghanistan. This is the first of the quarterly reports that the Prime Minister announced in his statement to the House on 14 June.

Making progress in Afghanistan is the top foreign policy priority for the Government, linked closely of course to our foreign and development policy towards Pakistan. We think that it is right, therefore, that Parliament is able to scrutinise the mission in Afghanistan in detail. From the beginning of the new Government, we have given full attention to Afghanistan in the National Security Council. We have ensured that Government Departments and Ministers are working together at the highest level and that the necessary resources are being devoted to the difficult task in Afghanistan. We have doubled the operational allowance for our troops, sharply increased our development aid and rebalanced the deployment of our forces in Helmand. In addition to these reports and regular updates by Ministers, we will also make more information available to the House in the form of written ministerial statements each month from November. I will make a further statement when the investigation into the tragic death of Linda Norgrove is complete.

Members of all parties will join me in expressing gratitude to our courageous armed forces. They are the finest that any nation could hope to have. We should also remember the families of the 341 men and women who have given their lives and the many who have been wounded. For nine years, thousands of Britons have served in Afghanistan in both civilian and military roles in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, and we owe them a great deal.

It remains vital to our national security that Afghanistan be able to maintain its own security and to prevent al-Qaeda from returning. NATO's strategy is to protect the civilian population, support more effective government at every level and build up the Afghan national security forces as rapidly as is possible. The strategy also requires the Afghan Government to meet the commitments on governance and security that they made at the Kabul conference in July this year. My report today will cover all these areas. It represents the combined assessment of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, and the next quarterly report will be delivered by the Secretary of State for Defence in the new year.

On security, we assess that steady progress is being made across Afghanistan, and specifically in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. International forces now number 130,000, and the Afghan national security forces will reach 260,000 by the end of the year, exceeding their target size for 2010. Afghan forces and the international security assistance force have checked the momentum of the insurgency, and the area under the control of the Government of Afghanistan is increasing. However, the situation remains extremely challenging. One of the effects of increased military activity is that the number
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of security incidents, particularly those involving direct fire, has increased sharply, so we should not underestimate the highly difficult task that our forces continue to face.

ISAF's military effort is currently focused on Kandahar. Afghan and international forces continue to clear the insurgency out of areas adjacent to the provincial capital. Afghan security forces are taking an increased role in planning and executing the current phase of these operations and make up well over half of the forces involved. In the coming weeks, operations will focus on holding the ground that has been gained and providing a secure environment for local Afghan governance to develop.

In Helmand province, UK forces continue to train the Afghan national security forces and conduct operations against the insurgency. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced on 14 October, we are increasing by over 320 the number of UK troops directly involved in the training and development of the Afghan national security forces. That increase is part of the rebalancing of UK forces in the province and has been made possible by the handover of security responsibility for Kajaki, Musa Qala and Sangin to our US allies in order to concentrate British forces in the key population centres of central Helmand.

On 17 October, units of the 3rd brigade of the Afghan national army's 215 corps launched a significant operation to secure settlements near Gereshk. This operation is building on the success of previous ANSF operations, which have cleared the insurgency out of former safe havens in central Helmand over the course of the summer. Planning and implementation are being led by the Afghans, with British mentors from 1st Battalion Irish Guards providing support. For the first time, engineering, artillery, countering improvised explosive devices and reconnaissance are being conducted by the Afghan national army itself. US Marines, who now form the majority of ISAF troops in Helmand, continue the hard-fought struggle against the insurgency in Sangin, while in Marja they have continued to carry out operations alongside the Afghan national army and police.

The Government are confident that we have the right military strategy in place and the right number of troops in Afghanistan. However, we must expect levels of violence to remain high and even increase as Afghan and ISAF forces tackle the insurgency. The murders by insurgents of the governor of Kunduz province and a district governor in Nangarhar province remind us of the violence that still exists even in the more secure areas of the country.

The Prime Minister will attend a NATO summit in Lisbon on 19 November when we expect NATO to agree the process of transferring lead responsibility for security across Afghanistan to the Afghan security forces by the end of 2014. It will be a phased transition, with the Afghan security forces gradually taking the lead-as they have in Kabul-in jointly selected districts and provinces, as the conditions on the ground are met. British forces will be drawn down from combat operations by 2015.

On governance, we assess that the Government of Afghanistan are making some progress on their Kabul conference commitments. The human rights support unit in the Ministry of Justice has been opened; the Afghan national security adviser has approved a revised national security policy. The Government are finalising
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a 100-day report, which will highlight progress and areas where further action is needed. But more still needs to be done, some of it more quickly.

Last month's parliamentary elections passed without serious security incident. However, the independent Electoral Complaints Commission has confirmed that more than 1 million votes-almost a quarter of the total-were disqualified on grounds of irregularities and fraud. The Electoral Complaints Commission will investigate allegations against candidates and disqualify those found to have committed fraud before final results are issued. That is an important process to build Afghan confidence in the country's institutions.

On 7 October, the high peace council was inaugurated, fulfilling a key request of the Afghan consultative peace jirga in June. It marks an important milestone for the Afghan peace and re-integration programme. It is for the Afghan people to shape a political settlement that reflects the needs, culture and aspirations of all the Afghan people. The UK will support a settlement that gives Afghanistan stability and security, that is representative, that gives no one group disproportionate influence, that upholds human rights and the rule of law, and that is in accordance with Afghanistan's constitutional framework. The UK will work with individuals and groups who genuinely share those aims and who accept the conditions laid down by President Karzai's Government: insurgents must renounce al-Qaeda, give up armed struggle and work within the constitutional framework. We consider on its merits any request for the UK to play a role in support of this Afghan-led process. At the same time, ISAF will continue to exert intensifying pressure on the insurgency throughout the country.

Corruption continues to be a serious problem in Afghanistan and there has been only modest progress in anti-corruption efforts. In the past year, the criminal justice taskforce convicted 440 people, including serious narcotics dealers and corrupt officials. New mining regulations have been introduced to increase transparency and accountability. The UK is helping the Afghan Government to strengthen accountability and prevent corruption through financial management reforms and to build institutions with the ability to tackle corruption and enforce the rule of law. We are pressing for the anti-corruption monitoring and evaluation committee, which has been appointed, to start work as soon as possible.

In early September, Afghanistan's central bank was forced to intervene to stabilise the Kabul bank after allegations of corruption. The Afghan authorities must now work with the International Monetary Fund to conduct a proper audit and take any necessary action. Weaknesses in the banking regulatory system must be addressed if Afghanistan is to maintain domestic and foreign public confidence. The Afghan economy grew last year by a rapid 22.5% and tax revenues have risen sixfold in six years. The IMF predicts that the Government of Afghanistan will be able to cover non-security running costs by 2015 and all their running costs by 2023.

The House will recall that on 21 July the Secretary of State for International Development announced a £200 million increase in UK funding for Afghanistan to stabilise insecure areas, stimulate the economy and improve essential services. Early progress is being made at the Afghan Ministry of the Interior where the new Minister
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is keen to develop a more capable and accountable police force that will help sustain the transition of security responsibilities to the Afghan Government.

The deployment of British armed forces abroad is one of the gravest of responsibilities of Government, along with that of protecting the security of British citizens and territory. In Afghanistan, the two go hand in hand. The Government understand how important it is to retain public confidence in our mission and to ensure democratic scrutiny of it. We will continue to provide regular and frank assessments to the House. Above all, we will do our utmost to ensure that NATO's strategy in Afghanistan is seen through with rigour and determination and that the extraordinary efforts of so many thousands of our armed forces serve to enhance the national security of the United Kingdom.

Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab): I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement today and welcome this opportunity for the House to be updated and for us to show our full support for our men and women fighting in Afghanistan. They are the bravest and the best of British and they are fighting to protect our country. We are all immensely proud of their fortitude, their professionalism and their commitment.

It has been a very difficult summer for our armed forces. We have already paid tribute today to Corporal David Barnsdale, and it continues to be hard for our soldiers' families and their communities. In my own constituency, we have lost Rifleman Jimmy Backhouse and Bombardier Craig Hopson in recent years. I pay tribute to them and their bravery, but also to every one of the 341 service personnel we have lost in Afghanistan. We must pay tribute, too, to their families, who have given so much and done so much to support our troops and our country. We should also make clear our gratitude to the aid workers and other civilian staff who take such great risks to complete important work in Afghanistan.

We are part of the international coalition in Afghanistan, with a UN mandate to prevent the country from becoming once again a safe haven for al-Qaeda to plan and launch attacks on our population and that of our allies. That central task is unchanged, and our armed forces will have the full support of Labour Members in achieving that goal-as will the Government. The people of Afghanistan do not want to return to misrule or to harbouring what are foreign terrorist groups. That is what makes the civilian and political elements, alongside our military effort, so important.

I would like to ask the Foreign Secretary first about the military operations. When I met General Petraeus on his visit to London two weeks ago, he said that considerable military progress was being made in targeting the Taliban leadership, but he warned, as has the Foreign Secretary, of the risk of increased security incidents as a result of the increased military activity. I welcome the Foreign Secretary's update on the development of Afghan national security forces, but may I ask what progress has been made on the hold and build exercise in Marja? Will he also tell us whether Afghan capacity in Kunduz is being prioritised following the recent insurgency attacks, including the death of Mohammad Omar, the governor of the province, to which he referred in his statement?

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Will the Foreign Secretary comment on the recent report from the Overseas Security Advisory Council, which stated that 18 aid projects worth $1.4 billion would have to be shut down by the end of the month because of the Afghan Government's policy on private security contractors? General Petraeus has told the Afghan Government that pursuing that policy too quickly could harm the aid effort. ISAF is agreed on the need for a gradual phasing out, but does the Foreign Secretary agree that engaging in the process too quickly could harm development efforts?

We agree that there is no purely military solution to the war in Afghanistan. What is required is a political settlement built on trust, ownership and democratic rights. The Foreign Secretary will be aware that in Helmand there were comparatively few complaints about electoral fraud in the recent parliamentary elections, and that does credit to the professionalism of our forces and election officials on the ground. However, the Foreign Secretary is right to be concerned about the high levels of fraud nationally, and about the problems involving corruption to which he referred. He also referred to the disqualification of 1 million votes. Has he any evidence of particular difficulties experienced by women in participating in the elections, and can he tell us whether that is being investigated as part of the work of the Electoral Complaints Commission?

The Foreign Secretary is aware of the centrality of the political process and good governance to a more peaceful and stable Afghanistan. Can he tell us what progress is being made in the development of secure local political institutions, as well as sustainable public services such as schools and hospitals? He referred to the growth in the Afghan economy. Can he also tell us what plans there are for a wider economic strategy for the area to sustain that progress for the future?

On the broader issue of a political settlement, can the Foreign Secretary update the House on the progress of the reintegration programme for former Taliban fighters in Helmand? I agree with him that the process leading to a political settlement must be Afghan-led and, where possible, given international support. Crucial to Afghanistan's security and long-term stability are its neighbours. Can the Foreign Secretary tell us when the next trilateral meeting between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan will take place? Has he discussed with the Pakistan Government the security situation in the north of Pakistan and the operations in the border regions? Can he also update us on the discussions that are taking place between NATO and Russia, and on how he is taking account of the sensitivities arising from recent history?

We want our troops to be able to come home as soon as possible: I know that there is agreement on that throughout the House. We also support the international agreement that Afghan security forces will be able to be in the lead by 2014, following agreement at the Kabul conference, and will argue consistently for a political settlement to accompany the increase in the Afghan police and army that is necessary for a stable and secure Afghanistan.

Will the Foreign Secretary say a little more about his approach to troop withdrawal? He has proposed a timetable for the withdrawal of combat troops, but with continued support to develop the Afghan police and army expected beyond that date. He and other Ministers
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have also spoken of the importance of conditions for our troops on the ground in driving decisions. He will be aware of the paramount importance of the safety of any remaining troops who are continuing in a support and training role. Can he tell the House what flexibility he attaches to the timetable that he has set out, and what consideration he will give to the safety of the remaining troops in Afghanistan in deciding the timetable for the withdrawal of combat troops?

Since operations began in Afghanistan in 2001, 341 British military personnel have died, giving their lives in service of the country. We owe it to them, to their families, and to the men and women serving today to be clear in our approach and resolute in our support. We will continue to provide strong bipartisan support for our mission.

Mr Hague: I strongly welcome the right hon. Lady's questions, and, indeed, the spirit of those questions. She has expressed the unity that is felt in the House about the purpose of our mission and the support for our armed forces. I think that that matters enormously. It was always our view in opposition that it mattered enormously, and I am delighted that that is the view of the Opposition now. It matters to our forces and, indeed, to our enemies that the strong unity in the House on what we are doing is maintained, along with the recognition throughout the House of the work of our armed forces.

The right hon. Lady mentioned her constituency, some of the casualties affecting families there, and the role of families. My own constituency contains Catterick garrison, and I am very conscious of the immense supporting role performed by the families of the armed forces. In more than one tragic incident this year, we have seen how dangerous and difficult the role of aid workers can be, and the right hon. Lady was right to draw attention to that as well.

The right hon. Lady asked a wide range of questions against that background of unity. I agree that an over-hasty withdrawal of the ability of private security companies to operate, particularly in supporting development efforts, would be a serious mistake and could have a damaging effect on those efforts. Our ambassador in Kabul has conveyed that message strongly to the Afghan authorities and to President Karzai personally; so has the United States. Negotiations have taken place over the past few days about the matter, and we hope that a reasonable compromise can be found enabling the excesses of illegal private security companies to be curbed and dealt with, while those that are making it possible for embassies and some companies to function and development operations to take place can be maintained.

The right hon. Lady asked about progress in Marja on hold and build. I think that progress has been made since the military process. More than 400 shops are now open in six different bazaars in Marja, and more than half the 15 schools are open, with hundreds of students involved. There has been distinct progress in the hold phase, and in beginning the build phase. The right hon. Lady drew attention to the need for more Afghan capacity in Kunduz, and I believe that that is being addressed.

The right hon. Lady asked about allegations of electoral fraud, the large numbers involved and the possible difficulties experienced by women in participating in the electoral process. We would expect any particular difficulties
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experienced by women to be addressed by the Electoral Complaints Commission, but it is right to draw attention to the role of women in Afghan society and the importance of continuing to build it up in the future. It was good to see the participation of hundreds of women in the peace jirga. While we were holding the Kabul conference in late July, a parallel meeting took place of 200 Afghan women from all the provinces of Afghanistan. They too played their part in determining the future of Afghanistan.

As for economic strategy, I referred to the rapid progress that is being made in the Afghan economy. The potential is considerable. Let me say-as long as it does not embarrass him-that the Finance Minister is one of the most capable of the Afghan Ministers. He is a very impressive Minister, who presented extremely good plans for the Afghan economy at the Kabul conference in July. The mineral wealth of Afghanistan is immense, and if it can be developed even to a small degree Afghanistan could have a bright economic future, provided that it also has the necessary security.

Of course we discuss with the Pakistani Government-we do so every time we meet Pakistani Ministers-the inter-related issues of security in Pakistan and Afghanistan. I will update the right hon. Lady and the House on the trilateral meetings when they occur.

A model for reintegration in Helmand has been developed in Nad Ali, and the district reintegration committee has received 60 to 70 initial approaches from people who were previously fighting for the Taliban. A dozen have already been through the formal process, and have been assessed by the committee. We expect that formal process to be extended to other districts in Helmand now that Afghan officials have the authority granted by President Karzai's decree of 29 June to proceed with reintegration.

On Russia, I discussed and indeed issued a joint statement on Afghanistan with the Russian Foreign Minister, Mr Lavrov, on my visit to Moscow two weeks ago, so there is a good deal of unity with the Russian Government about what needs to be achieved in Afghanistan. We can certainly expect to see a larger proportion of NATO's supplies coming from a northerly direction over the coming months.

We are very clear about the issue of timing, and the Prime Minister has been very clear in his statements about our intentions: there will not be British troops in a combat role or in the present numbers in Afghanistan by 2015, although some troops could play a training role or be part of wider diplomatic relations, as they are elsewhere. We think that it is right to make that absolutely clear. It is in line with the goal of Afghan forces leading and conducting military operations in all provinces by the end of 2014. It is a clear message to the world, and indeed to the Taliban, that we are building rapidly and quite dramatically the role of the Afghan national security forces, as detailed in my statement. I hope, therefore, that what we have said about the draw-down from combat operations by 2015 will be another aspect of our policies in Afghanistan that will enjoy wide support across the House.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for his clear statement. He started by saying that the object of the statement was to look back at our original objectives and to see how far they had been achieved. May I remind him-not that he needs reminding-that those objectives were to defeat
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the Taliban, to abolish the poppy industry, to get rid of corruption in government, to get the girls safely back to school, to establish a democratic and peaceful Government, and to make our streets safe in Britain. How many of those objectives have been achieved after nine years of bloody warfare?

Mr Hague: My hon. Friend has long-standing opinions on this matter which are-and should always be-listened to with respect in the House, because there is a legitimate alternative view about our presence in Afghanistan. I think that the great majority of the House support what we are doing and our objectives. However, we should always respect an alternative view, and that is what he has always put forward. We have not yet achieved our objectives in Afghanistan, but he can see from much of what I have said that life has improved for many people in Afghanistan. It is true that, in matters of health care or schooling, life for the Afghan population has improved dramatically, and that many of them are living in more secure areas. However, we have not yet achieved our central objective, which is our own national security. That is why we have to continue to work at this, even though it is very difficult. Therefore, I will not claim to my hon. Friend that we have achieved swathes of our objectives. Our central objective has not yet been met and we have to continue to work at it.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr Speaker: Order. A very sizeable number of Members are seeking to catch my eye. I would like to accommodate everyone, but we must have short questions and short answers.

Mr Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East) (Lab): The Foreign Secretary tells us that ISAF levels are now at 130,000 and that the level of Afghan security forces will be at 260,000 by the end of the year-2:1. He and the Defence Secretary will know that the ratio in Helmand, for example, is the other way around; there is probably a greater disparity in the inverse proportion. The Foreign Secretary will also know that there is great reluctance among the Afghan security forces and many of our allies to go to some of the most difficult areas of the country. As we draw down-the Americans have made statements about draw-down as well-how will we manage the cohesion of the alliance if we are struggling to get the Afghans to take control and if some of our allies will not go to those most difficult areas? He claims that there has been a lot of progress there, which is good news. We must try to handle the process so that we maintain the cohesion of the alliance during the draw-down period.

Mr Hague: The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point and we will of course be very conscious of that over the coming months and years. There are now 48 troop-contributing nations and at the Lisbon summit we hope to agree the process of transition to Afghan security control in selected districts and provinces. It is important that allies deployed in provinces where Afghan forces are able to take over do not then just say, "We are able to leave Afghanistan altogether." There will be a continuing role in other parts of Afghanistan for those forces. Therefore, that is one message in response to his question.

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The other message is that the right hon. Gentleman can see from my statement that the Afghan forces are beginning to take on some very difficult tasks in difficult areas. He would not expect the ratio to be 2:1 in their favour in Helmand, where we have so many enormous challenges, because they are still in the fairly early stages of building the ability to sustain and lead their own operations, but they are beginning to show that ability and the increase in training is now a prime requirement. That is why my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has shifted several hundred forces into a training role and why other countries are doing the same. The number of non-commissioned officers trained by the Afghan national army over the past year has gone up by 700% and the number of officers by 175%, so the right hon. Gentleman can see that the training of those forces is beginning to grow exponentially.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): May I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and for his determination to keep the House regularly updated? As Chair of the Public Administration Committee, I welcome that evidence of better governance of our effort in this conflict, but what exactly is the role of the National Security Council in the governance of the conflict? Why did the Government drop the proposal that I suggested to my right hon. Friend, then Leader of the Opposition and now the Prime Minister, that there should be a war cabinet-a smaller group of Ministers meeting more regularly on a cross-departmental basis-to ensure daily supervision of the conflict?

Mr Hague: I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome. I have made it clear that we intend to make these regular and frank assessments of the situation throughout this Parliament and throughout this conflict-for however long is necessary-so I am glad of his welcome for that. The National Security Council has spent an enormous amount of its time, in the first five and a half months of this Government, on Afghanistan. Our first meeting, on our first day in office on 12 May, was about Afghanistan. For the British Government, that is the decision-making body on these matters. Since it combines all the relevant Departments and Ministers, that is the forum in which we are able to bring our efforts together. He can see that we work together in other ways. The Defence Secretary, the International Development Secretary and I went to Afghanistan together to assess the situation for ourselves in May and we have continued to work together in that spirit, so my hon. Friend can be assured that the National Security Council functions as our war cabinet and that Ministers are working together on a daily if not hourly basis very successfully on these issues.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that 14 Squadron from RAF Lossiemouth is serving with bravery and distinction in Afghanistan and that with its Tornados it is saving the lives of UK service personnel on the ground? Does he agree that, in those circumstances, it would be totally inappropriate to endanger the squadron and its home base through disproportionate defence cuts in Scotland?

Mr Hague: The hon. Gentleman had a reply earlier from the Prime Minister about that, and he is absolutely right to draw attention to the indispensable work of our Tornado squadrons in Afghanistan. Our experience in Afghanistan is one of the reasons it was decided in the
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strategic defence and security review to maintain the Tornado in our armed forces over coming years, so that is an important factor. Decisions about basing have not yet been made and he will be able to discuss that and question my defence colleagues on other occasions.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Soldiers from 16 Air Assault Brigade based at Colchester garrison are currently on their third deployment to Helmand province, and I thank the Foreign Secretary for what he said about the military presence and his warm words about the families; I also thank the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) for her words. Bearing in mind that there is a three-pronged approach-military, political and economic-and that progress is being made on all three, will the Foreign Secretary ask his officials to have words with the Marquess of Reading, who heads the charity POM354, which encourages Afghan farmers to switch from growing poppies to cultivating pomegranates? That highlights an additional way to boost the Afghan economy, and to the benefit of this country's products as well.

Mr Hague: I thank my hon. Friend for his suggestion, and I will make sure that my officials have a word about it. There are alternative crops and livelihoods to narcotics, and pomegranates is one of them. In other parts of Afghanistan, such as Herat, which I visited in July, saffron is a very good, and a very high value, alternative crop. A lot of the work being done by provincial reconstruction teams is dedicated to getting Afghan farmers to grow these crops instead.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): The Foreign Secretary should know that his commitment to giving regular and frank reports to the House is important in maintaining a national commitment to our mission in Afghanistan. In his statement, he rightly drew attention to the essentially Afghani nature of any peace process. It is right and proper that it should be Afghan-led, and it is not proper for even Afghanistan's allies to load too many conditions on to the process. However, does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is absolutely vital that both President Karzai and his Government-as well as, perhaps, our allies in Washington-recognise that we are not prepared for the conditions of human rights and the rule of law to be thrown out of the window in any peace process?

Mr Hague: Again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the idea of giving these statements. One reason we have introduced them is that it is important that we do not discuss Afghanistan in this House only when there is a sudden crisis or there are heavy casualties. Rather, we should discuss it regularly so we are able to see things in the round without there being an atmosphere of sudden drama. That is what we are trying to achieve by making these statements.

I agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's question on political reconciliation. It is very important that there is a political process. The political authority for that now exists in Afghanistan, and in my statement I took care to refer to the importance of the Afghan constitutional framework, which guarantees human rights, including women's rights. I am sure that all hon. Members will strongly support maintaining that in any future political settlement.

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Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend remember that when General Sir David Richards took over as Chief of the General Staff only last year he predicted that the current strategy would take 30 or 40 years to work? Given that prediction, with which I broadly concur, what will we do if we still find ourselves in what my right hon. Friend describes as an "extremely challenging" situation in three or four years' time? Will we still be committed to withdrawing militarily and operationally before the next general election?

Mr Hague: To be fair to General Richards, I think he was talking about the efforts that will be required to sustain reconstruction, economic progress and regional stability in Afghanistan. I do not think he was talking about a large British military presence or involvement in combat operations for 30 or 40 years. Again, I know that there are legitimate alternative points of view, but we consider it to be right and best to make clear our position that we will draw down from combat operations by 2015. That means that the Afghan Government know that, and it goes alongside our determination to build up rapidly the capabilities of the Afghan national security forces. It also leaves our allies in no doubt about our position. It should be remembered that if we are still there by 2015, we will have been involved in Helmand for much longer than the second world war lasted. British troops will have made an immense contribution therefore, and, in line with the goals for the Afghan forces by 2014, we should be able to speak confidently about 2015.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): As the Secretary of State has said several times in the last hour, human rights and women's rights are important aspects of our work in Afghanistan. Everybody will agree that the empowerment of women has proceeded-women have returned to the professions and girls have returned to school. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that in any settlement talks, particularly with the Taliban, if there are arguments for an extension of extreme Sharia law-which would, of course, disempower women-he will continue to fight for progress in women's rights in Afghanistan, and that there will be no sell-out on those issues?

Mr Hague: In this country and across the House we will always stand up for human rights-of which women's rights are an indivisible part-all over the world, including in Afghanistan. We all strongly welcome the much more extensive involvement of women in Afghan civil society and political life, of which I spoke earlier and to which the right hon. Lady just referred. We are not laying down the terms of a political settlement, however; we are not remotely near that stage. There is no political settlement currently being discussed around a table, whether by the Afghan Government and the leaders of the Taliban or anybody else. That is not the stage that we are at, so it is premature to talk about what might emerge from any such discussions, but the conditions set out by President Karzai include adherence to the Afghan constitutional framework, and we should continue to give that robust support.

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