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Turning to the big society, it concerns me that the Government believe that we are moving towards such a society. I cannot see it. Let me provide an example. My
local authority provides £57,000 for citizens advice bureaux. If we face cuts of between 30% and 38%, I cannot see how that is likely to continue, yet this is a time when citizens advice bureaux will see an increase in the number of people coming to see them. This will mean an increase in the work load at a time when Citizens Advice will be laying off staff. It is also affected by many other streams of direct Government funding, which are also being cut. It is obvious that there are going to be real problems. I do not think that the Conservative council of Hyndburn and Rossendale has an appetite for maintaining such funding. It is going to set a 0% council tax-a big issue, as that is going to hit the big society even harder. Many voluntary groups rely on this funding, and I cannot see how they are going to survive. Thanks to the cuts, we have already lost one dial-a-ride minibus, and I imagine that the disabled service will be removed altogether unless we see some sort of public support.
These huge cuts have a cumulative impact, so there is a growing concern in Pennine Lancashire about what I would describe as the residualisation of poorer communities. Ministers need to be aware of that. Indeed, evidence is now emerging that while populations in these areas remain relatively stable, the number of those in higher-income brackets is declining, along with those who have better education and better employment prospects. This is countered by a growth in the number of poorer, lower-income households and those with lower levels of educational achievement. These populations are, by their nature, often more dependent on public services. We therefore see self-reinforcing patterns starting to build up as a result of these cuts.
This is a crucial issue. The latest rankings for the index of multiple deprivation show that right across Pennine Lancashire, with the exception of Ribble Valley-I notice our Deputy Speaker has left-there has been a marked fall as the effects of residualisation take hold. There are real fears that the outcome will be a "ghettoisation" of parts of east Lancashire and other parts of Britain, thanks to a Government focusing solely on areas that can prosper economically rather than getting to grips with the needs of all communities.
Finally, let me touch on policing. On top of all the other cuts I have mentioned, policing is going to be cut. Police officers in my area believe that, without the extra staff, crime will rise. The police cuts are ill considered. Police community support officers are part-funded by local authorities; they tackle in partnership a wide range of social problems. No assessment seems to have been made of the wider impact of cutting PCSOs in areas where local authorities work in partnerships. I will stop there and allow the Front-Bench teams to conclude the debate.
Joan Ruddock: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I think you will know that I have been in the House long enough to take the rough and tumble of parliamentary debates, but earlier today, in response to my intervention, the Secretary of State made a remark about an hon. Lady's "champagne lifestyle", which appeared to be directed at me. I found that really offensive and rude. Will you advise me, Mr Speaker, on whether I could expect that remark to be withdrawn?
Let me say three things to the right hon. Lady. First, good temper and moderation in the use of parliamentary language are always to be encouraged.
That principle is set out clearly and explicitly in "Erskine May", which is our guide. Secondly, I had the privilege of serving on the International Development Committee with the right hon. Lady and travelled to a number of places around the world with her and other colleagues, and I cannot recall her consuming champagne at any stage. Thirdly, let me simply say that my distinct recollection is that the right hon. Lady is a modest person, with very little to be modest about. I hope that that is helpful to her and to the House.
Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): I hope that the words that you have just uttered, Mr Speaker, will have an impact on Government Members, because there has been quite a lot of rowdiness today. I also think it worth saying that some of the ways in which Members are addressing female Members does them no credit at all.
We have had a good debate, featuring 25 Back-Bench speakers. It was polarised-as well as being, as I have said, a little rumbustious at times-but then the Government's cuts are polarised in terms of their impact on different parts of the country.
The Secretary of State talked earlier of "Life on Mars", and of returning to the 1980s. That is not the best theme when we are discussing cuts that will restrict and reduce services, damage communities, and put more than 100,000 local government staff out of work. The Secretary of State missed the contribution of the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward), who did not seem to feel that the 1980s were a great period. As for Government Members who thought that those were halcyon days in some respects, let me remind them of what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh): they ain't seen nothing yet. That was the most difficult and damaging decade for communities. I became involved in politics, and stood for election as a councillor in Trafford, because of the 1980s and Thatcherite policies, and I am sure that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends did the same.
The Government have made choices about the severity and timing of cuts in local government budgets, but they are the wrong choices. The cuts are unfair, unreasonable and unmanageable. They are unfair because they hit the most deprived areas hardest, and will have an impact on the most vulnerable people. Affluent areas will not be hit by such deep cuts. Wokingham borough council, the least deprived unitary authority in England, will undergo cuts estimated at just 2.3% next year. The most deprived unitary authority in the country, Liverpool city council, is the hardest hit, facing estimated budget cuts of 12.3% next year alone.
Many of the excellent speeches that we heard, particularly those of Labour Members, were on that theme of unfairness. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) found it difficult to see any fairness in the cuts. He spoke of the 800 staff cuts with which his local authority is threatened, and of his concern about the impact on the voluntary sector. My hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon), who was a councillor for 15 years, told us that the Conservative mayor had urged Treasury and other Ministers to think again about the speed of their cuts. She said that she had asked officials to spread the reductions more evenly over the four years of the spending review.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) talked about the help that his Conservative-controlled council had been given over issues of transience and deprivation, and his concern about the cuts in area-based grants. He spoke of the impact of cuts of £32 million, and said that the Conservative council leader had urged the Government to reconsider their approach-particularly their approach to front-loading, which would produce cuts of between 11% and 16%.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) also talked about unfairness, focusing on the polarised nature of the Government's approach. Estimates show that the most deprived areas will be hit hardest by the cuts, and that the least deprived will be least affected. My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) said that the Government should not adopt an approach that would render the funding of local areas blind to the needs of those areas, because that was neither fair nor progressive. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) talked about the speed of the cuts and the front-loading. She was rightly concerned about the impact on Liverpool city council, which, as I said earlier, is the most deprived unitary authority in the country. She was also concerned about the impact on jobs and, in particular, on small business.
The fear has been expressed that local authorities may be forced into damaging crisis measures. The Secretary of State set out what he expected from councils when he said that further financial freedoms announced for councils would mean that they could better protect front-line services such as care for the elderly, but last week Birmingham city council proposed restricting funds for social care to those who had been assessed as "critical", the highest possible level at which to set eligibility. People with substantial or moderate needs would be "signposted" to private and third sector providers.
Cuts like those being suggested by Birmingham council will undoubtedly lead either to a greater reliance on unpaid family carers or significant care needs simply being unmet. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) talked eloquently about how difficult she found it as a councillor to consider raising eligibility criteria, and in the end she and her colleagues did not do it. They are to be commended for that.
Birmingham council, which is run by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, has claimed that its strategy on adult social care is part of its version of the big society. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) said, the third sector is the big society; forcing unpaid family carers into a much heavier caring work load is not the big society.
The Government's cuts are unreasonable with a lot of changes being made in a very short time scale, and there is insufficient support for councils to pay inevitable redundancy costs. A number of Members have raised that issue. The Local Government Association estimates that next year councils will be facing 11% cuts in their formula grant and many councils will also lose area-based grants, which were designed to tackle poverty and deprivation. Many Labour Members have talked about the impact of those changes on their communities as specific grants that had their own targeting based on need have now been rolled into the main formula grant.
London Councils says the way this works will cause London's share of these grants targeted at need to evaporate. It has said that the distribution mechanism used by the Government is flawed and generates perverse and unfair outcomes. The Government could mitigate the impact of the changes by setting funding floors at the highest possible level, and we urge them to do so.
The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), who is not in his place, supported setting funding floors at the highest possible level. [Hon. Members: "Here he is."] He is here now; welcome. The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, who is now in his place, also put forward the LGA's five recommendations: to smooth out the front-loading so as to lessen the impact on deprived areas; to increase capitalisation to what councils need; to account for missing grants; to review councils' ability to recover costs through fees and charges, which several Members have talked about particularly in respect of burial charges; and to avoid any unfair distribution of grant. I must say, however, that although the hon. Gentleman put those points forward, they were also all put forward by the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), in her excellent opening speech.
Many Labour Members have talked about the fear of job cuts, which, to their credit, some Members on the Government Benches said they regretted. It is time to think not only of the job losses in local government, but the knock-on effect in other sectors. Today we have heard that recovery in the construction sector is stalled until at least 2013, given that construction work from the public sector is set to fall by 17%. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North talked about the loss of construction through the cancellation of Building Schools for the Future and the planned local hospital. The chairman of the UK Contractors Group confirmed this point when he said:
"About 40% of our business comes from the public sector and so construction will not be immune from these decisions"
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton undoubtedly remembers a similar impact on the construction industry in the 1980s-the torrid decade of Tory rule as he calls it, which he said were devastating for Liverpool.
Losing a job is devastating, and the cuts will clearly lead to substantial reductions in staffing across the local authorities affected. The LGA estimates that 140,000 local authority jobs will be cut next year, but as we have heard from a number of Members, councils will not be able to meet the capital costs of those redundancies because the £200 million currently set out by the Government to pay the costs of redundancy is simply not sufficient: if 140,000 jobs are indeed lost, it amounts to less than £1,500 per redundancy. As we have heard, councils may need up to £2 billion next year, 10 times more than the provision made by the Government. We say councils should be given the flexibility to fund those redundancy costs from capital, as they need.
The Government's cuts are not only unreasonable; they are also unmanageable. A number of councils believe that they will not be able to set a balanced budget given the front-loading of cuts next year. My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin)
spoke very well about that and possible unintended consequences. The Association of North East Councils, a cross-party group, has called the Government's proposed cuts to local government "undeliverable for some" councils.
The Secretary of State has not been willing to admit that the cuts are front-loaded, despite a number of attempts to draw him to do so today, but the reality is that many councils will face budgets cut by 14, 18 or even 20% next year. Many Labour Members have discussed that issue and, as my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State said, the president of the Society of District Council Treasurers has called the front-loading disastrous. The leaders of the Local Government Association called on the Secretary of State to mitigate the front-loading of cuts, as it would
"bear disproportionately on local communities and vital frontline local authority services".
"it is almost impossible to absorb such vast figures in the time that we have available".
Many Government Members, including the hon. Members for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), and for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery), have talked about introducing more innovative ways of dealing with the cuts, but Labour Members say that the severe and unexpected front-loading of the cuts will mean that councils do not have the time to do that. Shifting to shared service models, renegotiating long-term contracts and working with other sectors as providers are major changes. They take time and money to implement and that time is just not there. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) made that point most eloquently. It was also made by the hon. Member for Bradford East, who said that the front-loaded cuts were "reckless economic vandalism" and that cutting required time.
In dealing with these unfair, unreasonable and unmanageable cuts, councils are not assisted by the mixed messages coming from Ministers. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) told the Hackney Gazette:
"Local authorities have been aware for some time that funding reductions were imminent and should have been looking at...reducing budgets next year".
"they shouldn't immediately start issuing redundancy notices for savings that they can phase in over four years".
"There is no justification for local authorities to slash and burn or...to tighten eligibility".
"I expect local government not to draw up the drawbridge, but to treat voluntary organisations fairly and...to allow them greater access".-[ Official Report, 25 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 446.]
"Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service. I shall be writing to all local authorities this week to remind them of that."-[ Official Report, 29 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 514.]
It appears that Ministers and some hon. Members do not want councils to cut areas for which they have responsibility or just feel that they can avoid doing so. As we have heard in this debate, Conservative council leaders and Lib Dem councillors up and down the country feel the same way, and they have been pressing their case to the Government. But up and down the country there are reports of councils having to do the opposite of what they are told by this Government. For example, Conservative-run North Yorkshire county council, which plans to close more than half its 42 libraries and two thirds of its residential care homes, cut £10 million from the highway maintenance, road safety, countryside and arts budgets. It also cut bus subsidies, even to rural areas. Ministers are being totally unrealistic about the problems that many councils now face. It is clear to us that the Government are not listening to them. Labour Members are listening, and I urge Members on both sides of the House to support the motion, including the hon. Member for Bradford East and his colleagues.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): This has been a robust debate and is none the worse for that perhaps. The subject is important and there are rightly strong views on it. Many Members have spoken and I shall start by apologising in advance if I do not manage to mention individually the speech of every one of the 25 Members who spoke. I hope, however, that I can pick up on certain themes.
There have been some considered and thoughtful speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House. Issues of genuine concern have been raised by Members on both sides and I shall come back to those in a moment. I regret to say that, in some cases, however, the seriousness of the debate has not been served by the simplicity and shroud-waving and by some of the clichés that have been used as Members have injected more and more purple passages. That does not help in dealing with this serious matter, because the Government have never made any secret of the fact that the circumstances facing local authorities are difficult. We have been honest about that and it is to the credit of my hon. Friends from the Liberal Democrats that, when they came into government, they had the courage to recognise that the circumstances facing the country were grave. They deserve better service than the carping from Opposition Members who have not yet had the decency to admit their responsibility for the mess that the country is in or to come up with a constructive alternative.
Let me say to the hon. Member for St Helens North (Mr Watts) that he need have no fears about my health. I would fear, however, for the health of the nation's economy if he were to be let loose, on the basis of what he and his right hon. and hon. Friends have done already.
It is against that background that it is necessary for us to take difficult and regrettable measures. I spent 16 years in local government, initially during the time when Denis Healey was going to the IMF and Jim Callaghan was telling local government that the party was over. I shall not brook any lessons from Opposition Members about the effects of Labour economic mismanagement on local authorities. Yet again, my hon. Friends and I find that we have to pick up the pieces. I accept that there are tough decisions, but they have come about because of the wreck and the train crash that the previous Government made of the economy.
"councils will lose, on average, 27 per cent....compared to 11 per cent., on average, for Whitehall departments"
There is a sleight of hand in that, because the average figure includes the protected Departments. Unless Labour is going to tell us that it was not going to protect those Departments, the second line of its motion does not compare like with like. Frankly, it is intellectually questionable on that basis. The motion
"regrets the frontloading of reductions",
Ironically, we see from the Treasury proposals left behind by the previous Government that they intended to make cuts of 14% in the first year and 11% in the second year. That might be a type of front loading. I do not think we will take any lectures on that from Opposition Members either.
Let me turn to the question of the unexpected severity. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out that the previous Chancellor and the previous Prime Minister already made it clear that should Labour-unfortunately for the country-have been returned at the election, there would have been significant cuts. We have simply been honest about it and shouldered the burden that they neglected to take on board. We do not need to take any lessons there.
Karl Turner: It seems rather contradictory for the Minister to say on the one hand that we did not have a plan to reduce the deficit and on the other hand that we seemingly did. Which is it? Come on, Minister.
The hon. Gentleman gets it right. Seemingly none of us knows what Labour's plan was and the Leader of the Opposition does not know either. I assume that the hon. Gentleman will progress rapidly to
the Front Bench, as he is as vague on policy as the leader of his party. If that is the best the hon. Gentleman can do by way of intervention, I suggest he saves his knees the trouble in future.
Mr Speaker: Order. Will the hon. Gentleman resume his seat for a moment? It is always a pleasure to listen to him, but he is swivelling and perambulating. I want to hang upon his every word; he must address the House.
What we have seen today is an exhibition in wriggling by the Opposition. They have failed to take on board serious concerns raised by hon. Members. Reference was made to my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes)- [ Interruption. ] I was actually looking at you, Mr Speaker; I think that is courteous too. Reference was also made to my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward). Hon. Members have made serious points. The need for deficit reduction does not brook significant delay, but fair points have been made about it being appropriate to look not just at formula grant but at other spending powers available to local authorities. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has indicated that we are continuing to do that. We have taken steps to roll more grant into the formula grant, so the arguments that were made on that issue do not sensibly contrast like with like.
We have sought to give more flexibility in these undoubtedly difficult times by ending the ring-fencing of all revenue grants from 2011-12-something that the Labour Government never got around to doing. We are including single, non-ring-fenced, early-intervention grant worth about £2 billion. We are significantly simplifying and streamlining grant funding by rolling about £4 billion of grants in 2010-11 into the unhypothecated formula grant and reducing the total number of grants from 90 to 10. All those measures are designed to bring much greater transparency, as hon. Members on the Government side have pointed out. Despite their 13 years in office, the previous Government neglected to do that, so we need not take lessons from them on fairness or transparency.
As the Secretary of State has indicated, we are continuing the system of floor protection, which will help the most vulnerable authorities. That degree of ring-fencing, plus the other, greater freedoms that will be given in the decentralisation Bill that will be introduced shortly, will significantly assist local authorities in directing their resources to the most vulnerable. The fact that resources are limited is entirely the responsibility of Opposition Members rather than Members on the Government side, and the Opposition should never seek to wriggle out of that.
Let me congratulate one or two hon. Members in particular. My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) made a particularly thoughtful and considered speech. He talked about the inevitability of floors and ceilings in the current system and the fact that there are real concerns in shire areas as well as urban areas. Any Government have to carry out a balancing act and that is what we seek to do. He and other hon. Members rightly referred to the need to move away from a formula that is past its sell-by date. Unlike our predecessors, this Government have grasped
that nettle and committed to a swift review of local government resource in the first six months of next year.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark made fair points on behalf of London councils and the Local Government Association. The Secretary of State has met LGA representatives, and let me tell thehon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) that I am happy to meet his fire authority; I have met a number of others already. We are protecting fire services, which are getting a lesser degree of reduction, and the profile is different, so steps are being taken in that regard. I will happily meet any authority that seeks to discuss these issues with me.
My hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) made an exceedingly well informed and powerful speech. He talked about the need, at times such as these, to move to greater transparency. It was pretty telling that certain Opposition Members rather jeered at the mention of the £500 in relation to transparency. That shows a patronising attitude towards putting ordinary people in the driving seat. Perhaps that is the difference between the Government and the Opposition on this issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) carried out a comprehensive demolition job on the speech by the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), and the entire proposition behind the Opposition's motion. The previous Government were going to cut, and they would have cut as deeply. They were going to eliminate the deficit; the argument was over timing. The state that we discovered when we came into government meant that swift measures were necessary. To pretend otherwise is to behave like the people who set fire to the house and then blame the fire brigade when it comes in to put the fire out. The intellectual bankruptcy of the Opposition is shown by the approach that they have adopted to these matters.
I say to the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh)-whom I have known in London government for a long time-yes, I accept that there are councils of all political complexions trying hard in difficult times. My own council is doing so, as is hers. Equally, she will understand that, despite the sympathy that we have for those difficulties, as anyone in the business world will tell her, it is often best and most sensible to take steps towards restructuring at an early stage. That is particularly appropriate in the case of local authorities with a full range of functions. There are good examples not only in London, but across the country of local authorities making real structural and operational change. That needs to be done quickly.
I appreciate the point made by a number of hon. Members about capitalisation. I understand what is said, but it should be remembered that we are making £200 million available for non-equal pay capitalisation. Capitalisation is an exception to the normal accounting processes. Because capitalisation is permission to borrow, that ultimately has impacts upon revenue spend because it has to be paid back. It must therefore be strictly controlled. Although I understand that councils will inevitably say they want more, Government must be realistic and set limits to an exception to the normal process.
That we are not being dogmatic is reflected in the fact that we have adopted a different profile in relation to fire authorities, because experience shows that it takes single-purpose authorities longer to reconfigure their working arrangements than those that have a range of purposes which can be more effectively shared. We have been sensible and proportionate in our approach.
The Secretary of State stressed-I hope Members from all sides will take this on board, as there seemed to be a degree of consensus on the matter-that it is important that local authorities do not resort to the old-fashioned way of salami slicing and, in particular, cutting grant to the voluntary sector. That is usually important. We will fail if local authorities go back to the tried old ways of doing things. We want to encourage them to do otherwise.
That is why, in the localism Bill, we will establish new rights for voluntary and community groups to deliver local services. That is why the Government have created a transition fund of £100 million to be spent in 2010-11. It will support the voluntary and community sector during the first year of the spending round. Through the localism Bill we will also give voluntary and community groups the right to challenge local authorities where they believe that they can run services differently or better. There is a raft of measures to support the voluntary sector, none of which was adopted by the previous Government in their 13 years in office-another example to demonstrate why we need take no lessons.
Hazel Blears: I thank the right hon. Gentleman. Does he acknowledge that the gap in voluntary sector funding is likely to be in the region of £3 billion as a result of local government cuts, and his £100 million transitional fund is a drop in the ocean?
Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker, the next motion on the Order Paper is about the time the House will have to debate university tuition fees, which is a huge issue for students and their families in this country. In 2003, the White Paper was published a full year before the vote, and in 2005, whether some of us liked the policy or not, the Government put their proposals to the general public at an election. In contrast, this year nobody voted for these plans and we have been told that we have only three hours for debate and no time for discussion of whether that is a proper amount of time for the House. Mr Speaker, could you advise us how the House can place on record its unease about how the vote is, frankly, being rushed through, and how coalition Ministers are running scared of proper debate and examination of their plans?
Mr Speaker: The short answer to the hon. Gentleman's inquiry about how best he can register his concern is that, as I think he knows, he has just done so. It is very clearly on the record. As a very experienced Member of this House, he will also be aware that the form of such a motion and the question of whether it is debatable is not a matter for the Chair. However, the hon. Gentleman has registered the point and I hope that he feels pleased to have done so.
Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD):
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. May I ask the Chair how much time Back-Bench MPs will get to speak in the three-hour debate on Thursday? That is an issue of
huge concern to many hon. Members, who feel that there is insufficient time to debate a matter of such huge importance to ourselves and our constituents all round the country.
Mr Speaker: The short answer to the hon. Gentleman is that he can ask me how long there will be for Back Benchers to speak-proof of that is that he has done so-but I am afraid that I am unable to give him an answer to that question. What I can say to him is twofold: first, as he knows, I am always keen that Back Benchers in this place should get the maximum opportunity to put their case; and secondly, the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House are both present, fortuitously or otherwise, and they have heard the hon. Gentleman's point of order.
That, at the sitting on Thursday 9 December, the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motion in the name of Secretary Vince Cable relating to Higher Education Higher Amounts not later than three hours after the start of proceedings on the Motion; such Questions shall include the Questions on any Amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved; proceedings may continue after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply. -(Sir George Young.)
Mr Speaker: Objection taken. [ Interruption. ] Order. The Government Chief Whip has absolutely no business whatsoever shouting from a sedentary position. He- [ Interruption. ] Order. The right hon. Gentleman will remain in the Chamber. He has absolutely no business scurrying out of the Chamber. [ Interruption. ] Order. The Chief Whip has absolutely no business-
Mr Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman has no business behaving in that way. The objection has been registered, and it has been registered in a perfectly proper way. I thought it proper to put the Question. The objection had been registered, and it was registered clearly. The right hon. Gentleman has nothing about which to complain.
That the draft Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006 (Directions to OFCOM) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 27 July, be approved. -(James Duddridge.)
That the draft Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2010, which were laid before this House on 8 November, be approved. -(James Duddridge.)
That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 12564/10 and Addenda 1 and 2, Draft Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the right to information in criminal proceedings; and endorses the Government's support of the proposal to ensure that individuals subject to criminal proceedings across the EU are given timely information about their rights, information on the accusation against them and access to evidence. -(James Duddridge.)
That Mr Robert Buckland, Martin Caton, Mrs Jenny Chapman, Damian Collins, Jim Dobbin, Mr Stephen Dorrell, Charlie Elphicke, Paul Farrelly, Yvonne Fovargue, Jesse Norman, Sir Robert Smith and Justin Tomlinson be members of the Select Committee appointed to join with a Committee of the Lords as the Joint Committee on Consolidation, &c., Bills. -(Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, on behalf of the Committee of Selection .)
Mr Speaker: Order. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. May I appeal- [ Interruption. ] Order. May I simply appeal to Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly? It is quite simply a matter of courtesy-nothing more, nothing less.
I refer to my interest as the convenor of the RMT group of MPs. I requested this debate to draw attention to and applaud the work of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, and to raise concerns about its future in the face of looming cuts to ships and crew, and the threat of privatisation.
In the statement to the House on the strategic defence and security review, the Secretary of State for Defence made no reference to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, nor is there a reference to it in the document. However, in the supporting documents, the future of the RFA is explained more specifically. It is clear from the policy briefing that there will be a range of cuts to ships:
"We plan to withdraw from service one Landing Ship Dock Auxiliary, one Auxiliary Oiler and one Auxiliary Oiler replenishment."
"The Department has announced that there will be sizeable reductions in the number of civilians employed by MOD. The RFA will bear its share of these. The future manpower strength of the RFA will reflect its reduced size. Details will be announced in due course."
"SDSR for the RFA means we will lose a tanker, probably Bayleaf, an LSD(A)"-
"probably Largs Bay, and an AOR"-
"probably Fort George."
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): I am extremely surprised and alarmed at the suggestion that one of the Bay class ships might be disposed of. Those ships are brand new and have enormous military value, so much so that the Royal Navy has cast covetous eyes on them in the past, thinking that they ought to be fully RN-manned. Is the hon. Gentleman absolutely certain that there is a suggestion that Largs Bay might be disposed of so early in its service life?
I can only refer the hon. Gentleman to the memorandum from Commodore Bill Walworth, who is responsible for the RFA, which specifically names those ships. I think that it is now in the public domain
as a result of reports in Lloyd's List. We will know the situation more clearly by April 2011, but those ships have been identified. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is worrying that a relatively new craft is concerned.
Further reviews are taking place, in particular the value for money review. The value for money review undertaken by the previous Government came to conclusions about the future of the RFA and its retention in the public sector. A further value for money review is linked to the SDSR and the comprehensive spending review. It looks as though the proposals, again according to a memorandum from Commodore Walworth, identify a target figure of 10% savings, which includes a significant number of personnel. If 10% is translated across, 220-odd seafarers could be faced with redundancy.
Anxieties have been raised in the various memorandums and documents that have entered the public domain about the potential privatisation of the service. A letter from Commodore Bill Walworth that I believe went to all personnel, including the unions, refers to a benchmarking exercise that has taken place with the shipping industry that was
"intended to demonstrate the value for money of the operational outputs that we all deliver."
Benchmarking is perfectly appropriate if we are trying to ensure that there is value for money, but I have anxieties because of a further e-mail that is quoted in Lloyd's List-I am not sure whether it has leaked or is in the public domain. It is from the RFA's value for money review group:
"To date there has been work carried out to establish baseline costings of the RFA to inform the review and establish a set of requirements for the RFA that is understandable to"
"Two members of the Review Group will approach"
"shortly to gauge their appetite to conduct the range of operations carried out by the RFA...This will probably start next week and we can anticipate some press interest.
RFA management has been involved in this work, to ensure that the private sector understands what is required to replicate current activity.
We will continue to work to ensure that when commercial offers are considered by the Review Group they take into account all that the RFA offers alongside that of the commercial options."
Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): The hon. Gentleman should be congratulated on securing the debate, which gives us an opportunity to say that the Government must be aware that the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, with its unique place in our maritime history, is held in very warm regard on the Conservative Benches. Any attempt to privatise it, or to deal with it through death by a thousand cuts, will be fiercely resisted.
John McDonnell: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments. My reason for seeking the debate was to get some clarity from the Government about what their intentions are, because at the moment we rely on e-mails circulated within the service itself appearing in Lloyd's List.
The information that has been put into the public domain has left the RFA in an extremely worrying climate of uncertainty, which is not good for the service, certainly not good for the RFA personnel and their families, and not good, I believe, for the defence of the country.
It is worth reminding ourselves of the long and proud history of the RFA, which the hon. Gentleman has just touched upon. It celebrated its centenary in 2005, having started life in 1905 to give the Royal Navy capability and support at sea, food, fuel, ammunition and supplies. Its motto is "Ready for Anything". It has always been crewed by civilians, who act as reservists, and has played a major role in every engagement of the past century. RFA officers and ratings delivered distinguished and professional support in every naval theatre of operations in the second world war, from the Arctic to the Pacific. Since then, the RFA has served to support the Royal Navy and Army in Korea, Suez, Cyprus, Kuwait, Borneo, Belize, Aden and even the Icelandic cod wars.
Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): My hon. Friend reads out that roll of very considerable honour, so I am sure he needs no reminding that the RFA vessel Sir Galahad suffered fatalities in the Falklands. Those who crewed that ship died for our country at that time.
John McDonnell: I can only say that it reflects the professionalism, commitment, courage and determination of the officers who served on the Sir Galahad that they held to their task throughout the period of being blitzed.
More recently, the RFA played a crucial role in the Gulf war and was cited by the Select Committee on Defence for its vital contribution through the effective delivery of logistics and support. Its crews are civilian and follow the merchant navy training qualification pathways, but over the years it has developed specialist training in helicopters, firefighting, the use of defence systems, specialist navigations, naval communication systems and command systems. It now provides amphibious support and strategic sealift facilities, and provides casualty reception and forward repair functions.
Interestingly, an element of the RFA's work that has not been sufficiently highlighted in the past is its role following natural disasters. It has provided aid and support, playing a key role in a number of African countries, in Sri Lanka and in the Caribbean. It is now working heavily alongside the US coastguard to tackle drug smuggling operations, and some may have read in the past month that RFA Fort Victoria, in a patrol between Somalia and the coast of the Seychelles, intercepted Somali pirates. That is an incredible record of professionalism, service, courage and determination, and the service is a world leader in its field.
There are 2,300 seafarers in the RFA, and they are employed under RFA conditions of service, which reflect their need to serve in war zones and face war hazards at times. The cost is £100 million. It is cost effective and highly efficient, but stretched to meet existing demands.
Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate, and I would like to associate myself with his comments on the excellent service that the RFA provides. Does he agree that there is real innovation in how it works with industry? In particular, I am thinking of A&P, the ship repairer at my port of Falmouth, which in the Minister's own words has delivered excellent value for money.
John McDonnell: I have the Minister's response to the hon. Lady's parliamentary questions demonstrating the RFA's broader contribution to what is described as the maritime cluster and the excellent role the service provides beyond the narrow remit of logistics.
If there are to be cutbacks to ships and crew, many of us will be extremely concerned. There is already pressure on this severely stretched service, and further cuts will undermine the service's potential. It is an ever-changing world. We cannot judge what the challenges will be in the future, so we need to retain the capacity to respond to threats and disasters that might occur. However, it is extremely doubtful whether, with the planned cuts, the threat of privatisation and the cutbacks in personnel, the service would be able to respond to those challenges. The whole edifice of the RFA will be put at risk if the cuts go ahead.
There are wider ramifications for the maritime industry. The RFA is now the major employer of UK officers and ratings. It has gone down from 30,000 UK officers and ratings in 1980 to fewer than 9,000 today, and the RFA is the largest single employer. Cuts on this scale would significantly reduce our national pool of merchant seafarers, deny opportunities to the next generation and damage what we describe now as the maritime cluster and our ability to rise to future challenges in terms of both the Merchant Navy and the Royal Navy. It would also be a devastating blow to the morale of the existing personnel.
If job cuts are to happen, may I suggest to the Minister that, given the age profile of current serving personnel, they could be achieved through natural wastage rather than redundancies? However, my intention is to persuade the Government not to pursue any further jobs cuts or closures of ship or craft at all.
On the threat of privatisation, there is a concern that the service could, if privatised, be subject to commercial pressures of the market that would not maintain the long-term commitment to the service required. The search for short-term profits by sweating the assets, as we have seen in other privatisations, could undermine the service. It is a risky enterprise. Also, if it is privatised, it is highly likely that it would be taken over by a foreign-owned company, with the potential for a foreign crew. Again, Maersk, the Danish conglomerate, has already expressed an interest. However, there are strategic and political sensitivities, if not risks, if such a key strategic service is no longer in the ownership and control of the state it serves. This is not a back-room function; it is a front-line service operating in war zones.
Before the Minister responds, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) would like to say a few words, because he played a role in the last Government on this issue. May I quickly say, therefore, that if the cuts, or the threat of privatisation, go ahead, there will be a sense of grievance and anger at the thought that this service and its personnel, with a history of courageous and effective service, could be sold off to the highest bidder from wherever.
I warn the Government that there would be a backlash. Yes, it would be led first by the unions, but there would be a much wider sense of betrayal in the wider community. I therefore urge the Government to make clear their intentions for the future of the RFA and reject the cutbacks and privatisation. On behalf of the RMT-Nautilus will feel the same-I would welcome a meeting
with the Minister to talk through the issues facing the RFA and to look to plan its long-term future. The service is too important to allow considerations of short-term savings to put it at long-term risk. I urge the Minister to think carefully before any further decisions are made.
Mr Speaker: Order. Before I call the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), I emphasise that I would like the Minister to have 10 minutes in which to reply to the debate, so the hon. Gentleman needs to finish by 10.38 pm.
Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on securing this important debate. I know from my time as a Minister at the Ministry of Defence that he has always been a strong advocate for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. I would like to join him in paying tribute to the bravery of the men and women of the RFA who put themselves in harm's way to support the Royal Navy and who have, as my hon. Friend eloquently pointed out, won numerous honours in the century of the RFA's history. I should also like to put on record my tribute to the important work of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Association, which works tirelessly to support members of the RFA, as well as former members and their families.
Anyone who has spoken to individuals who have served in the Royal Navy will know of the value that the Royal Navy places on the work of the RFA. It has an important resupply role, and, as a Minister, I was humbled to see the technical expertise that it employs for refuelling at sea, for example. Its role is not only logistical, however. It is currently engaged in supporting the training of the Iraqi army; mine-sweeping around the Gulf; contributing to anti-piracy protection; working in the Caribbean; assisting with training exercises; and carrying out anti-smuggling work. That explains that its role is not just a logistical one; it also plays a role in supporting the Royal Navy. It is also important to highlight the work that it does in its own right.
My hon. Friend has already pointed out that the RFA is now the largest single employer of British seafarers and officers, including some 2,300 seafarers who live all over the UK. I am honoured to have a number of them living in my constituency. The strategic defence and security review did not provide them with the clarity about their future that they need.
When I was at the Ministry of Defence, I commissioned a value-for-money review-under pressure from the Treasury, I hasten to add-into the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. I know that the report was completed by the time of the last election. I would be interested to hear from the Minister what role the report has played in the decisions that were taken in the strategic defence and security review. What my hon. Friend has described tonight is the kind of salami-slicing that the Defence Secretary said he did not want. I fear that we might be seeing a return to the cost-driven, ill-informed logic from the Treasury that I faced when I was a Minister. Such logic says that those individuals in the RFA can be replaced by civilian contractors, not recognising the fact that
they put themselves in harm's way and do a valuable job on our behalf. I would like to know the status of that review and its conclusions, and whether they are to be published.
It is important to get some clarity for our brave servicemen and women of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. It is a strategic resource with a proud history, and it is important to end the uncertainty hanging over it, which I was conscious needed to be brought to a conclusion very quickly, away from the pressure from the Treasury. We need some clarity very soon, so that those brave servicemen and women can know that they have a future and can continue to play their vital role in the defence of this country.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Andrew Robathan): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on securing this Adjournment debate on the very important issue of the future of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, and on providing me with an opportunity to speak on the issue, albeit rather more briefly than I had expected. I understand his relationship with the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, and I applaud him for speaking up for the work force. I absolutely accept that that is right and proper. I will put a plug in for myself and mention that, when I first came into the House-in 1983, I think-I served on the Employment Select Committee, as it then was, and instigated and chaired an inquiry into employment in the merchant navy, which was then under serious pressure-as indeed it has been since.
I shall deal in a few moments with the review mentioned by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). I say to everyone in the Chamber-there is a surprisingly large number of Members present for an Adjournment debate-that this is not the place from which we would have wished to start. I do not want to get into party political point scoring, but everyone understands that we are in a difficult financial and economic situation and that the Government cannot go on spending money that they do not have.
Dr Lewis: I fully appreciate the financial hole in which the Government find themselves, but surely it is a false economy when money has been spent on brand-new vessels such as the Bay class even to think of disposing of them at such an early stage of their lives.
Mr Robathan: As I said a moment ago, no one would have wished to start from here, but we have to look at all options. Some programmes in the defence budget have already been cancelled-they have been announced-even though we have spent a lot of money on them. We did not wish to do so, but we had no further money to pour into them.
Let me speak briefly about the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. It was established in 1905, providing coaling ships to supply the Royal Navy's network of bases around the world. It has continued to evolve into what we see today in the global reach that the RFA delivers for defence and the Royal Navy. Although its origins are the merchant navy, the RFA has developed in a specialised way to meet the Royal Navy's requirements. It is linked to the Royal Navy by heritage, which has been mentioned, tasks, management, chain of command and ethos.
The commercial merchant navy has had a long history of working with the Royal Navy over many centuries and has had to fight and defend itself to develop commerce around the world. Defending itself against piracy, for instance, is not a new challenge. More recently, developments in warfare and warships, specialisation of commercial ships and their design limit the utility of commercial shipping to providing core support to military operations. While commercial shipping has little knowledge of warfare, over the past 30 years the RFA has developed to meet the specialised needs of 21st century warfare.
The RFA is the modern example of merchant shipping working and prepared to fight alongside the Royal Navy. It is the means by which the Navy operates globally. Equally exposed to the risk, it is a key enabler for worldwide reach of the UK's armed forces. The RFA has essential qualities that make it different, as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington said, and that enable it to deliver operational quality effectively to the Ministry of Defence and the Navy, blending the commercial manning and ship management models into military operations. As a result of the versatility of the ships and the knowledge that the work force has accumulated over many years, the RFA has become a deliverer of operational capability as well as an enabler.
Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on securing this debate. May I ask the Minister whether he would be willing to consider Plymouth as one of the homes of the port basing when he has to decide the location of the port basing?
The responsibilities of today's RFA are far from commercial in nature, but wholly integral to the Royal Navy's continued deployments and presence around the world. For instance, RFA ships currently operating east of Suez are part of the wider maritime security effort for stability in the region. RFA Cardigan Bay is in the northern Gulf and is the logistics hub supporting the training base for the Iraqi navy, defending its oil platforms. RFA Lyme Bay is the headquarters ship for allied mine counter-measure ships. Fort Victoria has a large team of Royal Marines, a number of boats and a Merlin helicopter and is working with HMS Northumberland on counter-piracy operations off the Somali coast. I suppose I cannot use visual aids, but there is a very good one on the front of the magazine, Navy News. I cannot show it, but it says "Busted" and it is about an RFA ship.
Without describing the RFA in too much detail, I turn to deal with the review, as I believe that it is the review and the strategic defence and security review that really concern the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington. The RFA's novel approach to delivering maritime operational support is not bought at the expense of its professionalism. I pay tribute, as did the hon. Gentleman, to the work of the RFA and the dedication of its staff.
The review of the RFA was initiated by the previous Administration. Some have suggested that it was driven by a decision to commercialise the RFA. It says here that I cannot speak for the intention of the last
Administration, but I was glad to hear the hon. Member for North Durham explain that it was indeed driven by the Treasury.
The Government are anxious to ensure that we deliver the capability that is required, and do so as efficiently as possible. To that end, we undertook an informal market exercise over the summer to test the assertion by some that industry could deliver the tasks currently conducted by the RFA more efficiently. I should emphasise that that was not a formal process, but was undertaken to ascertain the extent to which the question was worth addressing-as some, including my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), who questioned General Richards a few days ago, have suggested it is.
While there was strong commercial interest in contractorisation of the RFA and the industry would be prepared to operate the service at all threat levels, and although the study concluded that there might be scope for some market efficiency savings, no enthusiasm was expressed for either acquiring the existing RFA flotilla-in whole or in part-or assuming both the capital and operating risks. On that basis, therefore, there is insufficient evidence in favour of changing the current RFA business model, which has served us well for a number of years. However, we are keen to ensure that it delivers the required responsibilities as efficiently as possible.
The strategic defence and security review has involved some very difficult but unavoidable decisions for the armed forces, none of which has been made lightly. They will lead to changes in the size of the RFA that will reflect the changing size and shape of the Royal Navy. Final decisions have not yet been made, beyond the decommissioning of one Bay class amphibious support ship that was part of the SDSR announcement in October. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State hopes to be in a position to announce the detailed force structure changes shortly, but the House will understand that some reductions in the size of the RFA will be involved. They will include personnel reductions, but, like the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, we hope that they can be made as much as possible throughout natural wastage. The hon. Gentleman made a good point about the age profile of the work force.
The Department is currently discussing with the departmental trades unions the need for early release activity to manage what will, I fear, be surplus RFA manpower. Until those consultations end, I cannot give the details of how members of the RFA might be affected, or the terms on which reductions will be managed.
My speech has been rather curtailed, but let me end by saying that although the challenges to be faced by the RFA after the SDSR and the value for money study are not insignificant, they are challenges that we believe the organisation has accepted head on, and they reflect an element of the difficult decisions that we have had to make throughout the SDSR. What I understand is known, in nautical terms, as the headmark for the Government remains Future Force 2020. We need to manage expectations and uncertainty-which we do not like-for both uniformed and civilian personnel, and that will be a key leadership challenge at all levels.
Let me again commend the Royal Fleet Auxiliary for the work that it does, and for the capabilities it brings to the naval service and defence now and into the foreseeable future. I am always happy to have a talk with the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, and look forward to doing so again.