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Members might ask where the money will come from to increase spending on our armed forces, and rightly so. However, I remind colleagues that we are still committed to ring-fencing the aid budget. We are still sending aid to a country with a space programme. We are still paying roughly £50 million a day to the EU. Surely the Government’s first priority must be the defence of our country.

Former US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta recently expressed his concern that neither the US nor the UK could afford to weaken their defences in the process of solving their budget woes, but that is exactly what we are doing. Two years after the SDSR, we are still waiting for the White Paper on the reserves. It is incredible that the Government can go ahead with the redundancies of 20,000 soldiers without knowing whether or how their policy of replacing them with reservists will work. I implore Ministers to look again at some aspects of the SDSR.

3.10 pm

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on securing the debate and on his excellent speech, which was born out of experience of commanding soldiers in the field.

When I was a young platoon commander in Berlin in 1984, we were told not to worry, because the quality of our troops and our kit would see us through. We knew very well that we could hold out only for so long, because quantity has a quality all of its own, as the German forces on the eastern front during the second world war found to their cost.

I mention that because I see similarly flawed thinking in the Government’s plans for 30,000 reservists somehow to plug the gap left by the loss of 20,000 regular troops. Let us be clear: this plan is designed to save money. It is not what the MOD would have wanted to do, as the CGS confirmed to the Defence Committee. The focus seems to be on the bottom line. The plan might work on paper, but a number of us severely doubt whether it will work on the ground.

I have three main concerns. First, could this be a false economy? The Green Paper admitted that it costs more to train reservists than regular soldiers, a fact confirmed by the Secretary of State during Defence questions. When we add in other factors, such as force-generation figures and the additional costs of matching a TA soldier’s civilian salary, there is a big question mark over how much this will all cost. To date, the Government have been coy about costings. We are promised a White Paper, but it has been too long in the coming. As several colleagues have said, none of that would matter were it not for the fact that five regular infantry battalions will be disbanded over the next 18 months; indeed, 20,000 regular troops have been given their marching orders. Pursuing such a policy before we are sure that the reservist plan will work is foolhardy and a high-risk strategy.

Secondly, I have concerns about whether 30,000 reservists could plug the capability gap. In my day—in the 1980s—TA reservists, gallant though they were, were essentially expected to ship out to Germany and wait for the

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Warsaw pact forces to come to them. Today, reservists are expected to have a much broader range of roles, but they are still expected to achieve that higher skill base with about 35 to 40 days’ training. We live in a world where challenging, asymmetrical warfare will become the norm.

My third concern is about boots on the ground. I doubt whether 30,000 reservists can plug the gap. The Government make great play of the fact that they have had many expressions of support from prospective employers, but expressions of support and boots on the ground are often two very different things. The latest MOD figures I have—they are fresh out of the MOD, and the Minister is welcome to challenge them if he so wishes—show that the establishment strength of the TA infantry is about 6,700 soldiers, but only 2,800 of them are actually eligible for mobilisation. That suggests an effective rate of about 40%. The MOD’s own figures—as I say, the Minister is welcome to challenge them if he so wishes—suggest that, in terms of plugging the gap left by 20,000 regulars, the Government’s estimate of 30,000 reservists is way off beam. A minimum of 50,000 reservists is more the ballpark figure.

We then need to look at further factors, which could throw even the figure of 50,000 into doubt. MOD figures confirm that the TA is losing infantry soldiers. Furthermore, as a number of colleagues have pointed out, the current economic climate means that small and medium-sized enterprises, in particular, will struggle to allow key employees to leave employment with them for extended periods without being compensated by the MOD. I am not convinced that that costing has been factored in.

For those three reasons—value for money, the capability deficit and boots on the ground—several of us have severe reservations about the Government’s plans. Meanwhile, however, those plans are having distorting effects on the ground. Excellent infantry battalions are being lost, and the 2nd Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers is a case in point. It is one of the most experienced battalions in the British Army, having served in all the major conflicts during the past 15 years, including Kosovo and Bosnia. It remains one of the best recruited. By the MOD’s own admission, it was not one of the original five infantry battalions to be disbanded; instead, more poorly recruited battalions were meant to go. However, through interference, intervention or whatever we want to call it, it was decided to save a poorly recruited battalion north of the border. The MOD then had to go hunting for a battalion south of the border, and, for some reason, fell on 2RRF.

Thomas Docherty: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Baron: I am conscious that I am running out of time, so I will proceed if I may.

In our contracting Army, one-battalion regiments stand less chance of survival. We were told a few years ago that the future rested with larger battalions. However, that distortion means the Government are spending millions of pounds unnecessarily supporting understrength battalions. Surely, the Minister can understand that it is more economical to keep well-recruited battalion families together than to spend millions of pounds trying to bring understrength battalions up to strength. Such a policy simply suggests we are reinforcing failure.

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In short, these plans are fundamentally flawed. Parliament has not been made aware of the costings to justify their execution, despite the fact that five regular infantry battalions have already been given their marching orders. I strongly suggest to the Minister that it would be wiser to see whether the plans work first, before losing 20,000 regular troops.

There is one final reason why the Government’s policy is high risk. Our armed forces are being reduced at a time when many countries, which are not necessarily friendly to the west, are increasing their expenditure. No one can tell where the next threat will come from. We must always remember that the first duty of the Government is defence of the realm.

Several hon. Members rose

Dr William McCrea (in the Chair): Order. I impose a five-minute limit on speeches to get most of the Members who have requested to speak into the debate.

3.18 pm

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): I apologise to you, Dr McCrea, and to other Members for being late. I was unavoidably detained with a constituent. I am sorry that I was not here to hear all the brilliant speech by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), whom I congratulate on securing the debate. It has been an education to listen to hon. Members who have served in the reserves, as I know the Minister has, and he will no doubt talk about his experience.

I will be brief; I do not think I will need even five minutes. I want to talk about the plans to disband the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry, a TA regiment with a base in Vicar street in Dudley. Under the proposals, A Squadron, which is the Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire yeomanry, and B Squadron, which is the Shropshire yeomanry, of the Royal Mercian Lancastrian Yeomanry, are to be merged and transferred to the Royal Yeomanry. Other changes involve transferring C Squadron and D Squadron to the Queen’s Own Yeomanry.

I am concerned that those changes will mean the midlands losing half its five squadrons, essentially so that a new organisation can be created in Scotland. That is my understanding. I have written to the Secretary of State and pointed out that the RMLY is one of the best recruited yeomanry regiments in the Territorial Army. The people of Dudley make an enormous contribution to A Squadron. They recently recruited 47 new trainees, and another 60 leads are currently being processed. That is exactly the sort of contribution that the Minister would want communities such as mine to make, so that the Territorials can expand. Two dozen from the regiment are currently serving the country overseas. That is an enormous contribution, and the people of Dudley are very committed to the TA.

The Minister will be delighted to hear that Ellowes Hall school, a comprehensive in Gornal in my constituency, is the first state school to set up an Army Cadet Force, working with the Territorials. That is a brilliant initiative by the fantastic head teacher, Andy Griffiths, and it is exactly what other schools should do. I do not know, but I suspect, that many hon. Members who have served in the Territorial Army will have done so as a result of being in the cadet forces at school. I went to

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a bog standard comprehensive in the middle of Dudley and hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that we did not have the opportunity to do those things. Of course, it was possible to join the cadets, but if there is a cadet force in a school, I think there is much more likelihood of people taking part; but I have digressed.

If the Dudley and Telford units are merged, it will, as the hon. Member for Beckenham pointed out, be much more difficult for people who have done a full day’s work in Dudley and who will then have to travel 30 or 40 miles to do their training and fulfil their responsibilities to the Territorial Army in Telford. It is also important for a diverse community such as ours to have a Territorial base at its heart. At events such as the past weekend’s St George’s day parade, or on Remembrance day, the Territorials parade in the town, and people see them as a central part of the community.

I urge the Minister not only to listen to what I have said about the contribution that the unit makes to the Territorial Army, and about local people’s commitment to it, but to speak to the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne). He is a former commanding officer there, as I am sure the Minister knows. Will the Minister also visit Dudley with me, and visit the base? He could at the same time come to Ellowes Hall school and meet the cadets of what I believe is the first cadet force to be established in a state school recently. Will he also guarantee the future of the Territorial Army in Dudley, so that my constituents can continue to make a huge contribution to our nation’s defence?

3.23 pm

Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): I had the privilege to serve as a Territorial soldier for 12 years, first in the Honourable Artillery Company and then in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, two regiments in which I know other hon. Members have served with great distinction.

A fact that has not yet come out in the debate is that, to achieve the Government’s target of a Reserve Army of 30,000 we need to recruit only 0.15% of the younger working age population. When the Minister with responsibility for veterans, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), was a Territorial soldier like me in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we had a Territorial Army of 75,000 trained soldiers, so I do not believe that the Government’s target of an Army Reserve of 30,000 is unrealistic; I believe we can achieve it.

Jack Lopresti: Does my hon. Friend accept that there has been a massive change in culture and psyche from the 1980s and early 1990s to recent years? I got my opportunity to serve in the reserve forces only because so many had left because of compulsory mobilisation. I was already three years over the age limit. That is how much things have changed.

Andrew Selous: I accept that there has been a change in the culture, and part of the Government’s job will be to give the Army Reserve a clear direction and mandate. We have already received commitments about training and equipment. Only today, the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Peter Wall, said in an article in The

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that there would need to be a “cultural reset” among employers. That is right, and my hon. Friend’s point is valid.

We need not look far to find other countries that have already achieved what the Government want to achieve. The reserve forces of our near neighbour Ireland are already larger as a proportion of the working population than the total that the Government want to achieve here. The same thing has already been done in the United States and other countries. It is by no means unachievable. Of course, what is envisaged will be easier for larger companies; but we need only 0.15% of the younger working age population—we are not talking about taking the crucial foreman of a small engineering business away on a six-month tour of duty, so that the firm will collapse. We will be able to manage things by taking the employees we need from larger companies, and from among part-time and seasonal workers and those whose civilian work fits their Reserve Army commitments.

Mr Baron: One of our key concerns is that, although enough money thrown at the situation will get 30,000 reservists, the MOD’s figures suggest a 40% effective rate when it comes to established strength and ability to mobilise. On those MOD figures, it is not 30,000 but a minimum of 50,000 reservists that are needed—and then there are additional concerns.

Andrew Selous: My hon. Friend makes a good point, in that we must make sure that the 30,000 we seek are battle ready and deployable. That is a fair point and my hon. Friend is right to make it.

In the late 1980s, there was the National Employers Liaison Committee, but we will need a similar body to do the work of cultural reset that the Chief of the General Staff has suggested. We need a band of patriotic employers. Perhaps the idea of something on the letterhead would be useful, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) suggested.

The Army Reserve plays a crucial role as a bridge between the civilian and military populations, two communities that can become very separate. When I was a Territorial soldier the great phrase that was used was “one Army”. There should not be a distinction between regular soldiers and part-time soldiers who are somehow less professional. We need to re-establish the ethos of one Army, with both components working together and integral to the whole. Several hon. Members have already pointed out that in Afghanistan up to 10% of troops on the ground have been provided by the Territorial Army; and I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) mentioned a figure of up to 14% for Iraq.

As we know, the Government are putting £1.8 billion towards the training and equipment that the reserve forces will need. The increase in training from 35 to 40 days a year will come from weekend and evening commitments, and so should not be a burden on employers.

Penny Mordaunt: I speak as a graduate of only the second officer training course to run alongside the regulars’. Does my hon. Friend recognise what a step

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change there is in training? Next year’s recruits will get nearly 10 times more weapons handling training than I had.

Andrew Selous: My hon. Friend speaks knowledgeably, as she is currently a reserve officer, and that is right. The question comes down to the quality of the training, and the understanding of the reserve forces that they have an important role in the armed services overall. That message will come clearly from the Government to employers, and to the whole of society. The training, focus, equipment and mission are critical to the achievement. Of course, the Government already help companies with financial assistance to cover mobilisation costs. It is important to put that on the record.

I absolutely recognise that the decisions are difficult—they are not easy. Like every other hon. Member in this room, I grieve when battalions are disbanded, and we all recognise the heartache and real difficulty that is caused. The Government inherited a great challenge: a £38 billion black hole in the defence budget was left by the Labour party when it left government, which is forcing this Government to take some very difficult decisions. If we approach this with the right spirit and a can-do attitude, and if we look at other countries that have already more than achieved what the Government intend, I believe that we can do it without imperilling the crucial defence of the realm.

3.30 pm

Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), including on the fact that he has the second-last ever Distinguished Service Order awarded for gallantry. I am conscious that many hon. Members—including the Minister, whom I am pleased to see in his place, and the Whip, the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster)—have been on active service, and that I have not.

Let me be absolutely clear that I firmly believe that the Government’s direction is right. I have one or two reservations on details, but we should be clear that the tiny proportion of the work force that we need to recruit to make it work is much smaller, and the balance with which we will be left is a much smaller proportion of reservists, than in any other English-speaking country.

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Brazier: I am sorry, but I am conscious that I must leave time for other Members.

The national guard and the US army reserve make up more than half of the American army, and two thirds of Australian infantry battalions are in the Australian army reserve. The fact is that other countries have delivered such a change and have been able to do so. When I visited units from the national guard in Afghanistan, I was told that its brigade, commanded by a civilian soldier—he is a banker in civilian life—had achieved a 98% turnout for its deployment for three months’ work-up and nine months’ active service there. I was intrigued by the roles that it had been given. The infantry battalion that I visited had detached platoons along the Pakistani border defending provincial reconstruction teams, a

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role in which older soldiers with civilian skills could produce double value, given the skills that they bring as well as their being infanteers.

I am a great believer in maintaining political control over the call-up of volunteers, but the one area we must delegate is disaster and emergency relief. The Americans, Australians and Canadians all say that that is their No. 1 recruitment factor with employers and local communities, although it is a tiny proportion of their activity.

I want to suggest a couple of things that need sorting out. We must be clear that we are talking about the integration of two forces, each of which has a very different ethos. There is a danger of sliding back into the old days of assimilation. The absolute shambles in recruitment for the nine months from April to December, which will leave a permanent gap in the numbers, was because of the Regular Army’s imposition of a completely unworkable system on the reserves. My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) gave good examples of that. It has now been sorted out, but it has left a nine-month gap in recruiting numbers.

If we are to maintain the distinction of ethos, we must also be clear that the vast majority of volunteer reserve units abroad are commanded by reservists. Unbelievably, 24 out of 30 commands went to regular officers on a 2011 list; the last was a little better, but not a lot. If we are to produce the volunteer ethos, soldiers need to be commanded by people who are used to dealing with employers, understand how to market training to soldiers with competing demands and, above all, have the moral plus that comes from being able to look a soldier in the eye, when he is under serious pressure from his employer, and say, “I’ve been there too”, not someone who can take Mondays off. To do that, we must provide more support for Territorial Army commanding officers, so that people with busy civilian jobs can fulfil their role on a genuinely part-time basis, as they do everywhere else in the English-speaking world.

We need to see off the attempt by the Defence Infrastructure Organisation to take over the control of the reserve forces and cadets estate from the reserve forces and cadets associations, which have much lower overheads and are far more efficient. We must also sort out the muddle in cyber, where a centre of excellence—the Specialist Group Royal Signals—has been broken up, with its squadrons sent off to different parts of what some of us think is a rather expensive and wrongly oriented set-up.

Those are points of detail, however. The fact is that the Government have set the right course. They are tackling a profound imbalance in the system. Everyone here wants defence to have a higher priority, but the balance was wrong and the Government are doing everything they can to restore it. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.

3.35 pm

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under you, Dr McCrea. I congratulate my hon.—and distinguished—and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and other Members on their speeches, all of which have been excellent.

Before I touch on a few points about the reservists, I want to expand on the general state of our armed services. After this vision for the future, will we have

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sufficient armed forces to safeguard our country and all our various roles and peacekeeping tasks around the world, such as in NATO? I very strongly argue that we will not and that as our professional, regular arm becomes smaller, the share of regular to reserve should be higher, not lower.

We now have to field 30,000 reservists, which will require a substantial jump in the numbers. My research indicates that, of the 38,000 reservists required in 2009-10, we recruited in the region of 29,000, and only 19,000—50%—of those were fully trained. Our target is now to have 30,000 trained reservists by 2018, but we currently have 19,000 reservists trained to phase 2 levels, which is exactly the same as two years ago. We therefore need to recruit thousands more. Interest in joining the Territorial Army rose by 6% this year, but it would need to increase by 400% to meet the new Government target, which I do not believe is feasible.

Are the reservists value for money? Training the current 19,000 reservists to phase 2 levels costs £455 million a year, for which the Army could have recruited 10,500 full- time, professional, regular soldiers. My sources tell me that that is what they would rather have. I am not here to disparage what the TA reservists do or their honourable and fantastic role, as some colleagues think Government Members have done. We have not said that or implied it. I served for nine years in the Regular Army and met many hundreds of reservists, all of whom did the most fantastic job, as they still do.

Ian Austin: Will the hon. Gentleman join me in congratulating the 47 new recruits to the TA unit in Dudley and the 60 new leads currently being processed, which I mentioned earlier? Does he agree that that is exactly the sort of contribution that local communities need to make if we are to hit the targets? Would it not therefore be a real risk if there were less activity at the TA base in Dudley after the merger goes ahead?

Richard Drax: I did not quite get the gist of the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I of course pay tribute to the reservists in his constituency. I hope that he will forgive me for not picking up quite what he said. I have not got long, so I will finish quickly.

Reservists take between 36 and 40 months to be considered fit for mobilisation. As I understand it, they may then be used for 12 months in any five-year period. Will the Minister confirm that? Yet I understand that the Government may spend £1.8 billion in enticements to the new lot of reservists over the next 10 years. Again, I would be grateful to the Minister if he could confirm whether that is true. In these tough times, £1.8 billion over 10 years to entice people into the reserves is an awful lot of money. Perhaps that money would be better spent on the regulars.

A possible solution that has been mooted is to cut the reserves by half, to 15,000. That would save money and retain the essential niche roles of, for example, lawyers and tanker drivers, whom we have already discussed in this debate. Of course that niche market must be maintained; such people do a fantastic job.

I want to draw to an end because there is, I think, one more speaker. If not, the Minister will sum up. Let me just go back to my first point and ask whether this is the direction that we in this country want to go. Many honourable and distinguished predecessors of ours in

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this place have issued warnings when our country has cut her armed services. We are now cutting down to a point where, whatever the calibre of the extra reserves, and they will of course be top notch, will they be enough to fulfil all the roles, commitments and responsibilities that this country has? Some Members have compared what we are doing here, or not doing here, with other countries. I always think that it is a great danger to compare the United Kingdom and what we are trying to do with our armed services with another country, such as America, which has a very different budget from our own. America has the ability to produce aircraft and all the equipment that it needs to train its reserves.

Back in the 1980s when I was a regular soldier, the TA was having huge difficulties getting on to the appropriate training ranges and all the things that it needs to do. I suggest today that with all the training disappearing in Germany and everyone coming back to this country, these facilities will be hard sought by the Regular Army let alone the TAs who desperately need it as their percentage increases.

Dr William McCrea (in the Chair): I want to give a highly respected Member of the House some time to speak, so may I ask Julian Lewis to speak for three minutes only, as we have already been beaten by time?

3.42 pm

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): You are extremely kind, Dr McCrea, and I shall stick to two minutes if I possibly can. Not for the first time has my gallant and hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) done a great service to the country and to the House—to the country previously in his distinguished military career and to the House today in securing this debate. Inevitably, the debate has concentrated on the Territorial Army, or the Army Reserve as it may be known in the future. Let us also put in a word for the Royal Naval Reserve, the Royal Marine Reserve, and the RAF Reserves, all of whom make a valuable contribution.

As a former junior member of the senior service reserve, I well recall what a bridge the reserves constituted, and still constitute, between the armed forces and society. The role of the reserves should be flexibility to deal with the unknown. As my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) said, we do not know from where the next crisis will come, and we will not know the nature of that crisis until it is upon us. Reserves should be an augmentation of, not a substitute for, regular forces. If trained-up former regulars constitute our reserve, we will have a better chance to get them to the sort of standards that we need very quickly than when we are dealing with civilian-only reserves. Nevertheless, there is potential in both cohorts. I am concerned that the strategic context is being skewed by budgetary constraints. The truth of the matter is that we are having the debate in these terms because not enough money is being spent on defence.

Finally, I am concerned that in the future we will see a repeat of the sort of false opposition that was put forward by certain people in the past between what was

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called preparing for a war in the future against an unknown modern state, and fighting the war in which we are engaged at the moment, namely counter-insurgency. We have seen how quickly the threats change. We are making important decisions about the future. For example, we must decide about the future of the nuclear deterrent. I do not want to see that debate skewed by people who think that if we cancel Vanguard class replacement submarines we will get more troops. The truth is, we get the defence that we pay for. We are not paying enough; we should pay more.

3.44 pm

Gemma Doyle (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on securing the debate and making some important points. It is worth reflecting on how valuable it is to have so many Members in the Chamber who have served or are serving in the reserves, or who have served in the regular forces along with the reserves.

The Secretary of State for Defence has set out his ambitious plans for the future of our reserves, shifting a greater emphasis on to them by doubling their numbers to 30,000 by 2020. The reserves have played an important role in our forces. In recent times, they have served in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. I believe that 29 reservists have lost their lives serving their country in the past 10 years, and we pay tribute to them.

When those plans were announced, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) made it clear that we support an enhanced role for our reserve forces. They make a very useful contribution, particularly in specialist roles, and we agree that they can make an even bigger contribution. However, we must get the changes right, and we have concerns about the Government’s proposals.

Any expansion of our reserve forces will succeed only if the Government work with employers. We must consider carefully the particular challenges that members of the reserve forces face in employment, and the Government are not dealing with the matter correctly. We have already heard that the recruitment target is being missed, and it seems that the MOD will have to increase recruitment by about 66% this year even to stand a chance of meeting its targets.

A recent survey from the Federation of Small Businesses set out some of the challenges. It found that six in 10 businesses would not consider granting reservists additional leave for training, so if the Minister wants the plan to become a reality, he might have to consider passing further legislation. The survey also showed that one in three businesses said that nothing would encourage them to employ a reservist, while 39% of those who had employed a reservist, or would consider having one in their company, said that the proposed reforms would have a negative impact on their businesses. A staggering 89% said that they had not heard of the MOD’s employer awareness events, so there is clearly some distance to go.

Over the past three years, the reserves have lost around 1,000 members. It would appear that bureaucratic problems mean that there is a backlog in the processing of applications, so the target is looking challenging and perhaps unattainable.

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When the proposals were announced in November, the Secretary of State spoke about a kitemark to recognise employers that encourage and support their employees to participate in the reserves. In principle, that is a good idea, so we hope the Minister will be able to update us on when the scheme will be in place. We also think that it could be extended to companies that have a good record on employing military spouses and veterans, because clearly more work needs to be done in that area. Membership of the reserve forces should not be a barrier to employment, so the Government should look at our proposals for anti-discrimination legislation applying to members of the forces.

As the Government have cut numbers in the regular forces so dramatically, the system has to work. The enhanced role for reservists must be matched with improved training. We have heard a lot about an integrated concept between reserves and regulars over the past few months. That should not be limited to operations; it must also be extended to preparation. If we are asking our forces to serve together on operations, they must train together as well.

Reports have shown that reservists are much more likely than others to suffer from poor mental health, especially if they have been on active duty, and we need to look carefully at the reasons why. For example, reservists are less likely to have a military support network, they do not receive the same decompression as the regulars and there is the problem that reservists do not gain access to specialised MOD health care in civilian life. I am sure that the Government are serious about meeting their target, so they will want to take heed of the Royal British Legion and Combat Stress, which have come together to highlight the problems of mental health care among reservists. Post-deployment care needs to improve, and we have to ensure that employers have a better understanding of the issues that reservists can face when they return from serving. Access to MOD health care needs to be considered much more carefully.

We should not forget about the families of reservists, although the recent handling of the bedroom tax was an example of how not to do things. The Government finally U-turned by recognising that reservists and their families could be affected by the bedroom tax, because they are mentioned in the exemption. The Government need to think about how they implement the armed forces covenant because the necessary processes are not in place.

Hon. Members have highlighted concerns about capability by asking whether we will meet the target and therefore have the capability that we as a country want. I hope that the Minister will address the crucial question of how many reservists must be recruited if we are to have a deployable force of 30,000.

The worry is that the Government have a policy but not a proper plan to see it through, and there are some unresolved questions and problems. In the coming years, it appears that our national security will increasingly depend on reserve forces, so it is vital that the Government get this process right. We, of course, will want to support them in doing so.

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3.51 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr Andrew Robathan): Dr McCrea, I fear that we are very constrained by our time, but I also congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on securing this debate. I think that we first met when we served in “Military Operations 2” in the Ministry of Defence in 1984, when his hair was less grey.

I know that this debate is very important to many Members of the House, and that it is especially important to members of our reserve and armed forces. I am grateful for all the contributions that have been made. I will address some of the questions that have been put later, if I have the time; otherwise, I will be very happy to answer hon. Members’ questions by letter.

Our reasons for changing the structure of the Army, which include a much greater reliance on a fully integrated reserve, are well known. They are both an imaginative and pragmatic response to the dire financial situation that this Government faced on entering office in 2010, as well as a determination to do the right thing by establishing a credible, relevant and useable Army Reserve fit for the demands of the 21st century while maintaining a larger proportion of regular forces than our closest allies. I can assure you, Dr McCrea, that none of us came into government to reduce the size of the armed forces, including the Regular Army. However, to quote the last Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), “There is no money”.

The principle of greater integration of the reserve was established in the report by the independent commission to review the UK’s reserve forces, which was led by the vice-chief of the defence staff. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) also took part in that process, and we are grateful to him for that. We are committed to expanding the volunteer Army Reserve to a trained strength of 30,000, and to integrating those reserves fully into the structure of the Army as a whole. As has been mentioned already by hon. Members, that requires a change in the attitude of society and of the Army towards the reserves.

Achieving that has already involved hard choices on the Regular Army side, to make sure that the Army plays its part in ensuring that the MOD continues to live within its means, while maintaining an Army that is capable of operating across the full spectrum of operational capability and one that also offers fulfilment and challenge for its reserve members.

Many hon. Members have spoken with passion and some experience about a lot of issues, including whether we can get this Army reserve of 30,000 at the pace that we require. To be clear, a target of a trained reserve of 30,000 is well within historic norms. In 1997, the Territorial Army was over 50,000 strong; it was reduced to around 40,000 by 2000; by 2009, it was down to just 26,000; and we now reckon that we have about 19,000 trained reserves. That shows that the current initiative to increase its trained strength from the current level of around 19,000 to 30,000 is perfectly achievable. Indeed, to look at it in parochial terms, this increase would require rather fewer than 20 individuals per parliamentary constituency to join up and to train in the Territorial Army.

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By the way, we should not overlook the contribution that the reservists have already made to operations. In the last 10 years, almost 30,000 members of the TA have been deployed in operations overseas. Of those, some 3,500 members were compulsorily mobilised to take part in Telic 1 in Iraq, and during operations in the past 10 years more than 70 members of the TA have received operational honours, while 21 have sadly been killed on operations either in Afghanistan or Iraq.

The Government are investing heavily in future reserves and taking other actions to create the conditions required to achieve our target of an integrated Army. Extra financial investment is indeed worth £1.8 billion over 10 years, as has been mentioned, of which the Army Reserve will get the largest part. Other investment includes, for instance, overseas reserve training exercises at company level, which are very much welcomed. It also includes more equipment arriving to provide more modern support for the reserves, including modern vehicles, the latest weapons, and phones and radios, which is exactly what reservists want.

Ian Austin: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Robathan: I am sorry, but I do not have time to give way.

We have planned that, over time, reservists will have access to exactly the same equipment for training that is currently used by regulars. There will be opportunities for deployment, as we have mentioned already, but there will also be opportunities for shorter periods of deployed service commitment for those in some specialist roles, and reserves will also routinely fill roles that historically were the preserve of the regulars.

Officers and soldiers will also have command appointments, which have not always been available, and my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has been bending my ear about that for many, many years—since way before 2010. We need the Government and society to get behind this process. The skills and experience gained by reservists will be of considerable value to civilian employers, as has been mentioned, making the proposition all the more attractive.

We need to get behind the new reserves. NEAB, which is the National Employer Advisory Board, and SaBRE, which is Support for Britain’s Reservists and Employers, although I do not know where the “a” in SaBRE came from, are working on these issues, and we need to continue that work. Soon we will publish the White Paper that will set out a number of measures to encourage that process, and the collaboration with employers is absolutely vital. I take the point that it is not an easy answer, but we are determined to get this process right.

Of course, collaboration needs to be tailored to fit different types and sizes of employers. I was in Keighley last week, visiting Snugpak, which had a

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SaBRE commendation signed by the Secretary of State for Defence. Snugpak is a medium-sized enterprise rather than a small one, which incidentally produces some very decent kit if anyone wants insulation for their camping trips. While I was there, I spoke to a reservist who was indeed supported by his employer. However, we need to take this process further.

Although it is still in its early stages, we are confident that we can get a more streamlined recruiting process, in conjunction with Capita. I know that Capita has been slightly criticised in one or two scurrilous magazines such as Private Eye, but we believe that we are getting there and Capita should deliver an acceleration in enlistments during the next few years. If my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham, who was somewhat sceptical about that, wishes to review the recruiting process, we would be very happy to facilitate that. Key changes that we are introducing include: a national recruiting centre administering all applications to a common process; a more imaginative approach to marketing; and a fully resourced assessment process for the reserves.

Mr Baron: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Robathan: I am sorry but I really do not have time to give way.

We remain confident that our proposition, in addition to being the right thing to do, will deliver value to the taxpayer. The independent commissioner for reserves concluded that reserves are significantly cheaper to maintain than regulars, and that they are no more expensive than regulars even when we take into account the costs on operations. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who just tried to intervene, I will say that part-timers are inevitably cheaper than full-timers.

As I have said, we need a change in the mindset regarding reserves, and a change in the attitude towards them. I absolutely believe that this policy is the right thing to do. It is not that we are keen to reduce the regular Army, but it is ridiculous to have a trained reserve of 19,000 for a country of our size; that is a ridiculously small number. We can do better than that—using reserves has huge social benefits—and we shall do better than that. Rather than admire the problems that we faced on inheriting an overblown defence budget in 2010, this Government have taken the necessary decisions to deliver a credible future Army which is fit for the challenges of the 21st century.

Just before I sit down, may I also say that my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) and I served in another English regiment, and not just in the Fusiliers? On St George’s day, we used to have a service, quite a good lunch as I recall and then the rest of the day off.

Dr William McCrea (in the Chair): Order. I thank hon. Members for their contributions in what has been a very valuable debate, and I also thank you for the manner in which you have treated each other.

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Sharia Law

4 pm

Kris Hopkins (Keighley) (Con): I appreciate the opportunity to debate this important issue in the Chamber. We have the privilege of living in a free society, in which the rights of the individual are not determined by their gender. We live in an open, tolerant country, which rightly welcomes people’s different faiths and religious beliefs and is diverse and benefits socially, economically and culturally from that diversity. Many individuals have campaigned, fought and given their lives for the freedom and values that make up the United Kingdom. This is a special place, embracing democracy, free speech and, just as important, a justice system that has evolved over a millennium.

One of the cornerstones of our justice system is that we are all equal in the eyes of the law. Embodied in the law of our country are the demands for equality, the challenge to the wrongs that appear in prejudice and discrimination in our lives. We can be proud—but we should not be complacent—that the vast majority of our judges, magistrates and clerks come from all backgrounds and are of both genders.

When I read that my local council of mosques had issued a press release calling for the Government to recognise sharia councils—they are courts in any other country—and ensure that they are better resourced, I was greatly concerned. Exploring this issue, I find that most of the debate that reaches the public comes from far right blogs and racist rhetoric. Little thoughtful contribution to understanding or exploring these issues comes to the fore. There are a couple of notable exceptions: the work of Baroness Cox, from the other House, and the work of the BBC’s “Panorama” programme, led by the journalist, Jane Corbin. I am grateful to Miss Corbin for conversations that I had with her in preparing for this debate, and I put on the record my appreciation of an excellent programme transmitted yesterday evening. Baroness Cox’s exceptional work seeks to ensure that sharia tribunals and councils operate within the law and should not form a concurrent legal system in the UK. With that aim in mind, I have four questions for the Government.

First, I should like to hear from the Government that we have only one law in this country. Secondly, I want to hear that sharia councils must comply with UK law. That includes compliance with all equality and anti-discrimination laws and family law. Thirdly, I should like to understand how the Government will ensure compliance and what penalties will be applied to a council or court if it breaks the law. Fourthly, I should like to know what consideration the Government have given to ensuring that all sharia marriages are legally underpinned by a compulsory civil marriage.

In last night’s programme, it was evident that women were not being treated equally. In the so-called arbitration process, even a simple issue of cost was clearly discriminatory. Women pay £400 to get a divorce; men pay nothing. Women are encouraged not to report to the police. A woman was given a divorce only after she agreed to hand over her children to the husband. The council or court was only ever made up of men or a man.

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I understand that the act of determining child access or contact cannot be undertaken in law by a sharia council or court. I hope that, if evidence of wrongdoing can be established, those who have broken the law, as shown in the programme last night, will be pursued. On seeing the programme’s evidence, the chief crown prosecutor for the Crown Prosecution Service in the north-west said that he was disappointed, but not surprised. If the CPS is not surprised about such findings, why are we, as a Government, allowing such things to happen?

The director of Inspire, an organisation with an impeccable reputation, issued a statement following the “Panorama” programme last night:

“Panorama’s programme, (22nd April 2013) on the unregulated and discriminatory practice of some of Britain’s sharia councils has been of long concern to Inspire. ‘Secrets of Britain’s Sharia Councils’ highlighted how some of the services provided by Sharia councils, in particular arbitration and mediation services, operate in a way that is at times discriminatory towards women, undermining their human rights which should be protected by British law, especially with regards to child custody and domestic violence cases.”

That is part of a long, detailed release that is a thoughtful contribution to the debate. That paragraph in particular highlights problems that I am concerned about as well.

I want to discuss underpinning religious marriage with civil law marriage. Some men are choosing not to marry through the civil law process, because doing so makes divorce simpler and does not enable a woman rightly to claim her share of the assets at the time of divorce. There is also an opportunity for men to marry a second wife, because the first, sharia marriage is not recognised in law. We have to ensure that the rights of women are protected. I therefore concur with Inspire’s call that all sharia marriages be simultaneously registered as civil marriages, thus offering much-needed protection to women.

I believe that, sadly, the word “sharia” has more negative connotations than positive images in our country. Only by exploring why will we begin to address those concerns. Unlike the far right, I do not believe that Islam is evil. We should not underestimate the level of distrust and sometimes fear that exists. It is our responsibility to challenge the wrongdoing and allay those fears. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

4.8 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mrs Helen Grant): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins) for bringing this timely debate to the Chamber. I am sure that hon. Members will be aware of the concerns raised in the BBC “Panorama” programme last night on this subject.

My hon. Friend has eloquently, carefully and respectfully explained why he is opposed to any establishment of a state-sponsored, alternative judicial process in England and Wales. I recognise that there is some confusion about what the exact position is on this issue. Therefore I start by stressing plainly and clearly that sharia law has no jurisdiction under the law of England and Wales and the courts do not recognise it. There is no parallel court system in this country, and we have no intention of changing the position in any part of England and Wales.

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On the points raised by my hon. Friend, sharia law is the code of personal religious law governing the conduct of Muslims. Those principles can extend to all aspects of people’s lives. There are a number of sharia councils in England and Wales that help Muslim communities resolve civil and family disputes by making recommendations by which they hope that the parties will abide, but I make it absolutely clear that they are not part of the court system in this country and have no means of enforcing their decisions. If any of their decisions or recommendations are illegal or contrary to public policy—including equality policies such as the Equality Act 2010—or national law, national law will prevail all the time, every time. That is no different from any other council or tribunal, whether or not based on sharia law.

Britain is proud of its tradition of religious tolerance. The Government do not prevent individuals from seeking to regulate their lives through religious beliefs or cultural traditions. Provided that an activity prescribed by sharia principles does not contravene the law of England and Wales, there is nothing that prevents people from living by sharia law.

The use of religious councils or other extra-legal bodies to deal with civil disputes is well established and non-contentious. Communities have the option to use religious authorities to adjudicate disputes and to agree to abide by their decisions on a voluntary basis, but such decisions are subject to national law and are not legally enforceable. Any member of any community should know that they have the right to refer to an English court at any point, especially in the event that they feel pressured or coerced to resolve an issue in a way with which they feel uncomfortable.

Because sharia councils do not have any legal means of enforcing their decisions, they can only make recommendations that they hope the parties will follow. There is no appeal mechanism. If a party decides to challenge a decision in a civil court, any decision would be made in accordance with English law.

Any use of sharia law in Scotland would be a devolved matter for the Scottish Parliament. My understanding is that there are no sharia courts in Scotland and that there is no intention of setting any up. However, individual parties can, if they wish, agree to use sharia law to settle disputes, so long as there is no conflict with the law of Scotland.

I understand the concerns, expressed by many, regarding religious councils involving themselves in matters of domestic violence, to which my hon. Friend referred.

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Domestic violence is a dreadful form of abuse and is not acceptable in our society; it is not condoned or supported by any religion. It is absolutely essential that victims and potential victims are aware of their rights and of all the advice and support that is available. The Government are committed to working with both statutory and voluntary organisations to ensure that our messages reach across all communities.

My hon. Friend knows that Baroness Cox’s Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill had its Second Reading on 19 October 2012. The Government are aware of the level of concern about the perceived use and interpretation of sharia law in this country, as was highlighted by the amount of support for that Bill on Second Reading. After careful and considered deliberation, however, it was evident that the provisions already existed in current legislation and so were unnecessary. Instead, we believe the issue is more about raising awareness of the existing position under English law. We are fully committed to protecting the rights of all our citizens and will consider what is required to educate people further on the protections afforded to them by UK law.

Under criminal law, any person who commits a criminal offence is liable to be prosecuted for that offence, provided it is in the public interest to do so. In England and Wales, criminal proceedings are always heard in a criminal court. We do not recognise any criminal law decision made by an alternative court in this country. The Government have no intention of changing that position.

My hon. Friend also asked about the recognition of sharia marriages by English courts. We are working to raise awareness of the need to have a legally recognised marriage, and we are encouraging mosques to register to carry out legally recognised marriages in their various facilities.

I hope that I have answered all the important issues raised by my hon. Friend. This has been a useful and timely debate, and I am grateful to him for his contribution.

Rightly, this country celebrates diversity. We are a country where everyone has an opportunity to contribute, no matter what their background, ethnicity or religion, but that must be within a set of laws and a judicial framework that is common to all and understood by all. There can be no question of there being a parallel court system in this country. I hope that that clarification of the Government’s position reassures my hon. Friend and other hon. Members who are present

4.16 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Health Inequalities

4.30 pm

Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): It is my great honour, Dr McCrea, to serve under your chairmanship.

It is crucial that everyone in this country, regardless of income or location, should have access to the same level of health care; social background should not be a determinant of health. Currently, people who live in the poorest neighbourhoods will die on average seven years earlier than those in the richest neighbourhoods, and the average difference in disability-free life expectancy is 17 years between the richest and the poorest. We should be concerned about health inequalities existing on that basis, because it shows not only that we are not all in this together but that people throughout the country are unnecessarily and unfairly suffering because of their social background.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and on the work that he has done on the subject over the years. He was talking about life expectancy; in Medway, which covers three parliamentary constituencies, the difference in life expectancy between the most deprived 10% and the least deprived 10% is 9.6 years. He talked about all being in this together, but that 9.6 years did not arise in the past three years; that difference in life expectancy was present for many years under previous Governments as well.

Mr Sharma: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his important intervention, but we are not present as part of the blame culture. We are not debating what happened 10 years ago; we are talking about learning from the past and about how best to improve services. I am sure that the Minister will answer such questions, but I assure Members that I am not here to defend or not to defend, but to raise the issue, and to talk about what is happening in today’s terms and about why, what and how to improve.

The previous Labour Government committed themselves to reducing health inequalities. They made progress in meeting targets on infant mortality and headline indicators for life expectancy as a result of early intervention programmes and initiatives such as Sure Start. Reducing health inequalities is not only fair but makes economic sense.

Stephen Barclay (North East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I am staggered by the hon. Gentleman’s statement about the previous Government making progress. The gap in life expectancy between deprived and wealthy areas widened under Labour, and there were more GPs per head of population in wealthy, healthy areas and fewer in poor, unhealthy areas. Can he explain why?

Mr Sharma: We are trying to avoid getting into the blame culture or blaming the previous Government. I am sure that that gap of 9.6 years or whatever was an improvement on previous years.

Stephen Barclay: Will the hon. Gentleman—

Dr William McCrea (in the Chair): Order.

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Mr Sharma: It is unnecessary to debate that. My point concerns what is happening today; I am not rude, arrogant or avoiding the issue, but the debate is about what is happening in the system, and the purpose is to find out what steps the Minister can assure us are being taken to improve the situation.

Stephen Barclay: It is worth putting it on the record that the cross-party Public Accounts Committee, chaired by a Labour Member, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), looked at how in 1997 the Government were to put health inequalities at their heart and at setting targets in 2004, but those targets were not met. It is remiss of the hon. Gentleman to come to the Chamber today and to talk about the previous Government making progress when the gap in life expectancy increased, the GPs were in the wrong place and a cross-party Committee chaired by a Labour Member is saying that they failed to meet their targets.

Mr Sharma: I thank the hon. Gentleman for correction on that and I am sure that there are many other areas we could cover, but given the time available I want to complete my way of looking at the subject. He will have the opportunity, through the Minister, to talk about those questions.

Reducing health inequalities is not only fair but makes economic sense, as I said. Reducing such inequalities will diminish productivity losses from illness and cut welfare costs. My constituency is a diverse area with a high rate of deprivation and with about 19,100 children living in poverty. The impact on the health service is noticeable. The mortality rate is a lot higher than average, especially in the most deprived wards of the constituency. Diseases such as diabetes, coronary heart disease and tuberculosis are much more prevalent than in the rest of the country, and they are unfortunately directly related to the social inequalities in the area.

The coalition Government have shown a lack of commitment to reducing health inequalities, whether through their health policies or their socio-economic policies which will increase inequality between the richest and poorest. Through the Health and Social Care Act 2012, the Government have increased competition and opened up NHS services to tender from the private sector; if the section 75 regulations are pushed through the House of Lords tomorrow, patients with complex conditions that are perceived as less profitable will not be as readily treated by private providers. On top of that, the increase in private patients in hospitals after the lifting of the private bed cap will mean that access to beds for those who cannot afford private services will be restricted, increasing waiting times. In my own constituency, Ealing hospital will be downgraded and the A and E closed. Some of the poorest and most vulnerable people will therefore see the services that deal with their specific needs closed, and they will have to travel great distances, which they cannot afford to do, to get treatment.

Recent reviews and evidence have proved the link between health inequalities and wider social determinants such as income, employment, welfare and housing. The Government’s record gives us poor hope of progress in reducing those inequalities: fuel and food prices have gone up; increases in wages are less than those in the consumer or retail prices index, leaving people out of pocket every month; child poverty is increasing;

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homelessness is set to rise after the recent welfare cuts; and, as announced last week, unemployment is rising again. Those affected will only be more vulnerable to health difficulties, increasing the inequality between the richest and poorest in our society.

The Government need to commit themselves to reducing health inequalities to ensure that social background does not determine lifespan and quality of life. The previous Labour Government took some first steps towards reducing the health gap between the richest and poorest, but that progress is likely to be thwarted by the Government’s unfair policies. Can the Minister provide some reassurance from the Government that they are committed to reducing unfair and harmful health inequalities during their term?

4.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anna Soubry): It is a pleasure, Dr McCrea, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing the debate and raising this important issue, although this is only a half-hour slot.

The hon. Gentleman said that he was keen to learn from the past. That is an admirable aim but, unfortunately and with great respect, he has rose-tinted glasses when looking back at the previous Government’s record. I will look at that record with no rose tint. The simple truth has been identified by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay), and despite the doubtless very best intentions, health inequality under the last Government got worse, notwithstanding their claim to have made it some sort of priority and to have put more money into the NHS.

Stephen Barclay: The last Labour Government took more than 10 years to introduce even basic known measures such as smoking cessation programmes in deprived communities, although the science and evidence base was clear. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government will not say one thing and do another on health inequalities, but will follow the science?

Anna Soubry: I can say that absolutely. The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall asked whether the Government are committed to reducing health inequalities and making the sort of progress that we did not see in 13 years of the previous Government. I assure him that it is not just a question of blind intention, but an absolute fact that we have already done it.

[Interruption.] I am making a noise because I am removing the script of my speech. I am not good at following a script from my officials. They are extremely helpful, and it sometimes causes them concern that I go off script and speak off the cuff.

I am familiar with the Health and Social Care Act 2012. What the hon. Gentleman either does not know—this is not a criticism—or may have forgotten is that, for the first time ever, there is a statutory duty, not just on the Secretary of State, but throughout the NHS, to improve health inequalities. It is not a question of targets, which have not always delivered the right outcomes, and Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust is a good example, as was identified in the Francis report. That duty is

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statutory so the Secretary of State and all those involved in the NHS must deliver, and the Secretary of State must give an annual account of how his work in leading the Department of Health and being the steward of the NHS in England has delivered a reduction in the sort of health inequalities that we all understand. That is there in law, but in 13 years in government, the hon. Gentleman’s party failed to do that.

Mr Sharma: I am not disputing the matter and, as I said at the beginning of my speech, I do not want a blame culture or to say what happened during those 13 years, but I ask the Minister to join me in my constituency on Saturday when thousands of people will march from Southall to Ealing. At the last march in September, there were more than 20,000 people, and we expect more this time. She will then know whether people believe that services have improved or got worse.

Anna Soubry: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman but, with great respect, he does not understand that reducing health inequalities is not simply about saving an A and E department. I hope that, when the hon. Gentleman is marching on Saturday, he will remonstrate with anyone who has a banner saying “Fight the NHS cuts”. Whenever anyone looks at reconfiguration, they do so on the basis of how to make the service better.

Stephen Barclay: I am sure that the Minister is aware that, on reconfiguration, bodies such as the Royal College of Surgeons support specialised centres, because they save lives. The evidence from stroke services in London is that reconfiguration is saving around 500 lives a year.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that, at the end of the last Labour Administration, only 4% of the NHS budget was being spent on prevention? It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to join marches, but prevention is far more helpful from a value-for-money perspective than treating things when they go wrong.

Anna Soubry: I am very grateful for that intervention. My hon. Friend makes the point more ably than I can that much of the great work to reduce health inequalities is not about whether there is an urgent care centre or an accident and emergency centre within 500 yards or 5 miles of where someone lives. Work on public health is critical, and that is why I am so proud that this Government have increased the amount of money available to local authorities, which now have responsibility for delivering public health. They had that historically and we have returned that power to local level. That is important in the delivery of improvements in public health. This Government’s view is that local authorities, as in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, know their communities better than Whitehall does. In the delivery of key and important work on public health, it is right and proper that local authorities have that responsibility. They, too, have a statutory duty to deliver on health inequalities. That runs through all their work of looking after the public’s health, but, most importantly, addresses those very factors that cause the sort health inequalities of which we are all conscious. For example, there is a clear demographic link between smoking and diabetes.

If the hon. Gentleman goes to Leicester, he will see the work that is being done there and in Leicestershire with the clinical commissioning groups—the GPs are

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now doing the commissioning—working for the first time with the local hospital and looking at a whole new way of delivering a better pathway not just of care, but of early diagnosis and prevention, linking those up in a way that has never been done before in the NHS. If he sees those examples, far from criticising the Government or having doubt about our commitment to health inequalities, he will take the opposite view.

If the hon. Gentleman needed yet further proof of the great work that can be done under the new way of delivering public health and commissioning in the NHS, he could do no better than take a trip to Rotherham in Yorkshire. I went there to see its fantastic work in tackling obesity. Obesity is a clear issue of health inequality and Rotherham has taken a totally joined-up approach. GPs are working with dieticians, schools and planners, with the local authority at the heart. They are all coming together to deliver a considerably better strategy, with real results in tackling the problems in that area.

On funding, it is important for the hon. Gentleman to understand that we have increased the amount of money that is available. It is now ring-fenced, on a two- year deal, so that real security and certainty is given to those local authorities. In some areas, we have increased up to 10% the money that is available to spend on public health.

Rehman Chishti: I completely share the Minister’s opinion about an approach where local authorities know what is in their best interests—for example, in relation to obesity in Medway, which has one of the highest recordings above the national average for obesity. However, I want to raise another point with the Minister. On diabetes and organ transplants, certain parts of the community—or certain parts of minority communities—are more likely to be affected. Will there be a national strategy that covers and supplements what is going on locally, because these are national issues that affect minority communities throughout the country?

Anna Soubry: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. The subject of diabetes—type 2 in particular—and the clear link to obesity and being overweight is something about which I am beginning to have a passion, because I can see the great work that can be done. We have just done a cardiovascular strategy. It is a call for action about mortality, and we know that cardiovascular disease work sits within that, and that cardiovascular work—I am getting very worried, Dr McCrea, because I am beginning to sound almost as though I am a health professional, when I am nothing more than a simple hack criminal barrister, rather like my hon. Friend.

The point, however, is that we know that if we look at diabetes, many other boxes are ticked in improving the lot and the health of our population. Certain parts of our population, in particular, have suffered from health inequalities, and my hon. Friend makes a very good point about some of our communities—in the Asian community, there is a great prevalence of type 2 diabetes, as there is in the Afro-Caribbean population. If we look at diabetes prevention, earlier treatment and diagnosis, and then proper treatment and good outcomes, other boxes are ticked—for example, obesity and being overweight, and all the other things that often flow from diabetes, such as the link with cardiovascular disease and so on. My hon. Friend makes a very good

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point about how a local authority beginning really to drill in and target a particular illness or disease can have many beneficial spin-offs in the manner that I have described.

The Government have established a comprehensive measurement system designed to measure not only overall improvement, but, in particular, inequalities. The NHS outcomes framework—I know that these words do not trip off the tongue and that they may be lost on the majority of completely normal people, but they are important documents—forms the basis for measuring progress on delivering improved results for patients and reducing health inequalities. The NHS England business plan commits to assessing health inequalities across a range of dimensions in the NHS outcomes framework, and those important documents guide our clinicians, the commissioners, and everybody involved in ensuring that we live longer, healthier, and happier lives. That exercise may reveal important health inequalities that have not previously been evident. The public health outcomes framework includes an overarching aim to reduce differences in life expectancy and healthy life expectancy between communities, through greater improvements in more disadvantaged communities. Public Health England will regularly publish data for the indicators, including breakdowns by key equality and inequality characteristics to enable monitoring to help focus action where it is needed.

I am looking forward to the time when we begin to publish, by local authority, the outcomes in each local authority on such things as the stopping of smoking, and the work that is done on the abuse of alcohol. Invariably, we gather that information, but when we start to publish it and put it in the public domain, Members of Parliament, local councillors and members of the public will all have access to it, and they will be able to see how their local authority is performing. We will not try and trick anybody and we will not be unfair, but we will ask people to compare like with like. We make it clear to local authorities that they do not all start from a level playing field, because many of them, unfortunately, are inheriting public health policies that were not some of the best. Therefore, we will recognise that—it is one of the legacies left over from the previous Administration. However, because people, GPs, and everybody involved in the delivery of health, including councillors and Members of Parliament, will have public access to such information, I have no doubt that that will begin to drive a real desire to reduce health inequalities.

I mean no disrespect to the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall, but I know the previous job of my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) and he, like me, knows that there is no better grit in the millstone among professionals than when comparisons are made about who has a better set of results. There is always good, healthy competition between professionals. We have seen that in the past when we published—I am not going to try to pretend that I can remember what it is, and if I say what I think it is, Dr McCrea, you can bet your bottom dollar that it will be wrong, but I know that in the past we have published the outcomes of particular procedures and surgery, and that it has improved the outcomes to everybody’s benefit when there has been a bit of healthy competition between professionals. That is what we intend to do by publishing the statistics on public health outcomes by local authorities, so that everybody can see what is out there. We saw it in

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recycling rates. Publishing information did exactly what we hope it would—it upped everybody’s game, and that is one of the reasons why we will do it.

To conclude, we have created a new health system that makes tackling health inequalities core business, underpinned by new legal duties, measurement and assessment. The local autonomy that we have given to our CCGs and our health and wellbeing boards will enable them to take focused action that meets the needs and aspirations of their populations, concentrating on the groups that experience the worst health inequalities. I hope that the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall is now in no doubt about what has been done.

Tackling health inequalities is a key priority for the Government, and it supports the wider focus on fairness and social justice. I know from a radio interview that I

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gave on Friday—on the “Today” programme on the BBC—that Professor Marmot, who wrote his brilliant report on health inequalities, has already recognised how important it has been that we have made this a statutory duty. He has praised much of the work that this Government have done—I have to say, in stark contrast to the previous Government, of which the hon. Gentleman has been a firm supporter.

Our approach is to design a system that empowers those at a local level to take action on inequalities, with a strong focus on commissioning quality services and on improving the health of the poorest, fastest.

Question put and agreed to.

4.58 pm

Sitting adjourned.