Madeleine Moon MP

Labour Member of Parliament for Bridgend

This Week in Parliament 16th - 20th June


Following the conclusion of the debates over the Government’s last Queen’s Speech before the general election next year, Parliament resumed normal business with a very busy week. Foreign affairs dominated discussion, with a statement by the Foreign Secretary following the recent developments in Iraq, the ending sexual violence in conflict conference, and then departmental questions. There was also a statement on prison overcrowding, the usual Prime Minister’s Questions, and I was able to make a speech in the Chamber on Thursday about defence spending.

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Madeleine Moon MP
House of Commons
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Bridgend: 01656 750 002

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16th - 19th June 

Following the conclusion of the debates over the Government’s last Queen’s Speech before the general election next year, Parliament resumed normal business with a very busy week. Foreign affairs dominated discussion, with a statement by the Foreign Secretary following the recent developments in Iraq, the ending sexual violence in conflict conference, and then departmental questions. There was also a statement on prison overcrowding, the usual Prime Minister’s Questions, and I was able to make a speech in the Chamber on Thursday about defence spending.


Urgent Question on Prison Overcrowding

Chris Grayling (Secretary of State for Justice): We do not have a prison overcrowding crisis. Today’s prison population is 85,359, against a total useable operational capacity of 86,421, which means we have more than 1,000 spare places across the prison estate.

By next April, we will also have opened an additional 2,000 places. That includes four new house blocks, which will start to open from the autumn. We also have a number of additional reserve capabilities to cope with unexpected pressures. At the time of the election next year, we will have more adult male prison places than we inherited in May 2010, despite having to deal with the financial challenges that the last Government left behind.

Since last September the prison population has started rising again. This has happened for a number of reasons, including the significant increase in the number of convictions for historic sex abuse. These are people who committed appalling crimes and probably thought they had got away with it. I am delighted to find the space for them behind bars.

As that increase has been greater than expected, I have agreed to make some reserve capacity available to ensure that we retain a sufficient margin between the number of places occupied and the total capacity of the system until the new prison buildings come on stream later this year. That means in reality that in a number of public and private prisons a few more prisoners will have to share a cell for a few weeks. We might not need those places, but I would rather they were available in case we did need them.

We will end this Parliament with more adult male prison places than we inherited, more hours of work being done in prisons than we inherited, more education for young detainees than we inherited, and a more modern, cost-effective prison estate than we inherited. That is anything but a crisis.

Sadiq Khan (Shadow Secretary of State for Justice): The complacency of the Justice Secretary and the extent to which he is out of touch are breathtaking. He appears to think there are no problems in our prisons and that MPs can be kept in the dark about the fact that Ministers are demanding that already overcrowded prisons squeeze in another 400 inmates over the next few weeks. For example, Wandsworth Prison in my constituency, which should have 943 inmates, currently has 1,597 and is operating at 169% capacity. But that is not the worst of it. This Justice Secretary has asked it to provide even more spaces.

MPs are kept in the dark about the fact that over the past five months 600 emergency places have been bought from G4S, Serco and Sodexo—at what cost we do not know. We are kept in the dark about the fact that prison staff who were made redundant and paid off are now being paid to return to work owing to the chronic shortage of staff—at what cost we do not know.

The Justice Secretary seems to think that there are no problems in our prisons. The NAO and the PAC do not agree with him. The chief inspector of prisons disagrees, as we heard this Saturday, and as he has said in every report he has written over the past two years. We disagree, prison governors disagree, prison staff disagree, experts disagree, and bereaved families disagree. Last month alone there were 11 self-inflicted deaths in our prisons. The Education Secretary may laugh; those families do not laugh. Can the Justice Secretary confirm that that was the case last month? Can he also confirm that last year self-harming, suicides and assaults on staff in adult male prisons went up?

Since May 2010, this Government have closed 18 prisons and cut 6,000 staff, yet the prison population remains broadly the same. This crisis is of the Government’s own making. Does the Justice Secretary think that there is any link between that and the 60% rise in the use of the riot squad to deal with serious disturbances in our prisons last year? Does he accept responsibility for the fact that it is his policies that have led to the wrong sorts of prisoners being sent to open prisons and released on temporary licence? Does he agree with the honourable Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, in whose constituency Ford Prison is located and from which 90 offenders are currently on the run? He said on Saturday: “It’s becoming a pattern… the wrong people are being sent to Ford.”

When did the Justice Secretary’s officials first warn him about the need to take emergency measures to deal with the most recent shortage of prison places? How many prisons are currently operating on half regime because of staffing shortages, meaning that prisoners are not working or going on courses, as they should be? What additional contingencies does he intend to put in place to deal with the possibility of disturbances in prisons?

On this Government’s watch our prisons have become unsafe warehouses, rather than places where offenders can be rehabilitated. It is important that we get answers to these crucial questions if the public are to have confidence that prisons will continue to punish and reform while keeping prisoners, prison staff and the public safe.

Chris Grayling (Secretary of State for Justice): Having listened to those comments, Members might never know the truth. Prison overcrowding is lower under this Government than it was in the last four years of the previous Labour Government. Let me walk the right hon. Gentleman through the operational capacity for adult males in our prisons: in May 2010 it was 80,269; today it is 82,395; and in 2015 it is predicted to be 85,133. That means the capacity for men in our prisons is increasing. The tornado squads, which deal with serious incidents, have dealt with half the level of activity seen in 2007.

I think that the right honourable Gentleman needs a little bit of a lesson in what a prison capacity crisis really is. It is having to introduce a special scheme to let prisoners go home after serving a quarter of their sentence because there are not enough places to keep them in. That is what Labour did. It is deciding to shorten everyone’s sentence by a few weeks because they did not plan for the places needed. That is what Labour did.

They let out more than 80,000 people early, and 1,500 of them committed suspected crimes when they should have been in prison. That is my definition of a prison overcrowding crisis, and it happened under Labour. Now they have the nerve to call sensible contingency planning a crisis, even though they were the ones who were forced to rent out thousands of police cells across the country because they ran out of space.

I make no apology for the fact that under this Government more people are going to prison, and they are going to prison for longer. I have a strategy in place to ensure that we will always have the space for them.

Statement on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict

William Hague (Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs): Addressing the crises of today should never prevent us from dealing with the longer-term issues that are fundamental to conflict prevention in many parts of the world. Last week, I co-hosted the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, the largest ever summit held on this issue. It was attended by 128 countries, 79 Ministers and eight UN agency heads, as well as by presidents and prosecutors from the International Criminal Court and international tribunals, and more than 300 delegates from conflict-affected countries.

The summit had two primary objectives: to agree practical action to tackle impunity for the use of rape as a weapon of war and to begin to change global attitudes to these crimes. We opened the summit up to thousands of members of the public, at 175 public events. Our embassies held events to mirror what was going on in London for the entire 84-hour period and our intensive social media campaign reached all parts of the world. This was the most important milestone yet in our efforts to address this issue. My intention is to create unstoppable momentum in addressing these crimes, which are among the worst experienced in the world today.

We set in motion a series of practical steps and commitments. We launched the first ever international protocol on how to document and investigate sexual violence in conflict as a means of overcoming the barriers to prosecutions of these crimes. I announced £6 million in new UK funding to support survivors of rape, and the United States, Finland, Bahrain, Australia, Japan and others also made new and generous pledges. The African Union also announced a pilot project in the Central African Republic to respond to the urgent needs of victims of sexual violence. The Somali Government launched a new action plan on Somalia, supported by the UN and the international community, for addressing sexual violence, which has blighted the lives of thousands of women, men and children.

Within the summit, I convened a special meeting on security in Nigeria following the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls in April and a summit on this issue in Paris last month. We agreed that a regional intelligence fusion unit should be made operational immediately. The countries of the region also agreed rapidly to implement joint or co-ordinated patrols along their borders, and Cameroon committed to add a battalion to that regional taskforce. The UK, US and France pledged to support these regional efforts. On behalf of the UK, I announced a separate package of support for Nigeria, including increased tactical training for the Nigerian army, assistance to regional security and intelligence co-operation, and a joint UK-US educational programme to educate an additional 1 million children in Nigeria. All the parties present also agreed on the need for UN sanctions against Boko Haram’s leadership and Ansaru, another dangerous terrorist organisation.

Finally, states and delegates at the summit joined together to sign a statement of action, uniting Governments, UN agencies, civil society, experts and survivors with a shared determination to tackle these issues. We will now work hard to ensure that the momentum is sustained and accelerated in the months and years ahead. We will publish a comprehensive report on the summit that will distil the expert recommendations that were made. We will turn our focus to practical implementation of the international protocol. We will continue to use our team of experts in conflict-affected countries. For the past two years, the United Kingdom has led the way internationally in addressing these vital issues and we must continue to do so until the scourge of sexual violence is finally confronted, addressed and defeated.

Douglas Alexander (Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs): The preventing sexual violence in conflict summit in London was a genuine credit to the work of campaigners and activists around the world who have tirelessly worked to raise this issue up on the political agenda. The British Government, and the Foreign Secretary personally, have done a great deal in recent months to help do just that, and I commend him sincerely for his efforts.

The Foreign Secretary was right to say in his statement that the priority now must be to translate words into practical action. I welcome the further £6 million pledged by the UK to support survivors of sexual violence in conflict. The statement of action to tackle the culture of impunity surrounding sexual violence in conflict, to which the Foreign Secretary rightly referred, was indeed an important step forward. Alongside agreeing a coherent legal framework, will he set out what further steps will be taken to help tackle some of the underlying issues that contribute to impunity, such as the independence of the judiciary within conflict-affected states? I look forward to the publication of the comprehensive report on the summit. Could he give us an indication of when we can expect it to be published? The real test now is whether the summit in London can make a difference on the ground in conflict zones around the world. The Foreign Secretary will certainly have our support in his work to ensure that it does.

William Hague (Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs): I am grateful for the right honourable Gentleman’s supportive remarks about the work of the Government and many people around the world on the preventing sexual violence initiative. As he said, the key thing now is to turn that into practical action. I am convinced that if everyone who was at the summit last week now did what is set out in the protocol and the declaration on ending sexual violence in conflict, it would make a huge difference throughout the world. We all understand that a great deal of work will still be necessary to ensure that practical actions are taken by prosecutors in independent judiciaries, in military training and in the changing of laws. However, I believe that we have given real momentum to that work, and that it is an essential part of what I have described as a great strategic prize of this century: the full social, political and economic empowerment of women everywhere. We in the Government will remain utterly dedicated to that.


Foreign and Commonwealth Questions

William Hague (Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs): I have announced to the House by written statement this morning that following discussions with the Iranian Foreign Minister we will be reopening our embassy in Tehran. Initially, that will be with a small diplomatic team, but it is an important step forward in our bilateral relations with Iran. In addition to discussing our common interests, we will continue to press Iran to reach a deal with us and the other nations of the E3 plus 3 on its nuclear programme and to promote stability in the region by ending its support for sectarian groups.

James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis, Conservative): I welcome the visit of the Chinese Premier to the UK this week. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is important that we continue to build a long-term relationship with China on the basis of our shared global interests as well as on the basis of trade? Trade is particularly important to businesses in my constituency and across the west midlands, where companies such as Jaguar Land Rover have been leading a surge in exports to China over the past two years.

William Hague (Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs): My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That economic partnership is flourishing, as the Prime Minister’s visit to China in December showed. There are record levels of bilateral trade and investment, and UK exports to China were up 15% last year. China also invested more than £8 billion in the UK last year. Jaguar Land Rover is particularly to be congratulated on its fantastic export performance.

Gareth Thomas (Shadow Minister for Europe): Mr Speaker, as you know, the next British European Commissioner will have to face scrutiny from the European Parliament before the nomination can be confirmed. Would it not be more appropriate for the British people to scrutinise that appointment first, through this House?

David Lidington (Minister for Europe): I am sure that whenever the Prime Minister puts forward the name of the man or woman whom the Government wish to fill that role, there will be ample opportunity for Members of this House to express their various views.

Philip Hollobone (Kettering, Conservative): Last year, the Palestinian Authority paid more than £60 million to Palestinians convicted of terror offences. What is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of that policy of financially rewarding terrorism? Is he aware of recent reports that the Palestine Liberation Organisation has been mandated by the Palestinian Authority to continue that awful practice on its behalf?

William Hague (Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs): The Palestinian Authority is working very hard, as we want it to do, in its new incarnation and with its new members. It is committed to the Quartet principle of bringing about a lasting and peaceful two-state solution with Israel, and we look to it to do that. We expect all its actions to be consistent with doing that. We give considerable financial aid to the Palestinian Authority, and I know that the Department for International Development takes great care over the allocation and use of that aid.

Simon Danczuk (Rochdale, Labour): It took two years to bring the murderers of my constituent, Khuram Shaikh, to trial, owing to the close links between one of the suspects and the Sri Lankan President. The trial is now well advanced, but we have just learned that it might have to start again because the President is contemplating promoting the judge. For the sake of Khuram’s family, will the Minister work with his counterparts in Sri Lanka and press for the trial to run its course?

Hugo Swire (Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs): We continue to impress upon the Sri Lankan authorities the importance that we and the family of the murdered British national, Khuram Shaikh, attach to bringing those responsible to justice. They are in no doubt as to the seriousness with which we view these terrible events, and have assured us that they view them in the same way. We hope that, nearly two and a half years after this heinous crime took place, the accused will now face a fair trial that is free from political interference. The trial is now under way, and we continue to provide consular assistance to Khuram Shaikh’s family.

Rob Wilson (Reading East, Conservative): What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that the upcoming Palestinian elections in places such as East Jerusalem will be free and democratic?

William Hague (Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs): As I mentioned earlier, it will be of paramount importance that those elections, which are scheduled to take place within six months of the formation of the new Government, are free and democratic and that Palestinians throughout the occupied territories are able to take part in them. We will of course make representations to the Israelis and to the Palestinians about that.

Chris Evans (Islwyn, Labour): Given the far-too-regular incursions of Spanish ships into British territorial waters and the continuing long delays at Spanish border crossings, what further actions are Ministers taking to resolve the issue over Gibraltar? Will they give me a guarantee that a Minister will visit Gibraltar real soon?

David Lidington (Minister for Europe): In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s last question, I am hoping to visit Gibraltar again in the near future, and I remain in regular contact with the Chief Minister and the Gibraltar Government. We make protests to Spain in respect of every illegal incursion into British Gibraltar waters and, now that the deadline has passed, we are pressing the European Commission to take action to ensure that Spain respects her European responsibilities to allow the decent movement of people across the border, subject only to proportionate and fully justified checks.


Prime Minister's Questions

Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition): All of us will have been appalled by the images of the brutal aggression of ISIS that has spread across Iraq, terrorising its citizens and undermining its fragile democracy. Iraq is today facing fundamental threats to its integrity, security and stability. Will the Prime Minister provide the House with his latest assessment of the situation in Iraq? Following the welcome appearance yesterday of Prime Minister Maliki with Kurdish and Sunni representatives, calling for national unity, what more does he believe can be done to encourage a more inclusive and representative Government, which is essential for the future of Iraq?

David Cameron (Prime Minister): The Leader of the Opposition is absolutely right that one of the crucial things that needs to happen is for the Iraqi Government to take a more inclusive approach towards Shi’a, Sunni and Kurd, as the important constituent parts of Iraq. I can tell the House that the latest reports indicate that fighting is continuing on a front from Samarra to Baqubah; that the Baiji oil refinery in Tikrit is under attack by ISIL; and that the Peshmerga are fighting ISIL in Diyala province. But meanwhile there is this large-scale recruitment not only of Shi’a militias but also of other young recruits to the Iraqi armed forces, and it is vital that that proceeds and that ISIL is pushed back by the Iraqis. The absolutely key thing to recognise here is that when there is this combination of poor governance, of ungoverned spaces and of support for extremism, that provides an opportunity for the terrorist, and we have to address this on each of those three fronts, supporting the Iraqi Government with the work that they need to do.

Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition): I agree with the Prime Minister. This crisis, though, is not affecting just Iraq, but has consequences for the whole world, including the UK. Can he tell us the extra measures that the Government are taking and contemplating, including through the Border Agency and the Home Office, to ensure that British nationals in the region cannot return here and engage in violent extremism or terrorism, and can he say what the Government are doing to prevent people in this country from becoming radicalised and travelling to the region in order to fight?

David Cameron (Prime Minister): I believe this is the correct focus. As I said yesterday, our approach to this issue must be based on a hard-headed assessment of our national interest. Most important of all is how to keep our citizens safe here at home. The Leader of the Opposition asks specifically about the actions we are taking. We will be legislating in this Session of Parliament to make the planning of terrorist attacks overseas illegal here in the UK. We will be making sure that our security, intelligence and policing resources are focused particularly on that part of the world and the danger of British people travelling there, becoming radicalised and returning to the UK. We have already stopped a number of people travelling, we have taken away passports, including using the new powers that we legislated for in the previous Parliament, and we will continue to do everything we can to keep our country safe.

Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition): The Prime Minister will have our full support in doing so, and if there are further measures, we will look at those.

I want to talk about Iran and its role in this crisis. We support the announcement made yesterday by the Foreign Secretary of the plans to reopen the British embassy in Tehran and the dialogue started by the Foreign Secretary with his counterpart, but the challenge we face in Iraq is that although Iran opposes ISIS, the Iranian regime in the past has shown that it does not support a vision for an inclusive and democratic state in Iraq. So can the Prime Minister give the House his current assessment—and that of the Government—of the willingness and intent of the current Iranian regime to play a constructive rather than a divisive role in helping to resolve the Iraqi crisis?

David Cameron (Prime Minister): I am grateful for the cross-party approach on this and will make two points. It is important to re-engage in dialogue with Iran, and that is why we are planning to reopen the embassy. It should be done on a step-by-step basis. As I said, it should be done with a very clear eye and a very hard head because we know of the appalling things that happened to our embassy back in 2011. To people who say there is some sort of inconsistency in having dialogue with Iran while at the same time recognising how much it has done to destabilise the region, I would say that we need to take a consistent approach with all the players in the region, which is to say that we support the voices of moderation and the voices that support democracy, inclusive government and pluralistic politics under the rule of law. We need the Iranian Government to play that role, as well as everybody else.

Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition): The broader context to this is, of course, the wider Sunni/Shi’ite schism across the region. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that it is not just Iran, but other significant countries across the region that have a huge responsibility not to take steps that will further fuel the sectarian conflict? That includes support for extremist groups, including ISIS. Will the Prime Minister make it clear in his conversations with all countries in the region that that will simply fuel the conflict?

David Cameron (Prime Minister): Whatever we are looking to do, whether it is to support the voices of moderation and democracy in Syria, whether it is to try to help the Iraqi Government close down the ungoverned space in Iraq, or whether it is in the conversations that we have with other regional players, it is very important that we are consistent in that engagement and that we oppose extremism, terrorism and violence. Let me reassure the House that when it comes to the support that we have given to rebels in Syria, we do that through the official Syrian opposition, who are committed to those things and not to extremism, violence and terrorism. Our engagement with the Saudi Arabians, the Qataris, Emiratis and others is all on the basis that none of us should be supporting those violent terrorists or extremists.

Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition): I want to ask about the humanitarian situation in the region and the consequences of what is happening in Iraq. We have British allies in the region, such as Jordan, that are already dealing with a huge refugee crisis, and events in Iraq threaten to make that worse. Britain is doing a good job of providing welcome humanitarian support for those in the refugee camps, but there are more refugees outside the camps than inside the camps. What further practical measures does the Prime Minister believe we can take to support countries such as Jordan and Lebanon that are affected by this crisis?

David Cameron (Prime Minister): Let me update the House. When it comes to the Syrian refugee situation, we remain the second largest bilateral aid donor anywhere in the world, which is something I think Britain can be proud of. We are providing shelter, food, clothing and support for the millions of people who have been made homeless by the conflict. When it comes to supporting neighbouring countries, we have given some direct help to Jordan, because the increase in the population of Jordan, and indeed of Lebanon, is equivalent—thinking about it in our own terms—to almost 15 million coming to the UK. In terms of the humanitarian situation emerging in Iraq as a result of ISIL’s murderous regime, we have already announced £3 million of humanitarian aid for people who have been displaced in the region, and I can announce today that we will be increasing that to £5 million. Yet again, Britain will be playing its role for those who, through no fault of their own, have been displaced by conflict and face a very difficult situation.

Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition): I welcome that and hope that the Prime Minister will continue to look at what more can be done for those outside the camps and to support the infrastructure in countries such as Jordan. Finally, everything we are seeing across the region begs a fundamental question about whether it can develop a politics where people live alongside each other as citizens, rather than dividing along sectarian, ethnic or religious lines. Does he agree with me that while we can and should provide assistance to make that happen, in the end it is the political will of those in the region that will determine whether that happens?

David Cameron (Prime Minister): I agree with the right honourable Gentleman that it would be a mistake to believe that the only answer to these problems is the hard attack of direct intervention, which we know can create problems in itself, but I also disagree with those people who think that this has nothing to do with us and that if they want to have some sort of extreme Islamist regime in the middle of Iraq that will not affect us, because it will. The people in that regime, as well as trying to take territory, are also planning to attack us here at home in the United Kingdom, so the right answer is to be long-term, hard-headed, patient and intelligent in the interventions we make. The most important intervention of all is to ensure that those Governments are fully representative of the people who live in their countries, that they close down the ungoverned space and that they remove the support for the extremists. We must do that not only in Syria, but in Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria and Mali, because these problems will come back and hit us at home if we do not.


Business Questions

Angela Eagle (Shadow Leader of the House of Commons): The Leader of the House has given us the business until two weeks before the summer recess. I calculate that since the end of the Queen’s Speech debate, just half of our time will have been spent on Government business. There is still no sign of the Commons Second Readings of any of the 11 Bills that were announced in the Queen’s Speech. Of the three Bills that are in the Lords, one recycles old promises, one is only four clauses long and the other is only half written because the Government have not finished their consultation on fracking. It is only thanks to Labour that we have had the chance to debate issues as crucial as the passport crisis and rising energy bills and rent. Does the Leader of the House agree with the Education Secretary’s erstwhile adviser that the Prime Minister has “no priorities, focus or grip”?

Another issue mysteriously missing from the future business is the promised regulations on standardised packaging for tobacco. Health professionals want it, the public want it, all the evidence shows it will help, and Parliament has voted for it, but last week the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Battersea, who is responsible for public health, admitted that it is being blocked by No. 10. Does the hold-up have anything to do with the presence of Australian tobacco lobbyist Lynton Crosby at the heart of No. 10, and when does the Leader of the House intend to bring the regulations forward?

Each week, the gap between the Government’s rhetoric and reality just gets wider. During the flooding crisis in February the Prime Minister promised that money would be no object, but a report released by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on Tuesday shows that instead of increasing spending on flood defences, the Government have cut funding by more than 17% in real terms, and that only 5% of the relief money that the Prime Minister promised farmers has been paid. That failure is no surprise when we have an Environment Secretary who does not believe in climate change, a Prime Minister who is more interested in public relations than results, and a chief of staff at No. 10 who has been described by the Education Secretary’s erstwhile adviser as a “third-rate suck-up…sycophant presiding over a shambolic court.”

This week’s “mind the gap” watch could go on all day. The Prime Minister promised to lead in Europe, but he is spending his time isolated and ridiculed. He pledged to transform the lives of 120,000 troubled families, but now we have learned that three quarters of those who have been through the programme have not been helped. His broken promise not to have a costly top-down reorganisation of the NHS has led to a GP recruitment crisis, missed cancer targets and more than a trebling in the number of NHS trusts in deficit. Does the Leader of the House agree, once more, with the Education Secretary’s erstwhile adviser that the Prime Minister is “a sphinx without a riddle” who “bumbles from one shambles to another without the slightest sense of purpose”?

I am sure the whole House would like to congratulate the rowers in the other place on their triumphant victory in the annual parliamentary boat race on the Thames last week. I understand that the Commons boat, which consisted entirely of coalition MPs, promised a great victory, but guess what? They failed to deliver, they did not work well as a team, they rowed slowly and in no particular direction, and as they reached the finishing line, they sank.

Defence Spending

Madeleine Moon (Bridgend, Labour): I thank the honourable Member for Basildon and Billericay for taking the lead in calling for this debate, and I entirely agree that we have far too few opportunities to debate these matters in the House. This debate has been long overdue. Indeed, any defence debate is long overdue, and certainly an opportunity to hold the Executive to account over defence is long overdue. Members might not be surprised to learn that my approach to this debate will be a little different, however, as I wish to look at a way in which the Ministry of Defence has used its budget and resources to avoid addressing a grievance.

Members of the armed forces have no contract of employment or access to employment tribunals, except in respect of equal pay and discrimination. The only other ways in which to redress a grievance are via a service complaint or judicial review, yet more than 1,400 service personnel were wrongly disciplined over a period of three years and the failure to give full answers to parliamentary questions on this issue has prompted me to speak in this debate.

A police caution is a warning given to people who admit to a minor offence. In November 2008, a change to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 meant that police cautions should be considered spent the second that they are issued. With no exemption from the law, the change meant that the armed forces should have stopped disciplining soldiers who had received police cautions. The Army, however, noted the change only in September 2011, by which point about 1,400 personnel had suffered a range of disciplinary actions, including loss of pay or promotion or even discharge from service.

In January 2013, a year after the MOD noticed the problem, Deborah Haynes of The Times revealed that the Army had recognised in 2012: “There could be potential claims from those Armed Forces personnel who have been subject to administrative action as a result of a police caution since Dec 08, in particular from those discharged.”

The Times estimated that the cost of compensation would be in the millions of pounds. The MOD responded: “It is completely untrue to suggest that we have deliberately stalled on alerting soldiers affected by this. A number of options are now being looked at and discussions are ongoing.” The Army had failed to note a major change in the law and had failed to notify those who were wronged, many of them Afghan veterans, of the options for seeking redress. They took a head-in-the-sand approach, ignoring the problem. A passage from one briefing reads: “We are offering reinstatement to all soldiers discharged following a caution who make an in time SC”—or service complaint. It continued: “The longer we take no action the fewer the ‘in time’ complaints about other sanctions there will be. MOD policy may be not to accept out of time complaints on this issue.”

At the start of this year I began asking parliamentary questions about what options the MOD had chosen. I asked what progress the Department had made on addressing its wrongful application of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act measure and was told that the MOD was aware of the issue and was exploring a range of potential options—the same reply as a year previously. I asked how much compensation had been paid and was told that no such compensation had been paid. I asked how many had lost out on promotion and was told that the information could only be provided at a disproportionate cost. I asked what steps had been taken to reverse sanctions and how many people had been sanctioned. No steps had been taken to reverse sanctions and information on the number of serving personnel affected could only be provided at a disproportionate cost.

I asked how many personnel were out of time to make an official complaint. I was told that a service complaint must normally relate to an event that had happened in the previous three months—by now we were over three years into the time in which the Ministry of Defence had realised its mistake. As it is no longer the policy to consider administrative action against serving personnel who are in receipt of a police caution, all personnel who would have been subject to such action in the past would now be out of time.

My parliamentary questions failed, so in April I took my common recourse, as I often do with the Ministry of Defence, and submitted a freedom of information request, asking for copies of the minutes of the Army Justice Board meetings where the issue of administrative action taken against serving personnel after a police caution were discussed. In her reply, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the honourable Member for Broxtowe said: “Whilst there is a public interest in transparency in the service justice system my officials have determined that on this occasion this does not outweigh the very strong public interest in allowing officials and military personnel to exchange full and frank advice”.

Minutes that were already in the hands of The Times were not to be allowed into the hands of a Member of Parliament. I found that particularly interesting as the Ministry of Defence had managed, in response to another FOI request, to release very quickly other minutes that criticised the Labour Government and the Welsh Assembly. Once the minutes could reveal difficulties in a Conservative Government, however, they were denied to a Member a Parliament.

Despite that, I somehow obtained a copy of the Army Justice Board minutes. Those of October 2012 told me that 1,300 personnel had been cautioned; 246 had received career sanctions; and an unknown figure had been discharged from the military. The minutes also said that anyone not serving will now have to “take us to judicial review” rather than make a service complaint because they will be out of time.

The right to operate a separate military justice system is granted to the armed forces by Parliament. It is a right given to no other Department of State, and yet here we have clear evidence of flagrant injustice and a refusal to provide an MP with information, both of which were argued on the basis of cost. Military justice must be fair and transparent if there is to be no access to an employment tribunal and the only other option is judicial review or a service complaint where a person is deliberately not told of the injustice.

I do not condone whatever minor actions led to the police cautions, but the law must be upheld, even by the Ministry of Defence. Fortunately, the Service Complaints Commissioner agrees with me, because as well as submitting my FOI request in April, I also wrote to Dr Atkins. In her reply to me, she said: “My stance has been that the just and equitable test does preclude a service from relying on its own failure to inform service personnel of the correct situation”.

So although lack of awareness that someone could make a service complaint may not be sufficient reason, a lack of awareness because a service has failed to inform someone that they may have been, or had been, wronged would be sufficient. The three months in those circumstances should run from the date on which an individual found out the position and was able to make an informed decision on whether to submit a complaint. The armed forces must track down the individuals affected and advise them of their right to make a confidential complaint via the Service Complaints Commissioner setting out the facts of what has happened to them. This wrong must be righted, at whatever cost to the defence budget. I hope that the Minister, in winding up, will confirm that he will ensure that that happens.

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