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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 7 November 2012

[Mr David Crausbyin the Chair]

Combat Troop Withdrawal (Afghanistan)

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

9.30 am

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. This is a moment of great joy and satisfaction. The peacemaker Obama has been voted into power again. He is a man who voted against the Iraq war in 2003, against the jingoism of his time. He will continue to serve the world with his idealism, his intelligence and his audacity of hope. He has earned the congratulations and earnest good wishes of this House, and it is a pleasure to offer them to him. He has given politics a fresh nobility and intellectual rigour. He also leads a nation that has sacrificed more of its sons and daughters in the service of bringing democracy to other nations than any other on earth.

President Obama now has two main tasks, in my view: ending the bloodshed in Afghanistan and avoiding the possibility of a war in Iran. I believe that if Obama had been President in 2001, a war in Afghanistan would have been avoided, because a deal would have been possible if America had been willing to recognise the Taliban Government; Osama bin Laden would have been handed over. But the country was full of understandable desire for vengeance after the terrible events of 9/11.

There is an uglier side to the picture. On one side is hope, idealism and rhetoric, but it is right that we as a Parliament should confront the consequences of our own decisions. The decision to send troops to Afghanistan was ours in this House and nobody else’s. We decided to do it, and even worse, we decided to go into Helmand in 2006. At that time, only two British soldiers had died in combat. We went in with the hope of the then Defence Secretary that not a shot would be fired, and that we would be there for three years to supervise a bit of reconstruction.

Under all Governments since that time, we have had debate after debate. I have taken part in many of them over the years—in 2008, 2009 and so on. We have always heard optimism from Government spokesmen, and the hope that things were going right. In 2004, a Foreign Office Minister told me, “We have turned the corner on drugs.” We have turned that corner so many times that we have been around the block half a dozen times, and where are we on drugs? That was one of the justifications for going into Afghanistan: Tony Blair and Geoff Hoon said, “Of course we must go into Afghanistan, because 90% of the heroin on the streets of Britain comes from there.” Eleven years later, 90% of that heroin comes from Afghanistan, but there is a difference: it is cheaper, and there is more of it.

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Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): I support the troops fighting in Afghanistan, particularly my regiment, 39 Royal Artillery, who are doing an amazing job. Does the hon. Gentleman not accept, given that the title of this debate refers to the withdrawal of troops, that our troops are in Afghanistan at the invitation of an Islamic Government, and party to a United Nations resolution? Surely that is the fundamental basis on which we have sent our troops there.

Paul Flynn: The hon. Gentleman should reread the title of the debate; it refers to the withdrawal of combat troops. We are not suggesting that those troops should not be responsible for the essential work that must be done when withdrawing from a field of conflict. We are talking about withdrawing our combat troops in the same way that Canada, the Netherlands and other nations have withdrawn theirs.

I pay tribute to the valour and professionalism of our combat troops. They have served the country honourably, and they are as distinguished as any of their predecessors in our great military history. I speak as the proud son of a soldier.

Dan Collins lived for the Army. His e-mail address began “Army Dan”. He served in the Welsh Guards; all he ever wanted to do was be a soldier. He served in Northern Ireland, Iraq, Bosnia and Afghanistan. He was shot twice—once in the back and once in the leg—and survived. He also survived two incidents involving explosives. The terrible thing that happened to him was not coming near to death on those and other occasions; it was the nightmare of seeing his best friend’s limbs blown away. Dan Collins held him as he died and watched the life drain out of his eyes. It was a picture that tormented him. In January this year, he took his own life.

Dan Collins is not recorded on the list of the UK Afghan dead, but he died because of what we as Members of Parliament decided to do, by acts of omission or commission. Amid all our debates—they may well have wearied some, because we have repeated the truths so many times—both Governments have relied on fiction to justify the war, and they are still doing so.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): Does the hon. Gentleman agree, as I am sure he does, that it is not unpatriotic to recognise that there is no military solution to the situation in Afghanistan? Recognising the bravery and courage of our armed forces, as we do, is still perfectly compatible with saying that the best way to honour them is to bring them home as soon as possible.

Paul Flynn: Indeed. I would say so with some passion.

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): Talking of fiction, I think that the hon. Gentleman is mistaken, in that a deal was not offered to the Taliban back in 2001. My understanding is that they were given the option of handing over bin Laden and refused. The other issue is that if he cares about the Afghan people, as I know he does, is he not concerned that if we cut and run by withdrawing our troops too quickly, there is a risk that the country could fall into civil war and the progress made could be undone rapidly?

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Paul Flynn: I think there is a strong risk. In fact, it is likely that the country will divide into civil war. I will discuss that later. I attended the Select Committee on Defence last week, where some striking things were said, and even more striking things were not said. No one says with confidence, “We are going to leave Afghanistan, and it is going to be happy ever after,” but half-truths and half-lies have taken hold.

One of the cruellest excuses for staying is that we must justify the deaths that have already occurred, or somehow it will be a terrible legacy. The fiction is that this has been a wonderful strategy over the past 11 years, and that in 2014 it will all be tied up tidily and we will come away, leaving the country a happy modern democracy. It is not going to happen, and it is deception to say so. To say that we must sacrifice the lives of more soldiers to justify the lives of those who have died in vain because of our decisions is another cruel deception. That is what the Government are saying. We have heard from their Front Benchers in the last few weeks that we carry on to ensure that the legacy is right. The legacy will almost certainly be a country that is divided. It could well be Karzai who succeeds: he might find a way of serving a third term.

There will be a dreadfully divided society when we go. I believe that Afghanistan will return to its traditional tribal loyalties, between the Uzbeks and the Pashtuns and Hazaras, and they will start to fall among themselves. I am sure we will find that what we are doing at the moment is the same as the Americans did with the mujaheddin—arming, training and financing a future civil war, in which we might suffer as well.

Only a hopeless optimist would believe that there will be a happy ending. We are leaving in 2014 for reasons of political expediency—here and in the United States; that is why we are getting out. The job will not be done. The job is never being done, because we set ourselves an impossible task. We went in there with the promise on drugs, which has failed hopelessly, and the promises on corruption. However, instead of ending corruption, we have made it multiply one hundredfold. We are feeding in billions of pounds that are then taken and used by the bank in Afghanistan as a mechanism for feeding the crooks in Karzai’s regime to tart up their bolt holes in Dubai. Watch how they rush out of the country when we leave. They will be leaving the chaos behind. There is no chance of a united Afghanistan when we go. But that is part of the deception that we have had.

The other excuse—perhaps the Minister will talk about it—came out during the period at the end of September, when the new Defence Secretary, who is an honourable and sincere man in what he is doing, suddenly had an attack of euphoria about Afghanistan and made some optimistic speeches. He also said that it is not right for our country to send troops to put their lives on the line when this country’s interests are not at stake and not in danger. Wonderful sentiments. He was called back to the House of Commons on 18 September when the terrible murders had taken place. It is not warfare when soldiers are killed by their own side, when they cannot trust the people next to them. There have been more than 50 deaths caused by Afghan soldiers and police. We should not ask our soldiers to face up to that. It is one thing to face an enemy, but it is dreadful for soldiers to know that their allies are likely to murder them.

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The Defence Secretary was optimistic on 18 September. He came to the House and said, “We’re not going to be fooled. We’re not going to fall for the trick of the Taliban. What the Taliban want us to do is divide the Afghan troops from the NATO forces. That’s not going to happen. We’re much cleverer than that. We’re not going to do it.” The following day, he said in the House that that is exactly what we are going to do, because our American masters have told us that that is the policy. They know how morale has collapsed among many of our soldiers, with the possibility of doing regular patrols with Afghans whom they can no longer trust. The Defence Secretary saw this humiliation in one day.

I make no apologies for saying what I said on 19 September, because my expulsion from the House—which was for five weeks, not five days—was well worth it in every possible way and gave me the chance to speak in universities and to audiences throughout the country and to feel the indignation and anger of the country. Parliament is out of step with public opinion. The public want to bring our combat troops home by Christmas, and they are absolutely right; that is practical. They have lost interest in the war. There is fatigue and indifference and they can see the hopelessness of it. They have seen year after year of deception from both Governments about the war.

Nothing in the Government views put forward has been accurate. The views that stand the test of time are those expressed in this House by hon. Members who questioned the aims of the war and pointed out the impossibility. For example, in February 2006, against what the Government were saying, it was said in a Westminster Hall debate that to go into Helmand province was to stir up a hornets’ nest. It was said at the time that this was like the charge of the Light Brigade. Bush to the left of them, Blair to the right of them, hollered and thundered,

“Some one had blunder’d…

Their’s not to reason why,

Their’s but to do and die…

Into the mouth of Hell”,

into the valley of Helmand, drove the 5,000. No one believed that at the time; that was denounced as a wild exaggeration. Two of our combat troops had died then, but the number is now 477, more than three times the number that died in the charge of the Light Brigade, but in a cause of equal futility. Nothing has worked.

Improvements in women’s education are greatly exaggerated. The Government say that 4,000 women and girls were in education in the days of the Taliban and that there are 2 million now. I wish it was true. A distinguished Member of the Afghan Parliament, Malalai Joya, who has written a book about this, was a teacher of girls under the Taliban and talks about the conditions now being worse than then. She has visited this country, and anyone who knows her work will realise that there is a degree of exaggeration in the Government’s policy. Certainly, many young girls are being educated for the first time and it is a distinct improvement. However, that is the only case in which we can say there has been improvement. We have built a large number of schools and other centres for the Afghans, but they will not continue after we leave and sadly neither will the—

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Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I do not necessarily agree with the train of thought, but I commend his integrity and the duration and durability of his campaign.

The hon. Gentleman is saying that although progress is being made, particularly on female education, it is not quite as much as the Government have outlined and that other physical measures would have helped. Does he not agree that the nature of the society in Helmand is such that whoever is trying to help there will be subject to attack? Does that not undermine his argument a little? Whether we have combat troops there or people engaged in achieving social betterment for the people of Helmand, they are all going to be subject to attack by the Taliban.

Paul Flynn: The hon. Gentleman has raised some fair, reasonable points. The problem is that there is a fixation among the great nations—the Soviet Union felt the same—that somehow, we are so powerful and rich that we can transform a 13th-century society into a modern state. That is beyond the powers of any nation. In 2001, a Member of the Russian Duma banged me on the back and said, “These British people are very clever. They have just captured Afghanistan. Wonderful! We Russians did that. We were there for 10 years. We spent billions of roubles. We killed 1 million Afghans. We lost 16,000 of our own troops. When we ran out there were 300,000 mujaheddin in the hills, and when the mujaheddin took over a couple of years later, they were the cruellest, worst Government in Afghanistan for a century.” We have committed ourselves to the same myth: that we can move in there, where traditions are deeply embedded.

The other myth, which was repeated last week by the Leader of the House and all the Ministers, is that we are in Afghanistan to protect Britain from terrorism by the Afghan Taliban. Again, that will go on and on, it will be repeated and repeated, but it is not true. I will call it a deception—I get in trouble if I call people liars. People are not being imbeciles when they say such things, but let someone justify the claims this morning. Where are the Taliban terrorists who threaten Britain? We have had terrorists from Bradford and Birmingham who have threatened Britain. We have terrorists who have huge tracts of the world in which they operate—in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan—where they are completely out of control, and we are not there. But we say that the terrorists we are protecting Britain from are in Afghanistan and that they are Taliban.

I asked a previous Secretary of State whether he had ever spoken to any Taliban and simply asked, “Why are you killing our soldiers?” Would the Taliban reply, “Oh well, our plan is, when we have killed all your soldiers, we will come over to London and Newport to blow up your streets.” Would they say that, or would they say, “We are killing your soldiers because they came here and occupied our country by the force of their arms, and it is our sacred, religious duty as Afghans to expel them from our country. This is what our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers did.” Look at history: this is the fourth time that we have invaded Afghanistan, and each time we have withdrawn. What has happened in history is what will happen in the future. The Afghans

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combine when they have a foreign enemy in their land, and when the enemy goes they fight and war among themselves.

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): In a sense, my hon. Friend is not putting the argument as strongly as it could be put. The fact that the justification for troops remaining in Afghanistan for 10 or 11 years is so weak—and in many cases false—is more likely to create home-grown terrorism than to prevent a terrorist threat from Afghanistan. The continuation of the war is the threat, not the people in Afghanistan.

Paul Flynn: One of the joys of having a blog is that everything one says remains on it. I will send my hon. Friend a letter that I sent to Tony Blair in 2003. I told him that if we joined Bush’s war in Iraq, we would not reduce the threat of terrorism, but increase it. If we did that without getting a settlement in the Israeli-Palestinian situation, the Christian west would again seem to be using unfair double standards against the Muslim population of the world—that is how it would be interpreted. We have now done the same in Afghanistan. All kinds of false conclusions have been drawn, but what we have done is not reduce the threat of terrorism, but increase it by giving a cause to young Muslims, from the ones in my local mosque to those in the far corners of the world. That is quite the reverse of what we claim to be doing.

Have the young men and women who died reduced the threat of terrorism in this country? They have produced a situation such that most of the Muslim population throughout the globe believe that all we do is badly intentioned as far as the Muslim world is concerned. That foolish piece of tawdry film was made, but such is the conviction among the Muslims of the planet that there were riots in many places, because they believe that we wanted to insult the Prophet. The division between the Christian and Muslim communities of the world has been deepened by the actions of all Governments in this country and by our presence in Afghanistan. The claim about what we are doing there is not true.

Another, even uglier side of the situation was exposed recently in The Sunday Times after one of the leaders of this country’s Army, Sir—I do not know how long he will be a sir—John Kiszely, was filmed revealing his intentions and ambitions in life. This is a man who has been honoured in his country, but when asked if he was willing to prostitute his insider knowledge and his energies in order to serve the commercial cause of a foreign arms dealer, he said—he has not denied it—yes, he would go along with that, it seemed a good idea, and when he was waiting for the Queen to arrive at the Armistice service there would be a chance to talk to important Ministers, which was “a great marketing opportunity”. It is the most solemn time of year, when we mourn the deaths of the millions of our people who have given their lives in battle, and one of the people there regarded it as a great marketing opportunity.

Deeper than that, however—I am not into conspiracy theories, but the ideas come forward as one ages in life—is the question whether we have a military-industrial complex. Extraordinarily, 3,500 very senior members of the armed forces have moved into arms firms since 1996. They have done their service in war and retired at a relatively early age after 20 years, and 3,500 of them

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are working for arms firms. On the other side, there are members of arms firms who are deployed in the Ministry of Defence. So we have a monstrous entity, a Siamese twin, created from the military and the arms firms, whose prime objective is perpetual war. If the wars stop, their influence and profits stop and their activity ends.

Look at recent history: we went into Iraq in pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction; we stayed in Helmand to protect against a non-existent Taliban terrorist threat to this country; and we are now being told that we should be prepared for a war with Iran to protect ourselves from non-existent Iranian long-range missiles carrying non-existent nuclear weapons. There are forces in the world—I do not accuse the Government of this—looking to keep the industrial-military complex going in the interests of jobs and profits, while on the other side are the Dan Collinses, the people who die in war.

I believe that we can follow the example of Canada, which lost a large number of combat troops—a higher proportion of deaths relative to its population than any other country in the world. It decided to pull out of Afghanistan, and in a debate in the Canadian Parliament all parties supported the decision. The Dutch took a bit longer—there was a bit more debate in the Netherlands about withdrawal—but again, the people who served in Afghanistan came out, their heads held high, their mission over, because they saw the hopelessness of staying longer. Why can we not do the same? That is what the country wants. We should not send another soldier into battle.

The reason that our soldiers are being sent into Afghanistan now is to act as human shields for political reputation. From the history of warfare, we know how politicians have generally played an ignoble role, and that is true at the moment. The fear is that withdrawal will expose the mistakes of the past. Constituents of mine and their relatives have to face the bitter realisation that, in the consolation they have clung to by saying, “My son died in a noble cause,” or “My daughter died for a worthy cause,” they were deceived. They will have to face the reality that there was a deep deception. Politicians shrink from that conclusion. They do not want to face up to it, because it is unbearable to think that their decisions as Ministers or shadow Ministers led to deaths that were in vain, but that truth has to be seen. There will be an inquiry, perhaps in five or 10 years’ time, about Helmand, and the unpalatable truth will come out.

Last week, I attended the meeting of the Select Committee on Defence when it discussed defence procurement. A number of questions were dealt with, and it was a rather laid-back session without a great deal of conviction on either side. I got the impression that the Committee members and the officers, who had often met, were going over riddles that had been solved a long time ago. In that session, Brigadier Doug Chalmers, who has just returned from commanding Britain’s force in Helmand, said that the Afghan commanders were “equally shocked” by the blue-on-green attacks, but that after talking to British soldiers engaged in advising and training Afghan forces he was sure the attacks had not dented their morale—a completely implausible statement. Of course it has dented their morale.

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During that session, when asked by the Chairman whether he seriously believes that Afghan forces will be sustainable once NATO-led troops give up their ground combat role, the witness replied that it was

“as assumption we have to make”.

He clings to that comfort blanket because the realistic answer is unpalatable. Facing the truth is unpalatable. He cannot do that. When asked to whom the Afghan police and army will give their loyalty when we leave, he said that he hoped it will be the elected Government—a forlorn hope. I hope we can at least face reality this morning.

I was worried that the commemoration of the great war would be used in a way that again avoids the truth—that dodges the truth. I have every confidence in the Member of Parliament who is in charge, because he was one of the 12 in this Parliament who voted against the Iraq war, but I find the conclusion of the Prime Minister’s speech on the subject disturbing. He said that we are going to commemorate the war—but there were 16 million deaths: what conclusion are we going to reach? Most of us would reach the conclusion seen in the works of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves or Wilfred Owen, but I do not think that is what the Prime Minister has in mind. He concluded:

“At the end of the war, a 20-year-old soldier in the great war wrote, ‘but for this war, I and all the others would have been party to oblivion like the countless myriads before us, but we shall live for ever in the result of our efforts.’”

The person who wrote that was killed the following week. He did not live for ever; he was not immortal; the Prime Minister did not even mention his name. He went into oblivion, like all the others, another of the 16 million deaths in that war. There should be no question of glorifying and fictionalising that war as we are doing with the deaths in Afghanistan.

Guy Opperman: No one is glorifying or celebrating the loss of any British soldier. Surely the hon. Gentleman accepts that. We are celebrating and supporting our troops and their commitment. Does he accept that well over 100,000 Afghan troops and police have been trained by British and other troops to maintain law and order to the best of their ability after withdrawal?

Paul Flynn: Yes, I do, but I know from a report from the United States that only 7% of them are capable of acting alone. One third desert every year. We have given them the job of guarding prisoners, but in one incident 500 prisoners escaped. Many soldiers and policemen use the drugs that we are there to eliminate. The police are hated in many parts of Afghanistan not only because they are endemically corrupt and always have been, but because, unlike the Taliban, they practise bacha bazi—a perverted abuse of young boys that has always been part of the Afghan police’s tradition. Does the hon. Gentleman really believe that the Afghan army and police will behave like British bobbies or British soldiers? That will not happen. They will revert to the cruel practices of the past. Afghanistan is a country of massacres and inter-tribal bloodshed between the Hazaris, the Baluchis and so on. The idea that we can impose our will by passing an Act in Parliament is a myth.

Whenever such issues come up on television and a new death is announced, BBC News 24 and Sky News bring in the same old regular half a dozen people—someone

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from the Royal United Services Institute, or a leader of our soldiers in Afghanistan—to say the same soothing words. Rarely do we hear the voices of my hon. Friends and those of us who opposed this bloody war for the past 11 years. We are rarely heard.

There is a new fiction, being used—astonishingly—by the new Secretary of State for International Development. She took me to task when I said that the result of this war is that we have lost 437 UK lives and uncounted Afghan lives, and 2,000 of our troops have come home broken in body and mind. Eight Afghans were killed in one day in September. August was the worst month for Afghan civilian deaths in the whole 11-year period, but the Government wanted to conceal that. There was no event to mark the 11th anniversary of the start of the war, but there were celebrations for the anniversary of James Bond on that same weekend. We try to hide the deaths by diverting coffins from Royal Wootton Basset and taking them around back lanes. The Government have twice tried to stop the naming of the dead at Prime Minister’s questions. It was moved to Monday, and then to Tuesday. Only because Back Benchers were angry and wanted it back where it belonged, so that it received the attention of Parliament and the press, was it moved back.

We now have a new and breathtaking fiction that we will hear about this weekend. I told the Secretary of State for International Development that 2,000 of our soldiers had come back broken in body and mind, and that if the pattern of the Falklands war and the Vietnam war continues, more of our soldiers will take their lives in the years to come than died in combat during the war.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I am sorry that I must again knock down that myth, which keeps being repeated. I know that the Minister agrees with me on this. The claim that more Falklands veterans committed suicide than died in the war is just not true.

Paul Flynn: Okay, we will have this out. If my hon. Friend does not believe that of the Falklands war, he should believe it of the Vietnam war. The figures come from America—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend will have his chance to speak.

Let us see what the Government’s thinking is. This weekend, there will be worthy celebrations of an Afghan veteran who achieved a Paralympic medal. The Secretary of State for International Development told me that I was being pessimistic about the war in saying that 2,000 soldiers were broken in mind and body, when about half a dozen came back from Afghanistan and earned Paralympic medals. We are all delighted to see the success of the Paralympians—not only the victims of war, but others who have been cheated by life or nature and have achieved an eminence that we all celebrate quite rightly. However, was the right hon. Lady trying to say that the deaths of British troops, the terrible injuries, and the suicides that I mentioned are somehow justified by that? Was it somehow ennobling that 16 million people died, as the Prime Minister seemed to be saying? The man quoted by the Prime Minister did not acquire immortality; he acquired oblivion. His name was forgotten; it was not even mentioned. His life was stolen from him by the lies of politicians and the military.

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We are in the same position that we were in at the end of the first world war, in which my father fought. He was shot on 10 April 1918. He was taken prisoner and his life was saved by a German patrol, but he lived to curse the military that he believed in when he was a boy of 15 who went to war, as a patriot, to protect the small nations of the planet. He could never again do what he called a man’s job, and in 1935 his pension was changed. It was a tiny pension, paid to him because his wrecked physical condition was attributable to his war wounds, but a cost-cutting Government changed the word “attributable” to “aggravated”. He went in as a perfectly fit 15-year-old, but later they halved his pension. For understandable reasons, he was bitter about those who on Armistice day stood erect, with a tear in their eye, mourning our brave boys. Quite rightly, the word that came to him was “hypocrites”.

I believe that we should mark the war and the consequences of it not in the heroic terms of Rupert Brooke and others who suffered in war. We must see the reality of what we have done and the consequences. We should bring our troops home from an unwinnable war. Rather than the picture presented of a worthy war and the half-a-dozen deserving Paralympic medallists, we should see war for what it is and in terms of the description of death in war by Wilfred Owen:

“Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.”

10.12 am

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): I thank the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) for arranging this important debate, and I am honoured to follow his eloquent speech, which I hope will be heard far outside the four walls of Westminster Hall.

The Green party opposed the war in Afghanistan from the outset, but I and many others have stood by in growing horror at the death and destruction unfolding there. As we have been reminded, last month was the 11th anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, so troops have been there for longer than the first and second world wars combined. We have a tradition in the House whereby, at each Prime Minister’s questions, there is a roll-call of those brave troops who have been killed in Afghanistan. Their names are read out by the Prime Minister, and it sometimes seems as though that tradition will go on for ever. Each week, there are more names. Our troops are doing a brave and courageous job and we pay tribute to them, but they are also doing an impossible job, which is why the best way to honour them is to bring them home as soon as possible.

We are constantly told that our troops are fighting in that country to keep us safe in this one. That is a lie, and the hon. Gentleman was right to say so. The terrorism on our streets has never come from Afghanistan. The attacks that we have suffered were plotted by those in al-Qaeda who have since been dispersed to Pakistan and to Britain itself. The terrible truth is that British troops are dying in Afghanistan because no British Government have the guts admit that they are fighting an unwinnable war. Let us nail once and for all the myth

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that the presence of combat troops in Afghanistan is making the British people safer. As other hon. Members have said this morning, the truth is likely to be precisely the opposite.

We have been told so many lies and untruths about this war that it sometimes feels difficult to separate what is true from what is not. We have been told, for example, that we must defeat the Taliban, who once hosted bin Laden, and reshape Afghanistan into a functioning society that can never again give shelter to al-Qaeda. However, if al-Qaeda remains the ultimate enemy, rather than the Taliban, it makes no sense to continue to spill so much blood in Afghanistan, as al-Qaeda has mostly long since left.

The longer that the occupation continues, the more jihadists around the world are likely to be inspired to target Britain and the more that Afghan villagers are likely to side with insurgents. The tactics that have been pursued, both by the British and the Americans, are deeply counter-productive. Like the hon. Gentleman, I celebrate this morning the re-election of President Obama, but I regret his so-called surge strategy—the 30,000 extra troops that he put into Afghanistan. Let us look, however, at the impact that those extra 30,000 troops had while they were there, before they were withdrawn again. In July 2009, there were 2,000 insurgent attacks. That was before the surge, and afterwards, in July 2012, the number of insurgent attacks increased to 3,000. There were 475 attacks using home-made bombs in July 2009, and that increased to 625 in 2012.

As the hon. Gentleman said, we were also told that the war in Afghanistan was to stop the drugs trade, yet, 11 years later, there is no sign of that being true. Before the invasion, 90% of heroin coming into the UK was from Afghanistan; the same amount is still coming in today, and if anything it is probably cheaper. We are told that the troops are there to bring human rights to Afghanistan. Although there was perhaps some improvement in human rights between 2001 and 2005, since then, they have drastically deteriorated. Vicious warlords in rural areas can be just as bent on enforcing sharia law as the Taliban. As an example of how little impact we have had on human rights, the country famously passed into law the so-called marital rape law. That was passed by President Karzai, whom we are there to support, yet that law gives the husband the right to withdraw basic maintenance for his wife if she refuses to obey his sexual demands.

Nor is this a war that prioritises development, as though it ever could. The comparative amounts that have been spent put paid to any claims that this is a war about bettering the lives of the Afghan people. The US has spent 20 times as much on military operations as on development in Afghanistan, and Britain has spent 10 times as much, but the UN Security Council notes that 25 times as many Afghans die as a result of under-nutrition and poverty as they do from violence. Almost all the development indices in the country are worse today than they were in 2001, before the invasion. Child malnutrition, for example, has risen in some areas, which is an effect of the chronic hunger that now affects over 7 million people. We also know that one in five children dies before the age of five, which is the highest

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infant mortality rate in the world. A shocking one in eight Afghan women dies from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, and life expectancy is just 44.

Despite what we are told, there is simply no evidence that those or any other war objectives are being met, and we have paid a terrible price for that failure: the 437 British troops who have lost their lives and countless more Afghan civilians. No official count is kept of civilian casualties, but all the signs suggest that August 2012 was the second worst month for civilian deaths in the 11 years since the invasion.

As we know, leaked war logs reveal that coalition forces have tried to cover up the fact that they have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents. The number of civilian deaths looks set to increase even further, as the controversial deployment of drones is stepped up in a few weeks’ time. The UK is to double the number of armed RAF drones flying combat and surveillance operations in Afghanistan, and for the first time the aircraft will be controlled from terminals and screens in Britain. The UK has been flying drones in Afghanistan non-stop since 2008.

A study by the law schools of Stanford and New York universities has condemned targeted drone attacks as politically counter-productive and responsible for killing large numbers of civilians and undermining respect for international law. In many ways, it is hard to think of a more effective recruiting agent for the Taliban than the drones that are being sent from the west and are killing civilians indiscriminately.

The Ministry of Defence admits that it does not know how many insurgents have died because of its drone attacks. It explains that it is difficult and risky to verify who has been hit. Instead, it relies on Afghans making complaints if a friend or family member has been wrongly killed. Such a system is deeply flawed and makes a mockery of the MOD’s claim that only four Afghan civilians have been killed in its strikes since 2008 and that it does everything possible to minimise civilian casualties, including aborting missions at the last moment.

We are also told that, on withdrawal, a 350,000-strong local police force and army will be able to enforce law and order. Again, as the hon. Member for Newport West said, that is not necessarily a view shared by the experts. I shall underline the quote that he gave us from Lieutenant-General David Capewell, who said that it was

“an assumption we have to make”.

In other words, there is a blind hope that somehow, as a result of our maintaining our troops in Afghanistan, the Afghan forces will be sustainable once NATO-led troops have left, but there is absolutely no real evidence that that is likely. It is given as yet another reason to extend the time that troops remain in Afghanistan. We need a bit more honesty from politicians.

The Afghan people also need a bit more honesty from their politicians. Their Government spend a massive 30% of their budget on the security sector. In 2008, they were spending fully seven times more than the world average on the military and more than twice as much as other countries undergoing war. This unwinnable war is costing us more than £7 million a day. I need hardly remind hon. Members of the so-called austerity that we are suffering. At the same time as we are spending

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£7 million a day on an unwinnable war, we are cutting and slashing welfare payments for the most vulnerable people in this country. That leads me to ask who is benefiting from the situation. Again, the hon. Gentleman hinted at this when he talked about the shadow army of private military and security companies, which are operating largely outside legal or democratic control in Afghanistan.

Moreover, in the past 16 years, more than 3,500 former military personnel and Ministry of Defence officials have taken up roles working in arms companies. There is very much a revolving door. The safeguards meant to be afforded by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments are a farce. That committee is toothless; it has no power to act. The industry has been shown to swoop on former officials and military personnel once they have left service, and there is evidence that relations between the military and defence companies are incredibly cosy.

The MOD has launched an investigation into the access that former members of the military have to serving officials. That could result in a tightening of current restrictions, but it may well be too little, too late as far as the situation in Afghanistan is concerned. True to form for successive Governments who prioritise private profit above all else, this is a privatised war, with huge contracts for huge private security companies, and when the troops finally do withdraw, there is the prospect of lucrative mineral licences to be fought over.

As the 2014 deadline approaches for when NATO combat operations are due to cease, it is imperative that we listen to what the people of Afghanistan say about the support and help that they might need. We need to listen to what they say about their priorities, not to politicians who are asking soldiers to act as human shields for their political reputations.

As Malalai Joya said on the eve of the 2009 election,

“Democracy will never come to Afghanistan through the barrel of a gun, or from the cluster bombs dropped by foreign forces. The struggle will be long and difficult, but the values of real democracy, human rights and women’s rights will only be won by the Afghan people themselves.”

We should pay attention to those words.

We should also pay serious attention to the Select Committee on International Development, which concluded last month that Ministers

“may have to recognise that a viable state may not be achievable”.

I believe that we need to recognise that sooner rather than later. We need to recognise that withdrawing later simply risks more lives being lost and more damage being done. We are warned that if we pull out now al-Qaeda will have an area from which to operate. Again, that is a myth. They already have Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen.

The way forward is not just about development. Engaging in talks to secure a regional solution to the war now is also critical, as is involving the Taliban in that process. But let us stop pretending that we have all the answers or that trying to mould Afghanistan at gunpoint into our idea of what it should look like is the same as our democracy. The only sensible and ethical way forward is the immediate withdrawal of our troops and dialogue with the people of Afghanistan about what role, if any, they would like us to play in the future of their country.

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10.25 am

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. In the week leading up to Remembrance Sunday, it is important to remember those who have lost their lives in the service of their country, not just in Afghanistan but in all the wars. This is also a fitting time to think about the members of our armed forces who are deployed in Afghanistan at the moment. I pay tribute to the men and women of all three services who are working on our behalf and to their families back at home. I also pay tribute to those people who are not mentioned very often—the civil servants and civilian contractors who make that deployment possible. We should thank them for their contribution to our nation’s security.

I welcome the debate and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on securing it. Hindsight in politics is a great thing. If we had it earlier, the world would be a great and different place. I think it would make politics rather boring, not just in this country but internationally. However, I need to address some of the points that my hon. Friend raised and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) made, because there is a tendency in these debates to make statements as though they are facts, but without questioning them.

I think that we should start by considering the reasons why we are in Afghanistan. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion says that the Green party was against the invasion of Afghanistan. That is fine if people live in a great, perfect world, but I certainly do not think that we do. There is an idea that somehow we can put a bubble around the UK and insulate ourselves from world events. I would have asked what the Green party’s alternatives were to what happened in 2001. It is easy to say; it is more difficult to do in reality when we are facing the threat that we were facing in 2001 and that continues to be—

Caroline Lucas: I will ask the hon. Gentleman whether he thinks that the situation in Afghanistan is better today than it was before we invaded.

Mr Jones: Yes, I do, and I will tell the hon. Lady why from personal experience, but I will also challenge her again to say what the solution would have been in 2001. It is easy to sit and criticise; it is more difficult when people are having to take real decisions about this nation’s security. The hon. Lady is in a privileged position as a member of a party that will never have to make those decisions. That is a luxury that many people do not have.

Caroline Lucas: I do not have time now to go through a full explanation of what the Green party would have done, but I would love to have a meeting with the hon. Gentleman outside these four walls to explain what we would have suggested should be done. At the very least, not doing harm is quite a good start. There was no justification for the invasion of Afghanistan as a response to the terrible atrocities in New York.

Mr Jones: I am sorry, but the hon. Lady cannot have it both ways. We are in Afghanistan because of a United Nations resolution—resolution 1386. I remember her and some people on the left arguing in relation to

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the invasion of Iraq that we should have had a United Nations resolution. We cannot have it all ways. That is why we were in Afghanistan, and our time there has been extended by other UN resolutions.

Caroline Lucas: I am sorry to keep intervening, but the hon. Gentleman is being deliberately provocative. Those of us who were against the invasion of Iraq did not think that it was any better once the Government managed to get a UN sanction—the stamp of approval. A resolution certainly did not make our decision on Iraq right, and the absence of one was not the reason we were against it.

Mr Jones: I wait with interest to see what the solution is to security problems around the world. Having an academic discussion as if we are in a common room is not the answer when the country faces the threats it does.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West said that our reasons for invading Afghanistan were similar to those of the Soviet Union. No, they were not. I totally disagree with his view that the situation would have been different had Obama been elected in 2001. People should not be selective in how they interpret history. There was no instant response from the Americans after 9/11. In the period before the invasion of Afghanistan, there was a window of opportunity. I accept that there was a window of opportunity for the Taliban to give up bin Laden, but did they? No, they did not. Afghanistan gave him and other terrorist groups a safe haven, and now that it is no longer a safe haven and he is no longer here, the world is a safer place.

My hon. Friend also raised the idea that there is somehow a Christian campaign against the Muslim world.

Graham Stringer: Before my hon. Friend moves on, I wish to say that I do not agree with the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). Getting bin Laden was a completely justifiable objective, but was the mission not over and finished in December 2001 when he escaped through the mountains at Tora Bora? There has been a huge mission drift since then.

Mr Jones: No, it was not. Let us remember: in Afghanistan we were also dealing with a failed state that had been in chaos, with warlords and fighting since the fall of the Communist Government. In terms of the safe havens it would have given, it was right to try to bring stability and benefit to the Afghan people.

The hon. Member for Newport West refers to some kind of Christian campaign. He should remember that Muslim nations are fighting alongside our forces in Afghanistan, including the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and, one of the largest Muslim countries, Malaysia.

Paul Flynn: The hon. Gentleman is disgracefully fictionalising what I said and attacking an absurdity of his own creation. Does he not agree that the main question we have to deal with is why we behave as the poodle to America, in a way that Harold Wilson did not. We believe that we have to go wider and wider still;

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that we have to punch above our weight, which always means dying beyond our responsibilities. Why did we go into Helmand?

Mr Jones: The hon. Gentleman talked about conspiracy theorists, and I have to say that he makes a very good one; perhaps he ought to take it up as a career. Muslim nations are fighting alongside ISAF. To describe Afghanistan as some kind of Christian crusade is complete nonsense.

Paul Flynn: Mr Crausby, what the hon. Gentleman is saying is outrageous. It is an outrageous speech.

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order. I call Kevan Jones.

Mr Jones: I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman did say it—

Paul Flynn: Read what I said.

Mr Jones: If the hon. Gentleman does not like what he says being challenged, I am sorry—

Paul Flynn: The facts are in a letter that I wrote in 2003 to Tony Blair. It is there, it exists and I stand by that letter. By going into Iraq and Helmand, we increased the terrorist threat. Answer that.

Mr Jones: I will move on to the point the hon. Gentleman made about Daniel Collins and the individuals who lost their lives in recent conflicts in Afghanistan and other places.

I accept that people have come back from Afghanistan and Iraq with mental health problems, their bodies broken and their lives transformed for ever. Something that has come through the debate is the idea that politicians and Ministers take decisions easily. They do not. The Minister will back me up on this point: one of the hardest parts of being a Defence Minister is getting the phone call, sometimes late at night, reporting that someone has lost their life in Afghanistan. A memorable weekend for me was in 2009, when I was duty Minister, and we lost eight individuals. Ministers do think about those people. It is not easy to divorce our emotions from such situations. Like me, the Minister will have met many families after such events and spoken to them, and he knows it is not easy. It is not the case that we take decisions with no thought of such events. Of the work that I did in the Ministry of Defence, I am most proud of putting in the Army recovery capability to assist those injured in the service of our country. It is a credit to the Minister that he continued that work when he was veterans Minister.

It is easy to say that nothing has improved in Afghanistan. I first went there in 2003, with you, Mr Crausby, and I have been six times since. It is very different now from the place it was in 2003: six provinces have transitioned to Afghan security control and Kabul, which was under curfew and blacked out with little activity on the streets, is today a bustling and different city. Is the security threat still there? Yes, it is. Is that only in Kabul? No, it is not; it is throughout Afghanistan.

People sometimes give the impression that Helmand has not improved. I first went to Lashkar Gah—with you, I think, Mr Crausby—in 2004. The only place that we could go was the provincial reconstruction team’s office. In the town itself, there was no market, no

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activity, no schools, no functioning public works or any local government. When I went back three years ago, I went to central Lashkar Gah to see the governor, and it is a very different place. Progress has been made.

I hope that I do not misquote my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West again, but I would like to touch on the point he made about education and girls. One of the most moving things I have seen was at a girls’ schools in Kabul in 2003—you were with me, Mr Crausby. We met a courageous lady who described how she taught 3,000 girls in a school; she had to do so in shifts, because a lot of the older girls had missed out on education—I do not accept that the Taliban allowed girls to be educated. I said to that lady, “What did you do when the Taliban were in power?” She said, movingly, that she and other teachers taught girls privately in their homes. I said that that must have been a brave act, and she said, “No, that wasn’t brave. My deputy head, who was executed, was brave.” Her only crime was bringing education to girls—such was her dedication to education. It is not the case that we are not making progress in girls’ education and so on.

With regards to the combat role, the Opposition have put it on record that we will support the Government on the deadline for combat missions to end in 2014. What my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West said about ending the combat role is interesting. He gave the impression that somehow we will continue our training role with the Afghanistan security service—I apologise if I am misquoting him again.

Paul Flynn: We can take troops out of harm’s way as we did in Iraq. We are waiting in the departure lounge there to bring the troops out. There must be a way. When we left Aden, we put the equipment together and bombed it. We have an enormously costly task, and it will take at least three years to bring out the equipment. We are handing over £1 billion of equipment to the Afghan police. What does the hon. Gentleman think £1 billion of equipment will be used for?

Mr Jones: All I was going to say was that the hon. Gentleman is therefore not in favour of continuing to train the Afghan security services.

Paul Flynn: I did not say that.

Mr Jones: Well, is he or is he not? If he is in favour of continuing a training role, it is not without risk. In Iraq, we had embedded teams in the Iraqi armed forces, and that was not without risk. It is not the case that somehow after 2014 we will be able to avoid all casualties.

Paul Flynn: Let me make it clear. In corresponding with Ministers, I have said that one of the things that we should stop is instructing our soldiers to dismantle improvised explosive devices. There is no point in finding out who made the IEDs, because if the makers were put in prison, they would be allowed to escape. There is no point in going on many of the patrols that the Americans are currently doing. People go on fruitless patrols and are killed. We have to withdraw from that combat role because it will disappear. There are other tasks that must be done before we can pull out.

Mr Jones: I understand that point. All I am saying is that that is not without risk. In 2014, even in a training role, our armed forces will not be out of harm’s way. As for the way forward, building up the Afghan security

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forces will be the key element, and progress is being made on that, but I actually agree with my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion that what we need to achieve from the process is a political solution. That is about engaging not only with the Afghan people but with Afghanistan’s neighbours.

I completely disagree with the conspiracy theory nonsense that there is a military-industrial complex and that people actually want war to ensure that they can sell weapons. The idea that senior military individuals get some pleasure out of war is wrong. The military that I have worked with in the Ministry of Defence feel every single loss as hard as anyone else, and they certainly do not want to put people in harm’s way if they can avoid it.

Finally, let me touch on drones—unmanned aerial vehicles. A common impression is given—the hon. Lady did it again this morning—that these weapons are under no control and are firing at will at any targets. May I suggest that she ask the MOD for a briefing on targeting policy? She might be surprised to learn that there is a legal mandate before any target is chosen. Lawyers sit in—

Caroline Lucas indicated dissent.

Mr Jones: Lawyers are involved. The hon. Lady can laugh, but she is only showing her ignorance of the subject.

Caroline Lucas: That does not give me any confidence.

Mr Jones: Perhaps it does not, but that is the fact of the matter. The hon. Lady mentioned the fact that there are occasions when missions are aborted if harm is going to be brought elsewhere, but there are strict protocols about the way in which the UK Government target sites in Afghanistan, as in Iraq.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): Aberporth is one of the areas where the drones are being tested. The northern part of my constituency, between Aberporth and Epynt, is on the flight path for such tests. The psychological impact on the people of Pakistan where the drones are being used is huge. The drones are buzzing around all the time, and people do not know when weapons are going to be fired. Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that the problem is not just the hits from the drones, but the impact on the population of the drones flying around all the time? It affects my constituents and they are not being bombed.

Mr Jones: I find that difficult to believe. The fact of the matter is that they are put in some places as a deterrent, without firing at anything, because the sight of them apparently discourages insurgents. Harrier jets and Apache helicopters have been used in Afghanistan without firing their weapons; just their presence seems to stop action. It is wrong to suggest that there is no law governing the use of these drones or that somehow there is some trigger-happy pilot sitting in a base in Nevada. In certain cases—I know this for a fact—high-profile attacks require ministerial approval as well. The hon. Lady needs to have confidence that there is a process in place.

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Paul Flynn: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Jones: I will not, because I need to give the Minister time to reply. In conclusion, people talk about winning wars, but it is not about that in Afghanistan. I never liked the expression “the war on terror”, because this is an ongoing struggle with Islamic terrorism not just in Afghanistan, but in the rest of the world for many generations to come. I pay tribute to our armed forces, and hope that we all think not just of those who have lost their lives and have been injured but of those who are on service today in Afghanistan.

10.45 am

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr Andrew Robathan): It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Crausby. I think this is the first time you have chaired a debate in which I have taken part. May I begin by being the first Minister to congratulate President Obama on his re-election? I recall that his first campaign slogan, four years ago, was “hope”, which is of significance in our debate today. Of course, his re-election is hugely significant for the whole international security assistance force policy in Afghanistan.

I gently say to the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who has raised this important and emotive debate, that he will never find me, or almost any former soldier, glorifying war. I can promise him that those who have seen warfare do not wish to repeat it.

I begin by echoing the sentiments of those who have already spoken by paying tribute to the brave men and women of our armed forces. They operate in Afghanistan, the most demanding of environments, and every day they demonstrate immense personal courage. Since the operations in Afghanistan began in 2001, we have sadly seen 437 service personnel make the ultimate sacrifice, and this week, more than ever, we should remember them. Their loss is keenly felt, and on behalf of everyone in this Chamber I extend our sympathies to their family and friends.

In the face of such sacrifice by our troops, we should be in no doubt about the importance of the mission. We are in Afghanistan for one overriding reason: to protect our own national security by helping the Afghans take control of their own. Afghanistan is currently the main focus of the Ministry of Defence, and our strategy is designed to enable the country effectively to manage its own security and prevent its territory from ever again becoming a safe haven for international terrorism.

At the Kabul conference in July 2010, President Karzai stated his ambition that the Afghan national security forces would have full security responsibility across Afghanistan by the end of 2014. That is an Afghan objective, which we fully support in NATO. It is being delivered through the strategy of phased transition of security responsibility from ISAF to the ANSF, which was agreed at the NATO summit in Lisbon in 2010. The strategy allows ISAF gradually and responsibly to draw down its forces as it completes its mission by the end of December 2014.

The process of transition to the Afghans is now well advanced and on track to complete by the end of 2014. A trained force of more than 335,000, the ANSF is taking an ever-increasing role in its own domestic security. The ANSF will soon have lead responsibility in areas

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that are home to three quarters of the population, including all 34 provincial capitals and the three districts that make up Task Force Helmand. That is a clear demonstration that the Afghans are well on track to managing their own security.

Paul Flynn: I have heard this speech 1,000 times. The Minister took notes during the debate, so will he answer anything that was raised? Will he tell us precisely what the threat to our constituents is from the Taliban in Afghanistan?

Mr Robathan: I am coming to that.

Jonathan Edwards: Just out of interest, how long do the Government and the MOD expect the Karzai regime to stay in place once western troops are removed?

Mr Robathan: I am afraid that is something on which neither I nor any other Minister will speculate. Of course, as we understand it President Karzai will be standing down next year before the presidential elections.

In the first six months of this year, the ANSF led 80% of conventional operations in Afghanistan. ANSF troops are deploying in formed units, carrying out their own operations and planning complex security arrangements. They are also carrying out 85% of their own training, and in the areas covered by all three tranches of transition there has been a year-to-date decrease of enemy-initiated attacks.

As transition progresses, the campaign shifts from an ISAF-led counter-insurgency mission to an Afghan one. For ISAF, this means that the mission is gradually evolving from one primarily focused on combat to one based on the concepts of training, advising and assisting. The security force assistance model is the mechanism that oversees this process. It has been implemented this year and will be fully operational by mid-2013, when we expect the final Afghan districts to enter the transition process. That will mark a point of huge significance, when the Afghans will be in the security lead across the country.

Paul Flynn: Could the Minister perhaps try to learn the concept of “debate”, whereby we give arguments and he answers them? Can he desert his civil service script for a moment and answer the points that were made in the debate?

Mr Robathan: I think the hon. Gentleman will find that I will get every point that he has made on the record answered.

The security force assistance model has a progressively lighter relationship with the ANSF, it will be generally smaller and it will enable greater flexibility, allowing troop-contributing nations such as the UK gradually to draw down their force levels, and that is the subject we are debating today.

In Helmand, the ANSF now provides security with confidence and real ability in the densely populated areas of Lashkar Gah and Nad-e Ali. ISAF has physically moved out of those areas, withdrawing combat troops and handing over our bases as we move to the fringes. Since April, we have been able to reduce the number of UK bases in Helmand from 80 to 39 as the Afghans assume day-to-day responsibility.

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In the third district of Nahr-e Saraj, the Afghans are now firmly in the lead in Gereshk town and along the strategically important highway 1. Our taskforce in Helmand now consists of two distinct parts: an adviser network, and a manoeuvre element that still operates in a combat role, where necessary, to disrupt the insurgency. This has provided the ANSF with the time and space to develop its own capabilities and build local national confidence. It has seized that opportunity and the results really are there for all to see, and I echo what the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) said in that regard.

Recent independent polling has shown that 58% of Helmandis now see the ANSF as the main provider of their security. I heard what the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said about distrust of the ANSF; I think that is changing. We only need to look at the growth of the market towns, the thriving bazaars and the volume of traffic on the roads—they are clear evidence of the success of the local economy and indeed of the security situation. The efforts of our armed forces and the whole of the Afghan Government have meant that there are now almost 6 million children in school, which is up from 1 million in 2001. Of those children, 38% are girls, which is up from almost none in 2001.

Democracy is taking hold—perhaps not perfectly—and voters can look forward to choosing their own future, rather than having it dictated to them by the very worst of authoritarian regimes. The security gains made by our armed forces have transformed the future of Afghanistan. Our commitment to support Afghanistan is not solely military and it will endure beyond the cessation of our combat operations.

Helmand remains a difficult and challenging environment, and the insurgency is a constant threat. There is absolutely no room for complacency but there is a tangible record of improvement, driven by the UK troops that have been deployed in Helmand since 2006. If I might turn to our armed forces, they can be rightly proud of their achievement.

The reality on the ground is that Afghan forces are increasingly taking the lead. That is the progress that allows us gradually to reduce our force levels and to withdraw our combat troops by the end of 2014, and the Prime Minister has been very clear about that since he was elected in 2010. There will not be a cliff-edge reduction of our troops in 2014, which means that our force levels will be constantly kept under review and reduced.

The Defence Secretary set out in April that UK forces will draw down by 500 to 9,000 by the end of this year. We expect to make gradual further reductions to our force levels next year, but no further decisions have yet been made as to the exact numbers. Any further decisions will be taken by the National Security Council and will take into account military advice, the pace of transition and conditions on the ground, but we are firmly committed to the strategy and time scales agreed at Lisbon, and to the ISAF principle of “In together, out together.” As NATO’s Secretary-General set out earlier this year, the decisions made at Lisbon

“will remain the bedrock of our strategy”.

However, that does not signal the end of our support for Afghanistan and its people. At the Chicago summit and the Tokyo conference, the international community

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committed to give long-term support to the Afghans as they shape their country over the “transformation decade”. NATO will establish a new, non-combat mission in Afghanistan, in which this country will play its part. In addition to our funding commitments, the UK will continue to support the development of the ANSF in our role as the lead coalition partner at the new Afghan national army officer academy. Although Afghanistan will continue to face many complex challenges, taken as a package this support will help to underpin Afghanistan’s future and security.

To those people, like the hon. Member for Newport West, who say, “Why don’t you bring our troops home?”, I say, “We are bringing them home—they are coming home”, but we are not going to cut and run. We will come out with the task completed and with British troops holding their heads high, because we are leaving behind us well-trained Afghan forces to defend their country and to protect our security.

The campaign in Afghanistan has not been without significant cost and we will face difficult days ahead. It is appropriate that we hold this debate during the week of national remembrance. On Sunday, I am sure that we will all be paying tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country. In total, 437 servicemen and women have been killed in Afghanistan, bringing pain to their families and friends. Who has not shed a tear for the young men and women who have fallen in the service of our country? Who has not been moved by those who have been injured but who have displayed extraordinary determination—such as was seen at the Paralympics—to rebuild their lives?

The Government were not in power when the mission in Afghanistan began, but we have a responsibility to see it through. The UK’s national security has been safeguarded by the sacrifices and efforts of British troops in Afghanistan. We will not undermine that by abandoning Afghanistan before the task is complete.

Paul Flynn: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Robathan: I am just drawing to a close.

We seek to leave behind a stable Afghanistan, which is able to manage its own security effectively. As we look ahead to Remembrance Sunday, it is fitting that all of us here pay tribute to those who have served our country in the most difficult of circumstances. We should honour those who continue to serve, protecting our national interests at home and abroad—day by day, night by night—as we stand here. We remember them and their efforts.

I personally remember soldiers of mine—friends—who were killed in the Falklands, in Northern Ireland and in the Gulf. I have written letters to widows and comforted families, and it is a pretty ghastly thing to have to do. I say to all people here in Westminster Hall today that about 200 yards away, in St Margaret’s church, there is an exhibition of war paintings by Arabella Dorman. One especially powerful painting is entitled “I am strong”, and it commemorates a young man—Sean Reeve—who was killed four years ago in Afghanistan. Typically courageously, he went out on duty just as he was about to go home to England, having volunteered for an extra patrol, and he was then killed. I met his mother last night. Ministers in this House—in this Government and in the last Government—are not immune to the

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emotions that these things bring. We do not send people to die lightly. We understand the anguish of the bereaved and their real pain. I am sure that all of us here have met the families of those who serve, and the families of those who have fallen. It is fitting that we salute their efforts, which were made on our behalf.

Let me reassure all those who have spoken today, and all those in this House, that this Government intend to finish what the previous Government started. We will bring our troops home, knowing that we will leave behind an Afghanistan that is a better Afghanistan with a brighter future.

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order.

Paul Flynn: I think there is more time left, Chairman, for the debate. We finish at 11 o’clock. Can I just say—?

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order. The Minister has now sat down and the debate has ended.

Paul Flynn: But there is still time for the debate—

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order, Mr Flynn. The Minister has now sat down. You have had a good opportunity during the debate; you have made lots of contributions. I intend now to move on to the next debate, because the Member who has secured it and the Minister who will respond are present.

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Regional Pay (NHS)

11 am

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): I am pleased to see some of my west country colleagues here and to see the Minister in her place.

In May, the BBC asked the Deputy Prime Minister about regional pay, and he could not have been clearer:

“There is going to be no regional pay system. That is not going to happen.”

Yet, as we speak, plans are under way at 20 of our biggest hospitals and mental health trusts in south-west England to introduce just such a regional pay system. The organisations involved include the main hospitals in Exeter, Plymouth, Truro, Taunton, Yeovil, Poole, Bath, Bournemouth, Bristol, Gloucester and Salisbury. In total, more than 88,000 NHS staff in the south-west are affected.

Early this summer, the trusts announced their intention to form a pay cartel and to move away from the national pay negotiating process known as Agenda for Change. They committed £10,000 each to spend on business consultants to help them draw up their plans; they employed lawyers; and they set up a website. Based on the initial proposals, the trade unions, royal colleges and other organisations representing staff estimate that nurses and other NHS staff in the south-west could face a 15% pay cut, as well as changes to their holiday and other entitlements. The cartel has threatened to sack and re-employ staff to force through its plans.

I have to tell the Minister that, in my more than 17 years in this place, I have never received as many letters and e-mails expressing such anger and dismay as I have on this issue. Here is a taste of just some of them. A senior nurse in Exeter wrote to me, saying:

“My staff are at breaking point. I predict a mass exodus and patients will not receive safe high quality care.”

Another constituent wrote:

“Myself and my care workers are sick with worry over this and how I will be able to look after my family.”

Another wrote:

“I am the sole provider for a family of six and do two other jobs on top to cope. This will be the final straw.”

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anna Soubry): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way so early in his speech. Will he undertake to share all those e-mails and letters with me so that I, too, can write to all his constituents to assure them of the Government’s plans?

Mr Bradshaw: I am not prepared to reveal the identities of those people without their permission. I have already written to the Secretary of State and his predecessor, and I will come in a moment to the way that they responded, which was totally unsatisfactory. However, I have given the Minister the gist, and I hope that she is not challenging the veracity of my constituents’ concerns.

Another constituent wrote:

“Myself and many nurses are planning to leave or move abroad if this happens.”

Finally, another wrote:

“I have not worked a single shift without working late or missing my break. This has sent staff morale to rock bottom.”

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It is clear from the testimony of my constituents—loyal NHS staff—that even before this plan is implemented, the mere discussion of it is having a devastating impact on morale. As the Minister will know, staff morale is an invaluable and extremely precious commodity in the NHS. There is a clear correlation between high morale and safe and high-quality care. Most NHS staff go the extra mile in their jobs, but they have already had two years of pay freezes, and doing unnecessary and avoidable damage to staff morale will inevitably affect the quality and safety of patient care.

Mr Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): Will the right hon. Gentleman congratulate the trusts in my area—the Torbay and Southern Devon Health and Care NHS Trust and the South Devon Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust—which are not joining the pay consortium for the very reason that they think that it will damage morale and productivity and inhibit their ability to recruit the best possible people to the health care service in my constituency?

Mr Bradshaw: Yes, indeed I do congratulate the trusts in Torbay, which have held out against the pressure to join this cartel. I hope very much that the hon. Gentleman will put his money where his mouth is and join Labour MPs in the Division Lobby later today, when we will have a main debate on this very subject in the main Chamber.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for bringing this issue before us; we have another debate on regional pay this afternoon, but it is important that we have an opportunity to focus on the south-west. Does he agree that one of the most damaging things for morale was that staff found out about the proposals only because they were leaked? There was no attempt at consultation beforehand; the consortium was set up, and the fact that those involved were trying to undermine people’s pay and conditions without talking to them gradually dribbled out.

Mr Bradshaw: Yes, I absolutely agree: the whole thing has been handled extremely badly by the trusts involved.

If the proposals go through, the trusts involved are likely to see an exodus of staff, not only to other regions, but, as the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) suggested, to trusts in the south-west that are not part of the cartel.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case, but I am curious about one thing. There is a limited amount of money that can be spent in the national health service—the Government decided to increase it, although I seem to remember that the previous Labour Government were considering cutting it—so the choice is simple: we either go for a variation on regional pay or we make people redundant, and I am not convinced that that argument has been thought through. Would the right hon. Gentleman therefore be willing to join me in trying to convince the Government to do something about the tariff that is paid to hospitals in the south-west? We are short of money, and we need to find a way to improve that situation.

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Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order. Interventions should be short.

Mr Bradshaw: The tariff is a separate issue, but that was an interesting intervention, because, for the first time, we had a Conservative MP actually speaking out in favour of regional pay in the NHS. That is not Government policy, and in all the correspondence that I have had from Ministers, they have denied that it is. At least the hon. Gentleman is one of the few MPs in the south-west who has the courage to be honest and to say that he supports it. He is almost alone; I have not spoken to a single other Conservative or Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament who supports this policy. I hope, as I said earlier, that those who do not support it will have the courage of their convictions, stand up for the west country for once and vote for the Labour motion in the main Chamber later.

As I was saying, there will be an exodus of staff to other regions and to hospitals in our region that are not part of the cartel. Between May 2010 and 2012, the south-west suffered the biggest reduction—3.54%—in qualified nurses of any region in England, and the situation is set to get worse. However, the impact will be felt not just on the health service. The south-west of England already has the biggest gap of any region in England between housing costs and wages. A reduction in public sector pay in our region of just 1%—of course, the reductions that we are talking about are much bigger—would suck £140 million out of the south-west economy, at a time when we need more, not less, demand in our economy.

I acknowledge, as do the unions and staff organisations, that there may be a case for changes to Agenda for Change. The NHS—this is partly a response to the point made by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile)—is, after all, having to cope with the huge costs of the Government’s disastrous reorganisation of the health service, combined with its tightest-ever funding. However, the answer is to deal with these issues in national talks, in the usual way, and not to allow these parallel plans to proceed, threatening to derail national discussions and making a sensible agreement at national level less likely.

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): I would be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman clarified whether he supported the previous Government’s introduction of regional pay in the Courts Service or the freedoms that they gave foundation trusts, which enabled this very cartel to be established?

Mr Bradshaw: I am afraid the hon. Gentleman is wrong: the FT legislation allows FTs to pay wages that are as good as, or better than, those under Agenda for Change, so the claim often made by Liberal Democrats, who feel very uncomfortable being part of a Government who support regional pay in the NHS, is wrong. The FT legislation is quite clear: FT hospitals must pay rates as good as or higher than those under Agenda for Change. The hon. Gentleman’s point is completely irrelevant to our discussion.

In their answers to me so far, the current Health Secretary and his predecessor have tried to hide behind the very flexibility argument that the hon. Gentleman has just made—that flexibilities already exist in Agenda

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for Change—and they have declined to intervene. Yes, there are flexibilities in Agenda for Change to allow for local market conditions, but that is not what we are talking about. What we have here is an explicit—those involved have made it explicit—walking away from Agenda for Change, with the wholesale adoption of a regional and regionally negotiated pay structure, which, incidentally, takes no account of the different market conditions in, say, Cornwall and Wiltshire.

I know, as a former health Minister, that all it would take is a simple word from the Minister here today, and this madness could be stopped. Will she undertake to Members to intervene and make it clear to the 20 trusts involved that the Government do not support regional pay and that they should rejoin the national pay negotiation process under Agenda for Change? If she will not do that, she needs to explain why—and, please, no flannel about the NHS trusts being autonomous. She has been a Parliamentary Private Secretary and then a Minister for long enough to know that all she needs to do is speak to Sir David Nicholson, the chief executive of the NHS, or to the estimable chief executive of the southern region, Sir Ian Carruthers, and they would stop what is happening. If she will not intervene, she also needs to explain why she is prepared to continue to inflict damage on south-west NHS staff morale and destabilise the national pay negotiations.

If what is happening was thought up in the Department as a clever ruse to get the national talks kick-started, or to try to wring more concessions out of the staff side, it has backfired disastrously. There is a sensible way through, which the Minister has the power to achieve: to agree changes to Agenda for Change at the national level. The alternative is continuing uncertainty, long-term damage to staff morale and a wholly irresponsible risk to patient safety and the quality of care in the south-west of England.

11.10 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anna Soubry): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) on securing the debate, although it does not seem to have been much of a debate, in the sense that no one else made a speech, although I am grateful for the interventions. I noted with great care—which is why I intervened on the right hon. Gentleman—his claim that he has had more e-mails and letters on the topic than on any other topic in his 17 years in this place. That is an astonishing achievement.

Mr Bradshaw: The Minister is quoting me inaccurately.

Anna Soubry: I am so sorry.

Mr Bradshaw: I said I have never received so many e-mails of such strength of feeling, individually written, that were not part of a campaign such as on hunting, but were from individual, hard-working staff in the NHS writing to me about their experiences and their anger. The Minister should take note of that.

Anna Soubry: I am extremely grateful for that clarification and I take note. My offer remains: if the right hon. Gentleman would be so good as to contact all those people who wrote to him and seek their permission—in

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my experience hon. Members often do not need to seek such permission from someone who has contacted them, but simply pass messages on to the Minister—I will happily reply to every one of them, explaining the Government’s view on the matter. I very much hope that the right hon. Gentleman, too, will share my comments today with all the people who have contacted him.

First, I pay tribute to everyone who works in the national health service, for their continuing hard work and dedication to the NHS. The Government have made it clear that they support the continued option of national terms and conditions in the NHS. We expect most employers will want to continue to use them, provided that the terms remain fit for purpose and affordable. However, every pay system needs to be kept under regular review, to ensure that it remains sustainable. The responsibility for that, in respect of the Agenda for Change pay system, rests with the NHS Staff Council, a partnership of NHS employers and trade unions. The council has been considering the possibility of changes to the national terms of the Agenda for Change for about two years. Indeed, I understand that the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) asked them to explore the possibility of more

“flexibility, mobility and sustained pay restraint”

as long ago as 2009, when he launched “From good to great”, but there was no change then, and we are still waiting for any change.

The trade unions tell us that we should stop the south-west consortium—and the right hon. Member for Exeter makes the same point—until we can see whether a national deal is achievable. However, experience suggests that that would be a battle of hope over experience. Negotiations in the current economic climate are not easy and they are not helped when some smaller unions have already declared that they will not support any change. They prefer to stick their head in the sand and put NHS organisations and their members’ job security at risk, rather than engaging in any meaningful way. There is no point believing that the Government can wave a magic wand and make the financial pressures disappear.

Kerry McCarthy: When did the Department of Health first find out about the formation of the consortium? When I have written to Ministers in the past, all that I have been told by way of response was factual information about when the document was leaked to the press. They have refused to answer that question about whether they were involved in setting up the consortium, or encouraging people to set it up before it was formed.

Anna Soubry: I believe we were not, but I will make further inquiries of my officials, and we will write to the hon. Lady and give her assurances about that. If I am in any way wrong I know that I will be corrected, and will be happy to say so.

It is my understanding that several options have been put forward. No decisions have been made, but every effort is being made to engage with the staff to reach an agreement. I just wish that all the trade unions that represent so many people in the south-west consortium would engage in that process. It is my firm view that that is the absolute duty and aim of all responsible trade unions.

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Andrew George: It is my understanding that the cartel is not entirely engaging with the unions in the way that the unions believe it should. What powers do the Government have to intervene in the activities of the cartel, within the powers and guidance that were conveyed to them by the previous Government in the regulations?

Anna Soubry: I hope to answer those points in my speech, in the time available to me. If I do not, I will of course write to the hon. Gentleman and answer those questions in full.

I want to talk about the financial situation in the national health service. We have already guaranteed the NHS preferential funding for the current spending review, ensuring real-terms growth every year and additional cash of more than £12 billion per annum by 2014, going into 2015. We are driving up £20 billion of quality, innovation, productivity and prevention savings, stripping out bureaucracy, cutting management costs by up to one third and shifting resources to front-line services. To be blunt, we cannot spend more on public expenditure without putting our national financial reputation at risk. We must demonstrate that we have the commitment to ensure that our economy is sustainable.

The south-west consortium faces a stern choice. It can either continue to ignore the problem, and hope that it will go away, or it can face the challenge, share it with its staff and their representatives, and work in partnership to achieve the best outcome for everyone concerned, especially patients. I used to be a shop steward and a member of the National Union of Journalists. I understand and value the role of good partnership working with staff and trade unions. I believe that the south-west consortium is taking a mature approach. It published two discussion documents in August, setting out the scale of the financial and service challenge that it faces. It has not made any decisions. It has produced a paper, setting out a wide range of options for changes to terms and conditions, and how they might help. It has included options affecting all staff, including doctors, so that every opportunity is considered, no stone is left unturned, and there are no sacred cows. I believe that that is a responsible approach.

The consortium reaffirmed its commitment to national terms and conditions and agreed not to put any proposal to its boards until December, allowing reasonable time for the conclusion of national negotiations on a possible agreement to make Agenda for Change changes sustainable. I believe that that, too, is responsible.

Mr Bradshaw: The Minister sounds, from what she is saying, and what she said a little earlier, as if she supports the south-west cartel, which is an interesting development in Government policy; but she also says that she wants progress at the national talks. How does she think that having a parallel negotiation going on in one region will help her to get agreement at national level?

Anna Soubry: I absolutely support anyone who takes a mature and sensible approach to the matters. I also understand why the south-west consortium—like many others, no doubt—is frustrated, because a two-year set of negotiations continues when it should have reached an agreement. The trade unions must take a responsible approach to ensuring that we have a national health

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service that is sustainable. It is in the interests of their members, and they are meant to represent their members, whose interests they should put first.

The consortium has published two discussion documents. What is our attitude and what are we to do as a Government? To be clear, we support national terms and conditions of service, but not at any cost. Individual employers must have the right to exercise the freedom, which the Labour Government gave foundation trusts in 2003, to be free of ministerial control. That is what the previous Government did.

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): Having been contacted by many concerned constituents about the matter, I took the trouble to meet my local NHS trust chief executive to discuss those concerns and put them directly to her. Will the Minister assure me that the worrying spectre of a monolithic regional pay structure that would ill-suit employees in Cornwall as much as in Wiltshire will not be welcomed by the Government?

Anna Soubry: I agree with my hon. Friend. Monolithic structures would not be welcome. What is welcome is when trusts take a responsible view to ensure that they act in the best interests of their employees and that they have a financially sustainable system. That is in the interests of everyone—staff and patients.

Andrew George: Following my intervention on the right hon. Member for Exeter, he responded that the only flexibility is to exceed existing pay and conditions, not to go below them. Is that also the Minister’s understanding?

Anna Soubry: My understanding is that foundation trusts—the hospitals—have powers and a great deal of autonomy. That was the system set up and backed throughout by the previous Government, and it continues today. NHS employers are better placed to decide how best to reward and motivate their staff for the benefit of patients. They are better placed to assess whether national terms are fit for purpose or sustainable in the light of local competition, and to assess the options and risks of any recruitment or retention problems that might follow from introducing local pay. Such decisions should not be, in my view, made by Ministers.

Some Members have expressed concern that it is not fair to pay different rates for the same job in different areas, as it could undermine recruitment or morale. I understand and appreciate the arguments advanced by many people and the concerns raised by those on both sides of the House. However, if that was the case, one might have thought that the Labour Government should not have included high-cost area supplements or recruitment and retention premiums when they introduced Agenda for Change in 2004, and that they should not have abolished the right of the Secretary of State to direct foundation trusts in 2003. The Labour party gave those powers to employers, and I make it quite clear that they were right to do so. We now have to trust employers to exercise their judgment wisely and to use the skills and expertise of their non-executive directors to consider what is in the best interests of their patients. We have to recognise that they know what rates of pay are fair and necessary in their local communities.

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The Opposition need to allow the system that they created to work, without the political interference and micro-management that typified their term in office. If they want to do something useful, they should encourage the trade unions—those that fund many of their Members of Parliament—to ensure a swift and successful conclusion to national negotiations. That will secure the Agenda for Change as a sustainable option for employers and staff alike. Above all, it will put patients first and foremost.

11.23 am

Sitting suspended.

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Disabled Access (Aviation Industry)

[Annette Brooke in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your leadership, Mrs Brooke, and I thank everyone for attending the debate. I am sure we all agree that everyone should have the right to free movement—to work, live and travel safely throughout the world—but that is not the case, sadly, for the 11 million disabled people in this country. I am a member of the all-party group on young disabled people, and its aim is to listen to and represent the concerns of inspirational young people who just want to live their lives.

There have been great steps forward in disability rights. The Paralympics demonstrated the sheer will and determination that can turn adversity into victory. I welcome the increased awareness of disability issues, which has led to progressive thinking about accessibility, and a great deal has been achieved in recent years to remove the barriers that prevent people from accessing public transport. The percentage of disabled people experiencing difficulty using public transport had decreased to 22% by 2009, which is in stark contrast to the experience of those travelling by air.

There is far more to be done before a less able-bodied person can decide to go on holiday, or even arrange a work trip in the way most of us can. In the age of cheap flights, the world is a much smaller place but only, it seems, for the able-bodied. I was deeply concerned by the “Up in the air” report that was presented at the APPG by Trailblazers, a national network of young disabled people working together to highlight social injustices. In the study, 60% of respondents feared for their safety while being transferred on to their seat, 60% said that their wheelchair had been damaged by flight handlers, and a staggering nine out of 10 wheelchair-users said that they were unable to use airline toilets and were forced, therefore, to avoid drinking before and during flights.

For many, the experience of flying is humiliating, costly and uncomfortable—even painful—and a long way from the standards we should expect. It seems perverse that we can break the sound barrier, have on-board bars and send tourists into space but are unable to afford basic dignities for everyone. This debate is highly topical, given that the Civil Aviation Bill is on Report today in the other place. The status quo is clearly unacceptable, and we must find solutions. The European Community regulation 1107/2006 and our Equality Act 2010, alongside the Department for Transport’s “Access to Air Travel for Disabled Persons and Persons with Reduced Mobility—Code of Practice”, set out the rights to transport access, but implementation is very different from legislation.

It should be highlighted that the Civil Aviation Authority, or CAA, which is the aviation regulator and the national enforcement body for European consumer aviation legislation, is separate from the Department for Transport. This debate, therefore, should not seek to encourage new legislation that could compromise the CAA’s independence but consider how we can encourage compliance and best practice consistently across civil aviation in the United Kingdom.

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Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): I sincerely congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating this important debate. Does he agree that a key issue is to ensure that the pioneering airlines and companies, which are leading the way in this field by observing not just the letter but the spirit of the law, are rewarded, and that companies that do not do that ought to be penalised? There is a strong role for the Department for Transport, in ensuring that there is a level playing field for the companies that are trying to do the right thing.

Graham Evans: The hon. Lady is entirely right. Proactive good practice is encouraged, and I will come on to mention a certain company, and a certain individual who has been busy doing a lot of good work on that issue.

At every stage of the travel process there must be clear checks and balances, to ensure that the right information is being given and passed on, and that legislation is being adhered to. I would like to break down the travel process into the three stages of booking, at the airport, and on the plane, and to review the issues and the examples of good practice—such as those the hon. Lady just mentioned—and to consider how we can improve.

First, let us consider the booking process. Under EU legislation, it is illegal to refuse bookings because of disability, but half of respondents in the study had disability-related problems when booking airline tickets. The central principle of the law is that passengers need to advise as to their needs before travel, with persons with reduced mobility, known as PRMs, being required to give at least 48-hours’ notice. The process, however, is often convoluted, complicated and costly, with unnecessary paperwork or long, repetitious conversations.

Article 11 of the EU regulation states that air carriers and airport managing staff should have training in understanding mobility requirements. However, I support the Department for Transport’s code, which suggests that all staff in the aviation industry should be trained, so that the first point of communication covers the needs of the passenger. If a carer is needed, it is critical that seats be placed together and, where possible, chosen to best suit needs and enable better access. That is basic stuff, and although some airlines are doing it well, others are clearly failing.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that it is absolutely crucial that most of the main airlines, particularly those that promote themselves as budget or low-cost, train their staff so that disabled people can book flights and manoeuvre their way through airports with the greatest possible support? Such training is crucial in getting a disabled person from A to B via an airline.

Graham Evans: I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman. He makes a very good point well. It does not matter whether it is a budget or low-cost airline or any other airline; these are fundamental customer service roles and training should be there, as a given. Let us consider the trains, for example. I use the west coast main line regularly, and have observed passengers in wheelchairs. Although trains are, by design, tight, I have noticed on the Pendolino how those passengers successfully manoeuvre

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themselves around the seats, luggage and toilets. The doors open, and the staff know exactly what to do. They know where the ramps are to get passengers down from the train to the platform. Platforms vary, and the sizes are different, but the staff do not make an issue of it. They have the right equipment, the right attitude, and clearly the right training, and it is a painless task to watch. A couple of weeks ago I spoke to a young gentleman in a wheelchair and he said, “I travel regularly and it is never an issue getting on or off the train.” The message is that it can be done. With good training and the right leadership and management it is an everyday occurrence, and there is absolutely no reason why that should not be the case for the air industry as well as the trains.

It should not cost more for a PRM to book flights, and I wholeheartedly recommend that there should be online booking facilities for wheelchair carriage, and a freephone number available for providing further information to the airline. It is not always possible to give advance notice, but where possible PRMs should be able just to pick up a phone to make the necessary call and not have to repeat themselves time and again.

Let us now consider what happens on arrival at the airport. Almost half of respondents said there are frequent issues when checking in, with inconsistent advice about the policies for mobility and about health equipment. Inconsistent advice and lack of training contravene the legislation, and I would be pleased if the CAA took a robust approach to communication breakdown.

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I am one of those people who travel with their mother, and she has to have a wheelchair to travel. One of the frustrations we find—there must be other people in a similar situation—is that after we arrive and park in the car park, getting her to the actual airport and, from there, trying to get to a wheelchair is an enormous problem. Often there are no facilities at that point. Perhaps one thing airports might consider is that, when people book their ticket in advance, such arrangements could be put in place, too, so there is something there to enable people to move and get into the airport.

Graham Evans: The hon. Lady is entirely right. Arranging a section of a multi-storey car park—I am thinking of a particular airport that I do not want to mention—is not beyond the capability and wit of man. Sometimes people have to park miles away from the airport, but a facility so that carers or disabled people may drive virtually to the departure lounge would have no cost implications and would be quick and straightforward. The hon. Lady has raised an important point.

On check-in, wheelchairs are normally taken by staff to be loaded. We should consider wheelchairs not only as modes of transport but as vital medical equipment. As such, I am deeply concerned by the lack of due care and training; 60% of wheelchairs are damaged in flight. Even more concerning is the £1,000 compensation limit for damage to chairs, which can cost upwards of £6,000. Surely, if the argument for the limit is that it protects the cost viability of airlines carrying such equipment, we should reposition the argument. If the training were better, fewer wheelchairs would be damaged and fewer

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costs paid. That is really simple, is it not? As a result, as with anything else that is transported, when a wheelchair is damaged, full compensation could be given, which would be better value for airlines and a better deal for passengers—better all round.

I am pleased there has been progress and airports are making their facilities more accessible, and it is worth noting that the 11 million disabled people in the United Kingdom, 8% of whom use wheelchairs, have a combined spending power of £80 billion a year.

Dr Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this excellent debate. Has he undertaken an international study? Of course, by its very nature, airline travel is overwhelmingly international. I speak with experience of travelling with a disabled child in the late 1990s, and many people, today and in the recent past, are struck by how different the welcome is in, say, Atlanta, Georgia, which is excellent, compared with Schiphol, Heathrow or Cardiff. That difference must surely be underpinned by legislation, rather than simply good practice that may be found at particular airports.

Graham Evans: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have knowledge from similar experiences. He mentioned an airport in north America, and in my personal experience the Americans have a different frame of mind; they have a can-do attitude. The Americans were doing that for years before Parliament passed the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, as part of their customer service—not just for some customers but for all. The Americans have that can-do attitude, so legislation is not needed to provide basic good customer service.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about Heathrow, and it is very much for the leadership and management of those businesses and companies to make the decision to offer good quality service for disabled people. They do not have to wait for legislation. The legislation is largely here, but it has not been acted upon. I put that down to the leadership and management of those organisations; it comes down to the basic level. The legislation is there; they just have to ensure that, as a good quality company, they put those good working practices in place.

Recent investments include £2 million by Gatwick airport on making facilities more accessible, which resulted in a 93% decrease in complaints since 2009. Manchester airport has launched a new access guide designed to provide disabled customers with all the information required to plan their journey through the airport.

Finally, let us consider people boarding planes and in-flight services. Boarding policies vary from airline to airline. I am happy that priority boarding is becoming increasingly common, both for the comfort and dignity of the passengers themselves and for the comfort and safety of surrounding passengers. But in the report there are too many examples of bad practice to be dismissed as one-offs.

Of course, we have to consider the costs. Air bridges are considerably more expensive than steps, and low-cost airlines deliver cheap seats exactly because they forgo so-called luxuries. I am heartened, however, by airlines such as easyJet, which, with input from its independent

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advisory service chaired by the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), has invested in trials for rising ramps to replace stairs to keep costs down and to make boarding far easier and safer.

For all the progress, there are glaring flaws in the current process. Despite requirements to have training on lifting and moving wheelchair users, more than 60% of respondents felt unsafe when being moved. Safety should always be the key priority, and I am concerned that the required training is not being delivered. That must change for the safety of passengers, crew and ground staff alike.

The issue is complicated and far-reaching, with many elements to consider. The practical implications of refurbishing planes to be more accessible are huge, and I welcome the willingness of aviation manufacturers such as Boeing to set up dialogues with disability groups. Given the development time for plane models, it would be unrealistic to expect instant changes, but if we maintain pressure and keep channels of communication open, we can hope to see progressive design.

In the meantime, although there is general awareness of the problems of catering for disabled people, that is very much lip service. We need to encourage proactive engagement from the first interaction when booking a ticket, through the check-in desk and to the seat. Training, strict guidelines and clear and consistent information are needed. We are not asking for a reworking of jet propulsion theory, but we want and need smarter thinking to make aviation work for us all.

2.47 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) on bringing this subject to Westminster Hall. It is of great importance to some of my constituents and to many who are here. I suspect that a great many others would like to be here, but unfortunately cannot be.

As a Northern Ireland MP, over the past two years I have had more opportunity to fly than I ever had in the past. In the first two months of being an MP, I travelled more by aeroplane than I probably did in all the years of my life before that. Air travel has become a regular part of life for those travelling from Northern Ireland to here. Doing that has given me the chance to observe what happens in airports and how disabled people are treated. In addition, numerous constituents have pointed out to me that the so-called budget airlines have the worst attitude to those who need a little extra help—my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) touched on that, and many other hon. Members will probably be of the same opinion. As a result, I am not surprised by many of the stories that I have heard so far and will probably hear before the afternoon is out.

Although I am not surprised, I am certainly disgusted by some of the attitudes adopted by some airlines and their staff. The hon. Gentleman referred to the attitude to customers, which could be improved greatly. It is not hard to be kind and courteous or to help when someone needs help. Some of the budget airlines have achieved a reputation for treating people like cattle—I use the term advisedly—and not taking their circumstances and situations into account. That should be addressed at the

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highest level, and I hope that in his response the Minister will give us some positive vibes on how the Government intend to do that, so that airlines may no longer discriminate against those who need a little extra help or time to get aboard. The essence of air travel is speed. People rush to get to the airport, they rush to get to the plane and then, when they have just about caught their breath, it is time to get off and repeat the exercise in the other direction, but disabled people, wheelchair users or those with mobility issues have greater problems.

I stress that I am not tarring all airlines with the same brush, to use a phrase that we use at home. Alongside the examples of those that do not treat disabled people correctly are examples of those that do. I will give one example that highlights the issue and how we can have faith in some people’s goodness. One of my constituents was on a British Airways flight—I identify it because the carrier provided good care—from South Africa back to England. She had suffered a miscarriage on the morning of the flight and there was concern about whether she should fly because of the high altitude and so on, but she was desperate to get home. After getting medical assistance and advice, she was put into a wheelchair at the airport—her medical condition had been confirmed as stable to fly. The British Airways pilot came down to see her; she was upgraded on board the flight, along with her husband; and throughout the 11-hour flight, airline staff brought her hot water bottles and fluid.

Some airlines excel, which is good. That is the standard that all of them should be trying to adhere to. It would be good if they did. Some go above and beyond what should reasonably be expected, which should be commended, but when others refuse to give even a basic level of help and respect, we must step in. As parliamentarians, we have an opportunity to speak on behalf of the people who contact us.

A survey of young disabled air passengers showed that 90% of wheelchair users are unable to use airline toilets and must therefore avoid drinking before or during flights. Some 60% of disabled passengers say that their wheelchairs have been damaged when travelling with an airline, as the hon. Member for Weaver Vale mentioned, and 60% said that they felt unsafe when transferring from a wheelchair to an airline seat. Those are small things, but they are important to a disabled person. Airlines and their staff must show compassion for such people and ensure that their flight experience is every bit as good as mine and that of everyone here who travels by air regularly. Another 50% stated that they had had disability-related problems booking airline tickets—even booking a ticket is a problem for 50% of disabled people. Lots of elements of the process must be improved to ensure that disabled people can travel much more easily and with less hassle.

The statistics that we were sent in our parliamentary briefings—I know that other Members received them as well—scream for us to address them, and I hope that that will be achieved through this debate. We hear too many tales of disabled people being seated halfway down a plane and then paraded through the flight with other passengers looking on, so the person feels like they are part of a sideshow. It is absolutely disgraceful that small and easy improvements are overlooked by some airlines and their staff. It seems prudent to me to

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allocate disabled people the seats closest to the exits, to enable a less conspicuous transfer whenever they get on or off the plane.

Yasmin Qureshi: In the light of what the hon. Gentleman is saying about the variation in services provided to different people by different airlines, does he agree that it would be helpful if the Secretary of State required the Civil Aviation Authority to produce an annual report on the experience of disabled passengers using air transport services, including whether the airlines have complied with relevant legislation?

Jim Shannon: I thank the hon. Lady for that suggestion. It would be a good marker if every year the airlines had to reflect on whether they had met their target and helped people, and on the number of people who had complained. It would certainly sharpen them up.

No one should fear taking some water on a flight, as we are all recommended to do in order to prevent blood clots and other problems, just because they know they will have to go through an ordeal to use the toilets. Again, it is a small thing, but it is important: it is one of the basics of life. I read of one young man—it must have been a terribly difficult situation for him—who had to relieve himself into a bottle at his seat when he could not access the toilets because staff were not available to help. How embarrassing it must have been for that young man. I suspect that that is replicated on many airlines across the United Kingdom and further afield. It should clearly be avoided. Something has to change in how disabled people are viewed by some airlines. As the change is not forthcoming, we are having this debate to highlight the issues and hopefully to get a helpful response from the Minister. I believe that we must step in.

I want to highlight another issue that is important to my constituents, who have come to me in some numbers. During 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland, as well in fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, numerous constituents of mine have been injured and now have metal in their bodies to repair those injuries. As a result, they have to go through security checks at airports that are a most humiliating exercise for someone with six inches of metal in his leg or back as a result of fighting for the Army, or serving in the police force in Northern Ireland or elsewhere. They go through a strip search every time they go to an airport. I ask the Minister to consider that issue. I asked the airport and the authorities whether, if such people presented a doctor’s letter, it would be sufficient, but they were unwilling to accede. As a result, every time those people travel, whether from Northern Ireland to Heathrow or from here to Florida, Paris or elsewhere in Europe, they go through a statutory strip search because they have metal in their bodies, which shows up clearly on the screen.

Yasmin Qureshi: On the issue of scanners going off if somebody walks through, does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the best ways of dealing with people with medical conditions who must go through security checks is to provide somewhere private where the person can be taken and spoken to, so that they can explain what their condition is in private, rather than stand with everyone else in the queue while they are questioned about their medical issues?

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Jim Shannon: That is obvious. Another issue that crops up sometimes involves people with colostomy bags going through airport checks, because fluids are checked at security. That unpacks the hon. Lady’s point. Some privacy should be afforded to people who need help at that point.

I am positive that I am not the only person amazed by what was achieved by our superb Paralympian teams, as the hon. Member for Weaver Vale mentioned. The Olympics were a tremendous boost to the United Kingdom and Great Britain, for both those who are able-bodied and those who are not. The team excelled. I remember sitting with my wife Sandra watching the Olympics—it became compulsive viewing—and saying, “Sandy, pass me a hankie. I think we’ve won another medal.” It was engrossing to be involved in everything happening on the field of medals.

The Olympians, and particularly the Paralympians, excelled. To watch them accomplish what I could not have accomplished even in my prime brought a tear to my eye and, I believe, to many other eyes as well. The idea that some of those people could be and are restricted from travelling on flights because of their disability is unacceptable. The celebrations of the Paralympics have passed, but the time has come for us to realise that it is not enough to say that there are no facilities or inadequate facilities; we must say instead that we will work on all those who refuse to fall into line to make access available. This House must put pressure on them to do the right thing. I believe that that should start now.

2.58 pm

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke, and to take part in this important debate and respond to the all-party group meeting held last week on the report. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) on securing the debate.

Chairing the all-party parliamentary group on young disabled people is one of the most fulfilling parts of the job that I do here in the House. It is odd, in a way, because it does not involve much work from me. It is a rather unique all-party group, in that the less the Members of Parliament say, the happier I am, because I want the young people—the Trailblazers—to play the key role. They write the reports, so it is only right that, when we have a gathering of witnesses, they, not the MPs, do the cross-examining. The less the MPs say, the better—a welcome change that we might bring into other aspects of parliamentary life, perhaps.

I pay tribute to all the Trailblazers who played their part in writing the excellent report that we are discussing, which raises a wide range of issues. I pay particular tribute to a lady named Hayleigh Barclay, who has been doing sterling work, trying to influence plane manufacturers in Europe, so that they think about how they design planes in future. She has been struggling and must feel occasionally that she is hitting her head on a brick wall. I have tried to help, as well, by writing to companies, but I do not get any replies either. She has really dedicated herself to this cause.

Rather than rehearse the report’s contents for a third time, I would rather focus on what we discussed during the all-party group meeting last week, when we had

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evidence from a range of representatives from airlines and plane manufacturers. I took from that the incredibly great difficulty that disabled passengers have in maintaining the simple, basic human dignities that so many of us take for granted when travelling by air. Airlines always get a kicking in this regard, because they are the ones that we see when we travel. We think everything—every stretch of our journey—is to do with the airline, but of course it is not. The booking system can be any internet site going and might even not be based in this country; the airport operator controls the physical infrastructure; and bags or whatever else passengers need to check in goes to the ground handler, which is contracted partly to the airline and partly to the airport operator. Who is pulling whose strings? It is a complex passenger journey, which is one reason why we have lower level of passenger service than is now seen in rail and bus travel. Rail and bus are by no means perfect—do not get me wrong—but they are further down the track, if hon. Members will excuse the pun, than with air travel.

There are also jurisdictional issues. We can legislate all we like for UK planes and give the CAA as many powers as we choose to, but we cannot control what happens in a third country, particularly if it is outside the EU. Trying to use powers that the House could have to mandate change is difficult. That is why I have been focusing on working out why the industry has these disconnects in how it speaks to itself. Why cannot an airport consultative committee put disabled passengers’ needs at the forefront of what they do and redesign their systems to ensure that even simple stuff can be done, such as considering whether a powered wheelchair can be broken down and stored safely and not damaged? Why is that so difficult?

That takes me back to how we build airports. Sir Howard Davies has an awful lot to consider in the coming years and I am loth to add more to his task, but I hope that any new airport, should he choose to build a new one, is built on a slightly different model, where the needs of the passenger come first, rather than just getting people in and out as quickly and simply as possible. I was staggered to hear some witnesses talk about how difficult it is to get a wheelchair from the gate to the aircraft hold, without having to check it in about four hours beforehand, when they first arrive at the airport. Why should making that connection, which is no more than 25 yards away, be so difficult? Is it beyond the wit of man to devise a solution? I understand the need for security, which must be uppermost, and the need to separate incoming and departing passengers for immigration reasons, but those things surely cannot be allowed to stop a wheelchair simply being moved 25 yards. I fail to understand why that is so difficult.

So much of what we discussed last week was about passenger information from one actor in the process to another. The number of gaps that accurate information disappears down is mind-boggling. When booking a ticket, for example, people go into their local branch of Thomas Cook on the high street, if they are lucky enough to still have a branch there, and book the ticket with the travel agent, who notices if they have a wheelchair. The travel agent applies a code, although no one is ever sure whether the codes are all the same, which somehow goes down the wires to wherever it needs to go, but at no point is there any adequate consideration of whether a passenger will use their own chair. Will they need a

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different chair when at the airport? Will they need to check in their wheelchair at the gate or check-in desk? Is it a powered wheelchair? How big is it? What are the weight limits? Although the passenger booking the ticket might think that the great god of Thomas Cook— the all-knowing one—or the travel agent will somehow ensure that it is all right, that cannot be guaranteed. They might not have dealt with someone in a wheelchair before and might not know what the systems are. We place a great deal of confidence in a process that is not necessarily delivering for the passenger.

Until last week, I did not realise that anyone can try to reserve a seat on an aircraft. We can all put in a request for a bulkhead seat. They are popular. People get to stretch their legs out if they are able to and have more space, so those seats are particularly desired. However, so broad is the definition of a person of reduced mobility, that the severity of their need cannot be taken into account. Someone with a stiff leg might need a bulkhead seat, whereas another person may have a complex bulky powered wheelchair and quite severe mobility issues. The airline cannot decide how to allocate those seats until the last minute, when it knows who is trying to board the plane.

There are great difficulties in ironing out the flaws in this process, but I detect willingness to improve. It would be unfair to paint a uniformly bleak picture, and I always try not to do that in every report produced by the all-party group. There are always positives to focus on, and I think that we should do so. The airlines are keen to do more and to do better, but I sometimes feel that specific innovations are occasionally a shock factor, with the response being, “We don’t normally do it that way, so I’m not going to do it that way in future.” However, innovation is going on. The all-party group heard about some interesting and innovative proposals regarding replacing hoists, for example, with a new form of seat, which would ensure greater dignity for passengers. Boeing showed us a revolutionary new form of lavatory that was truly accessible. That might be a point for the Minister to consider.

The case that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned of the young man who had to urinate into a coffee pot occurred because that person thought that the toilet was accessible and only found out when he got on the plane that it was not. The definition of accessible for an aircraft is not the same as for a bus or a train. It is no use putting a nice, shiny, chirpy blue symbol on the door and thinking that a lavatory is wheelchair accessible. That is not the case. I was surprised to hear one example of an accessible toilet at the bottom of a spiral staircase. I am not sure that even I could cope with that at 30,000 ft in the air and still think that that was accessible.

As I said, things are improving. We should celebrate the fact that, as the CAA confirmed last week, all UK airlines will voluntarily fully fund any replacement costs for any damaged wheelchair. We are unique in the world in making that commitment, which demonstrates to me that we do not always need stringent legislation. We need to get the industry to agree that something is worth doing and is in their interests, and they will do it.

I am acutely conscious that airport operators, ground-handling agents, travel agents, plane manufacturers, airlines and Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all almost need to be dragooned in a room and made to understand what

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is required. That is why I continue to lament the loss of the disabled persons transport advisory committee, which I hope is still offering views somewhere in the ether, and I would appreciate a verdict on where that is now occurring in the Department for Transport.

What gave me even more hope, however, was that, regardless of what the Department said, the Trailblazers are coming up with their own solution. Charlene Kane, the director of customer services at Monarch Airlines—I have probably got her title wrong—volunteered at the end of the all-party group’s session to host a working group of all the bodies that I mentioned, so that they can listen to what the Trailblazers and the industry have to say and try to come up with solutions. Those solutions would start when someone is at their computer trying to book their flight and end when they get back home, with their wheelchair undamaged and in one piece, having had the holiday or business trip that they wanted and having had their human dignity protected, rather than compromised, at every stage of their journey. That cannot be too much to ask. “Turn up and go” might be a utopia, but it should be a human right.

3.10 pm

Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate, and I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) for initiating it. I echo everything he said on this important subject.

I have taken an interest in the accessibility of public transport since I was approached by a group of constituents a couple of years ago as a new Member of Parliament. They told me the most appalling stories about their experiences on public transport, some of which happened because others had wilfully not done what they were supposed to do or taken the care we would expect, and some of which happened because nobody had really thought about things. It is clear from many of the stories we have heard today that proactive engagement with this issue could not be more important.

I am quite angry about the lack of progress that we have made on the accessibility of public transport in general and in the aviation industry in particular. This is something that really blights the lives of my constituents, of all ages, although I am particularly struck by the stories of young people and especially those born after the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was passed. That Act—I am not making a party political point—had the support of both sides of the House, but all these years later, the situation facing my constituents and many others around the country is still not good enough.