“The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here”

today, but this debate is important, not least for those who have served, who have been injured and who have died in the conflict in Afghanistan.

In the time available to me, I want to deal with three main issues. The first is the prospects for Afghanistan and, as I stressed in our debate on this subject in May, the role of the regional powers. The second significant issue is the impact of all these developments on the stability of Pakistan. Finally, I want to talk about the report—and more significantly, the Government’s response to it—and the provision of equipment for our troops. As I have said, we debated this subject less than a couple of months ago. We have to address the tragedy of Afghanistan under Taliban rule and insurgency, and ask what our best approach is to enabling Afghanistan and its people to come out of this nightmare.

Interestingly, a number of Members of both Houses recently visited the exhibition at the British Museum on early Afghanistan, which presented a very different picture from the TV coverage showing a dusty wilderness and a population living in the middle ages. The exhibition showed early Afghanistan as an ancient centre of civilisation with a significant position at the crossroads of the ancient world and a rich cultural tradition. For an example, one has only to think of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, which were constructed in the sixth century and, sadly, destroyed by the vandals of the Taliban. In the Prime Minister’s statement today, he also drew attention to many of Afghanistan’s strengths, including abundant mineral wealth, fertile agricultural land and a position at the crossroads of Asia’s great trading highways.

Mr MacShane: Is my right hon. Friend aware that, up until about 1970, a Marks & Spencer was open and functioning in Kabul? Should it be an objective of British foreign policy to get M&S back there?

Mr Spellar: Similarly, the symbol of the end of the cold war was the appearance of McDonald’s in many capitals in eastern Europe.

6 July 2011 : Column 1613

We should also remember how much of Afghanistan’s ancient civilisation was destroyed by nihilist tribes, in a pattern not dissimilar to what is happening today. We need to focus on the process of political dialogue and reconciliation in Afghanistan, as well as on a political settlement in which enough Afghan citizens from all parts of the country have a stake. The central Government there also need enough power and legitimacy to protect the country from threats, from within and without. That first proposition depends on there being a new external settlement that commits Afghanistan’s neighbours to respecting its sovereign integrity, as well as a process by which the ex-combatants there can acquire civilian status and have an opportunity to gain sustainable employment and income.

Afghanistan will then require reconciliation. This will include ensuring that tribal, ethnic and other groups are represented and recognised. Parliament and parliamentarians should also be recognised and encouraged. In that context, we were all interested in, if not intrigued by, the proposal for an exchange of Speakers. We were wondering whether the Speaker might seek to delegate that responsibility, a prospect that caused some alarm to your predecessor in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I shall turn first to Pakistan, however. I say to the Chairman and other members of the Select Committee that, if I have a concern about the report it is that the content does not fully reflect its title, “The UK’s foreign policy approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan”. The section on Pakistan takes up only about six of the 97 pages, and looks largely at the effect on the campaign in Afghanistan of action in and by Pakistan. Frankly, the more important strategic issue is the impact of Afghanistan on Pakistan.

Pakistan is a country of 160 million people. It is the second-largest Muslim country in the world, and it has a significant military and nuclear capability. It is also, as the Foreign Secretary has rightly acknowledged on behalf of Britain, a country that has suffered considerable losses from fundamentalist terrorism, and it continues to do so. We need to think seriously about Pakistan’s concerns and prospects, and to take into account a factor that is sometimes overlooked—namely, its need to recover from the horrific flooding that it has experienced.

That is why the announcement of continuing aid to Pakistan by the Department for International Development is encouraging, and welcomed by the Opposition, especially the scaling up of investment in effective, non-fundamentalist education to £446 million a year by 2015. Pakistan faces, in the words of a DFID publication, “an educational emergency”, with 17 million children not in school, half the adult population and two thirds of the women unable to read or write—and the population is escalating. We have to be clear in this context that there is a considerable onus on the Pakistan authorities to ensure that the money reaches its intended recipients. As DFID says, aid is

“dependent on securing value for money and results and will be linked to the Government of Pakistan’s own progress on reform, at both the federal and provincial levels, including taking tangible steps to build a more dynamic economy, strengthen the tax base and tackle corruption.”

That places a clear obligation on Pakistan to improve its administration, especially in tax collection, to foster a more open and pluralistic society and, last but by no

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means least, to engage in dialogue to reduce tension with India, which occupies so much attention and resources in both countries. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) mentioned the Indian obligations, and there is an obligation on both sides of the divide if dialogue is to be used to reduce that tension.

What of India and the other regional powers? They were mentioned by a number of hon. Members—the hon. Members for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) and for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and particularly the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). It is true that all the regional powers could seek to pursue their own separate interests, looking on Afghanistan as a zero-sum game. We should make no mistake; it certainly could be like that. Indeed, if the situation in Afghanistan unravels, it could end up being a negative-sum game for those countries. The creation of a black hole of political intrigue, anarchy and violence in Afghanistan could impact in very different but very significant ways on all its neighbours.

China, as we know, has considerable Islamic problems in its western province, but also has considerable investment in Afghan resources. Russia faces the potential of instability on its southern flank and also has a significant drugs problem. Iran has a minority group in Afghanistan and also feels the impact of the drugs trade. Turkey has growing regional influence. India has a long and historic, but also a current and dynamic, interest in Afghanistan. Part of our strategy for disengagement will thus depend very heavily on the extent to which the regional powers can co-exist and work together for a progressive solution for Afghanistan.

Thomas Docherty: Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the role of Tehran in destabilising both Afghanistan and the wider region? Does he share my assessment that we cannot allow Tehran to continue down this destructive path indefinitely?

Mr Spellar: That is certainly to be encouraged, but Tehran will have a degree of involvement. It has a Persian minority within Afghanistan, it is a significant power within the region and it suffers considerably from the impact of the drugs trade on its own population. It will thus have to be engaged in its own interest.

Paul Flynn: My right hon. Friend will recall that when we went into Afghanistan, one of the reasons for doing so that we heard from the Dispatch Box was that Afghanistan provided 90% of the heroin coming into Britain. Will he remind us what percentage of heroin comes to this country from Afghanistan after the sacrifice of 375 British lives?

Mr Spellar: Still far too much, but I think my hon. Friend would also recognise the role of the Taliban in that trade and the money they obtain from it to fund their activities. As I point out again in this context, it is in the interest of the wider world and in the particular interests of the regional powers to act along the lines I mention and the regional powers obviously need to be engaged in the process.

Let me deal now with the Select Committee report. There has understandably been a debate about the decision to announce a deadline for British combat

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withdrawal by 2014 and about the manner in which it was taken. This features quite strongly in the report and was obviously the subject of the Prime Minister’s statement today, which was welcomed by the Leader of the Opposition.

I have to say, however, that the Government’s response was, frankly, inadequate—almost embarrassing—and if I were a member of the Select Committee, I would have been rather insulted by such an inadequate response to the very significant questions that it posed. The Select Committee might well want to pursue these at a future date. It reads very much as a “seat of the pants”, “top of the head”, “don’t bore me with the details” response.

Let us examine the Government’s response to paragraphs 156 and 157, which makes it clear that the 2014 decision was not made by the Cabinet or even the National Security Council. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham quoted from it earlier. The decision

“was made by the Prime Minister following discussions with a number of senior Ministers”.

It is not even clear whether those discussions took place collectively or individually. Obviously, in this context, sofa government is alive and well.

Nowhere in their response do the Government answer the Select Committee’s questions about what advice they had received from the military before the decision, and we consider that a significant omission. Equally unclear—especially in the context of the many references today to our engagement with the United States—is the answer to the question asked in the Select Committee about what consultation the United Kingdom had had with the United States. I do not know whether there has been any subsequent communication from the Government to the Committee on the subject, but the reply given on May 2011 did not match the significant questions that the Committee had posed. That is no way to run a war, and it is certainly no way to treat a Select Committee.

Further questions arise from today’s statement by the Prime Minister. First, it is clear that a dozen helicopters were ordered by the previous Secretary of State. The current Secretary of State, when he was the Opposition spokesman, raised the issue regularly—according to an estimate by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), about 161 times—before the general election. Now he has put the order on hold. Given that the Prime Minister has committed British forces to two more fighting seasons, will the Government activate this order immediately? I gave the Minister notice of that question. I hope that he has a reply, not only for me but for the House, and, more important, for the troops.

Secondly, the Prime Minister announced a continuing military relationship with Afghanistan, and stressed that it would not involve a combat role for our troops. We have to ask—and the military too will seek an answer to this question—how force protection will be provided, and by whom it will be provided. We must also think again about the dangers of mission creep.

Because I want to give the Minister time to respond, I will end my speech now. The role of the Opposition in these matters is to support the national interest and, in particular, to take a long-term view of the issues and support our armed forces. However, on behalf of the country and our troops, we must also hold the Minister and the Government to account for their performance, and we look forward to the Minister’s reply to the questions that he has been asked.

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6.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): I thank the House for its attention. I agree with the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) that it is a pity that the debate fell where it did in the timetable, but, although there was huge interest in the Prime Minister’s statement earlier, I do not think that that detracts in any way from the importance of what we have been discussing or the manner in which it has been discussed.

Before I deal with the substance of the debate, I want to respond to the speeches made by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), the Chairman of the Select Committee, and the right hon. Member for Warley, the Opposition spokesman. My hon. Friend led the debate extremely well, referring to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s important report and guiding us through a number of the issues. I shall deal later with some of the points that he raised about transition, political reconciliation and the drawdown issues, but first I want to deal with his point about intelligence. I know that he raised it with the Prime Minister earlier today.

My hon. Friend observed that, understandably, we rely on intelligence reports to guide actions and give ourselves a sense of whether, for example, al-Qaeda might still be in the area. He asked how this intelligence could be scrutinised, particularly given the intelligence queries in respect of Iraq, and he wondered whether there was further scope for parliamentary activity. I have to say that I doubt that. We undertake rigorous analysis through the Joint Intelligence Committee to assess the terrorist threat to the UK, drawing on analysis from across the agencies, the MOD and the joint terrorism analysis centre. Ministers receive that advice to inform their decision making. We have all learned the lessons from the experiences over Iraq, and we continue to carry out the most rigorous scrutiny of these issues. The assessment is that while the threat has diminished, it has not disappeared.

Although I wish I could, I cannot see how the intelligence on which Ministers operate daily could be made available for the immediate analysis my hon. Friend has in mind. I understand his point, however. The onus is on the Government to handle the intelligence correctly because information is made available subsequently, and the process for confirming the information on which Ministers act at the time is rigorous. At present, however, I cannot see any means whereby Members might be more involved. I will address the substance of my hon. Friend’s remarks in the course of my speech.

I will also deal with the points the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Warley, made about Pakistan and regional powers, but first let me deal with the specific issue about the Chinooks, which he was good enough to raise with me in advance, so that I can give him clarification and make clear what the Prime Minister said today. Nothing has changed since the announcement we made in the strategic defence and security review. We plan to buy 12 additional Chinook helicopters, as the Prime Minister confirmed today, and a further two to replace those lost on operations in Afghanistan in 2009. The MOD is working towards the main investment decision on the helicopters. In the meantime, Boeing is under contract to continue all critical path work to ensure that the delivery time scale for the aircraft is met.

6 July 2011 : Column 1617

So that is a definite commitment, but no order has been placed, and we are exactly where we were before the Prime Minister spoke today.

Mr Spellar: Can the Minister therefore give us any idea, even within broad parameters, of when it is likely that that order will be confirmed, and helicopters will start to arrive for our troops?

Alistair Burt: In all fairness, I cannot. This is a matter for the Secretary of State for Defence. The investment decision is in the process of being made. Our troops, of course, have helicopters. The aircraft we are currently discussing will be deployed in Afghanistan in the very long term, if they are deployed at all bearing in mind the time scales of our commitment to Afghanistan. There is no issue about the availability of helicopters now, however. As the Prime Minister said, the situation is much improved from that in previous years. We believe that the kit that is available to troops is entirely appropriate; adding to it through the future Chinooks will be important, but the availability of kit now is absolutely right.

I do not want to say too much about the question the right hon. Gentleman raised about decision making in respect of 2015. That would open up a debate on decision making by Government, in which I do not believe his predecessors would come out terribly well. We are therefore content to rely on the perfectly proper answer in the response to the report.

As always, debates on Afghanistan and Pakistan attract contributions with no little passion, and occasionally a lot of soul searching, from Members with a wealth of experience and insight to offer on the UK’s most important foreign policy commitment. I am therefore indebted to all colleagues who have spoken in our brief, but important, debate. We have looked at origins, intentions and policy. We have queried success and failure. We have looked ahead with varying degrees of optimism or pessimism to where we might be going and why, and the contributions from all have been good, even though I have disagreed with some of the judgments made.

In responding to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South and his Committee, I wish to reaffirm our strategy and relate developments on it to some of the issues highlighted by colleagues in the debate and in the report itself. I then wish to pursue one or two specific points that colleagues have made today. I apologise in advance for not being able to cover every question, but I will write to colleagues who asked specific questions that I am not able to deal with now.

Our strategy for Afghanistan, as repeated clearly by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister this week in Afghanistan and again this afternoon, is clear and straightforward: we are in Afghanistan, with others, to ensure our own national security by helping the Afghans to take control of theirs, so that Afghanistan cannot be used in the future as the base for al-Qaeda terrorist attacks, which have taken too many lives in the United Kingdom and around the world. That aim is pursued through three inter-linked strands, which incidentally but not coincidentally do make for the better Afghanistan that my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) understandably seeks. Those strands are: political progress; development aid to help create

6 July 2011 : Column 1618

and ensure the progress of a viable state; and, of course, security. This Government are totally focused, on behalf of all their citizens and especially those who are sacrificing so much in delivering on that aim.

Having looked at the Committee’s report and having listened to today’s debate, I wish to offer responses on progress under the following headings, which I think cover most of the things that colleagues have raised: transition and security, including issues relating to draw-down; political settlement and reconciliation; development progress towards a viable state; and Pakistan, which is a fundamental element.

On transition, the shared aim of the United Kingdom, the Afghan Government and our international colleagues is to ensure that the Afghan national security forces are in the security lead in all provinces by the end of 2014. We are making good progress towards that aim. The first tranche of areas to begin the transition process was announced by President Karzai in March, and implementation is due to begin on 20 July. It is testament to the excellent work that British forces are doing in Helmand that Lashkar Gah will be among that first tranche. Like all colleagues who have spoken today, I wish to pay tribute to all British military personnel who have served in Afghanistan. Their courage and dedication has allowed for the progress that has been made so far. The training and development of the Afghan national security forces is at the heart of the transition process. Since December 2009, those forces have grown by more than 100,000 personnel and will grow by an additional 70,000 in the next year. Quality is also rising, as is the Afghans’ pride in their armed forces.

Mr Sheerman rose

Alistair Burt: I wish to make some progress. A lot of colleagues were able to give up two and a half hours to this debate and I would rather concentrate on the issues they raised, rather than on the hon. Gentleman, who came in very late—I hope he will forgive me.

Good progress is also being made on the expansion and improvement of the Afghan national police, and that is also a key part of ensuring security for the future and transition. The UK has funded the construction of 12 new police stations in Helmand province, and since its establishment in December 2009 more than 1,000 patrolmen have graduated from the Helmand police training centre. I have had the good fortune to see for myself the work being done in Lashkar Gah at the police centres and to spend time with Bill Caldwell talking about the training of the national security forces. Progress is being made and there is a growing confidence about this process, but, as with all things relating to Afghanistan, progress is never linear. This is not something that will go smoothly all in one direction; and there will be setbacks and we will take steps backwards before we move forward. However, genuine progress is being made, and the House is entitled to take note of it and feel some pride in it because of the work that has gone into creating that situation.

On security and draw-down, the Government welcome President Obama’s recent announcement on the draw-down of US troops from Afghanistan. We agree that substantial progress has been made towards the international community’s shared objective of preventing international terrorists, including al-Qaeda, from again

6 July 2011 : Column 1619

using Afghanistan as an operating base. This is not simply about whether al-Qaeda is operating there now. The issue is: can the area be made sufficiently secure to ensure that al-Qaeda does not come back in future? That progress has been hard won and the announcement is a sign of success.

As was mentioned by a number of Members, including in interventions that I appreciated from the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) and my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), that draw-down has coincided with the notification of draw-down made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. He made a further comment today about reducing our force level by a further 500 to 9,000 by the end of 2012. The decision has been agreed by the National Security Council on the advice of our military commanders, which reflects the progress that has been made in building up the ANSF. For the benefit of my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border, let me simply say that the Prime Minister said this afternoon:

“This marks the start of a process that will ensure that by the end of 2014 there will be nothing like the number of British troops who are there now, and they will not be serving in a combat role. This is the commitment I have made, and this is the commitment we will stick to.”

This afternoon, there has been discussion about what the draw-down means and about whose incentive is greater. Our assessment is that the incentive for the Taliban to get involved in reconciliation is very clear, as the greatest imminent threat is faced by those who stay outside the process and continue to conduct operations against ISAF forces. The incentive is there for the Afghan security forces to continue the preparation work they are doing. That is the reason for draw-down dates and our sense is that steady progress is being made that vindicates the dates that have been given.

Dr Julian Lewis: I understand the incentive while drones are still killing Taliban in the run-up to the end of 2014, but what incentive will the Taliban have to stick to any deal that is reached or to go through with a deal after 2014? Are we going to be firing drones from outside the country?

Alistair Burt: My hon. Friend is taking far too little notice of the improvement and strength of the Afghan national security forces in their own right. It is they who will carry on the fight on behalf of their people against those who threaten their state. To assume that this is a practice that only we are engaged in and that only we can be engaged in is unfair to the growing success and strength of the ANSF. That is the incentive for the future.

It is vital to recognise that the absence of combat troops does not mean a lack of interest from those who have created the conditions for what we hope will be a secure—

Thomas Docherty: Will the Minister give way?

Alistair Burt: No, I have only three minutes left.

Let me turn to the political settlement. Despite the military gains that have been made, it is common cause in the House that we need not just a military answer but a political settlement and reconciliation. We strongly support the Afghan-led efforts that are being made to encourage the process of integration and reconciliation. We support the work that has been carried out this year

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through various international conferences and by the High Peace Council as well as the direct engagement with the Taliban from the Afghan community on the basis of the conditions set by President Karzai: renouncing violence, cutting links with terrorist groups and accepting the constitution.

In answer to those who queried the issues to do with preconditions, let me say that our understanding is that the Afghan-led process is about those who are prepared to accept the conditions stated, not about meeting those conditions in the first place. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in his statement this afternoon, we are looking towards a situation in which the conditions are met but early negotiations might take place in a situation that is not clear. It is important that the conditions laid down by President Karzai are ultimately accepted. We welcome the engagement of the United States and the recent comments made by the Secretary of State about US involvement.

The third leg is the viable state. We should all pay tribute to the work done by DFID in particular, and I am pleased to welcome my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development to this debate. From 2001 to 2011, DFID has spent £960 million in Afghanistan and over the next four years it will spend £712 million. We have seen improvements in education, health and the economy. May I also pay tribute to those outside Government, such as Karen Woo and Linda Norgrove, who gave their lives for the development work in which they were engaged, showing its importance?

I do not have time, I am afraid, to deal with Pakistan. I accept the comments made by the right hon. Member for Warley and perhaps I may write to him about the importance of Pakistan in the future. Engagement with Pakistan is crucial and we have productive intelligence work. It is essential that those in Pakistan are engaged both with Afghanistan and with dealing with the issues in their own country, which has suffered so much.

In conclusion, Afghanistan debates illustrate the depth of engagement of Members of the House in the issue. Our commitment is clear: notwithstanding the complexities for the country, its relationship with others in a region desperate for stability and the variable factors that will determine its future, our aim of a secure Afghanistan in the hands of its people, secure from its enemies and from those of the rest of us, can be realised.

7 pm

Debate interrupted (Standing Order No. 54(5)).

The Deputy Speaker put the Question on the Estimates appointed for consideration on that day (Standing Order No. 54(5)).


That, for the year ending with 31 March 2012, for expenditure by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—

(1) further resources, not exceeding £1,279,625,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 921,

(2) further resources, not exceeding £19,718,000, be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and

(3) a further sum, not exceeding £1,188,315,000, be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.

The Deputy Speaker then put the Questions on the outstanding Estimates (Standing Order No.55).

6 July 2011 : Column 1621

Department for Communities and Local Government


That, for the year ending with 31 March 2012, for expenditure by the Department for Communities and Local Government—

(1) further resources, not exceeding £15,285,674,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 921,

(2) further resources, not exceeding £2,344,000,000, be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and

(3) a further sum, not exceeding £17,386,772,000, be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Miss Chloe Smith.)

Home Office


That, for the year ending with 31 March 2012, for expenditure by the Home Office—

(1) further resources, not exceeding £5,717,338,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 921,

(2) further resources, not exceeding £277,435,000, be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and

(3) a further sum, not exceeding £5,720,232,000, be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Miss Chloe Smith.)

ESTIMATES, 2011-12

The Deputy Speaker then put the Question on the outstanding Estimate (Standing Order No. 55)


That, for the year ending with 31 March 2012—

(1) further resources, not exceeding £221,086,166,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 911, HC 921, HC 934, HC 935, HC 1339 and HC 1340,

(2) further resources, not exceeding £21,712,444,000, be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and

(3) a further sum, not exceeding £222,322,315,000, be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Miss Chloe Smith.)

Ordered, That a Bill be brought in upon the foregoing Resolutions;

That the Chairman of Ways and Means, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, Danny Alexander, Mark Hoban, David Gauke and Justine Greening bring in the Bill.

Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) Bill

Presentation and First Reading

Justine Greening accordingly presented a Bill to authorise the use of resources for the year ending with 31 March 2012; to authorise both the issue of sums out of the Consolidated Fund and the application of income for that year; and to appropriate the supply authorised for that year by this Act and by the Consolidated Fund Act 2010.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 214).

Business without Debate


Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): With the agreement of the House, I shall group motions 6 to 12 together.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

6 July 2011 : Column 1622

International Development

That the draft Caribbean Development Bank (Further Payments to Capital Stock) Order 2011, which was laid before this House on 12 May, be approved.

That the draft Inter-American Development Bank (Further Payments to Capital Stock) Order 2011, which was laid before this House on 12 May, be approved.

That the draft Inter-American Development Bank (Contribution to the Fund for Special Operations) Order 2011, which was laid before this House on 12 May, be approved.


That the draft Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 (Juxtaposed Controls) (Amendment) Order 2011, which was laid before this House on 23 May, be approved.

That the draft Immigration (Provision of Physical Data) (Amendment) Regulations 2011, which were laid before this House on 23 May, be approved.

Environmental Protection

That the draft Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2011, which were laid before this House on 13 June, be approved.

Terms and Conditions of Employment

That the draft National Minimum Wage (Amendment) Regulations 2011, which were laid before this House on 13 June, be approved.—(Miss Chloe Smith.)

Question agreed to.


Motion made,

That Standing Order No. 152G (Committee on Members’ Allowances) shall be amended as follows—

(1) in line 2, leave out ‘Allowances’ and insert ‘Expenses’; and

(2) leave out lines 3 to 17 and insert ‘to consider such matters relating to Members’ expenses as may be referred to it by the House;’.—(Miss Chloe Smith.)

Hon. Members: Object.


Motion made,

That, further to the instruction to the Committee on Members’ Allowances of 12 May, it be an instruction to the Committee on Members’ Expenses to report to the House on the review of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 by 31 December 2011.—(Miss Chloe Smith.)

Hon. Members: Object.


King George Hospital, Ilford

7.3 pm

Mr Lee Scott (Ilford North) (Con): I thank my colleagues the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), my hon. Friends the Members for Hornchurch and Upminster (Angela Watkinson) and for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) and all the volunteers who have helped to get the exceptional number of 32,000 signatures to this petition on the accident and emergency and maternity services at King George hospital.

6 July 2011 : Column 1623

The petition reads:

The Petition of the residents of North East London and others.

Declares that the Petitioners believe that the proposed closure of accident and emergency and maternity wards at King George Hospital Redbridge would not be in the best interests of the people living in these constituencies.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to take all possible steps to stop the proposed closure of the A&E and maternity wards at King George Hospital.

And your Petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray.


6 July 2011 : Column 1624

Football Clubs in Administration

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Miss Chloe Smith.)

7.5 pm

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): No town or city wants to see its football team go into administration, and it certainly does not want it to be docked 10 points, which leaves it with an even bigger mountain to climb, but that is what has happened to Plymouth Argyle.

The club’s problems do not end there, and I would like to draw on its experience to highlight the problems undoubtedly experienced by the 36 English clubs that have gone into administration since Charlton Athletic did so in 1984. I hope that the Minister will share these concerns, and go away, investigate and discuss them with those involved in running football. I do not want to see another club go through what Plymouth Argyle has gone through. I am sure that their best known supporter, Michael Foot, will be turning in his grave; indeed, in some ways I am pleased that he is not here to see what has happened and the misery that has been heaped on loyal staff and supporters, because he followed the club through good times and bad.

There were good times, and I must thank Gordon Sparks—Sparksy—for reminding me of some of the highlights of a club which was formed in 1886, joined the Football League in 1920 and got to the FA Cup semi-finals in the 1983-84 season—the same year in which the team were league two champions. I also thank Lee Jameson on behalf of the supporters for the information that he gave me in preparation for this debate. Plymouth has an incredibly loyal “green army” of supporters—and there are at least two of us in the Chamber—but their patience has been sorely tested.

Following a winding-up petition in November 2010, the staff faced Christmas without full pay packets. Learning from Exeter City’s experience, the supporters rallied round, and in December set up a trust designed to offer support to the then board and raise funds to support the staff and their families.

Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend mentioned the establishment of a supporters trust, and I declare an interest, as I was involved in the establishment of the Fulham supporters trust some eight years ago. The important role of Supporters Direct in helping to support supporters such as those in Plymouth who are setting up a trust should not be underestimated. Does she agree that it is regrettable that the funding for Supporters Direct is under threat because of the problems that the premier league has with the former chief executive? I hope that the Minister can help to persuade those involved to resolve that problem as soon as possible.

Alison Seabeck: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, and I hope that the Minister has heard his plea, because supporters trusts and Supporters Direct have been immensely helpful to a number of clubs.

In Plymouth the staff have been asked to sign away or defer payment of their salary. In the main, we are talking about some very low-paid people who were presented with a form to sign after the club to which

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they feel great loyalty was threatened with closure. With little opportunity to obtain expert advice on whether signing was the right thing to do, they signed, and most have struggled since, signing further salary deferrals. Some have now had no option but to take redundancy. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) and I spent quite a lot of time with the staff looking into their problems; none the less, they are in a difficult position.

The irony is that these are the very people who are keeping the ground in condition to start the next season. The players are protected to some extent by the Professional Footballers Association, and I had a brief word with Gordon Taylor about the position. He shared my concern that there was no protection for all the other staff. It was a struggle to see last season out, with relegation almost guaranteed, despite some amazing and spirited performances by a team that must have been feeling the pressure. Peter Ridsdale stepped in when most of the old board resigned and, in all fairness, worked to get to the bottom of the finances and pay key bills. At the time, he was welcomed. Help also came, as I have said, from the Plymouth Argyle Supporters and Training and Development Trust, which lent the club a not insubstantial amount. Then came the cloak and dagger stuff—the secret discussions between the administrator and various bidders. Plymouth’s local paper, The Herald, struggled to get to the bottom of the question of who they were.

We have all had concerns about what checks have been carried out to ensure that they are fit and proper people to run and sustain a football club. Where are the assurances of the ability of these bidders to meet the financial demands of running a club? Rumours have circulated about what various bidders might have wanted as part of the deal, and concerns have been expressed that they might asset-strip, including developing the current practice ground. Although no one has said that this is true, it does not help to build confidence in those most closely linked to the club, especially the supporters.

What checks are carried out by the Football League on such matters? Very few, I suspect, yet this is a sport of national importance. Where is the transparency that the administrator promised in a BBC interview? Nine days later he was quoted as saying that he did not have to know who was financing the bid. Given the amount of money that circulates at the top of football among clubs which, in some cases, use the lower division clubs as nurseries for up-and-coming stars of the future, I find it astonishing that some contribution could not come from them and/or from the Football League clubs to support the administration and ground staff when such circumstances arise, as a sort of insurance policy.

Others are affected too, especially small businesses linked to football clubs. The Federation of Small Businesses has pointed out that most football clubs operate as small or medium-sized enterprise, employing fewer than 250 people and, like other small businesses, often find it difficult to access credit from the major banks. As a result they often turn to smaller creditors, and similarly contract through many small companies. The impact of such a business going into administration can, therefore, have a knock-on effect on several other local businesses.

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I ask the football authorities to look again at the negative impact of the points docking system. Is it really achieving their original aim? Is it punishing the right people? Will the Minister explain why the rules for football clubs placed in administration are different from those for other companies? I believe that Lord Sugar has in the past expressed concern about this.

Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): I anticipate that the hon. Lady might be about to mention the football creditors rule. Earlier she spoke about the impact on small businesses. Does she agree that the football creditors rule has no place in football today, and that it acts as a disincentive for clubs to deal responsibly with each other and punishes local businesses, while protecting the interests of other football clubs and former players who might be hundreds of miles away?

Alison Seabeck: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. He has made it in far more detail than I intended to do. I shall reinforce it later, and I hope that the Minister will listen.

Lord Sugar made plain his view that—I paraphrase—the money thrown at clubs by television companies should be put into a trust, and half of it distributed to the clubs to spend, perhaps on players, but also to do other things. Protecting the staff in times of difficulty would be a worthwhile cause.

There are many questions specific to Plymouth which still need to be answered, despite the fact that we understand that the takeover has gone through today and the papers have been signed. Does the takeover proposal provide sufficient cash for the creditors to be paid in full, as regulation demands? Will the Football League be satisfied enough to hand over the competition share, or will deferred debts, including the remaining unpaid salaries, not be paid or simply stack up, rather like an individual in debt who puts the bills behind the clock in the hope that they will go away? Is the Football League happy that neither party to the deal is likely to be subject to any other outside investigations, which could throw their role at Argyle into confusion?

Although the various parties have signed on the dotted line today, it is still not clear whether this is the end of the story. Will they be able to get on and prepare the club for next season—and, we hope, promotion at the end of it? It will not be easy. Media stories are still circulating about concerns among former bidders that do not appear to be going away. We may never know who the mystery shareholders and directors from the Gibraltar-based company are. The lack of transparency is hugely concerning.

With clubs in the lower leagues spending £4 for every £3 that they generate in revenue, reduced Football League distributions in 2012-13 because of lower broadcasting rights values, and a range of other pressures, clubs elsewhere in the league could face the type of misery that Plymouth is going through, with all sorts of people waiting to pick up the pieces. Some of them care about football and some do not. Some should be allowed to run a football club and some should not be allowed to run a sweet shop. I urge the Minister to take a close look at what is happening in Plymouth and take action to encourage the sport to take better care of its assets—the people who work for and support it.

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7.15 pm

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): I begin by thanking you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this debate, and by congratulatingthe hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) on securing it. I hope that she and I have illustrated that Plymouth MPs can work together across the political divide when Drake’s drum starts to beat. It is apt that we should be having this debate today, because Plymouth Argyle, which is based at Home Park in my constituency, and has been in administration since March because it could not pay its tax bill, has at long last concluded its negotiations and is in the process of being bought—in the near future, I hope.

I will not pretend for one moment to be the greatest of football fans, but I am a member of the Plymouth Argyle fans trust. I cannot explain the off-side rule with any sense of certainty, but I do know how important it is for a city with a population of 225,000 to have a football club that plays in the Football League. Plymouthians are very proud of Argyle, but they are less enthusiastic about its directors, who have caused so much angst and about whom they have been forced to read so regularly in the Plymouth Evening Herald.

The green army, as Argyle’s supporters are known, will be relieved to learn that they might be watching professional football during the coming season. Although crowd sizes fluctuate, there is a real sense of community support for the club, the players and the back-room staff. When it was announced in April that the back-room staff were not being paid, the supporters formed the Green Taverners to raise funds to help those loyal employees. The city council acted with great sensitivity and speed and agreed to delay those employees having to pay their council tax until they had been paid their salaries. I have nothing but praise for Councillor Vivien Pengelly, the leader of the council, who acted with such speed.

Plymouth Argyle’s employees should never have been put in that situation. The directors at the time behaved irresponsibly. They thought that they could use the club to make money for themselves through a property deal. Property development is something that I know quite a large amount about, because before I entered this place I ran a communications company that helped developers regenerate land and managed planning for real weekends. Indeed, I retain an interest in the company, so I suppose I should declare an interest.

Betting on England winning the world cup bid and Plymouth being one of the venues for some of the matches, the Argyle directors came up with a proposal to develop the stadium and use green undeveloped park land owned by the city council—before discussing it with officers or local politicians. I fully support the leader of the city council, who made it abundantly quite clear so some time that this would not be possible. I very much hope that the other political party on the city council supports Councillor Pengelly’s lead.

Perhaps someone could explain to me why normally sensible business men leave their business brains at the turnstiles when they get involved in football clubs. They seem to think that they can be clever and play property deals with clubs. At Plymouth Argyle the ground was owned not by the club but by a third party.

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Indeed, I understand that under Football League rules the directors were allowed to assign their interests in central distribution rights, including proceeds from television coverage, to a third party, Mastpoint. Therefore, when the club went into administration and the back-room staff were not being paid, the Football League froze any money from central distribution rights and would not release it, because they were concerned that it could face a claim.

I ask a very simple question: is that fair? Is it morally right that small and medium-sized enterprises and clubs’ backroom staff should have to wait to be paid—and, potentially, have to take less than they are owed, despite supplying goods and services in good faith—when some sharp-suited developer is allowed to keep the proceeds of those central distribution rights? I do not think so. In recent times the bankers have been criticised for being paid their bonuses when others have had to go without, so why are owners of football clubs allowed to play loose and free with moneys that should be used to settle debts? There is a moral imperative here.

I understand that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee has been holding an inquiry into football governance, and I shall write to the Committee’s Chairman tomorrow, because I am very concerned that the central distribution rights, which include the proceeds from television coverage, should be made available to the club rather than going to third parties, so that organisations and people who are owed money can be paid. That needs to be investigated fully. I shall also write to suggest that clubs be required to have some insurance, so that if a club gets into difficulties, back-room staff and creditors are always paid.

This has been a difficult time for Plymouth Argyle football club, but I hope that the new owners will have learned a significant amount from what has happened, and will not try property development before running a successful football club.

7.21 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (John Penrose): I echo Members’ congratulations to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) on securing this very important debate. She has made very clear her passion for the local football team, as indeed has my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile). He also showed that he is heavily involved, and whether or not he is an avid football fan he is clearly a powerful advocate for the club.

As both local MPs said, everyone believes that a deal on Plymouth Argyle’s future has been completed today. The BBC Sport website states, however, that the agreement is conditional on the Football League’s ratification. The hon. Lady said that she has some concerns about all the criteria that the Football League may consider during ratification, so the process is not technically or entirely complete, and it is theoretically possible that the league will take a different view, but we will have to wait and see. It is very much up to the football authorities to make that decision one way or another.

I must apologise, because Members will have doubtless noticed that I am not the Minister for Sport and the Olympics, who is in South Africa doing something, I am sure, terribly glamorous and wonderful, but he has asked me to stand in for him, and I will endeavour to

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respond appropriately. I know that he will be following this debate very closely and will take a close interest in the reports on it.

Both Plymouth Members mentioned the fact that the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee is completing an inquiry into the governance and regulation of professional football clubs. Its inquiry, which the Government have welcomed and given evidence to, is considering a range of issues that affect the way our national game is run, and the focus of the inquiry is on strengthening the financial health of the game.

We all look forward to receiving the Committee’s report—the Government certainly do—and its recommendations in due course, after which the Minister for Sport and the Olympics will set out the Government’s official response. He has mentioned it several times, and he is very keen to do so just as soon as the report is in.

May I echo the praise that both local MPs have showered on the fans, players and staff of Plymouth Argyle for their continuing efforts in keeping the club going? It is a perfect example of what the Prime Minister calls the power of the big society, whereby local communities come together to tackle common causes and unite behind a theme. Plymouth Argyle can be added to a long list of football clubs—Leeds United, Portsmouth and Crystal Palace to name just a few—that in recent years have fallen into serious financial trouble.

There is a worrying statistic that since 1992 more than 40 of the Football League’s 72 clubs have been insolvent at one stage or another. I should confess at this point that, although I of course support my local club in Weston-super-Mare, historically I have supported Ipswich Town as a “tractor boys” fan, and it had a little financial difficulty a few years ago, so I guess that it counts as one of the clubs in that statistic.

It is of course important to differentiate, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View did, the elite clubs in the premier league that command the most money and can therefore pay their players the greater salaries from clubs such as Plymouth in the lower divisions that operate on a far tighter shoestring. The latter rely on local businesses, sponsors, hospitality and so forth for their revenues to a much greater extent than premier league clubs.

If football today is as popular with supporters, advertisers and broadcasters as it seems, there are legitimate questions about why so many of our clubs face the prospect of having to sell their grounds, and why they cannot afford to pay players and staff or repay debts owed to local businesses. Those are the questions that the football authorities, which are entrusted to administer the game and our clubs, must continue to address seriously, as both MPs from Plymouth have pointed out.

When the Football League chairman, Greg Clarke, gave evidence to the Select Committee, he admitted as much in saying that debt is the

“single biggest problem for football”.

He believes that if football clubs ensure that debt is genuinely sustainable, issues such as transparency of ownership, which has been mentioned, supporter buy-in and co-operative ownership will fall more easily into place.

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Damian Collins: I was at the Select Committee when Mr Clarke gave evidence. He also stated that he could not find a moral case for keeping the football creditors rule. Nevertheless, it remains the position of the Football League that it should stay. Does the Minister, like me, find that regrettable?

John Penrose: If the football authorities find it unacceptable and regrettable, the Government probably do as well. This is something for football governance to take on first. The Government will seek not to intervene if football puts its own house in order. Mr Clarke has made his position very clear, and that should be a very powerful voice.

The football authorities deserve credit for the rules they have introduced in recent years in the areas of financial regulation and club ownership. There are now an early warning system with HMRC in relation to tax returns, transfer embargoes that help curb club spending, new salary control measures in the lowest two leagues, a new means and abilities test that requires proof of funds from prospective owners, and a strengthened owners and directors test. It is welcome that in May, all 72 Football League clubs voted in principle to adopt UEFA’s new financial fair play rules from 2013, which will require clubs to spend only what they bring in. The Government obviously support those moves. Of course, situations such as that in Plymouth demonstrate how much more may need to be done. They also demonstrate that prevention is better than cure. It is far better to avoid going into a company voluntary agreement or insolvency if possible.

We believe it is for the football authorities to continue to challenge themselves to see whether they should tighten their rules further to ensure that clubs do not fall into administration in the first place, in precisely the way I have just mentioned. Equally, the clubs have to take greater responsibility. Supporters should not have to bail out the club because of bad financial management by owners and directors, as both local MPs said.

The stark reality is that for any company or organisation, not least a football club, emerging successfully from administration is likely to be painful and difficult. The focus must be on doing everything possible to avoid clubs getting into such problems in the first place. The Government’s hope and expectation is that as part of the wider process of the Select Committee inquiry’s recommendations, the football authorities will take steps to deal with such challenges themselves. If they do not, all avenues of course remain open to the Government, and we are prepared to look closely at how best to make those changes.

Alison Seabeck: Can the Minister give a reassurance that the Government will not just sit on this matter? I have heard him say that the Government will look at it. This is very important and we do not want another club to go down this route. I urge the Minister for Sport and the Olympics to have further meetings with those involved.

John Penrose: I can reassure the hon. Lady that my colleague the Minister for Sport and the Olympics is particularly exercised about the matter. He is on record as saying, in the Chamber and elsewhere, that he feels that football governance in general is in need of a serious overhaul. I know that he is prepared to be quite

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activist if he needs to be. Clearly it would be far better for all concerned if football could get its act together and put its own house in order first. That would be better for fans, and for everybody involved in both playing for and running football clubs, than to have a politician intervene. He remains willing to intervene, and will do so if necessary, but it would be a last resort.

I repeat my congratulations to both local MPs on the interest and clear care and passion that they bring to

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their job on this issue. Everybody will echo their concerns and their hope that the announcement today marks the beginning of a successful new chapter in Plymouth Argyle’s history.

Question put and agreed to.

7.30 pm

House adjourned.