Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): We all know how many great voluntary aid organisations there are in the UK. One based in Slough that I particularly admire is Khalsa Aid, a Sikh-led organisation that provides aid to people—from the victims of flooding in the north of England to victims of situations like the one we are discussing. Ravi Singh, the founder and chief executive of Khalsa Aid, wrote to the Secretary of State for Defence some time ago requesting that the RAF agree to drop up to £50,000 of food aid that Khalsa Aid is sponsoring. He has yet to receive a reply. The Secretary of State for International Development has argued that RAF drops are not the most efficient way to deal with this, but I am absolutely certain that failing to respond to this kind of initiative is completely unacceptable and

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makes it less likely that great organisations such as Khalsa Aid will want to step up. What is she going to do about it? Will she speak to her colleague the Secretary of State for Defence?

Justine Greening: The hon. Lady makes her point very well today in the Chamber. I will follow it up with the Ministry of Defence. Indeed, the Minister for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), who is here today, has said to me that she will follow it up. I pay tribute to the many faith-based charities that are playing a key role in working on the ground with local communities in what is an incredibly challenging situation. We will follow up the points that the hon. Lady has set out.

Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): The Secretary of State will know very well that Madaya used to be a holiday resort for the denizens of Damascus. To see it today is heart-breaking. Will she talk a little about the help being offered by our friends and allies in the region to the communities that are so badly affected? I am thinking in particular of Lebanon, which is barely a few kilometres over the mountains from Madaya, and Jordan. Will she also say a little about the requests made for help from our Gulf allies and the support she has received from the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), the Minister with responsibility for the middle east, who is in his place? Unless we approach this in a more universal fashion, we will struggle to find a solution.

Justine Greening: We are supporting countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, which have been hugely generous in accepting millions of refugees—alongside Turkey, Egypt and Iraq, whose contributions have been perhaps less recognised—by helping refugees with food, shelter, medical support, counselling—in some cases—and, in Lebanon and Jordan, with education. Critically, we have also worked with host communities, many of which have seen their populations double in size. Members can imagine the strain that puts on public services, food prices and labour wages, for example.

On our broader efforts in the region with Gulf partners, it is worth saying that Kuwait has hosted the last three pledging conferences on Syria and is co-hosting the one in London next month. It has played a role in marshalling the overall efforts and humanitarian resources in the region. Needless to say, however, we all need to do more. This is a protracted, ongoing crisis, and not only does it require day-to-day lifesaving support of the nature discussed this afternoon; but we need to see children in school and young people with the ability to find work and support themselves. If we cannot deliver those basics, we should not be surprised if people leave the region to try to build their lives elsewhere.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): This weekend in The Daily Telegraph, a Mr David Blair made an unwarranted and ill-informed attack on the Royal Air Force, going as far as to suggest that the absence of airdrops was due to the RAF. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to pay tribute to our forces and make it clear that the absence of airdrops is due to political and practical problems and nothing to do with the capabilities of our forces?

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Justine Greening: The hon. Lady has set out very clearly just how much work the RAF has done and the challenges of carrying out airdrops in this particular situation. DFID and the MOD have never had a closer working relationship in providing humanitarian support to those who most need it around the world. Whether in tackling Ebola, responding to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines or saving the lives of people on Mount Sinjar by dropping water, the MOD, and the RAF in particular, have played a critical role, and I have no doubt that they will continue to do so.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): I thank the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox) for her urgent question and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for her answer and all the work she and her Department are doing 24/7. Will she make it a top priority to send food not just to Madaya but to wherever there is the opportunity to do so? Does this not show the importance of the UN system? Whatever its faults—there have been many—it is the only game in town, and the UK must support it in every way possible and encourage our friends, our allies and indeed the whole world community to do the same.

Justine Greening: I agree wholeheartedly. It shows that in such circumstances our main leverage is the existence of a rules-based international system. Human rights are universal. It is occasionally argued at the UN that sovereignty is more important than human rights, but human rights do not depend on where someone is; they are universal and apply to people wherever they are, including in Madaya.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Have the UK Government had discussions with Russia about stopping Assad dropping bombs on people in Madaya as soon as aid has been delivered, and about whether it would allow the RAF to drop food supplies in Madaya, the other two places the Secretary of State mentioned and elsewhere, if the aid trucks fail to get through?

Justine Greening: The Vienna process at last gives us a chance to get the right people around the table—the people who will need to reach some kind of an agreement if we are ever going to see peace in Syria. Russia clearly has a role to play in helping us to achieve a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis. The most important thing that Russia could do right now to help would be to ensure that the Assad regime, which it is propping up, complies with international humanitarian law. That, in the end, is what we need to see happen. Ultimately, no amount of RAF airdrops can make as big a difference, frankly, as getting the Assad regime to comply with international humanitarian law in Syria.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox) on asking the question and the Secretary of State on her detailed response to it. With our engagement in Afghanistan, this country has very recent experience of driving convoys through hostile territory. If we are to achieve what the Secretary of State wants to achieve—getting aid to where it is needed, not where we are given permission for it to go—there needs to be an element of force protection for the convoys, in terms of a certain degree of hardware and armoured capability within the

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convoys, to demonstrate that the UN really does mean business. In that respect, may I ask the Secretary of State what negotiations are taking place with the Ministry of Defence and the United Nations to see how we might have a hard convoy of that sort? Following on from the thoughtful question posed by the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), were there to be Russian vehicles in some of those convoys, that would seem to suggest an element of protection from the Syrian forces.

Justine Greening: I recognise the points my hon. Friend is making; the challenge in what he suggests is that the impartiality of UN agencies is the main reason they are able to get on with the kind of work they do. The reality is that it would be extremely difficult to get any kind of acceptance around the UN Security Council table of a particular military force supporting a particular convoy. There is a security aspect to what we look at in ensuring that the UN convoys can get to where they are going, but as we see with the loss of humanitarian workers on some of those convoys, it is an immensely dangerous role for any of them to play. We should pay tribute to the humanitarian workers who, in spite of those dangers, are out there right now, crossing lines into territories where they may lose their lives getting support to people who need it.

Brendan O'Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP): It is a terrible irony that, on the day that the UK Government announce the first use of Brimstone missiles—the ones we are told minimise civilian casualties—we are forced to watch children starve to death in Madaya. If the convoys do not get through, does the Minister agree that if we have the ability to drop bombs, then surely we have the ability to drop bread?

Justine Greening: I recognise the point the hon. Gentleman is making, but those operations are very different in nature. One of them can happen from literally thousands of feet up, but if we are going to get bread, water and medical supplies to the right people, that is an entirely different RAF operation, requiring aircraft to fly much, much lower, which is why it is so hard to do effectively. That is why, in the end, we have to get the system that is there to work. That is why we have international humanitarian law. We should not let up on this. We should make sure that the political system that is in place delivers for the people on the ground. As we are seeing, when pressure is brought to bear, that is what happens.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): The abhorrent use of siege as a weapon of war is a symptom of Assad’s war without law and a war without end in Syria. He has reduced his economy to a wartime economy, based on disappearances, looting, and arms and people smuggling. The London conference, which the Secretary of State is organising, is an important step in the plan for peace and the economic reconstruction of that country. I wrote to the Prime Minister before Christmas, and copied her in, asking how UK-based people from Syrian civil society could be involved in that conference, so that the voices from Madaya and all the other besieged towns and cities in Syria can be heard in the conference, rather than it just being a top-down process. I wonder whether she has had a chance to look at that.

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Justine Greening: I did see the hon. Lady’s letter, for which I thank her. I can reassure her that civil society is a core part of the conference; we will make sure that those voices are very much heard when the conference takes place. I will write to the hon. Lady, ensuring that she is responded to formally.

Ms Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh (Ochil and South Perthshire) (SNP): I thank the Secretary of State for her assurances today. However, can she confirm that consideration is actively being given to the use of food drops by the RAF, which we have done before, so that those who are starving—and are just six miles from the border with Lebanon and a 40-second flying time away for the Hercules transport aircraft—can have some hope of aid being delivered to them much more swiftly than it currently is?

Justine Greening: I repeat my earlier answer—that convoys are getting into Madaya now and that the key issue is safety on the ground. I am sure the hon. Lady would not want any airdrops to fall into the hands of the people who are besieging the affected communities. It is not a question of just doing an air drop; it is not as simple as that. We need to ensure that we use the most effective route so that we get the help to the people who are starving on the ground. That is why we are using the routes that we are. I can assure the hon. Lady that we of course look at all options. There is no doubt, however, that the most effective option is to enable the UN agencies to get on with the work they are there to do.

Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): The local authority and charities in my constituency are willing, ready and able to take refugees, but they are being told by the Home Office that none will arrive in our region until April. Why that delay, and can she do anything about it?

Justine Greening: We are, of course, relocating people from the region, saving them from having to put their lives into the hands of the people smugglers. The hon. Lady raises the issue of her particular local authority. I am not familiar with the details, but I am happy to make sure that the offer made is followed up and responded to.

Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP): This is a hugely concerning issue, and the besieged people in Madaya are starving while we talk tactics. What specific action has been taken to secure the agreement of all parties to permit the necessary access for food, medication and other vital supplies by whatever means necessary to reach the residents of Madaya and other places where civilian populations are being besieged?

Justine Greening: As I set out earlier, my discussions with Stephen O’Brien, who heads up the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, are going on daily. Then, of course, we have the London Syria conference in early February, and the issue of the protection of civilians will be a key part of it.

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): One of the International Committee of the Red Cross reports that I read about the situation in Madaya clearly states:

“we saw pure hunger and despair in people’s eyes…We saw mothers not able to breastfeed their new-born children because they lacked adequate food for themselves to produce milk.”

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That was in October, and we now hear of people having to eat dogs and cats, along with all the other appalling things we have seen on the news. As the right hon. Lady says, the Assad regime must bear the brunt of the blame for this situation, but it is also clear that other groups such as Hezbollah are involved in the blockade, too. What would she say about that, and what is being done to encourage those other groups to abide by the very basics of humanity?

Justine Greening: The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that it is not the Assad regime alone that is breaking international humanitarian laws. Some areas that we find it hard to reach are held by Daesh, for example. Two of the nearby communities in Fua and Kefraya are not being besieged by the Assad regime, whereas Madaya is. All of this is unacceptable. It all represents a breach of international humanitarian law, which is why I roundly condemn it. There is no place for people who are civilians to be caught up in this situation. It is horrific in the 21st century to see the images that we have seen over recent days. An even more shocking fact than that, if it is possible, is that these cases represent only the tip of an iceberg of the suffering in Syria.

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): Rather than asking the Secretary of State to waste time explaining to the Scottish National party what would happen to a food parcel if we tried to deliver it via a Brimstone supersonic missile, may I ask her to focus more on the issue of Russia? Specifically, what have the United Kingdom Government done to try to persuade Russia to be a constructive force in this regard, and what more can she do from here?

Justine Greening: I think that, for the first time, we can welcome the fact that, as a result of the Vienna talks, Russia is now one of the countries around the table. However, we want to see—I want to see—the actions that have led to the situation in Madaya condemned roundly by all countries. The United Kingdom has condemned what has been happening, and I want countries such as Russia to do the same.

There can be no excuses for what we have seen going on in Syria: none whatever. There can be no excuses for the breaches of international humanitarian law which have been happening day in, day out for the last few years. All countries, but particularly those on the United Nations Security Council and those that have signed the resolutions allowing us to send cross-border convoys, should stand up for the underlying principle of international humanitarian law, and for the free and unfettered access of civilians to life-saving humanitarian supplies.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): The horrific events that are unfolding in Madaya are part of a dramatic power shift that is taking place in the region. Russia has carried out more than 60 airstrikes against Free Syrian Army forces in the last 48 hours, and there are huge numbers of Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias on the ground. Is it not time that we were all very clear about the fact that it is for Russia and Iran to direct their puppet regime in Syria to allow freedom of movement of aid to civilians? There is nothing that the RAF can do when the air is not under its control but under the control of the Syrian and Russian forces, unless they agree to freedom of movement. It is in their hands that the alteration of this crisis rests.

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Justine Greening: The hon. Lady is right to point out that the countries and regimes that are backing the Syrian regime need to be tough on that regime, and need to call it out for its lack of adherence to basic human rights and international humanitarian law. As a result of the Vienna process, we now have countries around the table that need to be around the table, and that gives us a glimmer of hope for the first time, but I think we should be under no illusion about the challenging nature of the diplomatic process that lies ahead. That is all the more reason for us to have a successful Syria conference in London. We must ensure that the necessary resources are there to support people who have been caught up in the crisis in the meantime. The political issues which can make or break our ability to ensure that humanitarian support gets through absolutely must be resolved if we are to be able to take care of the people who have been caught up in this terrible crisis.

Steven Paterson (Stirling) (SNP): I welcome the statement, and the comments that the Secretary of State has made. She has mentioned the United Nations Security Council resolutions a number of times. Resolution 2258 states that the Security Council expresses

“outrage at the unacceptable and escalating level of violence”,

and that it is

“Gravely distressed by the continued deterioration of the devastating humanitarian situation in Syria and by the fact that urgent humanitarian assistance, including medical assistance, is now required by…13.5 million people”.

That is an enormous number of people. I welcome the contribution that the United Kingdom is making and the fact that it is the second greatest contributor, but many other countries have signed up to those statements. What efforts can we make internationally to ensure that those other countries do more to live up to them, and to help the poor Syrian people?

Justine Greening: Security Council resolutions of that kind are important, because they provide a statement of intent in making clear that we condemn what is going on and that we need to act collectively to at least provide humanitarian support for people. As the hon. Gentleman says, and as I said earlier, the countries that are on the Security Council need to back up those words with clear action. I welcomed the renewal, at the end of December, of the Security Council resolution that enables cross-border deliveries to continue. But that is the first step of putting that plan into action. As he says, we now need countries not only to support that, but to be clear in their condemnation of the Syrian regime and of other warring parties that fail to adhere to basic law.

Natalie McGarry (Glasgow East) (Ind): I congratulate the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox) on raising this political issue, and I welcome the Secretary of State’s condemnation of the Assad regime. She said that only one previous request to the regime to allow the delivery of aid to Madaya was granted, suggesting that the international community has for some time known about the potential for a humanitarian crisis and about the actions of the Assad regime. Does it not demonstrate the incoherence of tackling only Daesh without tackling Assad, when Assad and allies such as Hezbollah are so comprehensively breaching international law? To slightly misquote Harry Patch, the last remaining Tommy, surely this is a war that must end around a table.

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Justine Greening: That is why the Vienna talks are so important. In the end, it will end with talks reaching a resolution around the table, but let us be clear: a resolution needs to be reached for a Syria that has territorial integrity. Daesh is a clear threat to that. That is why this House passed a motion enabling us to take action against Daesh not only in Iraq but in Syria. Unless we tackle Daesh, there will not be a Syria to regain its freedom and to have peace in the medium term. So there are two strands. One is tackling Daesh and the second is reaching a political resolution on Syria itself. In the meantime, I remain committed, as the Government do, to ensuring that we remain a leading partner in the work to help people who are affected by the crisis and need humanitarian support.

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Points of Order

5.1 pm

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At the risk of being accused of going from one extreme to the other, may I commend you—this sounds very oleaginous and creepy, I know—for the production of your “Quick guide to participating in the Chamber and Westminster Hall”? Very succinctly put it is, too. I notice that you say that, at Question Time, for example,

“Keep your question short…Don’t read out your question”.

I also note that the guide applies not just to new Members but to older Members. One of the rules is

“Don’t walk between the Chair and whoever is speaking.”

There is one particular elderly miner—I cannot name him; it would be wrong to do so—who constantly walks between you and someone asking a question. I wonder whether you can somehow make the guide compulsory reading, particularly among elderly miners and some of the older Members.

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is seeking to establish himself as a general aid of first-class character to the occupant of the Chair and to other Members. He has just provided a real-time advertisement for the rules of behaviour and courtesies in the House. That document has just been circulated and I hope that all Members are paying the keenest attention to it, even if an hon. Member is currently consulting an iPad and taking an intense interest in some matter other than that which I am dealing with. I feel sure it is only because the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) has already read and possibly inwardly digested over breakfast the document concerned.

It is a most useful document. The quick guide to participating in the Chamber and Westminster Hall has been circulated to all Members, but I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). I am trying to work out who has caused the hon. Gentleman’s consternation through his offending conduct. I cannot think of the individual concerned but, whoever that Member is, it is never too late to learn the courtesies of the House. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Lichfield.

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In that vein, I have also taken the liberty of enjoying your new book. In point 35, you rightly draw our attention to the importance of Members informing other Members when they intend to visit their constituencies, unless they are on a private visit. I was therefore particularly surprised and dismayed to get a letter this morning from the Chancellor of the Exchequer informing me of not one but two visits to my constituency that took place five days ago. Further to that, it has been alleged that at least part of one of those events was of a party political nature relating to the Welsh elections and involving the Chancellor urging people to support the leader of the Welsh Conservatives. The second event was a purely party political event involving activists in Wales and perhaps even fundraising. It has also been alleged to me that Treasury civil servants were involved in the facilitation of at least one of those events. Could you tell me

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whether the Chancellor has received a copy of your book? Could you also tell me how I might find out whether Treasury civil servants were indeed involved in activities that might have breached the ministerial and civil service codes?

Jo Stevens (Cardiff Central) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am in the same situation as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). Last week, the Secretary of State for Wales and the Chancellor of the Exchequer visited my constituency, but I had no notice of either visit from either right hon. Member. I would be grateful if you advised me on how I might take the matter further.

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Members for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) for those points of order, and I appreciate their giving me notice of their intention to raise this matter. As the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) well knows—and as everyone else should know—it is a long-standing and firm convention that hon. Members should give notice if they intend to visit another hon. Member’s constituency in anything other than a purely personal and therefore, in a sense, private capacity. In the case of Ministers, it is clearly stated in the Government’s ministerial code that such notice must be given. It is open to either of the hon. Members to raise this matter with the Cabinet Secretary, if either or both of them should wish to do so. However, I trust that what has been said, by them and by me, has been noted by those on the Treasury Bench and will be communicated directly to the Ministers concerned.

For the avoidance of doubt, as with virtually every convention in this place, the convention applies without fear, favour or discrimination. No Minister can be exempted or exempt him or herself from it on the ground of seniority. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth inquired whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer had received a copy of the note on conventions and courtesies, and the answer is that he most assuredly will have done so, because it has been sent to every Member.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about receiving notification some days late, it is a fairly obvious common-sensical point that if people are going to comply with the convention, as they should, they should take great care to do so in a timely way. There is no point in leaving it to the last minute, only to find that the notification arrives late. It must be done in a timely way that is considerate of Members’ responsibility to each other. So all three Members have, in cross-party fashion, done the House a service today and I thank them for that.

Michael Fabricant: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. We have been discussing the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Treasury, and I am just speculating, given the need to save money, that the letter might have been sent second class.

Mr Speaker: The imagination of the hon. Gentleman is vivid, and what I would describe as his spontaneous intellectual gymnastics are an example to us all.

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Armed Forces Bill

[Relevant Documents: Oral evidence taken before the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill on 18 November 2015, HC 618, and Proceedings of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill on 24 November 2015.]

Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Committee

Mr Speaker: To move the first new clause, I call the Minister, my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster). In wishing him a happy new year and inviting him to address the new clause, I notice that he has grown a beard, upon which we congratulate him.

New Clause 1

Discharge of members of the armed forces: homosexual acts

‘(1) The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 is amended as follows.

(2) In section 146(4) (homosexual acts as grounds for discharge from the armed forces etc), omit the words “discharging a member of Her Majesty’s armed forces from the service or”.

(3) In section 147(3) (homosexual acts as grounds for discharge from the armed forces etc: Northern Ireland), omit the words “discharging a member of Her Majesty’s armed forces from the service or”.’ —(Mark Lancaster.)

This new clause removes wording which provides that sections 146 and 147 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 do not prevent a homosexual act from being a ground for discharging a member of the armed forces.

Brought up, and read the First time.

5.9 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mark Lancaster): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments 1 to 5.

Mark Lancaster: Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I assure you that the beard is only temporary—otherwise, Mrs Lancaster may divorce me.

I am delighted to be speaking to this new clause today. It reflects the Government’s commitment to the fair and equal treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender armed forces personnel. It repeals two provisions regarding homosexuality in the armed forces that are inconsistent with the Department’s current policies and the Government’s equality and discrimination policies more generally.

John Howell (Henley) (Con): During the evidence session for the Select Committee, on which I served, I asked Mr Humphrey Morrison, from central legal services, whether this could be done. The answer I was given was that because it was tied up with the merchant navy, it could not be done. What has changed to allow this to go forward?

Mark Lancaster: We have simply decoupled the two issues. We will be dealing with this matter in this Bill and the Department for Transport has made it clear that it intends to deal with the merchant navy aspect as soon as possible. I am delighted to say that we are therefore moving ahead quickly, as we said we would.

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This new clause would amend sections 146(4) and 147(3) of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which currently contain wording indicating that a homosexual act can constitute grounds for discharging a member of the armed forces. New clause 1 removes this wording, while amendments 1 to 5 make a number of small technical changes to implement this clause. When sections 146 and 147 were enacted, it was Government policy that homosexuality was incompatible with service in the armed forces and, accordingly, members of the armed forces who engaged in homosexual activity were administratively discharged. That policy was rightly abandoned in January 2000, following a judgment of the European Court of Human Rights.

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): I wholeheartedly support the Minister’s efforts on new clause 1. I have received a letter from a constituent who was discharged from the Women’s Royal Air Force in 1968 because she was gay, and there will be a number of similar cases historically. She says that

“there was a witch hunt of proportions you cannot imagine, inevitably ending in ignominious discharge…When I was discharged I was told (as were others) that unlike our male counterparts, we had not broken the law and could not be court martialled and an administrative discharge is not ‘dishonourable’. However, the…regulation is generally understood to cover…theft and similar unsavoury matters”.

She therefore sees this as dishonourable and she says:

“It has certainly influenced the whole of my life.”

Will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss this? Will he say what he thinks about dealing with historical cases, where people were so dreadfully treated in our armed forces? They served with distinction, but because of their LGBT status and the circumstances in which they left they were affected by what happened for the rest of their lives.

Mark Lancaster: The hon. Gentleman highlights precisely why the then Government decided to make the changes they did, and I think we all agree in this House that they are very positive changes. Of course I would be delighted to meet him to see what we can do for his constituent.

Since 2000, the provisions I mentioned have had no practical effect and they are therefore redundant. I would like to thank Professor Paul Johnson and Mr Duncan Lustig-Prean for raising this important issue in their evidence to the Bill’s Select Committee. I would also like to thank the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for championing the repeal of these provisions through his amendments introduced in Select Committee and in Committee of the whole House. These provisions in no way reflects the position of today’s armed forces. We are proud in the Department of the progress we have made since 2000 to remove policies that discriminated against homosexual men, lesbians and transgender personnel, so that they can serve openly in the armed forces. All three services now feature in Stonewall’s top 100 employers list, and we continue to benchmark our activities to ensure we are doing as much as we can to support our LGBT staff. This new clause is a practical step which shows that this Government are serious about our commitment to equality in this area.

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Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I had the sad duty of discharging a man administratively from my battalion. I really regretted it happening at the time, but I must urge caution about our going back in time to try to put right what was apparently right at the time but which was clearly wrong.

Mark Lancaster: I hear what my hon. Friend says. Of course there is balance in all such cases, but the moves in 2000 were absolutely right. They reflected a change in policy and a change in attitude in society.

5.15 pm

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): I welcome this opportunity to speak in support of the Bill on behalf of my colleagues in the Labour party. I am conscious of the fact that the previous stages of the Armed Forces Bill were led by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who rightly enjoys tremendous respect across the House and will be a considerable loss to the Front-Bench team. I wish to place on record my thanks to him on behalf of the Labour party and of all those who know how important the armed forces are to the Labour party. As a new member of the team, I also wish to thank him for the help, assistance and wise counsel he has offered to me.

The Labour party has a strong tradition of supporting our armed forces both in Government and Opposition. The reason many of us feel so passionately that this Parliament should do right by our armed forces is that they step forward and answer the country’s call in the most dangerous situations imaginable. They risk life and limb daily to protect Britain’s interests around the world, often facing the prospect of mortal danger at just a moment’s notice. We also recognise that a significant proportion of serving servicemen and women are from Labour-supporting constituencies. As a result, the scale of the sacrifice required of our armed forces personnel and the importance of standing by them is very keenly felt by us all.

When we were in government, we ensured that forces’ pay increases were among the highest in the public sector. We also invested heavily in accommodation and rehabilitation facilities, and increased access to the NHS for service personnel injured in action. In Opposition, we have looked to build on that Labour tradition, ensuring that we do all we can in support of our armed forces and their families. We are proud of the role that we have played in campaigning successfully to have the military covenant enshrined in law.

Happily, the amendments before us today, which were argued for in Committee by my hon. Friend and by other Labour Members, now return to the House with the Government’s support. Labour is determined to continue to offer that support to everyone who chooses to serve in our armed forces. We will do that by developing policy around a commitment to the highest standards of welfare and well-being for all our service personnel. We will scrutinise any proposals brought forward by the Government and continue to make the arguments about the extent to which personnel cuts have stretched to the limit the capacity of our armed forces to respond. We will also work constructively with the Government to support legislation that will ultimately improve the welfare and security of the British armed forces.

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On the specific amendments being discussed today, the Government have ultimately decided that my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham was right in Committee when he promoted new clause 4. We also welcome proposed new clause 2, which has been tabled by the hon. Members for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott) and for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan). It is reminiscent of the amendment that my hon. Friend proposed in Committee.

We welcome the opportunity to renew the Armed Forces Act 2006, which completely overhauled legislation relating to military and service discipline. It is encouraging to see that the Government have adopted new clause 4, which will bring the legislation up to date and remove the now superfluous references to homosexual acts within the Bill. Although it is 16 years since the ban on gay men and lesbians in the armed forces was lifted, the legislation still contained references to homosexual acts despite the fact that that is just one form of sexual activity that could lead to someone being dismissed under certain circumstances and does not need to be specifically singled out. As that has now quite rightly been superseded by more appropriate guidelines, there is no need to have such references in the current law. Removing them from the statute book is a welcome step forward so that the explicit refusal to discriminate against homosexual servicemen and women is expunged from the service book, just as it has in practice been outlawed. That is an important step forward, and we welcome it very strongly.

We will continue to support our armed forces and the invaluable contribution they make to ensure Britain’s security. This Bill and these amendments offer a further step forward in ensuring that support for our armed forces personnel, and we will continue to support them enthusiastically.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I support the amendment. Tomorrow will be the 16th anniversary of the Labour Government abolishing the draconian regulations that meant that someone who was gay or bisexual could be dismissed from the armed services, so it is apt that we are agreeing to the amendment today.

It is strange how things work out. I moved similar amendments in Committee and on the Floor of the House. I pay tribute to the Minister, whose approach to the Bill has been constructive, ensuring that practical measures such as this are taken forward. I accepted during earlier stages of the Bill that the measure should apply also to the merchant navy, and I look forward to the Government introducing legislation to mirror this provisions for the merchant navy.

I join the Minister in paying tribute to Professor Paul Johnson, professor of sociology at York University, who not only gave evidence to the Committee but in my conversations with him assisted me and ensured that I understood that the legislation currently on the statute books was discriminatory. As the Minister rightly said, it means nothing, but for lesbian, gay and bisexual potential members of the armed forces, the measure expunges those provisions from the law. That should celebrated. I wholeheartedly support the new clause, which is a great step forward.

Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP): The SNP fully supports the Bill. We appreciate the requirement that Parliament’s consent is given, and we appreciate too the significant contribution made by members of

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our armed forces. We support progressive change in our armed forces and welcome the Government’s actions to address discrimination against LGBT personnel.

The SNP welcomes the new clause and the action from the Government, which is a step forward for better LGBT rights among our armed forces personnel. I am very pleased that the Minister has felt able, as he put it, to uncouple this from other legislation which was previously thought to hamper such progress. I echo the words of the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) in looking forward to the Government moving similar provisions forward in relation to the merchant navy.

It is scarcely credible that we are discussing this in 2016. The existing provision is discriminatory and it is offensive that it exists. Notwithstanding the fact that it has not been used for a number of years, we welcome the fact that the Government are finally removing the provision, as they should, because it has clearly infringed the rights of LGBT people over a number of years. I am pleased that this was the clear view of all members of the Committee and, as we have heard, of witnesses as well, who noted that the existing provisions were out of step with where our armed forces are now.

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): Almost everything in praise of the Bill and of my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) has already been said. Looking at the time perspective from a different angle, it is remarkable how much this country has changed—only in 1994 the provisions on the statute book were renewed. The idea of doing that now would rightly provoke outrage in the country and in the House. Sometimes what we do in this place does not fill us with pride, but we can take pride in enabling the statute book to catch up in this respect with where the country and the armed forces have been for some time. I welcome the new clause and praise everyone who has had a part in bringing it forward.

Mark Lancaster: I am grateful for the comments from hon. Members across the House, and delighted that we have consensus on the issue.

Question put and agreed to.

New clause 1 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 2

Payments to veterans suffering from mesothelioma

‘(1) From 11 April 2016 the Secretary of State has a duty to ensure that compensation due to former members of the Armed Forces who have contracted mesothelioma during the course of their military service is assessed and paid efficiently and promptly.

(2) By 1 October 2016 the Government must put in place:

(a) a publicity programme to raise awareness of former members of the Armed Forces who may be at risk of, or susceptible to, mesothelioma; and

(b) a monitoring process to ensure the comprehensive and prompt detection of mesothelioma cases.’.—(Danny Kinahan.)

This new clause would place a duty on the Secretary of State from the date sums are due to be paid to pay compensation due to former members of the Armed Forces who have contracted mesothelioma during the course of their service is paid swiftly. It would also

11 Jan 2016 : Column 605 require the Government to put in place a publicity programme to raise awareness of those who are at risk of mesothelioma and a monitoring process to ensure the comprehensive and prompt detection of mesothelioma cases.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Danny Kinahan (South Antrim) (UUP): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I would first like to say how pleased I am to see new clause 1 added to the Bill. I do not intend to rerun all the arguments on mesothelioma today, because we all know that it is a deadly disease. I wish instead to speak to our new clause, the purpose of which is to push for compensation payments to be made as quickly as possible. Those who heard last Thursday’s Westminster Hall debate on the armed forces covenant annual report will know how essential it is that things happen more quickly.

I very much welcome the announcement made before Christmas about those affected by mesothelioma having the choice of receiving either £140,000 or a war pension, which I think was an extremely good move. I am keen to hear from the Minister on how that is proceeding and whether there have been any changes. I welcome the fact that he is still considering whether the Ministry of Defence will look at retrospective cases, because I think that is absolutely essential, particularly for the families who have lost loved ones.

I would like to praise all those who have worked on this matter, such as the Royal British Legion, the shadow Armed Forces Minister, and the hon. Members for North Durham (Mr Jones) and for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane). Just after the announcement in December, the Royal British Legion stated:

“Whilst we are pleased that the Minister has indicated that he will review special arrangements for these individuals, we urge him to do so quickly under the terms of the Armed Forces Covenant and in light of the limited life expectancies and extreme suffering of these veterans.”

That is the key: we want compensation to be paid quickly. I hope that the Minister will indicate today how that will be done so that everyone can go away confident that it will happen quickly. Those involved know that mesothelioma is a deadly disease and that, unfortunately, an individual is lucky to live more than one or two years after diagnosis. However, that diagnosis might be made 30 or 40 years after exposure.

We also want to ensure that compensation is comprehensive and that every single person who might be affected is personally contacted by the Ministry of Defence to ensure that they know that there is a chance they have the disease. When it comes to submarines, I am told that it is the P, O, Valiant, Resolution, Dreadnought and early S classes that might have contained asbestos, and in the Army it is the Centurion tank. I am asking the Minister to look at all the places where there might have been asbestos and ensure that the message gets to every person who might have been exposed to it, and extremely quickly. I am told by one source that this could involve as many as 2,500 people, although the Royal British Legion says the number is only 60. It is essential that we look at who was serving on those submarines at the time and work out how to get the message to them personally.

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Bob Stewart: Does my hon. Friend mean that 2,500 people are affected, or that 2,500 people may contract mesothelioma in the end, because I suspect that the number is much higher? I am slightly confused on that point.

Danny Kinahan: My hon. Friend is right to ask that question, because I went through exactly the same thought process when I received those figures. I am told that 2,500 people may be affected. However, many more will have served on all those different submarines, and indeed in the various tanks. The onus is on the Ministry of Defence to work out exactly which ships and what equipment contained the threat of asbestos, find out how to contact the people affected and then get the message to them. That is really what we are pushing for. We are keen to make sure that the MOD also looks at other illnesses that may well be hiding in the background of those who have worked with depleted uranium or had carbon monoxide poisoning.

We should always be thinking of how we look after our armed services, not just those who serve but their families, well into the future. We must set that example for everyone who has joined the services. It is a fantastic career that I myself have thoroughly benefited from. They must know that their families will be looked after and that we will look at all the risks well into the future. We want this to be dealt with very quickly and to make sure that there is a good campaign that ensures that everyone is informed. We must keep an open mind and think about how we will look after all our armed services and their families into the future.

5.30 pm

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): I start by doing something I have done very rarely in this House, and that is to say “Thank you” to the Government. I thank them for the important steps they have taken in treating people who have served this country, in many years of war, in the way that they should be treated. Sadly, though, because of the potential effects of retrospective legislation, some people may be left behind, and I want to focus on them.

I spent a lifetime working in the trade union movement before I came here, including representing people in the mine works who had a variety of diseases such as vibration white finger as a result of being exposed to the damage caused by pneumatic tools, and pulmonary diseases caused by exposure to coal dust and stone dust. However, I had never heard of mesothelioma until about 15 years ago, when I was asked by a friend if I could do some fundraising on behalf of an organisation that was being set up by a woman called Chris Knighton—the Mick Knighton Mesothelioma Research Fund, of which I am very proud now to be a patron—and I asked them what it was about. I have been castigated in the past by a member of the public for the brutal way in which I have exposed this disease, but it is a brutal disease. I was told about it very bluntly by a solicitor from Thompsons some 15 years ago.

When someone is exposed to asbestos, the fibres lie dormant for decades, but one day they wake up, they suffer horribly, and then they die. There are no two ways about it. Once someone has full-blown mesothelioma, they have a death sentence. The only thing that is questionable is how long it takes to happen. In a small

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number of cases medication and drug treatments such as chemotherapy can help, but it only slightly extends the time in which people suffer and eventually die.

There is a huge moral issue for all of us regarding what happened. Asbestos was shown to be poisonous as far back as 1892—a long, long time ago. It was banned from 1965 onwards—50-plus years ago. It was seen as one of those wonderful things that did so many good things for people. In a huge number of different areas, it was seen as being something worth working with, so it was in lots of places that people would not even have thought about—when changing brake drums, lagging pipes, and all that sort of thing. I myself have worked with it. It is in schools and other buildings. It is in our own homes.

As long as asbestos is not disturbed, people are usually okay, but a lot of those who were exposed to it worked in places where it was in the air all the time, so they were working with it without knowing, and they should have known. Clearly, in some cases they were criminally exposed. I am not, by any means, saying that about the MOD. The history of fighting for justice for people with asbestos has been long, tortuous, and hard.

When my party was in government from 1997 to 2010, we would take two steps forward and one step back. There were challenges in the courts by insurance companies and £1.4 billion was handed back to them, because the Law Lords allowed them to no longer make payments for certain asbestos-related diseases. Thankfully, through the efforts of successive Governments, people with mesothelioma are treated much better now than they used to be, but the truth is that a significant group of people are still affected by that case. I am not going to argue about the numbers, because that case is so moronic that it overrules any discussion about numbers.

Mr Kevan Jones: My hon. Friend is explaining very well the history behind how we have got to where we are today. Will he join me in paying tribute to the trade union movement? Without its expertise and campaigning zeal, the conversation taking place with regard to not just this Bill but others would not have started.

Mr Anderson: I appreciate the work my hon. Friend has done on behalf not just of the armed services, but of our part of the world, where he has been an MP for many years, and long may that continue. He is right to say that the trade union movement has been involved from the beginning, and without it we probably would not be where we are today in trying to right this wrong.

The issue is of interest to Members across the House. On 4 November 2015, in the lead-up to Remembrance Sunday, the leader of the Scottish National party, the right hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), asked the Prime Minister:

“Does the Prime Minister agree that everything must be done to deliver on the military covenant—both the spirt and the letter?”

The Prime Minister’s response was unequivocal:

“I certainly agree with both parts of the right hon. Gentleman’s question…We make a promise to our military that because of the sacrifices they make on our behalf they should not have less good treatment than other people in our country and indeed that, where we can, we should provide extra support.”—[Official Report, 4 November 2015; Vol. 601, c. 961.]

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He did not say that we should support service people only up to a certain cut-off date or, “Well, I’m really sorry, but retrospective legislation doesn’t apply.”

There is absolutely no doubt that these people are a special case, because of what we ask them to do. By “we”, I mean us as a nation and, more pointedly, us as representatives of the state. We ask them to go to places where human beings should not usually be made to go. As part and parcel of them doing that on our behalf, they have been exposed to this horrible disease.

On the same day, I raised with the Prime Minister the specific issue of people who were exposed before 1987:

“Thousands of people who served our nation in the Royal Navy before 1987 are not entitled to full compensation. That means that people who have been exposed to asbestosis and have contracted the cancer disease mesothelioma stand to lose out massively when compared with people in civilian life.”

His response was:

“I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. I understand that the Defence Secretary is looking at the matter. As I have said, since putting the military covenant into law, we have tried every year to make progress…I am happy to go away and look at the point that he makes.”—[Official Report, 4 November 2015; Vol. 601, c. 962-63.]

I am delighted with that response and, as I said earlier, with the fact that that the Secretary of State came back to us on this and moved some way when we debated the issue towards the end of last year.

The truth, however, is that while we are looking into this matter, people are dying, and they are dying without getting compensation equivalent to what they would get if they had not been in the armed services. That is quite simply wrong. I know that it asks a lot of the Government to go back and try to redress the issue, because there are always problems—unintended consequences—when we open up access to compensation, but this issue is far too important to ignore, and it would be wrong and, I believe, a breach of the military covenant if we do not address it.

The Prime Minister has said that we will go the extra mile for these people. I know that this is not part of the new clause, but I ask the Minister, please try to do more. Let us work together across the House to make this work in a way that delivers what these people deserve.

Mr Kevan Jones: It is a pleasure to follow my next-door constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson).

I, too, pay tribute to the Minister for accepting amendments that I tabled in Committee, and for looking at this issue in a practical way. That has been his approach to the Bill: he has looked at where he can make a practical and real difference to people’s lives. In Committee, he announced that, from that date onwards, people would have a choice about whether to accept compensation as a lump sum payment or as a war pension.

My hon. Friend has just outlined the issues involved in retrospection. I am aware of them from my time as a Minister, when I had to deal with issues such as pensions, but will the Minister consider this point? Will he make an exception for individuals alive today who were diagnosed just before the cut-off date that he had to introduce? As my hon. Friend said, they are under a death sentence—in many cases, they will not live for very long—so can that specific group be looked at? From speaking with my hon. Friend, I understand the difficulties of retrospection,

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so I know that there is a broader issue, but could individuals who already have a diagnosis and may be in receipt of a war pension be looked at? I do not expect the Minister to come up with an instant solution and say yes, but it would be very much appreciated if he could go away and consider that point.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon—[Interruption.] I have dramatically moved him from the north to the south. I mean my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones).

The armed forces have no trade union or anyone to fight for them, except armed forces charities and Members of the House. It is very much the responsibility of Members of the House to be their champions, to fight their cause, to fight for what is right, and to fight for justice for them. I totally and utterly agree with my hon. Friend that people alive today who have received such a diagnosis are under a death sentence. The acknowledgment that their service in the armed forces has caused them to suffer from this most hideous of diseases would make a difference to them and their families. My brother-in-law died of mesothelioma, so I know how short but horrific such a death is, and how horrific it is for the family to watch as people struggle to breath and die inch by inch, day by day.

This subject is very emotive, but it is one that says what we are as a country and how seriously we take our responsibilities to the members of the armed forces who faced risk not in war, but in their place of work. As a country, we have accepted such a responsibility for people who worked in civilian life, and we have a moral responsibility to accept that we have a duty to meet the needs of those armed forces personnel currently diagnosed, who are dying now, and to give them access to the compensation scheme.

I hope that the Minister will take this matter very seriously. As Opposition Members have said, the Minister has been very active in this matter and supportive of making changes to the Bill. I hope that this is another change that he will accept, consider and bring forward.

Nusrat Ghani (Wealden) (Con): I put on the record not only that I sat on the Select Committee that considered the Armed Forces Bill, but that I am a proud member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, attached to the Royal Air Force. Along with other members of the Committee, I raised the issue of compensation for servicemen and women who have contracted mesothelioma. We were united when we raised it with the Minister in Committee, so I welcomed his announcement of the news that compensation would be made available as a lump sum payment.

Earlier, the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) quoted the Royal British Legion, which led the campaign on this issue so strongly. I, too, would like to quote it. When the Government made the announcement on lump sum compensation payments, the Royal British Legion said:

“Thank you to everyone who gave their support; the new changes really will make a difference for the families of thousands of veterans diagnosed with Mesothelioma.”

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5.45 pm

I am proud that we have taken some really positive steps for veterans who are struggling with this disease and their families. Without the need for the new clause, the Government have taken steps in the right direction. Of course time is of the essence and I urge the Minister to put forward a timetable. Also of the essence is how we publicise the scheme to people up and down the country.

We must do the right thing by the people who spend their time protecting our great country. I want to recognise the welcome news that the Government have announced compensation for veterans with mesothelioma.

Kirsten Oswald: The SNP fully supports the new clause and its aims of creating accountability and ensuring the speedy implementation of the compensation. We are supportive of its efforts to raise awareness and to move at some speed.

It is inescapable that there has been real inequity in how we have treated veterans suffering from mesothelioma. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) that until now the situation has not been consistent with the military covenant and has not been an appropriate way to treat our armed forces.

As we have heard, this is a matter of urgency because veterans who are suffering from mesothelioma simply do not have time for us to delay. The campaign run by the Royal British Legion has been incredibly effective. It is right to highlight what a terrible disease mesothelioma is and the injustice of this situation.

The tragedy of a mesothelioma diagnosis cannot be overstated. As the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) said, veterans and their families in this situation do not have time to spare. While rectifying this unfair treatment will not make anyone who is suffering from the disease any better, it may well improve the quality of the life they have remaining and it may mean less anxiety about those they leave behind.

Ensuring that there is a swift process and a campaign of awareness would be useful mechanisms in allowing us to deal better with our veterans as we should, so we fully support them. I call on the Government to look just a little further and to deal fairly with the group of about 60 veterans who are currently in receipt of a war disablement pension by allowing them to access this contribution. That would simply be the right thing for the Government to do.

Toby Perkins: This is another important step forward that is being taken in the Bill. I again pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for the difference that he made to the Bill in Committee.

All of us who serve former industrial communities are very conscious of the terrible disease that is mesothelioma and of the appalling and swift end it brings to the people who are unfortunate enough to suffer from it. It is an issue that many of us have campaigned on and for which we have campaigning groups in our constituencies because of the industrial legacy that we have. In my constituency, I am pleased to work closely with the Derbyshire Asbestos Support Team, which has done a tremendous amount of work to highlight the appalling plight that afflicts mesothelioma victims.

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To see measures being brought forward in this context is incredibly positive. In recent years, the Labour party has campaigned tirelessly in support of the Royal British Legion’s campaign to ensure that there is a better deal for veterans who have fallen victim to mesothelioma. We therefore welcome the Government’s announcement of an improved compensation package for armed forces veterans who suffer from it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) was right to say that it is a clear breach of the armed forces covenant that veterans who have suffered from this awful disease have received up to £150,000 less than civilians. We are delighted that the pressure has forced the Government into action. I echo the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) about the credit that needs to go to the Minister for taking a positive approach in Committee, for being open-minded and for being willing to think again about the initial positions that the Government took. It is welcome that he has taken that step and it reflects well on him.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon said a few moments ago, where possible we would like the Government to go the extra mile and take extra steps to support veterans of our armed forces. There was an anomaly because members of the armed forces were being treated less well than those in civilian trades, and we all felt that that wrong needed righting. I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) about the urgency of this pressing matter. The House should feel proud that we have put right something that was wrong, as that is the least that our service personnel who have tragically contracted mesothelioma deserve. The new compensation package is a great victory for everyone who has supported the Royal British Legion in its campaign, and I am pleased and proud to be supporting it today.

Mark Lancaster: I thank the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) for his opening comments, and the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson), whom I know has campaigned on this issue for a long time and played a positive part in the progress made to date. I thank the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), and the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) who spoke passionately, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) and the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) who has rightly pressured me on this issue for some time. I also thank the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) for his kind comments.

It would have been impossible for anyone involved in this issue for a period of time not to be deeply moved and determined that the House should do all it can to move this issue forward. I am pleased that we have managed to make positive steps in recent times, but I am clear that we cannot simply rest on our laurels. I am determined to try to push this issue forward.

I hope I have demonstrated that the Government are committed to supporting veterans with mesothelioma and the wider armed forces community. On 16 December I was pleased to announce to the House that veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma from that date would have the option to receive a £140,000 lump sum, to be paid from 11 April this year. That lump sum will be provided through the well-established war pensions scheme,

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which is administered by Defence Business Services Veterans UK. With speed in mind, Veterans UK prioritises claims for mesothelioma, and will continue to do so.

Claimants will be given a choice of either the new lump sum or the existing war pension payments. The details will be explained in correspondence, and I have asked the veterans welfare service to be on hand to help claimants understand the options available to them. I am determined to do all we can to support claimants. In addition to my announcement on 16 December, on the same day details of the lump sum option were given to ex-service organisations for them to publicise to their members and help raise awareness. I am keen to ensure that this measure is as widely known as possible.

When individuals leave the armed forces, their healthcare needs become the responsibility of the national health service in England and the devolved Administrations. Most people with mesothelioma will see their GP first, because they are concerned about their symptoms. Given concerns over a potential monitoring process, I have been told—I will go back and check again—that unfortunately there is currently no reliable screening test for mesothelioma. The aim of screening is to pick up cancers at an early stage of the disease before symptoms develop, but mesothelioma can be difficult to diagnose since the usual test for lung diseases often appears negative.

We are engaging with NHS bodies on disseminating information to GPs, respiratory clinics and other healthcare professionals, so that when they treat a veteran with mesothelioma caused by military service, they can direct them to the website and the Veterans UK helpline, which have details of how to make a claim under the war pensions scheme and the new lump sum option.

Mr Anderson: The Minister is giving a good response. May I politely suggest that some people in the NHS will never have seen mesothelioma—I mean no disrespect, but it is relatively rare? One body that might be able to play a key role is the British Lung Foundation—I mentioned earlier a fundraising group that I worked with, and it has given the BLF more than £1 million. A lot of that is about identifying mesothelioma as early as possible.

Mark Lancaster: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that helpful suggestion, and I shall instruct my officials to take it up.

On retrospection, whether to apply the lump sum to those diagnosed before 16 December 2015 is a complex issue that many past Governments have had to deal with. I have directed the Department to review options to support those claimants in a similar manner, and I am determined to consider those options carefully and as quickly as I can. Indeed, officials are actively working on that, and although I am sorry that I cannot update the House today, I will update hon. Members as soon as I can.

Following my announcement on 16 December last year, our legal staff are preparing the changes needed to the service pensions order to give effect to the payment of the lump sum from 11 April 2016. At the moment, I am told that 11 April is the earliest date we can do that, but I have asked my officials to look again and to do what we can to bring that date forward. If in the meantime an accepted claim is concluded before 11 April 2016, payment of a war disablement pension and any

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supplementary allowances will begin until the lump sum can be paid. The lump sum will be reduced by the weekly or monthly amounts paid until that point.

I hope I have demonstrated that the Government are absolutely committed to trying to resolve this issue as fairly and as fast as possible. Hon. Members have made kind comments about my efforts to deal with this issue quickly, and I will be proactive in making the changes. If I may, I simply ask Members to allow me that credit, and with that in mind, to take me at my word that I am trying to move these issues forward. I do not believe that legislation is required, but I am deeply committed to moving the issue forward as quickly as I can, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider withdrawing his new clause.

Danny Kinahan: I am grateful for the debate we have had, and pleased with what I have heard from the Minister. I am also particularly pleased with what I heard from Labour Members, and we have gained a great deal from today. It would be wrong of me to pursue the matter further, knowing that the Minister will come back and keep the House updated, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 18

Commencement and transitional provision

Amendments made: 1, page 17, line 16, leave out

“Sections 15 and 16 (Ministry of Defence fire-fighters)”

and insert “The following”.

This amendment and amendment 2 provide that NC1 comes into force two months after Royal Assent.

Amendment 2, page 17, line 18, at the end insert—

“(a) section (Discharge of members of the armed forces: homosexual acts) (discharge of members of the armed forces: homosexual acts);

(b) sections 15 and 16 (Ministry of Defence fire-fighters).” —(Mark Lancaster.)

See amendment 1.

Clause 19

Extent in the United Kingdom

Amendments made: 3, page 17, line 32, leave out

“section 16 (Ministry of Defence fire-fighters: minor amendments)”

and insert “the following sections”.

This amendment and amendment 4 provide that the amendments of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 made by NC1 have the same extent as the provisions which they amend. Section 146(4) of that Act extends to England and Wales and Scotland. Section 147(3) extends to Northern Ireland.

Amendment 4, page 17, line 33, at the end insert—

“(a) section (Discharge of members of the armed forces: homosexual acts) (discharge of members of the armed forces: homosexual acts);

“(b) section 16 (Ministry of Defence fire-fighters: minor amendments).”—(Mark Lancaster.)

See amendment 3.

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Clause 20

Extent in the Channel Islands, Isle of Man and British overseas territories

Amendment made: 5, page 17, line 38, after “5(3),” insert

“(Discharge of members of the armed forces: homosexual acts),”—(Mark Lancaster.)

This amendment provides that NC1 does not extend to the Isle of Man or any of the British overseas territories. NC1 amends the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 which does not extend to the Isle of Man or any of the British overseas territories.

Third Reading

5.58 pm

Mark Lancaster: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Our purpose in this debate is to agree that the Bill has been scrutinised by the House and to wish it well as it moves to the other place, and it is customary at this stage to thank hon. Members for their interest and support. Armed forces Bills are generally well received and enjoy wide interest and support, and this Bill is no exception.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) for his sterling work as chair of the Bill Committee, and I thank the Committee for its thorough scrutiny of the Bill. I am grateful for contributions from both sides of the House to ensure that the Bill is fit for purpose. I also thank the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) for her contributions and support of the Bill, and I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for his positive and thoughtful contributions in consideration of the Bill. I have some catching up to do to match the hon. Gentleman’s experience as a veteran of Armed Forces Bills, but I am pleased to add this one to my tally. I am grateful to him for showing his wisdom during our debates. I regret that he no longer sits on the Opposition Front Bench.

As I said at the outset, the Bill is relatively modest. However, that in no way diminishes the significance of its provisions. Hon. Members will know that the Armed Forces 2006 Act is a significant piece of legislation. The 2006 Act provides a single system of service law which applies to all members of the armed forces wherever in the world they are serving. The Bill provides for the continuation of that Act and makes a few changes to the service justice system to keep it current. The Bill also makes other important changes, including giving MOD firefighters the same statutory powers to act in an emergency as civilian fire and rescue authority firefighters. With the support of the House, we have introduced a couple of new clauses. I am pleased that we have not needed to make many changes to the Bill.

In Committee of the whole House, we amended the Bill so that it expands the statutory remit of the Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committees. This is good news both for the Committees and the veterans they so ably support. Today, we added a clause to repeal redundant provisions in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 that are incompatible with current policies on homosexuality and equality in the armed forces.

For completeness, I should mention Gibraltar. In Committee, I said that we were discussing with Gibraltar whether it would be best to provide for the 2006 Act and

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the Bill to extend there. Those discussions are ongoing. If necessary, the Government will introduce an amendment to the Bill in the other place.

I am most grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the House for the contributions they have made. I thank them for their interest and support. As a member of the reserved forces, I have a personal interest in the Bill. I will repeat here my words spoken on Second Reading, which are that I take very seriously the obligations I have to the men and women who choose to abide by the high standards of discipline and behaviour that the Bill supports. I said then that I very much looked forward to taking it through the House. Today, I am very proud to have done so.

Finally, I pay tribute to the brave men and women in our armed forces who serve our country with honour and distinction, and to those who, as MOD firefighters, work to protect life and property. The Bill is for them. I believe the Bill we send to the other place is in good shape.

6.2 pm

Toby Perkins: The first test of an Opposition is whether it can support the Government constructively when they do positive things, introduce positive additions to Government legislation, and scrutinise both the intentions and implications of Government legislation. In all these regards, I believe the Labour party has done an important job of work in Committee and on Report. I am glad that the Bill leaves the House in a stronger state than when it arrived. We should be very pleased with that.

We welcome the provisions in the Bill to: extend the circumstances in which commanding officers can require service personnel and civilians, subject to service law, to be tested for drugs and alcohol after accidents; simplify the processes by which service personnel are charged with offences by reducing the number of stages required to decide and bring charges; and create of a statutory framework for immunity and sentence reductions for offenders who co-operate in investigations and prosecutions. The Bill will also bring the Armed Forces Act 2006 into force in the Isle of Man. As we have heard, consultation is ongoing with regard to Gibraltar. The Bill will also ensure that MOD firefighters will have the statutory powers to act in an emergency to protect life or property.

I have already covered the Labour amendments to the Bill, which we are pleased the Government now support. We were, however, disappointed that in Committee the Government failed to adopt our amendments relating to the incredibly important issue of sexual assault in the military. There is substantial evidence that sexual harassment is a major problem for a number of people serving in our armed forces, and for servicewomen in particular. Last year, General Sir Nick Carter described the level of sexual harassment in the military as “totally unacceptable”. Despite widespread acknowledgement of the problem, however, there is an alarming scarcity of reliable data. The Government do not regularly collect or publish statistics on the number of allegations, prosecutions or convictions related to sexual assault and rape. Labour’s new clause 5 sought to require the MOD to publish statistics on sexual assault and rape, including: the number of cases referred to the service police, how many cases are prosecuted and how many convictions are secured. Without a central register, we are leaving our armed forces at a disadvantage.

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A recent report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary on the Royal Military Police found that there was a

“lack of standards and guidance on incident and crime recording”.

Currently, when allegations of sexual assault are made it is up to individual commanding officers to decide whether to investigate them themselves or to refer an allegation to a police force, which may be either military or civilian. We on the Labour Benches believe it is wrong to put allegations of serious sexual assault alongside other misdemeanours in behaviour. Labour’s proposed new clauses 6 and 7 would have removed commanding officers’ discretionary powers in these cases, introducing a legal requirement for all allegations of sexual assault to be referred to the relevant civilian police force for investigation. The Government chose not to adopt any of the amendments in Committee, deeming them all “unnecessary”. We feel that this is an opportunity missed.

Nevertheless, we recognise that, partly thanks to pressure from Labour, important amendments have been made to the Bill, including measures to ensure compensation for veterans suffering from mesothelioma, and the removal of unnecessary discriminatory clauses. I would like to echo the Minister’s comments and take this opportunity to thank all Members who scrutinised the Bill, and all those who have made a contribution to it: the Chairman of the Bill Select Committee, the Clerks of the House and other staff who facilitated the Committee stage. I even thank those members of staff at the Ministry of Defence who have done an admirable job of persuading the Minister to make the right decision or to appear to know what he was talking about—never an easy task. Seriously, I thank the Minister for the very positive steps he has taken during the passage of the Bill to ensure it leaves in a better state than it was in when it arrived. I look forward to working constructively with him at further stages.

The Bill will now be scrutinised in another place and Labour will continue to push the Government on some of the issues raised in Committee. We will continue to stand up in every case for the rights of our armed forces personnel and veterans. Labour believes in a modern, effective armed forces to ensure the security of Britain in the world. It is for that reason that I am pleased to offer our continued support to all those who serve our country, and to the Government’s positive measures that improve the lot of the personnel who serve.

6.6 pm

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): It has been a real privilege for me, as somebody who has done a small amount of military service in the ranks before coming to this place, to have the honour of serving as Chair of the Armed Forces Bill Select Committee. I participated in, and contributed to, the previous Bill Committee. To chair the Committee this time has been a real privilege for me personally.

I would like to begin by reiterating what I said on Second Reading. I welcome the Bill in terms of its content and the fact that it comes from the great tradition of this place. It comes from 1688 and the Bill of Rights, under which

“no standing army may be maintained during peacetime without the consent of Parliament”.

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That provision is one of this country’s enviable documents that form our uncodified constitution, balancing the power of the monarchy and the Government with both Houses of Parliament.

The Bill will renew the Armed Forces Act 2006, update elements of the armed forces’ disciplinary system and extend the powers of MOD firefighters. To put that in the context of what we ask our armed forces to do, the great General George Patton said:

“Perpetual peace is a futile dream”.

That quote is as relevant today as it was in his time. The world is as dangerous and unstable today as it has ever been. We never know where the next threat to our freedom and way of life will come from. We face threats from Putin in the east, are engaged in the global war on terror and ISIS in particular, and have to deal with threats from rogue states such as Iran and North Korea. The number of our service personnel deployed in joint operations in 19 countries has doubled over the past five years to over 4,000. Our fantastic and brave men and women of our three armed forces are the best soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen in the world.

The Bill is part of the UK’s investment in the security of our people, which enables the Government to safeguard our prosperity and way of life. Not only are the Government one of the five of the 28 in NATO to meet the recommended commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence; but I am pleased to say they are also meeting the NATO guidelines to spend 20% of the defence budget on major equipment, research programmes and R and D. I am proud that the Government have plans to spend more than £160 billion on equipment and equipment support over the next 10 years.

I thank all Members of the Bill Committee, from across the House, for the constructive and informed way that the discussions and debates were conducted as the Committee scrutinised the Bill through this important stage in its passage into law. There has been a reassuring level of consensus, a word I am not normally very comfortable with and do not use very often. On this crucial matter of defence of the realm, however, and while we argue passionately for things we believe in, with our forces deployed in offensive operations, it is crucial that Parliament is united in support of them. In saying that, I sympathise with those Labour Members under pressure on account of their party leadership’s position on defence.

On behalf of the Committee, I thank members of the public, representatives of service charities and voluntary groups for their engagement and written submissions. I also thank all the witnesses who gave oral evidence. In particular, I thank General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the General Staff, and Andrew Cayley, Director of Service Prosecutions, for their excellent, extremely informative and very useful verbal evidence. Finally, I thank the House and departmental staff for their work on the Committee stage. In particular, I wish to mention Dr Dickson, whose procedural guidance was extremely helpful.

The Committee produced new clauses supported by the Government. I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), whom I have come to know during my few years in the House and

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with whom I was proud to serve on the previous Armed Forces Bill Committee, when we enshrined the military covenant in law. It is a shame that his expertise, passion and care in relation to the armed forces will be lacking from Labour’s Front-Bench team, and of course I support and admire hugely his passionate defence of the provisions on homosexuality. Of course, homosexual acts should not in any circumstances be grounds for the discharge of members of the armed forces. It seems astonishing that it was ever thus.

Finally, I pay tribute to the Minister for the progress the Government have made and their ongoing work on compensation for mesothelioma. It is another great example of the Government doing the right thing by our service personnel, to whom we owe an enormous debt of gratitude and appreciation. I thank them all for their service.

6.11 pm

Kirsten Oswald: The Scottish National party supports the Bill and the immense work of our armed forces. It was a privilege to sit on the Select Committee, helping to move this vital Bill forward and make it the best it could be. The Bill is the thread running through all that we ask of our armed forces personnel, to whom we owe it to give proper consideration to the mechanics of what could seem like a dry topic. It is the means by which we put in place proper provision for our service personnel and veterans and continually review and, where appropriate, improve matters.

We must use the opportunities we have in this place, including in Committee, to continue to modernise the governance of our armed forces and to consider how properly to treat those who enter the services. In so doing, it is particularly important that we understand and act on our responsibilities to those who suffer as a result of their service and their families—for instance, in relation to their housing and education needs. In that regard, the Scottish Government’s funding for supported housing in Cranhill is very welcome, as are the progressive education provisions, including the links with the curriculum for excellence and the provision for free tertiary education, which provide positive benefits to our service personnel and their families.

It is interesting that we are here, a century after some of the most significant battles of the first world war, debating our armed forces and seeking to improve the provisions we have in place. I mentioned at a previous stage of the Bill that a war memorial was being built entirely funded by public subscription and organised by volunteers in Neilston in my constituency. I applaud their tireless work on what is now a dedicated memorial at the centre of the community. It did not take me long, when looking at the list of those from Neilston who had lost their lives, to see that many of them died 100 years ago this year, in battles whose names are still familiar today—Verdun, Jutland, the Somme—and it was poignant to see among them, aged only 17, Private James Path, of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who was killed in action in 1916.

It is right that we do not deploy 17-year-olds to the front line these days, but we do, as we did then, expect extraordinary things of ordinary people. We send our forces into the most dangerous situations, so they should expect us to make every effort to structure our armed forces in the best way possible. It was therefore heartening

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to hear in Committee about the progress being made, such as the developments in the leadership culture of our Army, as detailed eloquently by General Sir Nick Carter. These changes will represent a continued and welcome development in how Army personnel can develop their careers and how issues of bullying, harassment and discrimination are dealt with.

I was also pleased to hear such interesting and compelling evidence from Liberty on the importance of repealing the outdated and discriminatory laws on homosexuality. It is scarcely believable that we need to discuss this, but I am pleased there was such universal and enthusiastic support in Committee and here for the repeal of these provisions without delay. There is no place for such discrimination in our armed forces. The outlawing of homosexual behaviour could at best be described as Victorian, and more accurately as grossly offensive and directly discriminatory, so we are very pleased that these provisions will now be changed.

It was interesting to discuss in Committee the simplification of the service justice system and how issues of sexual assault are dealt with in the armed forces. We heard interesting and useful evidence from a number of sources, and it was heartening to hear the willingness of our service witnesses to engage in progressing these discussions. It is vital that we make progress. The Minister has outlined the fact that he intends a voluntary system of publication to ensure that appropriate data are published and in the public domain. I hope that this turns out to be the case. As we have discussed in earlier stages, it is vital that the data be reported fully, consistently and in a uniform format, so that we can accurately assess the situation in all our forces and whether the desired progress has been made.

We have a duty of care to our service personnel, and it is vital that we see publication of allegations of sexual assault as part of this suite of statistics, so that we can clearly understand all aspects of this issue. The Minister has made positive assurances about progressing this matter without the need for legislation, and I will be keen to assess what progress is made. The SNP wants to see guarantees on the publication of sexual harassment statistics and a positive improvement in the 2017 survey regarding sexual harassment as against the 2014 survey. I am keen for the House to retain a focus on the retention and monitoring of these statistics.

I concur with the Minister about firefighters and the need to extend the powers available to MOD firefighters to act in an emergency to protect life or property, in line with powers available to civilian fire and rescue authorities. This will provide welcome clarity. It will be important, however, to continue to review the operation of this provision and to ensure that our regular firefighters also have a voice in this respect.

Our ex-service personnel—our veterans—have featured heavily in our discussions in this place and in Committee, which is as it should be, and I am pleased that Scotland is leading the way in supporting our veterans, with the appointment of our Scottish Veterans Commissioner. This reinforces the Scottish Government’s commitment to supporting the 400,000-plus ex-servicemen and women living in Scotland and to the capacity-building funding to Veterans Scotland that will allow the organisation to develop and improve support for our veterans over the next two years. I was encouraged by the Committee’s unified view on the importance of making progress on

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issues that affect our veterans. It is vital that we continue to make progress and that we consider carefully how best to fulfil our obligations under the military covenant. The covenant cannot simply be fine words; it is a call to action for us in the House to fulfil our obligations and continue to strive to do the right thing.

Regrettably, we have not always done the right thing by our veterans. Since I arrived in this place, I have spoken most about one subject—veterans suffering from mesothelioma—and mine has certainly not been a lone voice. It is scandalous that we have allowed ex-service personnel suffering from this terrible, terminal condition to be treated so much worse than their civilian counterparts. The Minister’s commitment in December, and his comments today, about resolving this unfairness are therefore welcome indeed. His announcement that veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma on or after 16 December will have choices in relation to their levels of compensation will help to resolve matters and to close the gap. However, I must mention again the excellent campaign work undertaken by the Royal British Legion and echo its call for the Government to go further and agree to deal fairly with the small group of about 60 veterans currently in receipt of a war disablement pension by allowing them to access the new lump sum compensation.

Veterans and our service personnel rightly expect the House to use the Armed Forces Bill to examine all the issues and to do so regularly. I hope that on this occasion we have done that.

6.19 pm

Mr Kevan Jones: I think this is my third Armed Forces Bill, and I have to say that it was a minnow, certainly compared with the 2006 Bill, which, as the Minister described, was a major piece of legislation reforming our armed forces law as it applied to the three services. However, this Bill is important because, as has been said, it is the means by which we maintain a standing Army and also—this is an important point for this House—a way to ensure clear scrutiny of our armed forces. That is something we take for granted in this country, but in many parts of the world people do not.

I join other colleagues in thanking the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) for his chairing of the Committee. I also thank and pay tribute to the Clerks and civil servants who helped the Committee in its deliberations. This was a small Bill, but we took some major steps forward. Mesothelioma has already been mentioned, and I pay tribute to the Minister, because he has taken a pragmatic and consensual approach to the proposals that were put forward. It was his tenacity in taking these things forward that ensured that we secured the changes. The mesothelioma changes will make a real difference to the individuals affected. I also pay tribute to the Royal British Legion for its campaigning work on this issue.

There is also an historic issue, in that tonight we are finally removing from our statute book a piece of legislation that discriminated against the LGBT community. As I said earlier, that will send a clear message to young men and women who want to join our armed forces—that they are joining services that I know, certainly from working with them, are not prejudiced in any way against people because of their sexuality, and that goes right from the top through the ranks of the services. I pay tribute to General Nick Carter, who gave evidence

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to the Committee, who embodies that new approach in our armed forces. They want to be inclusive and welcoming. Not only do they want to be an effective fighting force when needed, but they want to give great opportunities to many of our young people throughout this nation of ours.

We also had many discussions about sexual assault. I do not quite want to correct my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins), but the Minister gave a clear commitment in Committee and on the Floor of the House that the sexual assault statistics would be published. That is a good and meaningful step forward, and I look forward to their being published in the next annual report.

I also welcome the changes made to the war pensions committees. I pay tribute to the individuals who volunteer for war pensions committees. They do not get paid; they are volunteers. They give advice free of charge, and a lot of their time is dedicated to ensuring that veterans get the advice they require. The changes made, which will ensure they can now cover not just war pensions but the other compensation Acts, are welcome.

Our armed forces do not have trade unions or representatives—I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) who made this point earlier—so they are in a unique position. They rely on this House to ensure that, when this Bill comes forward, we make the changes that look after their interests. This Bill will not make major changes, as the 2006 Bill did, but it takes us a step forward and is a way of ensuring every five years that this House can scrutinise what our armed forces are doing in applying the law to themselves.

I would like to finish by paying tribute to the men and women of our armed forces. I had the privilege in

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government of working with them. They are dedicated to unselfishness. They are individuals we ask to do remarkable things—things that we would never do. I pay tribute to the men and women from my constituency who serve—not just now, but in the past. I also pay tribute to a group who sometimes do not get mentioned: the families, who support our servicemen and women. Without them, our servicemen and women could not do the job.

With that point, I would like to say one thing to my own party. These people are a very important part of our society. We value them; we entrust them with huge responsibility; we need them. They keep us safe when we are threatened. That is something my own party should never forget.

6.24 pm

Mr Anderson: I want to pick up the point about families, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) closed on. One of the realities of the mesothelioma debate is that the people who have been diagnosed will quite possibly die before April. However, there is a precedent in other compensation schemes—in particular, the mineworkers compensation schemes for diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—for widows to claim on behalf of their partners and vice versa. I plead with the Minister to see whether it is possible to find a way to help those who at the moment look like being excluded because they served before 1987, along with others who might have fallen through the net. If, sadly, they are not here when the law comes into force and the arrangements are put in place, please do not let it end there. The widows and the families will still be there and they still deserve to be looked after, because these people have made sacrifices on our behalf. I plead with the Minister to look at that.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

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Backbench Business

Local Government Funding: Rural Areas

6.26 pm

Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered local government funding for rural areas.

I begin by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for selecting this motion for debate this evening and for rescheduling the debate to a time when more colleagues could attend. I also thank my co-sponsors, the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) and the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). Their support is testament to the fact that this policy area crosses all party divides.

In my 10 years in the House, I have raised local government funding of rural areas on many occasions, but it would be fair to say that progress has been slow. Somehow, those in the countryside are expected to put up with less, whether it is poorer connectivity with broadband or mobile signals, the availability of neighbourhood policing, or affordable and convenient transport links. Indeed, in most aspects of Government expenditure, rural areas get a raw deal.

Sir Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Going back to my hon. Friend’s first point, does he agree that more and more people are accessing local government services via the internet? That should be a boon to rural areas, but it has not been, because broadband in some areas does not exist, while in other rural areas it is patchy, and overall it is rather slow. He and I have worked together locally on this issue. Will he confirm that there is no reason whatever why an area that is geographically isolated should be, or should remain, digitally isolated?

Graham Stuart: My right hon. Friend is quite right. That is not the main focus of today’s debate, but that is the context in which it takes place.

We are here today because the situation I have described is also true in local government, which provides so many of the public services on which our constituents depend. The central facts for the debate are these. Urban residents receive 45% more in central Government grant than their rural counterparts and pay £81 less in council tax per head. One may say, “Well, that’ll be because rural residents are better off. They can afford it. It’s reasonable. Their needs are less”, but the Government’s own average earnings figures show that residents in urban areas enjoy higher earnings than their rural counterparts, whereas those living in areas of significant rurality are the very poorest paid. So how can it be fair for poorer rural residents to pay higher council taxes than their richer urban cousins while receiving fewer services? This central unfairness is why, in 2012, along with Liberal Democrat and Labour colleagues, I set up the Rural Fair Share campaign. For many years, rural councils have been underfunded by central Government because of historic political choices and the formidable lobbying power of metropolitan authorities.

John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): My hon. Friend is doing a great job on this issue. Does he know that in West Berkshire and Wokingham—I am one of the

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area’s MPs—not only was the adult social care settlement so poor that it went to judicial review, but the Government lost, owe us a load of money, yet will still not pay?

Graham Stuart: My right hon. Friend is right. This story can be found in places right across the country, yet this inequity continues year after year. That is why so many colleagues are in their places to talk about it today.

In order to meet the shortfall in grant, of course, rural councils had to respond in the only way they could—and that was, in the past, by increasing their council tax rates. That is why the council tax base is much higher in rural areas, and modest homes in the East Riding of Yorkshire in my constituency can pay higher council tax than is paid on a £1 million property in Westminster. Under the Government’s proposed local government settlement, however, those higher taxes are being used to justify a further shift in support from rural to urban.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s efforts in pursuing this matter and securing the debate. Does he share my view that the impact on social care in rural areas is particularly acute? Large travelling distances, combined with the increase in the minimum wage, increase costs further. Does he share my concern that many social care providers are thinking of withdrawing from the market because they cannot make ends meet?

Graham Stuart: My right hon. Friend is right to say that. Not only are residents in rural areas poorer on average than those in urban areas, but it costs more to deliver services there, they have to pay higher council tax and they are also older, with all the costs that go with it—driving social care. Again and again across government and across our society, we hear about the pressures that will result from having to deal with an ageing population, yet it is rural areas that have the eldest population. However, Government Departments we show no recognition of the additional costs of age, as reflected in the demographics of rural areas.

Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): In my constituency, 25% of the population are over 65, compared with Exeter, a neighbouring urban area, where the figure is only 15%. Many of my constituents are aged over 85, but it is a travesty that many funding provisions do not provide for that very expensive group.

Graham Stuart: My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

Our campaign has argued from the outset that our councils have to bear additional costs because they serve sparsely populated rural areas. Rural councils face higher transportation costs, for instance, when refuse is collected from sparsely populated villages or when children have to be transported into schools—costs that do not have to be faced in an urban setting. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) mentioned, as we move increasingly towards the digitisation of services, we find that there are additional costs of ensuring fair access for rural residents who do not have superfast, let alone ultrafast, broadband on which they can rely.

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The Government have made a welcome pledge to conduct a new needs assessment preceding the new retention of business rates regime that they are introducing. That is great to hear, but colleagues would be wise to temper their optimism about any changes that might arise. After all, in 2012, the Government carried out a needs assessment and a consultation process. Those involved in the campaign were delighted—hurrah—when proposals were made that recognised the additional costs of delivering services in a sparse area, yet the additional funding that the Government had agreed was necessary was, for the most part, “damped” away. Under the mechanism designed to minimise volatility in funding in local areas, 75% of the gains that the Government had said rural areas should receive were not delivered. This was not damping as in delay, but damping as in totally and utterly removed. That is why our campaign has been calling for the residual amount, which we have calculated to be worth £130 million a year, to be paid in full to rural authorities.

Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): My hon. Friend is doing a great job, if I may say so. Does he agree that the rural services delivery grant was a fine innovation by the Government, and does he share my fears that as we move towards 100% of local authority income being levied locally, provisions such as the rural services delivery grant might disappear—to the disadvantage of our rural constituents?

Graham Stuart: My hon. Friend is right to mention the rural services delivery grant, to which I shall return later in my speech.

The complexities of local government finance make it hard for us to get our heads around it. When we hear that there will be business rates retention, we might assume that we are somehow moving into a whole new world, in which taxes raised locally are kept locally, suggesting that we do not need to worry about the residual historical inequities that we are discussing today. But, no, that will not be the case. What is going to happen—it would be useful to hear from the Minister and have him put me right if I am getting it wrong—is that instead of the Government taking all business rates from councils and then giving out grants, they will look at where the business rates are retained and will effectively take the money away from anyone who is getting any more money than the current grant gives to others, while anyone who is getting less will be given more. Although we will have a “new system”, what we will get in effect is—unless the Minister tells us otherwise—precisely the same situation as we started with.

Whenever a Government bring in a new system, they try to minimise volatility, so business rates retention is likely to end up with everyone getting exactly the same money as they get today, which is why it is so important to push for a fair starting place. The danger is that business rates retention will bake in all the old inequities for ever more. There might be the dynamism of being able to retain the growth in business rates, but many of us fear that the ability of rural areas to grow their business rates base and thus make up for any historical inequities is going to be rather less than that of the likes of Westminster to grow its business rates base. I share that with colleagues, and I would be delighted if colleagues have any insights and want to put me right about it.

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Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset) (Con): Let me give a practical answer. My area includes Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, and wants to take a view five years into the future on business rates retention. At the moment, however, we cannot do that. We do not know what we are going to get. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the damping down, because we are not capable at the moment of doing the forward projections in the Sedgemoor area. Does he agree?

Graham Stuart: I do. As the system comes in, there will be equalisation, and because of the different dynamics at work and despite the righteous principle—on this side of the House—in believing people should be incentivised to do the right thing and then keep the money, there will almost inevitably be a revisiting. If it turns out that someone’s huge shopping centre is going to be closed, the idea of them being left with no money is preposterous; similarly, if a huge bounty comes someone’s way, it is pretty likely that the Government will do what Governments have always done and raid it.

Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): From the perspective of Buckinghamshire, it is no exaggeration to say that this year’s local government settlement is far worse than the worst case and the worst scenario that the county council had calculated. On my hon. Friend’s specific point, beyond 2018-19, when Buckinghamshire loses the revenue support grant, the council has learned that it will effectively lose a significant portion of the business rate top-up grant. In 2018-19, it is set at £1.6 million and in 2019-20, it is £10.95 million. Is this not, in effect, a tax on success?

Graham Stuart: My right hon. Friend makes a strong point.

Returning to my theme of why we should be at least cautiously optimistic about any review promise in future, the Government responded to our campaign in 2014 and promised to conduct research into the additional costs of delivering services in rural areas. They say that they cannot move to recognise it until the evidence is there, and we have long said, “Show me a single service that is cheaper to deliver per head in a sparse rural area than in a concentrated urban one, and we will be delighted to hear it.” I have not heard anything yet. Apparently the current inequities are defensible without any evidence, but any change, even on the most common-sense basis, requires vast amounts of it.

Anyway, the Government conducted the promised 2014. They gathered data from councils at short notice, during the month of August. Strangely, there was a shortage of data, and—unsurprisingly—no real conclusions were reached and no appreciable change was delivered. We were told, “We are sorry, but there is nothing to justify any change.” I therefore caution colleagues not to expect jam tomorrow.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government deserve real credit for announcing that they will adopt a national funding formula for schools to ensure that their funding will be delivered on an equitable basis in future, although the formula will be phased in? Should we not simply ask for the same arrangement in relation to wider funding? I am not suggesting any kind of gerrymandering of the system. I am merely suggesting the introduction of simple fairness that would recognise equality of need.

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Graham Stuart: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why so many colleagues are here tonight—

Sir Greg Knight: On this side of the House.

Graham Stuart: On this side of the House, but, I am pleased to say, in all parts of the House. They are here because they want a system that is fair to all. Conservative Members represent rural areas, but we also represent suburban and urban areas. We do not want a system that is reverse-gerrymandered, an unfair mirror image of the previous system. We want a system that is demonstrably and objectively fair to all, as far as such a system can reasonably be delivered.

Mrs Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the absence of representation on the other side of the House shows that this aspect of funding does not seem to affect different parts of the country in different ways? Labour Members representing urban areas do not feel the same concern, because their constituents do not have the same worries.

Graham Stuart: Historically, most of the Labour party’s support has come from the urban heartlands. That may have led it, when in government, always to use concentrated deprivation as an excuse for moving funds to those urban heartlands, at the expense of rural areas. As I said at the outset, it is important to bear in mind that people in rural areas are not part of an idyll. They are not richer; indeed, on average they are poorer.

Mr Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and on the splendid campaign he has fought on behalf of our rural communities.

May I take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray)? Some of us were here throughout the long, long twilight years during which the Labour Government brutally transferred money from rural areas to urban areas. As a result of that, Shropshire will receive £325.67 this year, whereas Westminster, where we are sitting tonight, will receive £715.88. However, the settlement would reduce Westminster’s funding by 13.9% and Shropshire’s by a significant 24%.

As my hon. Friend says, delivering services in rural areas is expensive. Under the last Government we made some improvements, and we should be grateful for that, but the settlement is still extraordinarily unfair. We are exposed as a party. We are now the party of rural England, and we have to put this right. We do not want to ask for a single penny more from the Treasury; we just want a fair settlement within the envelope.

Graham Stuart: I agree with everything that my right hon. Friend has said, except one thing. We are not just the party of rural England. We are the party of the whole United Kingdom, and what we want, what we have pressed for, and what this campaign has always sought on a cross-party basis, is a system that is fair to all.

Victoria Prentis (Banbury) (Con): I do not represent some rural idyll. I represent two large and growing towns, Banbury and Bicester. I feel particularly strongly

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about the fact that because of the shortfall in local government funding my council is having to make some very difficult funding decisions that will affect areas of real deprivation. They will affect, for instance, children’s centres and health and wellbeing centres. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a worry?

Graham Stuart: Absolutely. It is a worry. The distribution of funds becomes more important, not less, during a period of flat or reduced expenditure. It is a bit like when the sea goes out and all the undulations—the inequities—are suddenly exposed. That is what happens during a period of sustained control over public finances, which Conservative Members recognise as being inevitable following the economic wreckage that was left behind by the Labour party.

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for his magnificent campaign. Does he agree that we must dispel the myth that there is no deprivation in rural areas, and make it clear that people in those areas are doubly disadvantaged by the lack of access to services such as transport?

Graham Stuart: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Withernsea, a town in my constituency, is among the 10% most deprived areas in the country, and I know that similar stories can be told about colleagues’ constituencies throughout England. It is not true that there is no deprivation in rural areas. On average, it is not true. On average, the urban resident receives more. Urban areas do not consist of the most deprived, concentrated communities. They contain some communities of that kind, but on average people in urban areas earn a great deal more than those in rural areas.

Sir Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con): North Hertfordshire District Council is an excellent council which has been making efficiencies for years. Does my hon. Friend agree that expecting it to accept a 57% cut in grant year on year is a very big ask indeed?

Graham Stuart: It is, and where will the pressure fall? It will fall either on services, as it already does, or on the only thing that the council has left, which is council tax.

One of the aspects of this settlement—perhaps the most notable aspect—is the turnaround in the approach to council tax. The rural resident, who is already much more highly taxed, will experience compounded council tax increases. If council tax goes up by 4% in April 2016, and then by 4% a year in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020, that will mean five years of compounded 4% increases before the 2020 general election. I suggest to Ministers that they may wish to think long and carefully before presenting that result to the electorate in 2020, while suggesting to rural England that it should support us again.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): It is not necessarily the election in 2020 that we need to worry about, but the county elections in 2017. During the last Parliament, we managed to perform the really good trick of reducing waste in local government while often holding council tax at zero. However, it is not possible to go on making 30% cuts, which is what Gloucestershire will experience this year, and expect to do the same thing. Inevitably, council tax will rise.

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Graham Stuart: As I have said, under this year’s provisional settlement, rural councils are being allowed to increase council tax by up to 4%. In order to compensate for the deeper cuts in their central Government grant, many rural councils will be forced to increase council tax by the full amount so that they can provide their statutory services. The impact of that will be that older, poorer residents in rural areas will be faced with an even larger council tax bill, and, more perversely, the gap in the amount of council tax that they and their urban counterparts pay will increase in cash terms.

I am also concerned about the mechanism whereby savings are being made in this year’s provisional settlement. At the end of the last Parliament, flat-rate cuts were applied across the central Government grant that every council received. If the Government were saving 11%, every council’s grant was cut by that amount. We argued strongly that that was not fair, because we needed to close the gap rather than allowing it to stay the same. This year, however, the Government are proposing to apply their broadly flat-rate cuts to the core spending power of local authorities. That sounds very reasonable and, indeed, natural, but it includes Government grant and council tax. As a result, the authorities that are already most reliant on council tax will experience a steeper cut in their Government grant, whereas those that are more reliant on Government grant will experience a smaller cut. Research by the Rural Services Network shows that, while metropolitan authorities will face a cut in Government grant of around 19% during this Parliament, rural authorities will face an average cut of 30% or more.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. May I enter a plea for semi-rural constituencies? Adur, which comprises most of my constituency, is a local government district. In half the areas within the national park we cannot have the development that would attract the new homes bonus, and the population is concentrated on the coastal strip where there are significant areas of deprivation. We are losing revenue support grant at a much higher rate, and it cannot be replaced by the new homes bonus because no land is available for development except on floodplains.

Graham Stuart: My hon. Friend is right. I remember speaking recently to a North Yorkshire councillor who said, “Given that we have a huge park here, we are specifically barred from development and we are rather restricted in our ability to respond to the incentives that have so generously been put in front of us.”

Just as we know all people are created equal and we hold them to be equal under the law, so surely we must insist on equity in the way we impose tax on them and fund the services that support their lives. Beyond imprisonment, taxation represents the supreme expression of the power of the state over the private individual citizen. As Members of this place, we would not accept it if the Government proposed to tax people more and to spend less on them because they were black or white, Christian or Muslim, a man or a woman. There would be uproar. Yet at present we presume to discriminate in this way based on the flimsiest of pretexts—the area in which someone chooses to live, to work and to raise their children.

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The rural voice in British politics in some ways resembles our countryside itself. With a few glorious exceptions, ours is not a land of soaring mountains, plunging valleys and jagged peaks. To conjure up rural England is to convey the patchwork beauty of tended fields, the muted chime of church bells or the majesty of ancient woodland, reflecting man’s presence on the land as it has come down to us through innumerable generations. There is a softness and a neatness to our countryside that can be mistaken for cosseted privilege, all ruddy-cheeked squires and roaring fires. Those of us fortunate enough to represent rural areas know that that is not the case and that sleepy villages can be home to people whose lives are characterised by want every bit as intense, or blighted by strokes of ill fortune or ill health just as devastating, as those who dwell in our towns and cities. Yet this local government settlement would tell them once again, as it has done year after year after year, that they must pay more and make do with less.

The rural cause can—must, will—be silent no longer. It is for us in this place to give it a voice. For hon. Friends on my side of the House, I believe that to be especially true. It was rural England that kept the flame of Conservatism alive for a long period—nearly 20 years. Now is the time for those of us who have been loyally returned by rural areas to make good on our contract with our electors. I stand with colleagues to ask, politely but firmly, for fairness, not favours, from Ministers, and to express our unyielding resolution that that should be delivered.

6.53 pm

Drew Hendry (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (SNP): The issue of local government finance, particularly in rural areas, is close to my heart, having served for eight years as a councillor prior to my election to the House. Having been leader of the opposition and then council leader on the Highland Council, an authority roughly the same size as Belgium, I have seen my share of financial challenges on both sides of the local debate, and I have great sympathy with right hon. and hon. Members discussing cuts to the budgets of English local authorities.

I would like to take a moment to pay tribute to the men and women who work across our councils. They deliver far more than many people appreciate, often in difficult circumstances, sometimes in distressing situations. Their help is there from before birth, throughout childhood and is weaved into our daily lives. It is even called upon when we die and in support of those left behind. In the light of the recent floods, special mention should go to those council employees across Scotland and the other nations of the UK who went above and beyond the call of duty to assist those in need. The scale of the flooding was exceptional, and the response in Scotland was truly first class.

Local councils, emergency services and other responders worked tirelessly to minimise the impact on communities, to ensure the safety of people and to help local areas to recover. To help them, the Scottish Government had already announced nearly £4 million for the local authority areas most affected by severe flooding caused by Storm Desmond in early December. This week, the First Minister has also announced that in the light of recent events the Scottish Government intend to make a further financial allocation of £12 million, meaning £1,500 per household and an additional £3,000 for businesses severely affected.

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Since 2008, the Scottish Government have provided funding of £42 million per year to enable local authorities to invest in flood protection schemes. In my constituency, the Inverness flood relief scheme was successfully completed last year and has not only provided vital protection for Inverness, but regenerated the city’s riverside.

The Scottish Government provide funding to the Scottish Flood Forum to work with local authorities, communities, householders and businesses to help them recover from a flood event. A scheme in Whitesands in Dumfries is now included in the published flood risk management strategy for the Solway, and funding will be available to the council via the local government settlement to begin work on a scheme when ready. Funding for the flood forecasting service run by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency has been protected by the draft budget settlement. That is provided directly by the Government and is in addition to the grant in aid that is provided to SEPA. Today, the Scottish Government flood risk action plan was announced, with 10,000 properties being supported by investment of £235 million.

The Scottish Government also activated the discretionary Bellwin scheme in November and December. That exists to give special financial assistance to local authorities as a result of their providing relief and carrying out immediate work due to large-scale emergencies, including flooding incidents. The Scottish Government have also recently legislated to give councils the power to reduce and remit rates bills, which councils could use to target support to the businesses in their areas affected by the floods.

The Scottish Government are investing in rural communities, are seeking to provide better transport infrastructure, and better access to medical care and hospitals, and are mitigating the cuts made by the UK Government with a new rural fuel poverty taskforce.

James Cartlidge (South Suffolk) (Con): The hon. Gentleman mentions fuel poverty. This is interesting. If there is one gleam of light for my constituents at the moment, it is the fact, as I have found recently, that if people fill up their oil tank—many rural constituencies use heating oil—the price is less than half what it was not so long ago. However, the fall in the oil price will have had significant implications for Scottish funding. I wonder whether he would care to reflect on that. He talks about UK cuts. What sort of cuts would have had to follow in the event of independence with the current forecast for the oil price and oil revenues in Scotland?

Drew Hendry: This is a common red herring that is introduced into the debate on Scottish funding. Scottish GDP is roughly the same as English GDP, and oil is a bonus for Scotland. When the price goes back up, obviously, the Treasury will continue to benefit from that bonus.

One of the first things that the Scottish Government did in 2007 was to decentralise local government funding by removing ring-fencing. Today, I am delighted to confirm that the Scottish Government Community Empowerment Minister has announced a £500,000 fund for a pilot scheme for people to take part in participatory budgeting in rural areas, giving people a direct say in how investment should be taken forward in their communities.