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House of Commons

Monday 4 November 2013

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Reserve Forces

1. Ann McKechin (Glasgow North) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the level of recruitment to the reserve forces in 2013 to date. [900853]

13. Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the level of recruitment to the reserve forces in 2013 to date. [900865]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Hammond): May I first welcome the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) to his new role and congratulate him on his appointment? I hope that, in the interests of Britain’s armed forces, we will be able to have a constructive relationship, as he quite properly holds me to account for the decisions of this Government, and I hold him to account for the decisions of the last one.

When the previous Administration took office in 1997, the Territorial Army was more than 50,000 strong. By the time they left office in 2010, that figure had halved. That pattern of decline has been arrested, and the strength has now been stabilised. Recruitment figures for the first three quarters of 2013 are due to be published by Defence Analytical Services and Advice on 14 November. This is a new data series, and quarterly figures will be published thereafter.

Ann McKechin: I declare an interest as a member of the Strathclyde area committee of the Lowland Reserve Forces and Cadets Association.

Most people would describe the current recruitment target as challenging and difficult to meet. There appears to be a lack of clear strategy on recruiting more women and more people from the black and minority ethnic population in order to achieve that target. Will the Secretary of State explain how he intends to disseminate best practice in those areas?

Mr Hammond: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that important point. At the moment, the armed forces recruit about 8% of their strength from women, who make up about 50% of the target age group population, and just 3% of their strength from black and ethnic minority communities, which will make up about 24% of the target age group population by 2020. We have to do better in those areas, and one of the challenges that we have set for the armed forces, and for the Army in particular, is for them to work out how they can pitch an offer that is more attractive to female and black and ethnic minority recruits, and specifically how they can use female recruits more effectively within Future Force 2020.

Mr Speaker: Ian Lavery—not here.

20. [900872] Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): I recently joined more than 100 supporters of 2ndBattalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers as they marched on Parliament protesting against the Government’s decision to scrap it. Ministers believe that the battalion can be replaced by reservists, but the chairman of the Northumberland and North East Fusilier Association is concerned that it will be impossible to recruit the necessary numbers. Will the Secretary of State tell us to what extent the targets are being met?

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Mr Hammond: The reconfiguration of the Army, including the changing role of reservists and the changing structure of the Army, are not simply about trying to recruit reservists to replace disbanded infantry battalions. Most of the reservists we recruit will be specialists, rather than having a light infantry role. The White Paper that I published earlier this year set out a plan to reverse the long-term decline of the Army Reserve, redefining its role and setting out details of improved equipment, training, terms and conditions. Under the plan, we will grow the Army Reserve to a trained strength of 30,000 by 2018. I can also tell the House that, although it is still early days, a snapshot of data for the recruiting campaign that started on 16 September is quite positive. We received 1,576 applications to join the Army Reserve during the first four weeks of the campaign, and 380 were received last week. It is very early days, but those early signs are quite promising.

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I congratulate the Secretary of State on the encouraging early signs in the recruiting campaign. There will come a time when it will become plain either that he will have achieved the Future Force 2020 ambition of replacing regular soldiers with reservists or that he has not done so and will have to change his plan. When will that date be?

Mr Hammond: The Army is in the final stages of setting out a properly thought-through recruiting target set, defining the number of recruits needed during each period of time in order to deliver the trained output required if we are to achieve our 2018 target. As soon as I have those data from the Army in final form, I will publish them. They will set our target curve, and I expect to be held to account if we go significantly off it.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will forgive me if I press him a little further on this topic. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that the targets are proving difficult to achieve. Given that the target of 30,000 is fundamental to the success of the restructuring of the Army, what contingency plans are now in place, and what incentives are being offered to individuals—and their employers—to become part of the Army Reserve?

Mr Hammond: I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. Unfortunately, I am not his “learned Friend”: I am used to being called an accountant, but not a lawyer. I can reassure him that a variety of measures are in place to incentivise recruitment to the reserves; in particular, a bonus to attract those leaving the regular Army into volunteer reserve service has proved very successful, with significant upturn in the translation rate over the past few months. There will be a range of further incentive measures that we can introduce as and when it is necessary in order to deliver the targets which I shall publish shortly.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State for his kind remarks, which I greatly appreciate. We will, of course, work with him where appropriate. I welcome to her post my Nottinghamshire colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who I understand is the first woman Defence Minister in the House of Commons, which is a great credit to her.

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The Government need to explain to the House and the country today what is happening with their programme of reform to the armed forces. I declare an interest, as my soon-to-be son-in-law serves in the Territorial Army. A recent high-level memo from the Ministry of Defence states clearly that there are clear problems and worries over Army reform and that recruitment targets are likely to be missed. That has caused senior military figures, Members of the House and the armed forces community to raise serious concerns. Can the Secretary of State assure us that the nation’s security will not be compromised and that a reduction in the regular Army will take place only if adequate uplift in the reserves is achieved?

Mr Hammond: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. The memo from which he quoted did not say what he claimed it said. It said that in the absence of any action to stimulate recruitment we would face a very difficult challenge. We are now taking precisely that action. The hon. Gentleman may have seen an article that came from an interview with the Chief of the Defence Staff, in which he made it clear that he was very confident that we will deliver these numbers. I share that confidence.

Vernon Coaker: We look forward to the Defence Secretary publishing that memo so that we can all see what it actually said. Is not the problem one of credibility? The Government cannot get their figures right. Just today, we learned that the cost of new aircraft carriers has increased by £800 million to £6.2 billion. That is after the £100 million wasted last year on reversing the decision on fighter jets. A few months ago, the Defence Secretary told us he had balanced the books at the MOD, and then just a few weeks ago we were told that there was an £1.8 billion underspend. How can the British public have confidence that the Government will meet their target for recruitment to the reserves when they have got so much else wrong? When will the Defence Secretary take some responsibility and stop blaming everyone else but himself?

Mr Hammond: With that last remark, the hon. Gentleman has probably pre-empted my response. If I were him, I would tread a little more carefully around the issue of the cost of the aircraft carriers—until he hears, in due course, what precisely we have done. A huge amount of work is going on across the Army around the reserves recruitment initiative. There are many different strands to this work. I have made a commitment in the past, which I will repeat today, to be as transparent as possible with Parliament as this campaign gets under way. I remind the hon. Gentleman, however, that we are just five weeks into a five-year campaign to halt and reverse the attrition in our reserves that the previous Government oversaw.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Ind): In my experience, inquiries about recruiting by no means turn into enlistments. Everything we have heard suggests that the recruiting for the reserves will be difficult. Was it therefore correct for our regular forces redundancy programme to have gone ahead with the urgency that it did?

Mr Hammond: Perhaps my hon. Friend did not hear me earlier. I was not talking about inquiries; I was talking about 1,576 applications to join the Army Reserve

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in the first four weeks of the campaign. The simple fact is that if we are to live within our budgets and restructure the Army for its tasks in the future, the decisions we made about the size and shape of the regular Army must go forward, and the recruitment and training of 30,000 Army reserves must happen. We will make sure that they do so.

Mr Speaker: Progress on the first question was desperately slow; we really need to pick up.

Small and Medium-sized Enterprises

2. Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the level of contracting by his Department with small and medium-sized enterprises; and if he will make a statement. [900854]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Dunne): As I have said in the House before, the Government understand the significance of SMEs to the United Kingdom’s economy. The Ministry of Defence is playing its part in increasing the number of opportunities for SMEs to contribute to defence, both as direct suppliers and as subcontractors on major programmes. We recently published details of the MOD spend for 2012-13. Some £1.1 billion was spent directly with 12,000 SMEs. During that year, 10% of all new contracts by value and 36% by number were placed with more than 1,000 SMEs.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Jobs in the supply chain are vital to constituencies such as Ogmore, but I understand that last year the MOD was fined £21,000 for making late payments to suppliers. The new contracts and direct payments that were promised by Ministers have not materialised. Can the Minister explain to SMEs in the supply chain in Ogmore and throughout the United Kingdom why the Government’s actions do not match their rhetoric?

Mr Dunne: I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman has chosen to light on the single late payment penalty that the MOD suffered in just one of the 4 million transactions that took place in 2012-13. It involved a company that was not based in Ogmore, not based in Wales, and not based anywhere else in the United Kingdom. It was for late payment for aviation fuel sent by a supplier to our base in Akrotiri in Cyprus, with an invoice from a Greek company in Corinth, over the Christmas holidays. The Ministry of Defence pays 92% of its bills within five days, and has a better record in that regard than any other Department.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): I greatly welcome the letting of the main contract for the expansion of MOD Stafford to enable it to receive two more Signals regiments. Will the main contractor be encouraged to work with local SMEs which offer value for taxpayers’ money?

Mr Dunne: I think that my hon. Friend is referring to facilities management contracts which are being placed on a regional basis. The contractors will of course undertake to use SMEs in their supply chain, but it will be up to them to decide where they place their contracts,

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so I cannot give my hon. Friend any specific reassurance relating to how many of the subcontracts will go to Staffordshire companies.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): Although reassuring in many respects and full of detail, the Minister’s response will not give much comfort to SMEs that hold subcontracts with Serco and are awaiting the outcome of the Cabinet Office review, which I assume has been further delayed following this afternoon’s announcement by the Serious Fraud Office. This matter is of serious concern to, for instance, those involved in the consortiums that are bidding for the GoCo. When does the Minister expect a firm decision from his colleagues on whether the MOD can let further contracts to Serco?

Mr Dunne: As the hon. Lady said, there has been an announcement following the Serious Fraud Office inquiry into two contractors, which was first highlighted by the Ministry of Justice in its announcement of 26 September. I cannot give her any information about when the SFO will complete its inquiries, and she would not expect me to do so. Until that has happened, we shall not be in a position to make any comment on Serco itself.

Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): A constituent of mine is considering installing on his farm an anaerobic digestion plant that could supply heat to HMS Raleigh. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet my constituent and me to discuss that?

Mr Dunne: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for mentioning her interest in encouraging the supply of renewable energy to Ministry of Defence bases throughout the country as well as in her constituency. The matter that she has raised is the responsibility of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), but I am sure that one of us will be happy to meet her as soon as possible.

Typhoon Exports

3. Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con): What discussions he has had with his counterparts in partner nations on improving the prospects of future Typhoon exports. [900855]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Dunne): Since the Government took office in 2010, they have reversed a decade of neglect in support for defence exports. Ministers from the Prime Minister down have taken a particularly proactive lead among our partners in encouraging Typhoon exports. Eurofighter Typhoon continues to attract global interest through active participation in a number of campaigns, which are likely to come to a head over the next couple of years. Last week, when I met counterparts from our three partner nations, we agreed to refocus our collaborative programme to improve Typhoon’s export prospects in those campaigns around the world.

Mark Menzies: Does the Minister believe that to keep the Typhoon production line running in the future, the Eurofighter consortium must be much more agile in its corporate governance in order to help export potential?

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Mr Dunne: In our meeting last week I made very clear to both industry and our Eurofighter partners that we need an increased focus on responding to export requirements, which will play an increasingly important part in extending production lines for this aircraft, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency. We agreed that fundamental reforms are needed to speed up decision-making processes within the governance structure, which will make it more responsive both to the requirements of partner nations and to export customers.

RNAS Yeovilton and RNAS Merryfield

4. Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): What his plans are for the future use of RNAS Yeovilton and RNAS Merryfield; and if he will make a statement. [900856]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr Andrew Murrison): I am pleased that my hon. Friend has asked about Yeovilton, where a number of our constituents work and where I have served. I am also pleased to assure him of our intention that Yeovilton will remain a royal naval air station with, additionally, 1 Regiment Army Air Corps based there as a lodger unit. Indeed, the Ministry of Defence is investing heavily in Yeovilton in order for it to be the main operating base for all Wildcat helicopters flown by the Royal Navy and the Army. Merryfield, as my hon. Friend will know, is a satellite airfield of Yeovilton and will continue to be used for training.

Mr Heath: I am most grateful; the deployment of the Army Air Corps at Yeovilton is very good news for both Yeovilton and the surrounding area, even if we will have to get used to different coloured uniforms around the place. Given that the AAC uses Salisbury plain predominantly for training purposes, will the role of Merryfield be changed in future and will the Minister let me know if that is to be the case?

Dr Murrison: The answer to the last question is yes, of course I will let my hon. Friend know, but Merryfield will continue as a satellite to Yeovilton. He is right to say that the colour, as it were, of many of those working in Yeovilton will change—it will become more khaki—and that means Salisbury plain training areas will be used rather more. I reassure my hon. Friend that that probably means that his constituents are unlikely to be disturbed by too much low flying, which I know is a concern from time to time to a number of us who have military aviation operating in our areas.

Royal Air Force (ISTAR)

5. Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the future Royal Air Force requirement for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance systems; and if he will make a statement. [900857]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr Mark Francois): Joint Forces Command is leading an air intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—ISTAR—optimisation study looking at all Defence requirements, not just the RAF’s, and capabilities in air-based ISTAR.

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Steve Baker: A system such as Sentinel R1 is surely absolutely crucial to the proportionate and precise use of armed force in the future, so can the Minister reassure me that he is working to ensure that the armed forces rise above their usual rivalry to enable these systems both to be taken forward and developed deeply in the interests of our country and our forces?

Mr Francois: I have heard it suggested that occasionally down through the centuries there has been a tad of friendly rivalry among the different armed services, and as my hon. Friend is a former RAF officer, he may well be aware of that. We are well aware of the capabilities that are provided by the Sentinel platform. We value those capabilities and we are examining how we might be able to use them further in the future.

Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): How were the important RAF intelligence and surveillance services operating from RAF Gibraltar affected by the serious incident when a Guardia Civil vessel connected with an escorted royal naval vessel during which the vessels’ guns were pointed at each other?

Mr Francois: Last week’s actions by the Guardia Civil were completely unacceptable. They were both unlawful and irresponsible, placing themselves and others in unnecessary danger. I can tell the House that we have made a formal protest to the Spanish Government, and ministerial colleagues in the Foreign Office will be raising this matter with their Spanish counterparts at the first opportunity.

Mr James Arbuthnot (North East Hampshire) (Con): Given that we are a maritime nation, does my right hon. Friend agree that in the next defence and security review a maritime patrol aircraft should receive high priority?

Mr Francois: That will, indeed, be one of the issues we look at in some detail in the context of the next SDSR. As my right hon. Friend is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, he will be well aware that there were serious problems with the previous programme, because it was way over budget and, unfortunately, technically did not ultimately work. Perhaps I may remind the House who was in government for most of the time that that programme was running; it was not us.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): To reinforce the point made by the Chairman of the Defence Committee, the UK’s armed forces are unique among those in northern Europe in having not a single fixed-wing maritime patrol aircraft. Given the time scale that the Minister has talked about for this review, what is the earliest date by which the UK may have maritime patrol aircraft?

Mr Francois: As I have explained to the House, we will be looking at this in the context of the next strategic defence and security review. The hon. Gentleman asks me for early dates, so perhaps he can share with the House the earliest date by which the Scottish nationalists will tell us how they will afford the defence programme that they envisage. We are all dead keen to know.

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Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): May I support what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, as the loss of the maritime patrol aircraft capability is the most serious loss we face at the moment? May I urge the Minister not just to push this out to the SDSR of 2015 but to reassure the House that work is being undertaken by the Ministry of Defence today to find ways to remedy that serious capability loss?

Mr Francois: As my hon. Friend—again, a former RAF officer—will be aware, we already work with allies in a number of ways to fill that gap, but I assure him that we will look at the issue seriously in the wider context of ISTAR and of the SDSR.

Employment (Service Leavers)

6. Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): What steps he is taking to improve the employment prospects of service leavers. [900858]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Anna Soubry): We attach great importance to assisting service leavers in making a successful transition from service life into civilian employment. A recent defence statistics study shows that about 85% of the service leavers in 2011-12 who have a known employment outcome are employed within six months of leaving the armed forces. But we are not complacent, and we continue to review whether there are areas we should improve. Indeed, Lord Ashcroft, the Prime Minister’s special representative on veterans’ transition, is leading a review of the provisions that are in place.

Duncan Hames: I am very glad to hear that. Service leavers undoubtedly have much to offer employers. Wiltshire has more than 15,000 military personnel and the number is rising. Will the Minister look favourably on Swindon and Wiltshire local enterprise partnership’s city deal bid, which will help service leavers to gain the qualifications they need and ensure that they are not disadvantaged compared with the civilian population in seeking work?

Anna Soubry: Absolutely, and I am more than happy to congratulate my hon. Friend and all others who champion such schemes. This is another reason why we attach so much importance to the corporate covenant, of which I wish to give one quick example. National Express has signed up to the corporate covenant—we urge many other companies, of whatever size, to do so —and will guarantee anyone leaving our armed forces an automatic interview for any job vacancy. That is a good example of why the corporate covenant is to be welcomed.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister knows that these servicemen and women make very good teachers and very good professionals in almost any sector. What has happened to the scheme to get them into the classroom, and could we use them more in leading apprenticeship programmes?

Anna Soubry: I do not know of any problems in that regard. I am more than happy to make further inquiry and update the hon. Gentleman by way of a letter, but my understanding is that this goes from strength to strength.

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Home Ownership

8. Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con): What funding his Department makes available to help armed forces families to get on the housing ladder. [900860]

9. Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): What steps he is taking to help improve home ownership among members of the armed forces. [900861]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Anna Soubry): The Secretary of State for Defence recently announced that £200 million has been allocated for the creation of the forces Help to Buy scheme. Launching on 1 April 2014, it will significantly improve the support available to members of the armed forces who wish to buy their own home. Forces Help to Buy will offer the men and women of our armed forces a deposit loan of 50% of their annual salary, up to a maximum of £25,000. The loans will be interest-free and repaid over an affordable 10-year period. As well as that additional funding, there will be tailored advice on financial and housing matters. Of course, service personnel are also afforded high priority and additional flexibility under the Chancellor’s main Help to Buy equity share scheme.

Caroline Nokes: I thank my hon. Friend for that response. What reassurance can she give my armed forces constituents, particularly those in the Army Air Corps at Middle Wallop, that they will be able to combine this new scheme with the schemes already put forward by the Department for Communities and Local Government, in an example of joined-up government?

Anna Soubry: There should not be any difficult in doing that at all. I should add that I am always more than willing to come to see some of the excellent accommodation that I know exists already at Middle Wallop, and I look forward to doing so.

Glyn Davies: Armed forces personnel inevitably experience more difficulty accessing home ownership because they often have to move to different parts of the country because of different postings. Has my hon. Friend considered reducing the frequency of such movements to enable greater take-up of home ownership among the armed forces?

Anna Soubry: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. That is why the new employment model that we are developing will deliver an offer to regular service personnel that supports domestic stability by reducing the frequency of moves and supports partners’ employment. We know that issues such as those two points often concern members of our armed forces and lead to a lot of dissatisfaction.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Often the problem is the availability of housing. Will the Minister update the House on what discussions have been had with local authorities in general and Birmingham city council in particular about the provision of extra housing?

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Anna Soubry: I am not aware of any discussions. I do know, however, the great benefits that the community covenant has brought in and I have no doubt that Birmingham is fully signed up to it. If I need to, I am more than happy to make further inquiries and write to the hon. Lady.

Gemma Doyle (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the hon. Lady to her new role and thank her for her answer to my written question about low morale in the armed forces, in which she admitted that it has doubled over the past three years from 15% to 30%. She will be aware that the quality of and access to housing, along with pay and allowances, are key factors in forces’ morale and that of their families. Will she guarantee that it will not plummet further on her watch?

Anna Soubry: I wish I could guarantee that it will not plummet any further, but I strongly suspect that this has been a long-standing problem. I am pleased to say that the Government take it seriously, which is why we are doing the many things that we are doing precisely to address those issues.

18. [900870] Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty) (Con): What estimate has the Minister made of the number of service personnel who could benefit from the new forces Help to Buy scheme?

Anna Soubry: I cannot give my hon. Friend a figure, but as the scheme is worth £200 million we can be confident that it will be many thousands.

Mr Speaker: I call Sir Tony Baldry.

19. [900871] Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): My hon. Friend the Minister has ably answered the question I was going to ask, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: That is a remarkable self-denying ordinance. If the Minister wants to say something, we must not deny her the opportunity in her maiden performance in this portfolio.

Anna Soubry: As ever, I express my grateful thanks to my hon. Friend.


10. Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): What recent assessment the Government have made of how many reservists need to be recruited as part of the Army Reserve plan to replace regular troops from the disbanded units. [900862]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Hammond): I should make it clear to the hon. Gentleman, as I have already this afternoon, that we are not recruiting reservists simply to replace regular troops from disbanded units. We are changing the structure and functions within the Army, creating a whole force of regulars, reservists, civilians and contractors that will make the best use of our resources and harness the talents across the whole of UK society. As I have already said, the Army is finalising a set of recruiting targets that will at different

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points over the next four years deliver the numbers into training that we need to achieve the challenging goal of 30,000 trained reservists by 2018.

Mr Cunningham: Given that the Secretary of State is constantly moving the goalposts and that we know that he will not recruit the number of reservists that he needs, why does he not reinstate the two battalions of the Royal Fusiliers? That will give him the manpower he needs, so why does he not retrain those people?

Mr Hammond: I do not know where the hon. Gentleman gets his information from, but as I said earlier we are five weeks into a five-year recruiting campaign, and I do not see anything about his track record that would lead me to give any particular credence to his prediction about how successful that campaign will be.

Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): In supporting my right hon. Friend’s robust stance, may I urge him to look into the truly staggering level of delays and mistakes in the Army enlistment process? Will he urge the Army recruiting group to prove it is serious by at least getting Army recruiting offices open on evenings or at weekends?

Mr Hammond: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question and freely acknowledge that there have been teething problems with the IT support systems for the recruiting campaigns for the Regular Army and Army Reserve. I was in the Army recruiting centre myself last week with the Chief of the General Staff. This matter has the highest level of attention, both ministerial and military, and a number of initiatives will be implemented over the next few days and weeks that I expect to deliver a significant improvement in the areas that my hon. Friend highlights.

Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I suspect that we will experience regional variations in recruitment, with it being more difficult in some localities than in others. In answer to Question 1, the Secretary of State mentioned that he will produce certain data. Among those data, will there also be an indication of where there are difficulties and what extra efforts are being made at those locations?

Mr Hammond: The targets that we will publish will be national, but the hon. Gentleman is right that there will be different recruiting challenges in different parts of the country. The job for us is to ensure that the Army recruiting centre, the senior officers responsible for it and their recruitment partners, Capita, are agile enough to respond to the data coming in from the front line in the recruitment campaign and flex that campaign accordingly. The plan will not be implemented without change over five years; it will be highly responsive and we will monitor it regularly.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): As the Secretary of State has confirmed again today that failure to achieve the reservist recruitment numbers is not an option, surely there is now no difficulty in his repeating the pledge given by his predecessor that the Regular Army will not be cut until those reservists are recruited.

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Mr Hammond: Any such pledge would be an unfunded spending commitment. We must live within the envelope of resources that we have available, and we have to restructure the armed forces to deliver the configuration we need for Future Force 2020. That means drawing down some regular units and providing support from reserve units, civilians and contractors for some tasks that were previously done within the Regular Army.

Claro Barracks

11. Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): With reference to the Army basing review, what recent discussions he has had on the closure of Claro barracks in Ripon; and if he will make a statement. [900863]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr Andrew Murrison): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He will be acutely aware of the close links between Ripon and the Army, particularly the Royal Engineers. A meeting was held on 4 October 2013 with officials from Harrogate borough council and Ripon city council to discuss the implications of the Army basing plan and the relocation of 21 Engineer Regiment, Royal Engineers. The Department will continue to maintain contact with stakeholders as plans mature. I understand that the next meeting will have taken place by the end of November.

Julian Smith: I thank the Minister for that answer. Ripon is coming to terms with the loss of the base, but we are still waiting for the Ministry of Defence’s decision on whether it ultimately wants to get out of Deverell barracks or Claro barracks. May I urge him to push forward that decision now, so that plans can be made for the future and Ripon is best placed to deal with a difficult time?

Dr Murrison: I fully understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. The announcement that has been made relates to the removal from Ripon of 21 Engineer Regiment, Royal Engineers, as we consolidate around Catterick. The separate but adjacent site, Deverell barracks, and the associated training area have not been subject to that announcement. A decision on them will be made separately, but I understand that the two sites are very much linked.


12. Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): What account his Department takes of the social and economic effects of its procurement decisions in the UK. [900864]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Dunne): Last year, we published the White Paper, “National Security Through Technology”, setting out the purpose of defence procurement—namely, to provide our armed forces with the best capabilities we can afford while obtaining the best possible value for money. The Ministry of Defence makes a significant contribution to the UK economy—approximately £20 billion of annual spend sustaining many highly skilled jobs in communities the length and breadth of Britain—but we also support the defence industry in the UK through active help in export campaigns and in supporting the defence growth partnership, where we share its vision to secure a thriving UK defence sector.

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Nick Smith: It is good that the NATO summit will be held in Newport in Wales next year. Will the Minister please update me on the procurement of the Scout vehicle, which is important for jobs in the south Wales valleys?

Mr Dunne: I add my support to the hon. Gentleman’s efforts to ensure that the NATO summit in Newport is a great success next year. The Scout vehicle is proceeding in its demonstration phase and has passed a number of milestones. As he is aware, it is due to be delivered as part of Future Force 2020. I will not be able to give him an update on the next placing of contracts until such time as the main investment case has been made.

Peter Luff (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): It will not surprise the Minister to learn that I entirely agree with his answer, but may I ask him, on the day when Professor John Perkins’ review of engineering skills has revealed a serious shortage of those skills in this country, what assessment he has made of the impact of that shortage on the defence industries in particular, and on the nation’s operational advantage and freedom of action?

Mr Dunne: I thank my hon. Friend for all his work in stimulating interest among our young people in taking up engineering careers, particularly so that they can take up the many hundreds of engineering jobs for which the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces seek to recruit every year. We are doing a lot of work, not least through the Bloodhound initiative—a project with which he was intimately involved—to raise awareness of engineering skills in the armed forces, and to encourage young people to consider maths, science and engineering as future careers.


14. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab): What contracts for recruitment of armed forces personnel have been outsourced to date; and what arrangements are in place to monitor such contracts. [900866]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Hammond): The Ministry of Defence has not outsourced the recruitment of armed forces personnel, but the Army has entered into a recruiting partnership with Capita, and once the contract is fully operational, payment will be linked to the number of recruits required by the Army. I have already acknowledged that there have been teething problems with the IT support for the contract, but the issue has the attention of those at the highest levels in the Army and in the ministerial team.

Joan Walley: We have heard a lot this afternoon about recruitment and how critical it is to the White Paper, and how difficult it will be to meet the target that has been set. Given the real difficulties with recruitment on the ground—I am referring to unanswered e-mails, lack of communication between departments and lost forms—will the Secretary of State hold an urgent investigation into the way that Capita plays its part in the joint venture, with particular reference to candidate support managers?

Mr Hammond: Yes; we are already doing this. The initiatives that I mentioned to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) are designed to deal with specific problems with the way in which the

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website interacts with mobile devices, and the way that we deal with medical records and with inducting candidates through the interview process. We will reintroduce, on a pilot basis, the idea of a face-to-face weekend process that deals with all the procedures in one hit. If that is successful, we will make it the default option for 2014.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with large public and private sector employers to see how they can better support our reservists to improve the recruitment and, equally importantly, retention of our volunteers?

Mr Hammond: That is absolutely the key to the programme. In the public sector, central Government have made a generous offer of an additional 10 days’ paid leave to reservists in the central Government service, so that they can take those days for training. Many major private companies have already signed up to the corporate covenant, and more are considering doing so. There are excellent examples of companies working with us to reach out to their employees, and to make a joint proposition to them, so that employees join the reserves in a way that is supported by their employer, not done behind the employer’s back.


15. Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): What new capabilities the armed forces are investing in to ensure the UK can properly defend itself from cyber-attacks. [900867]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr Mark Francois): In September, my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary announced the creation of the joint forces cyber group and plans to develop a cyber counter-attack capability. That and other Ministry of Defence measures are part of the £650 million cross-Government investment in cyber that was announced in the strategic defence and security review in 2010.

Justin Tomlinson: Does the Minister agree that in addition to strengthening our cyber-defences, we need to deter attacks? What plans does he have to improve UK deterrence in the cyber-domain?

Mr Francois: In addition to the more than £600 million to which I referred, a £210 million investment to further bolster our cyber-defences was announced by the Chancellor in a statement to Parliament on 26 June this year. That is a clear indication that cyber will play a role in a national deterrent posture. It is critically important to the country, and that is why we are investing in it.

Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): It is reported that convicted hackers could be recruited to Britain’s cyber-defence force. What assurances can the Minister give that robust and sufficient measures will be in place to ensure that national security will not be compromised as a result?

Mr Francois: I can tell the hon. Lady, and indeed the House, that cyber-reserves will be subject to the same stringent vetting process as other members of the Ministry of Defence. Regarding criminal convictions, all applicants

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seeking to join the regulars or reserves are looked at individually, and a decision is made based on the type of conviction and sentence imposed. No one will be employed as a cyber-reserve if there is evidence that they represent a security risk which means that they cannot pass the vetting process.

Trident Alternatives Study

17. Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): What assessment he has made of the conclusions and utility of the Trident alternatives study. [900869]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Hammond): I can tell my hon. Friend that the review demonstrated that no alternative system is as capable as a Trident-based deterrent, or as cost-effective. As to the utility, carrying out the review fulfilled a Government commitment but did not produce any unexpected conclusions.

Dr Lewis: Yes, well, it is good to know that the review came to such a predictable and predicted conclusion, but what does my right hon. Friend think of the fact that our coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, have not adopted any of the options from the review but have decided instead to come off continuous at-sea deterrence and have only two Trident submarines? This was rejected as unworthy of consideration by the review, but now that even the Liberal Democrats want two submarines, should we take up the suggestion of the shadow armed forces Minister, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), and try to sign a contract for them?

Mr Hammond: As my hon. Friend suggests, the reason a two-boat solution was not considered in the review is that it did not meet the hurdle test of providing a credible deterrent. I am actually rather more interested in the views of official Opposition Front Benchers on this matter than the views of our coalition partners. I welcome the fact—[Interruption.] Hang on a minute. I welcome the fact that the first visit in office by the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) was to Barrow-in-Furness, the home of Britain’s submarine fleet.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): On the alternatives review, at Defence questions on 2 September the Secretary of State told my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), who had asked about costs:

“If he submits a written question to me, I will ask the Department to produce the best estimate”.—[Official Report, 2 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 5.]

I have now tabled a number of parliamentary questions, but the Government seem to be refusing to produce a figure. May I gently ask the Secretary of State when he will produce the answer to my questions?

Mr Hammond: I am rather glad that the hon. Gentleman asked me that question. Let me tell him that the Cabinet Office has the lead on this matter because it was a Cabinet Office review. Any question that is phrased in general terms will be answered by the Cabinet Office; were a question to be phrased in very specific terms as to Ministry of Defence resources, then it would fall to me to answer it.

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Topical Questions

T1. [900843] Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Hammond): My first priority remains the success of operations in Afghanistan. Beyond that, my priorities are to deliver the sustainable transformation of the Ministry of Defence, to build confidence within the armed forces in the Future Force 2020 model, to reinforce the armed forces covenant, to maintain budgets in balance, and to deliver equipment programmes on time so that our armed forces can be confident of being properly equipped and trained.

Mr Heath: As we move towards a weekend when we honour the fallen, and also, I hope, bear in mind those who currently serve and veterans of our armed services, does the Secretary of State wish to congratulate the 80% of councils that have now signed up to the community covenant? Will he also follow up the one in five local authorities that have not done so? Surely that is the least they owe to those who serve in our armed forces.

Mr Hammond: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), reminds me that 372 local authorities have signed up, and that is well over 80%. We anticipate that there will be a surge of further authorities signing in the run-up to the act of remembrance on 11 November. However, once that milestone is out of the way, I will be more than happy to answer a question listing the authorities that have not signed up, should any Member feel minded to ask me such a question.

T2. [900844] Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State tell the House how much money has so far been spent on preparations for the replacement of the Trident submarine system and, of course, the missile warheads that go with it, and what representations he has received within the higher echelons of the military not to go ahead with the replacement of Trident but to spend the money on something else?

Mr Hammond: As I have told the hon. Gentleman before, the figure is approximately £3 billion of commitments so far on design and early lead items. I am racking my brains, and I think I can say to him that since I have been in this post, which is just over two years, I have received no representation against the renewal of Trident from any senior officer in the armed forces.

T3. [900845] Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): What progress has my right hon. Friend made with the renegotiation of the aircraft carrier contract?

Mr Hammond: Negotiations with the Aircraft Carrier Alliance are ongoing, but we believe they are close to reaching a conclusion. As soon as we have information to convey to the House, I will seek an early opportunity to make a statement.

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T6. [900848] Mr Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 allows military families based in Scotland to request that an investigation into an operational death overseas be transferred to Scottish jurisdiction for a fatal accident inquiry. A written answer has revealed that, thus far, no families have made such a request. Could Ministers reassure the House that the information is being disseminated to families?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Anna Soubry): I am grateful for that question. I am aware of the difficulty and that is also my understanding of the issue. I will make further inquiries. Of course, one of the problems we know we will face is when we have bereaved families both north and south of the border and what will occur in such circumstances. I would be more than happy to discuss the issue further with the hon. Gentleman.

T4. [900846] Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): Parliament sent a very clear message to the Government—the vote was 92 to nil—not to disband regular units until we were sure that the Army Reserve plan was both viable and cost-effective. What plans do the Government have to enact Parliament’s will?

Mr Hammond: As I have said in answer to an earlier question, it is just not possible, within the resource envelope available, to maintain the regular forces at their previous level while also recruiting and building the reserve. Neither would it allow us to restructure the force in the way necessary to deliver the outputs required from Future Force 2020.

Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): Darlington is home to many forces families, probably because we are so close to Catterick garrison. What more are the Government going to do to support families moving between postings, particularly those who have children with additional needs?

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr Mark Francois): As the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) has already indicated, we are looking at the range of accommodation we provide for service families. Under the new employment model, we also hope to be able to provide greater stability for armed forces personnel. We will still move them, in the interests of the service, but we hope, in many cases, to do so less frequently than we used to. I hope to visit Catterick garrison next week and perhaps this could be one of the things I look at while I am there.

T7. [900849] Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): Cyber-defence is an important part of national security, as well as, obviously, economic regeneration. A number of nations are seeking to restructure the current form of internet governance. What action are Ministers taking to work with Cabinet colleagues to ensure a co-ordinated approach?

Mr Francois: The Foreign Secretary recently mooted some proposals and we discuss the matter frequently, both with other Government Departments and with

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international allies. This matter is in the interest of all our security and we take it very seriously.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): Small businesses in my constituency tell me that late payment threatens their survival and the jobs of their staff. Ministers can quote all the figures they like, but they have to accept that late payment by the MOD is a real problem for some small businesses.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Dunne): If the hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber and listening to my earlier response to the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), he will have heard that there was a single example of a penalty for late payment out of 4 million transactions last year. Where is the evidence to substantiate the allegation made by the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson)?

T8. [900850] Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty) (Con): What discussions has the Secretary of State had with European Ministers on preparations for the European Council on defence?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr Andrew Murrison): Discussions have been extensive, as my hon. Friend would expect. The December Council summit is very important and I am pleased to say that we have been leading like-minded partner nations in the debate to set the agenda, which will be very much about capability and complementarity with NATO. It will most certainly not be about laying down more concrete, which is a prerogative of sovereign states, or, indeed, instituting more command wiring diagrams, which has absolutely nothing to do with our collective security and defence, and everything to do with the misguided political nostrum of ever-closer union.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): Seven Territorial Army centres in the north are set to close by 2016. How on earth will that assist the Government in recruiting up to 30,000 reservists before 2018?

Mr Philip Hammond: As we announced in our reserves basing plan, a small number of TA centres will close and consolidate. We have made a commitment that we will provide reservists with the latest equipment and training opportunities with their Regular Army counterparts. We can do that only by consolidating so that there are units of critical mass. In most cases, the consolidations are taking place within urban conurbations. We expect there to be few cases of people who are not within reasonable travelling distance of the next nearest reserve base.

T9. [900851] Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): Given that the MOD’s figures suggest that the present TA mobilisation rate is 40%, what research or evidence is there to justify the Secretary of State’s contention that that mobilisation will be doubled under the reserve forces plan?

Mr Hammond: I am not entirely sure that I understand my hon. Friend’s question. Under Future Force 2020, we would expect the reservist component of the deployed force on an enduring operation eventually to get to

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40%. The construct that we are planning is designed to support that level. That level is still lower than what many of our English speaking allies routinely expect to use.

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Given the 20% cut in the Army, what representative structures exist so that the understandable concerns of servicemen and women can be heard in Whitehall and the upper echelons of the armed forces?

Mr Francois: Of course, we have something called the chain of command. We also have a number of other bodies such as the Army Families Federation, which represents service families very effectively in my experience. In the Ministry of Defence, we never lack advice, but we also do our best to provide solutions.

T10. [900852] George Hollingbery (Meon Valley) (Con): The Meon Valley constituency is home to many who work in the defence sector for companies such as Northrop Grumman, Chemring, Cobham and many smaller defence-related businesses. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what efforts the Government are making to boost employment in this sector, which is so important to the prospects of many of my constituents?

Mr Dunne: The three companies to which my hon. Friend refers are important suppliers to the Ministry of Defence through both open competition and single-source capability. I encourage each of those companies to continue bidding for relevant MOD contracts when they are advertised through the portals that are well known to them. I have met representatives of each company at recent defence company exhibitions both in the UK at the Defence Security and Equipment International exhibition in September and overseas. Along with Ministers from other Departments, we actively support responsible defence exports by all quality British companies.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): What is the MOD doing to improve its communication with local communities when bases, such as the one in Kirton in Lindsey, are being transferred out of MOD ownership?

Dr Murrison: We engage with all stakeholders. It is vital, as we restructure, that we take local authorities with us. Our record across the country has been very positive in that respect.

Sir Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I agreed with much of the Minister’s reply about the European Defence Council meeting in December. However, when do the Government expect to announce the review of Britain’s membership of the European Defence Agency? Given that we have rightly criticised other European nations for a lack of defence effort, would it not be perverse to turn our back on one of the few practical ways of doing something about it?

Dr Murrison: The European Defence Agency has its merits. We have been perfectly up front about that. However, it also has its problems. This country has been helpful in guiding the EDA as it evolves and we are keeping the matter under review. Our experience is that that approach has been effective in procuring the change

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that is needed in the way the EDA operates and in the efficiency with which it operates. We will continue in that light.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): The Minister’s earlier response to me was shockingly complacent and refused, notably, to deal with new contracts and the failure to roll out direct payments, as the Government said they would. Will he respond to my constituents who run small and medium-sized enterprises that supply the MOD? They said:

“The MOD remains as inefficient as ever…Their commercial support is lacking and things take for ever to finalise…The MOD is in a mess in some areas we deal with.”

Mr Dunne: I am sorry that I disappointed the hon. Gentleman, who had clearly got his facts wrong when he stood up the first time. This Ministry pays 92% of bills within five days, and we make arrangements specifically for small and medium-sized companies to make part payments to assist them with their cash flow. I would be happy for the hon. Gentleman to write to me if he has any other specific evidence to substantiate his claim.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): May I ask my right hon. Friend what percentage of the £1.8 billion allocated to bolster reserve forces has been spent already?

Mr Philip Hammond: I cannot give my hon. Friend a precise answer because some of the money is committed to infrastructure, and some to equipment programmes that are in the process of being rolled out. Perhaps I can offer him a written answer that will provide some indication of where we are in this process.

Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): In the recent dispute between Spain and Gibraltar, would it be appropriate to threaten the withdrawal of the British ambassador to Spain before somebody is injured?

Dr Murrison: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, but that is, of course, a matter for the Foreign Secretary. As the Minister for the Armed Forces has already said, we utterly condemn the action taken by the Guardia Civil, which was distinctly unhelpful. Not only is it an invasion of sovereign territory, but it is also dangerous. The Guardia Civil cannot continue operating like that and expect that nobody will get hurt.

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Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): May I invite the Secretary of State to commit to operating both aircraft carriers? A single carrier can be operational for only two thirds of the year, whereas a second carrier would ensure that we have year-round capability and allow us to work up not only a carrier strike but expeditionary capability as well.

Mr Philip Hammond: I am grateful to my hon. Friend—nice try. As he knows, however, it will be decided in the 2015 strategic defence and security review whether or not to bring into operation the second carrier, HMS Prince of Wales.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Given the recent increase in its centrifuge capability, and that there is no plausible use for the amount of uranium it has enriched to 20% and beyond, how close does my right hon. Friend feel that Iran is to developing a nuclear warhead that is ballistically deliverable to either Tel Aviv or Riyadh?

Mr Philip Hammond: I do not want to speculate on how close Iran could be to developing any kind of warhead, but I reassure my hon. Friend that the Government support the process of engagement with the Iranian regime to test whether it is serious when it says that it wants to negotiate with the west.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): Given previous failures, the Government are rightfully changing the framework for defence procurement, which generates a £22 billion turnover. Will the Minister confirm that under the new arrangements there will be more opportunities for small businesses to get their fair share of that expenditure?

Mr Dunne: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s contribution in the Defence Reform Bill Committee. He has consistently championed the role of small businesses in defence procurement—something that the Government wish to take forward. Tomorrow, I will chair the SME forum at the Centre for Defence Enterprise in Harwell, and I will be picking up on those points.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues but as usual demand has outstripped supply.

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Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed

3.33 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the abscond of an individual subject to a terrorism prevention and investigation measure, or TPIM. The Metropolitan police believe that on Friday 1 November, TPIM subject Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed absconded from his controls. He was last seen at 3.15 pm inside a mosque in Acton. The police counter-terrorism command immediately launched an intensive covert operation to trace Mohamed, and inquiries continue. Ports and borders were notified with his photograph, and details were circulated nationally and internationally.

Acting on police advice, on Saturday I applied to the High Court for an order protecting Mohamed’s anonymity to be lifted, in order to assist the police with their investigation. Last night, the police appealed for the public’s help in tracing him. The police have urged anyone who sees Mohamed or knows of his whereabouts not to approach him but to call 999 or contact the anti-terrorist hotline.

The police and Security Service have confirmed that they do not believe Mohamed poses a direct threat to the public in the UK. The reason he was put on a TPIM in the first place was to prevent his travelling to support terrorism overseas.

I have spoken several times over the weekend to the director general of the Security Service, Andrew Parker, and to the Metropolitan police assistant commissioner for specialist operations, Cressida Dick. I received another briefing earlier today. They have told me that they believe they have all the resources and support they need to carry out the manhunt. However, I will not hesitate to provide them with any additional assistance they require.

The whole House will join me in thanking the police and the Security Service for their continued efforts to keep our country safe. Their focus is to locate and arrest Mr Mohamed. They are doing everything in their power to apprehend him as quickly as possible. The Government will provide them with all the support they need. I commend this statement to the House.

3.35 pm

Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab): Parliament will be deeply concerned about the Home Secretary’s statement. Obviously, all hon. Members want the police and the Security Service to have all possible help to apprehend Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed as soon as possible. The Home Secretary says that Mr Mohamed poses no direct threat, even though he is widely reported in the media to have attended terror training camps, procured weapons and planned attacks. He has walked away from a terror suspect order in a very simple disguise, and the Home Secretary has no idea where he is. He is the second man in 10 months who has absconded while subject to a TPIM. There were only 10 such men to begin with, and two have now gone: one in a black cab and one in a disguise. The Opposition called for controls to be tightened, for the legislation to be revisited and for lessons to be learned. None of that has happened. The Home Secretary has done nothing.

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Since control orders were strengthened some years ago, no one absconded—since 2007. Lord Carlile, the former counter-terror reviewer, has said:

“nobody absconded while subject to a relocation order”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 January 2013; Vol. 742, c. 20.]

However, since the Home Secretary got rid of relocation orders and control orders and introduced the weaker TPIMs, two terror suspects have vanished. Ibrahim Magag was previously relocated to the west country. The Home Secretary’s decision brought him back, and he disappeared. Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed was previously relocated outside London. The Home Secretary’s decision brought him back and he, too, has disappeared. Her policies brought those two terror suspects back into contact with their old networks and with people who could help them to disappear, and made it easier for them to run off.

Last time the Home Secretary said there was plenty of money for the added surveillance needed, so was Mr Mohamed under active surveillance when he entered the mosque, or was it just ordinary CCTV? His case was in court on Friday—he was accused of tampering with his tag—but why did the Government drop the case? Were the tags faulty? Were there other charges?

The Home Secretary said that Mr Mohamed was under a TPIM to stop him travelling overseas. What did she plan to do next year when his and all the other TPIMs ran out?

TPIMs apply to a very small number of difficult cases. Everyone recognises that there is no perfect answer and that there will always be challenges, but this Home Secretary has made it easier for serious terror suspects to disappear. That is irresponsible. She was warned about changing the law and weakening controls. She was warned that more people would abscond and they have done so—twice—but still she will not act. The question on everyone’s lips is: how many more warnings does the Home Secretary need?

Mrs May: This is a serious issue, but the right hon. Lady’s response was beneath somebody who is supposed to understand these matters.

The right hon. Lady referred to the money available for surveillance. I understand that she briefed Sky News this morning that she would tell the House of Commons that there have been cuts to the funding for monitoring and surveillance. I notice that she has dropped that from her argument, because the truth, as she well knows, is that as part of the TPIM package the Government introduced in 2011 we did not cut the surveillance budget for the police and Security Service but increased it—by tens of millions of pounds per year. We did not cut the budgets for counter-terrorism, policing and the security service; we protected them.

The right hon. Lady asked about the lessons learned from the Magag case. I can confirm that there was a review of that case, which was shared with David Anderson, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, who mentioned it in his annual review. All the recommendations of that review have been acted on. I can also confirm that a similar review will be conducted of this case.

The right hon. Lady referred to the changes in TPIMs. They are, of course, time-limited, but time limits have nothing to do with this case, as the subject was still bound by the terms of his TPIM. What she never tells

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the House when she makes this point is that 43 people who were subject to control orders have now exited those control orders. The truth is that even before time-limited TPIMs were introduced, the courts would not allow people to be left permanently on control orders. When the Metropolitan Police Commissioner was asked whether he had concerns about time limits, he said:

“I do not think so.”

Yvette Cooper: What about relocations?

Mrs May: I will come on to the relocations.

The right hon. Lady talked about tagging. GPS tags are used to provide information on the location of TPIM subjects and the tags that are used for TPIMs are significantly better than the ones they replaced, which had no ability to track subjects outside their homes. In this case, the police believe that the tag functioned exactly as it should have done, but it will be one of the aspects considered as part of the review of the case, and I should tell the House that I have been advised that this abscond does not raise any new operational issues with the tags.

The right hon. Lady also talked about relocation, but she knows that if someone is determined to break the terms of their TPIM or control order, there is little to stop them doing so in one place or another. David Anderson, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, says:

“The only sure way to prevent absconding is to lock people up in a high security prison.”

Unless the right hon. Lady is proposing the introduction of such draconian laws—and I thought she had conceded long ago that 90 days was too long—she should accept what David Anderson says. There will always be the risk of an abscond.

The shadow Home Secretary talked about the control order regime as though it never allowed any absconding by its subjects, but during the six years that control orders existed, there were seven absconds and only one of those seven people was ever found again. The idea that somehow control orders prevented absconds is not true. Even if we wanted to go back to the days of control orders, we would not be able to do so. The powers available under control orders were being steadily eroded by the courts, and the system was becoming unviable. Unlike control orders, TPIMs have been upheld consistently by the courts, so we now have a strong and sustainable legal framework to handle terror suspects.

The police and security service have always said that there has been no substantial increase in overall risk since the introduction of TPIMs, and despite the implication of what the right hon. Lady said, we have increased by tens of millions of pounds the annual budget for surveillance by the police and security service—and we have also given them new powers. In April this year, in a written statement, I explained how we would use the royal prerogative to remove passports from British nationals whom we want to prevent from travelling abroad to take part in extremist activity, terrorism training or other fighting. That power has already been used on several occasions since it was introduced. As for foreign nationals, the Immigration Bill will make it easier for us to get them out of the country, By the way, the Opposition failed to vote for that Bill on Second Reading.

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The idea that under this Government the police and Security Service have fewer powers to keep us safe is just wrong. The idea that they have less money to keep us safe is wrong. The right hon. Lady should take her responsibilities seriously and support the police and Security Service in the important work that they do.

Angie Bray (Ealing Central and Acton) (Con): Acton is a diverse community. It is also, overwhelmingly, a peaceful and law-abiding community. At its centre sits a mosque well known for being moderate, mainstream and popular. However, I am aware of concerns about potential radicalisation of younger members of the community. Will my right hon. Friend tell me whether her Department had previous concerns about the An-Noor Masjid and Community centre, from which this young man was able to escape?

Mrs May: This is an issue to which my hon. Friend has paid much attention in her constituency. I understand that the mosque authorities have been co-operating with the police and we welcome that co-operation. She refers to radicalisation. Within our counter-terrorism strategy we have the Prevent strand, which is precisely to ensure that young people and others do not find themselves being radicalised, and that we can exercise interventions, particularly through the Channel programme, to help to stop that radicalisation taking place. As I said in relation to the mosque where this individual was last sighted, I am pleased that the mosque authorities have been co-operating with the police.

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): In the light of no abscondings under control orders in the five years from 2007 after they were strengthened, but two abscondings in the past 10 months since TPIMs, which the Home Secretary introduced, greatly weakened the controls on these individuals, does she not think that a little contrition rather than bombast would be appropriate in these circumstances? Does she not recognise that the fundamental responsibility of any Home Secretary is to take proper measures to protect the safety and security of the British people? She has failed to do so by acting irresponsibly in weakening the powers available to control terrorists.

Mrs May: May I first say to the right hon. Gentleman that this is my first opportunity in the Chamber to note that he has announced his retirement from politics? He has given many years of service to this House, to his constituents and to the Government in various roles. I am sure there are many people who will be sorry to see him go from this Chamber.

National security is always the Government’s first priority. The right hon. Gentleman quoted some figures. I have to say to him that, yes, there have been two absconds in the two years that TPIMs have been in place, but there were seven absconds in six years under control orders. As I made clear in my response to the shadow Home Secretary, the control order regime was gradually being eroded by the courts. What we now have under TPIMs is a legally supported regime that puts measures in place to control and provide for those individuals whom we cannot prosecute, but who present a risk. The best place for any individual who is a terrorist is behind bars.

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Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): May I commend my right hon. Friend’s approach and urge her to go further in her robustness and scrap the Labour-introduced Human Rights Act 1998? While she is at it, will she follow the advice of our right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) and have the burqa banned in this country? It is alien to our culture and has enabled this man to abscond.

Mrs May: I thank my hon. Friend. He and I, as Conservative Members, both stood on a manifesto at the general election to scrap the Human Rights Act. I expect to stand on that manifesto at the next general election; it will be a Conservative commitment. He asks about the burqa. I will repeat my position, which is one that I have made clear on previous occasions. First, I believe it is the right of a woman to choose how she dresses. We should allow women to be free to make that choice for themselves. There will be circumstances when it is right to ask for a veil to be removed—for example, at border security or perhaps in courts—and individual institutions, like schools, will make their own policies on dress. However, I fundamentally believe it is the right of a woman to be free to decide how to dress.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I welcome what the Home Secretary has said about the burqa. This is not a case where the burqa is responsible. I urge her to look at the role of G4S and the tags that have been provided. As she knows, last week a number of cases were dropped after the police found out that there was a suggestion that tags had been tampered with; in fact, it was a question of wear and tear. Will she please investigate this again, rather than just accept that assurance? Was Mr Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed a British citizen? If he was, when did he acquire citizenship, bearing in mind the fact that he was a supporter of al-Shabaab, and does she have his passport?

Mrs May: On the last points, Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed is indeed a British citizen. I do not have his passport, but the police do. I know the right hon. Gentleman raised the same issue over the Magag case. On tags, as I said earlier, the police believe that, in this case, the tag functioned exactly as it should have done. He referred to the court case. The issue there was not about the effectiveness of the tags, but about reaching the evidence threshold for taking a criminal prosecution in relation to the operation of the tag.[Official Report, 6 November 2013, Vol. 570, c. 1MC.]

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): I agree completely with the Home Secretary that people who have committed terrorism offences should be convicted and in jail. Does she agree, however, that to have forcible relocation for people not convicted of any offence is not only a bad idea, but deeply un-British?

Mrs May: As my hon. Friend knows, the TPIM legislation did not contain relocation provisions. As I indicated in a couple of earlier responses, gradually, over time, the courts were reducing the ability to use various measures within the control orders, and they made it clear that they were not orders on which people should be left indefinitely.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Can we work on the reasonable assumption that the Home Secretary’s spin doctors will not shortly be telling us

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that this happened because of that wicked man Edward Snowden or that somehow

The Guardian

was responsible for what occurred?

Mrs May: No.

Mr David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds) (Con): My right hon. Friend has protected surveillance budgets since she came into office and was the first Home Secretary to deport Abu Qatada. In short, she is a commendably tough Home Secretary. Will she allow me to say that as a result of those things, Government Members can trust her to find out what went on in this case and that we have 100% confidence in how she is running the show?

Mrs May: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. As I indicated earlier, there will be a review of the operation of this case, as there was in relation to Ibrahim Magag, and any lessons that need to be learned will be.

Hazel Blears (Salford and Eccles) (Lab): This year, 12 people previously convicted under terrorism legislation will be released and on our streets. Early next year, the orders of many of those still on TPIMs will come to an end. The independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson, has said it is

“tempting, in the most serious cases, to wish for longer”

than the two years under TPIMs, and has described those whose orders will expire as at

“the highest end of seriousness”.

What steps is the Home Secretary taking to manage the undoubted increase in risk that will result from those on TPIMs who have completed their sentences under terrorism legislation being released and walking our streets?

Mrs May: The right hon. Lady started by referring to people being released, but these were people who had come to the end of their sentence. That is what happens—it happens in the normal course of events—but for individuals who pose a terrorist risk, or who are suspected of posing a terrorist risk, the law enforcement agencies take appropriate measures to ensure the security and safety of the public. As I said, national security is the Government’s first concern.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I offer the Home Secretary my full support. As she will know, under existing legislation, she has the power to revoke the British citizenship of somebody who holds dual citizenship. May I encourage her to undertake a review of all those in custody and under TPIMs who hold dual citizenship and to consider revoking their British citizenship so that we can deport them more freely back to their home countries?

Mrs May: I note the point that my hon. Friend makes. I think I am right in saying that the majority of individuals who are under TPIMs are British nationals. He is right to say that it is possible to revoke the British citizenship of someone who is a dual national, but we would have to ensure that we did not render anyone stateless in so doing. There are a number of people who are subject to TPIMs who are British nationals.

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Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): With two suspects on the run, no powers of relocation and a number of the current orders due to end early next year, is it now the Home Secretary’s policy to phase out the use of TPIMs?

Mrs May: TPIMs remain on the statute book as a tool that can be used when it is most appropriate to do so. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman and I agree that we would prefer to see anyone who is in any way involved in terrorism being prosecuted, convicted and sent to jail. As David Anderson has said, the only really secure place for someone who is a terrorist is behind bars. TPIMs remain on the statute book as a tool to be used when it is operationally appropriate to do so.

Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I also offer my full support to my right hon. Friend. Does she agree that we would do well to remember the long saga of detentions, control orders and absconding under the previous Government, following hard on the heels of the introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998, which has made it so difficult to deal with dangerous people in our society? Can we now expect some humility, common sense and realism from those on the Opposition Benches regarding their responsibility for that?

Mrs May: We might expect that, but from everything we have seen today and on previous occasions, I fear that we shall not see much sign of getting it.

Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab): The Home Secretary has sought to blame the courts for chipping away at the previous regime, but she cannot escape the fact that it was a deliberate decision by her and her Government to increase the freedoms of these terror suspects by granting them access to technology and removing the relocation power. The former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Lord Carlile, said today that the lack of a relocation power was

“always going to be a vulnerability in the way TPIMs operate”.

In the wake of this latest absconsion, will she now reconsider the sunset clause in relation to the remaining TPIMs? If not, will she acknowledge that, as a result of a deliberate political decision by her Government, the rest of the suspects will be released on to the streets without supervision in a few months’ time?

Mrs May: I will make two comments in response to the right hon. Gentleman’s question. First, he knows full well that when TPIMs were introduced, this Government increased the funding available to the police and the Security Service for surveillance to the tune of tens of millions of pounds a year. I pointed this out in an earlier response to the shadow Home Secretary. Secondly, he referred to time limits but, as I have said, 43 people were on control orders and all of them have now exited those controls.

Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, under her leadership of the Home Office, despite the difficult times of austerity that we inherited from the previous Government, the funding in this area has increased, not decreased, as was suggested in duff information given to the media earlier? Will she also confirm that in May 2007, the then Labour

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Home Secretary had to come to the Chamber to explain why three men had escaped while under the control orders regime of the previous failed Government?

Mrs May: My hon. Friend has got his facts absolutely correct about those who absconded while under control orders. We have protected the funding for counter-terrorism policing and increased the funding for surveillance and other measures as part of the package relating to the introduction of TPIMs. As I said, that involves tens of millions of pounds a year.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I should like to take the Secretary of State back to the answer she gave to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert). What convictions have been obtained against Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed? What prosecutions are planned? Does she not think that there is something deeply dangerous about using the royal prerogative to bypass Parliament in order to take away someone’s nationality or access to a passport? Should not an element of accountability be essential in any democratic liberal society such as ours?

Mrs May: For those who are under TPIMs, and others, we make every effort to ensure that prosecutions take place whenever possible. I commend the Security Service in this regard. A number of individuals were prosecuted earlier this year for terrorism-related offences relating to significant plots. This shows the very good work that the police and the Security Service do on a daily basis to keep the public safe. I believe that it is appropriate to have slightly changed the ruling in relation to the interpretation of the exercise of the royal prerogative. It is important to have that measure available; and, as the hon. Gentleman will see from the fact that I am here at the Dispatch Box answering his question, I am also accountable to this House.

Mr Ben Wallace (Wyre and Preston North) (Con): Unlike the shadow Home Secretary, I have actually taken part in surveillance operations, and it is incredibly hard to watch someone 100% of the time. To come here and try to blame the Home Secretary for what is probably an operational front-line challenge is to play politics with our forces of law and order. Does the Home Secretary agree that one way to improve the capability of our Security Service and police force—to improve surveillance or to get more convictions—would be to introduce the communications data Bill which Labour opposes and our coalition partners block?

Mrs May: I commend my hon. Friend for bringing his personal experience to the debate; he has more experience of participating in surveillance operations than I do. He is absolutely right that we ask our Security Service and law enforcement agencies to undertake difficult tasks and that they do an excellent job for us on a day-by-day basis; they are not, I think, often enough praised for the work they do. My hon. Friend is also right about the importance of communications data. I have been clear on many occasions, including in this Chamber, that I believe we need to increase the ability of our law enforcement and security and intelligence agencies to access the data that will enable them to investigate—but, crucially, in many cases, also to prosecute —those involved in terrorism and organised crime.

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Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): The Home Secretary told us at the time of Ibrahim Magag’s escape that the security and surveillance elements of the TPIMs were specific to each individual package and subject to regular review. Is she in a position to tell us when the arrangements covering this individual were last reviewed?

Mrs May: The money made available both to the police and the Security Service was made available around the TPIMs package, and obviously there are a number of ways in which that funding will have been used to enhance their capabilities. As to the individuals under TPIMs, there are regular reviews of the nature of the measures attached to them. As I said, those reviews take place regularly and for every subject of a TPIM.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): I thank the Home Secretary for her statement. Will she explain what action will be taken against Mr Mohamed to protect the public if he is caught?

Mrs May: When Mr Mohamed is caught, as I hope he will be, he will of course be guilty of a breach of his TPIM order, and I would expect appropriate prosecution to follow.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Would not the difficult job of keeping up surveillance on these nine individuals who are subject to TPIMs be made easier if relocation orders were made available? Does the Home Secretary not understand that the British people would expect her at least to review these procedures in the light of the fact that all it seems necessary to do to evade them is either to hail a black cab or to dress up in a burqa?

Mrs May: I have made it absolutely clear that all the measures relating to individuals under TPIMs are regularly reviewed to ensure that they continue to be appropriate. We have made more funding available to the police and to the Security Service when the TPIMs were introduced—and that funding continues to the tune of extra tens of millions of pounds a year—to enhance their capabilities for dealing with these subjects. I remind the hon. Gentleman, furthermore, that the police and security services have to deal with a number of individuals, not simply those involved in TPIMs, and we saw some good prosecutions earlier this year of those who were involved in plots to cause significant harm to British citizens.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): My right hon. Friend is quite right to point out that Labour’s control orders were failing. Their powers were being eroded by the courts and there were seven absconsions in six years. Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), will she say what might happen to those who may be assisting Mr Mohamed at the moment?

Mrs May: When it is possible to take criminal action against people who have been involved in criminal offences, we will expect appropriate action to be taken through prosecutions. As I have said this afternoon and on a number of other occasions, I believe that the best place for those who are involved in terrorism is behind bars.

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Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): Can the Home Secretary confirm that Mr Mohamed was previously relocated outside London?

Mrs May: I am not in a position to comment on the individual aspects of the case, and I do not think the hon. Lady would expect me to do so.

Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): Labour is the party of ID cards, dodgy dossiers and 90 days of detention without trial. Why would anyone heed Labour Members’ advice on security and the rule of law?

Mrs May: I thank my hon. Friend for reminding us of those facts. I believe that the very first Bill introduced by the present Government was the Bill to abolish the ID card scheme that the previous Government had introduced, and I am pleased to say that it was this Government who reduced the period of pre-charge detention from 28 days to 14—although, as my hon. Friend has reminded us, the last Labour Government discussed increasing it to as much as 90 days.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. I listened patiently to the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans), but it was difficult to detect anything in his scripted question that appertained to the policy of the Government. I have exercised my natural tolerance on this occasion, but I trust that the hon. Gentleman will not push his luck in future. Questions must be about the policies of the Government, not those of the Opposition.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): How many people under TPIMs does the Home Secretary need to lose before she reviews the policy of relocation?

Mrs May: The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind what I said earlier, which was a statement of fact: that over the years, the courts were beginning to erode the control orders that his party had introduced. We responded to that with a package of TPIMs legislation, and, crucially, by giving extra funding to our law enforcement and security services to help them do their job of keeping the public safe.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): The Human Rights Act seems to give succour to some terrorists. Is it not about time that we replaced it with a British Bill of Rights, which would probably protect our citizens much better?

Mrs May: As I have already made clear, I think that we should indeed consider replacing the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights, and the Conservatives will take that policy to the next election. Meanwhile, I am taking the action that I can take to make it easier for us to deport foreign criminals in particular, and to ensure that certain aspects of the interpretation of the European convention on human rights reflect the will of this Parliament. As we know, this Parliament is on the people’s side, and that is where the law, and its interpretation, should be as well.

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): When did the Home Secretary know that Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed had become a British citizen, and when did she become aware of his terrorist activities?

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Mrs May: I looked at the issue of the individual’s terrorist activities when the TPIM was placed on him. I do not have the information about when he became a British citizen in my mind at this moment, but I shall be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman and the Chairman of the Select Committee.

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): My right hon. Friend said that the case would be submitted to the independent reviewer. Can she give us some idea of how long she expects him to take to make recommendations? Consistent with the robust position that she always takes in protecting the people of this country, can she confirm that, if necessary, she will announce further measures to the House to ensure that terrorists who cannot be prosecuted are dealt with properly and the public are protected?

Mrs May: As I said earlier, national security and the protection of the public are always at the forefront of the Government’s mind when we are considering these issues.

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for enabling me to clarify something that I said earlier, which his question suggests may have led to some misunderstanding. The review in the case of Ibrahim Magag was undertaken by the Home Office, but it was overseen by the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation. It is not in his remit actually to review, but he looked at the Home Office review and said that it was thorough, and I expect him to look at the review that will be undertaken in this case as well.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): To be honest, it is not that easy to balance the conflicting interests of security and individual liberty and freedom, but what really worries me about the attitude the Home Secretary has presented today is that she seems to think that these two men came up with some phenomenally cunning plan. One of them jumped in a black cab and the other slipped on a burqa. Surely she understands that the others will probably be laughing in her face.

Mrs May: Obviously, there are a number of operational issues that will be looked at when we review this case, but I am not really sure what question the hon. Gentleman was asking; I do not think there was a question at all.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): In August 2011 the Home Secretary told Parliament in an oral statement that she was going to change the law relating to face coverings. If that had happened—or, indeed, if the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) banning face coverings in public had been introduced—she would not have had to come to the House today. Has she changed her mind on that policy?

Mrs May: We did indeed consult on the issue of face coverings, but that was about not the wearing of the burqa but the powers available to the police in circumstances

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such as mass demonstrations and riots where people are covering their faces, and whether the police needed any further powers. The police were clear that the powers available to them were sufficient for them to be able to deal with such circumstances in future, which is why we did not bring forward any legislation on that matter.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I commend the Home Secretary in at least one respect today: her generous words for my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) may cause him to pause and think that perhaps he will not depart this place, but will instead stand again. However, in the light of there having been two absconders within 10 months, should the Home Secretary not consider whether the measures she has put in place might be improved?

Mrs May: I am clear that we have the TPIM legislation on the statute book, and that it will be used when it is considered operationally appropriate for it to be used. The range of measures that will be applicable to an individual will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Given that the burqa is mediaeval, sexist and oppressive and given that, as we now know, it represents the easiest and most complete disguise for a Muslim terrorist suspect, will the Secretary of State reconsider her opposition to my Face Coverings (Prohibition) Bill? May I also say to her that this is not about telling women what to wear: first, because we now know that men wear burqas as well as women; and secondly, because this issue is about somebody concealing their identity, and such a law must cover both balaclavas and burqas?

Mrs May: Despite my hon. Friend’s best efforts, my position on this issue has not changed in the last half-hour. I continue to believe in relation to the burqa and niqab that it is for an individual woman to decide how she chooses to dress. Women should be free to make that choice for themselves. There will be circumstances in which it is appropriate to require somebody to remove a face covering: that could be in court, as we have seen in a number of instances; it could be at the border, for security purposes; and individual institutions such as schools should make their own policy in relation to dress that they consider appropriate in their institution. I continue to hold the view that it is not for the Government to tell women how to dress.

Mr Speaker: Order. None of us wishes unduly to embarrass the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), but following the Home Secretary’s most gracious tribute to him, may I say—on behalf, I think, of Members throughout the House—that the way in which, after 30 years of uninterrupted service on the Front Bench, the right hon. Gentleman has shown his continuing respect for Parliament and enjoyed something of a Back-Bench renaissance over the last three years is hugely respected in all parts of the Chamber?

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Points of Order

4.14 pm

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I thank the right hon. Lady, the Home Secretary, for her generous remarks, and you, Mr Speaker, and just say that I am not dead yet?

Mr Speaker: I think we are clear on that point now, even if we were not before.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. When the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) was Justice Secretary, he had the kindness to ring me early one morning to say that he was making an oral statement about putting Wellingborough prison out to market testing. Unfortunately, under this Government the prison was closed and I learnt about it on a radio programme. I have today, Sir, learnt by letter that they are now selling it off. Would it not have been a courtesy to this House for them to have made a statement?

Mr Speaker: I am rather perturbed to learn what the hon. Gentleman has just said. As he knows, the decision on whether or not to make statements is in the hands of Ministers. Ordinarily, certain courtesies obtain in dealings between colleagues, including, most notably, between those who hold Executive power and Back- Bench Members in whose constituencies particular important decisions are contemplated or made. I do not think I can go further than that today, but knowing just what a thoroughly—I hate to use this word in the light of his surname—dogged individual he is, I feel sure that

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Mr Bone will raise the matter, either at his own behest or on the advice of Mrs Bone, before very long.

Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last week, I received a very short answer to three detailed questions I had tabled about the access to elected office for disabled people fund, which exists to help improve the diversity of this place. Never mind answers, I barely received an acknowledgement that there were, in fact, questions tabled. May I seek your advice on how to get answers to these questions, especially as this is an important matter concerning the diversity and make-up of this House?

Mr Speaker: I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. I am well aware of that £2.6 million fund, about which I was speaking in Edinburgh on Friday. If memory serves me correctly, the fund is a follow-through from the recommendations of the Speaker’s Conference which concluded in February 2010. The matter is indeed of the utmost importance, so I am disappointed if she has received less than substantive responses. The general principle here, as the Deputy Leader of the House, who is on the Treasury Bench, will know, is that ministerial replies to questions should be both timely and substantive. If they are heavily delayed, that is a discourtesy. If they are “insubstantive” or insubstantial, whether delayed or not, that is not serving the House. Members look for a response that is as comprehensive as possible and informative. If the hon. Lady has not achieved that so far, I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House may be willing, in Parliament’s interest, to assist her in her endeavours. If she has to go through the Table Office again to probe further, I do not think she will require any additional encouragement from me.

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National Insurance Contributions Bill

Second Reading

4.18 pm

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill underlines this Government’s belief that pro-business policies help growth and job creation. For too long, our economy has been dependent on a booming financial services sector, on the one hand, and unsustainable levels of public spending, on the other. That made us particularly vulnerable to the crisis of 2007-08, the consequences of which continue to be felt today.

The challenge the Government faced in 2010 was how to begin the process of getting our public finances in order and to put in place the conditions for growth. Some believed that it was not possible to do both and some argued that measures to reduce the deficit would result in higher levels of unemployment. It was the Leader of the Opposition, no less, who said that the Government clearly had

“a programme that will lead to the disappearance of one million jobs”.

That was just over three years ago and there are now more people in work than ever before.

Since the coalition came to power, employment has increased by more than 1 million and there are 1.4 million private sector jobs, more than there were at the time of the last election. Employment in the three months until August 2013 was at its highest ever level, at 29.87 million. Those predicting disaster massively underestimated the capability of businesses up and down the country to adapt, innovate and expand, but they also failed to appreciate that we now had in place a Government on the side of businesses who were willing to put in place the conditions that help them to invest and expand, whether by addressing burdensome regulations or reforming our tax system.

In case we forget, such action included reversing the worst effects of the previous Government’s jobs tax. Yes, at a time when we needed businesses more than ever to take on more staff, Labour’s contribution to deficit reduction consisted of increasing the tax on jobs.

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Does my hon. Friend think that it is possibly because they are embarrassed by that record that there are only two Labour Back Benchers in the whole Chamber and nobody from the other Opposition parties? How many extra jobs does he think his excellent Bill might help to create?

Mr Gauke: My right hon. Friend makes a very good observation. I can rarely remember so few Labour Members being present for the opening of a Second Reading debate. I was beginning to take it personally, but he has reassured me that this issue does not attract the interest of the Opposition. Labour is the party that intended to increase the jobs tax. Pretty much the only measure that they had for deficit reduction was to increase employers’ national insurance contributions, which was not a sensible approach at all.

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We are not predicting how many jobs the Bill might create because a number of factors apply. It is interesting to note, however, that the Federation of Small Businesses believes that the measure is better than the one that it had advocated, which it anticipated would have created 45,000 new jobs. It has carried out a survey of its members and 28% of respondents believed that this measure would help them to increase the number of people they employ. That is a very encouraging step.

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): I accept entirely that the Minister cannot give specifics on the number of jobs the Bill will create, although quite evidently it will create jobs. Can he estimate how many employers he expects it to assist, particularly in the north-east?

Mr Gauke: That is a similar point, and, as I say, I am nervous about giving precise numbers. Of the FSB respondents, 28% believed that this would help them. We believe that we have to consider a range of measures, but clearly measures that reduce the cost of taking on staff must help in increasing employment. For example, the Bill would enable a business to take on four people on the national minimum wage and not pay any employers’ national insurance contributions at all. That will clearly help.

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): My hon. Friend mentions the welcome for this Bill from the FSB. Is he aware that charities and social enterprises will also benefit from it? Alex Swallow, chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition, said:

“For a lot of the smallest charities, having one paid member of staff is a big step forward…having this allowance now helps them to do that, so it is a very positive thing.”

Mr Gauke: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. She makes an important point that applies to both businesses and charities. Taking on the first member of staff can be the most difficult step, as it is a big event for a business. If we are able to help and to reform our tax system to enable businesses or charities to take that member of staff on without paying the jobs tax—employer’s national insurance contributions—that will clearly encourage those businesses, which, I hope, will then take on further staff and expand.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): Will my hon. Friend confirm that the measure was the largest tax cut in the Budget? Does he therefore not think it is all the more surprising that there are no Labour Members here to scrutinise a major plank of that Budget?

Mr Gauke: Another observation one could make is that there are no Labour Members of Parliament here because they are—[Interruption.] I apologise. That remark is unfair and I withdraw it. There are the Labour Front Benchers and now three Back Benchers. Who knows? We might reach five or six by the end of the debate. Perhaps Labour Members have confidence in, and enthusiasm for, the Bill and can find nothing to criticise. However, we look forward to the speeches to come later. On that note, as the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) has waited so patiently, and as it is about time that we heard from a Labour Member, I give way to her.

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Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): I thank the Minister for giving way. Has he considered the fact that there are only a few Labour Members here because, to our relief, he has, in the end, listened to what we have been asking for and included a great deal of it in the Bill? I congratulate him on listening to us, and therefore on introducing the Bill.

Mr Gauke: That, too, is a theory, but I am not sure that it is necessarily persuasive. When we fought the previous general election, the Labour Government’s big policy for deficit reduction, among a pretty thin set of policies, was a big increase in national insurance contributions. We have already reversed the worst effects of that, and the Bill is a further measure that will help businesses up and down the country to create jobs.

The hon. Member for Bolton West is referring to one element of Labour’s five-point plan, which we do not hear much about any more, but there were serious problems with Labour’s proposal; this one is very different from that. It was a much more targeted scheme aimed at smaller employers taking on new employees, which raised all sorts of practical questions about how to define a new employee and how to prevent there being perverse incentives. I put it to the House that that scheme was neither workable nor likely to achieve its objectives. I suspect that we shall return to that issue.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): While the Labour Whips hunt for a seventh dwarf—

Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): Cheeky!

Christopher Pincher: No, I am definitely Bashful. Cheeky is probably on the other side of the House.

Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that the key component—the most important innovation in the proposal—is the fact that it encourages confidence among businesses, particularly small businesses? I held a jobs fair a couple of weeks ago and 500 jobs, part-time and full-time, were available. Many small businesses at the fair thought that cutting their tax through this measure was the right thing to do.

Mr Gauke: I am grateful to hear of the experience in Tamworth, and my hon. Friend is right to raise that point. Particularly for those small employers taking on their first person, the fact that they do not have to pay employer’s national insurance contributions at 13.8% will help them. In many cases, the Bill will have exactly that effect. I welcome what appears to be broad support for the measure.

Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): Following on from the earlier point about confidence, does the Minister agree that, although all the surveys indicate that confidence is at an all-time high, the challenge is investment? A Federation of Small Businesses survey has said that the measure will enable 28% of businesses to take on additional staff; that is what businesses want to do. Some 25% of those surveyed would invest in new machinery and equipment, and 21% in new staff training. That is exactly what we need; we need to turn confidence into a deliverable result.

Mr Gauke: My hon. Friend raises an important point. I pay tribute to the work that she does on the all-party parliamentary group on micro-businesses. She provides

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a very strong voice in the House for smaller businesses, and she is absolutely right to do so. She is right to draw the House’s attention to the FSB survey. We have already talked about the contribution that the measure will make to the taking on of more staff, but where more staff are not taken on, there will very often be investment in the business, which will clearly help it to expand.

The Bill cuts the jobs tax for 1.25 million employers and takes 450,000 of them out of employers’ national insurance contributions altogether, making it less expensive for businesses to take on new staff, so the Bill will help job creation. It contains four main measures. We have touched on the employment allowance. I will also say something this afternoon about the fact that the Bill gives effect to the general anti-abuse rule on national insurance contributions. It also amends the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 to allow regulations to be made on the certification of non-UK employers of oil and gas workers, and makes changes in connection with two elements of the partnerships review carried out by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. The Bill also makes a small number of technical corrections that I am happy to take the House through, should there be demand for that; if there is not, I am sure that we can cover them in some depth in Committee.

Returning to the employment allowance, as part of our efforts to remove barriers to growth for businesses and to equip the UK economy to compete in the global race, the Chancellor announced in this year’s Budget the creation of a new employment allowance, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) pointed out. It will take effect from 6 April next year. Businesses, charities and community amateur sports clubs in the UK will be entitled to a £2,000-a-year allowance towards their employer national insurance contribution liability.

The employment allowance builds on action that the Government have taken to make the tax system more competitive, and to encourage growth. That includes cutting corporation tax, increasing the rate of the research and development tax credit for small and medium-sized enterprises, increasing the annual investment allowance to £250,000, and giving a cash-flow benefit to those who invest in plant and machinery.

The objective of the employment allowance is to help businesses with the cost of employing their staff by reducing their employer class 1 national insurance contributions bill each year. It will support thousands of small businesses that aspire to grow, perhaps by hiring their first employee or expanding their work force, as well as those already employing others, or facing temporary cash-flow problems.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): In the emergency Budget that followed the last Westminster election, the Treasury said that it wanted to rebalance the economy geographically, but the only measure that we have seen to date is the reduction in employers’ national insurance contributions for companies outside London and the south-east. The employment allowance is a UK-wide measure. Does that indicate that the Treasury has given up on its ambitions geographically to rebalance the UK economy?

Mr Gauke: No, not at all. There is a whole host of measures, including the regional growth fund, and there is some really good news; exports are up significantly in

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the west midlands and the north-east in particular. We are taking steps to strengthen industries up and down the country. The hon. Gentleman touches on the regional employers’ NICs holiday; let me turn to that, because I suspect that the policy will feature heavily in the arguments that we hear from Opposition Front Benchers.

Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) made a good point about rebalancing the country’s economy. Is my hon. Friend the Minister aware that we have had the biggest growth in construction in six years? The Chancellor and the Treasury should be congratulated on ensuring that the Government are rebalancing financial services and manufacturing in the economy.

Mr Gauke: The striking point about the most recent growth numbers is that they demonstrate growth in every sector, and that is very encouraging. I began by saying that the economy in the mid-2000s, say, was very dependent on financial services and on London and the south-east. Of course we want a successful financial services sector and we want London and the south-east to do well, but it is also important that growth is better balanced throughout the United Kingdom, and the Government continue that commitment.

Charlie Elphicke: While hesitating to introduce any controversy into the debate, does my hon. Friend agree that the hikes in the jobs tax under the previous Government destroyed jobs, and that this Government’s policy of reducing the jobs tax, particularly in this Bill, will enhance job creation and aid the recovery?

Mr Gauke: I do agree. Given that we want to increase employment, it would not have been sensible to undertake the increase in national insurance contributions that the previous Government intended. That was clearly a mistake. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be delighted to know that not only are he and I in agreement but Tony Blair said last week that he thought it was a mistake.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab) rose

Mr Gauke: Whether all four of us will agree, I wait impatiently to find out.

Sheila Gilmore: Can the Minister explain how a measure that was not actually implemented destroyed jobs, as the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) suggested?

Mr Gauke: To have implemented the policy we inherited would have destroyed jobs. It did not do businesses in the United Kingdom any good to have the prospect of an increase, sending the wrong message that we were going in the wrong direction. I am pleased to say that we have reversed that direction of travel by not implementing the previous Government’s policy in full. We have increased thresholds for national insurance contributions, which has clearly helped. Now, through this Bill, we are providing an employment allowance of £2,000.

Margot James: Does my hon. Friend agree that the reason the previous Government proposed the ridiculous increase in the jobs tax was testimony to the fact that

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they could not countenance cutting public expenditure? That was their downfall. They were content to continue to borrow £1 for every £4 this country was spending, and their proposal was evidence of a wholesale mismanagement of the economy.

Mr Gauke: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point that is well worth highlighting. When running a deficit of the size that we were running, we face some tough decisions. We have taken a range of measures to reduce the deficit, and it has reduced by a third.

Ultimately, though, whoever was in government was going to have to take these difficult decisions. If we are not prepared to take difficult decisions on spending—there is no evidence that Labour Members would do so—the answer is that we have to increase taxes. When we look around to see what taxes are available, it is clear that some very difficult decisions have to be made. Labour Members chose to go for employers’ national insurance contributions; perhaps they considered that that option was less visible to the general public than some of the others. However, the consequences would have been higher unemployment, and this Government were not prepared to face that.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): What business hates more than anything else is the complexity of the tax system. We still have one of the longest tax codes and one of the most complex tax systems in the world. Will the Minister explain how we are still setting about our long-term objective of simplifying the tax system and achieving a much flatter rate of tax for the sake of business?

Mr Gauke: The Bill will result in a big simplification for 450,000 businesses, because they will no longer have to pay any employers’ national insurance contributions. That is significant progress. We have established the Office of Tax Simplification, which has produced a number of reports. Anyone who has studied recent Finance Acts closely will have seen that a whole range of measures have been introduced as a consequence of the OTS’s recommendations. Of course, there is more work to be done and we as a Government remain committed to that, but there have been a whole range of measures. The OTS is looking at employee benefits at the moment, and that is significant.

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): One of the concerns that small businesses had about the national insurance holiday—which was an excellent policy, despite the Opposition’s comments—was about the forms that had to be filled in to qualify. Will the Minister clarify how easy it will be for businesses to take advantage of the new proposal?

Mr Gauke: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I want to turn to the employers’ national insurance contributions holiday, because I suspect it will feature in the speeches of Opposition Members. They will make the point that take-up was not as high as we had anticipated. [Interruption.] Let me give the numbers: 26,000 employers and 90,000 employees have benefited from it. Our expectation was that take-up would be much higher. [Hon. Members: “How much?”] Don’t worry; I am going to set it out.