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House of Commons

Monday 15 December 2014

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Welfare Assistance Schemes

1. Sir Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): What steps his Department is taking to ensure the future of local welfare assistance schemes. [906608]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Kris Hopkins): The Government have consulted on how to fund local welfare provision in 2015-16. The Department for Communities and Local Government, with the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions, is analysing responses, alongside the DWP review into current provision. The Government will make a decision by the provisional local government finance settlement.

Sir Nick Harvey: The Minister will be aware of the excellent work of discretionary schemes. In my constituency alone, 446 people in desperate situations were helped in the past year. Will he please ensure that councils facing a particularly tough financial situation will receive funds and that he will bring forward something positive for them in the local government finance settlement? Otherwise, that vital work will be lost.

Kris Hopkins: I recognise the work of local councils in helping individuals who are in very vulnerable situations. There will be an announcement on the local government finance settlement. We will take into account what the hon. Gentleman says, but I point out that there is a £94 billion welfare safety net. We have given local authorities the opportunity to use their resources in whichever way they think is appropriate.

John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab): When the Minister makes the announcement, will he recognise that many of the most severely disabled people, who depend on the independent living fund, flourish with the independence it gives them? The fund is being wound up in March and they are very frightened that they will lose that independence. Will he review the protection available, even at this eleventh hour, and ensure that councils can continue ILF provision in full?

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Kris Hopkins: As I have said, we will make an announcement in due course. It is important to reiterate that local authorities, which know the challenges facing their communities, have the opportunity to make choices and set the priorities they think are appropriate.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): The loss of the welfare assistance fund has left many families fleeing domestic abuse in the south-west—in particular, women and children—facing considerable hardship, as local authorities find it difficult to find the funds to support such relationship breakdown. Is the Minister satisfied that enough is being done nationally to understand the needs at local level? Will he explain why the south-west seems to have had the greatest losses?

Kris Hopkins: If there is a particular issue with domestic violence, the hon. Lady is more than welcome to write to me. The Government recognise that dealing with domestic violence is extremely important. Additional money has been put in place to support that provision.

LED Street Lighting

2. Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): If he will estimate the potential energy and financial savings which could be made through local authorities installing LED street lighting. [906609]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Stephen Williams): We do not collect this information centrally. However, we know that two-thirds of councils have already switched to low-energy street lighting. That will save council tax payers’ money and have the double benefit of reducing carbon emissions.

Sir Bob Russell: I thank the Minister for that very thoughtful reply, which I am sure will be listened to with great interest at County Hall in Chelmsford, where the county council has had a blackout policy from midnight. Will the Minister agree to meet me and a company near Colchester that is in the market of producing LED lights that would be of financial benefit to the taxpayer?

Stephen Williams: I am always delighted to meet my hon. Friend. If he wants to bring someone along to meet me I would be happy to accommodate him. However, I am advised that Essex county council is about to embark on a £1 million pilot scheme to introduce energy-saving LED streetlights in six areas of the council. I am sure my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that, as a result, I am sure, of his campaigning, that includes Colchester.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): The point about LED lights is that not only do they use a very small amount of electricity while generating a lot of light, they last so long and require little maintenance so that they require very few people to tend to them during the life of the light bulb. Has the Minister factored those cost-savings into his calculations?

Stephen Williams: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. In April, the Campaign to Protect Rural England estimated that councils spend more than

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£600 million on street lighting, accounting for 30% of their carbon emissions. Tackling the remaining street lights not using LED will reduce carbon emissions and cut the maintenance costs he mentions.

Local Authority Finance

3. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): What assessment he has made of the recommendations of the report by the National Audit Office entitled, “Financial Sustainability of Local Authorities 2014”, published in November 2014, HC 783. [906610]

5. Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the report published by the National Audit Office entitled, “Financial Sustainability of Local Authorities 2014”, published in November 2014, HC 783; and if he will make a statement. [906612]

9. Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the report published by the National Audit Office entitled, “Financial Sustainability of Local Authorities 2014”, published in November 2014, HC 783; and if he will make a statement. [906616]

17. Mr Steve Reed (Croydon North) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the report published by the National Audit Office entitled, “Financial Sustainability of Local Authorities 2014”, published in November 2014, HC 783; and if he will make a statement. [906625]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Kris Hopkins): Every part of the public sector needs to do its bit to pay off the deficit left by the last Labour Government, including local government, which accounts for a quarter of all public spending. The National Audit Office report recognises that local authorities as a whole have coped well with spending reductions, with many increasing their financial reserves. The Government will continue to support local councils to transform local services, cut waste, tackle fraud and achieve better outcomes for local people.

John Pugh: I admire the Minister’s calm, but the report says that half the local authority auditors, never mind the politicians, have grave concerns. Given that, and given that Labour itself wants to take £500 million out of local authority finance, is it not time for a wholesale review of local authority finance?

Kris Hopkins: The record shows that the vast majority of people believe that local authorities offer a good service, and local authorities have achieved significant outcomes despite the reductions. Furthermore, the Government have prioritised the ability of local authorities to grow their budgets by developing local businesses, which has brought in significant money to those establishments—£11 billion has been retained in business rates alone.

Luciana Berger: The NAO found that the Minister’s Department did not understand the impact of its cuts on local authority services. By 2017, Liverpool council

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will have had its budget cut by 58%, which is 20% more than the national average, and it has reserves of only £39 million—down from £125 million—so what is his assessment of the impact of his Department’s cuts on the city of Liverpool?

Kris Hopkins: The councils facing the most demands are receiving the most money and will continue to do so. It is exceptional that a great city such as Liverpool is standing up and recognising its potential and how it can get itself out of the financial difficulties it faces. The fact that it is confident about its city deal, which will result in 15,000 jobs and 16,000 houses, as a consequence of its leadership, and the fact that it is growing its business base and drawing down significant amounts of money to support local businesses, demonstrates that the community understands the direction to go in, even if the hon. Lady does not.

Mr Betts: Given that this is a report by the independent NAO, should the Minister not be at least a little concerned about some of its findings? It states:

“The Department has a limited understanding of the financial sustainability of local authorities and the extent to which they may be at risk of financial failure”


“does not monitor the impact of funding reductions on services in a coordinated way.”

Is that not a damning indictment? If the Government continue with these policies, some councils will get into serious financial difficulties, and they will get there with the Government apparently unaware and seemingly uninterested.

Kris Hopkins: No local authority has not been able to secure its budget, and each year, as dramas and challenges have arisen, they have faced them and dealt with them. Furthermore, we should not forget that about £2.1 billion is lost to error or fraud and that, despite the challenges, local authorities have managed to grow their reserve base to £21.2 billion.

Mr Steve Reed: A transformation of services is fundamental to delivering savings on the scale required, but the NAO report states that the

“The Department has not…estimated the capacity of local authorities to carry out widespread service transformation. Nor has it estimated…the level of savings such projects could realistically make, how long this would take, or the potential impact on service users.”

Why did the Minister not ensure that this vital work was carried out?

Kris Hopkins: The money we put forward to support transformation in councils has been welcomed right across the country—in fact, more councils have applied than we have money for—and, as for outcomes, for every £1 put in, £10 is saved. We know what we are doing, and local authorities are leading the way in driving these savings.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): It is now two years since the Department published its guidance, entitled “50 ways to save”, on how local government could make savings. Does the Minister have any plans to issue a second edition of this booklet, taking into account all

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the new ways in which councils, particularly Conservative councils, have come up with to save money since the first edition was issued?

Kris Hopkins: That is a pertinent question, and a new booklet has just been published that demonstrates how Conservative councils are leading the way in saving money and driving up services. I will make sure that my hon. Friend gets a copy.

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): In every one of the four years in which I was a Minister at the Department for the Environment, we were told by the Opposition that our local government spending settlement would lead to the end of civilisation as we know it. Somehow local government continued and civilisation continued. Does my hon. Friend think that if local government manages better and cuts waste, it should be able to deal with an average 2.9% reduction in spending in 2014-15 without any serious hit on services?

Kris Hopkins: My right hon. Friend is right. Businesses out there face these reductions and challenges all the time, and local authorities have risen to the challenge and are delivering good services, which are rated highly by the public—despite the challenges out there. We have faced difficult circumstances as a consequence of the previous Labour Government who drove the economy into the ground. Local government is responding to the challenge of addressing those needs.

Andy Sawford (Corby) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister’s shockingly complacent response today underlines the NAO’s findings that the Department has

“a limited understanding of the financial sustainability of local authorities and the extent to which they may be at risk of financial failure…does not monitor the impact of funding reductions on services in a coordinated way”—

and, even worse—that the Department’s approach “obscures” the “substantial differences between authorities”. Does the Minister have a clue about the real impact of his massive cuts to local government?

Kris Hopkins: I think there was a question in there. We understand that there are huge challenges facing local authorities, but it is local auditors and local councils that are making the choices about priorities at this time, addressing the needs of the vulnerable people who need to be helped. I am confident that local authorities will continue to deliver high-quality services, despite the fact that resources are currently limited.

Andy Sawford: The truth, as this damning report by the NAO shows, is that the Government do not know and do not care about the impact of the cuts on the ground. Across the country, street lights have been turned off, bus services cut, lollipop patrols stopped, children’s centres closed and care services withdrawn. Will the Minister come clean and admit that this is just the start of what it really means to take Britain back to the 1930s?

Kris Hopkins: This House knows, I know and councils out there know that the reason why we have had to make the difficult decisions to make sure this country lives within its means is a direct consequence of Labour’s incompetence and economic illiteracy.

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House Building

4. Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): What guidance his Department has given to local authorities on steps they can take to increase the rate at which new homes are built. [906611]

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): We have just extended the affordable homes programme—a total of £38 billion-worth of public and private investment, together ensuring that 275,000 new affordable homes will be built between 2015 and 2020. Council housing starts are at a 23-year high, and we expect the independent review into councils’ role in housing supply to report very soon.

Mr Cunningham: Does the Secretary of State agree with me that greenfield sites can be very highly valued by local residents and are important for protecting natural habitats and heritage? As we look to build the much-needed houses, will he take steps to assist local authorities to make sure that brownfield sites and inner-city spaces are fully exhausted before any greenfield sites are built on?

Brandon Lewis: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right that local authorities should be looking to develop brownfield sites first. In fact, we are looking at that with the new starter homes programme that the Prime Minister announced today. We have also put in more money over the summer to encourage local authorities to develop those brownfield sites first and to make them more viable.

Sir Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): As my hon. Friend knows, Mid Sussex is making a great attempt to cope with the extraordinary demand for housing in the south-east. Does he agree that a rule allowing the Planning Inspectorate to accept housing development only when there is adequate housing infrastructure to support it would make a great difference to building in the south?

Brandon Lewis: That is a very good point. It is important for local authorities and developers to ensure that the infrastructure is there to support housing development, and authorities will seek to do that as part of the planning process and, indeed, as part of their own local-plan process. That is another example of how important it is for local authorities to have local plans in place.

Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (UKIP): If Medway council had acted properly in approving the building of 5,000 houses in a bird sanctuary at Lodge Hill, would the Minister have needed to write to the council offering his guidance on the need for an evidence base to be submitted to him by 12 January?

Brandon Lewis: The hon. Gentleman has stood in the House in the past and argued in favour of that development, but he has now changed his position. He and I have not had a conversation about the matter, and I think that that is the right approach, given that it involves a quasi-judicial planning process and the application is still live.

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Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Although both unemployment and homelessness are at an extraordinarily low level in North Wiltshire, we are being told that we must have thousands of unwanted new houses—particularly in the Chippenham area—followed by factories to give jobs to the people who will live in those new houses. While it is fine for houses to be built where they are needed, surely central Government should allow areas such as mine, where housing and jobs are roughly in balance, not to have them.

Brandon Lewis: As my hon. Friend will no doubt appreciate, this Government ended the top-down approach adopted by the Labour Government, getting rid of the regional spatial strategies. It is now entirely for local authorities to make evidence-based assessments of local housing development needs, and then to consider how they can provide for them. Decisions should be locally driven, with local people in mind.

Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab): If what the Minister has just said is correct, why did his own planning inspectors suggest to Knowsley council that it should consider using up green-belt land for future housing development as part of its local-plan process?

Brandon Lewis: I have not seen the details of that case, but if the right hon. Gentleman forwards them to me, I shall be happy to look at them. In my experience, planning inspectors tend to challenge local authorities about their evidence bases. The national planning policy framework makes it clear that green belt constitutes an environmental constraint, and local authorities can use such constraints as evidence bases when it comes to what they can actually provide. It is for them to do the research, build those evidence bases, and make their case.

Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): The Minister recently suggested that councils did not need local plans, and that there was no role for central Government if they failed to adopt one. As he knows, however, without local plans communities have absolutely no say in where new houses are built. If he is really serious about local people deciding, why does he think that councils do not need local plans, and why will he not back our proposals to make it a statutory requirement for every council to have one?

Brandon Lewis: I am afraid that the hon. Lady has got the planning process slightly wrong. Obviously local authorities in all circumstances have a say in planning, which is a quasi-judicial process. Planning applications go through local authorities. As I have said, there is no need for a statutory rule, because it is in authorities’ own best interests to have local plans, which mean local involvement and local decisions about what development should be allowed and where it should be allowed to take place. If there is no local plan, those matters will fall within the national planning policy framework.

Social Enterprise North West

6. Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effect of his Department’s demand for a repayment from Social Enterprise North West on local businesses and services in the North West of England. [906613]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Penny Mordaunt): My Department has worked with Merseyside partners to ensure that individuals and businesses are signposted to business support. My Department’s demand notice will not seek to reclaim any of the money from the 17 supporting organisations which operated in good faith throughout the process.

Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): I am sure that the Minister believes what she has said, but it is not entirely accurate, and it does not entirely answer the question. Social Enterprise North West has been ordered to pay back nearly £1.5 million, although it observed the funding requirements that were laid down by her own Department, and hundreds of jobs and businesses are endangered as a result. Has she received representations from councillors, Members of Parliament, Members of the European Parliament and local businesses—I have been told that she has—and what will she do to right her Department’s wrong?

Penny Mordaunt: It is not just a question of our accounting requirements; it is a question of the European Commission’s rules, and they are perfectly clear. Failing to provide evidence of the way in which money is spent puts funding at risk, and it is totally unacceptable that Social Enterprise North West cannot provide proper accounts for that public money. However, I can give the hon. Gentleman some reassurance. We will not be recouping money from the 17 supporting contractors which operated in good faith, no match funding has been lost, and the money from the European regional development fund that is being returned from the project will be reinvested in other existing business support services in the Liverpool city region.

Social Care

7. Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): What additional support he is providing to local authorities to meet the demand for social care. [906614]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Stephen Williams): This Government continue to deliver a fair settlement to every part of the country. In particular, we have introduced the £5.3 billion better care fund, which includes locally agreed plans for protecting adult social care services.

Meg Munn: Does the Minister not recognise that the better care fund is not new money, but is money taken from existing budgets? There are more people with more needs. Does the Minister not recognise that providing small amounts of low-level services to carers, who are providing for a lot of those needs, will ensure that most people can continue to be cared for at home, whereas now many people are facing difficulties in caring, and we will see elderly and disabled people living without dignity?

Stephen Williams: The hon. Lady makes a perfectly fair point. Many Members in all parts of the House recognise the vital work that carers do in supporting their loved ones, and I have been particularly struck by children who care for brothers and sisters or parents. I

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certainly agree with the hon. Lady on that. In terms of resources, in the spending review the Government put an extra £470 million into supporting the Care Act 2014, and of course in the autumn statement a further £2 billion was announced to support the national health service.

15. [906623] George Hollingbery (Meon Valley) (Con): The accident and emergency department at Queen Alexandra hospital in Portsmouth continues to struggle to meet its four-hour waiting time targets. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as part of the solution to this problem, the local NHS and the surrounding providers of care, the local authorities, must work together much more closely, particularly on the subject of discharge?

Stephen Williams: I absolutely agree that it is essential that local authorities and the health service work together to provide a seamless service for patients as they leave hospital and come into the care of local authorities. That is precisely what the better care fund is about. I am advised that the last round table in my hon. Friend’s district took place on Friday.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Is the Minister aware that, despite having cuts to its spending power of about twice the national average, Birmingham is increasing its child protection budget? To ensure that other forms of social care do not suffer as a result and to meet Birmingham’s long-term needs, some additional support is required. Will the Minister agree, perhaps in conjunction with colleagues from the Department for Education, to meet a delegation from Birmingham to look at what is possible?

Stephen Williams: Birmingham city council has obviously had considerable difficulties recently, which the Department has been heavily involved in trying to solve, but if the hon. Gentleman has specific proposals to put forward and would like to write to me or the Secretary of State, I am sure that we will look at them very carefully.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): I understand that the Chancellor announced that the inheritance tax threshold will be frozen until 2017 and the money raised thereby will be put into social care. Is that part of the money my hon. Friend just announced, or is that additional?

Stephen Williams: That would be additional money, I believe, but just under £2 billion in additional support was announced for the national health service in the autumn statement, money that I am sure will be well received and well spent.

Parking Enforcement

8. Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): What steps he is taking to stop unfair parking enforcement practices. [906615]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): Councils are making a profit of £667 million a year from parking. That is unacceptable, so this Government are bringing forward a series of measures to make local parking fairer for residents and shoppers. This includes curtailing the use

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of CCTV spy cameras, introducing grace periods, and giving local residents and firms new rights to demand a review of yellow lines and parking charges in their area.

Nick de Bois: Over-zealous parking enforcement by these methods, and in particular by mobile cameras in Enfield’s Hertford road, is one of the most damaging practices to shops and shopkeepers, and the more so because Labour-controlled Enfield council is reducing the number of parking spaces. What advice does my right hon. Friend have for this council to put shoppers and high streets first?

Mr Pickles: On my visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency, he was kind enough to show me Hertford road, which does not have a very easy trading environment. We have placed an obligation on local authorities to look after local businesses, and we know that that plays an enormously important part in people’s management of their shops. I would simply urge Enfield council to get together with local traders to ensure that people do not have to drive further and further from Enfield to do their shopping.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): Will the Secretary of State join me and many Congleton residents in objecting to proposals to introduce parking charges at Congleton War Memorial hospital for the first time? That plan is likely to increase, rather than decrease, local parking congestion, and rather than benefiting patients and their families it will in all likelihood benefit the car park charging company through aggressive fines.

Mr Pickles: I have a War Memorial hospital in my own constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) has been vocal in pressing local health authorities on this practice, which particularly affects people who are visiting patients who are in hospital for a long stay. It does not seem to be the most sensible way of raising funds.

Homelessness and Rough Sleeping

10. Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): What assessment he has made of trends in the level of (a) homelessness and (b) rough sleeping. [906617]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Kris Hopkins): Homelessness is lower now than in 27 of the last 30 years, and since this time last year we have seen a 38% decrease in the number of families in bed and breakfast for more than six weeks. This Government have supported innovation through the roll-out of No Second Night Out and StreetLink, which means that rough sleepers are being found more quickly and given the help they need to get them off the streets.

Lilian Greenwood: The Minister’s response is astonishing. Under this Government, we have seen disproportionate cuts to the Supporting People funding, the disappearance of street outreach workers and an increase in homelessness and rough sleeping of more than a third. The number of homeless families in Nottingham has risen by a quarter in the past year alone. What assurances can the Minister give me that the proposed review of exempt accommodation to be conducted jointly by his Department and the Department for Work and Pensions will not result in this disgraceful situation becoming even worse?

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Kris Hopkins: This Government are tackling homelessness using funds from welfare reform, with access to some £1 billion. I should like to make a comparison between our record and that of the previous Government. There were 136 homeless acceptances in Nottingham this year compared with 493 under the previous Administration at peak. This year, 90 households are in temporary accommodation compared with 391 under Labour, and as a consequence of this Government’s intervention, there are no people in bed and breakfast.

Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): Earlier in the autumn, my hon. Friend the Minister visited Chester to see some of the homelessness provision there. He saw some first-rate services, but he also heard that homeless people were leaving other council areas, including Liverpool and Wrexham, to come to Chester to take advantage of our services. What will he do to ensure that Labour councils fulfil their obligations in the same way as Tory ones do?

Kris Hopkins: I recognise the caring work undertaken by my hon. Friend’s Conservative-led council to look after those vulnerable people. It is not appropriate for local authorities, of whatever political badge, to bus people from one authority area to another.

Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab): Last year, the then Housing Minister, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), said:

“There is absolutely no excuse for families to be sent miles away without proper regard for their circumstances…The law is clear: councils have a responsibility to take into account people’s jobs and schools when securing homes for those in need.”

Why, then, has the number of families being housed outside their local area increased by almost one third in this past year alone, and what is the Minister going to do about it?

Kris Hopkins: I reiterate that it is against the law for councils to move numbers of individuals wholesale to other authorities, but I would point out that 14,220 out- of-district placements, equating to 93% of the total, took place in London local authorities.

Council Tax

11. Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to freeze council tax charges for 2015-16. [906618]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): Under Labour, council tax more than doubled. Under this Government, it has fallen by 11% in real terms. Further funding will be available to freeze council tax in 2015-16, which will mean five consecutive years of freeze funding since 2011-12. That is worth £1,075 for an average household over this Parliament. An announcement on the detail of this will be made shortly.

Dr Offord: I am very grateful for the Secretary of State’s response. My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) and I had the tremendous problem of keeping council tax down in the London borough of Barnet under the last Labour Government. What steps will the Government take to continue in

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other areas to help hard-pressed families, pensioners and individuals by supporting them with their cost of living and to ensure that the London borough of Barnet protects front-line services?

Mr Pickles: I commend Barnet for freezing council tax for four successive years. It proves that councils can run their services efficiently and encourage growth without increasing taxes on local people. The council tax went from being a modest sum in people’s budgets to being absolutely overbearing, and it is exactly right that the most vulnerable people—pensioners and the like—have benefited from this freeze.

20. [906628] Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for his earlier reply. As council tax is such a large bill, especially for those on fixed incomes, will he congratulate my local South Derbyshire district council on keeping its council tax at a zero increase for the past four years? We hope that this year’s settlement from the Government will help it achieve a record five years of frozen council tax.

Mr Pickles: On behalf of the Government, I say bless you, South Derbyshire. You have done a fantastic job. You have looked after the coffers very carefully and you have fulfilled good quality services at a reasonable cost, without going for the incremental rise every year.

House Building

12. Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): What progress he has made on delivering large-scale housing sites. [906619]

16. Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): What progress he has made on delivering large-scale housing sites. [906624]

18. Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): What progress he has made on delivering large-scale housing sites. [906626]

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): We are making excellent progress in helping to deliver large-scale housing sites. Through long-term loans for infrastructure, capacity funding and brokerage, we have helped unlock or accelerate more than 90,000 homes to date, and a further 200,000 homes could be unlocked or accelerated on sites shortlisted for investment and wider support.

Mr Sheerman: There are so many hard-working people in this country, including many firefighters, who would listen to that reply and not be able to believe the complacency. We have a Department with no leadership, no vision and no ambition, when we need a million new homes for our elderly people and for our young people, who have no chance of a home. This Government will face the wrath of those people at the next general election.

Brandon Lewis: As before, I am sure there was a question in there somewhere. [Interruption.] And the audience agree. I find the hon. Gentleman’s follow-up point slightly bizarre, in the sense that this Government have provided roughly 700,000 new homes in the past

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four or five years, including more council houses than were built in the entire period of the previous Labour Government.

Mrs Hodgson: But the truth is that the Government are simply not building enough affordable homes. The number of homes built for social rent over the past year is the lowest it has been for 20 years, so it is little surprise that the waiting list in Sunderland has increased on their watch, whereas it more than halved under Labour. Thankfully, these Ministers have less than five months left in post, but may we have a little more action from them, even in those five months, and a lot fewer re-announcements of yet more empty announcements?

Brandon Lewis: I simply point the hon. Lady to the facts: we have now delivered around 220,000 affordable homes in this Parliament, and there will be 165,000 over the next three years. It will be the fastest rate of building we have seen in more than 20 years, having inherited from the last Labour Government the lowest level of building since 1923. It was an absolute disgrace what was left by the last Government.

Alex Cunningham: My constituents are concerned that if more houses are ever to be built on Teesside again in substantial numbers, more farmland could be swallowed up even though countless brownfield sites are available. Many of these already have planning permission, yet developers have left them derelict for donkey’s years. What steps is the Minister planning to take to get action from such developers? What will he do if they refuse to bring these kinds of sites, many of them close to our town centres, back into use?

Brandon Lewis: As I said earlier, we have in fact put some money in over the course of the summer—a few hundred millions pounds—to encourage brownfield development. We are also now looking at the housing zones, and we will be making some announcements on that fairly soon to make sure we get these sites unlocked. When local authorities are developing their local plans, they are making sure that they are delivering viable sites to provide the houses we all want to see built.

Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): Leeds city council has divided the city into areas in order to set the house building targets, and in Aireborough the vast majority of the sites being considered are in the green belt. I am aware that the use of green belt can happen only in “exceptional circumstances”. Will the Minister confirm what the definition of “exceptional circumstances” is?

Brandon Lewis: My hon. Friend makes a good point about protecting the green belt, which is something that we always seek to do. The Secretary of State and I have outlined some further guidance on that in the past few months to make it clear that building on green belt land is something that we do as a last resort. Indeed, it is one of the exceptional circumstances to be taken into account against development to make sure that we protect our green belt. Obviously, every planning application has to be taken forward and adjudged on its merits by the local authority, planning inspectors and the Department.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): Does the Minister agree that one challenge in bringing forward large-scale housing sites is the failure of local authorities to allocate sufficient land for housing in their local plan? For example, the

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Labour-controlled Nuneaton and Bedworth borough council has failed to bring forward a local plan, whereas Rugby borough council has had its local plan in place for some time, and has brought forward a site for 6,000 new homes at the Rugby radio site.

Brandon Lewis: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Rugby is an excellent example of a good, well-run council, which seeks to support growth and to provide homes for local people. It is important that local areas, in conjunction with the community, work out their housing need, make provision for it, and take advantage of the £1.5 billion that we are putting in to help unlock those kinds of sites.

Douglas Carswell (Clacton) (UKIP): The coalition came to office promising localism whereby locally elected councillors would decide on large-scale housing developments. In Tendring, the Government have now insisted on an extra 12,000 houses. How is that localism?

Brandon Lewis: That is not how the system works. We do not have top-down targets. We got rid of the regional spatial strategies. It is up to the local authority to work out its housing needs and to look at the evidence base to see what it can provide locally, taking into account any environmental constraints.

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): The recent designation of Bicester as a garden city brings not a single new home to the table, as Bicester had already planned for and started to build 13,000 new homes as outlined in its local plan. Is it not time that the Government thought seriously about how to deliver our much needed new settlements rather than simply repackaging existing developments?

Brandon Lewis: With respect, I think the hon. Lady has missed the point. Bicester itself came forward and wanted to develop on garden city principles. When I was there last week, officials showed me around the excellent work that the local authority is doing to release some of the land, including looking at the infrastructure to see how they can make it possible. We are not following a top-down approach. I appreciate that the Labour party wants to have a suit in Whitehall deciding who builds and where, but we believe in localism. Local areas should lead on garden cities. They should come to us with the outlines of what they want to do. I am talking about local decisions, by local people and for local people.

Business Rates

13. Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) (Con): What estimate he has made of the number of small firms and shops in (a) England and (b) Derbyshire local authority area which will have a reduction in business rates in 2015-16. [906620]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Penny Mordaunt): We do not hold figures for that year, but estimate that our retail relief is currently benefiting around 300,000 premises in England, including 4,700 in Derbyshire. We are also doubling small business rate relief for a

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further year, which is currently benefiting around 575,000 businesses, including 12,300 in my hon. Friend’s local authority area.

Pauline Latham: I thank the Minister for her reply. As she knows, Belper in my constituency recently won the Great British High Street competition of 2014. What measures are the Secretary of State and his Department taking so that other towns and high streets can follow in Belper’s footsteps?

Penny Mordaunt: As well as providing rate relief and a raft of other packages, we are helping by instigating initiatives such as the Great British High Street competition. In entering that competition, Belper has enabled us to identify good practice, which we are now able to share. We have produced a publication, which we launched last week, and we are now rolling out a package of further training and support for areas in the country that are not as far ahead as Belper.

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Now that the Minister for firefighters is on her feet, and taking into account the question about all those shops and businesses, will she agree that the firefighters have to deal with those? If there is a fire, an industrial disaster or a flood, the Government paint a lovely picture of our firefighters and the work that they do. Why does she not accept that the Government should be leaving their pension alone? Let them keep their pension.

Penny Mordaunt: If I can answer that question and remain in order—[Interruption.] We are obviously debating this matter later on today. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that the regulations that have been laid are an improvement on the 2006 scheme that his party brought in. A recent serious fire in Staffordshire highlighted a really good business liaison programme between fire and rescue services. Even businesses that were not directly affected by the fire were able to call on those services to enable them to continue trading. That model should be rolled out elsewhere.

Mr Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman was characteristically ingenious in the construction of his question, and we are grateful to him—I say that in all sincerity—but I advise the House that it was in any case my intention to get to Question 19, and I remain cautiously optimistic that we shall do so.

Empty Homes

14. Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): What assessment he has made of the rate of change in the number of empty homes since May 2010. [906622]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Stephen Williams): The number of homes empty for more than six months is now at its lowest level since records began. This Government have achieved a year-on-year reduction in long-term empty homes through council tax incentives such as the new homes bonus, opportunities to increase council tax and a Government programme of £200 million for empty homes funding.

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Jason McCartney: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is totally perverse that Labour-run Kirklees council continues to forge ahead with building homes on greenfield sites when there are thousands of empty properties and numerous brownfield sites in my beautiful part of west Yorkshire?

Stephen Williams: The national planning policy framework does indeed incentivise local authorities to bring forward brownfield sites first, and the Government want 90% of suitable brownfield land to have permissions in place through local development orders by 2020. With regard to my hon. Friend’s local authority in Kirklees, there are 718 long-term empties for which it charges the council tax premium, raising £387,000. If it worked with the owners to bring those properties back into use, it would get £783,000 in new homes bonus this year, plus £4.7 million over the full six years that the funding is available.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): From the Minister’s response, we might think that everything is perfect in the garden, but the Office for National Statistics has shown that over 1 million homes are still empty. At the same time there are record numbers of people in this country wanting to rent affordable homes. What is he going to do to ensure that local authorities that are not using their powers to bring empty homes back into use now do so in order to end this absolute scandal of homelessness and empty homes in Britain?

Stephen Williams: I do not recognise the figure that the hon. Gentleman cites, but I will have a look at it. My information is that in England the overall number of vacant properties has fallen from the 770,000 when we came into office to 635,000 now. I write constantly to local authorities to remind them of the suite of powers available for bringing empty homes back into use, and I have gone on a series of visits across the country to encourage social enterprises, in particular—I have visited Leeds Empties, for example—to work with the community in order to achieve the double benefit of bringing a home back into use and getting some social enterprise spin-off benefit.

Firefighters Pension Scheme

19. Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): What estimate he has made of the number of firefighters who will retire early on medical grounds with a reduced pension after the introduction of the new firefighters pension scheme. [906627]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Penny Mordaunt): Any firefighter who retires early on medical grounds, owing to being permanently unable to undertake their role, will be entitled to take their pension without a reduction. Our final scheme provides a better pension for those firefighters than the alternative scheme for which the Fire Brigades Union is lobbying.

Jim Fitzpatrick: The Minister said on 10 November that no firefighter who fails to meet the standard would lose their job, yet Dr Tony Williams, who was appointed by the Government to assess the regulations, has said

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that two thirds of firefighters will not make the cut. How can she reconcile those two opposing views and cost firefighters over 20% of their pension?

Penny Mordaunt: That is not what Dr Williams said. The 2006 scheme, which was introduced under the previous Labour Government, has had firefighters working until 60. They have been working under the pension scheme with no protections if they fail a fitness test and are unable to continue their operational role through no fault of their own. We are introducing those protections. There is a written ministerial statement today and a statutory instrument will appear tomorrow, and it will guarantee, placing on a statutory footing—obviously firefighters are entitled to ill health retirement—that if there is not an underlying medical condition and they cannot pass the fitness test, either they will receive an alternative role or the authority will have to initiate a pension.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): I have read the ministerial statement that has been placed in the Library this afternoon. It sets out the requirement for local authorities to consider an authority-initiated retirement. Can my hon. Friend confirm that it is her intention that under these circumstances firefighters will be guaranteed an authority-initiated retirement?

Penny Mordaunt: Absolutely. We are very clear in the ministerial statement that we have tabled today and in the guidance that will accompany it that that is what we expect to happen. In addition, because I recognise that firefighters need those safeguards, my Department will carry out an audit.

Topical Questions

T1. [906599] Alistair Burt (North East Bedfordshire) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): Some 180,000 homeowners have bought or reserved a property during this Parliament through one of the Government-backed schemes. Our support for home ownership also prompted a sharp increase in house building to a six-year high. Today we are setting out the next step of our long-term economic plan to improve the housing market. The starter homes programme will offer 100,000 first-time buyers the opportunity to buy a new home with a 20% discount.

Alistair Burt: I thank my right hon. Friend for that statement. Has he received much communication from some of our smaller councils—town and parish councils—about the pressure they are under from vexatious freedom of information requests, inappropriate pressure from members of the public, and sometimes problems of resolving their difficulties with a monitoring council, such as those between Arlesey and Central Bedfordshire in my constituency? Does such a problem arise rather more often these days?

Mr Pickles: It is not a general problem, though we have come across it. I know that my right hon. Friend is very disturbed by it. The best way to avoid freedom of information requests is to be open, straightforward and

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transparent, and sometimes some authorities are not. But there can be no excuse for persecuting a public official. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 lays down guidance with regard to vexatious claims. I understand that my right hon. Friend intends to write to me and I will look at the case very carefully.

Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab): May I start by expressing the Opposition’s concern about the situation in Sydney today? Our thoughts are with all the people who appear to have been taken hostage and with their families.

We are all aware of the threat posed by Islamism, the extremist ideology that wrongly claims to be informed by Islam and which attempts to recruit and radicalise our citizens. Can the right hon. Gentleman update the House on what his Department is doing with faith groups to help identify and deal with the sources of extremism and radicalisation in our communities?

Mr Pickles: I commend the right hon. Gentleman for his statement about events in Sydney. Our primary thoughts must be with the hostages, but I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will be as heartened as I am by the response to the worries expressed by Muslims in Australia about travelling on public transport, and the “I’ll ride with you” campaign, whereby Australian citizens are standing by the Muslim community and ensuring that Muslims feel they are good Australians.

We have spent about £45 million on integration projects since 2010 and an extra £11 million to support 29 projects this year, but I expect the right hon. Gentleman is more concerned about work with specific groups. Indeed, we have given priority to working with groups in east London, east Birmingham and along the M62 corridor. We work closely with them and with various other groups in the spirit of “not in their name”, to show that we recognise the full strength of the Islamic community’s love of peace.

Hilary Benn: Interfaith dialogue of the type that the Secretary of State describes with mainstream religious groups is important. The problem is that radical Islamists are not part of it, and Muslim communities are just as keen as others to know what he is doing to help them identify, isolate and deal with the conditions in which such an ideology develops. Does he agree that it is now time for his Department to focus its efforts on helping families to stop the radicalisation of their children and on promoting greater mutual understanding so as to undermine the corrosive effects of Islamism, which so damages our values and our democracy?

Mr Pickles: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I intend to put out a written parliamentary statement that lays out the full breadth of what we have been doing to deal with this issue. The empowerment of women and of families in knowing what is going on on the web is a recognition of how things have changed. Those who expect this to come out of the mosque are living in a past world. This battle is fought on the internet and by modern methods of communication. Of course, as always, I will keep the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends completely informed about what we do.

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T2. [906600] Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): My right hon. Friend will be aware that Labour Front Benchers appear to have a plan to impose a homes tax on people earning more than £42,000, and this is causing great concern to my constituents in Wimbledon. I note that all Labour’s mayoral candidates for London have disowned the plan. Does he agree, first, that this tax is inequitable, and secondly, that our Government would never impose such an inequitable tax on my voters?

Mr Pickles: We certainly have no intention of persecuting the good people of Wimbledon; nor do we intend to make people suddenly find themselves in a mansion that they did not realise they owned. These are people who bought a property a few years ago and whose incomes have not gone up, but now Labour apparently wants to take £3,000 or £4,000 from them every year.

T3. [906601] Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central) (Lab): Those who risk their lives to protect us deserve a decent pension. Will the Minister explain why firefighters have recently been on strike in England, but not in Scotland or in Wales?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Penny Mordaunt): I am afraid there are some myths about what is happening in the other nations. Industrial action is taking place in the other nations; they have not settled. In fact, many aspects of England’s scheme are better. We will have a full debate on the issue this afternoon, when I hope that we will able to put some of the myths to bed.

T4. [906602] Mr Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Langho, one of my pleasant villages in beautiful Ribble Valley, has recently had three hideous wind turbines imposed on it by appeal, against the wishes of local people, the local council, and, indeed, me. Will the Minister assure us that, in future, planning inspectors will give far more weight to localism and to the views of local people before deciding to impose hideous industrial furniture on a local community?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Kris Hopkins): It would be inappropriate to talk about a particular case that is still live in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I will say, however, that the Secretary of State has given clear guidance about pre-application consultation with communities. There are guidelines about protecting landscape and heritage, and the Secretary of State is able to recover applications if he believes that we need to test those guidelines. The best thing that my hon. Friend’s constituents can do is to ensure that they have a strong local plan in place that determines renewable sources of energy.

T6. [906604] Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab): The Minister just praised firefighters from Staffordshire. I met them again last week, and they, like me, cannot understand why the Government, at this eleventh hour before the debate later today, will not agree a negotiated settlement on the firefighters’ pension scheme regulations. Why are the Government not taking account of the Williams report, why are they peddling the myth of redeployment, and why cannot we have a fair pension for those having to retire early on health grounds?

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Penny Mordaunt: Again, the hon. Lady needs to be aware of the facts. We are taking account of the Williams report. We are putting in place protections that firefighters have not had before, including for those on the 2006 scheme, which requires them to work until 60. They are entitled to ill health retirement, as before, on an enhanced basis. Those who are unable to retain their fitness as they age—this is specifically for older workers—will get another role or an unreduced pension. [Interruption.] Those are the facts. If there is no operational role, they will get an unreduced pension. We need to get that message out to firefighters, because they are going to be making decisions about their financial future based on their understanding of the scheme, and it would be quite wrong to mislead them on that.

T5. [906603] Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): Small independent shops are the lifeblood of our high streets and I am glad to say, with Christmas just around the corner, that Worcester’s independent retailers say they are seeing increased footfall and that they are looking forward to their £1,500 discount on business rates next year. Will the Minister confirm that reforming business rates and discounts to small businesses can, alongside cuts to job taxes, help small businesses drive the economic recovery?

Penny Mordaunt: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. May I take this opportunity to congratulate Worcester on being a finalist in the great British high street competition? In addition to the discount he mentioned, the autumn statement also doubled small business rate relief for a further year and maintained the 2% cap on the inflation increase for next year. I am sure that all those things will help Worcester potentially to take the prize next year.

T9. [906607] John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): When a useless Government Minister is sacked, including by the electorate, they get a huge pay out and a massive pension. Why is there one rule for the politicians and another rule for the firefighters?

Penny Mordaunt: We will debate this issue this afternoon, but I stress that we need to stick to the facts of the case. Many things about the regulations that came into law last week are an improvement on some of the schemes. We have addressed genuine concerns about people working until they are older. I hope this afternoon will provide us with the opportunity to get those facts on the record. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that the previous scheme will finish at the end of this financial year, so if the regulations were revoked firefighters would be without a pension scheme and they would lose all the protections they currently enjoy.

T7. [906605] Paul Uppal (Wolverhampton South West) (Con): This Government have introduced measures that cap the amount that councils can charge leaseholders for repairs to their properties and homes. In my constituency, some residents of Merridale court are being charged up to £12,000 by Wolverhampton Homes, with bills that have come all at once rather than spread over a period of time. Do Ministers think it is fair and reasonable that those pensioners should have to pay those fees?

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The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): I congratulate my hon. Friend on taking on the case on behalf of his residents. He is absolutely right that we should ensure that taxpayers’ money is well spent and that residents should be protected from any erroneous or over-the-top charges, as Florrie’s law, which was introduced in August, seeks to do. I would go further and say that, if those Wolverhampton residents do not feel they are being dealt with properly or appropriately, I would encourage them to go to the Leasehold Advisory Service, which can consider the first-tier tribunal to review their cases.

Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State recall that I asked him during the previous Question Time to give an early decision on the Coventry gateway project and that I followed that up with a letter? I have not received a reply to either request. I am sure he means no discourtesy, but could he tell us when we might expect a response, because a lot of jobs, business rates and development in the south of Coventry depend on it?

Mr Pickles: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for not replying earlier. He will understand that the issue is very much tied up with adjoining authorities. A number of schemes are currently being negotiated under various growth deals and I hope the Government will be able to make a decision fairly soon.

T8. [906606] Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): The Secretary of State has made localism his thing and he has come across very strongly as the champion of the people. Will he ensure that the people’s voice is heard and listened to when the first wave of

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hydraulic fracking applications go through, and will he insist that the Government follow the precautionary principle so that all environmental and health concerns will be addressed before an application is granted?

Brandon Lewis: I thank my hon. Friend for standing up to make sure that the process is followed correctly. Obviously, the planning process is quasi-judicial and planning authorities must go through the full process. I will make sure that the chief planning officer keeps an eye on what is happening and ensures that the process is followed, and I will keep an eye on the case myself.

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): As I understand it, we will get an announcement later this week about the local government financial settlement for next year, which could involve a 10% reduction in local authority spending. That is as big a cut in one year as central Government Departments have faced throughout the whole of this Parliament. Will the Secretary of State, in the interests of transparency, give an assurance that he will come to this House and make an oral statement, rather than hide behind a written statement as he did last year?

Mr Pickles: The hon. Gentleman’s recollection is wrong: we made a statement from this Dispatch Box. We cannot anticipate what the business managers of this House will do. We will take the hon. Gentleman’s words into consideration.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. I am sorry, but as usual demand has exceeded supply. We must now press on.

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UK Armed Forces (Iraq)

3.34 pm

Vernon Coaker (Gedling) (Lab) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence to make a statement on the role of UK armed forces in Iraq.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Michael Fallon): The United Kingdom is providing substantial support to the Government of Iraq through air strikes, surveillance, the gifting and transporting of equipment and the training of Iraqi forces in specialist skills. About 50 UK personnel are working with the Danes in Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq, carrying out combat infantry and sharpshooter training, and we are coming to the end of the second of four three-week courses. We also have about 10 military personnel in Irbil, seeing how we can assist the Government of Iraq in training and equipping other Kurdish forces. The international coalition is developing its plan to build the capacity of Iraqi security forces and any future UK training contribution would be absorbed into this coalition plan.

In early November, I announced our intention to provide further training to the Iraqi military. No decisions on troop numbers, units or locations have been made, although we expect to focus on providing expertise in countering explosive devices. During Defence questions on 24 November, I also announced our intention to advise and assist the Iraqi armed forces through the secondment of advisory personnel to command headquarters. We are considering what contribution we can make and the details of any of these decisions will be announced to Parliament in the usual way.

Vernon Coaker: I am sure that many Members will, like me, have been surprised and dismayed that the Defence Secretary told a Sunday newspaper about the deployment of UK armed forces to Iraq before he told this House. Is it not true that that led to turmoil in his department? Yesterday morning, he said that hundreds of troops would be deployed across four training bases, but yesterday afternoon a Ministry of Defence spokesperson said that no decisions on troop numbers, units or locations had been made, so how many are there? What message does he think this sends to our armed forces? Is it one of clarity and decisiveness or one of confusion and uncertainty? These are serious matters and the British public will want to know that this is not being undertaken lightly.

We have supported steps taken by the Government, regional partners and the international coalition to combat ISIL, including the provision by UK forces of training and equipment to the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces, but we will scrutinise any developments and ensure that appropriate questions are asked. What assessment has the Defence Secretary made of the risk involved in expanding the training role to several locations across Iraq and the status and rules of engagement of force protection personnel? Will both training units and combat-ready personnel be solely under UK command and comprise UK servicemen and women alone? What role will the RAF, which is currently undertaking combat missions in Iraq, play? What discussions has he had with the Iraqi Government about this deployment? Does he agree that there must be no misunderstanding about British involvement in Iraq at any stage, which is why we need a clearly defined strategy?

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There has not been enough clarity about the role of the UK armed forces, the scale of their involvement and the time frame for training operations. The Defence Secretary said just over a month ago that that would be very limited and at that stage only a dozen UK troops were involved in specific training tasks. Is there a strategy or are the Government making it up as they go along? Will the Defence Secretary explain reports that the National Security Council is meeting later this week to discuss and approve something he has already announced?

Finally, does he intend to come back to the House to report on the deployment so that we can have a full, open and proper discussion on these hugely significant matters? That is what the British public would expect and demand.

Michael Fallon: As I said, I have already announced, including in this House, that we are considering what further contribution we can make to the training of Iraqi forces. There is nothing new about that. Yesterday, I made it very clear that the numbers are yet to be finalised. When they are finalised, they will, of course, be announced to the House.

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of specific questions. He asked whether there will be a proper assessment of risk. Yes, I will take advice from my military advisers on the risk involved. On force protection, we must make sure that any training that we provide is properly protected, even though it is well away from the front line. The RAF strikes will continue. I will keep the House updated on the number of missions that are flown and the number of strikes.

The hon. Gentleman asked about discussions with the Iraqi Government. I make it clear to the House that everything that we are doing in Iraq and everything that we are considering doing in Iraq is at the request of the Iraqi Government. I clarified that in my visit to Baghdad and Irbil last month. It is precisely because the Iraqi Government have asked us and our coalition partners for help that we are considering this action at the moment.

I cannot comment on specific details in respect of the National Security Council, but I repeat that the details of our final decisions will be reported to the House.

Dr Liam Fox (North Somerset) (Con): Surely the key question is whether ISIS poses a threat to us, directly or indirectly. If it does, it needs to be dealt with by whatever means necessary. Are not too many western Governments getting close to conflict by opinion poll? Will my right hon. Friend comment on the state of co-operation with the Sunni tribes in Anbar province, which remains a key factor in whether we can win a ground war against ISIS?

Michael Fallon: The advance of ISIL is a direct threat to this country and other western countries, which is why some 40 countries are involved in the international coalition and why a number of them are considering putting personnel in to assist the training effort. On my predecessor’s second question, the support and enlistment of the tribes of the Anbar is critical in pushing ISIL back towards the western frontier of Iraq. There have been encouraging signs, but it is up to the Iraqi Government

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and the reformed Iraqi army to ensure that, in all their actions, they command the support of Sunnis, Shi’as and Kurds.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Some of us had the privilege to meet British and Danish troops in Iraq last week. The training includes medical training. Given that 60% of peshmerga injuries are caused by improvised explosive devices, where loss of blood is a significant factor, why are we not training them in the use of tourniquets, which was very beneficial to our troops in Afghanistan?

Michael Fallon: I will certainly look at that suggestion. We gained expertise in countering IEDs and vehicle-borne explosive devices in Afghanistan and, as the hon. Lady says, we also accumulated considerable expertise in dealing with the injuries that they cause.

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): I urge the Secretary of State please to ensure that, along with the trainers, we deploy people who have expertise in Iraq, both military and civilian, to look specifically at the role of the Shi’a militia and the Sunni tribes so that we can credibly sit at the table with the Iraqi Government and the United States to challenge and debate the overall strategy, and drive a Sunni reconciliation.

Michael Fallon: I absolutely endorse what my hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Defence Committee, said. It is vital that the new Iraqi Government not only consider themselves to be inclusive, but demonstrate that they are inclusive. They must command the support of the Sunni tribes and show that the Shi’a militia that are associated with the effort to halt ISIL are part of an overall inclusive effort that cuts across political, religious and tribal divisions. I have emphasised that throughout. There are encouraging signs in the Iraqi Government, in the reform of the Iraqi military and in Defence Minister Obeidi’s proposals for a national guard that can help to secure ground that has been won back from ISIL. However, there is a long way to go in ensuring that that effort is genuinely inclusive.

Mr Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): Given the current UK deployment in Iraq, what long-term consideration is being given to the implications of training the peshmerga on possible independence for Kurdistan in the future and on relationships with the Iraqi army and the Iraqi Government?

Michael Fallon: I welcome the recent rapprochement between the regional administration in the Kurdish areas and Baghdad. It is essential that that is built upon so that oil revenues can be properly allocated and spending, especially on the military, can be considered by the Government of Iraq as a whole. The priority now is surely to halt the advance of ISIL and help the Government of Iraq, the Iraqi army and the Kurdish forces to push it back from the territory that it has claimed.

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Last Monday afternoon, members of the Defence Committee were at the presidential palace in Baghdad, and in answer to my questions the President said no to British troops on the ground against insurgents but yes to more equipment

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and training and a continuation of the airstrikes. Does the Secretary of State agree with the President and me that if UK combat troops returned, they could be regarded as occupying forces, which would create other difficulties for Iraq?

Michael Fallon: I agree with both my hon. Friend and the President of Iraq, in no particular order. The President of Iraq himself has said that he does not want British or any other foreign combat troops involved, which is why we need to make it absolutely clear that we are not proposing to return combat troops to Iraq. The effort that we are making is relatively small-scale and should be seen alongside the contributions being promised by others, including the Germans, the Spanish, the Danes, the Italians, the Australians and the New Zealanders, all of whom are considering what effort they can make to help with training and equipment.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Secretary of State agree that if we are to defeat this ISIL criminal caliphate cult, or Daesh, it will have to be done not just in Iraq but in its headquarters and heartlands in Syria? What is the international coalition of 40 countries to which he referred going to do about that?

Michael Fallon: The hon. Gentleman, who has some experience of these matters through his chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is right that in the end ISIL can be defeated only if it is defeated in both countries, Syria and Iraq. That is why we welcome the strikes that other members of the international coalition, including the United States but also our allies in the Gulf, have undertaken against ISIL, particularly in the north of Syria. That helps to disrupt ISIL’s supply lines into Iraq. Our part—it is all that the House will allow us to do at the moment—is in Iraq, but we have plenty to do there through airstrikes, surveillance, the supply of equipment and the consideration that we are now undertaking of further training.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): When I deployed to Bosnia in 1992, it was supposedly in a non-combat role, but the chiefs of staff insisted on ensuring that I had a field surgical team with an operating theatre and three general practitioners, for several hundred people. If we deploy several hundred people into Iraq, will my right hon. Friend ensure that there are adequate medical facilities to look after our soldiers if by chance they are wounded, even though they are not in a combat role?

Michael Fallon: The House has the benefit of my hon. Friend’s considerable expertise in these matters, and I will certainly take up his suggestion. I emphasise that if we deploy further personnel, they will not be in the combat zones or on the front line. This will be a training effort to train Iraqi and Kurdish forces in some areas of expertise, in particular in encountering improvised explosive devices, as well as the sharpshooter tactics on which we have already been instructing.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Last week the members of the Defence Committee who went to Baghdad met Vice President Ayad Allawi. He brought with him 30 tribal sheikhs who described the total destruction of Shi’a and Sunni villages, the murder of men in the villages, and the abduction of women and

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children. People were left with nothing in an attempt to clear land for criminal elements within the militias. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the training we provide is not used by militias for their criminal activities, because often those militias are also part of the Iraqi army?

Michael Fallon: The hon. Lady is right and we must always be careful who we are training. It is important that the Iraqi Government—she will have seen this on her visit to Baghdad last week—follow through on the reforms they are proposing. The army must become genuinely inclusive and militias must be properly under control. Holding ground that can be liberated must have the full-hearted support of local populations, and that will be particularly important as ISIL is pushed back in the tribal areas of the Anbar.

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The brave peshmerga whom we visited being trained by the British Army in Sulaymaniyah last week did a fantastic job in stopping the breakneck advance of ISIL in the summer, and they are to be congratulated. They did so against huge odds in terms of personnel, equipment and training, and to this day they are a pretty makeshift army. Does the Secretary of State agree that although it is vital that this should be a Kurdish or Iraqi battle against ISIL, we have a vast role to play in terms of equipment, training—particularly IED training—and we must do our part to combat the dreadful wickedness that is ISIL?

Michael Fallon: Yes. ISIL is a threat to us in this country and generally to the west, as well as a threat to all those in Iraq—particularly those of other religions or indeed their own religion—who want to live at peace. That is why, with the support of the House, since early summer we have been considering what we can do to supply the peshmerga. We have supplied heavy machine guns and helped to airlift other equipment and ammunition that is needed, and we are considering—it is still only considering—the scope of training that we are able to offer in some of those specialist skills.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): The public are right to be concerned about mission creep in Iraq, and about the lack of candour by the Ministry of Defence when it comes to boots on the ground. In September I asked the Secretary of State whether forward air controllers are directing air strikes in Iraq. I was given a holding answer in October, no reply in November, and we are now getting towards the end of December. Can we have some candour from the Secretary of State on the simple question of whether forward air controllers are directing air strikes in Iraq?

Michael Fallon: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has not received an answer to that question and I will look into it. We have made it clear that we are not involved on the ground in combat in Iraq, as that goes beyond the wishes of this House. We are involved in air strikes, surveillance and intelligence gathering, and certainly in the supply of equipment and training.

Alistair Burt (North East Bedfordshire) (Con): May I press my right hon. Friend a little more on Syria? I met representatives of the Syrian national coalition last

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week. Bearing in mind the vital part that the repression in Syria plays in giving support to ISIL throughout the region, can the Secretary of State say when he intends to come back to the House to explain what more we can do to support fighters in Syria who are currently fighting Assad and the extremists in order to protect the Syrian people?

Michael Fallon: My right hon. Friend, who was a most distinguished Minister for the middle east, is certainly right to advise the House that Syria should not be neglected in all this. As well as the surveillance capabilities that the military is providing, we are in discussions with the international coalition about making a contribution to a programme to train the Syrian opposition, as I told the House during Defence questions on 24 November. We continue to scope that mission with our international partners. That kind of training would almost inevitably have to happen outside Syria itself, but it is under active consideration at the moment.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): The urgent question has illustrated that we need a far broader debate than we are having at present. I visited Iraq 26 times when I was special envoy on human rights. Many of the things we put in place were not just military matters: we trained civil society, we retrained journalists, we insisted on the rights of women and we trained the judiciary. I have just visited both Baghdad and Kurdistan with the Foreign Affairs Committee and we need to look again at what we actually achieved. My worry is that some of those gains are now slipping away and we need to reinforce them.

Michael Fallon: I think the House will endorse that. The right hon. Lady knows as much about Iraq, in particular about the Kurdish areas, as anybody in this House. There are lessons on the type of aid that was given and what we can do now to help the new democratically elected Government in Iraq to build on some of the earlier support we offered. On whether there should be a debate on Iraq, that is not a matter for me. However, I look forward to my appearance before the Select Committee later this week.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): When insurgents such as ISIL break cover and seize and hold territory, they lose the advantages of secrecy and surprise. It should therefore not be too difficult in the short to medium term to expel them, but then they will go back to guerrilla and terror tactics. Will the Government have in place a medium to long-term strategy for containing that sort of warfare? We have lacked such a strategy in the past when we oscillated between nation building at one extreme and doing little or nothing at the other.

Michael Fallon: The tactics of ISIL vary and there is some evidence that it is already altering its tactics in the face of air strikes. The overall strategy has to be led and endorsed by the Government of Iraq. It is very important that, in the end, the campaign is led by the home-grown army of Iraqi and Kurdish forces, with the support of the international coalition. The strategy has to be formulated there rather than here, but we can offer specialist expertise.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): In 2003, there was massive opposition to Britain going into Iraq. Those concerns are still there, yet we have now heard

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that more British troops are going back into Iraq and that a British base is being built in Bahrain. Is the Secretary of State not presiding over an expansion and an extension of British military activity in the whole region? Is he really sure where all this will lead, what the cost will be, and what the casualties will be?

Michael Fallon: What I am sure of, first of all, is that ISIL presents a clear and present danger to us in the United Kingdom. There have been acts of violent extremism on the streets of our capital and elsewhere. This is a very direct threat and there are Britons, sadly, who have gone to fight for the jihadists. There is a direct British interest in ensuring that ISIL is not allowed to capture further territory in Iraq and is thrown back out of it. That is why we are supporting the legitimate Government of Iraq, and why we are acting at their request in considering what further training and support we are able to offer. So far as the base in Bahrain is concerned, we have ships and aircraft permanently present in the Gulf. Having a permanent base there will make deployment much easier.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): One of the most important things the Defence Committee heard last week was the strong desire by Governments in the region, particularly the Government of Jordan, to “Arabise the narrative”. What more can the UK Government do to support the strong desire that this be seen as an Arab-led initiative against an evil form of extreme Islam and that we in the west—countries such as Britain, the United States and France—be seen as acting in support of those efforts?

Michael Fallon: I agree with my hon. Friend. The extent to which our allies in the Gulf accept that they and other regional parties have a regional responsibility to help the Government of Iraq deal with this challenge is encouraging. The recent conference in Kuwait on combating the ideology of ISIL was an important illustration of that. In the end, this has to be dealt with by the legitimate Government of Iraq, with the support of the region and the international community.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Although the humanitarian work is valued and appreciated, should we not avoid mission-creeping into a new war before we have had an explanation of why 632 British soldiers died, having been ordered into Iraq in pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction and into Helmand in the belief that not a shot would be fired?

Michael Fallon: I think that everyone in the House is awaiting the well overdue publication of the Chilcot inquiry, and anything that can be done to accelerate that would be welcomed on both sides of the House. Helmand is a better place than it was when our troops went in, however, and we should pay tribute to the work done there and the sacrifices made.

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): We are all proud of the work done by the combined school for explosives and bomb disposal now based at Bicester. Do I understand it from my right hon. Friend’s statement that either Royal Engineer and/or Royal Logistics corps limited bomb disposal capacity will be deployed to help train Iraqi service personnel in dealing with bomb disposal and improvised explosive devices?

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Michael Fallon: No decision has been taken about which units are likely to be involved or which locations they are likely to be sent to; this is simply something we are considering at the request of the Iraqi Government. As my right hon. Friend says, however, this is expertise that we have in this country, and there are lessons learned from the Afghan campaign that we think we could usefully contribute to assist the Iraqi military.

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): I want to be clear about something the Defence Secretary just said. The House has only given permission for us to go up to the Iraqi border because it has never been asked to go beyond that. If he wants to do that, the Prime Minister should have the courage of his apparent conviction and ask the question. Will the Defence Secretary be specific about the request from the Iraqi Government? Have they made a specific request for the kind of increased ground force deployment he outlined to The Sunday Telegraph this week?

Michael Fallon: I did not outline any ground force deployment; I made it clear that we were not considering the deployment of combat forces to Iraq. I discussed the effort we might make in support of the Iraqi military with Iraqi commanders and the new Iraqi Defence Minister, Minister Obeidi, when I was last in Baghdad, and I discussed the same matter in Irbil. This is expertise that the Iraqi and Kurdish forces would certainly welcome.

Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): The Secretary of State is right to congratulate Prime Minister Abadi and Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani on coming together to form the revenue-sharing and hydrocarbon deal, which will allow them to pay for some of the equipment, training and so forth. Of course there are challenges facing both—the unification of the Peshmerga and, of course, the militias that we have heard about today. There has also been talk of the formation of a Sunni national guard. Has the Secretary of State had a chance to discuss that with both parties in Kurdistan and Baghdad?

Michael Fallon: Like my hon. Friend, I welcome the agreement—only an interim agreement at this stage—between the Kurdish regional authority and Baghdad about the allocation of oil revenues. I hope both sides will build on that to forge a stronger relationship. So far as the national guard is concerned, yes, I did discuss the issue in Baghdad, and I view it as essential for that national guard to be truly national, so that it does not comprise simply Shi’as, Sunnis or Kurds but is genuinely national and cuts across all the political, tribal and religious divisions.

Mr Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw) (Lab): This deployment is a new worry for the families of service personnel. Can the Secretary of State provide an estimate of how long the tour of duty will be on this particular mission?

Michael Fallon: I am sorry, but I cannot make any such estimate at the moment, simply because we have not yet decided the numbers or which units will be involved. As soon as we have further details, they will of course be reported to this House.

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Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend further update us on the support for military training and aid that our allies in the Gulf states are providing to the Iraqi Government?

Michael Fallon: A number of allies in the Gulf have already contributed equipment and have been involved in air strikes, flying in support of the coalition efforts in Syria, in particular. They are looking to see what other logistical help they can provide. A number of them provide bases and other support for the international effort.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Given the threat presented by ISIL, I think the whole House would support any effective action. However, before we left Iraq, we trained, equipped and supported the Iraqi army, yet it crumbled in the face of the threat from ISIL. Why is the Secretary of State convinced that this intervention will be effective and will not simply drag us further into front-line involvement in this war?

Michael Fallon: We are not going to be dragged into front-line involvement, as I have made clear. The hon. Gentleman is right to remind us that the previous Iraqi Government did not enjoy the full support of all parts of Iraq, which is why the army did not command the loyalty of all parts of Iraq and why it crumbled in the face of the ISIL onslaught. The new Government are, I believe, genuinely representative, comprising Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish Ministers, and the reforms we have seen so far show, I think, that the Government understand the need to be wholly inclusive of all the different elements of Iraq. It is early days and there is a challenge, as the hon. Gentleman said, in that these divisions still remain. It is up to us to help the new Government of Iraq to overcome them.

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): Given that the only strategy to beat ISIL is probably a large ground offensive involving tens of thousands of troops, does my right hon. Friend believe that such a resolution will ever by executed by the Iraqi and Kurdish forces?

Michael Fallon: Yes, I do have confidence that ISIL can be pushed back if we are able to help re-equip and retrain the Iraqi and Kurdish forces. We have had some significant offers of support in principle from other coalition partners: the Australians are offering up to 400 personnel; the Germans about 100; the Spanish 300; the Italians 280; the Danes 120. A number of countries are coming together to offer the sort of training and support that they are each able to offer individually in overall support for those ground forces.

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): When Parliament was recalled to debate ISIS in September, many of us expressed concern about the potential for mission creep, and I am afraid that the manner of the Secretary of State’s announcement has not reassured us. He said that these activities would be undertaken at the invitation of the Iraqi Government. Who will co-ordinate them, and is it true that, as has been reported in the press, we will be based at either of the training centres in which the United States currently reside?

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Michael Fallon: As the hon. Lady knows, everything that we are doing in Iraq is either at the request or with the permission of the Iraqi authorities. As for the location of any training effort, it has yet to be decided. The coalition is considering a number of sites divided between the Kurdish and southern areas and areas around Baghdad, but we have yet to finalise exactly which country is likely to offer further training where.

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): There have been reports that, in addition to those in the countries mentioned by my right hon. Friend, Iranian military advisers are playing key roles in the fight against ISIL. Can my right hon. Friend tell us more about how the efforts of such a diverse range of international military advisers are being co-ordinated on the ground?

Michael Fallon: I can assure my hon. Friend that we are not co-ordinating efforts with Iran, but more than 40 countries are now involved in the international coalition, a number of which have made significant training offers. We are considering—scoping—what training offer we might be able to make, in addition to those that have already been made.

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): The Secretary of State said that there was an acceptance of regional responsibility and spoke of some of the contributions that had been made, but does he categorically believe that regional partners are providing enough support on the ground in the form of kinetic activity? If not, does he envisage any circumstances in which the fairly hazy commitment that he has described today could increase?

Michael Fallon: We have made it clear that we want to see this effort underpinned by support from the regional partners, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made exactly that point during his visit to Ankara last week. All the regional parties must be involved. We have seen how ISIL has swept across the borders between Syria and Iraq, and has managed to seize a large amount of territory. I think the regional partners understand that the integrity and survival of Iraq are key to the region. We are continuing to encourage them, as I did during the Manama conference in Bahrain two weeks ago. We are encouraging them to continue to contribute, not least because we think it important for public opinion in western Europe to take account of the part that they are playing in the effort against ISIL.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): I do not doubt that my right hon. Friend shares my admiration for the Royal Marines and for what they did in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Is he considering using them to deliver the level of expertise and training that they have clearly demonstrated, so that they can provide the top-notch advice that I think is so desperately needed?

Michael Fallon: I much appreciated my visit last week, with my hon. Friend, to the Royal Marines in his constituency, and I am well aware of the formidable strengths and expertise that they bring to operations of this kind. I should emphasise, however, that we have not yet made any decisions about the number of personnel, or about the units from which they might be drawn.

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Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Are there any differences between the Secretary of State’s assessment of the training requirements of the Iraqi armed forces and the Iraqi Government’s own assessment of its training needs?

Michael Fallon: Broadly, no. All this is being done in close co-operation and discussion with the Iraqi Government. I had discussions with the new Iraqi Defence Minister and his officials in Baghdad, who were fairly open about gaps in their military, their capabilities and their equipment, and about the areas in which they look to the rest of the international community for assistance.

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Northern Ireland (All-party Talks)

4.15 pm

Mr Ivan Lewis (Bury South) (Lab) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if she will make a statement on the talks process in Northern Ireland following the Prime Minister’s visit.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mrs Theresa Villiers): I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House on the cross-party talks which have been taking place in Stormont over the past nine weeks.

In September the Government concluded that the time was right for a fresh round of political discussions to be convened with the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive. The Irish Government reached the same conclusion and co-ordinated statements were issued. The aim was to address some key issues which are hindering the effectiveness and credibility of devolution and the Stormont Executive. These included: welfare reform and the Executive’s budget; the so-called legacy issues of flags, parading and the past; and reform of the political institutions.

The talks began at Stormont house on 16 October. As a signatory to the Belfast agreement, the Irish Government have been fully involved in all those matters where they too have responsibilities, consistent with the three-stranded approach, which means that the internal arrangements for Northern Ireland are a matter for the UK Government and the parties. I would like to take this opportunity to put on record my thanks for the positive and constructive role played throughout by the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan TD, and his team of officials. In addition, I am very grateful for the support and wise counsel of the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). The US Government have also been supportive and closely engaged with this process, in particular through Secretary of State Kerry’s representative, Senator Gary Hart.

So far, around 90 hours of the formal talks have taken place. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny TD, have been closely following the whole nine-week process and on Thursday they joined the discussions directly. They conducted an intensive round of talks with the Executive parties and I would like to thank both of them for their support, perseverance and ongoing commitment to this process. Despite their efforts, by early Friday morning they made a realistic assessment that there was still insufficient consensus across the parties for a broadly based agreement to be reached. Shortly afterwards, all five Executive parties declared their firm intention to continue to strive for a deal. They asked me and Minister Flanagan to take part in a resumption of discussions on Friday afternoon, which we duly did.

Let me briefly set out to the House the outline of the deal put on the table on Thursday. A draft heads of agreement was tabled including, first, a fresh approach to the past which puts the needs of victims and survivors at its heart; secondly, devolved arrangements for adjudicating on parades that would see the Parades Commission replaced by a new authority; and thirdly, reforms to the institutions such as support for those

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parties that might want to form a formal Opposition within the Assembly. The draft also sought a commitment from the Executive to press ahead with welfare reform, although with a number of flexibilities to reflect Northern Ireland’s circumstances, and to implement a serious efficiency programme to make long-term savings in the cost of government. This draft heads of agreement was the result of the work of both the UK and Irish Governments, again respecting the three-stranded approach, and we believe it represents a balanced package and a sound basis for cross-party agreement.

During the evening, the Prime Minister also set out proposals to provide further financial assistance from the UK Government. This included flexibilities which would have given the Executive nearly £1 billion of extra spending power to help them through their current difficulties and support their most important priorities. It would also allow the devolution of corporation tax to go ahead. A change which just a few years ago seemed inconceivable and undeliverable is now within the grasp of Northern Ireland’s leaders, if they choose to take it.

The talks resume this week and the stakes are high. All parties agree that if there is no agreement before Christmas, we will not get this close again for months or even years. In particular, failure to agree a balanced budget would leave the Executive increasingly unable to conduct even ordinary day-to-day business effectively. So this week is crucial. We all have a responsibility to do whatever we can in the few days left to us.

The UK Government have shown that they can compromise, even over hugely sensitive and difficult issues regarding Northern Ireland’s past and even when resources are constrained by the pressing need to deal with the deficit. We will continue to do all we can to deliver agreement within the financial constraints in which we are operating, but the UK and Irish Governments can do only so much. Ultimately, whether an overall agreement is reached will be down to Northern Ireland’s political leaders. They have the chance to show that, once again, they can move Northern Ireland forward towards a better future in which politics works, the economy grows and society is stronger and more united. That is the prize on offer, and I know that all the participants in the talks will have the support and good will of this House in our attempts to seize it.

Mr Lewis: I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. Christmas is meant to be the season of good will, but for a second consecutive year in Northern Ireland there is a real risk that it will be a season of entrenched mistrust and political failure. The people of Northern Ireland want progress. They yearn for politicians who offer hope that the journey to a shared future, while not easy, is irreversible and who accept that a shared obligation and a shared commitment to a better future require compromise and mutual respect.

Of course, the UK and Irish Governments have responsibilities too. Three years of relative disengagement by the UK Government have damaged trust and weakened mutual understanding. It also has to be recognised that Northern Ireland faces unique challenges related to the past. A properly resourced, comprehensive framework should be part of any agreement, but fairness also means that there can be no blank cheques or exemption

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from tough choices. Northern Ireland has the right not to implement aspects of Tory-Lib Dem welfare cuts, but a refusal to implement any welfare reform is neither affordable nor credible.

I have some questions for the Secretary of State. Will she spell out how the £1 billion of extra spending power offered by the Prime Minister is broken down? Where is the money going to come from? How quickly will the loan element have to be repaid, and at what rate of interest? What is the Government’s estimate of the overall annual cost to Northern Ireland’s budget of the current instruments to deal with the past and of those envisaged under new arrangements? Finally, Prime Ministers usually attend political negotiations either to announce an agreement or to roll their sleeves up and stick around to make an agreement possible. As the Prime Minister did neither, can the Secretary of State explain the strategy underpinning his flying visit to Belfast last week? Does she expect him to engage further in the talks before Christmas?

Mrs Villiers: I thank the shadow Secretary of State for his questions. I agree that people in Northern Ireland want to see progress and confirmation that their leaders are striving towards building a genuinely shared future, and that they are prepared to see their political leaders accept compromise and make difficult decisions.

It is most emphatically not true that the UK Government have been disengaged over recent years. We have followed all these matters closely and we pressed for the establishment of the Haass talks in the first place. Also, the economic pact has seen our two Administrations in Belfast and London working more closely than ever before. The devolution of air passenger duty took place in double-quick time to save Northern Ireland’s transatlantic flights, for example, and the G8—a huge opportunity for Northern Ireland—was brought to Northern Ireland personally by the Prime Minister. I agree that, in this situation, there can be no blank cheques for the Executive. We all have to live within the constraints of the need to deal with the deficit.

On the financial package, the Prime Minister outlined a contribution of £10 million a year towards the running of the Historical Enquiries Unit, which is proposed in the draft heads of agreement. The Government would also approve the use of Northern Ireland’s existing allocation of £200 million of the re-investment and reform initiative borrowing for 2015-16 to implement an exit scheme for the Northern Ireland public sector, to be used in that financial year. That includes the £100 million already sought by the Executive as part of their draft 2015-16 Budget. The Government would also agree that the Executive may use a further £100 million of their RRI borrowing power in each of the five subsequent years, beginning in 2016-17, for the same purpose. The Prime Minister also set out plans to support the establishment of the peace and investment fund proposed by Northern Ireland’s leaders, including allowing the Northern Ireland Executive to keep additional funds generated from asset sales in the financial year 2015-16, after the achievement of a balanced budget. I assure the shadow Secretary of State that the Prime Minister did indeed roll up his sleeves and engage in intensive negotiations, because he, like all of us here, is determined to reach a successful outcome.

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Mr Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): I congratulate the Secretary of State on her perseverance, working with the local parties on matters that we know are of intense interest and concern to them. Does she think they have really got the message that the devolution of corporation tax, bringing economic benefits which have so dramatically helped the Republic of Ireland, would be of enormous significance and would in many ways measure up to the level of the agreement years ago, and that we really are in the final hours? As I understand it, a Bill is ready to be laid, but it has to be laid this week. If the local parties blow this opportunity, they deserve to have the obloquy of future generations descend upon them—they must not fluff this opportunity.

Mrs Villiers: I agree that one of the most urgent matters at stake is the devolution of corporation tax, and the clock really is ticking on that. If we are to pass legislation within this Parliament, we need to introduce it as soon as possible, not least because the Opposition Front-Bench team has not yet been prepared to give its support to the potential devolution of corporation tax.

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): May I offer a critical observation, not for some partisan motive, but out of experience of negotiating at such summits alongside Tony Blair, when he was Prime Minister? I was both troubled and astonished that the current Prime Minister left the summit prematurely in the way that he did. My experience is that any Prime Minister has to coax and progress the discussions and negotiations, and there is a chemistry about those and a momentum that it is possible to develop. Walking away as he did leaves a kind of political paralysis which I suspect and fear may continue. That is extremely damaging and I am extremely worried about the situation.

Mrs Villiers: I can provide the right hon. Gentleman with reassurance that the Prime Minister has not walked away; he continues to follow these matters with the greatest of attention, because he cares about Northern Ireland and wishes to see a successful conclusion to this process. The reality is that both he and the Taoiseach made a realistic assessment on Friday morning that the parties were still far apart on a number of issues, and there was an indication that on some key issues some parties were simply not prepared to move. In particular, it was very difficult to see that Sinn Fein was prepared to move on matters relating to welfare reform.

Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Is not one of the deeper and wider problems in Northern Ireland the fact that the Assembly and the Executive were set up in the way they were, although for the very laudable reason of bringing about peace and bringing people together? Does the Secretary of State agree that that model is not a good one for effective and efficient decision making? Is she discussing with the parties of Northern Ireland ways in which changes might be proposed by them that might move us towards a more efficient system?

Mrs Villiers: I have had those discussions at great length, including discussions about how to amend the petition of concern process. The Chairman of the Select Committee is right to acknowledge that the institutions set up to secure a peace settlement can often find it

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difficult to take difficult decisions, but they are capable of it; adaptations can be made. However, improving the way the institutions work will be an important part of an overall agreement.

Mr Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): Of course these matters do not just affect the Northern Ireland parties; national issues and national security issues are at stake in the discussions on the past. On parades, we are still awaiting the Secretary of State’s announcement about what she is going to do on north Belfast and the Ligoniel parade. That could unlock the way for progress being made, so it is important that the UK Government—our Government—play their part in moving things forward as well. Although I welcome what the Opposition spokesman has said, I remind him that part of the reason for the mistrust at the moment is the previous Government’s actions in relation to on-the-runs.

Mrs Villiers: I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the north Belfast panel will be constituted shortly. I agree that national security matters are at stake, not least because the current dispute over welfare reform and budgets means that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is facing significant funding cuts. Those cuts could impact on its ability to deliver community policing, which is an important part of our counter-terrorism strategy as a means of building support for policing within the community.

Mr Andrew Robathan (South Leicestershire) (Con): Will the Secretary of State be slightly more specific about what is holding up the talks? In particular, she mentioned Sinn Fein’s opposition to reform of welfare. She will know that Sinn Fein wishes to see the destruction of the Northern Ireland entity, which is not exactly the position that most other people take. Is it a fact that we may have to impose a solution—I am not entirely clear about how that can be done—to ensure that things move forward?

Mrs Villiers: I shall be as brief as possible. There remain significant differences of view on a number of matters. There is no sign as yet that Sinn Fein will move its position on welfare reform. Further progress is needed on a specific plan for efficiencies within the Northern Ireland Executive. On the past, issues around thematic work and inquests will be quite difficult to resolve. On parading, the discussions that took place in the summer under the party leaders’ talks indicate that the criteria for adjudicating parades and the sanctions to be attached to a code of conduct remain the main sticking points.

Paul Murphy (Torfaen) (Lab): How on earth can the Prime Minister come to the conclusion, after 24 hours, that there is no realistic way of reaching a consensus? Over the years, both with the Good Friday agreement and the St Andrew’s agreement, the Prime Minister actively tries to ensure that there is a consensus. The Secretary of State should go to Downing street and persuade the Prime Minister to do that again—and quickly.

Mrs Villiers: I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the UK Government will continue to work as hard as possible to secure an agreement out of this process.

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Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): May I agree with the Secretary of State’s earlier sentiment that the solution to every problem in Northern Ireland cannot be more money from the English taxpayer? Will she now confirm that there will be no bigger offer than the £1 billion that was talked about last week to get this deal over the line?

Mrs Villiers: As I have said many times, the solution to these problems cannot be a big cheque from the UK Government. That is partly because it would not solve the problems, and partly because there is no more money. We have made it clear that we are not prepared to subsidise a more expansive welfare system for Northern Ireland. We are certainly prepared to continue to discuss the funding of matters such as new institutions on the past.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Does the Secretary of State recognise that £700 million of an existing borrowing power that we originally negotiated for strategic capital investment to be used for voluntary exit schemes does not seem to people to be new money or a big attractive offer? Is she not concerned that she has informed the House that the issue of inquests will be difficult? The two Governments propose that the families who have fought for inquests and had new inquests opened will now be told that, no, they will not now have an inquest. There is to be a new arrangement as part of the historical investigations unit that may not work in respect of the inquest and also damage the working prospects for other key aspects of the HIU’s work.

Mrs Villiers: I assure the hon. Gentleman that the flexibilities offered in relation to borrowing powers would be of significant assistance to the Northern Ireland Executive in delivering the voluntary exit scheme for which they are calling. It was a significant and serious offer, but one that accepts the realities of the financial constraints we are under. I fully appreciate the difficulties concerning inquests. The Government are in listening mode, and we will continue to discuss the matter with the parties over the next couple of days. Whatever the outcome, it is vital that the cases be dealt with within a framework that is fully compliant with our obligations under article 2 of the European convention on human rights.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (Ind): The Prime Minister’s failure to broker a deal last week caused considerable disappointment in Northern Ireland, although I have to say that I do not think it caused much surprise, since he did not stay there very long trying to bring about success. However, it is the season of good will, so could the Secretary of State provide us with some reasons to be cheerful about the likelihood of success in the near future in these talks? That would be very welcome.

Mrs Villiers: I think that the reasons to be cheerful are that all the Northern Ireland parties accept that we need to find a deal and that everyone accepts that going into the next financial year with an unresolved budget would lead to increasing chaos and make it increasingly difficult for the Executive to perform even their ordinary, day-to-day functions. No one wants that. I think everyone accepts that that would be bad for every party that is a member of the Executive. I think there is that willingness to make progress. We are relatively close on matters, for

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example on how we set up new structures to help deal with the past in a way that better meets the needs of victims and survivors.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): The Secretary of State has said that she wants to see a fresh approach to the past. Does she realise that that will be very difficult while there is still so much secrecy about the on-the-runs? The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is facing increasing difficulty in getting the ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair to give evidence for its inquiry—we have had to summons him and he has not come yet. There are people from the Northern Ireland Office whom the Secretary of State seems to want to prevent coming to speak to us. We have to get the inquiry finished and we have to get the past looked at very differently, but we need some openness and transparency from the ex-Prime Minister.

Mrs Villiers: One of the advantages of setting up new structures on the past is that it allows us to reflect upon and respond to mistakes made in the past so that whatever we set up is transparent, balanced, fair and properly accountable. I very much welcome the work that the Select Committee has done on the matter. It is for the Committee to negotiate with former Prime Minister Blair. I certainly hope he will accept the invitation to give evidence. In relation to junior civil servants, the Government’s approach is consistent with that taken by previous Governments: we do not generally put forward junior civil servants to answer in Select Committees.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Is it not entirely predictable that many people in Northern Ireland, having observed the operation of the welfare cap in England and Wales, look with great trepidation at deepening poverty, increasing homelessness and all the problems that have been associated with that policy here?

Mrs Villiers: I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman on the benefit cap—I think that is what he means, rather than a welfare cap. The reality is that setting a cap on out-of-work benefits at £26,000 a year puts it somewhere in excess of average earnings in Northern Ireland. I think that most people would agree that it is entirely fair to restrict the benefits that an out-of-work family can receive to levels that are equivalent to or below the average that a working family can bring home by going out to work.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I would like the Secretary of State to clarify the maths on this. Some £1.5 billion has been cut from the Northern Ireland budget since 2011 to assist the UK Government in reducing borrowing and tackling the deficit, yet the solution now being put forward is to ask Northern Ireland to increase its borrowing by £500 million. Is that not simply inflicting a high burden of cost on the residents of Northern Ireland?

Mrs Villiers: I am afraid that I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s figures on the Northern Ireland block grant, which has actually gone up in cash terms. In real terms there has been a reduction, but it has been around only 1% for every year of the spending review. The reality is that the Northern Ireland Executive have a larger budget now than they did when they set their programme for government, because of Barnett consequentials. Those

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figures compare favourably with policing and the Home Office, for example, which have had to take a significant cut in England, and English local government, where the reductions have also been very significant.

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): I pay tribute to the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach for the work they did, and not just over recent weeks but in the run-up and on Thursday and Friday. Does she agree that there is a distinct difference between all parties recognising that an agreement is necessary and all parties having the will to deliver it? Does she agree that all parties recognised the need for an agreement even before Richard Haass and his team arrived 18 months ago, yet we are in practice no closer to such an agreement? Far from further devolution of corporation tax and other matters being at stake, what is actually at stake if there is no serious agreement in the next few days is the existing devolution that we have in Northern Ireland, because without a budget the Assembly simply cannot function.

Mrs Villiers: I agree that the credibility of the institutions is on the line. If the Assembly cannot get its budget right, it is very difficult for it to perform its basic functions, and it would be in for significant criticism if it cannot resolve these matters. As to the hon. Lady’s comment that the parties recognise the importance of delivery, and her question about whether they have the will to do it, I hope they do and I believe they do. Time is running out. It is crucial that we seize this opportunity because we will not get another one for months, if not years, to come.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): The main reason that the talks failed this week was Sinn Fein’s deluded belief that Northern Ireland should be totally exempt from the implications of UK budgetary policy and welfare reform. Will the Secretary of State confirm and put it on the record for those head-in-the-sand ostrich economists who advise Sinn Fein that if Northern Ireland wishes to deviate from the welfare reform package

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which is available in the rest of the United Kingdom, that money must be found from the Northern Ireland block grant and there is no additional money available?

Mrs Villiers: Yes, I can certainly do that. There will be no new money for welfare reform.

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): The leader of the Minister’s sister party in Northern Ireland said last week that the Government were trying to bribe the people with their own money. The truth is that they are trying to bribe the people to accept an agenda that the people there do not want. It is disgraceful that this involves things as important as identity and the past and the future of the place. Does this not show that because we have a Prime Minister with the attention span of a gnat, exactly as my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain) said, he has left a vacuum—the worst thing one can do in Northern Ireland—which proves that he is not up to the job?

Mrs Villiers: That is nonsense. The Prime Minister made a realistic offer. Remember, what the Prime Minister can put on the table by way of financial assistance is severely constrained by the huge mess that Labour made of the economy in the years when it was in government.

Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): We all appreciate the gravity of the situation, but will the Secretary of State tell us what the Prime Minister intends to do during the next few days to break the logjam?

Mrs Villiers: We will be doing everything we can to break the logjam over the coming days. We have thrown everything we can at the process, including stretching ourselves on the past, and taking forward proposals for corporation tax devolution, despite a degree of lack of enthusiasm from our coalition partners. We are doing everything we can to do the right thing for Northern Ireland, but ultimately this process will not succeed unless Northern Ireland’s political leaders are prepared to make the compromises necessary for an agreement.