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Westminster Hall

Volume 405: debated on Tuesday 13 May 2003

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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 13 May 2003

[MR. FRANK COOK in the Chair]

Gibraltar

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.— [Mr. Ainger.]

9.30 am

I am privileged to have the opportunity to open this important debate on Gibraltar. However, I am ashamed that the debate should be necessary. It is necessary because of the Government's disgraceful mishandling of negotiations with Spain, in their efforts to enhance an Anglo-Spanish alliance with the European Union that would balance the Franco-German axis. They are using the offer of joint sovereignty with Gibraltar as a bargaining chip, but without consultation with, participation by, or a mandate from Gibraltar. Gibraltar is our most loyal colony. It is iniquitous that its people should have to suffer any uncertainty about their future sovereignty.

Gibraltar was ceded to Great Britain under the treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Article 10 of that treaty states that should Britain ever give up sovereignty, Gibraltar would pass to Spain. British policy is based on article 73 of the United Nations charter, which gives paramount importance to the inhabitants of the territory. Gibraltar will therefore remain British for as long as its people so desire. The inhabitants of Gibraltar demonstrated, in a referendum held on 7 November 2002, that an overwhelming 99 per cent. of them do so desire.

Who could forget the wonderful display of Union flags when the people took to the streets to demonstrate the strength of their patriotic desire for the continuation of Gibraltar's present status?

I should like to make a little progress.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), the shadow Foreign Secretary, said:

"You could not have a clearer, democratically expressed view. To proceed, or to pretend to proceed, in the light of this, is to defy reality."

Gibraltar is of immense strategic value to the United Kingdom, as NATO's key communications centre in the western Mediterranean and as a forward base for British troops.

Can the hon. Lady say why a referendum was not given to the people of Hong Kong, given that country's strategic importance to the United Kingdom?

I shall finish what I was saying. Hong Kong island was not on a lease; neither was Kowloon. It was the new territories that were on a lease. Why were not the same arguments made for Hong Kong by the Tory Government?

The basis on which a referendum could have been justified in Hong Kong was entirely different. As a British colony, Gibraltar is a special case.

Gibraltar is of immense strategic importance to the United Kingdom. Even if it had no strategic importance, the emotional ties of the past 300 years—ties of culture, tradition, heritage, history and loyalty to the Crown—bind us together. Gibraltar is family. In the 21st century, we no longer give away our princesses against their will in diplomatic marriages.

For Spain, joint sovereignty over Gibraltar is only a stepping-stone on the way to achieving its long-held ambition of full sovereignty and full access to Gibraltar's military base. Long-term harassment and a campaign of restrictions, such as land border delays and inadequate telephone capacity, have made life unnecessarily difficult for Gibraltar. EU directives that cause a financial burden are imposed, whereas beneficial directives are withheld.

In the recent negotiations, Spain made no effort to redefine its position, so persuaded was it by the Government that Gibraltar could be delivered. However, it could not be delivered—not without the agreement of its people, and that could not have been withheld more clearly. The way forward—the way to improve the relationship between Spain and Gibraltar—depends on Spain changing its attitude and becoming a good neighbour.

As my hon. Friend is discussing the way forward, will she join me in encouraging the Conservative Front-Bench team categorically to state now that Conservative policy is totally to reject the joint sovereignty initiative, which is a deception on the people of Gibraltar and a betrayal of them by the Government?

I thank my hon. Friend for that. He will find that I absolutely endorse what he says in my remarks.

It is nothing short of a diplomatic disgrace that the Government reopened bilateral talks with Spain on the Brussels process without Gibraltar and with the aim of securing joint sovereignty in the wake of Gibraltar's conclusive referendum. The rights of the people of Gibraltar to self-determination were bartered over behind their backs by the British and Spanish Governments. It is not for politicians in London or Madrid to decide the sovereignty of Gibraltar—it is for the people of Gibraltar to do so, and they have made their decision for the rest of the world to see.

If that is true, will the hon. Lady explain why Peter Caruana, Gibraltar's Chief Minister, did not take part in the discussions and left vacant the seat that was available for Gibraltar? It is surely wrong to say that bartering was going on behind Gibraltar's back if it was invited to join the discussions.

It is very clear why Peter Caruana did not take part—he was not given the same status as the other participants. The fact that joint sovereignty was on the agenda precluded him from taking part. The issue was a non-starter for Gibraltar.

The prize simply was not deliverable. If Spain was given the impression that it was, it was misled. Far worse, Gibraltar was betrayed. It was deeply hurtful for Gibraltar to learn that its future had been the subject of covert horse-trading between Britain and Spain, which had been carried out in the interests of enhancing their positions in the EU. However important Britain's relationship with Spain, it is not more important that our historic links and loyalty to Gibraltar.

It is entirely spurious to excuse such behaviour by pretending that it was in the interests of Gibraltar's economy and that it was intended to guarantee Gibraltar and the surrounding area a prosperous future. No one—least of all Gibraltarians—would suggest that Gibraltar's economy has reached its full potential. Of course it can and will be developed further. Since the closure of the royal naval dockyard in 1985, tourism has become increasingly important, and Gibraltar is now a popular holiday destination—not least because it is British. It is also sunny. Commercial ship repairing and financial services render Gibraltar economically self-sufficient. It is not dependent on smuggling, as Spain has sometimes suggested. Happily, there is now full cooperation between the customs services of Spain and Gibraltar. As both countries are in the European Community, there is no incentive to use Gibraltar as a conduit for the illegal trafficking of people or drugs.

I know just how relieved Gibraltarians were to receive the Prime Minister's recent assurance, which he gave in response to a parliamentary question from me, that the future of Gibraltar played no role whatever in his negotiations with José María Aznar in securing Spain's support for the war against Saddam Hussein. The many letters that I have received from people living in Gibraltar—and in this country—illustrated the level of concern that has been generated by those joint sovereignty talks. There is much to do to dispel that concern.

The report of the Foreign Affairs Committee on Gibraltar could not have been more critical of the Government in its findings. It points to a failure to disclose that joint sovereignty with Spain was even under discussion. The report states that:

"Britain's negotiating position with Spain could not have been prejudiced by the British Government disclosing on, or shortly after, the relaunching of the Brussels Process in July 2001 that joint sovereignty over Gibraltar was under discussion as the Spanish Government was already fully involved in those discussions. We further conclude that the refusal of Ministers to make such a disclosure represented a serious failure in their accountability obligations to this Committee and to Parliament."
Gibraltar's referendum has been referred to as "eccentric". The Foreign Affairs Committee concluded that it rejected the Foreign Secretary's view that it is eccentric for the Government of Gibraltar to hold its own referendum. It added:

"We consider that in British Overseas Territories it is of great importance that democratic expressions of view should take place when territories themselves so determine. We recommend that the British Government take full account of the views of the people of Gibraltar as expressed in the referendum held on 7 November."
The Committee points to the failure to seek the endorsement of Gibraltar's Chief Minister. The report states:

"We conclude that the Government was wrong to negotiate joint sovereignty, when it must have known that there was no prospect whatsoever that any agreement on the future of Gibraltar which included joint sovereignty could be made acceptable to the people of Gibraltar, and when the outcome is likely to be the worst of all worlds—the dashing of raised expectations in Spain, and a complete loss of trust in the British Government by the people of Gibraltar."
The Committee recommended that the Government should explain in its response whether previous Governments had, as it appeared from the evidence, made a commitment to the Gibraltar Government to seek the Chief Minister's specific endorsement before entering into any new arrangement affecting Gibraltar at the Brussels process talks. It asked why—if this was indeed the case—the current Government have not decided to renew that commitment?

The Committee pointed to a failure to discern the difference between the legitimate complaints of Gibraltar against Spain, and the unjustified complaints of Spain against Gibraltar. The report states:

"We conclude that it is highly ironic that the British Government has given credence to complaints by Spain about law enforcement and the supervision of financial services in Gibraltar, given that these areas are the responsibility, not of the Gibraltar government, but of the British government and of the Financial Services Commission, appointed by it."
The Committee concluded that there was no parallel to be drawn between Gibraltar's legitimate complaints against Spain, and Spain's unjustified accusations against Gibraltar.

The list is long and shaming. Those were just a few examples from it. There simply is no mandate for talks between Britain and Spain on sharing the sovereignty of Gibraltar. Spain, for its part, could never agree to joint sovereignty in perpetuity. The 1969 Gibraltar constitution prevents the transfer of sovereignty unless or until the people of Gibraltar agree. Those two positions are irreconcilable. The Government must eat large portions of humble pie.

Where do we go from here? Unfortunately, life is not like a video tape; it cannot be rewound, and the parts that we do not like—or wish had never happened—cannot be erased. In real life, we must live with our mistakes and find ways to make amends. Going back is not an option, so we can either stand still or move forward in ways that will benefit everyone. Three-way talks are needed now to re-establish the trust and confidence of the people of Gibraltar and to improve relationships between Spain, Gibraltar and the United Kingdom.

There are plenty of possibilities. How better to start than by finding a workable solution to the unsatisfactory situation on pension contributions? The Gibraltar Government are required to pay full pensions to a large group of people—they happen to be Spanish—who have barely contributed to the Gibraltar pension fund. There are similar anomalies about community care on which work needs to be done. Meaningful discussions to lift land border delays and to improve Gibraltar's telecommunications would be fertile ground in creating good neighbours and improving life on the Rock.

It is the undeniable right of the people of Gibraltar to remain British until they—and only they—decide otherwise. That right must be defended. We enjoy the privilege of Gibraltar's loyalty and they deserve ours in return.

I have received only one request from a Back-Bench Member to take part in this debate. However, I see that a number are trying to catch my eye, so I must alert the House to the normal practice in such 90-minute debates here. We commence the first of the three winding-up speeches at least 30 minutes before conclusion, so general debate will have only 44 minutes from now. I ask every hon. Member to take that into account when making their contribution and when accepting and responding to interventions.

9.46 am

May I start by warmly congratulating the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on securing this debate? Like all hon. Members, she knows that the way in which this or any Government respond to the deep concerns of the people and Government of Gibraltar about Government policy is of deep concern to many hon. Members. In recent years we have had a number of debates about Gibraltar in which Members from different parties have expressed their concerns, as have I.

I am the chairperson of the United Kingdom branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, although this morning I speak in my capacity as a Member of Parliament. I have a close relationship with fellow members of the Gibraltar branch of the CPA, which is a member of our region within the association. At the British islands and Mediterranean regional meeting at last year's annual CPA conference in Namibia, the members of the region discussed Gibraltar.

Gibraltar's Deputy Chief Minister, who was a member of its delegation, made it clear to delegates at the meeting that it seemed to the people of Gibraltar that the United Kingdom and Spain had clear understandings on the joint sovereignty that they wished to pursue, whatever the views of the people of Gibraltar. In the discussion that took place, delegates from Commonwealth countries in the region spoke in support of the views of the people and Government of Gibraltar, and against the imposition on them of any policy that they did not support.

At the end of the discussion, a statement on Gibraltar was put to the regional delegates, which read:
"It is resolved, that the delegates of the branches of the British Islands and Mediterranean Region meeting in … Namibia, on September 9 2002, affirm their recognition of the right of the people of Gibraltar to self-determination, that they will therefore recognise as definitive the results of the referendum of the people of Gibraltar to be held on November 7 2002 and hope and expect that the Government of the United Kingdom will do likewise."
Nobody voted against that statement: 27 members voted in support of it, and three abstained. The same feeling would exist at any Commonwealth conference, wherever it took place. We shall discuss Gibraltar again at the London CPA conference in two months. We say clearly that we should respect the wishes of the people of any country, the more so when it is a member of the CPA.

The referendum called by the Government of Gibraltar showed massive support for the policy clearly stated by the Chief Minister. Nobody in Gibraltar, Spain or the United Kingdom can doubt the wish of the people of Gibraltar, which is that future developments should be in the interests of their country. It most certainly is not that closer ties with Spain should be imposed on them.

The hon. Member for Upminster outlined the need for talks with Spain. I am not opposed to that, nor are the people of Gibraltar; some things need to be discussed. However, those of us who have long been involved in the affairs of Gibraltar know of the arrogance that Spain has repeatedly displayed towards the views and wishes of the people of Gibraltar. Let us tackle some of those arrogant actions—I have seen how they affect life in Gibraltar.

When will the British Government accept and understand the view that has been clearly stated in debate after debate at the CPA conference? No doubt the Minister for Europe will say that the Government respect the views of the people of Gibraltar. If that were true, it would have been reflected in the Government's attitude to the referendum of 7 November. There was no doubt about the turnout or the result, but the British Government have subsequently made many statements about the roles that Spain and the European Union might play. Perhaps they do have a role, but I suggest that it should be decided in proper negotiation with the Chief Minister and the people of Gibraltar.

The Minister must be aware that the people of Gibraltar have a deep distrust of the Government's intentions because, despite the result of their referendum, they repeatedly hear statements about what Ministers in London wish to happen, although they might not put it like that. I regularly meet members of the Gibraltar branch of the CPA, and they tell me and my colleagues that they are in no doubt of the British Government's clear intention to impose joint sovereignty on them, and they will not accept it.

No, other hon. Members want to take part in the debate.

There is one other country whose people have stated their clear involvement with a country with which they have little in common. That is the Falkland Islands, which also belongs to the CPA. We clearly respect the Falkland Islanders' views. We do not attempt to say to them and their representatives, "You must now enter into a much closer association with the Argentines", because they do not want to do so. When will we say to the people of Gibraltar, "You must decide the level and extent of your country's involvement with Spain"?

Some Members of the House, irrespective of the party that they belong to, have a great ongoing commitment to Gibraltar, for the reasons given by the hon. Member for Upminster in her opening remarks. However, we will not accept any attempt to railroad its people, against their wishes, into a joint sovereignty with Spain which they clearly do not want. With great respect to the Minister, whom I have known for many years, he would be very foolish, as would the Government, if he attempted to impose on Gibraltar or its people actions that do not meet their wishes. Some hon. Members will bitterly oppose any such action.

May I read into the record Chief Minister Peter Caruana's new year message for 2002? He said:

"Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary—
that is the Foreign Secretary of Britain—

"have recently made clear in parliamentary statements that there would be no change in the sovereignty of Gibraltar against our wishes. I believe that this assurance is totally reliable."

What my hon. Friend says is very interesting. If that is the case, I hope that we shall stop hearing of pressure being put on the people of Gibraltar and the Chief Minister to continue to be involved in negotiations for something that they clearly do not want or support. However, it is certainly not what those of us who have ongoing contact with Gibraltar, its representatives and, above all, its people believe.

9.58 am

I will not detain the Chamber long, but as vice-chairman of the all-party group I want to make a few comments on Gibraltar.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on securing the debate. She made many of the points that I would have made and that many of us know back to front. She is right to say that Gibraltar is family, and we owe it a degree of the loyalty that it has given us over many years. I am afraid that the Government have not shown that loyalty, which is very disappointing.

Those of us who have visited Gibraltar, and I was privileged to be in the group that went to the Gibraltar day celebrations last September, would give our eye-teeth for the sort of attendance at and participation in the political process that takes place there. In almost no other country in the world would half the population go to a political rally on a bank holiday to listen to politicians making speeches. Yet, in Gibraltar, 15,000 people turned out to listen to Members of Parliament from this country and politicians from Gibraltar talking about their fears and concerns for Gibraltar's future. It was illuminating that they were not just a bunch of expats—the pink gin-swilling brigade who hark back to past days.

The vast majority of those crowds were people in their teens, at school and university, and in their 20s—the next generation of Gibraltarians. They feel no less passionately about the future of that colony than did their parents and grandparents before them. There is no question of Gibraltar's loyalty to Britain and its desire to remain British diminishing through the generations. Great harm has been done during the past couple of years in particular. My hon. Friend was right to say that we desperately need to re-establish trust and confidence among the people of Gibraltar.

During interventions in my hon. Friend's speech a lot of rubbish was spoken. The situation in Hong Kong was completely different. The island was covered by a lease, but if we had not come to an agreement with the Chinese, the water supply would have been cut off and the island would have been entirely unviable. However much we might have liked to retain a British element in Hong Kong, it was not practicable.

Reference was made to Peter Caruana not being part of the negotiations on Gibraltar. We all know that he was not offered the proper status that should be accorded to the First Minister of Gibraltar. The Government should be ashamed of that token exercise.

Reference was also made to the Brussels process. When Mrs. Thatcher entered into that process, did anyone seriously believe that there was any question of a Conservative Government under her or any other Prime Minister entering negotiations to cede any sovereignty against the will of the people of Gibraltar? The Brussels process was about negotiating with Spain to make the life of the people of Gibraltar easier and to stop Spain frustrating their lives on the Rock with procedure and red tape.

The issue is not only that the British Government are imposing certain actions on the people of Gibraltar, but that a sword of Damocles has been hanging over them. It is always in the background and, although nothing will happen to Gibraltar at this stage, the fact that the Government have technically done a deal in the background means that at some time that sword will fall, and the people of Gibraltar will find themselves sold down the river. That is what really matters at this stage, not whether a treaty may have been signed or a specific deal done with Spain.

I want to finish by asking the Minister some short questions. As my hon. Friend said, despite the Prime Minister's semi-assurance, many people both here and in Gibraltar remain deeply worried about what negotiations may have taken place in the Azores or subsequently. Will the Minister give an absolute undertaking that the subject of Gibraltar did not come up at all during the negotiations in the Azores or subsequently between our Prime Minister and the Prime Minister of Spain?

Will the Minister comment on what military use was made of Gibraltar and its docks during the recent campaign in Iraq? How important will it be in future to secure the base in Gibraltar for any military campaign? Will the Minister reassess the statement by the Foreign Secretary in which he described the decision by the people of Gibraltar to have a referendum—it was an overriding success, and both the turnout and the result were categorical—as eccentric? That was childish in the extreme and it undermined the trust that we should place in the people of Gibraltar.

Can the Minister tell me what has improved for the people of Gibraltar since the Government entered into the so-called negotiations with the Spanish Government? Has the shortage of telephone lines improved? Is it true that the Spanish have made available only 70,000 telephone lines to cover all business and residential needs? The inability to get access to a telephone line is obviously acting as a serious brake on further investment in the country.

What improvements, if any, have been made to the access by the people of Gibraltar to the health care facilities offered by Spain? Also, is it any easier to get across the border? When I was there, the constant hassle involved in getting to and from Gibraltar across the border was absolutely outrageous. Will the Minister comment on the situation that I gather still pertains whereby if planes are unable to land in Gibraltar because of weather conditions, they are not allowed to land in Spain, but have to overfly to Tangier and come back again, which is nonsense? If any of the frustrating tactics by the Spanish Government continue, as I suspect they do and as any recent visitor to Gibraltar will confirm, what action have the British Government taken vigorously to pursue the matter with the EU as a blatant breach of the codes of conduct for member states?

The situation with Gibraltar is grave. It brings the Government into disrepute that we have failed dismally to give assurances to the people of Gibraltar that they can remain British for as long as they wish and that their status will not be undermined by grubby back-room deals. It is time for the Government to come out firmly into the open and to state once and for all that there will be no deals, and that the sovereignty of Gibraltar will remain unimpugned for as many years as the people of Gibraltar wish.

Order. We have only 25 minutes left. If we continue to absorb time at our current pace, someone will fall off the end. I hope that that will not happen. Please bear in mind my advice.

10.6 am

I apologise for the fact that I may have to absent myself for a few minutes because I have a previous engagement. For that reason, and because of what you said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall be brief. I want to raise a new matter that I hope will interest hon. Members, even if they do not agree with me.

Before I do so, I want to say that I agree with everything that has been said by so many hon. Members in support of Gibraltar. Some of them rehearsed a lot of recent history. An important part of debates in Westminster Hall is the need to return constantly to the subject. We must always be vigilant. The Minister and his successors will always be probed. We will never ease up because we have learned that we must keep an eye on the situation. We need to ensure that the Government are proactive in the interests of Gibraltar. They have not been so in the recent past.

The Prime Minister realised some time ago that negotiating with Spain was a journey to nowhere. That is my reading of the situation. However, rather like King Henry, who sent the knights off, when the Prime Minister realised that he had given the wrong signals, it was too late to pull people back. He certainly realised that there could be no agreement on joint sovereignty, first, because the Spanish could never agree to it in perpetuity and, secondly, because the constitution, which is enshrined in Speaker's House on a piece of rock from Gibraltar, says that "unless or until"—those are the important words—the people of Gibraltar decide otherwise, the constitutional status of the Crown will endure.

The Prime Minister also realised that the move would be bad politics. I do not think that such a change, which would be contrary to the interests and wishes of the people of Gibraltar, could get through the House of Commons. Even if my judgment is wrong, such a change would do incalculable harm to the Labour party and the country because ordinary folk and many Labour supporters feel strongly about the matter.

Having said that the Prime Minister recognises the political realities of the situation, I point out that some people around him do not. Funnily enough, that remark does not relate exclusively to Ministers or Members of Parliament. A number of senior people in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office keep sending the wrong signals to Spain through body language—nods and winks—and through what they say in meetings outside the main summit chamber. I refer in particular to Sir Emyr Jones Parry, who was our permanent representative in NATO at that time, and who is now to be a permanent representative at the United Nations. He has been extraordinarily keen—a zealot if anything—on trying to reach an agreement with Spain. I do not complain about that; I do not even complain about him raising the matter with Ministers in the past. What I do say is that the Minister has to tell Sir Emyr Jones Parry and others in the Foreign Office to back off.

There comes a point where such people have to take political instructions, and the issue must not be raised again. Sir Emyr Jones Parry has repeatedly raised Gibraltar as a NATO issue with his opposite numbers, and that has sent all the wrong signals. It has increased expectations in Spain that cannot be realised, and it would be a disservice if that process were allowed to go on. I hope that the Minister will ensure that the permanent representatives—our diplomats— understand that the issue cannot and should not be raised again, and if they do so, they will be acting contrary to the instructions of the British Government. If they do so and the House finds out about it, there will be one hell of a row.

10.11 am

It is with great sadness that we debate this issue again. I cannot for the life of me understand why the Government cannot get the message that the people of Gibraltar are British, wish to remain British and do not support any negotiation with a foreign power over their future and their sovereignty. I hope that the Minister will be brought to Westminster Hall and the House again and again until the Government understand that they must drop this ridiculous and undemocratic proposal.

Almost 50 years ago—in fact, it is 49 years ago this week—Her Majesty the Queen visited the Rock of Gibraltar. Next year, the people of Gibraltar will celebrate the 300th anniversary of Gibraltar being British territory. I hope that a further royal visit will take place. If anyone deserves recognition for their loyalty, it is the people of Gibraltar. Recently the magazine Panorama, published in Gibraltar, conducted a survey in which 14 per cent. of people said that Gibraltar belonged to the British and 86 per cent. said that it belonged to the Gibraltarians. Nobody believed that it belonged to Spain.

I remind the Minister that last November a referendum took place in which 99 per cent. of the people of Gibraltar voted to remain British and to reject the proposal for joint sovereignty with Spain. I remind him also that the Government have held other referendums in London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in each case the views of the people have been respected and upheld. But the referendum in Gibraltar has been ignored by the Government in London. How can that be right or democratic? I understand the views of certain Government Members and what they hope to achieve, but surely they understand that democracy ultimately must prevail. For them to continue to pursue any process, when it is clear in the starkest terms that the people of Gibraltar reject it totally and utterly, cannot be justified in any parliamentary democracy.

Would the hon. Gentleman like to take this opportunity to put on record his thoughts about Chief Minister Peter Caruana's new year message, in which he said that he had total faith in the assurances that were given on sovereignty? Is the Chief Minister gullible or complicit in deceiving the people of Gibraltar? Or does he genuinely recognise the good faith of the Government, who will not deal with the sovereignty issue until it is put to a referendum?

I certainly shall not attempt to speak on behalf of the Chief Minister. However, I met hundreds if not thousands of people when I was in Gibraltar three weeks ago. I addressed the conference of the integration with Britain movement and I also spoke at the dinner for small businesses which was held on the Rock. I did not meet a single Gibraltarian who has any faith or confidence that they are not being sold down the river by the Government. I believe the people of Gibraltar when they say that they feel let down and betrayed by the Government. I did not meet the Chief Minister, but I met the leaders of the four other political parties. They are all deeply concerned at the ambiguity of the Government's position.

I do not doubt that the Minister is an honourable man. He has taken over the job from his predecessor, and he has tried—and succeeded to some extent—to calm troubled waters, but there is still a feeling that the Government want rid of Gibraltar and that they would prefer to make a deal with Spain to get an agreement in which they might gain in some other way, perhaps through the EU.

Order. The practice in this Chamber and the House is to address other hon. Members through the Chair.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Does my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the Chief Minister who, despite the provocations, continues in a highly diplomatic way to hold out an olive branch to the British Government in the hope that some reason will prevail in their dealings with Gibraltar? The Chief Minister's conduct in the circumstances has been wholly admirable.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Peter Caruana has been an outstanding champion of the rights of the people of Gibraltar, and I look forward to his continuing in that role. I honestly believe that the people of Gibraltar are united, and that is shown by the results of the referendum. Let us not forget that Parliament has constitutional power and authority over our overseas territories, of which Gibraltar is one. We have a responsibility to ensure that those people are protected in the same way as we expect our constituents to be protected.

The people of Gibraltar have been scrupulously loyal to this country for hundreds of years. Does my hon. Friend agree that they simply cannot understand why the Government in Britain do not return that loyalty, particularly after an absolutely emphatic referendum result has made it crystal clear that they will never accept joint sovereignty with Spain? They now look to the British Government to accept that and act accordingly, and they are utterly bemused as to why the Government will not do that.

My hon. Friend makes a vital point, which the Government must address. Why on earth are a group of British people who happen not to be part of mainland Britain treated so differently from the rest of us? That certainly does not happen to the people in Spain's territories. Spain wisely refuses to discuss sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla. Why do the Government in London choose to discuss the sovereignty of Gibraltar with Spain, which sensibly refuses to discuss sovereignty over its territories?

The Netherlands treats its overseas territories equally. Denmark's overseas territories, the Faroe Islands and Greenland, send representatives to the Folketing—the Danish Parliament. Nobody represents the people of Gibraltar in this House apart from those hon. Members—many of whom are here today—who regularly turn up to speak on their behalf. Surely it is time that we allowed the people of Gibraltar to send their own Member to this House. France has overseas territories, which it treats with respect, decency and equality. The British Government choose not to treat Gibraltar and our remaining overseas territories with a similar degree of equality, fairness and decency, and it is time for them to consider such a policy, which would be legitimate.

The Minister will know that the United Nations has put forward three proposals—free association, independence or integration—for the decolonisation of overseas territories. In Gibraltar, independence would be illegal under the treaty of Utrecht and the people do not desire it. Free association is an option worth considering, but so is integration. Integration has been used in territories linked with countries such as Spain, France, the Netherlands and Denmark; why is it not an option for the people of Gibraltar? They should be allowed to decide their own future. If they want to become an equal part of the United Kingdom, they should be given the opportunity to do so.

I appeal to the Minister to take note of everything that has been said by all hon. Members—except for a couple of Government Members who are making ludicrous points that have been addressed time and again.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can Members contribute to the debate without declaring the fact that they have received a trip to Gibraltar at the expense of the Government of Gibraltar?

It is incumbent on any Member who receives a gift or trip that is not available to all Members of the House to record it in the Register of Members' Interests. Copies of the register are available for Members to refer to.

Order. I hope that hon. Members will return to the topic, bearing in mind the time that is left.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you have rightly pointed out, all declarations are registered, and I hope that the hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) will remember that.

In conclusion, we should not repeat this debate every month, and we should conclude the matter. Regardless of the Government's previous views, I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that the people of Gibraltar have made their choice: they want to remain British for good. They do not want their sovereignty to be disputed, discussed, sold down the river or handed over to anybody else. The territory of Gibraltar and the people of Gibraltar are inseparable. It is no good the Government saying, "Oh, the people of Gibraltar have British citizenship and we shall not take that away." That would be no good and the people will not be fooled by it. They want to remain British with their territory, which belongs to them, not to us. The land and the people cannot be separated.

I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to end the uncertainty, the hurt and the Gibraltarians' feeling, which they have had for years, that they are somehow second-class British. He should say once and for all that the people of Gibraltar have made their choice, which is their right in a democracy, and that the United Kingdom Government will respect their wishes and end any discussion with Madrid about the sovereignty of the people of the Rock.

I must alert the House to the fact that our worthy Clerk has just enlightened me on a detail of the Standing Orders of which I was previously unaware. If the cost of accommodation and travel amounts to more than £550, it should be declared as well as registered. The point of order was well made.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have taken advantage of that hospitality, a fact that is recorded in the Register of Members' Interests. I present my apologies because I should have declared it before my earlier contribution.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am in some difficulty because when I went to Gibraltar for the referendum, I paid for my own fare and accommodation precisely because I had foreseen that this nonsense would arise. What I cannot remember—the Clerk has a register here—is how long the registration nonsense lasts, but I think that it is for one year after a trip. It is a charade and we are losing time, but as the matter has been raised, I shall come up to the Chair in a moment to see what I have declared in the register. I realised that this nonsense would happen—

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As I have already stated, I have made a declaration in the register. I should also point out that I have been to Gibraltar on several occasions, with the Gibraltarian Government as my hosts.

10.26 am

It is a delight to have this reunion of old friends—people who are debating this issue for, I think, the sixth time during this Parliament. I congratulate the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on securing the debate, but I feel somewhat saddened by its tone, which has been one of hyperbole rather than rational political argument. Perhaps that is true on both sides of the argument, but I shall advance no hyperbole of my own this morning. I shall say merely that if some of us on this side of the House appear to be an odd couple of people, we hold our views as firmly as others. Those views should be respected. [Interruption.] I am not going to refer to what the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) just said, not least because I know that, despite his hyperbole, he is a great friend of Spain, which he has often shown in this House and in debates in other arenas.

The hyperbole around whether the Government have betrayed Gibraltar and sold people down the river is unhelpful at a time when there is a genuine attempt to move forward. I hope that we will now eschew hyperbole. I would not want to suggest that the hon. Member for Upminster is a rabid anti-European colonialist who hates Spain, and I hope that she would not want to advance any hyperbole either.

The questions that really remain are should there have been discussions in the first place and should there be any now? I believe passionately that there should be discussions between Spain, Britain and Gibraltar for the simple reason that the world has changed since 1713. Franco has died and Spain is now a member of NATO, which should have dramatically changed the relationship between Britain, Gibraltar and Spain. We are EU allies of a kind who could, if we worked more closely together, achieve a more rational future for Europe.

I believe that it should be possible to achieve a better future for Gibraltar, too—as a result of negotiation, rather than shouting and screaming. The issue of telephone lines has been raised many times, and it is legitimate. The border problems are also a legitimate matter to raise. Most importantly, it would be good if Gibraltar could have a fully operational working airport that might serve the whole of Europe. If we could achieve those changes through negotiation and co-operation between Spain, Britain and Gibraltar, we could create a Gibraltarian economy at the very heart of southern Spain. That would be good for the people of Gibraltar, the people of Spain and Britain, which is why I believe that it was right for Mrs. Thatcher to start discussions under the Brussels process and for this Government to continue them.

I also believe, although I accept that this is not the will of the people of Gibraltar, that joint sovereignty in perpetuity was a real possibility, and it may be again at some future date. I merely note that more than 500,000 Britons—nearly 20 times as many people as live on Gibraltar—live on mainland Spain. They consider themselves fully British and find it perfectly possible to live with a double identity.

If we are to address issues such as hospitals and health service availability to Britons on Gibraltar and on mainland Spain, we should carefully consider the operation of the E111 system in Spain. Many constituents have had problems getting help from the Spanish national health service.

Secondly, I raise the question whether the discussions were the right ones. It is wholly wrong of the hon. Member for Upminster to portray the talks as a covert operation. It was made perfectly plain to the people of Gibraltar that a seat would be available for them if they wanted to take part. There was always the backstop of a referendum, so no change could be brought about to their constitutional situation without consultation and a referendum in which they could make their view clear. Therefore, the assurance that Peter Caruana sought was always there for him. For his own political reasons, however, including, I suspect, elections in Gibraltar, he chose not to take part in the discussions. It was wrong for Gibraltar's representatives to do so, and they cut off their nose to spite their face.

The final question is, what remains to be done? Most importantly, we must improve relations between Britain and Gibraltar, as many Members have said. We must do that on the basis of robust negotiations with Spain to ensure that we achieve improvements in phones and the airport. We must try to build Gibraltar not as a fortress, but as an open city with a distinctive culture at the heart of the local Spanish economy. We must also resolve the voting issue, which is with the Electoral Commission.

One other issue, which has not been mentioned, but which will hit the people of Gibraltar soon, is the availability of BBC services. Until now, many people have received those services through digital satellite, but they will not be available from the end of May, because the BBC will go out unencrypted only in the UK on Astra D, not Astra A. I hope that the people of Gibraltar will still be able to get the BBC.

10.32am

The hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) said that we should avoid hyperbole, and he just kept within his own strictures. This has been a passionate debate, and his contribution typifies it.

Like many other Members, I congratulate the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on securing the debate. We have had several such discussions in the Chamber over the past few years, but it has been a while since we have had a chance to discuss what remain serious issues.

The status quo is clearly unsatisfactory: it is bad for Gibraltar, bad for the United Kingdom and bad for Spain. In Gibraltar, where it matters most, the practical difficulties of everyday life are compounded by the existing set-up, as many Members have highlighted. Despite all that, Gibraltar remains firmly opposed to the United Kingdom's plans. Given the recent history, we should not be at all surprised.

It has been an eventful 12 months. This time last year, the demonstrations on the Rock vividly highlighted the strength of feeling about Gibraltar's future. Last July, we had the Foreign Secretary's statement on joint sovereignty and the red lines in discussions with Spain, and we understand that that still represents the Government's position. In November, there was a flurry of activity, including the last Adjournment debate on the issue on the Floor of the House. There has been nothing since, apart from the European Parliament (Representation) Act 2003, although that is, of course, a big qualification. Silence is not something that we normally associate with the Minister, and we look forward to his comments. It is strange that we have entered this period of no developments in the public domain, given the diplomacy of the past two years.

We supported the revival of the Brussels process in July 2001, principally because we believe that no progress can possibly be achieved when people are not talking to one other. We also recognise that for there to be any agreement there must be a discussion of all the issues that are important to all the parties, from the improvement of everyday practicalities to the very future of sovereignty, but we do not and cannot support the way in which the Government have handled the situation. The implementation of the process is flawed and now requires a serious overhaul.

The Foreign Secretary's statement in July 2002 set out a three-stage approach. First, a framework of proposals for a permanent settlement to be laid out in a joint declaration would be agreed. That would be followed by detailed negotiations on a comprehensive package, including a draft treaty. Finally, there would be a referendum. The people of Gibraltar have turned that process on its head, having held a referendum that sent a resounding message to the Government. Some 99 per cent. opposed the principle of joint sovereignty on an 88 per cent. turnout—impressive by anyone's standards. There is not even agreement on the framework that the Government have sought to agree with Spain, so there can be no prospect of agreement with the people of Gibraltar while those basic principles remain in flux.

In the modern world, attitudes to sovereignty have evolved. The United Kingdom comprises different countries that have shared their sovereignty, and the EU will have countries that have pooled theirs. Joint sovereignty need not be a bad thing, and it might be worth considering. However, it must be understood and accepted by the people who are affected. What does joint sovereignty entail?

I will not. How would Spain benefit from that joint sovereignty? Would the United Kingdom retain the vestiges of legal sovereignty while Spain had all the practical advantages of sovereignty? Why the secrecy? Nobody can be expected to explore the concept seriously while the practicalities and principles are barely considered.

In last July's statement, the Foreign Secretary said that it had to be clear to people that there would be a permanence to any joint sovereignty arrangement. What guarantees can he offer, when the very idea of joint sovereignty represents a major step forward of which the Gibraltarians are seriously distrustful? There were other principles that the Foreign Secretary said had been agreed on more self-government and on the retention of British customs and ways of life, and on institutions. It is hard to disagree with any of those, but the details are again lacking and the reality is unclear.

The Government have become mired in a process of their own making. They are distrusted by the people of Gibraltar and cannot even obtain Spain's agreement to their chosen core principles. We are dealing not with some obscure trade deal, but with the future of real people. The Government's discussions should now be with the Gibraltarians, not the Spanish. When the Government made constitutional changes in the UK after 1997, they won support in referendums for the principles of devolution before the details were debated in Parliament. Those principles had been discussed for years and the detail of what was to follow was largely understood as well. Gibraltar has not been afforded the same treatment, and the November referendum delivered a predictable response.

Now is the time to set out a new process, build up trust, prepare more detailed proposals, allow proper discussion and reflection, allow the Gibraltarians full participation in those negotiations and ensure that there is a referendum on the principles of the plans, rather than presenting a fait accompli at the end of the process. All that will take time, but it is the least that the people of Gibraltar deserve.

I am about to conclude. If the prize of resolving the situation in Gibraltar is to be obtained, it will be only with the consent of the people. The Government repeatedly say that they accept that principle, but they must try harder to earn trust and win that consent.

10.39 am

Thank you for your forbearance this morning, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I had the great pleasure of visiting Gibraltar in January, and I am pleased that we have the opportunity to debate this matter. It is certainly timely that we should. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on raising this important issue, on putting forward an eloquent case and on dealing, in the most dignified way, with some truly fatuous interventions. Her response and that of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) effectively dealt with the matters raised in those interventions.

I have never read a report more damaging to any Government than that published by the Foreign Affairs Committee last November. What a catalogue of blunders it proved to be. It is a very special Government who manage to obtain the worst of all worlds. When the history of this Government is written, their disgraceful conduct towards the people of Gibraltar will, perhaps, be seen as their most shameful failure.

I applaud the remarks of the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox). We heard a resounding no from the people of Gibraltar to the Government's plan to share their sovereignty with Spain. They have made it absolutely plain that they reject the Government's brow-beating behaviour regarding their democratic rights.

The policy on Gibraltar that the Government have pursued for 18 months lies in ruins. It is almost incredible that they have alienated the people of Gibraltar, led Spain up the garden path and infuriated the people of Britain. That is a mind-boggling triple whammy of sheer incompetence. I hope that we will hear from the Minister some recognition of the Government's cack-handed, bullying policy on Gibraltar. Perhaps he will even apologise.

We must, however, look to the future. We now have the opportunity to put the Brussels process on the foundation that it should always have had. That starts with the Government making an effort to rebuild the Gibraltarians' trust in Britain. I agree with the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) on how that can be done on a number of levels. The Gibraltarians have been spun against and they have had accusations thrown against them. It is not surprising that they do not believe that the Government have their best interests at heart. Indeed, they have very good grounds for believing that the Government see them as a pawn in EU diplomatic activity, rather than as a British territory for whose well-being they are responsible.

The Government must immediately make it plain that they are willing to work with the people of Gibraltar. They must recognise that sovereignty cannot be on the table. Of course, there are difficulties between Spain and Gibraltar. I hope and believe that the Government want those matters to be resolved. However, they have not achieved very much so far. I remember that the Minister's predecessor made much of Spain's offer of new telephone lines. That turned out to be less than it seemed.

The Government should concentrate on those issues where agreement can be reached. We need to sort out the problems of access, communications and free movement between Gibraltar and Spain. Those are the practical issues that must be resolved. A normalisation of relations between Spain and Gibraltar must be our aim, and those issues should be solvable. A solution would benefit not only Gibraltar but the surrounding areas of Spain that are linked to Gibraltar. Gibraltar itself, given its extraordinary economic success story, could be an economic hub for the western Mediterranean. That will never happen while Spain remains fixated on the issue of sovereignty. It is time for us all to move on.

Talks must proceed on the basis of two flags and three voices, not only in a practical sense, but in the right spirit, which is why they have foundered before. All three parties must be fully respected. The full agenda of talks, and the limits within which they are taking place, should be fully and openly disclosed.

The Minister may be well aware of reports in last week's "La Razón" that at the Azores summit a deal was struck on shared sovereignty over Gibraltar. Given the Government's recent written answers on the matter, he can imagine that I read that with some surprise. Can he comment on that? Has any arrangement been made in which Spain is to assume command of the straits of Gibraltar under NATO? Is NATO's article 5 to be extended to Spanish territory on and off the north African coast? Is the right to over-fly Gibraltar to be extended to Spanish war planes? Do the Government plan to allow Spanish planes to use the Gibraltar airfield in those circumstances? If any of the above have to be done, what consultation will there be with the Government of Gibraltar? I hope that the Minister will be able to enlighten us.

In January, I had the great pleasure of visiting Gibraltar with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), the Opposition defence spokesman. While there, we were briefed by the Royal Navy. I had not realised how important are our defence interests there. The world today is tragically marked by terrorist activity, and a safe haven for ships and their personnel is vital, especially if nuclear capability is involved.

The plain fact is that the Royal Navy and the navies of friends such as the US feel comfortable and can find security in Gibraltar. Defence personnel are made very welcome by the Gibraltarians. There is probably no other comparably safe port or anchorage in the Mediterranean. Gibraltar also has the most important communications facilities. We simply cannot jeopardise the efficiency of our defence presence or antagonise the host community—it would be beyond irresponsibility. As for the host community, there can be very few places where followers of the Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths co-exist so successfully—I saw that with my own eyes.

Gibraltar is not a partisan matter. Some respect the Gibraltarians' democratic rights, but others, including the Government and some Liberal Democrat Members, do not. I hope that they have learned that sovereignty is not up for grabs. The Government and our Spanish friends should stop insulting the Gibraltarians and start engaging with them. Progress can be made only where there is trust, and that trust must be earned. I will be interested to hear how the Government plan to restore that trust, and what they said to the Spanish to encourage them to play their part. I fully accept the point made by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) about Spain being a valuable NATO and EU ally; and Gibraltar has to be dealt with in that spirit.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) said, one way to restore the impaired relations between the Foreign Office and Gibraltar would be for the Government, without hesitation, to throw their weight behind a fitting celebration of 300 years of a British Gibraltar. I know how much the Gibraltarians would appreciate a visit from an appropriate personage. The Royal Mail is not planning to mark the event with a commemorative stamp, which is a great pity; although it is late in the day, the Government could try to persuade it to change its mind. In any case, we will listen with interest to what the Minister has to say on the matter. Plans must have been made. If a Minister—even the Minister for Europe—were to go there to celebrate those 300 years, he might be given a rather friendlier reception than the Foreign Secretary received last year.

Taking up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), who has left the Chamber, I remind the Minister that an incoming Conservative Government would not feel bound by an agreement to surrender Gibraltar's sovereignty which had been reached without the assent of the people of Gibraltar. I hope that the Government will draw a line under the fiasco that has been their policy towards our British cousins on the Rock, and that they will produce a policy based on principle and not expediency.

10.48 am

This has been an excellent debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on obtaining it. We have heard some good speeches and some partisan knock-about. I have not read the debates on Gibraltar that took place in the 1980s, but hon. Members in my party may have made grave accusations against the Government of the day. We can take that as the small change of parliamentary debates.

Some important and concrete points have been made, but I cannot reply to them all because I do not have much time; I shall write to hon. Members on points that I cannot answer this morning.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending talks with the Government of Malta. It was a pleasure to spend time in that valiant island. The US aircraft carrier Iwo Jima was docked in the grand harbour to allow its sailors to enjoy some rest and recreation after their achievements, in Iraq. We should not forget that Spain was the closest and staunchest ally of the United Kingdom and the United States in tackling Saddam Hussein. Downstairs in Westminster Hall, preparations are being made for tomorrow's Victoria Cross and George Cross celebrations. In thinking of Malta, one also thinks of Gibraltar, which was the gateway to a Mediterranean that was not under fascist control in the 1940s. It is important for the whole of Europe to remember that.

Some 300 years ago, a combined fleet of the Netherlands and Great Britain took possession of Gibraltar. It became British in that it was ceded to the Crown in July 1713 under the treaty of Utrecht. It is worth reading—in English translation as the original is, of course, in Spanish and Latin—the last sentence of the treaty:
"And in case it shall hereafter seem meet to the Crown of Great Britain to grant, sell or by any means to alienate therefrom the propriety of the said town of Gibraltar, it is hereby agreed and concluded that the preference of having the sale shall always be given to the Crown of Spain before any others."
That is a solemn treaty from which we cannot resile.

Another solemn agreement was entered into by the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, Lady Thatcher. In article 1(c) of the Brussels agreement, issued after a meeting with the Spanish Foreign Minister in November 1984, her Foreign Secretary agreed on her behalf to:
"The establishment of a negotiating process aimed at overcoming all the differences between them"—
that is, the British and Spanish Governments—
"over Gibraltar and at promoting co-operation on a mutually beneficial basis on economic, cultural, touristic, aviation, military and environmental matters. Both sides accept that the issues of sovereignty will be discussed in that process."
It is not for me to deny commitments made by the noble Lady. Some of my hon. Friends may wish to, but that is the agreement that she solemnly entered into with the Government of Spain.

We have repeatedly affirmed, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said, that
"there will be no change in the sovereignty of Gibraltar unless the people of Gibraltar agree to it."—[Official Report, 5 November 2002; Vol. 392, c. 136.]
That is why the Chief Minister, Mr. Peter Caruana, said in his new year's message:
"Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have recently made clear in parliamentary statements that there would be no change in the sovereignty of Gibraltar against our wishes. I believe that this assurance is totally reliable."
It is regrettable that it is necessary for me, as a Minister, to read that into the record. However, we have heard statements impugning those solemn assurances, and suggestions that solemn agreements entered into by Her Majesty's Government should be torn up.

I want to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), in particular, that since I have been Minister for Europe I have received no suggestion, paper or other document from any official to the effect that there will be any change in the sovereignty of Gibraltar without the agreement of its people. I have the deepest respect for the commitment and service to the Government of the diplomat who was mentioned, and for his integrity and honour. However, Government policy, as set out by the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and myself, is clear and unambiguous. We have to move forward. I have sought not to stoke up any of the fires on the Gibraltar issue, as it is so easy to do.

When the former Prime Minister, Lord Callaghan, met his opposite number, the first Prime Minister of a post-Franco democratic Spain, Adolfo Suárez González, the issue of Gibraltar was raised, and Lord Callaghan said, "There's an old English saying: you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." That saying exists in Spanish, too. The point is that if, 25 years ago, the Government of Spain had shown a more conciliatory approach to the people of Gibraltar, they would have responded, and the vision so excellently drawn by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) might have been realised. That is to say, Gibraltar would have been at the heart of that part of Europe as a regional hub for economic excellence and tourism with an effective, operational airport.

It is worth noting that the then Chief Minister, Sir Joshua Hassan, came to an agreement in 1987 that would have allowed the problem of Gibraltar's aviation prospects and its airport to be solved, but he was repudiated by the Assembly in Gibraltar. I have no problem with that; that was the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, not the British Government, trying to solve a problem for the people of Gibraltar, but not perhaps meeting the requirements of everyone on the Rock.

There are 30,000 Gibraltarians. They are British and they are friends of ours. Some 20,000 of them are eligible to vote and, as we know, 99 per cent. of them cast their vote in the referendum. Of course one has to take cognisance of that. I appreciated the approach of the hon. Member for Upminster and my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox).

The hon. Lady stated that there is co-operation between Spain and Gibraltar on customs services to tackle smuggling, which is a good point to place on the record. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting referred to the need for talks with Spain, which is clearly the Government's position. I do not want to re-run the old video, as the hon. Lady put it, but the plain fact is that there was a two-flags, three-voices offer during the talks last year, and it was not taken up. I respect the sense of that decision, but I regret it. Two flags, three voices will always be the way to solve problems between Gibraltar and Spain.

The hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) referred to the Azores talks. I can assure them that Gibraltar was not discussed there. Believe it or not, Ministers talk regularly to their opposite numbers in Spain about a whole range of global and European issues, without Gibraltar having to feature. Again, I pay tribute to the leadership shown by Prime Minister Aznar, against much of the public opinion in Spain. He was a very brave leader on the matter of dealing with Saddam Hussein, which was of great importance to the world. Of course, Gibraltar provided an important staging post for British forces en route to Iraq.

On the question of telephone lines, we want Spain to recognise the 00 350 dialling code for Gibraltar. That seems completely sensible and self-evident, but, alas, hon. Members have referred endlessly to sovereignty in the debate. I do not want to stray into other areas, but, in the context of the EU, some of the Members present are not as keen as some of us on sharing sovereignty with our European partners. So, of course, Madrid has the absolute sovereign right to decide what it wants to do about telephone access in its territory. The British Government are supporting the private complaints by GibTel and Gibraltar Nynex Communications to the European Commission on the problem of mobile phone access. We hope that Europe can play a very constructive role on the issue. A second channel has been open since March 21, but delays continue. I regret that because I do not think they are necessary.

The full opening of borders to commercial and personal traffic—many Gibraltarians have houses in Spain—would help to defuse the situation. That would be a welcome step forward by Spain.

We must continue talking. We shall talk to our friends and to British citizens in Gibraltar. We need to tackle these issues constructively through dialogue with Spain and Gibraltar, so we shall continue to seek opportunities to do so. I thank all hon. Members for this useful debate, which has allowed us to put many points on the record.

Emergency Broadcasting Systems

11 am

In my role as chair of the National Council for Civil Protection, I share the unease felt by many emergency planning practitioners that many of the existing blueprints for emergency planning have been found to be outdated, insufficient in scope, practically unfeasible or, in some cases, absent. An emergency broadcasting system suited to the needs of the 21st century is one of the most notable omissions. [Interruption.]

Order. Will hon. Members leave the Chamber if they wish to conduct a discussion?

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

We live in different times: the threat has changed and technology has moved on since the time of the cold war. As a community, the UK faces an increase in both natural and man-made disasters, whether as a result of climate change or failing technology. Consequently, we face severe flooding, train crashes and incidents involving hazardous materials, apparently with increasing regularity. Following the events of 11 September, we face the threat of random chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear—CBRN—suicide and conventional attacks by international terrorist groups, rather than invasion by hostile nations.

Maintaining public confidence in authorities has been shown to be instrumental in preventing mass panic and facilitating post-attack procedures. One of the most effective methods of maintaining such confidence is through communication and information dissemination. However, the Government's current guidelines significantly underestimate that vital aspect of managing and limiting damage following an attack or large-scale incident. For example, if there were an outbreak of a high-risk infectious disease such as smallpox, NHS Direct would be the only information service available to the public, apart from, presumably, the UK Resilience website. It is likely that, in the event of such an outbreak, the NHS Direct telephone service would be overwhelmed. It is therefore essential to provide supplementary sources of up-to-date information and advice for the public that can be easily accessed and readily understood.

The Government's website, UK Resilience, contains publicly accessible information on dealing with certain types of attack. However, that is insufficient to ensure the widespread dissemination of information, as it assumes that everyone has access to the web and that those who have will consult the site in an emergency. Although we might want to see 100 per cent. penetration of the internet, that is not the position at present, so the onus must be on the Government to ensure that the public are aware of possible responses to emergencies. The Government must consider a variety of media, as following, say, a nuclear incident or a large explosion, some communication networks, such as the telephone or television, may no longer function or may function only partly. They must also ensure that access to information is available to all sectors of society, not just to those with mobile phones or computers.

Any information strategy should be proactive as well as reactive in its outlook. Therefore, the Government should not rely entirely on post-attack dissemination of information. An informed, prepared public are less likely to panic in an emergency if they are aware of suitable responses that they can make themselves and are assured of an effective response by the authorities. Up-to-date generic advice on dealing with incidents should be made readily available in the form of leaflets and posters, as was discussed during a debate in this place a couple of months ago.

We can and should prepare now for eventualities for which we know that we are ill prepared and barely informed on. A recent episode of the BBC's "Panorama" suggested that many of the routes and modes designated for mass evacuation from London are unlikely to cope with large numbers of people in a short time. The rush hour demonstrates that daily, and evacuation information is not readily available to the public.

It is important to satisfy the vision that the national steering committee on public warning and information has of an integrated public warning and information package across the UK designed to meet local, regional and national needs. It is worth saying that we are not talking about a siren warning system. That was dismantled in 1992–93 and would be inappropriate in this day and age, as well as too costly to roll out. We need—again, in the words of the national steering committee—

"a coherent national policy on warning and informing the public … to increase the resilience of the UK".
Like the NSC, I acknowledge that public warning and information systems have improved. Parts of the jigsaw are already in place locally and nationally—certainly in relation to flood prevention and response to flood incidents—but the NSC identifies significant issues that remain: the absence of clear, statutory responsibilities for warning the public during many types of incident; the lack of a national culture of public awareness of how to respond to large-scale incidents, an aspect in which the USA is better prepared than the UK; and the ability to warn a static and transient population at all times of the day and night.

For those reasons, in my ten-minute Bill on 1 April, I called for an emergency broadcasting system with the ability to broadcast messages widely across different media and channels. That would save lives. The risk of doing without such an emergency broadcasting system is that information will not be provided, that it will be provided in an inconsistent fashion or that it will be provided to people at different times. That could lead to uncertainty and confusion when what is needed is clarity and confidence.

I hope that the Minister agrees—I know that he does—that, given recent incidents and events, a strategy for public information and reassurance is needed. How does he see that strategy developing? We know that there is a civil contingencies Bill, and we hope that it will be introduced soon. Can the Minister provide any information on the date when a draft Bill, White Paper or Green Paper will be available for consideration? When the Bill emerges, will it address public warning and information?

The sirens and new technology working group—the SNTG—recommends that the new legislative framework set out which agencies have responsibility for issuing public warnings and that a single national agency be made responsible for strategy and policy. What position does the Minister adopt on that? Does he think, as does the SNTG, that a single local agency should be made responsible for the command and control of public warnings prior to, during or after a major incident?

The NSC has suggested that any national policy needs to be able to respond to a variety of scenarios and that, during a catastrophic event with a short lead time, there is a need to contact a static person in their own dwelling, a static person in their place of work, a traveller on foot, a traveller in a vehicle and a traveller wishing to know about events elsewhere, for example, if they are moving into an area with possible flooding or a remote location with severe weather conditions. It will clearly be difficult to identify a technological solution that can address all those scenarios.

If we are to strengthen UK Resilience, a multi-channel strategy is the only way forward. I wonder whether the Minister agrees that the Government need to take a lead on developing such an emergency broadcasting system using a range of media. If we want national standards and protocols, the dissemination of good practice and a solution to the problem of responding to emergencies, the Government must take the lead. The Government need to help to facilitate the introduction of such systems and may need to legislate to introduce new licence requirements for telecommunications and broadcast media. I wonder whether they are considering the idea and are willing to entertain it.

Finally, if the Minister has free time in his diary tonight, will he be tuning into the BBC 2 programme, "The Day Britain Stopped"? The publicity for that programme describes it as a powerful drama examining a devastating chain of events on 19 December 2003, which, according to the drama, leaves Britain paralysed. The scenario is that we are facing a national crisis because the transport infrastructure is unable to cope with daily traffic volumes. That does not sound like the future—we are already there: our roads are the most congested in Europe, our skies are the most crowded in the world and our rail network lurches from disaster to disaster. In the drama, a combination of events leads to the implosion of the transport system, strikes and an incident involving two planes.

The scenario is clearly alarmist, but the Minister would probably concede that its individual components have occurred and that it is possible to envisage freak circumstances in which they all occur simultaneously. If such circumstances were to arise, does he feel that the emergency planning system is resilient enough to cope? What sort of emergency broadcasting system does he believe would be best equipped to deal with such a catastrophe? He will know that there are various options, which are helpfully set out on a website called www.cell-alert.co.uk, including sirens, public address systems, television, radio, radio RDS, telephone, electricity power lines, SMS text messages and cell broadcasting.

Does the Minister favour any of those systems? I favour the cell broadcasting system, which, if I understand the technology correctly, enables a message to be sent almost instantly to every person who owns a mobile phone. The cells are regional, which allows a message to be targeted on a particular region or regions. That system should be combined with television and radio to cover those people who do not have access to a mobile phone, perhaps because they are elderly or are permanently at home. Have the Government estimated the cost of such a system? A combination of the cell system, television and radio would ensure the simultaneous delivery of information. Has an estimate been made of the time scale in which such a system could be rolled out?

In conclusion, we cannot afford to skimp on emergency broadcasting systems or opt for obsolete technology, and we certainly cannot afford to delay. I hope that the Minister can provide reassurance on all the fronts that I have outlined so that we can avoid the fiction of "The Day Britain Stopped" becoming a reality.

11.15am

I have listened with great interest to the debate on emergency broadcasting. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on securing time to debate this important issue. Clearly, it is a subject of national importance, and the Government take it seriously.

On 1 April, when the hon. Gentleman introduced his ten-minute Bill on the subject, he stated:
"In times of crisis the public need the right quantity and quality of information, and they need to know where to access that information. It must be clear and consistent and it must come from a reliable official source."—[Official Report, 1 April 2003; Vol. 402, c. 798.]
No one would argue with that view. I am pleased to be able to confirm that a framework already exists to achieve those objectives. It is built on good communications practice and is underpinned by close working relationships with the broadcast and written media and telecommunications companies. It is based on sound, practical experience of what works. Its effectiveness has been demonstrated several times in recent years in a wide variety of real-life scenarios, at local, regional and national levels. In short, we already have an emergency broadcasting system, and we are not in the business of reinventing the wheel.

I recognise, of course, that we have much more to learn and that improvements can always be made. We are anything but complacent. Each time the system is used, it is evaluated; each time it is evaluated, arrangements are reviewed, lessons are learned and arrangements are accordingly strengthened. The framework has the scope and flexibility to incorporate increasingly sophisticated technologies as they become available and offer new opportunities. In that sense, it is and will continue to be a work in progress for the Government, but we are already in a position to deliver clear and consistent information to the British public.

The hon. Gentleman might find it helpful if I explain more about the nature of the existing arrangements. Long-standing protocols exist for warning the public in the event of a major incident. The emergency services warn and advise those who are in the immediate vicinity of an incident. It is vital that the people who are immediately affected receive and respond to instructions that are tailored to the precise nature of the event in question. Hon. Members will be familiar with examples of large-scale evacuations in recent years in central Manchester and at the Aintree race course, which have demonstrated the effectiveness of such arrangements.

The public who are further away from the incident will be advised in line with the Government's "go in, stay in, tune in" doctrine. We have standing arrangements with the media to transmit detailed warning advice and guidance to the public through TV, radio, teletext, Ceefax and websites. Such arrangements enable swift and comprehensive coverage of the population, appropriate to existing and anticipated threat levels.

The hon. Gentleman sought leave on 1 April to introduce a Bill to require the Secretary of State to co-ordinate the provision of a multimedia broadcasting system, but such co-ordination already exists. As such, there is no need for legislation. The Government Information and Communication Service in the Cabinet Office leads on behalf of central Government in this area and maintains close working relations with all branches of the media. It agrees formal protocols that are based on the tried and tested arrangements that are already in place. The protocols will guarantee that information that the public need can be quickly processed and validated by the media to ensure its authenticity.

GICS works closely with the Media Emergency Forum, which is a national body that brings together the media, emergency planning experts from the blue light services, local authorities and industry. It has been a productive relationship. A study was produced and published on the UK Resilience website of the lessons to be learned in the aftermath of the tragic events of 11 September. That was followed up with detailed examinations of particular issues such as the important matter of media accreditation. Recently, an exercise was conducted to challenge the resilience of the wide array of communications equipment that the Government and the media would need to deliver information to the public at a time of crisis.

GICS also works closely with the national steering committee on warning and informing the public. That committee provides advice on the range of technical mechanisms available both for the delivery of information and for alerting the public. GICS plays a key role in co-ordinating the provision of that information from within the Government. It runs the news co-ordination centre in the Cabinet Office, which ensures that the Government can deliver the clear and consistent information that the public need at such times. For example, over recent years it has supported the response to Y2K, foot and mouth, and, more recently, the firefighters' strike and the war in Iraq.

It is important to keep in mind the scale of the threat that we face. The threat from terrorism remains real and serious. We are maintaining a state of heightened readiness in the UK and the public should remain alert, but not alarmed. With the single exception of a wartime missile attack, for which the national attack warning system was designed, one size of advice rarely fits all the circumstances. Even for an event on the scale of 11 September, different advice would be needed in different parts of the country. Many areas would simply need to be told that they were not in danger, but that they should avoid calling the affected areas and overloading the telephone system. Those closer to the incident may need more detailed advice and those directly affected would be under direct instructions from the emergency services on site.

The value and effectiveness of local broadcasters, particularly local radio, has been amply demonstrated. For example, during recent major flooding, BBC Radio York was able to run a 24-hour news and information service keeping local residents up to date and offering up-to-the-minute advice and support to those affected by the flooding.

I would like to reinforce the praise given by the hon. Gentleman in his speech on 1 April to the BBC initiative "Connecting in a Crisis". The introduction states that the initiative is designed
"to achieve a shared state of professional readiness"
between local broadcasters and emergency planning communities. It was brought about with input and support from the Media Emergency Forum in general and from GICS in particular. It is a very valuable contribution to the development of expertise and understanding across the English regions.

The initiative is about warning and informing in the interests of public safety. It concentrates on delivering essential information quickly and is not about wider issues of news reporting. It highlights good practice and innovative partnership ideas from around the country and encourages joint planning and preparation.

Of course, on behalf of my constituents, I am particularly looking forward to seeing the Scottish equivalent that the BBC is currently preparing. I can reassure colleagues that the BBC is working on editions for Wales, Northern Ireland and the Asian network. I understand that the aim is to complete the series by the summer.

The BBC and GICS, through the Government news network, are together holding a series of seminars in the English regions to raise awareness of "Connecting in a Crisis" and the good practice that it advocates. The programme will be complete by the end of May.

The development of the initiative has grown alongside the introduction of a regional network of media emergency forums. They will mirror the function and range of interests of the national body, but be able to apply the lessons learned on a smaller scale and tackle issues that may be of particular relevance to specific localities.

GICS operations staff work closely with the national steering committee on warning and informing the public. They provide a secretariat for its meetings and host the committee website alongside UK Resilience. Lord Macdonald of Tradeston and I had a most useful meeting with the chairman, David Hay, and the chairs of his three working groups just before Easter. I would like to take this opportunity to record the Government's thanks for all the hard work and guidance that the committee has provided to us over the years on the development of a national warning strategy.

The Minister may be about to come to my point. He mentioned the national steering committee. Does he recognise that it has concerns, to which I referred, about the absence of clear statutory responsibilities for warning the public, the lack of a national culture of awareness among the public, and the inability to warn a transient population at all times of the day and night?

I fear that the hon. Gentleman anticipates the remarks that I am about to make on some of the committee's specific proposals.

The committee's advice has provided an essential part of the building blocks contributing to the evolution of Government policy in the area. In particular, the committee has done a substantial amount of work on alternative delivery methods for public alerts. Its sirens and new technology sub-group envisages a very limited role for sirens in a much broader integrated warning system. Sirens are currently used in some areas that are prone to flooding and on major industrial sites subject to major accident, hazard and radiation regulations. However, the committee's report in September 2002 stated:

"The Sirens and New Technology Working Group believes that the current threat status, and the extreme installation, annual maintenance, and management costs do not warrant the implementation of a new national siren system at present".
Many developments in technology may, in due course, be built into the existing framework of arrangements, but their incorporation may not be as straightforward or cost neutral as has sometimes been suggested. The hon. Gentleman referred to text messages, e-mails and faxes and was right to say that a huge amount of unsolicited material is sent daily by some of the media. I would argue that therein lies a key challenge. At present, such material is easy to produce and difficult to authenticate, so it carries limited credibility. Without credibility, it would have no value for the purpose that we are discussing today. Such problems will, I am sure, be solved eventually, but no quick fix is available at the moment and it is important that work continues. Both the City of London police and the Environment Agency have run trials of messaging systems that deliver information to individuals who subscribe to that service. Private sector companies are offering similar subscription services commercially. Validity is dealt with by "opting-in", but I would argue that comprehensive cover, as described by the hon. Gentleman, is lost under the system operating at present.

The City of London police operate a scheme whereby security and crime-related information can be relayed, via pager or text message, to businesses in the City. It was launched in 1993 as a major incident early-warning system, but the scope of the scheme has expanded and is now a valuable means of communication between the police and the business community. The scheme is now being extended to the Metropolitan police area in London. The Government take seriously their responsibilities for ensuring that effective systems are in place for warning and informing the public. We have the mechanisms for doing that, and since 11 September the emergency arrangements for warning the public, both nationally and locally, have been reviewed and, where necessary, enhanced. Tailored local warning systems are in place in areas such as those subject to flooding or close to major chemical plants. Sadly, a long period of fighting terrorism in this country has ensured that the police have well-practised procedures for handling local incidents, particularly in urban areas.

The Government recognise that simple, robust and widely available systems, particularly local radio, have an important role to play in supporting communities during an emergency and relaying official advice and information. The Government have fully supported the BBC's recent initiative "Connecting in a Crisis" to encourage closer links between its local radio stations and other local services for emergency planning and disaster management. The GICS has arrangements in place to warn the public in the event of emergencies with a potential national impact. Those arrangements closely involve the police and include broadcasters. Existing agreements and systems will ensure the dissemination of public warnings through the whole range of radio and television services, including Ceefax, teletext and websites. I do not believe that we need to create an emergency broadcasting system because we already have one.

11.28am

Sitting suspended until Two o 'clock.

Sudan

2 pm

I am delighted to have the opportunity to debate the vital issue of Sudan. I understand that peace talks resumed in Machakos last Saturday, and that prior to the recommencement of those discussions both sides expressed confidence that the new phase could bring about a final agreement to end the war. Frankly, I think that few things in the world can be as important as this issue. At the very least 2 million people have died— goodness knows how one estimates it—and 4 million people have been displaced. It is said that one in eight of the world's refugees originate from Sudan. A vast diaspora of able, talented people have been lost to their country. The latest round of fighting and war, which amounts to the last 20 years, has devastated the largest country in Africa.

Apart from a respite between 1972 and 1983, the country has been at war since independence in 1955. Members of the all-party Sudan group travelled to the country just over a year ago. They went to the north and the south, to the cities and the countryside, and they had talks with the Government, the Sudan People's Liberation Army, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, other opposition parties and civil society at large. Last April, people talked to us of peace. I believe that Sudan wants peace and that nobody in the world knows the vicious reality of war better than the people of Sudan.

The Government have excelled in the careful, painstaking, patient, highly skilled and principled diplomacy that has been required to help the negotiations and to support the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, or IGAD, process in the search for peace. I am proud of that record. The work of the Sudan unit, which was set up between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, is superb. That work reflects great credit on all the Ministers and officials involved. In particular, it reflects on my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short). It is highly appropriate today to pay tribute to her compassion, commitment and wholehearted resolve to ease the problems of war and poverty which exist in Africa on a grotesque scale. I pay tribute to the work that she has done over the past six years.

Above all, the progress that has been achieved so far at Machakos reflects great credit on General Sumbeiyo, the Kenyan chair and chief negotiator at the talks, on the Government of Sudan and on the SPLA and SPLM negotiators. So far agreement has been reached on a referendum on self-determination for the south after a six-year period, on the non-imposition of sharia in the south and on democratisation and regional development. Those issues were brought to our attention when we visited Sudan last April, and Sudanese constituents of mine first raised them with me years ago, when they came to my surgery and explained why they were in this country. They are long-running, consistent and heartfelt demands.

The Machakos agreement is a real sign of progress. These are historic developments that create the conditions for the Sudanese people themselves—not anyone else—to decide the future of their country. They provide the best opportunity for 50 years for those who believe in a united Sudan on the one hand, and for those who believe in self-determination and the separation of the south on the other, to resolve the matter democratically, fairly and in peace. Instead of war the people of Sudan could have open debate. They could have persuasion through argument and example rather than through the gun or the helicopter gunship.

The six-year interim period will be an opportunity for those who want a united Sudan to show their fellow Sudanese that they can have a better life there. On the other hand it will be an opportunity for those who want self-determination to show that the south can rule and manage itself well. Above all it will be an opportunity for those people of Sudan who simply want a much better life for themselves and their families in any part of the country to decide what they want for the future. There is a huge amount more to do and I would be grateful to the Minister for any insight that he could give us on the future development of our Government's policy towards Sudan. There are still serious issues to resolve. Despite the memorandum of understanding on the cessation of hostilities and humanitarian access, we have still had serious breaches of the ceasefire.

Fighting continues around the oilfield areas in the western upper Nile, and far to the west we seem to have an emerging conflict in Darfur. The verification and monitoring team have been refused security clearance by the Government of Sudan. Despite the fact that Sudan's human rights status at the UN has been upgraded and that there will be no more monitoring from the UN human rights rapporteur, there are still almost weekly reports of political arrests.

I want to raise a point to which I hope my hon. Friend will respond. It is a great sadness that Gerhard Baum has not been reappointed. I wonder whether we could ask the Minister what pressure the British Government have brought to bear to make sure that if Gerhard Baum is not reappointed, someone is given that role, because it is so important for the UN.

My hon. Friend makes his point clearly and well. I agree with all that he says. We still have daily reports of political arrests, newspaper closures and torture. Despite the progress at Machakos there are still crucial issues of power and wealth sharing and security. The situation of three contentious areas, Abyei, the Nuba mountains and Funj, is crucial. When we get the final agreement at Machakos, there will be an overriding and pressing need to ensure that its peace and political agreement are sustained. It will be imperative to ensure the embedding of peace, democracy, human rights, and economic and social development, and above all to build the confidence of Sudanese people that the new condition of their country or countries can be permanent, rather than harking back to the Addis Ababa agreement. We then had a respite from war but not, in the end, a sustainable peace.

There are key issues to be resolved for the people of Sudan. What will be the UN's role in verification, monitoring and peacekeeping? How will civil society and the wide range of opposition groups that have so far been excluded—perhaps necessarily—from the negotiations at Machakos be involved and engaged in the future development of the country? They have a fundamentally important role. There are many armed groups and militias that, again, have not been involved in the peace process. How will the issues raised by their presence and continued activity be resolved? How will the world move from what has, I think, been the biggest humanitarian relief enterprise that it has ever seen to the provision of development aid? How will that be coordinated between agencies and Sudanese institutions to ensure that it is effective and sustainable? What crucial developments must take place before the six-year interim period begins, and when during the process will we see effective and open elections?

Sudan is a potentially wealthy country with considerable oil reserves, which must be used for the betterment of Sudanese society, the development of the country and the interests of all the people of Sudan. What will be the impact of the extractive industries initiative on the absolutely essential needs to make oil revenues transparent and to ensure that they truly benefit the people of Sudan? How can the process of debt relief and assistance be benchmarked against progress on peace, democracy and human rights? Will there be effective co-ordination between international organisations and the EU on that?

Given that there is a large population of Sudanese people in this country and elsewhere in the world, how can we build the capacity of the Sudanese diaspora to return and to make a significant contribution to a country devastated by war? Last week, I was with a different all-party group in Angola where one of the inspirational things to be seen is the 2 million or so people moving within the country, who have come from outside it—from Zambia and from the Democratic Republic of the Congo—literally to rebuild their lives.

In the past few days, I have met people with skills and training, acquired in countries such as Zambia, which they are now looking to put to good use in their own country, Angola. How can that country assist the Sudanese people who have lived there, often for many decades? Many of them have important skills that could benefit the people of Sudan, but others need help to develop skills that could be used if they went back there. How can we help to build the capacity of the Sudanese diaspora?

I fully accept that I have asked far too many questions for the Minister to answer today, but this debate is part of a process. The issues of Sudan are raised regularly in the House. There are regular meetings of the all-party group, which brings together many Sudanese people from across the country. I hope that contact within the all-party group; between MPs and their constituents; between Sudanese people and people concerned about Sudan in this country; and among parliamentarians, Ministers and officials, can help to clarify many issues. Sudanese organisations, representatives and individuals, European and worldwide organisations, and Governments and NGOs can all be brought together. One of the great advantages of this place is that we can bring so many people together and bring so much intelligence, knowledge, experience and commitment to bear on problems.

It was an absolute privilege to visit Sudan last year as part of the all-party group. I very much hope that we will be able to go back later this year. Among the desperate circumstances of a country that has been ravaged by war—and has gone through the worst experiences that people can go through—one acute impression that remains with me is that of Sudan's huge potential, not only to resolve its problems, but to play a major role in the wider development of Africa, perhaps as part of a swathe of countries including Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Those huge, resource-rich countries from north-east to south-west Africa are, I hope, emerging from war. I hope that they will be involved in the new economic policies for African development.

Sudan is a country with a foot in both the African and Arab worlds. I believe that it presents an opportunity to build a bridge between Africa and the middle east. Sudan is well placed, geographically, socially and historically, to play that role. Arabs and Africans—Christianity and Islam—have for too long been characterised as being in bloody opposition to each other in Sudan. I hope that the country's cultural variety can become as important an asset as its oil wealth and other natural resources. Whether Sudan remains united or becomes two countries living side by side in peace and harmony, today is a good opportunity to face its problems, to welcome the progress that has been made, to look forward to the future and, above all, to wish all the people of Sudan well.

2.18pm

It is more than a year since I had the good fortune to introduce a debate on Sudan in this Chamber. We were anticipating conflict with Iraq, and I remember commenting that the Government had their hands full and their eyes firmly fixed on many other targets. However, we were glad that the former Secretary of State for International Development had focused her attention on the matter, along with the Americans, and that there was enormous good will from the people of this country to the people of Sudan, north and south, in their search for agreement. We all welcomed the appointment of Alan Goulty in his role of seeking to achieve progress. 1 believe he has done that.

My diocese of Salisbury has had a link with Sudan for more than a quarter of a century, and it is a very lively link. One can follow its progress on the diocesan website to see the exchanges and the actions among people in the Salisbury diocese, and the interaction with people in Sudan. One problem for the Sudan Churches is that they have hardly any money, so they rely on sources in this country. Therefore, I pay tribute to the Sudan Churches Association in the UK. It raises modest sums of money with which it keeps the churches in Sudan afloat by finding funds for each of the 24 bishops of the Anglican communion.

Yesterday, the Sudan Churches Association had a long-standing appointment with the Secretary of State for International Development. Sadly, by the time its delegates got to the meeting, the Secretary of State was gone. However, they were fortunate that Alan Goulty was in London, and they had an excellent meeting with him instead.

The Sudan Churches Association sought to establish what the role of the inter-faith communities in Sudan would be following the settlement that was so warmly expected. I get the impression from some reports that emerge that the talks are going better than it appeared at first. I hope that that is true. It seems to me that both sides recognise that there must be a compromise if we are to move forward. The goals being addressed by the peace talks are modest and realistic: people realise that, instead of giant leaps, there will be a modest, step-by-step approach to peace and a new world for the people of Sudan.

The original target for signing the agreement was the end of June. I regret to say that I believe that that is over-optimistic, not least because of the American Sudan Peace Act, which will be revisited in October. It is not likely that we will see much progress until then, so I simply hope that an agreement is signed by the end of 2003. That would be enormous progress. Something that has taken so long to achieve is more likely to stand the test of time.

What matters most is that the eventual agreement is translated into sustainable reality in the south, and I believe that the inter-faith communities are keen to look forward. We have all had enough of recriminations and looking back—indeed, looking back 80 years and more. We know about all that. The inter-faith communities, like almost everybody in Sudan, want to know what they can do to help to move things forward.

If an agreement can be signed, the environment for moving forward will become easier. The inter-faith communities will need to operate within the parameters of any agreement that is reached and work with the grain of that agreement. It is easy for us in Westminster to say that, given the horror of the past 20 years and more, it will be hugely difficult for anyone to be prepared to work with the grain of an agreement, when they cannot conceivably agree with every dot and comma. However, that has to happen: people must move forward with the new political realities. Above all, the initiatives must come from the Sudanese people. The faith communities and their strong supporters in the UK and elsewhere must help the people of Sudan to help themselves. That must be the tone of the approach of those in this country who wish to see progress in Sudan.

In modest ways, we can all help. For example, a computer expert from Salisbury recently travelled out for three weeks to train Sudanese nationals. He went to Aruha in Kenya, but he achieved an enormous amount there. Those of us who play with our computers every day and e-mail all round the world forget that if one is sitting in Sudan that is not so easy, as there is no help desk to phone—something that I do regularly—when things go wrong and one is not completely computer literate. Therefore, any help, however practical, is of enormous benefit and will become more important.

Another welcome development is that, just yesterday, two Sudanese youth leaders from Juba arrived in Salisbury for six months. They will work alongside the youth communities in my constituency, and I hope that that is the first of many exchanges. It has been extremely difficult to arrange visas for them, and the Foreign Office has a role to play in helping to facilitate such exchanges in both directions. I ask the Minister to do his best to ensure that no more obstacles, unless they are absolutely necessary, are put in the way of ensuring the free exchange of people with skills as we seek to help with the rebuilding of that country.

Another fine example is a young lady from Marlborough college who is going out on a gap exchange to work on a programme supervised by the Mothers Union in Sudan. She will be working at a basic level in the community, simply using the skills that she has acquired from her education in this country to try to help where she can and to learn from the people of Sudan about their problems, their skills and knowledge, their country and their relationship with nature, which she may not know about as someone from a rich background in this country.

Those are modest ways in which we can all help, and I hope that we swiftly see such improvements and more contact at a simple level between the peoples of these countries. I also hope that the Minister can give us an uplifting progress report and that we have another debate, hopefully within a year, so that we can see where we have got to. It is very important that the people of Sudan know that, here in London and in the House of Commons, we are following progress closely and making every possible effort to ensure that the peace process works in the long term.

2.26 pm

I am delighted to take part in this debate, particularly as I accompanied my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) to Sudan a year ago last April. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) who knows, loves and cares so much for Sudan. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) has also been to Sudan and will speak of her direct experience.

I shall not speak for long because it is important to obtain answers to the questions asked by my hon. Friend and that the Front Benches have an opportunity to look at the formal ways in which the Government and the Opposition can take the process forward. As my hon. Friend said, anyone who goes to Sudan immediately falls in love with it. It is a wonderful and diverse country with a rich history, but it has many problems. I have just struggled through the Deborah Scroggins book about Emma McCune who married Riek Machar. It shows the depth of the country's problems. Whether through Christian obligation or common humanity, we should, as a nation, do something about that because of our historical entanglement with Sudan, but others will also play a part.

I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre about the role of the UN special rapporteur. I make no apology for doing that, and I challenge my hon. Friend the Minister, not to explain how the negotiations are going, but to reply to a basic question about the role that the triumvirate—the United Kingdom, the United States and the Norway—is playing to ensure that everything possible is taking place appropriately following the Machakos agreement. I seek an assurance that the Americans are fully engaged in the process. From all the evidence to the all-party group during the past three or four years and particularly on the back of the Danforth initiatives, it seems that they are fully engaged, but, as is so often the case, other conflicts come and go.

One thing was imprinted on my brain when I went to Sudan. The plea was always made not to forget Sudan if other conflicts emerged. The history of the country is that it has always come low on the list of priorities. That is to our shame, and it is something that we must rectify. We must get it right now, because there will not be a better opportunity. Otherwise, the result will be another decade of conflict.

Therefore, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister in the nicest possible way whether he can assure us that the Americans are fully engaged, that they are totally behind the Machakos negotiations and that not only will they see the negotiations through to completion, which, as the hon. Member for Salisbury, who is my hon. Friend in this respect, rightly says should be by the end of this year, but that they will engage properly in rebuilding—or building, in some cases—the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre rightly concentrated on the issue that some of us feel most strongly about, which is human rights abuses. I am indebted to the Sudan Organisation Against Torture, which, to be fair, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office funds. It produces graphic reports—sometimes too graphic—of some of the abuses that occur in various parts of Sudan. We had the opportunity to talk to Sudanese judges when we were there and, by golly, that was an education. Some of us struggle with just one form of law. As far as I could make out, they work under five different forms of law. Christian judges may try a Muslim under sharia law in the south. That tends to change one's view of sharia, which is sometimes seen as a totally alien system.

It would be helpful to know what assistance we are providing for Sudan's incipient legal system. Without its being properly embedded, any chance of human rights, even with a peace settlement, will not come until some distant time in the future. It would be good to know what progress was being made to encourage a better system of justice not just in the south, which we saw, but in the north.

When we had our briefing with the Department for International Development and the FCO on our return from Sudan, we made it clear that we were keen to discuss how the primary education system could be further supported through teacher training initiatives, and to ensure that sufficient equipment was being supplied. A similar plea can be made for the health system.

We had a discussion—I put it no more strongly than that—with the former Secretary of State for International Development about the need to twin-track conflict resolution with capacity building in education and health to give people hope. Otherwise, they see the effort being made to stop the fighting but no actual improvement in their quality of life. I would appreciate it if my hon. Friend the Minister could give some assurances on that matter.

"Capacity building" is an awful term, but it is clear that what has bedevilled Sudan and resulted in lost opportunities is the political process. There are many conflicting political parties, all of which, in their own way, take a sincere stand, but the complexity and movement between sides make it difficult to achieve the stability that is needed to build peace. We heard from Alan Goulty about some interesting work done through training provided by the Government. It would be good to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister that that is continuing, that it is a vital part of Machakos and that we are seeing a genuine attempt to provide democratic structures by helping the political parties rather than replacing them. We might not describe the political parties as—I tread gently on this point—traditional, but the process has to start with what is available. Too many African countries have ended up with their less savoury elements running things, which is unacceptable.

My hon. Friend mentioned my next point, which I shall stress. It is crucial that the territorial integrity of Sudan, regardless of whether it is independence for north and south or condominium, remains intact. Sudan's problems sadly do not begin and end within its boundaries. Eritrea and Ethiopia, which are unstable regimes, are next door and there is also the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is the most unstable of the lot. Furthermore, the Ugandan army seems to have been charging across southern Sudan looking for the Lord's Resistance Army. Sudan is trying to provide stability and it cannot help to have armies encroaching on to its territory. That important issue needs to be fully explored.

Finally—I expected my hon. Friend to mention this because he has been chasing around Angola with Joseph Fiennes—I commend the Christian Aid booklet "Fuelling poverty—Oil, war and corruption", which is worth plugging partly because Christian Aid helped to fund us to go to Sudan. Sudan is bedevilled by its status as an oil state. We know the history of the fighting in the oilfields. I am not pointing the finger, although most of us know who is to blame. One of the ways in which the developed world can exert pressure is by saying, "We want to help you develop your resources, but that can only be achieved when you have peace and stability. We are not going to use your resources as a way to exploit one side and to damage the other."

The history of oil exploration in Sudan has involved companies saying that they want to improve the quality of life of people who live in the area and then suddenly moving them out. We met some of the oil people when we were in Khartoum. They made all the right noises, but those noises have not been carried through. Although it may be difficult for us in the west to influence oil policy given that the Malaysians and the Chinese are responsible for production, we should not lose sight of the fact that oil is an integral factor to settlement of the war in Sudan and, particularly, to building peace. It is not as though Sudan has no resources; it is just that the resources have become part of the problem rather than the solution.

We all feel passionately about Sudan and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre for giving us the opportunity to discuss it. As he said, I hope that the message reaches Sudanese people who live in parts of the world other than Sudan that we are obliged to do something about the problem and are fully committed to any measures that we can take here in Westminster.

2.38 pm

This is an important debate on an important subject, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) on securing it. The discussion has been positive and constructive, and a great deal of expert opinion has been offered in thoughtful and constructive ways, which is a pleasant change from some debates in this Chamber.

Much mention has been made of the all-party group's report. It is important that we commend the group on its thorough work, which contains some positive proposals. I hope that the Minister comments on how those proposals have been brought forward. Not only the Members present this afternoon, but others who contributed to the process, should be congratulated on their work.

We have heard this afternoon of the truly desperate history of Sudan, particularly over the past half century, which has been characterised by violence, war and only the briefest peace. It is truly staggering to reflect on the fact that about 2 million people have died in that time. As a Scottish Member of Parliament, I reflect on what a huge proportion of the Scottish population that represents. As the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre highlighted, we need to add to that the staggering number of people who have been displaced from Sudan as a result of the conflict. We are talking about one in eight of the world total.

It is sad that we do not pay enough attention to the whole conflict more regularly in the House, because, undoubtedly, Britain has an important role to play in helping to settle what goes on. I join others in recognising that, ultimately, the conflict must be settled internally, but a responsible role for external parties is clearly a key to proper progress.

In the past year, there has been good, constructive progress under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. Kenya's lead in that process has been widely recognised. The various developments that have occurred in the past 12 months ought to be celebrated. The Machakos protocol and the subsequent extensions of the memorandum of understanding have demonstrated a momentum, which we hope will continue to build and achieve the ultimate objective of a sustainable peace in the country.

A couple of features of the recent developments are worth noting. The agreement to extend the cessation of hostilities to June is welcome, although none of us would be foolish enough to pretend that there are not violations of that arrangement. Equally importantly, the agreement not to go on with attacks on civilians, which lasts until next March, is a positive development. That is particularly true of the oilfields, which, as Members have highlighted, are a particular concern.

All those things are enhanced by the agreement of the parties to allow external players to investigate the ongoing areas of conflict, although it is dispiriting to hear that the reality is not necessarily measuring up to the hopes that we might have. The creation of the verification and monitoring team is clearly an important part of the process, but if it is unable to get security clearance and unable to do its job, sadly it will be ineffective. I hope that the Minister can explain how he sees the problems for the monitoring team being resolved.

In this country, we have an important historical legacy as a result of our colonial involvement and our long-term involvement with the country since then. One of the most recent and positive developments is the appointment of the special representative for Sudan, who acts as an observer and reports to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and to the Department for International Development. Alan Goulty's role has been praised by a number of people this afternoon. It certainly is an imaginative way of dealing with Britain's relations with Sudan, not least because in many ways it recognises the overlapping responsibilities of the two Departments. That is sensible, and it shows that peace, security and development in Sudan are all intertwined.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) focused on points concerning how humanitarian aid has been provided and the importance of looking at development aid. Over 40 or 50 years, whole generations have come and gone without the vital help necessary in education services, health and developing sustainable food supplies. Surely we are at a point where we need to reappraise the situation.

The Government have made it clear that there are significant sums available for development assistance. I accept that such availability is a major incentive for all sides to work towards a peace process, and there would be risks if we moved into serious development work in an unstable environment. Equally, at present, we are not achieving what we need to achieve and whole generations of families are growing up in Sudan without the support that we in the international community should be willing to give them.

Last year, the all-party group highlighted that issue and it remains one of particular importance. In a debate secured by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), the then Secretary of State highlighted in a series of interventions the fact that more effort would be made to develop educational support services in Sudan, and I hope that the Minister tells us how that has been progressing.

For the future, we need a sustainable peace in Sudan, which will require a number of difficult problems to be resolved. The issue of human rights has already been mentioned, and I share the sadness of others that the United Nations rapporteur has not been reappointed. Can the Minister say what efforts will be made to overturn that disappointing development?

In the world post-Iraq and post-11 September, we are all acutely conscious of the risks of international terrorism. Building up the state in Sudan to cope with such pressures is also a very important principle. Whether we are talking about democratisation, relationships with neighbours or sharing the power and wealth of that great country, there are many difficult areas still to cover. We have not even touched on self-determination and how such matters will develop.

It would be reasonable to focus on the diplomatic activity of the past year and conclude that the developments have all been positive, but not all commentators are that sanguine about the prospects. We must recognise that there is a long way to go before there will even be a peace deal, never mind the successful completion of the proposed six-year transition before the referendum can take place. Although the people of Sudan must drive that process, we must not ignore our responsibilities. The hon. Member for Salisbury gave some very good constituency examples of positive, constructive, small-scale initiatives. On a larger scale, we all must echo that enthusiasm and commitment.

In the post-Iraq situation, it is critical that we do not lose sight of the terrible events of the past 50 years in Sudan and that we are not distracted from resolving the issue by problems elsewhere. Like others, I welcome the role that the United States has played in Sudan. I hope that the Minister can confirm that, as far as he is aware, the US will remain engaged in the area. The European Union, too, must play its part. Recent press reports suggest that it might be looking again at Sudan, after 10 years in which it put aid on the table and then took it away. In that respect, the UK must take a leading role.

We have a great opportunity, and the cost of missing it will be measured in lives lost. We cannot contemplate that, nor can people in Sudan.

2.50pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) on securing the debate. I also congratulate members of the all-party group on Sudan on the work that they have done in keeping the needs of the Sudanese people on the agenda. It is well worth paying tribute to them, because it is important that that work is done.

I had the privilege of visiting the north and the south of the country shortly before the conflict broke out in Iraq. My visit certainly opened my eyes to the complexity of the problems that beset the country, and I am grateful to our ambassador in Khartoum, William Patey, for helping me to see how complex the problem is. Often, the wider British public see the conflict in very simplistic terms—as a matter of north versus south, or of Christian versus Muslim—but the reality is much more complex. There are, for example, tribal and territorial disputes. The issue is not as simple as north versus south. Great territorial gains have been made, and the situation is probably much more of a patchwork.

The ambassador explained to me that there was also a real problem with warlords establishing themselves. They have absolutely no intention of giving up fighting if they can possibly avoid it. I therefore came away from my visit with, not a pessimistic view, but a more realistic view of how difficult it would be to proceed towards peace. We should not give up on achieving peace just because the situation is complex.

The overwhelming problem is security. We should not shy away from acknowledging that, although there is technically a ceasefire, there are daily violations of it. Indeed, the situation makes a mockery of the word. The day I flew south to Rumbek, we had barely landed on the airstrip before aid agency representatives came to the plane to report a particularly terrible violation of the ceasefire, involving the gang rape of women. That brought straight home to me the fact that there is no such thing as a real ceasefire. There is serious conflict in Darfur, and heavy fighting continues in western upper Nile, but we still hold on to the word ceasefire. It is important that we record in the debate that the ceasefire is very fragmented.

The current cessation of hostilities is due to expire in June, so it is important that we get agreement on renewing it and that a detailed agenda for the next round of talks on security arrangements is agreed before then. That is absolutely imperative, given that the time scale is slipping. What importance does the Minister attach to achieving security before a peace deal is signed? What assessment has he made of the armed conflict in Darfur and the other areas that I mentioned? What discussions is he having with the two warring parties about helping to halt the violence? Before my group went to Sudan, his Department briefed us very well. It impressed on us the fact that if we had time to do nothing else, we should at least take the opportunity to speak to the leaders of the two sides—the Government of Sudan and the SPLA-SPLM—to persuade them that stopping the fighting was in their hands. In many cases, they are the source of the arms that are needed to continue fighting. We did impress that on the two leaders.

I am deeply concerned about the human rights abuses in Sudan, and I share the view of the hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) that an error has been made and that Sudan might be sliding off the hook of international censure. Last week, the United Nations Committee on Human Rights killed a resolution that would have extended human rights monitoring in Sudan. Of its 14 members, 13 voted to reject the resolution. In view of the dreadful abuse of human rights that is going on, that was a surprising decision.

The ceasefire monitoring mechanism is also proving ineffective. The members of the civil protection monitoring team with whom I flew to the south of Sudan at dead of night would be the first to explain that they are often impeded in their work. I am sorry to learn that since my visit on 7 March, the Government of Sudan have prevented them from operating as they previously did. That is not conducive to our believing that the Sudanese Government take human rights abuses seriously and that they intend to do something about them. What assurances can the Minister give that full human rights monitoring—which should be the precursor to the lifting of international censure—will be allowed to resume? We should not just ignore the fact that human rights abuses are continuing; they must be tackled.

One does not realise until one visits the country what a contrast there is between the north and the south. Khartoum is a huge city, its population swollen by refugees from the south. Its essential services are in place and are well developed by comparison with those of the south. In the south—in Rumbek—there was nothing. All that remained of brick buildings was rubble. People were living in the forest in diminished circumstances. They were angry, afraid and hungry and I did not find among them the optimism about concluding the peace that I found in the Government. It is in the Government's interest for there to be peace so that they can develop the country economically. The profound pessimism in the south can be explained by the miserable conditions in which people are living.

At Lokichoggio, I saw one of the UN's largest food aid warehousing arrangements. Planes fly in and out, but aid does not reach all parts of the south. People are starving because the food pipeline is not adequate to meet the needs of all. We should not skate over that fact.

The question of oil revenues is central—it is a key cause of conflict. It is a tragedy that a large African nation with such wealth should have fought so desperately for so many decades about who owns that wealth. I saw clear evidence that the construction of the oil road is continuing; that was, in part, what the civil protection monitoring team went to look at. The road will reinforce the current position; the flow of oil revenues is more likely to benefit the Government in the north. It is good to make progress, and I am sure that the southern Sudanese will be delighted to have scope for self-determination. However, my concern about the proposed framework for peace is that, if separation occurs prematurely, southern Sudan will not be a viable state, especially if the wealth from oil is corralled by the north.

Today, as we acknowledge the significant contribution of the former Secretary of State for International Development in this area, we should remember what she said at the end of last year. She did not beat about the bush. She said that our task was to challenge the Government of Sudan to
"work hard to improve life for southerners if they want to keep their country unified."
It is worth reminding ourselves of that important challenge.

When I visited the refugee camps outside Khartoum, I was made very aware of the disadvantages suffered by those people. They are living on the periphery of the city, which is too far away for them go to work. Unemployment in the camps is therefore high, and one of the consequences is an increase in the rate of AIDS.

I visited the medical centre that treats AIDS cases. One doctor, who serves 60,000 people, told me that the decision of the Sudanese Government to require all Sudanese citizens to pay for their medicines was disadvantageous to the refugee community, because they do not have the money. The medicines had hitherto been free, and the doctor explained that charging for them placed him in a difficult position because the refugees believed that he was pocketing the money. The Government's decision broke the relationship of trust between the doctor and his patients. He said that people were stopping their treatment ahead of time, especially the treatment of AIDS and the complications that go with it such as tuberculosis. He said that that would help spread those diseases among an already deprived population. I wonder whether the Minister can do anything about the specific matter of charging for medicines, especially charging refugees.

I remind the Minister that Sudan has 76 per cent. of the world's remaining cases of guinea worm disease. I am sure that he is aware of that, but I saw cases of the disease and was struck by it. It is one of those diseases that are often low on the agenda in developing countries, but it affects Sudan disproportionately. I hope that the importance of combating that debilitating disease has not dropped off the Government's radar screen.

As regards food, it is no exaggeration to say that in some parts of southern Sudan the constriction of food relief amounts to genocide. The word is often overused in relation to issues of international development, but the aid agency Concern has revealed that one in four children are acutely malnourished in the Aweil region of southern Sudan. Anything that the Government can do to make a better assessment of that patchy provision of food aid would be valuable, especially for those who are simply slipping through the net. I ask the Minister to make a new assessment of the food crisis in Sudan, and to bring it to the public's attention. It is not enough to have food stockpiled at Lokichoggio, for it to go to certain parts of southern Sudan, and for it not to reach other parts of the country.

I am deeply concerned about the institutions of civil society; in the south, as far as I could see, they have been crushed. There is virtually nothing there. I met the judiciary of the southern Sudan, who are basically out of a job as a result of the imposition of sharia law. They are all trained in British jurisprudence, a completely different system, and they appealed to me for such basic items as law books. They no longer have a library—it was burned in Rumbek.

If we want southern Sudan to become viable and if we want to enable peace to take hold, the institutions of civil society must be buttressed, and there are practical things that we can do to help. The Minister might be intrigued to learn that one of the major opposition parties in Sudan, a Muslim party, has suggested a way forward on the divisive issue of sharia law. It suggests applying it to Muslim Sudanese but not to non-Muslim Sudanese, and proposes running the two legal systems coterminously. That suggestion, which comes from the people themselves, is worthy of further investigation.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), whose ongoing commitment to Sudan I commend, mentioned education. I was especially struck by the discrimination in the education service. Certain Sudanese children are discriminated against on account of their religion. The Christian schools are outside the state education system and are run only thanks to volunteers. In the two schools that I visited there were as many as 120 children in a class. The temporary nature of those schools—they have no fixed walls and everything is made of rush matting—sends a strong signal that such children are not catered for in the Government of Sudan's educational programme. Can the Minister say what is being done to ensure that all Sudanese children have access to a good education?

Since we do not know the full extent of the mining of Sudan, can the Minister give us an update on the progress towards relieving the country of land mines or on any plans to do so? At the very least, access routes should be made safe. Once a peace is concluded, people will not return to rural areas if they do not feel that it is safe to do so. That will be an important feature of the peace.

I have one deep concern, which is that in the desire to conclude a peace in Sudan we could skirt over the problems that remain. Sadly, we know from examples all too close to home that if such problems are buried or shoved under the carpet, the peace will not hold and the problems will surface again. I am concerned that not all parties have been invited to the negotiating table. I cite the example of women. I met a large group of widows in southern Sudan who were angry about the ongoing conflict and not optimistic about the prospects for peace. They told me something very telling. They said that they did not believe that men could make peace. It might be politically incorrect to say that, but if one puts oneself in the shoes of a Sudanese widow who is looking around at her friends who are also widows, it is not a strange conclusion to draw. Those women are not substantially represented at the peace talks in Karen and I am concerned that other parties are missing from the negotiations.

A Government spokesman in Sudan put it to me that the peace talks had in some ways rewarded the two warring factions and that the two parties to the talks did not represent all the parties that needed to be involved. I seek an assurance from the Minister that that is not being overlooked. All parties must be at the table for the peace to hold.

It would not be appropriate to conclude without paying tribute to the work that the Kenyan Government have done to bring about the peace talks over a very long period—so long that the peace talks have become a fixture. Some of those taking part in the talks live almost permanently in Kenya. We want to see peace, but a quality of peace that will hold and of which all the people—those in the north and the south, those on the periphery, those in Khartoum, those displaced and those wishing to return—will be beneficiaries.

3.8pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Mike O'Brien)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) for securing this debate. I also congratulate him on his effective chairmanship of the all-party Sudan group. His work is most welcome. I, too, join him in praising the energy and commitment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) and her efforts on Sudan in recent years. Her focus on the country has been effective. I also join the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) in paying tribute to the Kenyan Government for their enormously important contribution to those efforts.

New momentum has been injected into the Sudanese peace process following the summit between President Bashir and Dr. Garang in Nairobi on 2 April. Both leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the peace process, the Machakos protocol and the agreements on cessation of hostilities and unimpeded humanitarian access. That is important, but I take the point that the hon. Member for Meriden made—ceasefires and agreements are subject to proof. Sometimes, what is written on paper is not what is delivered in practice. However, the fact that things are written on paper is a step forward. It may take some time for those who signed the documents to implement the obligations in them, but we hope that they will be able to do so.

We hope also that what is agreed in principle can be implemented in practice. There is reason, despite the history of that country, to be optimistic for the peace process. The timing may slip, but there is still a good chance for an agreement this year. Outstanding problems must be resolved on power and wealth sharing, the three conflict areas, the ceasefire and security issues, but discussion of those issues has begun.

We in Britain will continue to offer the Government of Sudan, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement and mediators our full support and advice. We welcome the parties' agreement to an addendum to the memorandum of understanding on cessation of hostilities, which followed an outbreak of fighting in western upper Nile at the beginning of this year. The addendum is important. It contains new and welcome initiatives to build confidence among the parties, including the establishment of a verification and monitoring team to verify reports of fighting on the ground. A senior British liaison officer has been appointed to head the team. He departs for Nairobi this week. We have also contributed other personnel, and $500,000 towards the operation. I will return to that matter shortly, and answer questions.

The Government of Sudan and the Sudan People's Liberation Army have expressed concerns about the tasking of the verification and monitoring team. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development special envoy, Lieutenant-General Sumbeiywo, has proposed a compromise position, which we hope will be accepted by both parties. We will continue to work with the mediators to ensure that the verification and monitoring team becomes operational as soon as possible.

We are concerned about the escalation of fighting in Darfur. Changes in the local administration, drought, deforestation and food insecurity, as well as access to land, have fuelled ethnic conflicts and insecurity in the region. I hear the point that the hon. Member for Meriden made about the complexities of the issues. She said that the matter could not merely be seen as a north-south issue, or one of religion, but that it is a very complex jigsaw of rivalries and conflicts. I say to the hon. Lady that the fact that the two protagonists are prepared to enter into dialogue is welcome, but that by themselves they will not resolve all the issues at stake.

In Darfur, mediation efforts have so far come to nothing and the situation is still extremely difficult. All sides should know from bitter experience that a military solution is not in prospect, and that peace and reconciliation offer the only real chance of a brighter future for the people of Sudan. Humanitarian access was restored to Darfur last week, but the provision of humanitarian assistance to the people of Darfur will remain difficult while the fighting persists. When we talk about getting aid there, providing assistance, and health and education, we must remember that in many of those areas most in need, there is still fighting, so delivery of services is extremely difficult.

We continue to be concerned about the human rights of all in Sudan, regardless of their ethnic and religious background. The promotion of human rights remains one of our priorities. We are, of course, disappointed that the EU-sponsored resolution on Sudan was not adopted by the UN Commission on Human Rights on 16 April. Also, the mandate of the special rapporteur, Gerhardt Baum, has ended. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre asked what we have done about that. We lobbied members of the Commission on Human Rights on the resolution before the vote was taken, arguing that Sudan's human rights situation continues to merit commission action. We also are consulting our EU partners on the next steps to take, and we will continue to press for improvements in human rights as part of the ongoing dialogue between the EU and Sudan. We must ensure that we have the cooperation of other countries, which is sometimes easier said than done. We shall continue our efforts in that respect. We acknowledge that the Government must be seen to take a high-profile interest, and we shall continue to do so.

We all know that the only long-term answer to the suffering in Sudan is a just and lasting peace agreement that allows the people to rebuild their lives. Alan Goulty and his team in the joint FCO-DFID Sudan unit continually consult the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement. We will continue to offer the parties and the mediators our full support and advice, and we will remain actively involved in helping them to reach a comprehensive peace agreement. I will pass on to Alan Goulty and his team the praise of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre and others. The Sudan unit is showing the patience, skill and care that are its hallmark. It is a positive point that Members have recognised that, which I know will give the team the encouragement that it needs to continue that work.

We are also working with donors and partners to ensure that resources are mobilised immediately after a peace agreement is reached to assist with the rehabilitation and development of Sudan and to deal with the problem of its external debt. We recognise that a sustained international effort will be needed to help Sudan following a peace agreement and we remain determined to play a part in that. Therefore, Sudan will remain a priority for our diplomacy.

The hon. Member for Meriden asked about land mines. There is little accurate information on the precise number and location of land mines in Sudan. What is known is that many roads in Sudan are not used by local populations or the humanitarian agencies—or, indeed, by anyone else—because of concerns about land mines, which means that a key artery of commerce and revitalisation is simply taken out of use. That debilitates the country's prospects.

Removing mines in areas where there was fighting is difficult, however. Mine action is possible only in the Nuba mountains, where a ceasefire seems to have held since January 2002. We have contributed £1.4 million to the UN Mine Action Service over the past year for mine clearance in the Nuba mountains region and to prepare for further mine action throughout Sudan. Land mine mapping and clearance are vital to enabling the free movement of people, particularly the return of internally displaced persons and refugees; to reducing the cost of transporting humanitarian aid, most of which depends on air transport; and, in due course, to kick-starting economic regeneration. The project reflects DFID's key objectives for its humanitarian mine action and its three-year global agreement with UNMAS.

The European Commission has also funded a de-miner training and Sudan land mine information and response initiative through Landmine Action, a UK NGO. We are anxious that Landmine Action's activities should be undertaken in full co-operation with UNMAS, which is the lead co-ordinating agency for mine action in Sudan, and we are in contact with the European Commission, UNMAS and Landmine Action to encourage that co-ordination.

The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) asked about the role that the Churches can play. We meet the Churches regularly, and Alan Goulty met a group of Church and faith leaders and aid agencies only yesterday. The Churches have a key role to play in building the consensus for peace in Sudan. When there is peace, their role will become even more important in rehabilitation work at the community level. I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating those people who are seeking to help the Sudanese people in practical ways. He gave examples of that, which are most impressive, and I share his praise for the people who are prepared to make those efforts.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) asked whether the Americans are engaged in the process. The evidence is that they are. It has been said often that the American political process is like a lighthouse that shines its beam on only one thing at any one time. That may be true of the media, Congress and the higher echelons of the leadership, but in relation to countries such as Sudan, there are those in the State Department and elsewhere who take a key role in pursuing such issues. Our work in this area has shown that there is considerable engagement by the US Administration.

My hon. Friend also asked about the justice sector. The UK Government support work to develop the justice sector, both in Sudan Government-controlled areas and those controlled by the liberation movement. The Government have provided the embassy small grants scheme, and when there is peace we plan to gear up our support to develop legal systems in Sudan. A DFID mission is in Sudan to plan for that. We are aware of the problem and will ensure that we continue to work on it. It is one of those issues that it is difficult to do much about until the fighting stops, but we are doing what we can in terms of preparation.

My hon. Friend asked about democratisation. Elections have been discussed by the parties at the talks, and they will be held at some point in the six-year interim period. The hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) asked about health and education, and the hon. Member for Meriden asked about HIV. On the broad question of health, the UK has supported emergency health work in Sudan, focusing on lifesaving treatment for conditions such as TB, kala-azar and malaria. There is more than one issue that we need to focus on.

We support nutrition programmes in the most food-insecure areas of Sudan. When there is a peace agreement, it will be important to rehabilitate the whole health system throughout the country. The country is poor, and the health service is almost non-existent in places. There will have to be a major effort. We will not be able to do it all by ourselves as country, so we must mobilise the international community to ensure that the work is carried out.

We are considering the key issue of HIV/AIDS prevention, particularly as the peace agreement draws near. We have supported HIV/AIDS prevention throughout our humanitarian programme, and it will be part of our work post-peace. We will look at the issue of charging people for HIV medicine. In many ways, that is likely to cause more problems. Quite how much we can do about that in practice I do not know, but we shall examine the matter and write to the hon. Member for Meriden when we have further information. The point that she makes is very well taken.

The hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale raised the question of the education system. Its rehabilitation, particularly in the conflict-affected areas and the south, will be a major priority once there is peace. Britain has supported schools rehabilitation in the Nuba mountains, where there has been a ceasefire. Books and equipment have been supplied to more than 100 schools. Basic rehabilitation in the Government of Sudan-controlled areas will be completed by this month.

The teachers' centre in the area controlled by the SPLM-SPLA has been rehabilitated and work on schools will start shortly. We will expand the programme to north and south Sudan during 2003. We have also supported scholarships for women. More than 100 have been awarded to students working in the region, and the subjects being studied include medicine, rural development and gender studies. The latter may not be a great priority in our universities, but in Sudan gender studies and how one deals with some of the complex issues faced by women there are highly important.

The hon. Member for Tweeddale, Etterick and Lauderdale and my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre asked about UN monitoring. The UN department of peacekeeping has been at the peace talks in Kenya, although UN planning regarding monitoring is at an early stage. Crucially, the Government of Sudan need to agree to a UN mandate before the UN can play a full role. We are trying to see whether we can assist in achieving that agreement.

The hon. Member for Meriden also asked about achieving security before a peace deal, indicating that we could urge parties to extend the cessation of hostilities and improve its quality. We can do that. However, we hope that with hostilities ending in June and with a peace agreement hopefully reached, an opportunity will be provided to ensure that the ceasefire is properly implemented. Achieving security before an agreement is desirable. I honestly do not know at this stage how far we can go towards achieving that, but it is important that we do all that we can. We will work through the UN verification and monitoring team, and in any other way we can.

There are two other issues worth mentioning. The hon. Lady asked about civil society. I agree with her on the importance of engaging with civil society groups and building on the capacity there, including Church and women's groups in Sudan and in the neighbouring states, as well as on involving NGOs and others outside who wish to help in reconstruction and development. The matter involving Churches, which the hon. Member for Salisbury raised, is important: once we achieve peace, there should be a real effort to rebuild civil society and a capacity to engage with them. It will be important to have groups make contact, and perhaps provide support and recognition of the fact that there is concern about the issues in this country and elsewhere.

I want to emphasise the importance of the Sudanese diaspora in this country. We meet regularly in Parliament, and the Committee Corridor is turned into Africa due to the number of people who turn up who are passionately concerned for the future of their country. In what ways are the Government prepared to engage with Sudanese living in this country to help them to plan for the future of their country?

The Sudanese community here are very concerned about the situation in Sudan and have been working hard to see whether they can achieve an agreement and end the killing. Many Sudanese who make a contribution to Britain also have families in Sudan. They feel threatened and they are concerned for their families. It is difficult to agree to meet representatives of all the Sudanese diaspora, but, if I may discuss later with my hon. Friend the best way to engage them, in principle that seems to be a very positive approach.

The UK is one of the largest bilateral donors to Sudan. Since 1991, we have committed over £220 million, including the UK's share of European Community food aid, to Sudan and Sudanese refugees through Operation Lifeline. In 2003, we committed about £15 million to support humanitarian work and the peace process. Today, there are opportunities for Sudan that have not existed in recent years: there is a prospect of real peace and a willingness to be optimistic, although that has not yet percolated down to those who have suffered most—the poorest in the most marginal areas who have been the victims of too much violence, intimidation and starvation. However, we are seeing a chance for the main parties to be reconciled and to reach an agreement that will end the killing, which would be the best news that Sudan could have.

The Government are committed not only to helping the parties to reach an agreement, but to doing all we can thereafter to ensure that the agreement produces a better future for the children of Sudan, which will mean that they do not have to go through the same deprivations, inhumanities and traumas as their parents.

Entry Clearance (Indian Subcontinent)

3.30pm

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise in the Chamber the important issue of the entry clearance operation in the Indian subcontinent. The issue has a profound effect on my constituents. At every surgery that I hold in my constituency, half the people coming to see me have a problem with the way in which the service operates, which makes about 30 cases a week. It is therefore understandable that I am concerned about the deficiencies in the operation.

Both the Minister and I are former Ministers with responsibility for entry clearance. I was sorry that my hon. Friend gave up that portfolio because, with his experience in the Home Office, he had a good understanding of the matter. As I was when I spoke from the Front Bench on the matter, he will have been given a speech prepared by officials to tell the Chamber how well things are going. I am not here to criticise unnecessarily; I want to see a better system emerge so that, as a consumer of the service and a passionate supporter of the Government, I can tell my constituents that the Labour Government have improved the visa operation.

Let me agree with the Minister about what has gone right. The operation in the Indian subcontinent is impressive. I am sure that he will dazzle us with statistics reminding us that Mumbai, Delhi, Islamabad, Dhaka and the other operations in the Indian subcontinent comprise the biggest visa operation on the planet. He will, and I do so too, pay tribute to the work of entry clearance officers and entry clearance managers. He will tell us that the people at the joint entry clearance unit, which is now called UK Visas, do a splendid job, and I agree that they do.

The Minister will explain that the new visa centres established in the subcontinent are a success. I know that they are and I am glad that they have achieved what the former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), intended when he set them up. I am particularly pleased about what has happened at Ahmedabad and Syletett, where there was initial reluctance. However, I want the improvement to go further.

I want to single out for praise a number of first class officers who are a credit to the service: Chris Dix in New Delhi, Colin Mulcahy in Islamabad and Janet Battersby, who is now somewhere in the subcontinent. Robin Barnett does a very good job as head of UK Visas, when he can be found. On the single case that he dealt with when I approached him, I was very pleased with his hard work and the result of his deliberations. I have nothing but praise for people such as Suroth Miah and Gary Truman at UK Visas, but sadly they are neutered by a process that cries out for reform and that places all power to make visa decisions in the hands of ECOs. The people who work at UK Visas should be paid more.

I do not want the debate to sound like all our yesterdays, but I worked with many of those people, including the excellent David Reddaway who is now our man in Canada, and I am sorry that his departure to greener pastures has seen the service go downhill. There is, of course, an ongoing problem in Islamabad, where the office has been closed for several months, but it is up to other hon. Members to raise that matter in the House because I have had little to do with it.

The real problem in the subcontinent is Mumbai and I want to illustrate it by referring to an ongoing case. It sums up, first, what is wrong with Mumbai and, secondly, what a lot of time is wasted by Members of Parliament in trying to deal with those matters—frankly, some ECOs disrespect Members.

Mr. and Mrs Rajani made an application to come to this country for a two-month visit on 4 April 2003. They were refused. The grounds on the refusal notice were:
"You plan to spend all of your savings including your pension. I am not satisfied that your future intentions are as stated."
They were coming to this country for a religious purpose—to attend a ceremony involving the sister of a member of their family—and to see their family. Much as they admire new Labour, they had no intention of remaining in the United Kingdom. Their sponsors have impeccable credentials and I have known them for 16 years. I have met them and I know that they have enough income and savings to support their family during a two-month visit.

I rang Mumbai and spoke to the entry clearance manager who is temporarily in post. I faxed a letter and contacted UK Visas. My office faxed another letter. I tried to get hold of Mr. Barnett, but he was not available. His answering machine told me to ring Clare Handyside and her answering machine told me to ring Emma. I rang Emma, but no one answered. I rang the private office of the permanent secretaries office and asked who was the director in charge of this area. The person who answered told me that there was a reshuffle going on in the Foreign Office and that they did not know who was in charge of the matter, but took on responsibility to contact me and made four calls to UK Visas. I rang again in the afternoon but no one responded.

Eventually, Nick Astbury, the deputy head of UK Visas rang me and tried to resolve the issue. He gave me a road map—my hon. Friend the Minister will approve of that term—and I was happy to clutch that road map as a means of resolving a standard visitor's visa case. He said that Mumbai wanted confirmation that the sponsor could pay for the trip and told me that that was the only outstanding point. We faxed the sponsorship letter to UK Visas several times, but, sadly, its fax machine had run out of paper. Paper was eventually restored to the fax machine and the information went through. Having been told that the only outstanding point was that concerning income, which is clear in the refusal notice—that is what Members of Parliament see at their surgeries when constituents come to see them—I was then told by Mr. Astbury that Mumbai stood by its original refusal.

In total, I and my staff had made 25 telephone calls and sent six letters. A total of eight personnel from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were involved, as were an entry clearance officer, an entry clearance manager, two private offices and two Members of Parliament. My only recourse, under the guidance for MPs, is to see the Minister, who is abroad. However, I understand that the information has been faxed to him and that he is considering it.

It is very difficult for me to know what Mr. Rajani has done in his past to upset the entry clearance officer so much that all the information required, according to its own refusal notice, and information requested by the deputy head of UK Visas was cast aside by the entry clearance officer.

I have one more refusal notice to bring to the Minister's attention as an example. Jackie McFarlane, also from Mumbai, told us about a Mr. Jayendra Rajyaguru, another applicant who was unable to come to this country. She refused him admission on the grounds that he did not display sufficient closeness to the applicant. However, Mr. Rajyaguru is the father-in-law of my constituent, Mr. Mistry, who lives on Halkin street. The relationship between a son-in-law and father-in-law is a matter of permanence, law and fact. It is not a matter of speculation and Mr. Rajyaguru can produce a photograph of himself and his son-in-law to show that, whether Mr. Mistry wanted to change his father-in-law or not, he is Mr. Mistry's son-in-law, who wanted to come here on a visit.

In 1997 the new Labour Government declared their intention to establish a new family visitor visa for those wishing to visit a close relative and the Government gave people a right of appeal. My hon. Friend the Minister was in the Home Office then and should take credit for what was done. Fees were introduced—people thought that they were too high—and then abolished, for which we were grateful. I feel very sad that the Government are failing to honour their commitments in this area. A right of appeal that takes eight months to exercise is no right of appeal. Someone who applies now to come for a wedding in June will not be allowed to come. If they are refused, they will have to appeal, but the appeal will not be heard until January 2004. That is not acceptable.

ECOs are unwilling to state clearly why they have refused a visa and, more important, to state in plain English what can be done to satisfy them. I am pleased that the Select Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department, of which I am a member, has agreed to set up an inquiry into immigration appeals. I believe that I have persuaded it to look abroad and to work with the Home Office, the Home Affairs Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee to develop a joint approach for Parliament.

Richard Dunston, the immigration policy officer at the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, has written an excellent report and analysis of ECOs' decisions in 2002. It is such a good report that I would like to read all of it out, but there is not enough time. The headline information is as follows: in the period 1 August 2002 to 30 November 2002, the refusal rate was 27.5 per cent.—up from 20 per cent. In Mumbai, the refusal rate went up from 16.4 per cent. to 33.5 per cent. In Delhi, it went from 29 per cent. to 59.4 per cent.—an increase of 104.8 per cent. The number of applications is down, but the appeal rate is going up. Fifty per cent. of appeals are allowed by adjudicators, which shows the poor quality of some ECO decision making.

For my staff and me, dealing with ECOs in Mumbai is like doing the dance of the seven veils with a Sellotape wraparound. The ECOs must change their attitude. Mr. Astbury told me that UK Visas was supposed to be an intelligent post box, and so it should. There is no doubting Mr. Astbury's intelligence—he used to work for me. However, despite its rebranding, UK Visas has been turned into a meaningless post box during the past two years. It has become nothing more than a paper-pushing exercise despite the hard work and commitment of really high-calibre people such as Carol Doughty and other staff, who have absolutely no power to do anything. Just one ECO can hold the whole system to ransom.

In conclusion, I call on my hon. Friend the Minister to do five things. First, I ask him to publish the report that the Home Secretary commissioned in January 2001. It was promised in May 2002. In December 2002, it went to the Lord Chancellor's Department, which said that it would be published in late 2003. It has not come out. Secondly, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to ask the Minister with responsibility for entry clearance, when he returns from Latin America, to visit the Indian subcontinent to review the visa operation, which he still has not done.

Thirdly, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to appoint a first secretary for immigration in Mumbai. The situation is still in transition, and there appears to be a lack of leadership. My constituents tell me that officers could be more polite and that they treat letters of support from MPs with contempt, in some cases waving them away. Fourthly, I would like to arrange a delegation of Members of Parliament to visit the Foreign Secretary and the Minister with responsibility for entry clearance. The Foreign Secretary knows about the problem, because he has one of the biggest case loads of visa applications from the Indian subcontinent.

Finally, I get the impression that ECOs think that MPs are irritants in the system. We stand in the shoes of our constituents and expect to be treated with respect. The system is not about keeping people out of Britain but about allowing visitors to come and visit their family here. We must be able to explain ECOs' views to our constituents and vice versa. Chris Dix and Colin Mulcahy have shown how that can be done. If they disagree, they tell us why. They do not always say yes, but they give valid reasons that we can pass on to our constituents. They, too, want a system that is firm but fair.

My constituents and those of other hon. Members deserve better. I make it clear to the Minister that my interest will not end here. I will be back again and again on this issue, until we have some real improvements.

3.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Mike O'Brien)

The way in which UK Visas has improved its service in recent years is a great tribute to the work that many have done—the officials in particular, but also my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who presided over UK Visas and must take the credit for the things that are going right. However, some things have been going wrong in recent years, and no doubt my hon. Friend would put his hands up to that too, as we all must. As a Minister who formerly dealt with UK Visas—I handed over that responsibility a few months ago to the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell)—I must join my hon. Friend in accepting the responsibility.

Sometimes things do not go exactly as they ought to. Indeed, I have been tearing my hair out about some of my constituency cases. I have been perplexed, annoyed and astonished by the quality of some of the answers that I have had to visa cases. Probably most Members of Parliament who deal with constituency cases have felt the same perplexity.

That said, however, there has also been an enormous improvement in the quality of the service in many respects. Officials are working enormously hard to get what they do right. In many cases, they are responding to MPs' requests for information much more quickly than they did before. The quality of service has improved, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East said. It is important to make that point because with the brickbats must also come praise where praise is due.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Rajani case. The 25 telephone calls and six letters certainly do not sound very good. I do not know all the details of the case because the file is with my hon. Friend the Undersecretary—I cannot say that he is looking at it as we speak because he is in south America and the file is with him— because there is some concern about how the case was handled. The Foreign Office stands by its decision. However, it takes the view that the case was not well handled. To the extent that it was not well handled, I extend the apologies of the Foreign Office to my hon. Friend and, most particularly, to the sponsor, who is his constituent, and to the applicant, who has a right to a better quality of service from UK Visas and the Foreign Office.

When my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary returns with the file, I hope that we can arrange for him to meet my hon. Friend to ensure that the case is dealt with in the round, and that whatever decisions need to be taken are taken and whatever lessons need to be learned are learned.

My hon. Friend asked a series of questions. First, will we publish the report that he tells me was provided in January 2001? I will certainly talk to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary about that when he returns and pass on that request.

Secondly, will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary visit India, Pakistan and Bangladesh? Well, I have certainly made that visit and found it very important. I have been to Delhi a couple of times and examined the visa operation. By and large it is good, as my hon. Friend knows. That is a tribute to such people as Colin Mulcahy—I too met him and was enormously impressed—who turned around a difficult operation in Delhi and made it one of the most effective operations that we have. Good managers are difficult to come by. Colin happens to be one, and my hon. Friend mentioned a number of others. When we find them, we make the best use of them that we can.

We will consider whatever questions are raised about the operation in Mumbai, but it is important that we also ensure that, when things are going well, as they often are in Mumbai, the staff do not feel undermined, chastised or criticised by MPs if one case does not go well. Those members of staff are working hard, doing their best and achieving improvements in the quality of service.

As my hon. Friend will know, I agreed before he even spoke about these matters. Could he also make representations to the Lord Chancellor's Department? As he knows, the problem starts at the posts abroad. In many cases, we want to say to our constituents who have a right of appeal, "Exercise your right of appeal and have your case heard before an adjudicator." The problem is that a delay of eight months means that we cannot say that. That is why we are forced to put so much pressure on UK Visas and to go to Ministers to ask for overturns. If that system were working, the whole system would be more effective.

When the system was set up, we hoped that some decisions could be made on paper much more quickly than they are. That was the object of the exercise. However, we find that, when new systems of appeal are set up, the sheer numbers quickly overwhelm the process, and the taxpayer must often meet the cost. One reason why initially we charged significant fees for appeals, with the result that there were considerable protests, was that when the income is coming in it is much easier to employ extra staff to meet the demand. However, when one relies entirely on the taxpayer meeting the costs of people from abroad who want to visit relatives in the UK, the cost falls on the Chancellor, the Budget and the taxpayer. The taxpayer's resources are limited and do not immediately stretch with the increase in demands.

There is a balance to be struck. People protested about the high fees, so they were reduced, but the consequence is that there is no readily available income stream that would enable the Lord Chancellor's Department and others to expand the system of appeals as quickly as might be necessary to meet the demand.

My hon. Friend also asks whether my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary would see Members of Parliament about visas. My right hon. Friend is always willing to meet groups of MPs. I cannot give a commitment as to the date, but I am sure that if my hon. Friend put together a group of MPs who wanted to talk to my right hon. Friend, he would be willing to see them to discuss these issues, no doubt together with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary.

The other point raised by my hon. Friend related to the attitude of staff members of UK Visas towards MPs. UK Visas, like all public services, is accountable to Parliament and to the people who pay taxes—the British public. UK Visas is also the interface between Britain and people from other countries, who expect quality of service and fairness from Britain.

I was referring not to the attitude of UK Visas staff, but to the attitude of the staff in the posts abroad.

I am grateful for that clarification. The staff in the posts abroad also recognise that they are the interface with people from other countries and are paid by the taxpayer to provide a good quality service. By and large they do that, and my hon. Friend has recognised that. There have, however, been instances— my hon. Friend has experienced them, I have experienced them and, as I have said, most MPs have experienced them—when the quality of the work is not as good as we have a right to expect. In those circumstances, it is important to have systems of management and appeals that rectify individual cases and faults in the system as quickly as possible.

The role of an MP is to act as the spokesperson for the British taxpayer. Where the British taxpayer's relatives cannot get a visa to which they should be entitled, the MP can be a spokesperson for those relatives too. In those circumstances, the people from UK Visas should pay due regard to the MP's role. However, in law the staff of UK Visas and the staff at posts abroad have a legal responsibility to make a decision according to the law. In fulfilling his legal responsibility to make the right decision, the entry clearance officer cannot let the mere fact that an MP has written a letter be the deciding factor; his decision has to be based on the application. If he believes that there is serious doubt about the information that has been supplied, he should refuse the application. That was the position when my hon. Friend was dealing with such issues; it was the position when I was the Minister dealing with them; and it is the position now. The ECO will pay due regard, within proper proprieties, to any letter that he receives.

Constituents often ask me, "Will you write a letter to support my relative coming in?" By and large, I do not know the relative so I refuse. However, if I happen to know an individual, I might be able to write a letter about him. My hon. Friend mentioned a case in which he knows the family concerned and can make reference to what he believes to be the veracity of the sponsoring family. Unless he knows the family abroad, he cannot say anything about the applicant, whom he does not know. When the ECO looks at a letter from an MP, he has to be aware that his decision must be made on the basis of the information provided by the applicant, who is probably not known to the MP.

I agree entirely. Most constituents who come to surgeries to see their MPs expect them to send letters of support; some do and some do not. However, the issue that I described goes further. It concerns cases that we take up, as Members of Parliament, beyond the letter. In such instances, ECOs should give us credit for not taking up every single case, just as the Minister does not. Members of Parliament filter out certain cases that they feel merit particular attention. Those should be given proper consideration.

Many MPs filter, and the quality of much of that filtering is good. Some of it is not so good or non-existent. I have heard that some just write letters. I know that my hon. Friend, like most MPs, does not do that; neither do I. When I was at the Home Office, we received lots of letters on lots of issues, and it seemed that some MPs had a breathtaking level of social contact with their constituents. However, I do not accuse anybody of impropriety; it is merely that some people accept cases and make representations.

We need to arrive at a situation in which MPs know that if they have relevant information they can provide it. If they know a particular sponsor well, let them say so and give their views. However, the ECO has ultimately to make the decision based not on the sponsor or on the MP's letter—although those factors must be taken into consideration—but on whether the applicant has given sufficient information to show that his application should succeed. If the person has not given sufficient information, it should be rejected. That is the basis on which such things should be done.

My hon. Friend knows the job well, and he will know that I have a speech here containing bedazzling information on the quality of operations of UK Visas. I could have delivered it to him and sparkled with erudition and my mastery of statistics. Given that I have replied to most of his points, I shall save him the bother of bedazzlement and leave it at that.

Home Education

4 pm

I am most grateful for the opportunity to have this debate and to my constituent Fiona Berry, who first brought home education to my attention. Like the vast majority of people in the country, I was rather ignorant of home education, not to say slightly prejudiced about it.

In any free society, the freedom to choose the type of education that we want for our children is essential. Although there is much talk about the dangers of social exclusion, it is easy to see that a state system that insisted on total inclusion would not be free. We can be proud that that freedom was enshrined in our law long before the UN decided that it was an essential, in the convention on the rights of the child. We can also be proud that the number of families who have chosen to home educate in England has been growing for the past 30 years.

It may surprise hon. Members, as it surprised me, to learn that there is no such thing as a compulsory school age, despite the passion of the Department for Education and Skills for that phrase. The Education Act 1944 calls on all parents to ensure that their children are educated, but they are free to decide whether that should be at school or otherwise. Roughly 1 per cent. of the children in education in England and Wales are educated at home by their parents, whose reasons for doing so are as diverse as their families. Although the percentage is small, it represents a significant number of young people. I do not believe that there are accurate figures for the number of home-educating families in England and Wales. That lack of firm information perhaps reflects the free society in which we live. Parents are under no obligation to register with anyone or to notify the local education authority, as long as they continue to fulfil their obligations under section 7 of the 1944 Act to educate their children in a way that suits their ability, age and aptitude, by attendance at school or otherwise. The best guesses put the number of families that are currently home educating at 25,000 and the number of children who are being educated at home at 150,000.

One might ask why anyone would wish to home educate when a free state education system is available to all. There are as many answers to that question as there are families home educating. Some decided from the beginning that they preferred to continue to allow their children to learn in the natural way that they did in their pre-school years. Others began to home educate after withdrawing their children from school, perhaps because of bullying or school refusal, or sometimes because the child was over-stretched or even bored by the academic work. Some parents begin home education confident that they are making the best possible choice for their child, while others agonise over their abilities, but consider that they have no other option.

Despite the concerns of professional educators about the capabilities of home-educating parents, research indicates that it is hard to get it wrong. Whether parents use the national curriculum or no curriculum at all, whether they use formal methods or allow their children autonomy, whether children learn to read early or late, home-educated children outperform school children in studies that have been done in England, the United States and Canada. Recent research has shown that the brain is aggressive and that children are natural learners. They are born wanting to learn. What surprises home educators is that in an information-rich culture our educational institutions sometimes manage to block that basic desire to learn successfully.

Home education offers many benefits for the families who do it. Learning becomes an integral part of everything, and takes place anywhere at anytime, not in special places at specific times. Once the compulsion is removed, children do not regard learning as work, but as a natural part of their lives. Children who are not segregated from their parents can become involved in their communities. Many families contribute significant amounts of time and energy to local projects.

The critics of home education sometimes refer to potential problems with socialisation, but research at the University of Michigan showed that home-educated children had no such problem. Perhaps that is because home-educating families take their children with them, and involve them in many social situations. Those children are, therefore, able to mix with people of all ages, and do not discriminate on the basis of age. In 2001, the Fraser Institute produced a comprehensive report into home education in the US and Canada. That report includes Professor Thomas Smedley's conclusion that
"home-schooled students are more mature and better socialised than those who are sent to either public or private schools."
The term "public or private schools" is used in the American sense.

Given those facts, it is rather strange that officialdom often lumps home-educated children into the same category as excluded or truanting children, or those in the care of the local authority. Assumptions are made about their behaviour, on the basis that children not in school are all the same. Home-educating families would maintain that their commitment to education and to the strength of their families, and their sense of social responsibility mean that officialdom has an uninformed way of thinking about electively home-educated children. The Fraser Institute report into home education in the US and Canada, where roughly 2.5 per cent. of children are home educated, concluded that home education provided a better education at a fraction of the cost of state education. The cost of home education is generally borne by the parents in the US, as is the case here. The report shows that those children out-performed schoolchildren, irrespective of their socio-economic background.

Dr. Paula Rothermel's study in England also showed that all children benefited from home education. Her report concluded that the children who did best were those from the lowest socio-economic group—turning the usual outcome of mainstream schools on its head. These days, parents are encouraged to respect their child's natural development in the early years. One advantage of home education is that it allows development to progress at a child's own pace, and ignores any notions of the average, or of targets. Some home-educated children learn to read at four. Many more learn later, sometimes as late as 10 or 11. One study showed that, by the age of 13, it was impossible to distinguish the age at which a child had learned to read. Indeed, a delay in the beginning of reading sometimes may have positive advantages, as the incidence of dyslexia and other problems is very much reduced among children who have been taught by autonomous methods.

A wide range of approaches may be adopted, ranging from running a school at home, with lessons and timetables, to topic-led studying, which takes a single subject as far as possible, to completely child-led, free-form methods, and every style in between. The education provided can be tailored to each child and each family, and take account of their talents and challenges.

For children who have been withdrawn from school due to bullying, or school refusal—something that many Members of Parliament come across in their weekly surgeries—the removal of any compulsion to attend is often all that is needed to solve the problem. Thus, it is rather astonishing and dismaying to know that many parents of extremely unhappy children remain in ignorance about their legal rights to provide home education. In some cases, parents have willingly gone to jail, rather than send a school-phobic child to school. It seems outrageous that—despite months of meetings and discussions with officials—in many cases, parents are not even informed about the option to deregister their child and home educate. In some cases, schools and education officials have encouraged parents to return children who are almost suicidal to school, rather than offer the information that home education is a legal alternative.

That misinformation extends from the constant repetition of the phrase that I mentioned at the beginning of my contribution, "compulsory school age", to legally incorrect information sent out with child benefit uprating letters. When home educators protested that it was not true that every parent had a legal duty to ensure that their children went to school, hurt disbelief that any home educator would so misunderstand the message of the leaflet was apparent in the apologies received from the Department. The problem was not that home educators would mistakenly rush to enrol their children in schools, nor that they would live in fear of arrest. The problem was that many parents who might one day need to know that home education was a legal and viable option were prevented from learning about it by a deliberate lie.

Those words may seem harsh, but, as reported in The Sunday Times, many home educators protested in autumn 2002 about the proposed wording of the leaflet. However, the same wrongly worded leaflet is still being sent out, so it seems that the misinformation must be deliberate. It is little wonder that the home-educated community has become officially invisible, subsumed as it is within a motley collection of exclusions and truants; it is being treated as if it belongs in the same category as the socially excluded and those totally disengaged from education.

In many cases, a lack of real information or knowledge about home education has resulted in the Government's not considering the impact of mainstream policies on home educators. Truancy patrols have been most entertaining in that respect, asking to see non-existent registration cards, or proof of home education that is impossible to produce. It is curious that home educators should see a vast amount of money expended on trying to herd school children back to school instead of on improvements in the attractiveness and desirability of the education on offer.

Another effect of mainstream policies—I hope that it is unintended—is that although the Government are avidly committed to keeping young people in learning, it appears that they are systematically denying the same access to those who are educated at home. In the past, home-educated children and young people could study for and obtain GCSE examinations as external candidates. They would incur the same cost as other children entered for exams externally—about £30 a subject. However, as the number of marks awarded for coursework has increased, the examination boards have become more reluctant to trust parents to supervise study for the exams.

Some families were able to get around that problem by studying for international GCSEs, but from June 2003 that avenue will no longer be open to home-educated students in the United Kingdom. The only options remaining for many parents are to employ supervising tutors, to spend a lot of money on GCSE correspondence courses at between £200 and £300 a subject, or to obtain places at colleges of further education for children under the age of 16.

We readily understand that many home-educated families exist on lower incomes because of the need for one parent to stay at home. The families do not complain about that because it is their free choice. However, it seems extremely unfair that, having made those financial sacrifices to facilitate their children's education, parents should find themselves discriminated against when trying to gain access to college courses.

Some parents who have applied for places at colleges for their children to study GCSEs or vocational courses have been told that places are available at bargain rates for senior citizens and the unemployed and that they are free for children over 16 who meet the entry requirements, but that a charge of £1,800 per subject is made for home-educated children under 16. However, some parents, who were nevertheless ready and willing to pay that £1,800 per subject, have been told that a college can accept only LEA money for children under 16.

As for many things in today's world, a postcode lottery is in operation; parents in some areas find it easier to get places and funding for colleges courses, while others find it impossible. It is rarely possible to obtain LEA funding for home-educated children, and LEAs often state that they receive no funding for those children whose parents have chosen to home educate. The funding guidance for further education is not so sure, however, stating that LEAs receive funding for children educated otherwise. Perhaps there is some confusion between children educated electively by their parents and children educated otherwise by the LEA. It would be good to know.

The same document explains that the Learning and Skills Council may, in rare cases, provide funding for courses for learners of compulsory school age—there is that phrase again—but the guidance goes on to say that
"the Secretary of State would expect the Council to exercise its power… only in exceptional circumstances"
and that the figures
"do not allow for any general expansion in the number of learners under 16."
That seems odd. It is almost as though our education system prefers home-educated children to slow down or give up on studying before reaching the magical age of 16, even if they are ready and willing to apply themselves to obtaining qualifications. Some families thus find that a college will say that no places are available to home-educated children under 16, while maintaining blocks of places for allocation to young people who have been permanently excluded for serious misbehaviour. It is odd that kicking one's headmaster might gain one a free college place at 14, but studying hard at home for 10 years does not, and it is strange that a Government who, rightly, promote the value of, and access to, lifelong learning, and put considerable resources into keeping young people in learning should deny such things to a community that values education so highly.

I know that home educators do not ask for special consideration; they are certainly not asking for large resources to be assigned to counting and controlling. The Fraser Institute report for Canada and the United States, where it was possible to contrast results in strictly regulated states with those in unregulated ones, concluded that spending money on regulation made no difference to the level of achievement of home-educated children; they performed at the 85th centile, compared with the 50th centile for schooled children.

All that home educators want is for the Government to acknowledge that the law makes education, not school, compulsory; for accurate information about home education to be given freely to all parents; and for access to GCSEs and facilities in colleges to be available to home-educated children as they are to others in our country.

We are in a new millennium; the information age is upon us. Lifelong learning is not just a possibility but an essential tool for survival in a society in which frequent job changes will be the norm. Home educators are leading the way, preparing their children for a future in which learning is a continuing part of their lives. Home education is not for everyone; the mainstream education system is there for all. However, I should like the result of this debate to be that the issues have been aired, the Minister has heard them and home educators are able to compete on an even playing field.

4.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Ivan Lewis)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on having secured the debate. It is a good opportunity to shine a light on an issue that does not receive enough attention and to demonstrate—

4.17pm

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

4.37 pm

On resuming

I was congratulating the hon. Member for Uxbridge on securing a debate on such an important issue; we need to focus more on the issue than we have done in the past. I shall try to respond to his points constructively. If he wishes to ask further questions, I shall be happy to answer those later.

The basic position on home education in England can be summarised in a phrase; education is compulsory, schooling is not. That links into the hon. Gentleman's comments about the leaflet. When we realised that the wording could cause confusion, we clarified the matter and reprinted the leaflet. However, some old copies might still be in circulation.

As the Minister responsible for behaviour and discipline in schools, I would not want any attempt to be made to undermine the message on truancy. It is a serious problem; too many parents actively collude and are involved in their children's truancy. The Government make no apology for being determined to stamp down on that. Truancy contributes to educational underperformance and has a direct bearing on street crime. I hope that there is a political consensus on the fact that truancy is bad; it undermines our objectives for education.

Of course there is consensus. The problem is that the home educators whom I have met would be the last people to be considered irresponsible. They find the way in which they are included in the same breath as truancy rather upsetting.

This is an opportunity to clarify a simple point. Children who are enrolled on a school register are expected to be there unless they have authorised absence. If they are not there, that is truancy and we expect parents to co-operate with the system on that. Clearly, if the child is being educated at home according to the law—properly and in accordance with the basic standards—that is perfectly lawful. We do not see that as truancy and there is no ambiguity or confusion about that. I am sorry if parents sometimes feel that the language is a little unclear, and we shall endeavour to do whatever we can to clarify it and put an end to any ambiguities in that regard.

It is the state's responsibility to provide for the education of children in schools. As an Education Minister, it is my belief that, for most pupils in most circumstances, school is the right place in which to receive an education. However, it is a fundamental right for parents to be free to educate their child at home if they so wish. As the hon. Gentleman has said, parents chose to home educate for various reasons. They might include religious, cultural or philosophical beliefs or the parents might simply take the view that home education works best for their children. Most of those children have never attended schools, so are never registered with the LEAs because there is no requirement for them to be. The hon. Gentleman made that point.

We accept that sometimes a decision to home educate might be prompted by particular circumstances or problems that arise during the course of a young person's school experience. A child might develop medical problems, or become school-phobic, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I acknowledge that, in some cases, issues such as distance, access to local schools, dissatisfaction with the general education system or with an individual establishment, or bullying may be factors that lead a parent to choose home education. In all such circumstances, that should be a source of regret and a message to people at local and national level to take action. We do not want the school system to be such that a parent feels that they have no alternative but to remove their child from it. In the end, that represents a serious failure of the system.

This Government are doing a variety of things to address such concerns. We are providing learning mentors to help young people remove barriers to learning, and Connexions personal advisers to advise and guide young people and maintain their engagement. The new behaviour and education support teams bring together a wider range of child specialists to help children and families deal with problems. Our reform of the secondary curriculum, which seeks to introduce a more individualised learning experience for young people, is also important. The new modernised teaching profession that has been created is better engaged to manage behaviour and has more time to teach and to provide children and young people with the support and help that they need.

We recognise the need to reform the education system to minimise the number of children for whom being in a school environment is a negative experience. We recognise, too, that a whole variety of factors can contribute to that, including making the curriculum more relevant, reforming the teaching profession, using external advisers and improving relationships between what is happening at school and at home. Through such means, we are determined to make school as positive and attractive as possible for young people and their parents. That is absolutely integral to our overall policy priority of reducing the number of young people who drop out of education at the age of 16 in this country. That is still a major problem and often happens because young people get turned off education far too early in their educational lives.

Turning to the legal situation, local authorities have a general responsibility to ensure that they make suitable provision for education in their area, although parents who educate at home are not required by law to be registered in any way, a point that the hon. Gentleman has made.

We welcome the fact—the hon. Gentleman should also welcome it—that local authorities can intervene if they have reason to believe that parents are not providing a suitable education. They also have the right to make reasonable inquiries to ensure that children withdrawn from school to be home educated are receiving what is deemed an appropriate education. It is right that they should continue to have that power.

Of course, local arrangements vary. Many local authorities contact home-educated pupils as soon as such pupils start to be educated at home and continue to contact them annually. LEAs do not have the legal right to enter a home or physically see a child, but it is the parent's responsibility to ensure that enough evidence is submitted to the LEA to satisfy it that the child is receiving a suitable education. Parents may choose to meet an LEA officer at home or at a neutral location; that is roughly the right balance between the rights and responsibilities of parents and the state.

LEAs may decide to contact home-educated children or their parents more regularly if they are not fully satisfied that the child is receiving a suitable education. It is a question of balancing the right to freedom and individual choice with the state's responsibility and duty to ensure that an appropriate education is being secured. There are some circumstances in which an LEA may provide home tuition for pupils who cannot attend school because of, for example, sickness, exclusion, school phobia or teenage pregnancy. Education is provided through home tutors and e-learning. E-learning allows schooling to be available through virtual communities and can be established in homes or in groups in libraries. We know that some of those projects can lead to children attaining significant national vocational qualifications.

LEAs can pay directly for home tuition and the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that the Department is providing some support for a project, notschool.net, that offers an IT-based education for disaffected children. The cost of the system amounts to £3,000 per year per pupil, which is broadly equivalent to the pupil cost in a mainstream school.

The hon. Gentleman was right to say that LEAs have no legal duty to provide financial support for parents who home educate. Some LEAs provide free national curriculum materials or other forms of support to home-educating parents. That decision must continue to be made locally, so that any support fits with both the policies of individual LEAs and the needs of each child.

I will examine the hon. Gentleman's point about access by young people, particularly under-16s, to further education. The playing field should not be uneven and we should examine whether the system disadvantages young people who could benefit from placements in colleges in the further education system.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of numbers. Because not all home-educated children are registered with an LEA, we do not have firm figures on how many of them there are. However, some groups that work with parents of home educated-children have suggested that the number is between 50,000 and 100,000, and they claim that numbers are increasing.

Education provided at home must be efficient and appropriate to the age, ability and aptitude of the child. We accept and understand that parents adopt a wide variety of legitimate approaches. They have significant flexibility; for example, they are not required to teach the national curriculum or to have a timetable. Many parents who opt to home educate speak enthusiastically about the benefits that it provides. They cite the independence, the maturity and the keenness to learn that it can foster and the opportunity it provides for children to develop at a pace that suits them. As I said earlier, we respect their views. Other parents point to the high grades that some home-educated children achieve when they enter formal examinations. However, it is important to make this point; there has not been any independent and systematic evaluation at a national level of the overall quality of the education provided and the specific outcomes that it delivers for the children concerned.

My Department recognises and respects the right to choose to home educate. The circumstances of families and the needs of individual children will always vary and home education provides a route for parents to tailor and more directly to guide their children's learning, where they are particularly keen to do so. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the learning potential and the welfare of the child must remain paramount. Positive relationships and mutual respect between the local authorities and the parents concerned are the best way to secure that aim, which we actively seek to encourage through our guidance and contacts with local authorities and parents.

The Government believe that we must recognise the right to choose home education. For example, my Department provides general guidance on home education and parents' legal responsibilities on its website. The guidance also provides links to other useful information, including the national curriculum and assessment arrangements, and enables access to websites created by home educators. There is no question about the Government being negative or trying to impede home educators, whose contribution we value.

The matter is sensitive and there are many differences of view, but the main thing is the best interest of children. We need to pay more attention to the contribution that home educators make.

It being nine minutes to Five o 'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.