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Westminster Hall

Thursday 20 June 2013

[Mark Pritchardin the Chair]

Interpreting and Translation Services

[Relevant documents: Interpreting and translation services and the Applied Language Solutions contract, Sixth Report of the Justice Committee, Session 2012-13, HC 645, and the Government response, Cm 8600. Twenty-first Report of the Public Accounts Committee, Session 2012-13, The Ministry of Justice’s language service contract, HC 620, and the Treasury minute, Cm 8556.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Anne Milton.)

1.30 pm

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and to have the opportunity to debate our report on the Applied Language Solutions contract, supplemented by the National Audit Office report. I am glad to see Members from all parties and different parts of the country here, including my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales), a member of the Public Accounts Committee, which also considered the matter in the context of the NAO report.

Although that gives me pleasure, it gives me none to report that the subject of this debate is the procurement and management process undertaken by the Ministry of Justice. Serious flaws have been exposed in the Ministry’s procedures and policies; the process was a shambles. The contractual system for court interpreting, which came into operation at the end of last January, proved unsatisfactory from the outset and was subject to a boycott by many professional interpreters whose terms and conditions of employment were adversely affected. As we say in our report, that caused the adjournment or severe delay of numerous hearings and, in criminal cases, unnecessary remands into custody, with potential implications for the interests of justice.

One need not be an expert on court processes to understand the dangers to justice that can arise from inadequate interpretation. We acknowledged in our report that performance had improved markedly since the earliest days of the contract, but our verdict was not dissimilar to the Ministry’s admission in response to our report that

“performance…under the contract has not been of a satisfactory level”.

As I shall make clear a little later, on the available measures, performance has still not reached required standards; if anything, it has slipped back.

It is good practice, and my Committee’s practice, to look again and follow up the recommendations made in reports. I advise the Minister—a former Justice Committee member—that this debate is not the end of my Committee’s interest in the subject, and it will not be possible for the Ministry to escape parliamentary scrutiny after this debate.

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Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the excellent report produced by his Committee. The summary says:

“There was significant concern revealed in the consultation process that quality standards could be diminished by the imposition of a tiered system to enable a wider pool of interpreters, and by the introduction of lower levels of pay.”

Does he share my concern that that is evidence of trying to deliver an important service at the potential expense of quality? Does he think that his hon. Friend and mine, the Minister, should review and be prepared to revoke the system if it continues to be proven not to work?

Sir Alan Beith: I will return to how we proceed from here. I am tempted to comment that people always say that when it is proved that standards fell after big changes and that some of the predictions were fully justified. That should be a warning to the Government, as they engage in a number of other contracts. I will come back to that as well.

It is worth pointing out that the problems encountered by the Ministry in contracting for the work, while serious in themselves, also have implications for wide swathes of its other activities. The Ministry is putting out to contract 70% of rehabilitative services under the transforming rehabilitation proposals, £450 million in custodial services over the next six years and a large part of criminal legal aid, all of which will be the subject of contracts. I do not need to spell out that if things go wrong in those areas as they have in court interpreting, we face a multiple-train crash. Does the Ministry really have the capacity to do the kind of contracting on which many of its policy proposals are based? I am not arguing about whether it is a good or bad idea to contract out those things, but the Ministry must have the capacity to do so well and properly.

Before I turn to the substance of the report, I will mention another point of considerable concern to my Committee: the Government’s insistence that they acted reasonably in discouraging court staff from taking part in the online forum that we set up as part of our inquiry to seek personal experiences of interpretation standards in court. That was a retrograde step. We did something similar with prison officers. Many contributed to our online forum, and as a result, we produced a much better-informed report than we could otherwise have done. We did the same thing with court staff, but they were strongly pressed by the Government not to co-operate. That is deplorable. We shall continue to use such mechanisms where appropriate in our inquiries, not with any intention of getting civil servants to question policy, but to get a proper understanding of how it is working on the ground. If Departments repeatedly give that kind of non-co-operation injunction to their staff, they may find themselves in contempt of the House, and the whole House may seek to do something about it.

On the substance of our report, we recommended that the Ministry of Justice audit the amounts being expended on interpreter pay and travel and said that it might be necessary for the rate of pay for tier 1 interpreters —the most highly qualified—to be increased. We also said that the MOJ and Capita should prove that the framework agreement could attract, retain and deploy an adequate number of interpreters to meet the requirements of the courts and other agencies. We called

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on the professional interpreter community to work flexibly with the Ministry to find an acceptable way to restore their services to the justice sector.

In response, the Ministry introduced, with effect from May, a number of changes to the system of remuneration for interpreters, which it says amount to an average 22% increase in rates. Those changes involve mileage payments, cancellation fees, payment in 15-minute blocks rather than by the minute, payment in accordance with the qualification tier of the interpreter and a daily fee for incidental costs. We welcome those changes, but it is not yet clear that they will be enough to encourage many more interpreters to undertake work under Capita’s auspices, given the breakdown in relations between the Ministry and interpreters and the fact that many interpreters cleave to the view that the framework agreement is fundamentally flawed and cannot be salvaged.

The Ministry says in its response that it has met Professional Interpreters for Justice since late 2012, but goes on rather ruefully to say that it

“accepts that it will not always be possible to agree with the Professional Interpreters for Justice Group but seeks to maintain ongoing dialogue.”

I am not surprised that my hon. Friend the Minister should try to establish better relations—I would expect no less of her in going about things—but a lot more work clearly needs to be done if the professional interpreter community is to be won back.

The group has a different slant on the dialogue. It says that it was invited to a meeting with the Ministry’s interpretation project in March, at which it was presented with a package of proposed changes. It says that changes proposed at separate meetings by interpreters registered with Capita were rejected, and it does not accept that the Government’s changes will attract and retain interpreters.

The dialogue has been inauspicious from the outset. We commented that the Ministry

“did not have a sufficient understanding of the complexities of court interpreting work prior to initiating the procurement of a new service.”

We endorsed the NAO’s conclusion that the MOJ did not give sufficient weight to the concerns and dissatisfaction expressed by many interpreters, even though having sufficient numbers of skilled interpreters was essential to the new arrangements’ success, to return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt).

A constructive dialogue requires both sides to participate with good will. When we published our report, we were encouraged by the Minister’s commitment to repairing relations, but can she explain why she thinks relations between her Ministry and the main organisations do not appear to have improved? On what evidence or other basis did the Ministry choose to make the changes on which it lighted? How does the Ministry plan to monitor those changes to ensure that they bring about the desired improvements in the service?

On the quality of interpretation, we agreed with the NAO that the tiered system should be independently evaluated and that interpretation quality standards should be independently reviewed. The MOJ said that it would take that forward and report back to us on progress.

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The Minister gave us some more information in a letter dated 18 June. I am grateful to her for that. In the letter, she says that steps have been taken to “scope and initiate” the quality assessment and, following discussion with interpreter groups, Capita and others, will commission the advice and report back to my Committee in the autumn. Perhaps that should have been got on with a bit quicker, because it is a pretty fundamental prerequisite for improving the service. I urge swifter progress.

The Ministry has claimed that the changes to terms and conditions that it has made

“will increase the number and availability of Tier 1 and Tier 2 interpreters and therefore reduce the need to use Tier 3 interpreters”.

In her letter of 18 June, the Minister says that it is too early to say whether this is happening, although she notes that Capita says that there is an increased interest in accepting bookings from their existing pool of interpreters. I should like the Minister to report back to my Committee in the autumn on the extent to which the expectations have been satisfied.

We noted in our report problems with performance data being compiled to demonstrate the effectiveness of Capita in fulfilling courts’ requests. This is fundamental to a contract: there must be adequate performance data. Again, this reads across to some other contracts that the Ministry will have.

There were ambiguities about, for example, what constituted a customer cancellation, which is an ambiguous category. Professional Interpreters for Justice subtracts cancellations from the total number of requests, as well as failures by the contractor to deliver, to arrive at a figure of 80% of requests having been fulfilled by Capita, which is way below the contract requirement.

Even on the Ministry’s figures, performance is falling well short of the 98% target, and it tailed off markedly in January. That cannot be regarded as satisfactory. It is clear that, despite the substantial extra investment that the company has made since taking over from ALS, Capita continues to perform below the required standard under the contract.

Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green) (Con): Has the Committee had an estimate of the impact of the cost of delays, extended custody and the performance off-contract on the expected savings that this outsourcing was meant to deliver?

Sir Alan Beith: No, but we think that the Ministry of Justice should have some reasonable estimates of those costs. Such estimates are quite hard to put together, but we have talked to people in the courts—judges, counsel, solicitors and court staff—and they all point to incidents, each of which involves significant additional costs, which clearly have to be offset against the savings.

Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern that we are hearing from people, such as the chairman of the Bar Council, about the significant costs and money wasted when trials collapse because of failures under the terms of the contract? Does he share my view that perhaps we would be better served if we considered saving those costs, rather than embarking on a revolution in legal aid provision and putting all that at risk again?

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Sir Alan Beith: The hon. Gentleman is an assiduous and welcome member of my Committee, but I would not make the rather rash claim that we could meet the savings that the Government want to make in the costs of legal aid out of getting this contract right. However, we should be getting it right and so far that has not been achieved.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I am also a member of the Committee, so I am pleased that we are debating this report. When the Ministry comes back to our Committee, does not the right hon. Gentleman think that it would be helpful if it came with an analysis of the amount of money lost by the non-attendance of interpreters, which my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) mentioned, and the collapse of trials and all the costs that are loaded on to all three parties: the court, the prosecution and the defence?

Sir Alan Beith: I would welcome a reasonable estimate from the Ministry, but I should like it to devote most of its effort to moving from the bad situation that we have now to a better one. I would not want all its management to be occupied with collecting the figures, but if it starts to claim significant savings, I am afraid that we will all want to insist that some of those costs are set against those claims.

Quite a lot of off-contract booking is going on—courts have to do it to meet the need to go ahead with a trial —but we need more information because we do not know how extensive it is. Of course, that too is an extra cost item.

Interpreters’ organisations have been compiling dossiers of instances where court proceedings have been disrupted by failings in the interpretation service. Such information should be systematically captured by the Ministry. We recommended that there should be a user satisfaction measure, and the Ministry replied that it would discuss this with Capita and other partners. I should be grateful for an update on these discussions.

A lack of basic management information has contributed to the Ministry’s apparent inability to monitor and drive better performance. For example, there are costs of defendants being remanded in custody, additional legal aid costs and all the rest of it. We thought that the Ministry

“must get a better grasp of the costs of underperformance”.

I shall not quote the savings figures that the Ministry quotes, which are seriously at risk because of the additional costs involved.

The Minister could provide further clarification on how much of the expenditure of £13.3 million in the first year is accounted for by off-contract bookings. Perhaps she could let us have that information later, if not today.

We noted in our report that the problems arising in relation to the contract must have meant the Ministry’s incurring additional administrative costs as a result of the higher than expected level of oversight that has become necessary. The Ministry in its response gave a figure for staffing costs of the core project of £315,000 between January 2012 and March 2013, but it did not give an estimate of additional costs that it might have incurred.

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We should not assume that there was some golden age under the previous arrangements for court interpreting. We concluded in our report that, despite clear administrative inefficiencies, there does not appear to have been any fundamental problem with the quality of services when sourced under the terms of the then national agreement. It is understandable that any Government would consider whether there were more efficient, cost-effective ways to provide the same service, but the principle must be to provide the same level of service. The Government signally failed to achieve that objective.

We said that there

“was clear potential for problems with ALS’ capacity to deliver on its promises which were not adequately anticipated or dealt with either by the Department or by the contractor itself”.

ALS was a small undertaking, visibly lacking the capacity to undertake anything as major as the entire national court interpreting provision.

The Ministry’s naivety at the start of the process appears to have been matched by its indulgence towards underperformance against the contract once the new arrangements came into operation. In introducing the new framework agreement, the Ministry has alienated many experienced court interpreters. The contract may have achieved a net book saving in its first year of operation, but it has not, on the available evidence, achieved any improvement in service to the courts. Indeed, on the information available to judge performance, which continues to be rather defective and limited, there has been a deterioration in performance and a negative impact on the ability of the courts to do their job properly.

The whole saga has been an inglorious one. It might almost have been constructed as a cautionary tale of what a Department should avoid in undertaking a procurement and contract management process. And this is a Department that intends to undertake several such processes, some of them much larger even than this one, so some lessons have to be learned pretty quickly. The standard of court interpretation needs to be restored, preferably by bringing back those whose experience can return the service to the standards that the courts used to expect.

1.48 pm

Alan Johnson (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab): It is a pleasure to enter this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on producing this report. I am not a member of the Select Committee on Justice or the Public Accounts Committee, and members of those Committees will have given far more detailed scrutiny to the issues covered in the report. However, a constituent of mine, Madeleine Lee, a court interpreter, told me in my constituency surgery in 2009 that a de facto pilot was going on in Greater Manchester, and she explained what the consequences would be, were it spread across the country.

All Members of Parliament diligently follow what our constituents wish, but when we are in government we have responsibility. I was Home Secretary at the time, but I spoke to the then Lord Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). The previous system emerged from the Runciman royal commission after a scandalous miscarriage of justice due to the

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absence of interpreting services, and it was set up not too long ago, in the late ’90s. As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn accepted that the system was not perfect and that we needed to consider efficiency savings. We concluded that we would have to be very cautious about destroying something that, since Runciman, had given court interpretation a level of quality that it did not have before; that was largely the result of setting up the national register of professional service interpreters. I have followed the issue from a distance ever since.

As a former Minister, I have been at the rough end of several Select Committee reports in my time, but I have never known three reports—the National Audit Office memorandum, the Public Accounts Committee report and now the Justice Committee’s report—to be so consistent in their condemnation of a Government policy. A number of conclusions can be drawn from those reports. First, there were no fundamental problems with the original procedures. Secondly, the Ministry of Justice changed those procedures without understanding their complexities, or indeed the professionalism of the people providing the services. This is a caricature, but it seems that someone who knows a bit of holiday Spanish can now come in and do a job in the courts, which has proved to be disastrous. Thirdly, the MOJ awarded the contract to a company, ALS, that is totally incapable of fulfilling its requirements. Surely there can be little doubt about that. I do not think there are many people in this debate who will be arguing on the Government’s side, apart from the poor Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant).

The final conclusion is that justice and the right to a fair trial have been seriously compromised as a result of this debacle. The added dimension, which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed mentioned, is that the MOJ sought to prevent a Committee of this House receiving first-hand testimony on the contract’s failings, which is a very serious allegation that the House must treat with due seriousness.

Following the damning series of reports, the Lord Chancellor’s latest letter to me—I have kept up correspondence on the issue since the 2010 general election —tells me that there has been a £15 million saving. Quality standards have diminished, the courts have made 6,417 complaints about poor standards, and 608 magistrates court trials and 34 Crown court trials were recorded as ineffective in 2012 because interpreters were not available, which is a 100% increase. There is a great deal of doubt about the £15 million figure, as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and others have suggested. We hear that 48% of cases are now dealt with outside the contract, and there are various other factors that make the £15 million figure questionable. Even if the figure is true, £15 million is the kind of small change that falls down the back of the sofas in the offices of Secretaries of State. Even if the measure has saved £15 million, the resultant chaos in the Courts Service and the destruction of the quality of what was a very highly regarded system surely does not justify that level of savings, and it is doubtful whether such savings have been made anyway.

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I see that the Lord Chancellor’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott), is in his place behind the Under-Secretary, who just happened to be in the Department when the music stopped. She was not in her present position when it started; I believe she was then a member of the Select Committee that has been scrutinising the matter.

Perhaps we would have made the changes, too. Who knows? Despite my discussions with the Lord Chancellor, we should not be trying to score party political points. In government, Ministers reach a stage where they see that the only way to salvage their reputation following a clearly big mistake is to accept that it is a big mistake and do something about it. The Government should pull out of the contract, negotiate with professional linguists and do all the things that should have been done beforehand. My conclusion, following the grand reports from different Committees, is that my constituent, Madeleine Lee, was right.

1.55 pm

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Pritchard. This issue is of particular interest to me, not because I am on the Justice Committee or because I am a former Home Secretary or anything like that, but simply because it was brought to my attention in the previous Parliament by constituents who worked in the interpretation service. They told me about the dangers of what was then the initial move towards such a system by the police service in Greater Manchester and some other police services across north-west England. It is a shame that we did not learn from the mistakes of the original contract with the police service and stop this before it started.

I thank two of my constituents, Marc Starr and Kasia Beresford, who have been particularly helpful on this issue over the years. Interestingly, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) mentioned Madeleine Lee, which is a name that rings many bells, as I have received many e-mails from her in recent times. I also pay tribute to the Select Committee and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) for conducting the inquiry and for ensuring we had this debate following the Government’s response. The issue is of great interest to many Members from across the UK.

I apologise to the Minister because some of my remarks may not be particularly friendly towards the Ministry of Justice. I appreciate that she was landed with this when she became a Minister, and that it was not of her doing. I appreciate that some of the things that have happened are certainly not a direct result of her being a Minister, but of course she is now the person responsible for dealing with the mess in which we find ourselves.

The Select Committee’s report is pretty damning. The report accuses the Department of gagging staff and stopping them from participating in the consultation, which the Committee suggests might be contempt of the House. Fortunately, it was able to get enough information from other sources for it not to want to pursue that matter. That prompts me to question what the Department had to hide. The report also pointed out that the Department was warned throughout its consultation that quality standards would dip due to the imposition

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of a tiered system and lower pay for interpreters. The report concluded that, although there were administrative efficiencies compared with the previous arrangements, there were no real fundamental problems with the quality of the service provided by members of the National Register of Public Service Interpreters with a diploma in public service interpreting. The national agreement, with a few issues, worked reasonably well.

In a nutshell, the system was not broken. The MOJ was warned that its proposals would cause problems, which certainly proved to be the case. When the Select Committee decided to investigate, the MOJ tried to stop staff assisting the inquiry. Frankly, that is not good enough.

In its response to the report, the Ministry of Justice admitted a problem with performance:

“We know that performance in the MoJ under the contract has not been of a satisfactory level. Many of the points raised in the Justice Committee’s report have already been acknowledged and acted on, and others are being actively taken forward. We have gone back to the Framework Agreement itself to see whether changes can be made which will impact beneficially on performance, alongside ongoing work in the Department to improve our own processes. We are not complacent and are continuing to challenge and resolve issues which affect performance.”

I argue, however, that the Department is being complacent.

The Government, according to their response,

“expect that the changes to interpreters’ terms will increase the number and availability of Tier 1 and 2 interpreters”.

The changes, however, were not supported by Professional Interpreters for Justice, the interpreters working for Capita or those with the tribunals service who attended meetings to discuss the changes. Will the Minister explain how she can be so certain that the changes will attract more well-qualified interpreters when 85% of well-qualified interpreters have made it clear that they will not work for Capita, because of the lowering of professional standards? Professional Interpreters for Justice made that clear back in March, and yet its advice, the responses to the consultation and my debate back in 2007 have been completely ignored.

As I said, the Select Committee report made it clear that nothing was fundamentally wrong with the quality of the service before the new contract was introduced. No one is suggesting that it was perfect or that improvements could not have been made, but fundamentally it worked well. No one has seriously tried to defend the changes on the basis of driving up standards; they have always been about saving money.

The Justice Committee report recommended that the Department be clearer about the true costs of the contract. The Department, in its response, claimed that the framework agreement had made significant savings over the first year of the contract, but it failed to provide any evidence to back up that claim. The Government’s response recognises that certain costs are difficult to calculate, admitting:

“Reasons for a hearing adjournment are not routinely recorded, so it is difficult to identify adjournments for interpreting problems. However, we would expect any difficulties with interpreting to be raised through the complaints system by staff.”

If so, how can the Minister be certain that savings have been made? The simple answer is that it is impossible to be certain whether any savings have been made under the contract.

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In reality, the savings claimed by the MOJ do not include the costs of court delays, case adjournments, repeated remands in custody for offenders and all other related expenses of underperformance, including those of court clerks who have booked interpreters outside the contract because of Capita’s poor service—that goes on, and it goes on a lot. Has the Department made any assessment of such costs? If not, how can the MOJ stand by the claim that it has made significant savings in the first year of operation? I simply do not see how it can. Finally on cost, the Department estimated the staffing costs of liaising with Capita and overseeing performance at £315,000 between January 2012 and March 2013. Will the Minister confirm whether those costs are being reimbursed by Capita? How much will the ongoing costs be of ensuring that its performance continues to be thoroughly scrutinised?

We are not only talking about money; we must not forget justice and access to justice. In giving evidence, Mr Atkinson of the Law Society stated that while miscarriages of justice would occur infrequently, they were possible. Even one miscarriage of justice is one too many, but perhaps more concerning was his comment that

“people are spending time in custody for no reason other than the lack of an interpreter.”

Again, that is not acceptable.

As the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle said, 608 magistrates court trials and 34 Crown court trials were recorded ineffective in 2012, as a result of interpreters being unavailable—a 100% increase on the previous year. Does the Minister consider that acceptable? Furthermore, will the Minister tell the House how many defendants have remained in custody as a result of ineffective trials that are a direct result of an interpreter not being available?

I suspect that the Minister will tell me that she cannot answer any of those questions—that the data are not easily available and she does not know the answer. If so, she must accept that her Department cannot justify continuing to defend the contract, and that we must look seriously at cancelling it.

2.5 pm

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on initiating the debate and on the report of his Select Committee.

The right hon. Gentleman is known in the House for his understatement, and that is typified by his description of the system under the new contract as “shambolic”. That is as over-kind a description as it is possible to find. All the available information shows that the system is not only failing abjectly, but damaging seriously the administration of justice in this country. In addition, it is costing the taxpayer huge sums of money in abandoned trials and in other ways.

Jeremy Corbyn: Does my right hon. Friend not think that the lesson can be drawn wider than for the translation services alone? The Ministry of Justice and others are obsessed with the contract culture. It distances Ministers from the immediacy of decisions and, at the other end, leaves the public and the victims in a much worse situation, with much less accountability on the delivery of services.

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Sir Gerald Kaufman: I of course agree with my hon. Friend. The problem is that the Ministry of Justice has been administered with, on the one hand, a great deal of indolence, which is the charming characteristic of the previous Secretary of State—for which we are all fond of him—and, on the other, miscalculation. I offer my sympathy to the Minister, who has the awful problem of responding to the debate convincingly and at the same time honestly, but I point out that interfering with a system that works for ideological reasons is as barmy a reason as there ever was. If I have learned one rule during my time in the House it is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The system was not broken—it worked perfectly well—and, because of an obsession of the kind that my hon. Friend described, we now have an unbelievable mess.

A number of my constituents have approached me about the matter, including Ali Hetherington, who has provided me with a good deal of information. She told me that the Ministry of Justice’s own performance figures indicate that levels of complaints and the number of ineffective trials relating to interpreter provision have risen steeply and shown no sign of abating. The Minister talks about savings of £15 million. The statistics provided to her by her officials cannot be verified or established in any way. First, we do not know what the savings are. Secondly, the calculation of those savings does not seem to take into account the huge sums of money that have been lost through failed and delayed trials and other failings in magistrates and Crown courts caused by taking on Capita to carry out the job.

Quality standards for court interpreters have been so dramatically lowered that the substandard service provided by Capita is in no way comparable with the quality of previous provision.

Let us look at the record. Capita took over the contract on 30 January 2012. Not once has it achieved its target for interpreter requests. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) said, there have been 6,417 complaints and more than 600 court trials have been abandoned over a 12-month period due to lack of interpreters, and the Ministry of Justice calls that a dramatic improvement. I would love to know what it would call a deterioration. Last month, Capita provided only 48% of required interpreters. Throughout the period of the contract, it has operated in breach of its contract. It has doubled the number of ineffective trials, primarily due to interpreter incapability, compared with a stable level in the previous five years.

I have been provided with a dossier of evidence, which no doubt other right hon. and hon. Members have seen. The indictment is appalling. We are talking about the justice system, and people being put on trial and being found guilty or not guilty. We are talking about what happens to their lives and the lives of their victims as a result of failed trials. In the dozens of examples in the dossier, again and again, interpreters have turned up late or not at all, or they did not speak the language they were hired to interpret. In an example on page 16, an interpreter who spoke Bengali turned up to deal with someone in the court who spoke the Congolese language of Lingala. Not only was the language wrong, but it was spoken on the wrong continent. That happens again and again.

I will give some more examples from the dossier. In one, a barrister said that in

“court this morning a Lithuanian interpreter…turned up for a Slovakian prisoner”.

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It was just as well they both spoke Polish. In another case, there was no interpreter for a Kurdish appellant. The court asked for one, but it was not provided, and the case was adjourned to the following week. In a London court, a sex trial failed to proceed because the interpreter failed to attend. The waste of money was £10,000, and the witnesses were devastated. The dossier also states that, in another case, there were no

“Punjabi interpreters in London so”

one came from Derby, five hours late and left before seeing the client in the cells after the hearing. It would be difficult to invent such incidents, yet they happened and we are told that it is all part of a dramatic improvement. Another example came from Birmingham Crown court:

“Earlier this month I worked at one of my local police stations (they are not with Capita). The duty solicitor was appalled by the quality of Capita interpreters. He told me that apparently those who are Tier 3 cannot speak English, one Capita interpreter sent his brother-in-law to Birmingham Crown Court for a trial, because he couldn't make it himself...I got the impression that the brother-in-law wasn't even an interpreter. Apparently the judge was furious”.

If there is one thing this country should be proud of above all else it is the administration of justice. People’s lives, the state of law and respect for the law all depend on sound administration of justice. Over and again, that is not happening because of the contract. Will the Minister answer the following questions? First, how long does the contract last? Secondly, how much does it cost? Thirdly, has there been any attempt to calculate the cost to the court system of the huge number of Capita’s failures in what, for want of other words, I will call its interpretation system, and what penalties are there?

The view of many people who have been damaged by the system is that the contract should be ended immediately. How can it be ended and why have the Government not done so? It is a sad day for this country that the system of justice of which we are so proud is so flawed as a result of the Government’s action, which should never have taken place.

2.16 pm

Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): It is a pleasure, Mr Pritchard, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) not only on his diligent chairmanship of his Committee but on his comprehensive introduction to the subject today. I am a member of the Public Accounts Committee, which considered the matter on 6 December 2012 and drew some shocking conclusions.

Life on the Public Accounts Committee involves meeting twice a week and each time hearing about very different situations, usually a litany of failure or ineffectiveness. As a result, we become a little cynical or even punch drunk. However, even by those standards, the hearing on 6 December 2012 was appalling. I am reminded by the large number of people in the Public Gallery today—no doubt some of them are personally interested in the matter—that we had a large attendance in the Public Gallery on that day. It was one of the few hearings I remember when there was shaking of heads in the Public Gallery as Ministry officials responded to the Committee. That is rare, but it happened repeatedly on that day, which says something about the officials’ complacency,

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Our Committee found, not surprisingly given what we have heard, that the outsourcing of interpreter services was terribly mismanaged. We concluded that the Ministry lacked management information on the previous use of interpreters and therefore did not have a clear understanding of the requirements when contracting out the service. It did not know how much it was already spending on interpreters, or even how many interpreters were required or in what languages. As a result, the system it selected was driven by bidders’ proposals rather than the actual requirements.

Applied Language Solutions, the company that was awarded the contract, was clearly incapable of delivering on such a large contract, yet it was handed £42 million a year to cover the whole country, despite a credit rating report to the Ministry recommending that ALS should not have been awarded a contract of more than £l million. Departmental officials could not adequately explain to the Committee why it had ignored that advice. It is one thing to make such a striking error in the first place, but the Committee also found that the Ministry failed to penalise ALS effectively under the contract. Its penalty was only £2,200, and there was no penalty for the first four months when its performance was at its worst. Risible levels of penalties and low expectations of performance obviously allow private companies to get away with over-promising and under-delivering.

The Ministry should draft and implement future contracts to minimise transitional problems by piloting and rolling out new systems gradually, and incentivising contractors to meet contractual requirements from the outset—for example, through the robust use of penalties. Will the Minister tell us what penalties have been levied on Capita for failure to deliver since it took over the contract? ALS, of course, was handsomely rewarded for its failure. It sold the business on to Capita for £7.5 million only 10 months after winning the contract. As we often find on our Committee, the public sector had no say in that reassignment and certainly got no financial benefit from the on-selling. That is something we see constantly in the public sector: it is now a business to win a public sector bid or a PFI contract and then trade it on. That is how companies really make money, and ALS is a good example of it.

The Ministry estimated that it would need access to 1,200 interpreters to meet its requirements. However, it allowed the contract to go live when the supplier had only 280 interpreters ready to work under the terms of the contract. The Ministry believed that many more interpreters were available to work, in line with contractual obligations, than was actually the case, because it received over-optimistic assurances from ALS and there was confusion over definitions of what important terms such as “registered” actually meant. The Ministry was also unable to confirm that all interpreters working under the contract had the required qualifications, experience and enhanced Criminal Records Bureau checks.

The company was only able to meet 58% of its bookings, initially, against a target of 98%, which is entirely unacceptable. As previous speakers have said, it is not only about the mechanics of the contract; we are talking about people’s lives and life-changing decisions that may be made on their behalf. People who needed the services have paid a heavy price for the Ministry’s incompetence. We have seen a sharp rise in the number of ineffective trials, as others have said. A trial was

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recently cancelled in my area because, unbelievably, the chosen interpreter was on trial in a neighbouring court at the same time. Extra costs for the Ministry are then incurred by unnecessary trial postponements and delays. Those costs have not been revealed but they will almost certainly be far more than the money saved on the contract, and I urge the Ministry to measure the waste in the courts system caused by the problem.

Whatever value-for-money considerations drove the original decision will now bear little relation to what has actually happened. It seems certain that there has been a net cost rather than a net benefit to the justice system. In short, the Public Accounts Committee found that the process descended into total chaos, and that almost everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. I hope that the Ministry will follow up the recommendations of the PAC, the Justice Committee and the National Audit Office in order to clean up the mess. Given the large potential contracts that the Ministry is looking to award, it has a lot to do to convince the public that it has learnt the lessons, and that contracts such as those involving legal aid and rehabilitation—

Sir Alan Beith: Before my hon. Friend concludes, I wanted to put this point to him, which is not always recognised or understood by people. What has happened in this case, as is proposed in the case of legal aid, is that instead of outsourcing to a very large number of small, usually one-person businesses and making an assessment as to whether they are capable of doing it, the whole process of obtaining interpreters has been outsourced. It has been done on such a large scale that few organisations in the country would be able to do it.

Ian Swales: My right hon. Friend makes a valuable point, which is of great concern to the Public Accounts Committee. We seem to have a number of Government Departments that—I suppose it is belt and braces—are making the outsourcing, or contracting-out process, so complicated that now only four or five companies can win the bid. The whole job is how a bid is won and not what the service is, because frequently the people who win the bids do not do the work. Eddie Stobart will not be providing legal aid; its expertise is winning a Government bid. That is the almost farcical situation that we have now got into. The Ministry needs to learn the lessons from that process, particularly as it seems to be about to do some very similar things on a much bigger scale.

One of the other issues that we have—we use the expression on our Committee “following the public pound” —is that the more this type of thing happens, the less access the National Audit Office has to the people who are doing the work. If the services are run by the Department, the NAO can be all over them, but typically, the contracts do not provide transparency or access, so our auditors are unable to get into the key providers.

In summary, the Minister needs to convince us about the lessons learnt, and about what improvement actions will be taken. I feel—not my Committee but I, personally—that a lot of scrutiny by a lot of people should take place before we walk into the same trap again, and I fear that the Public Accounts Committee may have a lot more work coming down the road towards it.

Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): Before I call John Mann, to be helpful, I just say that I intend to start the wind-ups at 2.30 pm.

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2.25 pm

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): In three minutes, I will summarise my concerns for the Minister and the Chamber. I used to own a large interpreting company, and I looked at this form of interpreting and whether, even on a micro scale, it was possible to break into that market. It is not, because it is not possible to manage quality control. With other forms of interpreting, a range of techniques can be used; anyone can work through what the control mechanisms on quality should be, if they know what they are about. When it comes to this form of interpreting, that is not possible. Capita—or any other large conglomerate—cannot possibly manage quality. By definition, it does not know what the quality is, because it cannot employ the people who know what the quality is. I do not have the time to go through how techniques to do that can be devised for other forms of interpreting, but that is how I grew my business, and I grew it to a very large one.

This is nonsense, regardless of Capita, and we know how bad Capita is from the shambles that it made of the miners’ compensation scheme, when, again, it did not have the managerial experience. That was something that could have been managed, in theory, but it was hopeless. Managing quality cannot be done by a large corporate of that scale; it is not simply about Capita.

Also, the real flexibility needed in providing these services involves knowing the people because, in essence, there is a trade-off—a negotiation. The employer will say, “I desperately need you tomorrow, because we suddenly have this case”—or this prisoner, or whatever else—“and you have to do it, because I have no other option. X, Y and Z are not available; you will have to cancel your hospital appointment and do it.” That trade-off in the real world, with real people, works. Trying to put a conglomerate in charge never works, and that is why, even on a small-town basis, my company decided that it was not worth approaching Government to suggest that we attempt to run part of the system and contract in the interpreters. It is not possible, aside from the other issues of whether a company is any good or not.

That is the fundamental issue that the Ministry of Justice and the Minister need to address. They do not know what they are talking about, and they have created this system. Whoever runs it, it will not work, and it cannot work. Even if it continued on a mediocre basis, quality cannot be assured—ever. That is a fundamental problem for British justice, and it is one that the Minister needs to address. [Interruption.]

Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): Order. I remind the public that we do not allow clapping in Westminster Hall.

2.29 pm

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): You have ruined the round of applause at the end of my speech, Mr Pritchard. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon.

If the Minister did not know at the beginning of the debate how important this issue was, she will now, from the quality of the debate and from the contributions from Members on both sides of the House, including from very senior Members of the House; and whereas it is right to say that she did not preside over the inauguration

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of what the Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), has called a shambles, she has been defending that shambles since she was appointed, so she does need to give some clear and full answers today.

Included in the contribution from the Chair of the Select Committee was the worrying information, which is in the report, that there was interference with the inquiry by the Ministry of Justice to prevent the fullest account of what has happened coming to light. Perhaps the Minister would like to address that and say whether she wishes to see that there is no repetition of it in the future. It is difficult not to conclude that the reason for it was that the Ministry did not want the full facts of the contract to emerge. I am delighted to hear that this is not the end of the matter for the Select Committee, because it not only has severe implications, as many hon. Members have said, for the quality and the standard of justice in our courts, but it has implications for the Ministry of Justice’s generally shambolic tendering processes.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) said that in his experience, and looking at the three substantial reports from the NAO, the Justice Committee and the PAC, he had rarely seen such an indictment. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) quoted some, but only some, of the examples of failure. The dossier from which he was reading is only one of several dossiers about hundreds of individual cases that have been prepared. I was grateful for those contributions, and grateful also for the contributions from the hon. Members for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech), and for Redcar (Ian Swales), and my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who brought to the debate their own experience, either from their private life or from the Committees on which they have served.

A number of Members wanted to take part in the debate, and what their contributions come to, in summation, is the anatomy of a disaster. The Ministry set out to save relatively small amounts of money; I shall explain why I use that phrase. Some Members—certainly Members on the PAC—will have seen the interrogation by the Chair of the PAC, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), of the senior responsible officer, who had not read the report and was not aware of the fact that when a £42 million contract was let to ALS, it was subject to a £1 million limit. He had not read that because he thought that it was de minimis and below his estimable gaze, and things went from bad to worse in that interrogation.

There appears to have been no assessment of the risk in this case. There has been contempt for the way in which professional interpreters should be dealt with. I am very grateful for the way in which professional interpreters have assisted us. I particularly mention Geoffrey Buckingham of the Association of Police and Court Interpreters, but I am also referring to many of the organisations that make up Professional Interpreters for Justice. They have been prepared to brief hon. Members at length on what is going wrong in our courts every day. The only party that appears not to wish to listen to that is the Ministry of Justice, which is why we have had the meltdown in our courts during the past 18 months.

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Let me deal first with the issue of costs. I do not expect to get an answer from the Minister on costs, although many hon. Members have asked her about them. I have been trying to get answers to these questions for months through parliamentary questions and Freedom of Information Act inquiries. Let me tell Members what my latest inquiries have gained me. I asked the Ministry to provide the information on wasted costs in courts, and it said that it would not do that, although it could, because it was too expensive. I am appealing that decision, because it seems to me that the Ministry could simply contact each court and ask it to supply that information as raw data, and my office could collate that. Failing that, I asked whether the Ministry would provide me with the e-mail addresses of the country’s courts, so that I could undertake the exercise myself, and it said, wrongly, that that information was available publicly. It is not available publicly, so I am appealing that as well. The fact that the response to one of those inquiries was addressed to Mr Safranov and the other one was unopenable and caused my computer to crash only confirms that the Ministry is either unable or unwilling to provide the information because it knows how devastating it is likely to be.

What we do know—these are in part estimates but also in part statistics—is that about 50% of the requirement for interpreters is being fulfilled through the Capita contract. We know that after 500 days, the alternative system—courts finding their own interpreters—is still in effect. We know that whereas the Ministry claims that from a 58% starting point, Capita’s performance has got better, which is not much of a claim, in fact it got worse again from the middle of last year—it does not acknowledge that. I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton, gave the figures for the trials that have been aborted—more than 600 in the magistrates court and more than 30 in the Crown court over that period.

Those are appalling figures, but it should not be up to any Member of the House to go away and find out that information. That information should be made available, and if the Minister does not have it available, perhaps she could undertake today to give a clear answer about the costs of the failure of the ALS-Capita contract. They include, of course, not only the costs from wasted court time, but the costs from unnecessary remand, the costs to the Crown Prosecution Service and the costs to the Prison Service.

In relation to the impact, I will not read out a great swathe of examples from the dossiers that have been prepared, but they range from the hugely serious to the almost comic. Examples include interpreters who cannot translate the word “guilty”; an attempted murder case in which the interpreter had received no training and did not appreciate the need to translate everything; an interpreter who chatted to witnesses about the case, causing a mistrial after 12 days; and a Crown court trial that was postponed because there was no rare language interpreter, the rare language being Polish—the second most commonly spoken language in the UK. This is going on now.

There was the very serious quadruple murder case at Nottingham Crown court last month. The BBC report stated:

“The failure of an interpreter to show up for a murder suspect’s court appearance has been described as a ‘complete disgrace’ by a judge…No Mandarin interpreter was available, and Nottingham Crown Court heard it was ‘not worthwhile’ for one to turn up”—

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according to Capita—

“as they would ‘not make enough money’.”

That was described by the hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) as the service being “out of control”. I wonder whether the Minister agrees with her colleague’s view on that matter. A murder case is going on today at Birmingham Crown court for which no Capita interpreter—certainly at the time when I was briefed, early this morning—had turned up, and that case is therefore also in jeopardy.

I do not think that I have to elucidate for Members at this debate how serious these matters are, not just in terms of cost but in terms of the administration and execution of justice. I am not being pompous in saying that these matters go not just to the heart of the Administration, but to the heart of justice itself.

I have with me the translation of an article from Lithuanian, and because it was done by someone on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters, it is certified and I trust it as a translation. It is from a Lithuanian website and is telling people about the interpreting service in this country. It quotes a Lithuanian interpreter in the UK as saying this about dealing with clients:

“We just advise them to tell the truth about how everything happened. For example, how and where they went to steal”.

The most fundamental part of an interpreter’s job is not to interfere in the process of justice—not to do the solicitor’s or the barrister’s job and certainly not to give the client legal advice or advice on how to conduct themselves, yet that appears to be the way in which these matters are routinely conducted.

In the few moments left to me, I would like to deal with where we go next. I do not think that the case against this contract has to be made any further; I think that we have to say, “Where do we go now?”

The MOJ is in a parlous state, in terms of letting contracts; its complete reliance on payment by results; what it is doing with the probation service; and what it is threatening to do with the privatisation of the entire Courts Service. I read in the technical press this week that a £300 million MOJ desktop and laptop support contract has been postponed, reportedly after the four most serious contenders had already spent millions bidding. That is the computer contract for the entire court, prison and probation system, which has been in planning for some years and which has now simply been pulled. We do not know why; perhaps the Minister will tell us. The point is that there is no coherence to the contract letting process in the MOJ and the contract is perhaps the clearest example of it. It is also one of the smallest contracts that it has let, and I fear for what may now happen.

So what should now happen? First, the Government need to stop being in denial about the failure of the contract. They need to stop saying that there has been a dramatic improvement when the situation is getting worse. They need to stop misrepresenting what they say about the view of professional interpreters. In their response to the Select Committee, they claimed that the slight amelioration of conditions was something that had been welcomed. Nothing could be further from the truth, and it is clear in the minutes of the meetings between the Minister, officials and interpreters that the terms being offered do nothing to meet the concerns of

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the professional interpreters or to adequately compensate them. Until the Minister realises that and begins to address that matter, the contract will continue to fail.

What interpreters want is the reinstatement of the national agreement; proper—not excessive, but fair—remuneration and conditions of service; legislation to protect the title of registered public service interpreter, so that there will no longer be the types of extraordinary cases that we have heard examples of this afternoon; and to work with the Government to establish a regulatory professional body that is robust and rigorous in its approach, enabling interpreters to provide quality interpreting services to public bodies. They do not seem extreme or unreasonable claims or ambitions.

There is a break clause in the contract. The Government could—and should—act now to suspend while they determine how they can properly address the concerns raised. In my opinion, there is now sufficient evidence that the contract with Capita should not continue.

I will stop now, because I want to give the Minister sufficient time to reply to all the points that have been raised. She is a courteous Minister, but she tends to read from her civil servants’ brief, rather than answering the points raised in debate. As we have a full house today and interpreters are present who have come to hear the Government’s current stance, I hope we will hear about some progress and movement towards a fair deal for interpreters, which is important, because they are professional people whose livelihoods are at stake, and that we can have within the courts of England and Wales what we used to take for granted. Certainly when I was in practice, I would take it for granted that interpreters would be competent, efficient, present, and able to discharge their duties.

Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): Minister, as is convention, I intend to call the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) to make some concluding remarks for two or three minutes, if he wishes to do so, before the end of this debate.

2.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mrs Helen Grant): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Pritchard. I genuinely welcome the opportunity to listen to the debate. I shall do my very best to respond to the issues raised today and to the important report of the Justice Committee.

I would like to affirm my Department’s appreciation of the services provided to the justice system by interpreters, many of whom I can see in the Chamber today. They ensure fairness in courts and tribunals; they encourage confidence in the justice system; and they are a vital part of the service that is provided. It is well known, however, that the old system was not ideal. It was inefficient, inadequate and did not provide good value for money. Those issues were noted by the National Audit Office in its report. The new contract and framework agreement were developed to address, as far as possible, those inadequacies. The reality is that we could no longer afford to reward people in a way that bore no relation to the levels of work that they carried out. The National Audit Office recognised that important reality, too.

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Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): Will the Minister give way?

Mrs Grant: Let me make some progress, and I will give way later.

Remuneration now more closely reflects the work being undertaken and is more closely aligned to the rates on offer for similarly qualified people in other public services. We do not deny that there were teething problems during the early stages of the new contract, and as the Ministry said in its response to the Justice Committee’s report, the initial performance was not satisfactory. Contingency plans were put in place quickly and had a direct effect. Disruption was kept to a minimum; we pushed Capita to improve matters urgently; and there was a significant outlay of investment on its part to improve services.

In the year 30 January 2012 to 31 January 2013, there were more than 131,000 requests for language services, covering 259 different languages, and the overall success rate was at 90%. That is a significant improvement on the 67% successful booking rate in February 2012. The number of complaints received, as against the number of bookings made, has fallen significantly. From February 2012 to August 2012, complaints fell from 10.6% to 1.7% in criminal courts; from 6.3% to 0.8% in civil and family courts; and from 19.2% to 5.6% in tribunals.

We take our responsibilities seriously, and we have ensured that each complaint is investigated. As has been said during the debate, lessons must be learned. I can assure hon. Members that lessons truly are being learned.

Ian Swales: A 90% success rate can also be described as a 10% failure rate. Can the Minister remind the House what success percentage was expected in the contract? On the point I made in my speech, what fines have Capita had for failing to meet the standards of the contract?

Mrs Grant: The ideal success rate is 98% and I believe the fines were approximately £1,400 or £1,500. I can get that figure for my hon. Friend, but 98% is what we are aiming at and what we are determined to achieve. I am confident that we will.

We have acknowledged and acted on many of the points rightly raised by the Justice Committee, the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, and we have genuinely gone right back to the contract to see where changes could benefit performance. We are not complacent; we continue to meet the challenges head on. For the first time, we can honestly say that we have a system that delivers a sustainable service and includes easily quantifiable standards—a system in which people in the justice sector can have confidence. Improvements have been made, but we have more work to do and we will endeavour to do it.

I would like to respond to some of the key aspects of the Justice Committee’s report. Many questions have been asked of the Government today, but I will do my best to respond to a number of the specific issues raised, starting with remuneration. The framework agreement between the Ministry and Capita has allowed us to make significant savings of some £16.7 million in the first year. Such savings are much needed in the current financial climate, but I recognised that the savings were affecting performance and we therefore ploughed an

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estimated £2.9 million of them back into the system. As I announced in the House on 25 April, the Department has amended the terms of the contract with Capita to increase remuneration for interpreters. The terms now include cancellation fees and greater rewards for more highly qualified interpreters.

Mr Leech: Does the Minister accept that the vast majority of interpreters who currently refuse to work for Capita have made it clear that they will continue to refuse to do so?

Mrs Grant: I am afraid I do not accept that. We do not have supply problems at the moment. The reality of the situation is that we are fulfilling contracts. Our changes equate to an average increase of 22% in remuneration rates, which will attract new and retain existing good-quality interpreters.

Regarding stakeholders, we continue to discuss developments with interpreters and with Capita. There has been open and frank dialogue between the Ministry and the Professional Interpreters for Justice group, and we seek to maintain a productive dialogue. We have a common interest in ensuring that language is not a barrier to justice, and that shared vision was clear to me at a meeting with the Professional Interpreters for Justice group that I chaired at the end of 2012. I recognised the commitment, the concern and the care.

In relation to quality, the contract allows for a greater range of acceptable qualifications and experience than previously, but there are, of course, suitable safeguards. All foreign language interpreters must provide evidence of their qualifications before they can undertake assignments, qualifications which in many instances are the same as those required by the National Register of Public Service Interpreters.

Tiering interpreters according to their skills is the right approach to delivering a sustainable system. Courts and tribunals expect as a minimum a tier 1 or tier 2 interpreter for a hearing, and that has been set out in staff guidance. There is, however, flexibility, and very occasionally the court or tribunal, together with the judge, can be asked to decide if the complexity of the case would allow for the appointment of a tier 3 interpreter. Our changes to remuneration should also attract more interpreters to tiers 1 and 2.

I accept the Justice Committee’s recommendation that a quality criterion within the framework should be independently evaluated, and the Ministry is initiating that work and will be in a position to update the Justice Committee in the autumn. I want to make it crystal clear, however, that it is the role of the service provider—namely, Capita—to ensure that those who work within the framework meet the required standards.

Dr Huppert: This matter has been raised with me by a number of constituents who have been affected both as interpreters and through the legal system. The Minister is right that things are not as disastrously bad as they originally were, but how will she ultimately decide whether the whole thing simply is not fixable? What test will she apply?

Mrs Grant: With respect, I do not think that we need to do that. I have no intention of being arrogant. I used to work in the system as a lawyer in an edgy London

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borough. We used interpreters regularly, and the system was not good. It was expensive and unpredictable, notwithstanding the fact that many of the interpreters we used were outstanding. The system needed to change, and it has. It needs to be noted, as I have already said, that we do not have supply problems at the moment. Where there have been problems, they have tended to involve the more challenging and unusual languages. We have also saved a considerable amount of money, which is welcome in these very difficult financial times.

With regard to performance data, the Committee raised issues about the clarity of our published performance figures, and I can confirm that the latest statistics were published on 28 March in accordance with the guidance issued by the UK Statistics Authority.

On cost savings, which several hon. Members have mentioned, we estimate that the cost of interpreters to the Ministry was previously around £30 million per annum. Based on cautious assumptions, we have made savings of about £16.7 million, against an expected forecast of £12 million, and as I have stated, we have invested £2.9 million back into the system, to make the contract sustainable.

Dr Huppert: I understand the drive to save money, but can the Minister be clear whether that £16.7 million saving takes into account the extra costs for cases that have had to be rescheduled, delayed or scrapped?

Mrs Grant: If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I will come to that point—I am barely halfway through and will go on for a fair bit longer.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) talked about participation in the online survey. As the Ministry of Justice had co-operated fully, we took the view that it would not be appropriate to invite court staff to submit further evidence via the online forum set up by the Select Committee. We took that action because the civil service management code and the Osmotherly rules state that officials

“should not take part in research projects or surveys designed to establish their personal views on Government policies”.

We considered it right and proper to follow those rules.

The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) referred to the adequacy of the previous system. Setting aside my own experience, I can say that the system was inefficient because an MOJ audit found it to be risky, and the National Audit Office agreed that it was inadequate and did not provide good value for money.

The right hon. Gentleman also referred to due diligence, and I can tell him that the procurement process was fair and competitive and that due diligence checks were carried out. However, lessons must be learned from the comments made by the Justice Committee and the NAO, and those from our own assessment. Along with other hon. Members, he raised the suitability of ALS. ALS had a background in the sector, and we felt that it had the capacity to expand to meet our needs, but, of course, that was not the case.

A number of Members have mentioned inefficiencies in trials and the disruption and costs that have flowed from ineffective trials. Magistrates courts listed more

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than 80,000 trials in the first and second quarters of 2012. Just 345—0.4%—were unable to proceed because of interpreter problems. Although I absolutely acknowledge that it is not good for any trial not to proceed, contingency plans were put in place to make sure that disruption was as small as possible.

[Jim Sheridan in the Chair]

Quality of service has been a recurring theme. We are satisfied with the quality of the interpreters being used, but, as I mentioned, there will be an independent evaluation this year, and we will update the Justice Committee in the autumn on its progress.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith mentioned the cost of cases not going ahead. I am sorry that he has had so much trouble getting a satisfactory response. I am not sure whether I will do much better today, but I always like to try when I am facing him. All I can say is that courts deal with thousands of cases every day. Some cases do not go ahead, often for a variety of reasons, and calculating the cost could take a disproportionate amount of time and money.

The future is important. It might be worth saying that the NAO agreed that our procurement process was fair and competitive and that the contract should be fully implemented. Our review identified a number of processes that have since been improved.

Mr Leech: Will the Minister confirm how many other potential operators were left in the process at the end? My understanding is that only one was left. Everyone else had been ruled out as being incapable of fulfilling the contract.

Mrs Grant: That is a specific and very fair point, and I will have to write to my hon. Friend about it.

The Department does not propose to change the current key performance indicators under the contract and framework agreement. The current suite of information available to us allows us closely to manage the performance of the contract. Capita provides us with the number of complaints, which we closely monitor and publish as part of our regular official statistics. However, we are willing to discuss with Capita and our other justice sector partners whether a user satisfaction measure, as suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, can be added to the management information already collected. A key performance indicator on quality will also be considered in the independent assessment that, as I indicated, is due to take place this year.

The Government are clear that the new contract had a number of problems, and we have taken lessons on board. We realise that it is unacceptable for any case not to go ahead. We now have a system that is robust, sustainable and able to deliver a quality service to people in the justice sector at an affordable level.

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Mr Slaughter: I was not greatly shocked to be told that recovering the figures that I asked for would involve a disproportionate cost. If the Minister is going to persist with that line, she cannot give a figure for savings, because, if it is accurate, it is clearly a gross figure. The collapse of any of the serious Crown court trials that I mentioned will cost tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of pounds. The Government must be able to make some estimate of the costs. It is not good enough just to say, “We’re not going to collect that information from the courts.” Although it may not be 100% accurate, we need some idea of the cost to the public purse of this contract going ahead.

Mrs Grant: I am afraid that I cannot honestly say any more than I have already said; I do not want to be disingenuous. I take on board what the hon. Gentleman says, and if we can do any more—if we can give him any further and better particulars—I will be happy to try to do so.

The system has been operating well in the National Offender Management Service. The senior presiding judge told the NAO that the system had improved since initial roll-out through the Ministry’s actions. I am pleased to confirm that complaints are declining. I have outlined the improvements in our success rate. Just 0.4% of magistrates court listings were delayed because of interpreter problems in the first and second quarters of 2012, which was the difficult period. We will continue to work closely with our partners and to bring about changes that deliver improved performance in the future.

3.6 pm

Sir Alan Beith: Conscientious though my hon. Friend the Minister is, she will not have convinced any of us that the situation is acceptable and sustainable.

The Minister referred to court staff being told not to respond to the Committee’s survey. At no time did the Committee seek to pit the opinions of staff against those of Ministers; that would be wrong, and we would not seek to do it. Committees will continue to collect information about how contracts are operating, and if Departments maintain their current line—the Ministry of Justice has not done so on other occasions—they will be on a collision course with the House.

The Minister referred to teething problems, which is an extraordinary way to describe the total failure to meet contract requirements in the early part of the contract. That should have attracted penalty or break clauses in the contract. We questioned the head of the Courts Service, who said that there were break clauses that he could activate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) said, the current situation—90% achievement against a 98% target—represents a failure to meet the contract requirements, which should probably attract a penalty.

The Minister will never convince us that the savings figures take adequate account of the additional cost to the system. I am afraid this issue will continue to be controversial.

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backbench business

Non-Proliferation Treaty

3.7 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I am delighted that we are having this debate on the operation of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and the UK contribution to it. This is an extraordinarily serious issue, and our attitude towards nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons states, as well as the prospects for our own disarmament, are hugely important. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what the Government’s commitment is to promoting nuclear non-proliferation.

Nuclear weapons have existed since the second world war. They have been used only once in a war scenario—at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Several hundred thousand people lost their lives in a flash—literally—but the cancers have carried on for 50 years. The cancers brought about by nuclear testing and nuclear pollution around the world have carried on for a long time. We are dealing with weapons of mass destruction, which would cause very large numbers of civilian casualties, should they ever be used again.

The development of nuclear weapons by the United States during the second world war was supported by a lot of scientists from Britain. For a short period during the war, and for a long period afterwards, all the powers relied on captured Nazi scientists to develop their own nuclear weapons—that was particularly true of the USA and the rocketry that went with them.

Shortly after the second world war, the then Soviet Union developed nuclear weapons, followed by Britain and France, and lastly China, which exploded its first nuclear weapon in 1964. Interestingly, the development of British nuclear weapons was always shrouded in secrecy and mystery. Brilliant as he was in many ways as a Prime Minister, the post-war Labour leader, Clement Attlee, managed to spend £200 million—an enormous sum now, never mind then, when it was worth far more—on secretly developing Britain’s own supposedly independent nuclear missile. That practice was copied by a later Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, who in 1979 managed to develop the Chevaline project in secrecy, without even the Cabinet being informed.

Since the development of nuclear weapons, there has been one major occasion when there was a serious likelihood of their use. That was the Cuban missile crisis of 1963, which was resolved when the Soviet Union agreed not to put nuclear weapons on the island of Cuba. In return the United States agreed to remove its nuclear missiles that were targeting Soviet targets from Turkey—although that was done secretly. A year later, both the leaders who negotiated on that were either dead or gone. Khrushchev was removed by an internal process, and Kennedy of course was assassinated. What came out of that period was a realisation of just how dangerous nuclear weapons are, and how dangerous it would be if they proliferated further. A great achievement was the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which was signed in 1970.

There are several elements to the treaty. One is the agreement, by countries that sign it, not to develop nuclear weapons. They can develop nuclear power and civil nuclear facilities, but not nuclear weapons. They also

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place themselves open to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is based in Vienna. The five declared nuclear weapons states—Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the USA and China—agreed to ensure that there was no proliferation of their weaponry, and to take steps towards their own eventual nuclear disarmament.

The treaty’s progress has been patchy, to say the least. It is subject to a five-yearly review, and I have attended several review conferences as vice-chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and chair of the parliamentary CND group. I am not making a declaration of interest, as there is no pecuniary gain in being an officer of CND; indeed, it costs quite a lot of money, but it is a joy to do. The review conferences are designed to monitor what is happening, but also to make proposals for a step forward. The review conference of 2010, with the support of a large number of states, proposed an international conference on the humanitarian effects of nuclear war.

That conference was held in Oslo, Norway, last year, and was supported by 77 countries. Unfortunately, none of the permanent five members chose to attend. There is no undertaking as yet about whether the UK Government will participate in its recall, which is due to happen in Mexico early next year. I think that the conference should be supported, and that we should recognise the good work that Mexico has done in being prepared to take the baton from Norway and make sure the conference happens. The situation is even more peculiar given the close relationship between Britain and Norway, and, indeed, their co-operation on nuclear disarmament issues and the decommissioning of nuclear weapons. Will the Minister give a firm undertaking that the UK will attend the conference?

Several countries have in the past 20 years taken steps that have lessened nuclear tensions in certain places. The most dramatic example was when post-apartheid South Africa, led by President Mandela, announced that it would no longer develop any nuclear weapons, and would completely disarm. That in turn brought about a nuclear weapons-free continent of Africa. That was an amazing step forward. We must ask ourselves who has the greater moral standing in the world: Britain, France, Russia, China and the USA, for their continued holding and developing of nuclear weapons; or South Africa, for ridding itself of apartheid and, shortly afterwards, of nuclear weapons? Those events were followed by nuclear weapons-free zones for the whole of Latin America and for central Asia, and a continuing debate about the possibility of such a zone for the Arctic, which would be a major achievement. I hope that we shall be able to develop a nuclear weapons-free middle east, which would be a huge prize.

A humanitarian initiative was adopted at the end of the Oslo conference and signed by 77 of the 106 states attending, and it is a lesson for all of us. It says:

“The catastrophic effects of a nuclear weapon detonation, whether by accident, miscalculation or design, cannot be adequately addressed. All efforts must be exerted to eliminate this threat. The only way to guarantee that nuclear weapons will never be used again is through their total elimination. It is a shared responsibility of all States to prevent the use of nuclear weapons, to prevent their vertical and horizontal proliferation and to achieve nuclear disarmament, including through fulfilling the objectives of the NPT and achieving its universality.”

There is a message for all of us from the countries that have deliberately not developed nuclear weapons.

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India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel do, unfortunately, have nuclear weapons, and I want to talk about them, and the question of Iran. India and Pakistan were both initially signatories to the NPT. Both declared that they did not want to develop nuclear weapons, and eventually both did. Each has its weapons targeted at the other, and it would be the ultimate folly for either side to use them—the madness of mutually assured destruction. If a nuclear weapon were sent from Delhi to Lahore, or Lahore to Delhi, neither side would know which was sent first, because both sides would be annihilated. There is also something tragic about the fact that, although India is in many ways a fast-developing economy and a rapidly modernising country, it still has the largest number of poor, starving children in the world. Why on earth would it spend its resources on nuclear weapons, when they could be spent on education, health and welfare? The same applies across the border in Pakistan. Any encouragement to India and Pakistan to decommission their weapons and come back into the fold of the non-proliferation treaty would be very welcome.

I have attended nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conferences and preparatory committees for the past few years. Often they are dominated by the question of Iran, and whether it has nuclear weapons. Together with the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and two other Members on the all-party group on Iran, I attended a meeting with the IAEA in Vienna to discuss that very question, and the obstructions, or otherwise, that Iran put in the way of inspections.

It is clear to me that Iran is developing a nuclear power system and processing uranium, which it is open about admitting. It absolutely declares that it does not have nuclear weapons, and religious leaders and others in Iran have said that they have no wish to develop them. I know that this is a highly contentious position, but we now have an opportunity, with the new President—President Rouhani—to engage with Iran on this question.

The way forward has to be engagement through a nuclear weapons-free middle east, which was in the declaration of the 2010 review conference. A nuclear weapons-free middle east would of course have to include Israel, which is the only country in the region to possess nuclear weapons—it has 200 warheads—and is not signed up to any treaty obligations.

There is, however, a significant nuclear peace campaign in Israel and throughout the middle east, which is supported by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. I pay tribute to Sharon Dolev and all who have campaigned so vigorously and effectively in Israel to draw attention to the insecurity, not the security, that nuclear weapons offer.

At the recent preparatory committee in Geneva, I listened carefully to the speeches made by delegates from all the Arab League states. The Arab League obviously has a great interest in the possibility of a nuclear weapons-free middle east, and strong statements were made by both the Arab League and individual countries, such as Egypt. They bluntly told the permanent five, “If you don’t progress the question of a conference for a nuclear weapons-free middle east, we will either walk out or develop our own nuclear weapons.” The obvious counter to Israel holding nuclear weapons is their development by other states in the region.

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The Egyptian statement, which I heard, said:

“Egypt strongly supports the NPT regime. It has always championed the cause of a nuclear weapon free world. However, the establishment of a Middle East nuclear weapon free zone is essential for our national interest. We cannot wait forever for the launching of a process that would lead to the establishment of this zone, a process that was repeatedly committed to within the NPT. We cannot continue to attend meetings and agree on outcomes that do not get implemented, yet be expected to abide by the concessions we gave for this outcome.”

After making that statement, Egypt withdrew from the process.

There is now a serious danger that other countries in the middle east—one thinks of Saudi Arabia and others—will decide to withdraw from the NPT process, because of the failure of the secretariat and the permanent five to ensure that the Helsinki conference on a nuclear weapons-free middle east is held. I have repeatedly asked the Foreign Secretary—I now ask the Minister, who is well intentioned on these matters—whether a date has been set for the nuclear weapons-free middle east conference, which, sadly, did not happen in Helsinki when it was supposed to last year.

We need to move very urgently on the issue. The crisis in Syria suggests the need for a political solution there, but the election of a new President of Iran is an opportunity, not a problem. We should see it as an opportunity to progress this issue very quickly. If western countries that are so ready to give economic aid, arms supplies and political support to Israel cannot put pressure on Israel to attend that conference, that says a great deal about the permanent five’s rather limited commitment to a nuclear-free world.

An issue that has recently come up, as it does increasingly, is North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons. One could discuss for a long time why it has developed nuclear weapons. Is it because it feels threatened by the possibility of American ones being placed in South Korea, or is it concerned about seaborne ones being used against it by the USA or somebody else? Undeniably, there is a terrible imbalance within North Korea: the country can barely feed itself and has many people living in desperate poverty, yet at the same time it wastes goodness knows what resources on the development of nuclear weapons and a missile system to go with them.

The six-party talks made some progress, but then completely broke down. More recently, at the end of the latest stand-off, with all the hyperbole from the new North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, there has been some clear news. An Associated Press report stated:

“North Korea’s top governing body on Sunday”—

last week—

“proposed high-level nuclear and security talks with the United States in an appeal sent just days after calling off talks with rival South Korea.”

North Korea’s position appears to be that it wants to talk not just to South Korea, but to the USA. One hopes that such talks can bring about not only a continuation of the ceasefire between North Korea and South Korea, but a permanent end to the state of conflict and both sides’ enormous waste of resources on the development of greater levels of armament to potentially attack each other. There is something very dangerous about that, but I hope that we seize that opportunity to encourage direct talks with the USA.

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President Obama was in Berlin yesterday, on the anniversary of President Kennedy’s speech at the Brandenburg gate. He proposed a further reduction in nuclear warheads as a way of promoting some degree of peace. That has to be welcomed, although so far the Russian response is a little confused. It is not clear what is being suggested, but it has to be seen as a way forward. In response, Kate Hudson, general secretary of CND, said:

“We welcome President Obama’s call for further reductions in US and Russian nuclear stockpiles. His proposals, which echo his speech against nuclear weapons in Prague in 2009, give voice to the concerns of billions around the world who wish to see a world without these catastrophic weapons… The only way to create genuine peace and security for future generations is to follow up these admirable words with concrete actions.”

One obviously hopes that that will be the case.

What can we do in Britain? We are a country of 65 million people on the north-west coast of Europe, with challenges on public expenditure and the delivery of public services. We need to invest a large amount in infrastructure. Therefore, we have to ask ourselves why we spend so much money, resource, time and energy on maintaining nuclear weapons.

The history of nuclear weapons is that Attlee initially envisaged something independent and British, but that later developed into the importing of US weapons such as Polaris, Cruise and Trident. We are now locked into a programme: the initial gate decision has been made to replace the Trident system and to develop a new submarine system at enormous cost, and a main gate decision will be taken in 2016.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): No debate would really be complete in which I did not intervene on the hon. Gentleman. On the renewal of the submarines, does he acknowledge that the Trident missiles have many years of life left in them? Therefore, the decision about whether to replace the ageing fleet of Vanguard submarines that carry the Trident missiles could not possibly contravene the terms of the non-proliferation treaty.

Jeremy Corbyn: It is quite clear that the massive cost involved is largely for the replacement of the submarines. I argue that it is a breach of the treaty to replace submarines that will carry nuclear weapons, because that is an expansion of the nuclear capability, even if the number of warheads carried on each submarine is reduced as a result.

A review is being undertaken within the Government, following pressure from the Lib Dem part of the coalition. It fought the election on the basis of not having a like-for-like replacement of Trident.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): The hon. Gentleman is making a passionate and cogent case for the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world. Does he agree that if we pursue this multi-billion pound like-for-like replacement of Trident, the UK will almost commit what can only be described as unilateral nuclear rearmament in the face of every other nation’s attempts to disarm on this issue? Does he also agree that we in Scotland—if we vote yes in the referendum next year—can play our part by putting a shot across the bows of the UK’s nuclear intentions by ensuring Trident’s removal from Coulport in Scotland?

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Jeremy Corbyn: This debate is not about Scottish independence; it is about nuclear weapons. Quite clearly, the positioning of Britain’s nuclear weapons in Scotland makes that issue a factor, and the very broad opposition throughout Scotland from all parties to nuclear weapons is significant. Merely moving the weapons to somewhere else does not make us all safer because they are still in existence and still a threat. I hope to persuade the Minister —I am sure that he is ready to be persuaded—of the need for Britain not to replace its nuclear weapons system and to become part of the nuclear-free world that we all aspire to. I can see that the Minister is about to jump in and intervene and say that he agrees with me. [Interruption.] Perhaps he will cover that later in his reply.

I have spoken for nearly 30 minutes, so I will conclude shortly. We are members of the UN Security Council, and some people argue that, by maintaining our nuclear weapons ability, we guarantee our place at the top table. At some point, there will be changes and reforms to the UN. Other countries will become permanent members of the Security Council or the structure will change possibly to include, among others, Brazil, Mexico and India. Our membership is not dependent on having nuclear weapons; it is because of the establishment of the UN at the end of the second world war.

We have a slightly schizophrenic approach towards nuclear weapons. Some time ago, I went to a Pugwash conference, which is a meeting that is held in Canada most years between peace campaigners, nuclear scientists and others about the possibility of bringing about a nuclear weapons-free world. I was all prepared to give a contribution to the Saturday afternoon session of the conference when I was asked to delay my presentation by half an hour or so because a video message was coming from the British Government. The former Defence Minister Geoff Hoon appeared on the screen above us and gave a cogent talk about Britain’s commitment to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and about how we were detargeting and reducing our warheads. He said that we were encouraging a nuclear-free world and co-operating with Norway on decommissioning, but that Britain was not going to give up its nuclear weapons all together. It is time that we accepted the message that we are part of the NPT and have a contribution to make towards nuclear disarmament and did something about it. We should say that we will not proceed with the development of the new submarines, which would affect the ability to deliver those weapons. Instead, we should move to a nuclear weapons-free defence policy, which would not only save us a great deal of money but improve our standing in the world.

Nuclear weapons are not a defence. They did not help the USA on 9/11 or London on 7/7. They do not help anyone very much when the threats around the world are poverty, environmental change and random acts of violence. Surely nuclear weapons are just weapons of mass destruction. One nuclear explosion cannot be limited, because it never is. It will cause from then on environmental destruction and a nuclear winter.

Let me conclude with this thought. Those people who argue that we need nuclear weapons and that the nuclear non-proliferation treaty is for everyone else but not for us must answer these questions: would they use them, in what circumstances would they use them and how would they live with the deaths of millions of people?

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The weapons are dangerous and redundant and it is time that we ‘fess up to that and decide to go down the road of disarmament rather than rearmament.

Several hon. Members rose

Jim Sheridan (in the Chair): Before I call the next speaker, let me say that I intend to bring in the Front-Bench speakers at no later than 4 pm.

3.34 pm

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): I sometimes think that the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and I missed our profession. We have both been arguing the merits and demerits of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence—I would like to think passionately but also reasonably—for at least the last 30 years. Perhaps we should cast ourselves as the nuclear version of “Les Misérables”, but which one of us would be the fugitive and which one the pursuer is a matter for others to decide. Certainly, I would like to think that our relationship is a bit more positive, if adversarial, than that of Jean Valjean and his nemesis, but the fact is that we do disagree, and we represent two diametrically opposed schools of thought. I genuinely congratulate him on securing this debate. I was away with the Intelligence and Security Committee in the United States when he applied for it. Had I not been, I would have been happy to support him in applying for it, just as he supported me very fully earlier this year when I applied for the debate that we both secured on Trident, which most people thought was beneficial and extremely valuable, whichever side of the debate they happened to support.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that, and inform him that I prayed in aid his undoubted wish to have this debate in order to continue our lifelong struggle for nuclear peace.

Dr Lewis: I am delighted to hear that, and that is what I hoped he would do. I will try to follow the chain of the hon. Gentleman’s argument—not too pedantically, I hope. I will start where he did, in 1945, because as he said, that was the one occasion on which nuclear weapons were used. However, it all depends on what we mean by the verb “to use”, because although they were used, very controversially, to end the war with Japan, I contend that they have been used frequently, indeed continuously, ever since. Once we get to the stage of mutual nuclear deterrence, the use of the nuclear deterrent lies not in firing it, but in possessing it, so that no one else will ever be tempted to do to a country what America was able to do to Japan. Whether we regard that as right or wrong in the circumstances is irrelevant. We want to ensure that no one is tempted to do that again in the future. The use of the nuclear deterrent is to deter anyone from attacking a country with mass destruction weapons.

Towards the end of the hon. Gentleman’s speech, he said that nuclear weapons were a fat lot of use as far as 9/11 was concerned. That is an update of an argument that we used to hear in the 1980s, when it was said, “Well, your nuclear deterrent didn’t stop Argentina invading the Falklands, did it?” My answer to the more modern version of that has to be the same as my answer to the earlier version: if a weapons system does not

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deter every sort of threat—and it does deter some dangerous threats—there is no more reason to get rid of it than to get rid of the antidote to a deadly disease just because it could not cure us of other, unrelated diseases.

The question of nuclear deterrence was substantially worked out before nuclear weapons made their existence known. In 1944-45, the British chiefs of staff commissioned a study by defence scientists under a famous professor, Sir Henry Tizard, to try to imagine what the future nature of warfare would be once Germany and Japan were defeated. Tizard was not allowed to go into the question of nuclear weapons, even though he knew that they were under development, but he could not resist putting in his report, in 1945, that he and his fellow senior defence scientists could see only one answer to the atomic bomb, if indeed it was developed. He said:

“A knowledge that we were prepared, in the last resort”

to retaliate with such a weapon

“might well deter an aggressive nation. Duelling was a recognised method of settling quarrels between men of high social standing so long as the duellists stood 20 paces apart and fired at each other with pistols of a primitive type. If the rule had been that they should stand a yard apart with pistols at each other’s hearts, we doubt whether it would long have remained a recognised method of settling affairs of honour.”

The hon. Member for Islington North said that Nazi scientists played a great part in the subsequent development of nuclear weapons. I do not think that that is quite true. The Nazis went down a blind alley as far as nuclear weapons development was concerned. They were subject to eavesdropping at Farm hall, where intelligence experts heard them doubting and wondering whether it was true that the Americans had successfully developed the atomic bomb used in Japan. However, he is absolutely right that Nazi scientists played a key role in developing the rocketry that could carry such weapons to their destination, should they ever be fired. As I like to stress over and over, that is not what their use consists of, once the stage of stable nuclear deterrence is reached.

Similarly and interestingly, the hon. Gentleman said, again rightly, that the Cuban missile crisis was probably the most dangerous point in the cold war—the point when the possibility of a nuclear exchange was at its highest. The concession that the Americans made was even a little greater than he suggested, because they had nuclear-armed missiles based in Turkey. It was not a question of targeting Turkey; the US had missiles based in Turkey, which Kennedy wisely decided the US should offer to remove as a way of giving Khrushchev some face-saving ability, so it would not look too much like a straightforward climb-down for him to remove the Soviet missiles from Cuba.

Although the hon. Gentleman talked a great deal about non-proliferation, he did not quote from the relevant article in the non-proliferation treaty, which is often quoted incompletely. The preamble to the treaty states that nuclear disarmament should occur

“pursuant to”—

that is, in conformity with—

“a treaty on general and complete disarmament”:

in other words, worldwide conventional disarmament.

Article VI of the non-proliferation treaty states in full:

“Each of the parties to the treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the

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nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

There are three elements to article VI: the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date, a world free of nuclear weapons, and a world with general disarmament. On the first, Britain has never been part of the nuclear arms race. It is true that the superpowers have: they piled up nuclear weapons on both sides of the iron curtain.

The one thing on which I always used to agree with the famous former general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Monsignor Bruce Kent, was his view that the Americans and the Russians could each unilaterally cut their nuclear arsenals by 10% without any loss of security whatsoever. I agreed entirely: both sides had massive overkill capability. However, Britain never did. For that matter, China never has, and nor has France. We in this country have always followed a policy of minimum strategic nuclear deterrence. In other words, it does not matter if another country has the ability to wipe us out 50 times over, because we can cause unacceptable levels of devastation in retaliation, which is why the other country will not do it in the first place.

The hon. Gentleman—I nearly called him my hon. Friend, because I regard him as an honourable friend—asked rhetorically which country had greater moral standing in the world: South Africa, for renouncing its programme, or the United Kingdom. I suppose it depends on one’s standard of morality and how one measures it. I would say that it is a little like arguing that the neutral countries in 1940—for instance, Holland, Belgium and Norway—had greater moral standing than democracies such as Britain and France, which at least tried to have armaments with which to defend themselves. However, that is not my standard of morality or my way of measuring it. My way of measuring it is to ask which country, by adopting a particular policy, will do most to prevent a nuclear war from breaking out. It was implicit—at one point, it was virtually explicit—in some of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks that he accepts that both of us share the same end. We do not wish a nuclear war to happen; we just disagree as much as it is possible to disagree on the means of achieving that laudable end.

I will say a few words about Britain and the renewal of Trident, and about the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, and that will probably be enough. On the question of Britain’s renewal of Trident, I underscore what I said in the intervention that the hon. Gentleman generously allowed me to make. The Trident missiles that currently constitute the British strategic nuclear deterrent are not up for renewal. They have decades of life left in them. The only question is whether we should replace the submarines that carry them.

Of course, one could argue that not replacing the submarines would effectively disarm this country of its nuclear deterrent. That is why the hon. Gentleman and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament would like the submarines not to be replaced. Equally, it is why I am determined to do everything that I can to put pressure on the Government to ensure that they fulfil their promise to replace them. However, I do not think that it is credibly arguable, by any stretch of the imagination, that replacing four submarines that are reaching the end of their design life with three or four new submarines to carry the same missiles—indeed, the new submarines

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will have a smaller missile compartment, so arguably they will carry fewer missiles, although I freely acknowledge that the flexibility in the number of warheads that can be put on missiles probably means that it is a distinction without a difference—comes anywhere near a breach of the provisions in article VI of the non-proliferation treaty, whatever one regards our undertakings as being.

As I said before, the only time frame is ending the arms race “at an early date”. We have never been a part of the arms race, due to our policy of minimum strategic nuclear deterrence, and as far as I can see, there is nothing in the treaty that says that we must go for a nuclear-free world before the world is conventionally disarmed. In the next and final stage of my remarks, I will argue that that would be dangerous and destabilising.

To return to the point about Trident, we continue to follow a policy with the same weapons system that we have deployed ever since HMS Vanguard first went to sea in the 1990s. Whatever other arguments might be used to say that Britain ought not to build the new fleet of successor submarines, contravening the provisions of the non-proliferation treaty is not one of them.

Let me move to the final component of my argument, which is whether a nuclear-free world would be desirable, or a least a nuclear-free world that was introduced prior to general and complete disarmament—conventional disarmament—which is referred to in the same clause of the NPT that refers to a world free of nuclear weapons.

If nuclear weapons had not existed, it is unlikely that the cold war would have remained stalemated, as it did, rather than boiling over into a third global conflict. If nuclear weapons ceased to exist, but the world remained armed to the teeth and still as mutually hostile as it is, there would be nothing to prevent the first nation to cheat on the question of its abolition of nuclear weapons from using—that is, firing—secretly manufactured devices before any such temporary monopoly of them was broken.

I particularly draw attention to the example of what happened with a treaty that undoubtedly would have had the support of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1972, when it was signed: the biological warfare convention. I always remember that brilliant columnist, Bernard Levin, who wrote an article at the time of the biological warfare convention, talking about the fact that the Russians were apparently disposing at sea of all sorts of horrible biological weapons, under the terms of the treaty. He said that whatever things they were consigning to the depths of the ocean, he was pretty sure that biological weapons were not among them. He was dead right, because we now know that in 1973, the year after Russia signed the treaty, the Soviet leadership set up Biopreparat—a massive organisation—secretly to continue its deadly biological weapons research into such charming weapons as smallpox, bubonic plague, anthrax, brucellosis, tularaemia and Ebola.

We know about this because in 1989—I remember when it happened—a defector from that organisation, Vladimir Pasechnik, revealed everything that was going on. We were able to get away with that cheating, because we had the ultimate fall-back of a nuclear deterrent system, which meant that it would have been just as dangerous for Russia to have exploited its secret monopoly of biological weapons, which it kept while everybody else kept to the terms of the treaty and disarmed. We

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would have been able to retaliate against those weapons with our nuclear deterrent, but heaven help us if we had not the nuclear deterrent as a back-up.

The question that people who advocate a nuclear-free world have to ask themselves is this: is it a sensible policy, in the real world as we know it today, to make the world safe once again for conventional warfare between the great powers? I would love to see a nuclear-free world, but I would love to see it only when I see a weapons-free world; for that to happen, there has to be a world Government and, above all, a reformation of the mind of man and a change for the better in human nature.

3.53 pm

Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to make a short contribution to this debate, Mr Sheridan, and I am pleased to see you in the Chair today. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) both on securing this debate and on his comprehensive, articulate opening contribution.

I should like to ask the Government for more information about how they intend to deal with this issue. Many such debates take place in the context of the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system, about which we have heard many references. Strong arguments are made by those who believe that we should not renew Trident and by those, such as the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who believe that renewing it would be the right step for Britain to take. I would find it difficult to justify the cost of more than £100 billion being spent—we believe that would be the cost during the lifetime of a replacement for Trident—in the context of some of the cuts in the public sector and in public spending at this time, the cost of which we know is bearing down on many people throughout the country.

I should be interested in hearing the Minister provide a more detailed explanation of the position that Britain is taking internationally. I do not agree with the hon. Member for New Forest East that it would be wrong to get rid of nuclear weapons before getting rid of all weapons in this world. The position of some states on nuclear weapons makes it more likely that other states will acquire them. One of my great concerns is proliferation, particularly with the kind of people running some regimes in the world at the moment. Of course, there is much debate about Syria. Previously, there was much debate about Libya and Iraq. We have had debates and there has been discussion this week about the regime in Iran. The reality is that many of those regimes, at various points, may have had the capacity to develop and possess nuclear weapons.

It is beholden on the United Kingdom Government, as one of the five countries that are signatories to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and one of the countries that it is recognised as possessing nuclear weapons, to put a great deal of energy, expertise and political commitment into the process, to try to rid the world of nuclear weapons and take steps to ensure that, until we get to the point where there are no nuclear weapons, as few nuclear weapons exist in as few hands as possible. The more nuclear weapons that we have and the more countries that possess them, the more likely it is that they

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will be used, either by accident or design. I am interested in hearing a great deal more than we have heard up till now from the Government about what energy, resources and commitment they are putting into this process.

I should also be interested to have a more detailed explanation of what the Government’s position is in relation to some other initiatives taking place in the world by other states that do not possess nuclear weapons, or perhaps previously possessed nuclear weapons but no longer do, and that seem to be putting a great deal of diplomatic and political energy into trying to move towards a situation where fewer states possess nuclear weapons.

In particular, for example, I should be interested to hear from the Minister the detail of the Government’s position in relation to the humanitarian initiative undertaken by a number of non-nuclear weapons states. The Minister will be aware of the conference that took place in Oslo earlier this year. He has had to address many parliamentary questions, including some asked by me and by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North, asking why Britain did not attend and engage in that event. The Minister will be aware that that initiative explored issues to do with how we stop nuclear weapons proliferating and stop the political situation in which states can justify acquiring and developing nuclear weapons, by using the same arguments that we use in this country.

I should like the Minister and the Government to say what they intend to do now to put this issue at the top of the political agenda. He will appreciate that the possession of nuclear weapons by any country and the development of this technology means that it is more likely that these weapons of mass destruction will be used. As we lead towards our upcoming discussions on whether to renew Trident, Britain should be actively engaged in that process and, indeed, be a leader of the move towards a nuclear-free world.

4 pm

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I have listened with great interest to what has been, perhaps inevitably, a somewhat polarised debate. It is fair to say that hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber —my hon. Friends the Members for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) and the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis)—although they reach very different conclusions about the approach to nuclear weapons, approach the issue from a position of great integrity and with a real desire to ensure that we never revisit the horrors of the only use to date of nuclear weapons in conflict, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the second world war.

I have great respect for the views expressed by everyone who has spoken in the debate. I do not share the pessimism of the hon. Gentleman’s closing remarks. I was with him for quite a bit of his speech, up until he said that we will never see an end to nuclear weapons unless we see an end to conventional weapons and a world Government. Perhaps taking the opposing view—that we will achieve a world without nuclear weapons—is idealistic, but I think it is important that we have that in mind as an end goal. After all, each of the parties to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty—he cited article 6—has

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undertaken to pursue in good faith negotiations on the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to achieve nuclear disarmament. Having signed up to the treaty, we have committed ourselves to making progress on that front, even if we think that the end result will be a long way off; it comes down to the speed and passion with which we pursue those negotiations.

The official Opposition believe that the UK must continue to press for multilateral negotiations towards mutual, balanced and verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons and to work towards total elimination of our nuclear arsenal and all others. Those efforts must include working with the International Atomic Energy Agency to develop assurances of supply for nuclear fuel that provide energy security without the need for proliferation of sensitive enrichment technology. I do not intend to talk about nuclear power—it has been discussed in previous debates in Parliament—but it is part of the issue.

When the Labour party was in government, we committed to reduce the number of operationally available warheads to fewer than 160, so the UK has now reduced its nuclear arsenal by 75% since the end of the cold war, and we welcome the Government’s announcements on reducing both operationally available warheads and the overall weapons stockpile. The UK now accounts for less than 1% of the global stockpile of nuclear weapons. We have the smallest arsenal of the five recognised nuclear weapons states, and we are the only state to reduce to a single nuclear deterrent system.

On Trident and the need for an independent nuclear deterrent, Labour’s continuing objective is to play an active and constructive role in an international effort to achieve a world free from nuclear weapons. Any future Labour policy will seek to take disarmament further by reducing the number of deployable and stockpiled warheads, but Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent has been the cornerstone of our peace and security for more than half a century. In today’s world, so long as there are other countries with such capabilities and the security landscape is characterised by instability and uncertainty—we have heard about the situation in Pakistan, North Korea’s missile tests and the unpredictable situation in Iran, despite the election this week of a new President—it is right that the UK retains an independent nuclear deterrent. However, we want the UK to have the minimum credible deterrent, in line with our international obligations and strategic security requirements, and we want to ensure that we achieve maximum value for money within that chosen platform.

I will address some of the countries of concern that pose a possible nuclear threat. In the past year, international talks on Iran’s nuclear programme have achieved little, resulting in harsher sanctions. On Monday, the head of the IAEA reported that sanctions have not been successful in slowing Iran’s ability to enrich uranium. We welcome the commitment of Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, to greater nuclear transparency, of course, but those words must be backed up with progress on the ground.

The Russian Foreign Minister has reported in the past few days that Iran is prepared to suspend the most sensitive parts of its nuclear programme, which could be welcome news, but we must be cautious. The new President was head of Iran’s national security council for 16 years, and he was Tehran’s key nuclear negotiator

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from 2003 to 2005. It is fair to say that he did not demonstrate any great enthusiasm for transparency on Iran’s nuclear capability when he was in those positions.

On North Korea, there has been a ratcheting of tensions in the past year or so, with the launch of two rockets carrying satellites in 2012, which was widely seen as an attempt to test its missile technology. The launch was met with global condemnation, including from North Korea’s closest ally, China. The UN Secretary-General condemned the launch as a violation of United Nations Security Council resolution 1874.

In February 2013, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test in seven years, and there has been rhetoric from Kim Jong-un about a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the USA and threats against South Korea. I was in South Korea for a UK-Korea Forum for the Future conference last week, and one of the key messages that we gave to our Korean hosts was on our admiration for their calm response to those threats. Obviously, South Korea is used to such threats, as there has been conflict between the two countries for many years, but its response helped to dampen the tension in the area.

I would be grateful to the Minister if he updated us on his assessment of the situation. The North Koreans pulled out of the talks that were due to take place on the grounds that the South Koreans were not sending sufficiently senior people. That seems to be an issue that could quite easily be resolved. What conversations, if any, has he had to try to ensure that those talks go ahead?

The security of existing stockpiles in countries such as Pakistan and Russia remains an ongoing concern. The IAEA has reported more than 100 nuclear smuggling incidents since 1993, 18 of which involved highly enriched uranium, which is the most dangerous product on the nuclear black market. Does the Minister have anything to say on how we are trying to address such smuggling incidents?

I was interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North had to say about the middle east nuclear-free zone, for which he has been campaigning for some time. He tabled an early-day motion on that in 2010. I understand that the hopes of having a conference this year have been somewhat derailed by the situation in Syria. Will the Minister comment on whether we can push for that conference to take place?

The Minister attended the NPT review conference at the UN last year, and it was reported that a five-year action plan spanning the three pillars of the NPT was agreed by consensus. The next NPT review conference will be in 2015. What progress have the Government made on drawing up their objectives? What do they hope to achieve at that conference?

The Trident alternatives review is set to publish its report before July, and the Government will have an opportunity to assess whether to cut the number of Vanguard submarines from four to two. Late last month, the Financial Times reported that the review will conclude that any alternative to Trident will either be impractical or more expensive. I assume that the Minister will want to wait until the review is published before commenting in detail, but I would be interested if he could answer a few questions. How much time and money is being spent by the MOD on the review? Will it be published as a Government document or, as it was inspired by Liberal

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Democrat members of the coalition, will it be published under their auspices? What consideration will be given to the review before the finalisation of the Conservative party manifesto?

Finally, I want to mention Government efforts to reduce their own nuclear stockpile. In 2010, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs informed Parliament that the UK had 225 nuclear warheads; he also signalled that the coalition would downgrade their importance in UK military strategy. What efforts are being made on that front?

4.10 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): I echo the remarks of hon. Members: it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan.

If anyone wanted to listen to as good and clear an exposition as possible of whether the United Kingdom should have nuclear weapons, they could do a lot worse than listen to the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). It is clear to all of us in the House, having known them for a long time, that not only do they know what they are talking about, but they continue to conduct the debate on a serious issue in exactly the sort of terms that we would want for an argument of such seriousness. As the years ebb and flow, it remains uncertain which argument will dominate at any particular stage in British politics and the like. That the reasons for and against are put so clearly is of benefit to all of us in the House, so I very much appreciate the hon. Member for Islington North calling for the debate, and the way in which he led it, as well as the way in which all other colleagues who have spoken contributed.

As always, we need to go a little way down memory lane. The first time that the hon. Member for Islington North and I debated the subject was when we were both councillors on Haringey council in 1981; he was either proposing or part of a movement to declare the borough a nuclear-free zone. Probably the first time that I came across my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East was when he was campaigning with Tony Kerpel and others in the anti-CND movement about the same time. Both have proved their point: Haringey has, mercifully, been free of attack since the council declared it a nuclear-free zone—

Jeremy Corbyn: I made my case.

Alistair Burt: Absolutely. To that extent, the hon. Gentleman was absolutely right in how he conducted the case.

The world has of course benefited from the case put forward so ably by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East. It is a case with which I am broadly in agreement: our possession of nuclear weapons has contributed to the peace of the world, provided it has been allied to a commitment, demonstrated by successive Governments, to rid the world steadily of nuclear weapons through measures of mutual confidence. I appreciate the restatement of the Opposition position by the

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hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who echoed the position of successive Labour Governments and reiterated the 2007 commitment, made under a Labour Government, to proceed with Trident. In general, I accept that she has restated a relatively common position. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) made a strong contribution on the side of those who challenge such an opinion, but, again, in a moderate way and recognising the responsibilities of the United Kingdom not only to its own defence, but to the mutual defence with which it is associated through its various treaty obligations.

In the time allotted, I will do my best to do justice to the contributions. I am not sure, however, which part in “Les Mis” we would all take. “Who am I?” Well, I am the Minister responsible for counter-proliferation, but at least I am not “On my own”, and I am grateful for the support I have had from colleagues in putting together these remarks. Enough of this.

The United Kingdom is a firm supporter of the non-proliferation treaty, which we believe is the cornerstone of the international non-proliferation regime. Of course, the NPT faces challenges and pressures, such as the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, the risk of a nuclear terrorist attack and the spread of sensitive nuclear technology. We must also remember, however, that the consensus outcome of the 2010 NPT review conference, with agreement of the cross-pillar action plan by 189 state parties of the NPT, was a real achievement and a boost for multilateralism. We are now halfway through the five-year review cycle. Looking ahead to the review conference in 2015, we need to ensure that we deliver against our action plan commitments.

In response to the question of the hon. Member for Bristol East, we in the Government take our action plan obligations seriously, on all three pillars of the NPT, which are nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and peaceful uses, and our role as co-convenor for the conference on the establishment of a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the middle east. I will say a little more about each of those.

On disarmament, under the first pillar of the NPT, the United Kingdom is committed to the long-term goal of a world without nuclear weapons. Successive UK Governments—the hon. Lady can take pride in her party’s achievements—have played an active role in helping to build an international environment in which no state feels the need to possess nuclear weapons. I take the opportunity to highlight the UK’s strong record on disarmament. In our 2010 strategic defence and security review, we announced reductions in the number of operational warheads and our overall stockpile. I remember making some of those announcements in New York at the time of the 2010 conference. We announced, for the first time, the total size of our nuclear warhead stockpile, and gave a new, stronger security assurance that the UK would not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states party to the NPT. Those announcements meant that the UK has been more transparent than ever about our arsenal in a declaratory policy that we believe will assist in building trust between nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states, and contribute to efforts to reduce the number of nuclear weapons worldwide. We continue to call on other nuclear weapon states to take reciprocal steps.