By Paul Goodman
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Even the most cursory glance at today's ConHome newslinks demonstrates that Philip Hammond had a torrid time in the Commons yesterday. I think it is worth listing a selection of the questions he was asked from his own backbenches, and I hope and believe that the one below is representative of those asked.
Readers will see that only one question was supportive, and it came from Peter Luff, who was recently dismissed from the MOD during the reshuffle. (The Defence Secretary will be grateful to Mr Luff for rallying round, especially since he was apparently expected to stay in the department: it was another curious dismissal.)
I have edited Mr Hammond's replies in order to keep this summary reasonably brief, and I think and hope, again, that the result is not unfair to him. The full Hansard record is here. Paul Waugh reports elsewhere that Rory Stewart, who knows more Afghanistan than any other MP, forced William Hague to admit yesterday that 75% of attacks on our troops are not by the Taliban.
Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay): "This announcement threatens to blow a hole in our stated exit strategy, which is heavily reliant on these joint operations continuing until Afghan forces are able to operate independently and provide their own security following ISAF’s withdrawal...What is our mission in Afghanistan? Clarity is required. If we are remaining true to our original mission of eliminating al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, should we not now be doing more to encourage the Americans to conduct non-conditional talks with the Taliban in order to explore possible common ground?"
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Hammond): "I am clear that the mission we are carrying out in Afghanistan is to protect Britain’s national security by denying Afghan space to international terrorists. That is our mission, and that is the mission we will complete."
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East): "The reason why, in opposition, the shadow Defence ministerial team opposed naming an advance date for withdrawal was the fear that the Taliban would redouble their efforts in the run-up to that date. Given that we are where we are with such a date, is it not obvious that a move towards a strategy of maintaining one or more long-term strategic bases in Afghanistan would show the Taliban the need to negotiate a solution and a settlement? Without that, it will not happen."
Hammond: "I can tell the House that the UK Government have no appetite for a long-term combat role in Afghanistan, and have made it very clear that we will be out of the combat role by the end of 2014."
Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): "The Secretary of State made the welcome comment that the international forces wished to lower their profile at a time of trouble, but then he seemed to imply that that applied only to American forces. What action has been taken to protect British forces? What is the approach to their having to co-operate with people who may intend their death, and would he not move more quickly to Afghans policing dangerous places in Afghanistan?"
Hammond: "There is much evidence that there is a much lower risk where long-term partnering arrangements are in place—in other words, where a group of troops are working with a group of Afghan troops on a daily basis—and much more risk where these partnering and mentoring activities are on an ad hoc basis, so that relationships are not built."
Dr Liam Fox (North Somerset) (Con): "Mentoring is one of the most important ways in which we have increased the capability of Afghan forces, and the Secretary of State has made it clear today that the instruction from ISAF in Kabul will not alter the British relationship to partnering. Does he not recognise, however, that the nuances between tactics and strategy can be lost on insurgents, and that the timing of this is unfortunate, so we must redouble our efforts to make it clear to the forces of terror that they cannot push our strategy off course?"
Hammond: "Of course my right hon. Friend is absolutely right: this is the crucial message that needs to be sent to the insurgents."
Mr James Arbuthnot (North East Hampshire) (Con): "My right hon. Friend said that the new measures announced by ISAF were prudent but temporary. In what respect are they temporary? In what respect can they be?"
Hammond: "General Allen has indicated that he intends to review the order in the light of the evolving security environment, and to return to normal operations, as he described it, as soon as possible."
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): "Will my right hon. Friend comment on the fact that American soldiers who are mentoring seem to be slightly safer than our junior NCOs, young officers and soldiers, because they are not right on the front line? It worries me a great deal that we continue to allow our solders to go right to the front line, where they are seemingly in greater danger than their American colleagues."
Hammond: "I do not accept that our soldiers are in greater danger, but it is the case that our model differs from the American model, in that it includes routinely mentoring at company, or tolay, level. That is the model that we have deemed most effective."
Peter Luff (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): "The Secretary of State has made it commendably clear that it is in our vital national interest to stick to the strategy that has been set in Afghanistan. When it comes to the security of British troops, does he take comfort from the words of Brigadier Bob Bruce, who will be leading the 4th Mechanised Brigade in its forthcoming tour of Afghanistan, who has said that we are sending to Afghanistan“the best prepared and the best equipped…Task Force the United Kingdom has ever put into the field?"
Hammond: "I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been a stalwart supporter of the policy and the strategy, which, as I have emphasised this morning, has not changed."
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con):
"The Secretary of State mentioned earlier that a motive for the attacks
was the despicable video that was published on the internet. Does he
agree that another motive, which I have mentioned to both him and the
Secretary of State for International Development, is the use of drone
strikes, which have killed nearly 1,000 civilians in Pakistan and a
higher number in Afghanistan? Does the Secretary of State not agree that
we urgently need to look at reviewing the use of drone strikes, which
is considered on the front page of The Times today?"
Hammond: "The use of unmanned aerial vehicles to carry out strikes is continuously reviewed, but I do not believe there is any need for a wholesale change to the current approach, which is that UAVs will be used where they are the most appropriate way to execute a particular operation."
A section of the Defence Secretary's statement that particularly caught my eye was another part of his answer to Dr Fox:
"As I said yesterday, the stepping up of these insider attacks is, in fact, a reflection of the success of partnering and mentoring operations."
Given the rising number of green-on-blue killings, I'm not sure that this is an argument I would have used. The chart below is from the Guardian.
Their view in a nutshell is that Afghanistan cannot be transformed into a western-style liberal democracy and that British military commitment to it should be minimal.
By Joseph Willits
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Yesterday in the House of Commons, Parilamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education Tim Loughton spoke of the need for children exposed to domestic violence to receive "well targeted support from a range of agencies". Loughton said that "prolonged or regular exposure to domestic violence" was "likely to have a serious impact on children’s safety and welfare".
Labour MP Graeme Morrice asked Loughton how the "number of children who are exposed to domestic abuse both as witnesses and as victims" could be reduced. Loughton said that the very fact that domestic violence "is at the core of many safeguarding issues" is "alarming". Both the introduction of specialist domestic violence social workers, and "an ending violence against women and girls action plan" produced by the Government last March, were too examples of the problem being addressed.
Loughton also spoke of the need to clarify the currently confusing definition of domestic violence, which has been one of the priorities of an inter-ministerial group chaired by Theresa May.
By Joseph Willits
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After Justine Greening's announcement giving the go-ahead for a high speed rail network, High Speed 2 (HS2), 37 Conservative MPs were able to question the Transport Secretary within 60 minutes.
The exchanges demonstrated the opposition of those MPs whose constituencies are directly affected by high speed rail. However their reservations were outweighed by praise for the scheme from MPs namely in the North and the Midlands - and some in the South East who claimed that their seats have benefitted from HS1.
Fervent critic of high speed rail, Andrea Leadson MP (South Northamptonshire), questioned the project's costs in yesterday's debate. Leadsom praised the Transport Secretary's patience in listening to her concerns many times, but spoke of "communities blighted by this high-speed rail line". She continued:
"How sure is she that the actual costs in their entirety will be kept to the amounts we have been talking about, and how realistic is it for Britain to afford this project at this very difficult time economically?".
The country "cannot afford not to do this" replied Greening, who cited High Speed 1 as an example of being both on time, and on budget. Once Crossrail had been completed, the cost to the taxpayer would begin, Greening said.
Another MP whose constituency will be touched by high-speed rail, Steve Baker MP (Wycombe), welcomed that "additional protections for the Chilterns will reduce costs", but asked whether Greening would "consider tunnelling the entire width of the Chilterns?". At £1.2 billion, although considered, was "unaffordable", replied Greening.
Drawing examples from both France and Spain, St Albans MP Anne Main raised concerns "that the north might not get the projected benefit and that instead it might be London that grows". Both Lyon and Seville were "caused expense" rather than growth as Paris and Madrid benefitted, she said.
Greening responded by reiterating the backing for the project, and that the cities of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield all believe "this project is vital." Rehman Chishti MP (Gillingham) reminded the House that "real concern was expressed prior to the introduction of High Speed 1 in Kent". This has now led to "real economic regeneration and growth in the south-east and Kent", he continued. Another Kent MP, Damian Collins (Folkestone & Hythe) echoed Chishti's sentiment with the hope that Kent will further benefit from connections north.
MPs from the North and the Midlands were most vocal in their support for the project. Pudsey MP Stuart Andrew spoke of the need to "rebalance the economy" nationwide, and allow the North "to become more attractive for business to invest in". The "solution", he said, was HS2. Martin Vickers MP (Cleethorpes), who has many constituents working at the Tata Steel plant in Scunthorpe, welcomed the announcement of HS2 as a boost to industry. He asked for "categorical assurance that everything possible will be done to ensure that the procurement procedures favour British-based companies". His sentiment was echoed by Nigel Mills MP (Amber Valley) who concluded that the decision would "be even more popular in Derbyshire if the trains are built at Bombardier".
Some MPs in the Midlands did seem to be slightly cautious about the region's positioning, leading to a lesser service and coverage by HS2. Stafford MP Jeremy Lefroy spoke of businesses in north Staffordshire requiring stops between Birmingham and Manchester (of which Stafford would be one). This "stop is essential to the development of the regional economy", Lefroy said, and asked Greening to "confirm that it is still under serious consideration". Rugby MP Mark Pawsey's concern was slightly different in that the town's good service to London could be jeopardised by high speed rail. He hoped that even with high speed rail, "the legacy line will retain the speed and frequency of their existing rail links".
You can watch the debate on the BBC's Democracy Live.
By Paul Goodman
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Here is the Defence Secretary's statement, and below are questions from Conservative MPs with his answers. It's worth noting that Fox went out of his way to disagree with former serviceman Kris Hopkins - who features in Gazette this morning - that the incident was a dark day for the army as a whole, rather than for the individuals responsible. Ministers usually strive to avoid disagreeing with colleagues on the floor of the Commons, and Fox is an extremely skilful performer in the Chamber. That he felt he had to make the distinction reflects its importance to him (and I think he was right).
By Paul Goodman
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Grovelling? Yes, let's face it: it happens. But not yesterday when the Prime Minister was questioned after his statement on Libya. Read Patrick Mercer on Islamism, Andrew Tyrie on torture, Peter Lilley on getting Libya to pay, Baron on intervention, Chisti on Syria. Plenty of pertinent questions
Also follow David Cameron being polite to Mark Pritchard, telling Rory Stewart that he shouldn't have gone to Libya recently, and being thrown for a moment by a very sharp question from Andrew Bridgen. Here are the exchanges in full from Hansard.
"Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): As someone who had reservations about the principle of intervention, may I congratulate the Prime Minister on a successful outcome in Libya? It was largely achieved by two aspects: first, it was legal; and secondly, it had the support of the Libyan people. Further to the previous question, however, will my right hon. Friend now use it as an illustration to persuade permanent members of the Security Council, such as Russia and China, that a well conducted intervention can be successfully used to restrain autocrats in countries such as Syria?
The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says. Everyone should have misgivings about such operations, and one should never have the naive belief that they are easy or that everything is going to go to plan. That very rarely happens, and we should always be hard-headed and careful about such things. We should also respect the fact that this is not done—this is not completed yet.
Also, I think that we should be very cautious about trying to draw up a new doctrine, because it seems to me that as soon as a new doctrine is established, a case comes up that flies completely in its face, but I do hope that other members of the Security Council will see that there has been success in removing a dictator, and in giving that country a chance of peaceful and democratic progress, which will be good for the world.
By Matthew Barrett
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The company Key Business Insight's "Commons Performance Cockpit" ranks MPs by their total cost - that is, staffing costs, travel expenses, office costs, salary, and so on. The majority of the 50 "most efficient" MPs, in terms of total cost, are Conservatives.
The top 50 "most efficient" MPs between 1st April, 2010 and 31st March, 2011 are listed below:
*Took his seat on 3rd March, 2011
**Took her seat on 13th January, 2011
***Resigned his seat on 8th February, 2011
by Paul Goodman
I'm fascinated by dogs that don't bark in the Chamber - in other words, subjects that aren't raised or points which aren't made: indications that there are matters MPs want to avoid, or truths that they don't want to face up to (a characteristic that they share with the rest of us).
No less compelling is the profile of points which are made. The Commons can be a barometer of national opinion, however unsteadily. An issue which at one time doesn't show up at all can come forward quite prominently, as circumstances or fashion change.
Here's an example yesterday from Church Commissioners' questions, which will attract less attention from the sketchwriters today than Nick Clegg doing his regular stint a bit earlier.
"Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): What representations the Church Commissioners have made in support of Christians in Pakistan.
The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Tony Baldry): It is a sad and terrible fact that Christian minorities who have lived peacefully in Muslim countries for generations are finding themselves subject to increasingly violent persecution. Churches have recently been attacked in Egypt, Iraq and Nigeria, and the assassination in Pakistan of Salmaan Taseer for defending a Christian woman who had been sentenced to death was particularly horrible. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Bishop of Lahore and, indeed, the Christian community as a whole in Pakistan are working hard to foster inter-faith collaboration in Pakistan during this time of difficulty.
Rehman Chishti: Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the former assassinated Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, for the work that he did on this particular issue? Will my hon. Friend ensure that representations are made to the Government of Pakistan to ensure that the excellent work of Governor Taseer can continue?
"you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship".
What I suspect every Member of this House hopes for is that there shall be freedom of religion throughout the world, and I am sure that, as a Chamber, we will continue to campaign for that wherever we have the opportunity."
A one-off? No, here we are a moment later -
Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to help support Christians in Sudan. 
Tony Baldry: The Church of England supports the Episcopal Church of Sudan. The dioceses of Bradford and Salisbury have diocesan links to Sudan and have done great work in the region to support the Christian community, as has Christian Aid.
Fiona Bruce: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. It looks as though there will be a new state of Southern Sudan, but it will face enormous challenges. Meanwhile, Christian minorities in the north of Sudan will face continued persecution, as organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide have highlighted during many years of work across Sudan. Will the Church of England do what it can to support and protect Christians and other minorities in the north of Sudan, while also helping, where appropriate, in Southern Sudan?
Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about this. Minority groups in northern Sudan have faced persecution, which is one of the many problems facing people in the region. Most southern Sudanese live on less than $1 a day, the country has almost no infrastructure-there are just 38 miles of tarmacked road in an area the size of France-and people are traumatised by years of rape and killings. I am sure that the Church of England and non-governmental organisations such as Christian Aid and Christian Solidarity Worldwide will give the people of Southern Sudan all possible support. Indeed, it behoves all of us to do what we can to support what may soon be the newest member of the United Nations as it sets out on the challenging road of nationhood.
My sense is that there's an emerging awareness of the plight of Christians abroad, which until very recently has largely been confined to the Churches.
The terms of traffic between Christians and Muslims aren't all one way - read Peter Oborne's report from Nigeria. But religious freedom for Christians in Muslim-majority countries is clearly a growing concern.
At one time, Church Commissioner questions were restricted to enquiries about the sale of ecclestiastical property or the status of women priests.