Tuesday 20 June 2006
[Mr. Mike Weir in the Chair]
House of Lords Reform
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Roy.]
The present constitution of the House of Lords is farcical. There are 721 Members, with an average age of 68. Virtually alone in modern Britain, they have a job for life. The vast majority are there by dint of modern patronage; 92 are there by dint of their birth—ancient patronage.
Seven hundred and twenty-one sounds a lot, of course, but let us not worry about that. It is more than any comparable second Chamber anywhere else in the world; but not many turn up. In fact, only 25 per cent. of the Members ask 87 per cent. of the questions, and the same one quarter make three quarters of the speeches. They are paid expenses to be there and, of course, expenses to get there—although the travel expenses are not much, as the majority come from London and the south-east. To be precise, 185 of the 323 Members of the House of Lords created since 1997 are from London and the south-east. By contrast, just three are from the east midlands and five are from the north-east.
My hon. Friend mentions the east midlands, and the situation that he describes does indeed suggest that the House of Lords is a symposium of the undead; but in our party’s time in government in the nine years since 1997, have we not made at least some progress? The job certainly needs to be completed, but it is not as if we have not tackled it.
Well, I wish I could commend what we have done in the past few years, but the honest truth is that we have continued the process of appointment and in addition to that have continued to appoint almost exclusively from London and the south-east of England. If we want the more representative second Chamber to which our manifesto commits us, we shall have to do better in future.
My view is that patronage is a bad principle for parliamentary democracy. I should prefer an elected second Chamber.
I should say, of course, that there are some very fine people in the House of Lords; some of my best friends are peers. However, one peer was sent to jail for perjury and another for criminal damage—he set fire to his hotel room—and there is no means of removing them from the House.
There are some good things about the Lords. No one party has a majority; that is an important principle. Business is transacted on a more consensual and less partisan basis, for the most part, and the quality of the debate is often excellent, although I have listened to quite a few House of Lords debates and it is not always so. Often the Lords improve Government legislation and in some areas they are better than the House of Commons at scrutinising legislation. There is an argument that the existence of the House of Lords means that we do not have to do our job properly.
Perhaps the most farcical thing about the constitution of the House of Lords at present is the system of by-elections when an elected hereditary peer dies. The Lords has to keep a list of eligible hereditaries. It is probably the only accurate electoral register in the land. When the late Cross Bencher, Baroness Strange, died last year and had to be replaced, 29 Cross-Bench hereditaries could stand for the post and 26 of them did so. After the use of the alternative vote—it is the only use of the alternative vote in the British constitution—and after five transfers of votes, Viscount Montgomery of Alamein defeated the Earl of Effingham, or David Peter Mowbray Algernon Howard, the seventh Earl of Effingham by the second creation, by 11 votes to eight. I am not sure whether that smacks more of “Blackadder” or Trollope.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this important debate. He knows that I, like him, believe that there should be a largely elected element in the House of Lords. However, he has not discussed any of the negative aspects of that, and I hope that he will. An elected House of Lords would have its independence and standing weakened; it would challenge the supremacy of the Commons and would remove from public service some notable people who have achieved much for society. How does the hon. Gentleman deal with those three key points?
If the hon. Gentleman can contain himself for a while, I shall move on to precisely those points.
Against that background, it would be tempting to talk exclusively about the composition of the House of Lords—who should be sitting in it—and that has been a tendency in most debates about it. As I have said many times before, I support a House of Lords whose Members are democratically elected as far as is practicable, given the parliamentary politics of today, but it is more important at this stage to focus on the powers and functions of the House of Lords. After all, an important principle of architecture is that form should serve function, not the other way round. That should also be true in the architecture of government.
The difficulty in this debate is that the precise nature of the power of the Lords is rather nebulous. It is framed more by convention than by statute. Those conventions may have a lustrous patina that is honeyed by use, but the conundrum we must resolve before we can alter the composition of the Lords is how we can better clarify the conventions so that they will stand the test of time.
The powers of the House of Lords have waxed and waned, and waned some more, but in essence the Lords retain an absolute power to say no to legislation. That power is mitigated only by the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 and by a series of conventions that are sometimes adhered to. The Parliament Acts are not minor constraints, of course. They determine that the Lords cannot touch a money Bill—the person who determines what is a money Bill is the Speaker of the House of Commons—and in certain complex circumstances they allow the Commons to insist on its legislation after the passage of a year. Importantly, they also restrict the power of the Commons to extend the length of a Parliament beyond five years.
The Parliament Acts seem straightforward but they are deeply problematic. For a start—this meets precisely the point raised by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink)—nowhere do they articulate that a Government can be formed only by virtue of their majority in the House of Commons and, for that matter, that they cannot be dismissed by dint of a vote in the House of Lords. Such important principles must underlie the primacy of the House of Commons.
Secondly, the power of the Lords, which mostly is a power to delay, increases exponentially during the year because of the danger of Bills falling at the end of the Session. On top of that, it grows exponentially during the passage of a Parliament. It is increasingly difficult to govern the country the further a Government is into a Parliament, and that is problematic for our constitution.
There were those who argued that one could not use the first Parliament Act to enforce the second one. In particular, that position was advocated by those who felt that the Hunting Act 2004 should not have been subjected to the Parliament Act in the way that it was because of reliance on the first Parliament Act to enforce the second one. The issue has been resolved in the courts, but it is still important to resolve it in a single Parliament Act rather than have this cumbersome reliance of one on the other.
The other point is that the process of using the Parliament Act is far from straightforward. It involves a lot of shenanigans and backstage skulduggery by the powers that be to resolve which amendments are possible and which are not. The Parliament Act explicitly allows changes to the original Bill’s text that are
“necessary owing to the time which has elapsed since the date of the former Bill”,
but of course that could cover a multitude of sins. We need a Parliament Act that is much clearer about when it can be used to enforce the will of the House of Commons.
Incidentally, one minor element of the way that the Parliament Acts are exercised is the double insistence rule, which seems largely to have been made up by the Clerks of the House and negotiated between the Clerks of the Lords and the Commons. If one House insists on an amendment to which the other has agreed and the other insists on its disagreement but neither has offered alternatives, the Bill in its entirety is lost. However, alternatives may not be the right way to proceed. The constant process in ping-pong of looking for another way to put the same disagreement may be a wholly inappropriate way of moving forward. For all those reasons, I believe that we need a new Parliament Act to govern the relations between the two Houses.
I am following my hon. Friend’s argument carefully. Does he not show a touching faith in the ability of new legislation to strictly define the role of the Lords? Is not the lesson learned from devolution that when an institution is given new powers it immediately calls for further powers and for those powers to be amended?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point on devolution, because were there to be a major difference of view between the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly and Westminster, it would be decided by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which is notoriously not a transparent or democratic process. That, too, needs to be reviewed. A new Parliament Act could allow a proper system of conciliation rather than the matter simply being sent off to an obscure Committee.
We have not yet had to face that difficulty because the two types of body have had similar administrations, but the matter should not be justiciable. I think there should be a conciliation process governing the relationship between the Commons and the Lords, just as there should be between the various devolved Assemblies and Parliaments and Westminster.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the interrelationship between the two Houses means that the Commons sometimes needs to consider how it works in order to ensure that the other place is able to operate effectively? What would he say about the practice that has grown up of packaging Lords amendments, which can mean that an important amendment is not properly considered because it is not the lead amendment?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that the double insistence rule has caused some complications over the last couple of years. The problem is that we do not have a transparent process for resolving disputes between the Commons and the Lords. The ping-pong process may be suitable for awhile, but I believe that after two or three disagreements between the two Houses some form of conciliation Committee is needed to resolve such issues properly, its members discussing the matter openly and transparently, rather than some kind of fix being organised between the Clerks of the two Houses.
The other constraint on the power of the Lords lies in the convention known by some as the Salisbury convention, and by others as the Salisbury-Addison convention. It is fair to say that the Conservatives usually call it the Salisbury convention, because it pushes a bit more in their direction, and Labour Members call it the Salisbury-Addison convention. As the House will know, it is normally articulated in the broadest possible terms as the 120-year-old principle that the House of Lords does not vote against measures included in the governing party’s manifesto.
One of the underlying principles of the convention is the belief that the unelected and therefore illegitimate House of Lords should not overturn the elected House, although I am sure that that is not quite how the third Marquess of Salisbury saw it. Indeed, he positively averred that it was important that the elected should, from time to time, be told quite where to go with their legislation. He rather patristically thought that the elected Commons did not necessarily represent the nation as well as the peers.
In truth, the convention has changed and its modern expression came into use thanks to Viscounts Addison and Cranbourne—from 1947, the latter was the fifth Marquess of Salisbury. That convention is far more circumspect. It says that the Lords should not reject Government Bills on Second Reading brought from the Commons for which the Government have a mandate from the nation. Like the Parliament Act, that seems clear, but I suggest that it is not. For a start, it applies only on Second Reading. It is possible to give a Bill a Second reading, to amend it so substantially that it is nothing like the original Bill and then insist on one’s disagreement. Because the convention does not refer to amendments, it is like a blunderbuss rather than a rapier.
As in any legislation, the devil is in the detail. The classic example was the Identity Cards Bill, which we debated on the Floor of the House. Some hon. Members maintained that they and the Lords were sticking more closely than the Government to the Government’s manifesto promise, but there is nobody to determine who is right or wrong about that, because there is no conciliation process; there is simply the ping-pong arrangement, which most people think is falling into disrepute.
Of course, the Liberal Democrats might assert that they were not involved in the original debates about the convention, which took place from 1945 to 1951, so they do not have to abide by it. I have heard several Liberal Democrat Members say that they do not hold to it any more in any case, because the Government are not properly the Government, having not been properly elected and not achieved a majority through a proportional system of representation.
My hon. Friend refers to the convention and the mandate that we received from the electorate in respect of our manifesto. That marvellously vague red book, which we all received about 13 months ago—on the doorsteps of the Rhondda, as on those of North-West Leicestershire—contains phrases such as that we would make the delivery of health services more effective. That could include anything from a reversion to Bevanite principles to selling the whole damn lot off to a public-private partnership. In those circumstances, how can one be clear about what a manifesto commitment is?
Absolutely. That is one of the big difficulties, as it has been for a long time. It is not that manifestos have got less precise, but that they, by their very nature, seek a mandate to govern, and governing involves the unexpected as well as the expected. Consequently, the convention will have difficulties surviving.
Most importantly, the strength of the convention, as it operates, is predicated on the illegitimacy of the Lords. The less illegitimate the Lords are, or become, the less the convention will hold sway. Surely, it must be folly to place illegitimacy at the heart of the constitution as a deliberate principle. That, again, is why we need a new Parliament Act to codify such conventions, and it should be based on a few simple principles.
The first principle is the primacy of the constituency-based Commons, especially when it comes to financial and fiscal matters and the creation of Governments. The second is the importance of Members of only one House having a local constituency focus and casework. The third is that the Government should be enabled to govern by having their business considered swiftly, and the appropriate period should be stipulated as no more than 60 working days.
The fourth principle is the supremacy, or sovereignty, of Parliament in its entirety—in other words, of the Commons and the Lords. That would require a conciliation Committee—I suggest 12 Members of the Commons and eight Members of the Lords—so that the relationship between the two is not justiciable in the courts. That was first advocated by the Wakeham commission, but the Government ignored its recommendation entirely. Subsequently, such a relationship was also advocated by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who is in his place, Paul Tyler, who is now in the Lords, and Robin Cook.
Unfortunately, such powers have attracted little proper attention. The Joint Committee, on which I sat in the previous Parliament, was extremely profound on the matter. We said:
“We consider that these existing conventions, which are of a self-restraining nature, impact profoundly on the relations between the Houses and need to be understood as a vital part of any future constitutional settlement.”
That was one our greatest moments—stating the blasted obvious. We then said:
“When the views of the House on composition are made known, we will return to the detailed matter of how these important conventions should be maintained”.
That is putting the cart before the horse; we must do things the other way round and determine the powers first.
I am seeking to finish, and the hon. Gentleman will have his moment.
We are often proud of the fact that the British constitution has grown by accretion, but the ship of state has sailed through many waters and perhaps gained too many barnacles. The time is more than ripe for bringing the bark of state into dry dock and overhauling it. Appointment and patronage are not a proper way to govern this country. Gentlemen’s agreements dressed up as parliamentary conventions will not hold water.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Weir, and I shall confine my remarks to the briefest possible. Anyone who is interested in my views will find them dotted around editions of Hansard for the last 10 years. I commend the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on his choice of subject for the debate and it is a pleasure to see the Deputy Leader of the House in his place, because he and the Leader of the House are now in charge of this important policy area, whereas on the last occasion that we debated the subject it was the responsibility of the Department for Constitutional Affairs. We understand that the Prime Minister has mandated the Leader of the House to sort out party funding and House of Lords reform, and the Leader of the House will need all the diplomatic skills that he acquired as Foreign Secretary to discharge that obligation.
At the time of the vote in 2003, the current Leader of the House voted for a wholly appointed House, which I think was the least popular option on which the House voted. If he is to search for a consensus and find a way forward he will need to demonstrate some flexibility.
My hon. Friend is correct, although he has approached the matter with less delicacy than I. There is a need for movement on the part of the Leader of the House if he is to find the centre of gravity.
The debate is the second on the subject this year. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) inspired the earlier debate on 31 January and it is probably useful to have a six-monthly progress report, because there has been a worrying development, which I shall address shortly. If anybody had said, at the time of the original Bill which was considered by the 1997 Parliament, that the Labour party would win three general elections and that the Prime Minister would retire, without stage 2 of House of Lords reform being on the statute book, nobody would have believed it. We were all told that dividing reform into two easy sections would ensure that it would hit the statute book early, and that we needed to take two bites at the cherry. The cherry, however, remains visibly unconsumed.
I do not propose to repeat the case—eloquently made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke)—for a predominantly elected Chamber. It was set out in a publication and in a draft Bill, which I co-authored with Robin Cook, Lord Tyler—as he now is—and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe. The Leader of the House need not take up any scarce drafting time for the next Session’s Bill—we have already done it for him.
The debate on composition often takes place in rather crude, two-dimensional terms: if one House wins, the other loses. There is an important constitutional battle going on, but it is not that one—it is between Parliament and the Executive. In that battle the two Houses are allies, not enemies, because the terms of trade have shifted dramatically in favour of the Executive and need to be redressed. Once we have settled the issue before us this morning, we need to develop more ways of working together and pooling resources. For instance, I see no reason why Lords Ministers should not reply to debates in Westminster Hall when they are the responsible departmental Minister.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the need for arbitration between the Executive and Parliament. More specifically, however, that need applies between No. 10 and the Commons, or possibly even between No. 10 and the Labour Back Benches. Only three years ago—tantalisingly—we were just three votes short of a majority in favour of an 80 per cent. elected House of Lords. Is that not where we need arbitration?
The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. The Labour party was elected in 2001 on a manifesto that committed it to a more democratic and accountable second Chamber. The Prime Minister must have had some hand in drafting the relevant section of the manifesto, but he voted for a wholly appointed Chamber, and I fail to understand how he and the Leader of the House could reconcile that action with the Prime Minister’s own manifesto. However, perhaps that is an issue better addressed by the Labour party than by Opposition Members.
There is a matter on which I part company with the hon. Member for Rhondda. In earlier debates on Lords reform, there was no controversy about the power of the House of Lords. The Wakeham report agreed that the powers should be left as they were, and so did the Government. A document supporting the White Paper, published in 2001 and optimistically entitled “The House of Lords: Completing the Reform”, stated in relation to paragraph 30 of the White Paper:
“There is no need to change the statutory basis of the second chamber’s powers in relation to primary legislation.”
The only suggestion that the Government made about powers at that time was a relatively minor one about subordinate legislation.
It is worth reading what the Public Administration Committee said at the time about the key issue that the hon. Gentleman raised. Paragraph 69 of its report stated:
“There is no proposal for any major change to the role and functions of the House of Lords. This is one of the fundamentals on which there is broad agreement, and it is one of the firm foundations on which reform must build. The second chamber will continue to be predominantly a revising chamber...Its other main functions are holding the Government to account, and debating political issues, in particular long term or technically complex matters which have been given insufficient time in the House of Commons. The Government wishes to strengthen the capacity of the Lords to perform these functions, but proposes no change in the functions themselves.”
The Committee concluded:
“We agree with the Government that no major change is required to the role or functions of the second chamber. It should continue to be a revising, scrutinising and deliberative assembly. But its performance of all these functions can and should be strengthened.”
That statement, with which I wholly agree, was flatly contradicted in the debate that took place on the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham on 31 January. The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), said:
“That is why the question of composition is difficult and inextricably linked to the role and powers of the second chamber.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 31 January 2006; Vol. 442, c. 45WH.]
That is a total U-turn.
I am deeply suspicious of what is now happening. There is a view that that is a way of postponing decisions and leaving a status quo that is convenient for the Government. They decide the size and the balance—the party balance, in particular—and they control the composition of a large number of Members. I think that if we reran the 2003 vote today, there would be a majority for a 70 or 80 per cent. elected Chamber, but we would then have to clear a second hurdle, which was not there last time—namely, the powers. If the Government are minded to curtail the powers of the second Chamber, which I believe they are, it could be another 10 years before we resolve the issue.
If we are to resolve the issue, we need to be firm about the destination but relatively flexible about the speed at which we reach it. We need a predominantly elected House of Lords with the powers uncurtailed, but we need to recognise that there are legitimate expectations on the part of those who were made life peers, we need continuity of expertise and we need to maintain the culture and collective wisdom. That is why the draft Bill had a long lead-in time covering three general elections.
When we last debated the issue, the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs did not reach her peroration, so we never discovered what the Government were going to do. May I suggest to the Deputy Leader of the House that this time he begins at the end of his speech and works backwards? That way, we might achieve more enlightenment about where the Government are going than we did last time round.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on raising this important issue and I agree with him that the first job in respect of reform of the House of Lords is to talk about its responsibilities and to decide what its responsibilities and functions should be. I broadly agree with the point made by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) that it should be a revising, deliberative and scrutinising Chamber. However, I do not agree with his remark that it ought to be there to hold the Executive to account. I do not believe that that should be the job of the House of Lords at all. Holding the Executive to account is the job of the Opposition and Back Benchers in this House; it is not a job for the second Chamber.
Is not holding the Executive to account the job of Parliament as a whole—that is, both Houses?
It is at the moment, but we are talking about reforming the second Chamber; that is the reason for my remarks. In future, I do not think that the second Chamber ought to work in the way that it does.
If the second Chamber is to be a revising, deliberative and scrutinising Chamber—and even one that holds the Executive to account, if that is what hon. Members want—it needs to be made up of people who have wisdom, experience and expertise. We all know that elections do not necessarily result in a group of people with those qualities; I make an exception of the Members in this Room, of course. If we need people with such qualities, they have to be selected rather than elected. Certainly, people with such qualities could not be guaranteed through elections.
Once the hereditary peers are abolished, as I believe they ought to be—ironically, because of a quirk in the way that things developed, that is the only democratic element in the House of Lords at the moment, but there we are—responsibility for appointments will be left solely to the Prime Minister and the House of Lords Appointments Commission, which, I am afraid to say, have both been brought into disrepute by the cash-for-peerages row. That would not be sustainable, and there would have to be changes to the way that appointments were made.
I do not agree that elections are the answer to the problem; I insist on my argument that an elected second Chamber would challenge the primacy of the House of Commons, whatever Members tried to do to change the constitution of the second Chamber. Elected Members will, quite unjustifiably, want more power if they are elected to the second Chamber—more, perhaps, than hon. Members who are pushing for elections might care to give them. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda says that they would not have casework, but who is to prevent them from having it? If someone writes to a Member of the second Chamber who has been elected, that Member would have every right to take up that case on behalf of the elector. I do not see how we can ever legislate to stop them answering letters and taking up cases. Of course they would develop casework if they were elected.
Such Members might not have constituency responsibilities because of how they might be elected, but in a way that might be worse than their having constituency responsibilities, because they would have a brief to go anywhere they liked. They could go anywhere in hon. Members’ constituencies, dealing with anything that they wanted, visiting factories and schools, opening this and that, and taking up issues. There would be nothing to prevent them from doing that, and I do not see how we could legislate to do so.
My hon. Friends argue that if we had a referendum and asked the general public the simple question, “How should a new, reformed second Chamber be made up?” people would generally say that it should be elected; that is the knee-jerk reaction. But ask them a different question—ask them whether they want another 300 elected politicians, with their secretaries, offices, expenses and salaries—and see whether there is the same knee-jerk reaction. I doubt that there would be. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda knows, we had that experience recently in north-east England, where we had a referendum on an elected regional assembly.
As my hon. Friend may be aware, those of us opposed to an elected second Chamber will make that same point if the issue ever comes before the people. We are talking about a fundamental change, and if we had to have a referendum on devolution, and on regional assemblies, we ought to have a referendum on making a wholesale change to the second Chamber. When we have that referendum, the very point that I just mentioned will be made in opposition to an elected second Chamber.
A hybrid House would be the worst of all worlds. Two classes of Member would certainly not work. Elected Members would quite rightly consider themselves to be superior and to have more authority than non-elected Members, and I cannot see how they could possibly work together in a Chamber. If we had a proportion of elected Members, we would eventually end up with a fully elected House.
The answer is to continue with an appointed Chamber, so that we can appoint people who have the experience, expertise and wisdom to ask Members of Parliament to think again on legislation, but the responsibility for making appointments ought to be much wider, including business, trade unions, religious organisations, local government and devolved institutions. If the appointments were made with that wider sort of franchise, for want of a better term, it would be more democratic and more accountable. That answers the question asked by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire: how the Prime Minister could say that he wanted a more democratic, more accountable House, but vote for a fully appointed House. We can certainly have a House that is appointed in a more democratic way than it is at present; any change in that direction would be more democratic than the present system. It would certainly be accountable if people were appointed. If the CBI, TUC or Local Government Association were to appoint people, those organisations would expect those people to be accountable to them, particularly if the appointments were made for a limited period, as I believe they ought to be.
We can have accountability and a more democratic system under an appointed House, and we would certainly have the kind of people who would be able to challenge the House of Commons on the legislation that it put though and who would have the authority to do so.
I know that the hon. Gentleman has had a long-standing and consistent position on this subject. Would it not be a fair summary of his argument to say that he is in favour of a little more democracy as long as there is not too much and there is no danger of it being described as fully formed?
I am fully in favour of democracy, of course. This is a democratic country and democratic democracy is the basis of our governance, but this country is not entirely run by democratic organisations. A swathe of people in all sorts of organisations are a part of our democracy and run our system of governance but are not directly elected. School governors, the police, doctors and so on do not have to be directly elected in order for us to have an efficient democracy. As long as the House of Commons has primacy and is the elected body, that is the basis of our democracy. All the rest flows from that.
Could I put it to the hon. Gentleman, although there is no great prospect of persuading him to change his mind, that there is one important difference between the second Chamber and the various institutions to which he has just referred? The difference is that the second Chamber is part of Parliament and has some legislative responsibility, and that does not apply to schools, hospitals or the other organisations that he has in mind.
The hon. Gentleman brings me back to the point that I made earlier. The first thing is to get the powers right. I do not think that the second Chamber ought to have legislative responsibility. Once we get the powers right and it does not have legislative responsibility, his argument falls.
It is a great pleasure to follow the robust and common-sense remarks made by the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland). I am glad to know that I will not be the sole reactionary participating in this debate. He suggested that people would give a dusty response to any idea that we should set up another body with another raft of elected politicians. I think that people would give an even dustier response if anyone suggested that the House of Commons, with its 650-plus Members of Parliament, was in fact too small and that we ought to do something to double the number of MPs elected in a single-chamber Parliament. If that is regarded as a foolish, if not barking mad, proposition, why should it be regarded as a sensible proposition to create that number of elected Members of Parliament if they happen to be divided between two Chambers?
I can think of a number of possible outcomes of going down such a route, and that would depend on whether the Members in the two elected Chambers were elected by the same system of elections or a different system, and whether they were elected at the same time or at different times. If both Chambers of Parliament were elected and if they were elected at the same time, it is reasonable to guess that we would get broadly similar results in each of the two Chambers, and if the intention was that the second Chamber should be some sort of revising brake on the first, that would be unlikely to happen. If, however, they were elected at different times, the likelihood is that we would see the sort of results that we see in local government elections midway through the term of a national Government; the local election is seen as a sort of referendum on the performance of the Government. One Chamber would be elected as, in some sense, a protest against the way in which the Government were proceeding, and the result would be likely to be deadlock.
I have a confession to make. Once upon a time I had a private conversation with a very senior member of my party’s shadow Cabinet. He is not here today, and even if he were, I would not embarrass him by identifying him. He said to me, “Julian, you don’t understand. The whole point is to have a deadlock. If the problem is that Parliament is doing too much, that there is too much legislation and too much government, then isn’t it a great thing that the two Houses should be deadlocked in this way?” That is a radical approach, but I do not think that it is a very constructive one.
I have just been quietly counting to myself the number of subjunctives and ifs that the hon. Gentleman has used. I think that we are up to about 15 of each. I think that that is because he is describing something, to then knock it down, that nobody is advocating. The truth is that the vast majority of those of us who advocate a substantially or wholly elected second Chamber suggest that it should not all be elected at one time, that it should not have a majority for any one party and that the relationship between the two Houses needs to be a constructive one that can lead to proper legislative process.
Yes, but if it were not elected all at once—[Interruption.] I am terribly sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not like my use of the word “if,” but when one is trying to anticipate what the results of a proposed change will be, that is the only way in which one can proceed. One can say, “If you take cause A, the result will be consequence B. If you take cause B, the result will be consequence C,” and so on. There is nothing wrong with my doing that; in fact, I cannot think of an intellectually honest alternative way to proceed with the argument.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I know that he is always anxious to take lessons from Europe, and in his support I refer him to the position in Germany in recent years. A series of state elections led to the paralysis of government in the Bundestag, which meant that the Government were unable to continue through their term and an election had to take place. That position would apply here if a directly elected second Chamber were introduced.
Of course the hon. Gentleman’s point is right, and it is precisely the answer to the objection that was made to my argument. There are differences between people’s outlooks on the most legitimate method of electing a Parliament. If people believe, for example, that it is most legitimate to use a system with a proportional element, which tends to lead to the type of results to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred, they will regard the Chamber elected by those means as having more legitimacy. If people believe, as I do, that it is more legitimate to have a first-past-the-post system of election, they will take the view that the Chamber elected by that method has the greater legitimacy.
The key argument against the proposals is shown by the fact that nearly every hon. Member who has spoken in the debate has emphasised that the main role for the second Chamber should be as a revising Chamber rather than to extend, repeat or second-guess the process of legislation carried out by the House of Commons. Who is better qualified to undertake its work—another raft of non-expert, professional, elected politicians or a collection of people who have achieved distinction in other walks of life, but chosen not to enter the hurly-burly of the democratic political process because they are intellectually gifted and temperamentally inclined to become distinguished academics, practitioners of the law, medical practitioners and experts in their field? The reformers’ proposals would exclude from the legislative process a group of people who can genuinely improve the legislation that comes before them in favour of non-expert, career politicians who have nothing to add to what the career politicians in the lower House contribute.
I am not sure that that bears very much on the question of expertise. If people have to go through a process of election to get into the second Chamber, then the majority of people who have chosen not to become professional politicians but to rise to the top of their professions will almost certainly be excluded.
The hon. Gentleman is provoking me even more than he provoked his right hon. Friend. The majority of those who do most of the work in the House of Lords at the moment are career politicians who have gone from the House of Commons to the House of Lords. I do not understand why those people should suddenly be frightened of elections. Surely anybody who is in the legislature on a party ticket should at least have to be elected.
I am very surprised at the assertion that the majority of work is done by the ex-politicians. The vast majority of business management may be done by such people, but a very considerable contribution is made, according to the field in which their expertise lies, by people who have, as I have repeatedly stated, risen to the top of their respective professions. Those people will be excluded.
Why has the Prime Minister suddenly declared himself a convert to this cause? Is it because he has been convinced by the integrity, consistency and plausibility of the arguments put forward by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)? I rather doubt it. I think that it is because he and his party have been caught with their fingers in the till—they have been caught out over the question of loans for peerages. They are not the first, and they will not be the last to have been caught out in that way.
If we are talking about the people who do the majority of the work in the upper House, I think that it will be found that those who have been controversial appointees are not the ones who do the majority of the work. A lot of those people take the bauble and are never heard of again.
I am actually bringing my remarks to a conclusion.
I can think of a lot of good reasons for the Prime Minister’s having one view or another about the composition of the second Chamber, but doing things as a panic reaction to having been caught out in corrupt practices is not the right way to decide this important constitutional issue.
May I say what a pleasure it is to appear for the first time with you in the Chair, Mr. Weir. I offer my congratulations to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on raising what I have always considered to be an extremely important subject. It goes to the heart of the British constitution, because as long as one half of our Parliament is considered to be illegitimate, Parliament as a whole is weakened. We are weakened in the eyes of the people and our legislation is not as competent and as good as it could be. I have always felt that reform of the House of Lords is one of the most important things that any Government could attempt. This Government have started, but I echo those who have said that it is surprising that, at this stage of their life, the very paltry reform of stage 1 is all that they have managed to get on the statute book.
What evidence has the hon. Gentleman for saying that the House of Lords is considered to be illegitimate? That might be the view of those who want an elected second Chamber, but what evidence has he that people out there care very much about having the House of Lords reformed, never mind whether they think that it is illegitimate?
I have three pieces of evidence for the hon. Gentleman. The first is my own experience in another place. Secondly, I have listened to Members, in another place and in the Chamber, usually on the Government’s side, saying that it is time to stop voting against legislation, either because “We are the unelected House”—when I was up there—or because “They are the unelected House”—now that I am down here. Thirdly, I have had many conversations with ordinary voters concerned about Parliament who feel precisely the same way.
I do not think that anyone can challenge the fact that the House of Lords is regarded as illegitimate. That for me is the core problem when considering reform of the House of the Lords.
I agree completely with much that the hon. Member for Rhondda said. I suspect that his objective is exactly the same as mine, but I must take issue with him on one fundamental point. I do not believe that it is appropriate to consider powers at the same time as composition. I have changed my view on that over the years. Back in about 1997, when I wrote a not-very-widely-publicised pamphlet on the subject, I made the point that one should look first at the powers, and that the composition should follow. I used his precise argument: in architecture, form should follow function.
My experience of watching attempts to reform the House has taught me that the precise opposite is the case. Actually, we need to set out a detailed plan for reform of the composition, and only then will we see the answers to the questions, many of which have been raised in today’s debate.
We need to deal with the point about the so-called experts. Did the hon. Gentleman hear my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) suggest either that experts would not stand, or that the public would not vote for them? I suggest in fact that if we have lengthy non-renewable terms, it is likely that substantial numbers of experts would stand, even if not the same experts in every case, as is currently the situation. If the public are fed up with the current tranche, and with what they regard as the superfluity, of standard, professional, elected politicians, there is every prospect that they will vote for those different and to-be-preferred experts, whose chances my hon. Friend is wrongly inclined to discount.
I agree very much with the hon. Gentleman. Furthermore, the oft-used phrase, “The great experience of the House of Lords”, is overstated, in my experience. As I recall, there was considerable experience on agriculture and matters to do with landowning. I remember answering regularly for my party on the vexed question of the future of salmon fisheries in the United Kingdom, and on a wide range of other subjects.
The removal of the hereditaries removed quite properly one bias in the House of Lords, but has actually resulted in another series of biases. One of those is retired Members of Parliament, who form far too large a section. Others include Oxbridge and the law. I could go on. Many areas of our lives are not represented. Election would result in much broader representation.
That could be achieved in a number of ways. I am conscious of the time, but the hon. Gentleman leads me on to the critical point: we need to establish a firm method of election and to know what we seek to achieve from it. That would answer all related questions.
I want to make clear what I see as the fundamental points. The first is that the method of election is proportional representation. The second is that the election should involve large, regional constituencies. The third is that one third of Members should be elected every four years. I would hold those quadrennial elections at the time of the devolved elections for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the nearest local election in England. The fourth is that Members be allowed one term only. In the past, I suggested that that term be of 12 years. Another is that there be no re-election. That is the critical point because it would remove the power that the Whips have in the Commons on reselection and re-election. Finally, there should be some provision for appointment. If that did not happen, I would not worry. The proportion of those appointed should be less than one quarter.
I take issue with the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland). I believe that one solves the vast majority of the problems that were referred to by the manner of composing elections. It is easy to ensure that there is no casework. We would simply have a convention that Ministers do not respond to letters from peers on individual items. There are a range of ways in which those problems can be solved.
I share deeply the suspicion of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) that bringing the powers of the Lords into the debate at this stage will complicate the process of reform and delay it. I may be being uncharitable but I have a suspicion that that is not wholly distant from what the Government seek to achieve. I hope that it is uncharitable and that they will go ahead with reform. I urge them to concentrate on the composition of the House.
I think that there is a misunderstanding here. It is certainly true that it was difficult to achieve consensus in the Labour party. Indeed, at the time, Robin Cook said that consensus was a misnomer for what one wanted to achieve. Among Labour Members it would certainly be difficult to achieve consensus on reform of the Lords unless one understood what the powers of the Lords would be. That is why the Government are moving in that direction. It is not because of any desire to push things into the long grass.
I have known the hon. Gentleman long enough to accept entirely what he says but I still have my doubts as to its practical validity. It seems to me that the purpose of reforming the Lords is straightforward. Reform must be about improvement. For me, improvement is defined by strengthening Parliament as a whole. I have often heard that the House of Commons must remain supreme and be predominant. The more I hear that phrase, the less I understand it because, ultimately, it seems to me that what we must be about is strengthening the role of Parliament as a whole. The start point must therefore be that the existing powers remain unchanged. Any attempt to limit the existing power of the Lords should be resisted. It would be a trap to allow legitimacy at the price of castration.
History teaches us two lessons: that our constitution is in a state of permanent—albeit slow—evolution; and that all legislation has unintended consequences. To achieve the former while minimising the latter, it would be better if the power of the Lords was considered in light of the experience of the operation of an elected House. The powers of the House should not be part of the current consideration. They should neither be increased nor decreased. There would, however, be a clear understanding that the question of powers would be revisited in light of the experience of an elected Lords. It would be for all of us—by then enjoying the privilege of election, whether to this House or to the other place—to ensure that neither the Lords nor the Commons abuse the new arrangements or, if they are abused, to make a cogent case for their change.
It seems to me that the key is that an unelected House will always be tainted with the charge of illegitimacy. The only remedy for that can be election—and substantial election. The danger lies in seeking to reform powers at the same time as conferring legitimacy. It is equivalent to giving a child who has attained majority the keys of the house and then changing the locks. I am equally convinced of the need to accommodate existing peers graciously.
Perhaps I may for one moment explain what I believe should happen: each third of the new House would be elected every four years, leaving all the existing peers in place. The plain fact is, taking an actuarial view and looking at the age of the House, that the question would resolve itself through time relatively easily. The House would be large, but it would begin to diminish. If we withdrew the obligation on Members of the other House to go, we should have removed one of the biggest blocks to their lordships’ agreeing with us. It is a practical point, but is probably the key to the whole thing. We must be gracious with them.
Provided that we have decided where we want to go, it does not really matter if it takes a little time. After all, it is nearly a century since reform began. If it takes another decade to complete the transformation it will have been worth it. The critical point, however, is to decide where we want to go. We must decide that soon.
I agree with the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) that the function of the House of Lords is extremely important. I pay tribute to their lordships because in recent months they have stood up and defended freedom. They have played an important role in relation to civil liberties issues arising in recent legislation.
I share the slight suspicion of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) that it is odd that a demand and desire to tackle House of Lords reform should suddenly arise, apparently parallel to the scandalous allegations that were made recently and that are being investigated by the constabulary. There is a worry that the Prime Minister, having appointed 50 per cent. of the other place and 70 per cent. of the Labour peers—he has exercised more patronage than Henry VIII—and being now at the end of his days, thinks, “No need to pass that on to the next one.” Alternatively, perhaps it may be convenient to be able to say that serious negotiations are in hand, given that collars—well, no; I have no idea whether they will be felt.
Since the passage of the House of Lords Bill in 1998-99, my party has been saying that we want full reform and would like to build a consensus towards it. It was wrong to embark on the process in the way that the Government did, bit by bit. At that time we made it clear that we are not keen to defend the hereditary system. However, we think it only right, given the important functions of the other place, that there should be full reform. Yet since then we have had a royal commission, two White Papers, a Joint Committee, on which the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) served, free votes and the 2004 Bill, which collapsed. Here we are now with a system that has given the Prime Minister the patronage I described.
I always thought that Robin Cook put it rather well when he said that we had moved during the time of the Labour Government from the 15th century principle of heredity to the 18th century principle of patronage. I wonder whether that is what the Labour Government really want as their legacy in this context.
Interestingly, when he stood for the leadership of the Labour party the Prime Minister said that he supported an elected second Chamber.
It was the Prime Minister. It does not yet look as though we are to see the more democratic and representative House that he hoped for in his manifestos.
We are about to enter into discussions with the Leader of the House, and we look forward to that. He, of course, voted in 2003 against any elected element, but we hope that his new attachment to a hybrid House is a serious commitment. We are certainly happy to discuss it in detail.
The proposal that we have supported for some years is that there should be a substantially elected second Chamber. By and large, the Conservative party voted for 80/20, and I did so, too, before voting for 100 per cent. However, if our starting point is that we have to create a second Chamber that will last—a sustainable solution—it is hard, in a democratic country, not to go for the democratic solution. The hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) suggested that we could ask each profession, trade or interest group to suggest a representative, and I understand his point, but I worry that that has a flavour of the old pals act about it and that it is not a truly democratic solution. Surely, in a democracy, the only real solution is for the electors to vote on the issue.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman was listening carefully to the contribution from the Liberal Benches, which mentioned the form of election that might be adopted for the second Chamber. The suggestion, which seems to be widely accepted by those who want an elected second Chamber, is that there should be some sort of PR system—no doubt, some sort of list system. Does that not call to mind the old pals act?
Well, that is the criticism. Although my party is obviously willing to talk about this issue, we have said in the past that one could get the flavour of a larger area, such as a county, while still retaining first past the post. One would not have a directly similar constituency, and North-East Hertfordshire would still be represented in the House of Commons, but Hertfordshire could be represented as a county by a group of Members in the second Chamber. We would have a flavour of representation on a larger scale than we normally have in the Commons. That would give some interesting insights into issues such as what the policy for a county or city should be, and there would be a different approach, which would fit very well into our constitution. However, my party is prepared to talk about what the method of election should be and how large the constituencies should be.
In terms of the powers, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) was right to note that the battle between Parliament and the Executive is very important at the moment, particularly because, for quite a time now, we have had a strong Government who have had large majorities and who have wanted to accrete power. The ruthless way in which the power of appointment has been used in the other place undoubtedly shows the sort of Government that we have had. In those circumstances, it is Parliament’s duty to stand up to the Government and to question, scrutinise and really do its job more effectively.
When we consider a suggestion such as the 60-day rule mentioned by the hon. Member for Rhondda, we must bear in mind the use that the Executive side might make of it. At the moment, most Bills go through the other place in less than 60 days, and that is certainly true of the large Bills, unless the Government decide to think again and introduce substantial new provisions, which happens from time to time. It is the small Bills, however, that would tip over the 60-day period. The other place would say, “We’ve got to get the big legislation through. This small Bill is not as urgent. We’ll get through it in the Session, but we’re not going to do it in 60 days.” If the Government were ruthless, they could pack in quite a lot of small measures, which, under the hon. Gentleman’s proposal, would have to be dealt with in 60 days. That would reduce the time for debate on more substantial measures.
The logical consequence of such an arrangement is that the Government would end up guillotining—“programming”—consideration in the other place to meet the 60-day limit. That would be a bad idea, because the important thing about the other place is that it can go through Bills line by line—as we know, a lot of them are not well drafted. Although the detail is often not that contentious, the other place does important work getting Bills right and ensuring that they are legally sound and do not offend some interest group that we have not spotted. It would be a mistake to introduce a strict time limit, which the Government could abuse.
Whatever we do in the next two years must be good for the Government and the Opposition, whichever party is which. That is an important principle. The hon. Gentleman’s point about timing might be good were it not for the fact that under the Parliament Acts the House of Commons has to give a Bill to the House of Lords only one month before the end of the Parliamentary Session; so the present time limit is only one month.
The Parliament Acts are designed to deal with a situation in which there is deadlock between the Houses. My point is that in the ordinary course of business, not the extreme example, the Government would be able to change the practices of the other place, in effect introducing programming. That would be a bad situation for those in the other place, because their job is to take the necessary time to ensure that Bills are scrutinised in detail. It is the job of a revising Chamber to take the time and to cause the sort of delay to which the hon. Gentleman is objecting. If its Members do not have the powers to revise, to delay and to make this place think again, it will be turned into a talking shop; something to which nobody would want to be elected. If it is going to be an elected second Chamber—and I hope that it is—I do not want to see its powers diminished.
Finally, it is worth repeating a point that was made by Lord McNally, who said that the Government have lost no legislation, and no manifesto commitment has been deferred by the House of Lords. Therefore, he still does not understand why, other than for the convenience of the Government machine, there need to be changes in the powers. I agree with him. It is not necessary to over-complicate reform of the other place. It must be possible to consider the conventions; to try to clarify them; to agree on how to elect a substantial part of the second Chamber; to agree on the transition—
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the advantages of leaving the current peers in place until they are gathered, and introducing a third in three successive elections four years apart, is the strong possibility that such a process would maintain the conventions, character and attitude of the Lords, which are so important?
Yes. It is important to achieve the strengths of the current Chamber in the new arrangements. Those strengths are independence, which the longer terms—the exact length of which I should like to discuss—would embed, and the spirit of being a revising and non-confrontational Chamber. A proper transitional arrangement would make it possible to pass on the good traditions while legitimising the second Chamber so that it had the confidence to do its job properly.
I made a long speech in January on this matter, and that is available in Hansard. We have had a useful discussion today, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Rhondda for having securing the debate. In the debate that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East wisely secured in January, we concentrated more on the process and the composition, so it has been very useful to concentrate on the powers today. Finally, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire was right to be suspicious about the way in which the discussions are moving. I should like to make it clear to the Deputy Leader of the House that we are going to be very vigilant. We want a genuine process, not an excuse.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on having secured the debate. I know that he has long taken a detailed interest in Lords reform. I also welcome the contributions that have been made by the 11 colleagues who have taken part. Indeed, I think that they almost represent the spectrum of views voiced in the 2005 debate, which make the task of reforming the House of Lords seem like a candidate for the 13th labour of Hercules, unfortunately. None the less, we shall try to make progress and secure reform by consensus of the House of Lords, because the subject is of great importance to us and rightly of significant interest across the House.
How our Parliament works is a matter, of course, for both Houses to consider together. The issue was debated five months ago, when the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) secured a debate, to which the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), replied. I am happy to respond to the request from the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) to give an update on where the Government stand, because a number of things have happened in the intervening period.
As has been pointed out, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has been asked to take the lead responsibility for developing the Government’s proposals to take forward Lords reform. That is recognition of the importance that the Government attach to the views of this House on the future of our Parliament. We have always made it clear that the future of the House of Lords cannot be considered in isolation. The Joint Committee on Conventions has been set up and has begun its work. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, along with colleagues from other parties, gave evidence to the Committee last week. Representatives of the Conservative party, I understand, are giving evidence right now. My right hon. Friend is also holding an informal meeting this week with representatives of other parties, the Cross-Bench peers in the Lords and the bishops. That follows the initiative started by the Lord Chancellor.
The Government have always made it clear that they would prefer to proceed with Lords reform by consensus. There are many different views on the optimum outcome, so it is likely that we will have to ask people to compromise on some of the details if we are to get an agreed way forward in this House and the other House. That cannot be at the expense of compromising our fundamental principle, namely the primacy of this House. One of the frustrating things about the difficulty in delivering Lords reform is that there is a large degree of agreement about the fundamentals, yet we cannot find a clear way forward.
I know that some hon. Members think that we should abolish the House of Lords altogether and that this House should be able to perform the job of scrutinising the Government perfectly well. That is not the Government’s view, which is that the UK continues to need a bicameral Parliament. I believe that there is significant agreement about what we want the second Chamber to do and, more importantly, what we do not want it to do. We must not undermine the supremacy of this House nor the representative functions of hon. Members. We want a clear line of accountability from Parliament to the people and from the Government to this House. That is where the Government’s authority comes from, and they must have authority and legitimacy or else they cannot do their job.
We need an effective second Chamber for additional review, scrutiny and deliberation. The House of Lords, as a revising Chamber, is a key part of the parliamentary process. We need a Chamber that provides a distinctive contribution rather than simply duplicating this House, but we also need a Chamber with the authority to make a legitimate contribution.
There is already a broad consensus around the propositions. The trouble is that the consensus breaks down when we try to translate it into policy on composition. Do distinctiveness and difference imply appointment? Does legitimacy imply election? Does election inevitably imply a threat to this Chamber? Those are difficult issues. Today we have had a flavour of the arguments for and against, and that is perhaps why it has taken almost a century to reach the point that we are at now.
Questions have been asked as to whether the codification is premature. We believe that it is essential to have a clear idea of the ground rules for the relationship between the two present Houses before we embark on significant reforms, because otherwise there will be no benchmark against which to judge their significance. Some aspects of the present situation are highly likely to remain true whatever the composition of the Lords—most notably the fact that no party and no Government will in future be able to command a majority in the House of Lords. That factor alone is a powerful argument for codifying the convention now.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire referred to the votes in 2003. The Leader of the House of Commons has said that his “own sense” was that a mixture of an elected and an appointed Chamber—with elections taking place differently from the Commons, for longer terms and with a longer transition—is probably the option on which consensus is likely. As he also said, we have promised a free vote. So he was suggesting where a solution on the issue might, in his judgment, be found; he was not saying that the proposal was one that the Government would force through. We are committed to a free vote, and that means that the other parties have a say in developing policy too, which is why they are being so heavily engaged. My right hon. Friend takes the view that he would be failing in his duties if he did not relentlessly search for consensus. If none exists, it is hard to see how Lords reform could happen for another Government.
The powers of the Lords were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda and by others, as were the proposals for a time limit on consideration of Bills by the Lords. My clear view is that the principle that the Lords should consider business in a reasonable time is important—it was one of the foundation stones of the Salisbury-Addison agreement. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has said, there is no immediate proposal by the Government to legislate on the 60-day issue. The outcome that we want to secure is that the Lords should conduct its role of scrutinising legislation effectively, but should not take that to a point where it delays so much as to be, in effect, vetoing legislation.
I have a question which is slightly pedantic but which goes to the heart of the matter. Are the Government proposing that the powers that exist today simply be codified and put in some form of legislation, or is the Minister suggesting that those powers be changed? If he is suggesting only that what exists be put on a more statutory basis, I think that many of us would not be quite so concerned. On the other hand, if he is talking about changes then there is concern.
The Joint Committee of the Commons and Lords is looking at that at the moment and taking evidence, and there are no handcuffs on that Committee. As well as being an all-party Committee it contains Members of both Houses, and it is probably taken for granted that the starting point consists of the present procedures and conventions, but its members will have their views on how much, if at all, those procedures and conventions need to be updated and properly codified. That is what the Committee is doing, and I hope that, as it has done to date, it will continue to reach consensus as it moves through the programme.
The proposal to reduce the powers of the Lords comes, I believe, from a consensus in this place as we contemplate perhaps making the Lords more legitimate. At the moment we are not considering reducing its powers—that is something that would have to flow from debate, and there may be areas where there is consensus that its powers should be strengthened. We have no fixed view on it—we want a consensus from Members on how to proceed so that it is open for the Lords to reject Bills and to propose amendments, and so that the Parliament Acts are invoked only if necessary. The period of delay, for instance, would remain unchanged under the Parliament Acts.
The scrutiny of legislation was touched on by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). It is important to note that this House spends a great deal of time scrutinising legislation—in fact, considerably more than the other place. During the 2002-03 Session, there were more than 1,100 hours of scrutiny of Bills in Committee as opposed to some 812 in the other place. We should not undervalue the work that we do here.
I apologise for the fact that I do not have 100 per cent. recall of the voting record of the Deputy Leader of the House. I recognise that peccadillo and shall endeavour to address it. Can he refresh my memory by telling me how he voted in February 2003 and give some indication beyond the important profession of support for motherhood and apple pie that he has so far articulated as to where his own preference lies?
I am grateful for that support. Of course, I am not sure whether the strong views that the hon. Gentleman articulated will emerge as the consensus. He strongly supports the 70 per cent. elected, 30 per cent. appointed option, slashing the number of Members of the House of Lords to something more like the Italian model of 300 or 350, and a longer term of 12 to 14 years. I do not know whether that will come about, but one thing I do know is that no one will articulate the argument more forcefully than he if the House has a chance to vote on the issue and if that option emerges as one of the possible consensus views.
I hope that this debate has reassured hon. Members of all parties that the Government are open-minded on the issue, and that we are at one with the House in seeking to achieve reform of the House of Lords by consensus and as quickly as possible. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who are taking part in the Joint Committee. It is doing the initial preparatory work within its sphere very well. Like other hon. Members, I look forward to its report and to future entertaining and lively debates such as this one.
Yes. I noticed that the model that the hon. Gentleman advocates appears to be more like the French model, in which local councillors get together in their regions and cantons and nominate people for the Senate. He suggested that counties might perform the same function.
The electoral system might be different, but it is interesting to look at models in other countries as I and all hon. Members have. As far as I can see, there is no directly comparable model, and all of them have evolved over time. I hope that we do not have to wait as long for the next stage of House of Lords reform as we had to wait for the last one, less than a decade ago.
Uganda is a beautiful country that I had the great privilege to visit in 2003 for just over a month. I was there in a personal capacity, but while there met the US ambassador, and a number of people from the British embassy, the United States Agency for International Development and other organisations.
The debate is incredibly important, and I am glad to be joined by a number of hon. Friends, and particularly the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), whose early-day motion is excellent; I have signed it, and look forward to his contribution.
The United Nations Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mr. Jan Egeland, described the war in northern Uganda as
“the biggest forgotten, neglected humanitarian emergency in the world today. This is not a war where the civilian population is affected through collateral damage; it is a war targeting the civilian population, and especially children”.
Furthermore, Refugees International described the humanitarian response as “weak” and “failing”.
The conflict in northern Uganda is a critical issue, but not the only problem that Uganda faces. There are problems with democracy and basic governance that I also wish to touch on.
For 20 years, Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army have caused massive problems and civil unrest in northern Uganda. Between 1.4 million and 2 million people, depending on which source is quoted, have been displaced by the war in northern Uganda.
According to the Civil Society Organisations for Peace in Northern Uganda, every day more than 130 people die in the area as a result of violence and poor conditions, particularly in the camps. Other reliable sources quote an even higher figure of more than 1,000 per week.
Those atrocities are a direct result of the activities of some 500 to 1,500 members of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Will the Minister update us on his current assessment of the number of active combatants in the Lord’s Resistance Army? In my research I found a lot of contradictory information.
Although the debate is entitled, “Northern Uganda”, it is more of a regional conflict. It is as much a conflict in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo and southern Sudan. We need to see the region as a whole. Worryingly, attacks in the Lira and Adjumani districts have demonstrated an expansion of the problems in northern Uganda.
The problem of internally displaced people in the area is critical. Twenty years ago, some of the first temporary camps were set up. Now there are some 200 camps. Despite good work, aid workers and embassy officials have said that the camps are poorly managed with basic conditions. As the camps are temporary, there are debates about whether we should be putting in generators and long-term resources. Aid organisations do not want to encourage people to go to them.
That was a fascinating insight. Will the hon. Gentleman kindly tell us what was his assessment of those camps when he visited them?
If the Minister will allow me, I shall come to that assessment later. I actually visited southern Uganda. It was too dangerous to travel to the camps, but I spoke to a number of people who worked there and a number of parliamentarians who had visited Gulu. With his permission, I shall come to that later.
More than 90 per cent. of the Acholi people are now in those camps. Some 70 per cent. of them have no income whatever and 95 per cent. are in absolute poverty. The Ugandan People’s Defence Force makes the situation worse. Back in 2002, it said that any Acholi people not in the camps would be considered collaborators with the Lord’s Resistance Army. That forced people from their own land and into the camps, where they are less able to look after themselves.
In 2005, a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation visited Uganda, and specifically the Gulu camp, where about 10,000 residents were situated in appalling conditions. My hon. Friends the Members for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) and for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) have alerted me to the additional problem of so-called night commuters. Some 40,000 people travel more than 10 km into the camps or towns so that they are at less risk of abduction. That is not at no risk, however, because the Ugandan People’s Defence Force does not adequately police internally displaced people in the camps; they are subject to raids and the women are taken as the so-called wives of soldiers and then raped.
My hon. Friend will be aware that I have visited Gulu and the displaced people’s camps there. I wonder whether he is aware that the recently increasing number of night commuters, particularly those going to Gulu, are being abused by many of the people in the town, who commit atrocities. Yet the night commuters come to the towns to sleep safely at night and to avoid being abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in the rural parts of northern Uganda.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I was aware of that, and of the inadequate response by the international community and the Ugandan Government. It is a very real problem. I have spoken on the question of aid to senior diplomats in Uganda who have recent experience there, and they feel that our Government are not putting enough pressure on the Ugandan Government.
Although the split between the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is helpful from the United Kingdom perspective—it provides two representatives at the Cabinet table—it is unhelpful in dealing with situations such as the conflict in northern Uganda. Splitting trade and aid was historically correct, however, and a strong case can be made for using aid as a bargaining tool for reform.
I congratulate the Government on transferring £15 million of aid to the north, on ring-fencing £5 million and holding it back until after the elections, and on working with Sweden and the Netherlands to get them to do something similar. However, more should be leveraged. The aid should be more conditional, and we need a clear programme of agreed action to which the Ugandan Government can agree. The conflict has simply gone on far too long. People tell me that the Government have been asked too many times for one last pay cheque. In 1997, the Government were told that with one final push from Museveni, the problem would be solved. We are still in exactly the same position.
A number of aid organisations have urged the Government to work more closely with the some of the smaller aid organisations rather than rely on the World Food Programme, and I shall be particularly interested if the Minister will update us on the relationship between Save the Children and what is happening in northern Uganda. Several aid organisations have complained to me about the lack of protection offered to them. The Ugandan Government have withdrawn protection from aid convoys, which means that fewer are able to get to the area.
The Mildmay hospital in Kampala, which I have visited, has offices in my constituency. It deals with AIDS orphans, and other AIDS work. It would like to do more in the north, but it cannot do so for security reasons. I fear that many other organisations are unable to get involved in helping with the humanitarian crisis in the north because of poor security.
I said that I would touch on the subject of governance. All too often, Uganda has been seen as having strong governance. Put simply, it has been the best of a bad bunch; we have struggled to find beacon examples of good governance there. Problems with governance in Uganda directly affect the situation in northern Uganda. In my view, multi-party democracy has been a sham. Extending the presidential term and imprisoning Kissa Besigye on trumped-up charges of rape during most of the election meant that the elections were not fair or free. The actions of Museveni and his troops in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo show further poor governance; getting involved in a civil war in a neighbouring country has resulted in the withdrawal of technical assistance by the United States Government.
My hon. Friend makes a cogent case. Is he aware that the Government give aid to Uganda worth £478 million? Does he not feel that that aid should be more closely tied to specific targets in order to establish better government and to bring an end to the war by the national resistance council in northern Uganda?
I was unaware of the exact figure, and I am astounded by the large amount of aid that is given. I agree with my hon. Friend that it should be tied to direct results. We should use the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Kampala in 2007 and the preparations for it to put further pressure on Museveni. I personally believe that it is inappropriate for the Prime Minister to attend such a meeting in Kampala, given the state of the conflict in northern Uganda at the moment. We should do more to support the African Union in peer group review and the United Nations in Uganda.
A number of people have asked me whether I believe that Museveni is committed to the process. As the facts stack up, I must admit that I cannot agree with Lord Triesman, who believes that Museveni is committed to it. There has been long-standing conflict between north and south, dating back to the time of Milton Obote and Idi Amin, and that is still very much the case today.
A senior diplomat, on accepting a posting to northern Uganda, told a Minister that he was going further north to find out more about the problem and was asked by the Minister, “Why are you going to see those primitive people?” There is fundamental and underlying conflict between the current Government in the south, and the north and the Acholi people. The International Crisis Group believes that the army is strong enough to sort the problem out, but corruption, abusive behaviour, poor organisation and equipment shortages have meant that it is unable to deal with the Lord’s Resistance Army.
I note from briefing documents that in 2003 the British Government paid for a defence review to see whether the Uganda People’s Defence Force was up to the job, and put in place a plan so that it would be up to the job. I would be interested if the Minister could update us on that. I know that it is quite some time ago. What is the gap between the needs identified by the 2003 defence review that the British Government paid for and where we are now? What still needs to be done?
I was confused by a report sent to me in preparation for the debate that the Lord’s Resistance Army strategist Kenneth Banya and spokesman Sam Kolo now work for Museveni, and that they did so as campaign managers in the July 2005 referendum and the subsequent election. It would be greatly appreciated if the Minister could shed any light on that in this debate or perhaps in writing.
We need to prioritise this issue much more heavily. We need to press UN Security Council resolution 1663 to put in place a UN special envoy. I would be grateful if the Minister could update hon. Members on progress towards appointing a special envoy.
I am also confused about the role of the International Criminal Court. Kony and his key lieutenants were indicted in October 2005. However, a number of people have been sympathetic to allowing him to negotiate without fear of arrest. The Government position has been to arrest at all costs, yet elsewhere, in Sierra Leone and Angola, a process of negotiation has been quite successful. I do not take a view on that myself, but I would welcome the Minister’s comments, particularly given that the Sudanese Government have allegedly handed over money to Kony to enter negotiations, although we may be talking simply about a delaying tactic whereby he returns to the bush, re-arms and then comes out.
I am interested to hear what preparations the British Government have made in supporting the Ugandan Government in planning for the end of the war—the war will come to an end. I am talking about planning that goes beyond simply feeding the nation but includes mental health issues, truth and reconciliation and rebuilding civil society, so that when Museveni or a successor does take a leap into genuine multi-party democracy, there is a fabric of civil society in northern Uganda to support that.
We need a clear timetable for change. We need to make aid conditional on action and better governance in Uganda. We need to speed up the delivery of the UN envoy. This crisis has gone on far too long. I call on the Government to do more and to do it faster.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) on raising this very important issue at this time. I declare my interest, no doubt along with the hon. Members for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) and for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) and my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard). Although my hon. Friend is not here, I know that he is here in spirit. We made a visit as guests of the Northern Uganda Advocacy Partnership for Peace, which is a bit of a mouthful. We were there, largely at the instigation of Christian Aid, 18 months or so ago. We visited a number of places. I know that other hon. Members will talk in detail about that visit. I do not want to say much about it.
I want to comment on the bizarre situation whereby both Kony and Otti turned up in Juba at the end of May. As I chair the all-party Sudan group, I know something of the politics of Sudan. They were met by Riek Machar, vice-president of the South Sudan Government. All I have is the report of 25 May from The Monitor, a newspaper based in Kampala. It may all be fabrication, but it would be useful to know from my hon. Friend the Minister, who takes a close interest in that part of the world, exactly what went on. If what is said to have gone on did go on, it is nothing less than a scandal. The fact that Kony and Otti were in the same place would suggest that they had absolute guarantees about their safety. These are not ordinary people or just political leaders. It is the equivalent of Pol Pot arriving in Beijing and saying, “Here I am, chaps. Fête me. Give me some money. Let me go back and carry on slaughtering the people of Cambodia.” It is the equivalent of Hitler turning up in London and saying, “It’s all a myth. I haven’t killed any Jews at all. I am really someone you can do business with.” Kony and Otti are trained killers. In the past 20 years, they have carried out the most heinous of crimes. The trouble is that the situation is so bad that we cannot really believe what is said about the Lord’s Resistance Army.
It would be useful to get some clarity from my hon. Friend on two issues. First, did Kony, Otti and others turn up in Juba? What happened? Was money handed over? They are—or were—the enemies of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army for much of the time that the conflict with the north was taking place, because the Lord’s Resistance Army was a useful device for the Government in Khartoum to cause problems in southern Sudan. Secondly, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, what is the status of the International Criminal Court? These people have warrants out on them, served at a time when the three of us were in Uganda, and there were some arguments about that. There were issues to do with whether it was a ploy or keeping in bed with Museveni.
Was it realistic to pursue that as an option, given that, as far as we knew, Kony had not come out of the bush for 20 years, despite the fact that his legacy and his mysticism went before all? If he turned up in Juba, somebody should have arrested him. It is an international and not just a national outrage. If the Government in Juba—I hope to visit them later this year—are serious about joining the international community, we must ask what they were doing. At the least, what were they doing in getting publicity about their actions? I want some clarity on that.
The situation is desperate. It gets more and more desperate by the year because, as the hon. Gentleman said, there have now been 20 years of people being in camps. When we visited the camps and Gulu town and saw the night commuters, it was probably the most moving thing I have ever seen. We saw all these children coming in nightly who have no future other than trying to protect themselves from the LRA.
The other side of the matter is that—I speak for myself and not for the others in the party that visited Uganda—there is no doubt that the Government in Kampala are complicit. They have paid little attention to the question of how to find a settlement to the conflict. There are those—I should include myself among them—who would say that that Government, under Museveni, have used the opportunity provided by the fact that people are in the camps to enable them not necessarily to carry out ethnic cleansing but to exert pressure on the Acholi people. That is completely disreputable and unfair and it should be resolved as a matter of urgency. It can be resolved only if the rest of the world puts real pressure on President Museveni. I heard him lecture us on three occasions, both in Uganda and on a visit to this country shortly after we met him in Kampala, and the message that he has got is that the world supports him in trying to bring justice by capturing the LRA. He has been uniquely unsuccessful in what he has done, but a side effect, as the hon. Gentleman said, is that people have been in camps for 20 years, living in the most awful circumstances, which have been getting worse by the year.
I want to finish on a more optimistic note. What struck all of us was the degree of hope among the Acholi people. They do not just speak the language of reconciliation: they genuinely believe in it. They have reassimilated in a most amazing way young people who were abducted by the LRA. What is happening does cause tensions. We met the mother of one of the girls who were and abducted and taken as a bride by Sam Kolo. It is difficult for someone living in the settlement of Gulu who knows that their daughter’s abductor is living in grace and favour accommodation supplied by the Kampala Government and is now being employed as an adviser to President Museveni—I did not know that before the hon. Gentleman said it. Such things push tolerance to the ultimate, yet the Acholi are an amazing people who want peace and forgiveness and are prepared to use the mechanism of reconciliation to bring people back and return them to their society, so that they will have a future along with the people who suffer through remaining in the camps.
I ask my hon. Friend the Minister what our policy is now on Uganda—not just northern Uganda. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) was an election monitor in the election that was fought largely between the now re-elected President Museveni and Kizza Besigye. My hon. Friend felt that the election was, on the whole, fair, but that the problem was the lead-up to it. Locking up one’s main opponent is, with the best will in the world, a statement about what one thinks of the electoral possibilities. It certainly held in some contempt those who did not want to vote for President Museveni. Of course, if the figures are to be believed, he largely lost the north, Acholi land, where Besigye had his power base. That adds to the feeling that the conflict is very much a regional one, if not a tribal one.
The British Government have an awful lot to do. They must get the international community to remain engaged with the issue. To be fair to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, we have stayed engaged with Sudan, and I congratulate the Government wholeheartedly on what we have done in trying to bring peace to Darfur. It is a rocky road that we are walking, but we are trying hard there. Sadly, the United States Assistant Secretary of State has just lost his job—but that is another matter. We have not, perhaps, stayed so engaged with northern Uganda. The international community has certainly not been as engaged as it could have been; if it had been, the tragedy of the past 20 years would not be continuing today.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will hear the plaintive pleas from Labour Members, and I am sure that others will fill him in on the details of our visit and explain what has happened since. Things have to happen. We must deal with the Lord’s Resistance Army, which must be decapitated, in the nicest possible way. We must also make the President of Uganda understand that what he has condoned has gone on for far too long. He must bring the people of northern Uganda back into the wider populace so that the country has a future.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) on securing the debate and the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on his telling remarks.
As many people have said, Uganda is a beautiful country; indeed, Churchill described it as the pearl of Africa. I have travelled around Uganda on many occasions, and one can do so peacefully and safely, unlike in many other African countries. There is an air of prosperity about the place, although 20 years ago, after Idi Amin and Obote, it was in a shambles. The current President has done a remarkable job of reconstructing Uganda and bringing about prosperity.
However, the same cannot be said for northern Uganda. If we go back 20 years to the origins of the conflict, we can perhaps see why northern Uganda is neglected and is in its present state. The army of Idi Amin and Milton Obote—their power base—was from northern Uganda, and it is not unsurprising that Museveni was suspicious when he took over about what would happen in the north. Indeed, at the time, the Lord’s Resistance Army, which grew from the earlier Alice Lakwena group, had much more popular support among the Acholi people than it does today.
From 1996, when the LRA was at its zenith, people, including children, were being abducted, and a solution was needed to protect the vast majority of the population, but that does not excuse the current situation. I am not old enough to have seen what happened in concentration camps during the second world war, but several of us went to Uganda in October, and the camps that we saw can be described as concentration camps. People are kept against their will and not allowed to travel freely around the country, and 900 of them die every week because of the conditions. That cannot be tolerated in a country that is supposed to be an example to the rest of Africa.
My colleagues and I saw the night commuters. As the hon. Member for Stroud said, it is very moving, as dusk falls, to see barefoot children on their way to sleep on a concrete floor. The shelters provided and run by many charities are not luxurious; they are there simply to provide protection. Indeed, one of the organisers we spoke to was at pains to say that the facility he was providing was not intended to keep the children there, and that they should be with their families.
When we flew to Gulu, we saw what had happened. It had been prosperous and had grown and exported its own cotton, but we saw empty silos, which were no longer used—we saw a place that was stagnating. We talked to the Churches group, led by Churches of all religions that have worked together to try to bring about peace and reconciliation. We met the Acholi chief, who described the breakdown in traditional systems of working because people had been in the camp so long that they forgot the basics about farming and what they needed to do to make their own living.
We talked to the director of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and we saw the potential shortfall in the amount of food aid that was available. The area is one in which two crops can be planted a year and food grows of its own accord. It is ridiculous that people are unable to go outside the camp for fear of being abducted.
As the hon. Member for Stroud said, while we were there the International Criminal Court issued its indictments against Kony and Otti, and the number four in the Lord’s Resistance Army was captured and killed. The Acholi people have one abiding wish, which is to be allowed to go back home and to farm their own land. If we have a responsibility to deal with anything in that conflict, we have to ensure that those people are allowed to go back home.
The hon. Member for Stroud mentioned the meeting of Otti and Kony in Juba. It is ridiculous—an insult, in my view—when an ICC indictment is out that those people can be allowed to move around, if that is true, so freely. The international community has a responsibility to deal with the conflicts. We have two UN Security Council resolutions outstanding and the Secretary-General is due to report to the Council on the way forward.
On the whole, Uganda has had peaceful elections. Yes, certain parts of the country did not vote for the President, and the leader of the opposition was arrested, but compared with what happens in most other African countries it was peaceful. There is now an all-party system in the Ugandan Parliament. Indeed, one of our meetings was with an all-party group in that Parliament that wants to bring about a resolution of the conflict.
I put it to the Minister that President Museveni has secured his place in the history of his country and brought about a peaceful transition to an all-party system, but the one part of that country that is still not at peace and is an outstanding relic of past conflict is northern Uganda. The Acholi people want peace, and it is incumbent on the Ugandan Government to bring it about. The UK, through the Department for International Development, has played a major role in assisting the area. Hon. Members have mentioned the fact that we have tied some of the aid that has been given to Uganda to specific outcomes. We need to do more of that. If we are giving almost half a billion pounds a year to the Ugandan Government, we need to say clearly that we wish to see plans drawn up for the peaceful resettlement of the Acholi people.
It was moving to speak to a mother whose daughter had disappeared for almost 10 years and who came out of the bush with two children. Those children did not know how to go into the house and could not sleep there for the first two weeks—they had never been in a house. If that woman can reconcile herself and her family to some of the LRA combatants, considering some of the atrocities that have been committed against them, the Ugandan Government need to find within themselves a way to bring about a settlement. The international community has a responsibility and the UK Government, as a leading aid giver, can and should play a role. President Museveni has his place in history. Now he needs to demonstrate to the world that he is not above peace, but can move forward and bring peace to the final part of his country that is still at war.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) on securing this important debate and on the excellent way in which he articulated the main issues. May I clarify the exchange between my hon. Friends the Members for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and for Rochford and Southend, East? It is not the policy of this side of the House to reintroduce tied aid, but we support the enforcement of the criteria that are necessary to ensure that British taxpayers’ money is used effectively and efficiently and for the purpose for which it is intended.
I shall not repeat what others have said, but I, too, visited northern Uganda, the town of Gulu and the displaced people’s camps last October with the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for Rochdale (Paul Rowen). I was deeply depressed and, indeed, horrified by what I saw. In the course of my shadow international development responsibilities I travel to some appalling camps in which people attempt to live, to thrive and to survive. However, I had never in all my travels seen the sort of deprivation that exists in the displaced people’s camps in northern Uganda.
There is limited education—the school for the camp that we visited was on the edge of the camp and it was not safe for the children to be educated there—and some 250,000 children in northern Uganda receive none at all, despite the progress that President Museveni has made elsewhere in the country to ensure that education is provided, particularly for primary school girls. There was also appalling and atrocious health care provision: HIV/AIDS was prevalent, with little if any access to anti-retroviral drugs, and so was malaria. Up to 40 per cent. of the population of many of the camps have malaria, with no access even to simple things such as malaria bed nets.
In the camp that we visited, Koch Goma, there were 17,500 people. During the last full year prior to our visit in 2004, more than 1,000 people had been abducted and 354 had been killed. It is completely false for the Government of Uganda to claim that the conflict is nearing an end. We met the President while we were there, and he assured us that that was so, and that the Acholi people and others would be able to return to their lands. Subsequent announcements have been made, but going by my experience, that is not the case; an enormous amount still needs to be done to resolve the conflict, and I shall come to that later.
The really depressing thing about the camps, which is almost unique, is that there was no sense of any economic activity taking place. Nobody could generate a living because, as the hon. Member for Rochdale rightly said, there was limited access and ability to move. There was no way in which anybody could take products to a market, and people could not generate any money to provide for their families. When all those factors are combined, there are some terrible statistics. The infant mortality rate in the camps is the highest in the world. Each month up to 3,500 people die from preventable disease and extreme violence. The crude mortality rates are three times higher than those that were recorded in Darfur in 2005. The international community and the Government of Uganda should be ashamed of those statistics.
The hon. Member for Rochdale was right to try to provide a balance. Given Uganda’s terrible history since independence, President Museveni has made some progress in the rest of the country: inflation fell from 155 per cent. in 1985 to 5 per cent. in 2004, and the percentage of people living in poverty in the whole of Uganda declined from 56 per cent. in 1992 to 37 per cent. in 2003. Significant progress has also been made in economic growth and in education. Significant progress had been made in combating HIV/AIDS. Sadly, that is being reversed as abstinence becomes more prevalent as a method of attempting to prevent its spread. In my view, backed by some stark statistics, that is not proving to be the right approach.
It also needs to be said that it is not just the Lord’s Resistance Army that the displaced people are afraid of. We learned when visiting the camps that they are almost as afraid of the Ugandan army, which is perpetrating some appalling atrocities with impunity, whether it be beatings, rape or, as is rumoured, killings. The Government of Uganda could and should be doing much more about that.
I am deeply concerned about the attacks on non-governmental organisation workers in the region, which are one of the reasons why many food convoys are no longer protected as they try to deliver humanitarian aid to the camps. The Minister will be aware that there has been a clampdown on NGO activity since the re-election of President Museveni. Indeed, in the report by Senator Richard Lugar, the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the United States Senate, Uganda is classified as severely restricting the operations of NGOs, not just in advocacy work but in delivering much-needed humanitarian aid to parts of northern Uganda. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that.
Like the hon. Members for Stroud and for Rochdale, I was deeply moved by the night commuters. I am the father of three young children. I set my alarm—not that it needed setting with the party that was going on next door to the hotel we stayed in at Gulu—and rose at 5.36 in the morning to see the children leave Gulu to return to their homes, often as far as 17 km away. It was extraordinarily emotive to see children as young as two walking barefoot in that great sea of humanity, which leaves the rural areas purely in the hope of protection overnight. As the hon. Member for Rochdale said, no food is provided, as there would then be no requirement for them to go back to their homes.
The number of children involved is significant. Again, the figure varies depending on which briefing one reads, which NGO one listens to or which Government statistics one believes, but up to 40,000 children move from the rural areas into Gulu and other urban centres for protection, again without the necessary impact of and input from the Ugandan Government. One of the questions that I asked President Museveni when we met in Kampala was whether it was the first duty of any Government to protect their citizens. Based on the time that I spent there, that clearly was not happening. Needless to say, the President did not agree with my view.
As we have seen, a danger with the conflict in northern Uganda is that it is spilling over into Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is an explicit threat to peace and security in the region unless the international community through the United Nations gets a grip on the problem. Any regional conflict or extension of the problems will undermine peace efforts and could destabilise the whole region, particularly in the context of the resources that are available in Congo, which are of great interest to many of the armed forces from the neighbouring countries.
The international community needs to do far more. I was as pleased as everybody else that in UN Security Council resolutions 1653 and 1663 for the first time northern Uganda was discussed by the Security Council. I urge the Minister and the Government to work closely not just with the United Nations, not just bilaterally with the Ugandan Government but with local and regional organisations such as the African Union to ensure the shift of focus that is required for the provision of security for the people of northern Uganda.
I would welcome the Minister’s views on whether the UK Government support the provision of a special envoy, whether they support the provision of a resident co-ordinator and whether they support the UN’s candidate. Does the Minister agree that Betty Bigombe could play a significant role, as she has attempted to do in the past, especially in 1994, 1995 and 2005, in view of the necessity to re-engage not with those who have International Criminal Court warrants against them—if I may, I shall return to that later, Mr. Weir—but with those who were abducted and forced to perpetrate appalling atrocities? Does he agree that they must be assimilated into the communities wherever possible?
One of the most extraordinary meetings we had when we were in northern Uganda was with the mothers of boys and girls who were abducted from the camps at a very young age and who then either ran away or were successfully recaptured from the LRA. Many of the girls had been repeatedly raped or had had children by the LRA commanders, but none the less they were brought back into their communities and families—although, as Members can imagine, that was not an easy process, but involved an extraordinary process of forgiveness and of rebuilding of bridges despite the atrocities that had taken place.
On humanitarian aid, the Secretary of State was right to reassess and reallocate some Department for International Development aid from direct budgetary support to the Ugandan Government to humanitarian aid in northern Uganda. There was a feeling from civil society leaders on the ground in northern Uganda that, rather than direct budgetary support all going to the Ugandan Government, some of the money should go to local government in northern Uganda to enable it to control where the money is spent. They certainly had the feeling that they were not getting their fair share of resources from the Ugandan Government—whether in the form of receipts from Ugandan economic activity or from the international donor community.
The Minister may not be able to address my next point, but I should be grateful if he would arrange for one of his colleagues in the Department for International Development to consider it. Given the way in which the Ugandan Government are moving, and the crackdown, the unfair build-up to the election and the issues in northern Uganda, does the Minister feel that further conditions and criteria are required for the aid that we give to the Ugandan Government?
I am sure that the Front Benchers want to speak and I have just two other key points before I wind up, the first of which concerns the International Criminal Court. I welcomed the announcement on 2 June that Interpol had issued warrants in relation to five Ugandan war suspects. The ICC made that announcement while we were in Uganda and it caused a lot of consternation, particularly among the NGO communities, because they felt that the LRA would take things out on the community—especially in displaced people’s camps. Does the Minister believe that the ICC is an effective instrument in obtaining justice and do the UK Government support the ICC warrants? The Minister will be aware, as will all Members, that the ICC does not have the mechanisms and resources to make the arrests itself, so what support is he giving to the countries around Uganda and in Uganda itself to ensure that the indicted leaders of the LRA are arrested? It was absolutely clear from the leaders and from the normal people in the displaced people’s camps with whom we spoke that they will not return to the homelands and farms until Kony is, at the very least, behind bars and arrested. Even when we asked them whether they would return when Kony is arrested or no longer in Uganda, they said that they would do so only when the Ugandan army is not around.
The other problem in Uganda is the enormous flow of small arms and weapons around the country. There are estimates of up to 950,000 small arms, and that is a major factor in the violent insecurity, particularly in the north. The Ugandan Government have progressed in implementing both the UN programme to eradicate small arms and light weapons and the Nairobi protocol, but will the Minister comment on the support that the UK Government are giving to the international community as well as to the Ugandan Government to ensure that the minimum amount of small arms is in circulation there, especially in relation to transfer controls? If there is to be a permanent resolution to the 20-year-old conflict in northern Uganda it is essential that there be disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration and rehabilitation programmes to enable people who have been in conflict for so long to attempt to live in harmony.
The northern Ugandan conflict was until recently a forgotten one. There are appalling conditions in the camps there, and unimaginable atrocities have been perpetrated by the LRA. The international community needs to co-ordinate its attention in order to achieve a satisfactory solution to the terrible problems. In my view, the following must happen to ensure that that is the case. Those who have been indicted by the International Criminal Court need to be apprehended. An agreement needs to be facilitated by the international community for communal regional action plans between Congo, Sudan and Uganda. There needs to be protection for civilians and punishment for Ugandan soldiers, who do not behave in the way we expect of people in the armed forces. There needs to be a comprehensive dialogue between the United Nations, hopefully involving Betty Bigombe, who has experience in that matter.
A significant disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme is needed, and donors should co-ordinate the development of such a major initiative. There needs to be a significant focus on delivering humanitarian aid—and I do not mean only food; we must also improve education, health and economic activity for the nearly 2 million people who live in more than 200 camps. We must also ensure that the United Nations Security Council does not take its eye off the ball and allow the Government of Uganda, if it so chose, to try to deflect the international community from focusing on the resolution of the conflict in northern Uganda.
I agree with the hon. Member for Rochdale that President Museveni has made significant progress in the southern part of Uganda, and he should be congratulated on that. If he is to leave a positive legacy for the whole of Uganda before he retires, he should focus on finding a satisfactory and permanent solution to the terrible conflict that still rages in northern Uganda.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) on securing this debate. I have had the good fortune to be able to participate in a number of foreign affairs debates in the Chamber. As often happens in such debates, I am preceded by hon. Members who have a great deal of expertise and authority on the subject; that has certainly been the case today. All three of the preceding speakers, who were on the recent all-party trip to Uganda, brought back with them an informative and well-rounded set of views and opinions, and I am sure that the Minister will wish to respond to them at length.
It was good to have the opportunity to read the all-party parliamentary group paper on the great lakes region and genocide prevention, which I am sure the Minister and officials at the Foreign Office have consumed with the seriousness that it warrants. The report draws attention to the bare statistics of the situation in northern Uganda—the fact that close to 2 million people have been displaced and that several thousands have been killed—and to the sense of lawlessness and squalor about which hon. Members have spoken so eloquently. As a result, our debate serves an immediate purpose; it draws the attention of the House, of officials in the Foreign Office and, most important, of Ministers to that part of the world and the situation faced by the people there.
I am keen for the Minister to address a number of points. The first concerns the military dimension. I was interested to read a report by the International Crisis Group. On the effectiveness of the Ugandan army, it states:
“The Ugandan army has more than twenty times the LRA’s manpower in northern Uganda but its efforts to apprehend the suspects or defeat the insurgency are hindered by corruption, abusive behaviour, poor organisation, and lack of equipment.”
I draw that to the attention of the House because we all agree that defeating the LRA is of prime importance if the situation is to be resolved. However, we must be cautious about putting too much faith in an army with such characteristics. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on whether the United Kingdom could offer practical assistance to Ugandans on making the army and its military capacity more effective. If we want the arrest of the principal leaders of the LRA but do not want directly to intervene in military terms—I think that most people would concur with both those aims—it is in our interest to ensure that the Ugandan army operates effectively, and is not subject to the abuses that were touched on by the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds).
Secondly, I should be interested to know the Minister’s thoughts on working with NGOs. The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East touched on the point. What useful co-operation and co-ordination do the United Kingdom Government have with NGOs in the area, what do we learn from them, and how does that inform our policy? Also, how can they help us practically to implement our policies on the ground?
Thirdly, I have concerns about remarks that have been made in the debate about trade and aid. It seems eminently reasonable to say that aid should be linked to a set of clear objectives. After all, the money concerned has been raised from the British taxpayer; it is only reasonable that there should be accountability in all allocation and spending of money raised by the British Government. However—this is another point on which the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness touched—it is not always as straightforward as that, partly because of the danger of creating dependency on the part of the recipient country. It seems strange to urge systems of democracy on to countries and then to be very prescriptive about what may be done by the democratically elected politicians, who may even, during the election campaign, have claimed to want to do the opposite. There is an inevitable conflict in policy in that respect.
Another danger concerns what should be done if the recipient country does not carry out our wishes as accurately or diligently as we should want. The danger in punishing that by withdrawing the aid is that many of the people who are suffering the most, and for whom the aid was originally intended, no longer get whatever was coming their way, albeit inadequately, before. There are problems with that approach, and it is not a straightforward matter of creating an absolute link, although that might be desirable in an ideal world.
I should be interested in the Minister’s thoughts on how better to provide assistance through aid, particularly in the light of earlier comments in the debate about the circumstances in which people are living in the camps of northern Uganda. If there was ever a case for our using aid for humanitarian relief, this is it. No doubt hon. Members on both sides of the House welcome the fact that the British Government have identified the part of the world that we are discussing as a financial priority, and are acting accordingly.
I have two other points to make. One is about good governance and elections. MPs of all parties always welcome elections as a good thing per se; that is taken as a statement of the obvious. I concur with that, and want people around the world to live in freedom, whether that means freedom of speech, free elections under the rule of law or any of the other characteristics that one would associate with a liberal society. However, I have one cautionary note to sound. We in this House are often guilty of the mistake of thinking that if something looks like a system that we are familiar with in western Europe we are 90 per cent. of the way down the road. Living in a liberal, free, open and democratic society is more complicated than holding periodic elections.
There is a need for properly developed political parties representing coherent ideological strands, so that people have proper choices and are not just voting for someone of the same ethnicity, tribe or geographic region. There must be some sense of accountability for the decisions that are made. People need to succeed electorally if they are to succeed politically, and, conversely, bad politicians need to be seen by the public to lose office if they make mistakes. Many of the processes that underpin democracy take time to establish; they are by their nature rather laborious to set up. One of the ways in which this country could most effectively support parts of the world that do not enjoy a tradition of democracy is to try to assist those mechanical processes. For instance, all political parties in this House send people to other parts of the world to provide advice and thoughts on campaigning and drawing up manifestos. Those features of democracy are important.
I am dwelling on that point at some length because an ongoing, stable and democratic settlement in Uganda is in everybody’s interest. Interestingly, opinions have varied during this debate. The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East expressed scepticism about how effective the elections were, whereas others have been complimentary about that process in Uganda as a whole. However, I think that we can all agree that it is in Uganda’s interest for that process to be embedded and strengthened. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts.
Finally, because we are the United Kingdom Parliament, we regularly hold debates about areas in the world suffering from particularly unfortunate circumstances. Inevitably, those debates conclude with the Minister being pressed to do more on behalf of the British Government to try to improve the circumstances of the people in the relevant part of the world.
I gave that background because I would be interested to hear the Minister say what other countries, such as other European Union countries, are doing to alleviate the problems and suffering in northern Uganda. I would be interested also to hear what the African Union is doing because although we can provide expertise, military advice and financial aid, and can support democracy, open up our markets and be a good world citizen, a lot of the solutions to Africa’s problems require leadership from politicians and leaders in other African countries, particularly the more prosperous and settled ones. If we intervene constantly in every area of the world where there is suffering and conflict, although our intentions would be good and we might make some progress, we will not always be as effective as we might be if we were to enable or encourage those closer to a given problem to participate actively themselves.
In conclusion, I wish the Government well. I am delighted that the matter has been brought to the attention of the House. I congratulate everybody who attended the all-party trip and who added greatly to the content of today’s debate. I hope that the Minister will bring pressure to bear and work effectively on behalf of the British Government to improve the situation in Uganda and to encourage those in other European countries and, most importantly, African countries to play their part in concluding what has been a grisly period in world politics.
You have become transmogrified, Mr. Bercow, in the course of the debate, and it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) obviously has huge expertise having spent quite a lot of time in Uganda, and I congratulate him on bringing the debate before the Chamber; the conflict is one of the world’s forgotten problems, as we have heard this morning. Certainly, it deserves a full airing in this House because of the suffering of the people involved.
I congratulate all those who have spoken in the debate: the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew)—he went on the visit to Uganda—and for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) and my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds). I apologise to my hon. Friend because in a sense he is a displaced person. He turned up to speak from the Front Bench with his Department for International Development hat on, and I with my Foreign Office hat on. On this occasion, the Foreign Office won out over DFID. Perhaps DFID has the money, but the Foreign Office the policies—I do not know.
Perhaps that is the problem.
This 20-year conflict continues to victimise the population in northern Uganda. The activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army—its acts of torture, mutilation and sexual abuse and its abductions of thousands of children, forcing them to serve as soldiers—have been well aired in the debate. That rebel paramilitary group has killed tens of thousands of people in the past two decades and displaced 1.7 million men, women and children. As has been mentioned, there is also the dreadful situation of the child night commuters, who desperately walk many miles to the nearest city to avoid being abducted only to sleep on a concrete floor and to be in fear of their lives there as well.
The LRA rebels claim that they are fighting for the establishment of a Government based on the biblical ten commandments, which seems to me utterly incongruous, given their activities. They have no clear political motives and they are notorious for kidnapping children and forcing them to become rebel fighters.
More than 500,000 people in Uganda’s Gulu and Kitgum districts have been displaced by the fighting and live in temporary but now almost permanent camps protected by the army. Overcrowding and poor sanitation have rendered them vulnerable to outbreaks of disease, including cholera. The establishment by the Ugandan Government in February 2005 of a national policy for displaced persons, which is said to be based on international humanitarian law, human rights instruments and national laws, is a policy aiming in the right direction, yet its results remain to be seen.
Disturbingly, the LRA has seen a period of growth in the last year and has extended its operations to daylight hours, contrary to its earlier practice. It has continued to use road ambushes to attack civilians. As has been mentioned often during the debate, the issuing of arrest warrants for five LRA leaders last year by the International Criminal Court should be applauded. However, for that action to have any effect—for those monsters to be brought to justice—there must be co-operation between Uganda and the neighbouring Governments of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, crucially, Sudan, from where the LRA operates. The allegations against the five indicted rebels are truly staggering. Joseph Kony alone is to be tried on 12 counts of crimes against humanity and 21 counts of war crimes, including murder, rape, intentionally directing an attack against civilian populations and forced enlisting of children.
The Government of Uganda are heavily resistant to this matter being brought before the Security Council, but they must allow the Security Council and the United Nations as a whole to help. The President must admit the reality of the situation. The LRA has not been driven from the north of Uganda or, indeed, from southern Sudan. Not only are the people of northern Uganda at risk from the LRA, but the tenuous security provided by the Ugandan army gives scant comfort to those in the displaced people’s camps.
I have a letter from the former Foreign Secretary, who is now the Leader of the House, to Ms Barbara Stocking, the director of Oxfam GB, which I believe could form a useful basis for the debate. I should like to quote one or two points from the letter and ask the Minister how he is progressing with implementation of them. The former Foreign Secretary said:
“We continue to urge neighbouring countries to ensure the LRA are given no support and to arrest those who have been indicted by the ICC.”
The right hon. Gentleman and other senior members of the Government have made many visits, notably to Sudan. What representations have been made to neighbouring countries to ensure that the people who have been indicted by the ICC are dealt with?
The letter continues:
“We are clear with the Government of Uganda that there can be no purely military solution to this long-running conflict and that they shou1d engage constructively with any mediation efforts.”
What representations has the Minister made to the Ugandan Government? It seems from many accounts that President Museveni believes that there is a military solution, but as we know from long years of having to battle with the IRA, any guerrilla-type situation can be resolved ultimately only through a political settlement.
It was not clear to me whether the hon. Gentleman was saying that the likes of Kony and Otti will give themselves up voluntarily or whether he believes that there should be a military campaign to bring those people to justice as well as an attempt to bring people out of the bush under some kind of amnesty.
Perhaps my remarks were not as clear as they might have been. I had moved on from the situation of Kony and the other indicted people. Whatever action needs to be taken to arrest them should be taken, and it may require the assistance of the Ugandan Army or the Sudanese authorities. I do not know what needs to be done, but they must be brought to justice.
I was quoting from the letter of the former Foreign Secretary and wanted to discuss whether there can be a military solution to the problem of the LRA or whether eventually there must be a political solution. It seems from some accounts that President Museveni thinks that there will be a purely military solution to the problems in northern Uganda. I believe that that is unlikely, and I wonder what representations have been made to him by the Foreign Office to impress it on him that there must also be a political solution and that the five rebels must be dealt with in the ICC.
President Museveni seems to be reluctant to have the matter brought before the Security Council. The former Foreign Secretary’s letter states:
“As President of the Security Council, we did schedule on 19 December an open briefing of the Council by Jan Egeland, Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, on humanitarian crises in Africa. The suffering caused by the LRA was one of the three topics on which Mr Egeland focused…This ensured that both Council members and other UN member states were fully briefed on the issue of Northern Uganda. We are now giving careful thought to how this can be followed up”.
Has the Minister had any further thoughts on how the matter could be followed up?
The letter goes on to state:
“On the general issue of children and armed conflict, the Security Council passed a resolution in July 2005 (resolution 1612)”—
which I believe was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness—
“which included the establishment of a monitoring and reporting system to gather information and produce reports about the situation of children in armed conflict throughout the world.”
Has the Minister had any further reports on the matter? The systematic forcing of children to serve in the LRA is one of the worst aspects of the dispute.
What can the Government of Uganda do? I have already said that they should allow the matter to go before the Security Council, but they also should reform their army as an example to those who they are charged to protect. The Foreign Office report on human rights states that soldiers and officers of the Ugandan army, which is deployed in or near every displaced persons’ camp in northern Uganda, were engaged in human rights abuses throughout 2005, and beating, raping and even killing civilians with nearly total impunity. What representations has the Minister made to President Museveni and the Ugandan Government on that matter?
The Ugandan Government must provide protection for the staff of NGOs, who are charged with looking after the most vulnerable people in that country. The LRA has attacked NGO staff in conflict-affected areas, thereby making humanitarian access hazardous, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend.
President Museveni’s period in office has been marked by a substantial rise in the living standards of most Ugandans, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) and others, and we welcome the return to the democratic process. However, if he is to achieve peace during his time in office, he must not involve himself in the political wranglings of other states. The Minister and I were present at a debate in this Chamber some weeks ago on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and we discussed how Uganda and other countries were plundering the mineral reserves of DRC. There is no doubt that President Museveni has personally benefited from some of those mineral resources while at the same time intervening in the affairs of DRC. That is not acceptable. Again, what representation have the British Government made in that respect?
Equally, President Museveni must organise a transparent and expeditious trial of the main Opposition leader, Dr. Kizza Besigye. That might not strictly fall within the terms of the debate, but if Uganda is to demonstrate to the world its democratic credentials and the fact that it can run a proper democratic country, the least it can do is to operate a system of open and transparent justice so that the world can see what is going on.
The neighbouring countries, particularly Sudan, must not keep interfering in Ugandan affairs. Mention has been made this morning of the meeting of Mr. Kony and Mr. Otti in Juba. That meeting was staggering. It was openly reported, as the hon. Member for Stroud has said, and a degree of safety must have been given to both the participants, because otherwise they could not have been there. It is even more staggering, when the LRA is reported as having committed atrocities against the population of southern Sudan, that Mr. Kony should be given $20,000 to help continue his acts of atrocity. We need to see how the world can deal with that situation.
In conclusion, what can the UK do? We have great influence in the African Union, the European Union and the Security Council of the UN. We could do more. The Minister must tell us what he can do in those forums to ensure that one of the world’s most dreadful conflicts and abuses against humanity, particularly against children, is brought to an end.
It is a great pleasure, as ever, to sit under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. You will be gratified to know that the briefing that was handed to me by the Department said that you were likely to speak in this debate. I think that that is a suggestion that somebody, at least, has got your number.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) on securing the debate. As he said, it is an extremely important and urgent subject and the conflict and humanitarian crisis have gone on far too long.
Addressing the threats posed by the Lord’s Resistance Army and ending the conflict in northern Uganda is a Government priority. The subject is dealt with on a day-to-day basis by my noble Friend Lord Triesman and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade, but I have the privilege to speak in this debate. For nearly 20 years, that vicious insurgency group has abducted children, torn families apart and, as we have heard, committed acts of unspeakable cruelty against innocent civilians. The insecurity and fear that has resulted has led to 1.7 million people being sheltered in internally displaced people’s camps. Add to that the huge numbers of night commuters—the children we have heard about today—and nearly two thirds of northern Uganda’s population are involved; it is second only to Sudan in the total number of people displaced in Africa. It is a tragedy of enormous proportions. As hon. Members have made clear, it is impossible not to be moved or angered by the cruel loss of life and continued suffering.
I want to try to answer the specific questions that have been raised, because they clearly concern the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East and everyone else who has contributed to the debate. We do not know the total number of fighters that the LRA can deploy, but we estimate that it is in the hundreds rather than the thousands. That does not mean, of course, that it cannot cause fear across a great part of the region. We believe at the moment that the majority are in the Garamba national park in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but the LRA continues to operate in northern Uganda and southern Sudan, as we have heard from hon. Members who have visited recently.
I found the testimony on night commuters very moving. There is a glimmer of light. At the peak, in 2004, about 40,000 children moved into camps at night. In May 2005 the estimated number dropped to 26,000 and in March 2006 the estimate was down to 13,000. I understand that those figures have been given by non-governmental organisations that are trying to help those children.
I cannot answer that. We took the information that we were given in an optimistic spirit, but it may be the case that they are staying in the camps. I will try to find out, and I am sure my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade will have some more information. The hon. Gentleman has been there far more recently than any of us, but we also understand that the drop in numbers is partly due to better security and a reduced LRA presence.
The Department for International Development and the Foreign Office work closely with each other and with NGOs, including Save the Children, on their important work in relation to the reintegration and rehabilitation of former child combatants. We value that work very highly.
On the lack of a level playing field in the run-up to the general election, I understand that Besigye has been acquitted of the rape charges made against him. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development raised the treason trial with Mr. Museveni on 16 May when he was assured that there would be due process—but I have no more news than that. In relation to the UN Security Council adoption of resolutions 1653 and 1663, the Government believe that Security Council engagement on the LRA is useful and we will continue to press for further discussions on this subject.
Kofi Annan will decide whether to appoint a special envoy. The Government have made it clear to the UN and to the Ugandan Government that in our view a regional envoy would be useful.
One would hope that it would not. I know that Kofi Annan has made the point strongly that he wants to see a proper transition and that the work should not be interrupted, and I entirely agree.
The decision on the location of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting for 2007 is for the Commonwealth Secretary-General, in consultation with member states. The Government will certainly ensure that CHOGM keeps the human rights situation under review.
Preparation for the end of the war is an important issue, and our priority is normalisation of the north, to enable people in the camps to go home. The point was made by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) that this is an area where, if you throw seeds on the ground, they grow—that is absolutely true. It is obscene that there is hunger and starvation in this area as a consequence of a lack of security and a lack of coherent political will to tackle the situation.
We raised the issue of security and the possibility of forming an independent force during the period of recovery in the north with President Museveni. He was absolutely against this, but what would the Government like to see done to encourage a peacekeeping arrangement?
The Government would be interested in the UN and the African Union talking to President Museveni and other players in the region. It is a regional conflict, and as I have just said, the majority of the LRA’s members appear to be in the DRC, but they could just as easily have been in Sudan. We have to look at all possible solutions to this predicament.
Several hon. Members asked about the five indictees, and I should make it absolutely clear that we look forward to the day when they go on trial in The Hague, because that will send a powerful signal as regards justice and impunity. We are supporting civil society in Uganda as it seeks to address the conflict and the human rights issues in the north. Wherever possible, we want better information about the amnesty offer to be communicated to LRA foot soldiers, but it is difficult to see how the five indictees will be lured out. We understand that they are sitting prettily in the DRC, and they are not likely to come forward.
I was as shocked as everyone else in the room when my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) told us that the meeting in Juba had taken place. That story might be a rumour, or it might be true, but it would be quite shocking if such a meeting had taken place and those indicted individuals had attended without being arrested. We would be extremely disappointed and we would forcefully make the point that action should have been taken against them. We are certainly in favour of strengthening the process of returning and reintegrating former combatants, about which we have heard a good deal.
We welcomed February’s elections, which were the first multiparty elections for 20 years. The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) said, “Democracy is an excellent title, but you’ve got to do a lot more than genuflect towards it,” and that is absolutely true. We have been concerned about the lack of a level playing field in the run-up to the elections, and together with other donors, we have clearly expressed our concern about the arrest of Besigye to President Museveni. The arrest contributed to the decision by the Secretary of State for International Development to cut £20 million from the UK’s direct budget support to the Ugandan Government. Instead, we directed the money towards the north of Uganda. We have held back £5 million and are waiting to hear what will happen to it, although I understand that there will be an announcement shortly. We want to target the money precisely to ensure that it is used in the best way possible and that we make it clear to President Museveni that we want much more precise action directed at securing a solution to the problem.
Health is a priority for the British Government in Uganda, and the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) reminded us of the scourge of HIV/AIDS. Other problems, such as malaria and diarrhoea, should also be properly addressed by the Government of Uganda and everyone else working in the camps. Those are the diseases that are killing the most people. The number of HIV infections is approximately 1 million, with higher levels in the conflict areas. Uganda can access funds from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the World Bank to tackle some of those problems, and we are exhorting it to do so. Since 2002, the Department for International Development has provided £7 million for HIV/AIDS and £6.8 million for improving health conditions in the camps, including an HIV component.
Hon. Members mentioned the restrictions faced by NGOs seeking to move resources into the north. We are aware of concerns about the requirements for NGO registration and we are following the issue closely. We will raise it again with the Ugandan authorities.
There were several attacks on NGOs and others in late 2005, and two British nationals were among those killed. That is a serious issue, and I am glad that it has been raised. We urge the Ugandan Government to do more. The gravity of the situation has been expressed, and things have improved somewhat, but there is a great deal to be done. Aid convoys are again being escorted. Not all of them have requested assistance but those that have are receiving it.
Financial Assistance Scheme
I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate the financial assistance scheme. I congratulate the Government on introducing it, as well as the Pension Protection Fund, in the Pensions Act 2004. One of the main reasons that those provisions were introduced was the persistent lobbying by employees affected by the collapse of their pension funds, by their unions and by MPs in this House, some of whom are here. Ex-employees of Allied Steel and Wire led the fight and continue to do so. I pay tribute to them.
ASW was a steel company with plants in Cardiff and Sheerness. In Cardiff, the plant was based in the constituency of Cardiff, South and Penarth. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) is here. I am also pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) is here.
ASW had 1,200 employees when it went into receivership in the summer of 2002. Of those, 838 worked in Cardiff. All the constituencies in Cardiff and the adjoining areas have people affected by the collapse of ASW. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) led the fight for pension rights for the Cardiff workers. He was supported by many local Members of Parliament.
The plight of the ASW pensioners was dramatically highlighted in the House at the time by very moving stories about people who had lost the whole of their pension as well as their job. The trauma of that time is still alive for the people affected even though it was more than four years ago. Last weekend, I met a group of ASW ex-employees in Cardiff, North. They movingly described the experience of learning that the plant was to close and believing that they had lost their jobs but had at least got their pension rights, having paid into the occupational pension scheme for decades. Ten days later, those people learned that they had lost the bulk of their pensions as well.
Approximately half of the people who lost their jobs were then employed by Celsa, the Spanish firm that took over the Allied Steel and Wire site. However, there was a gap of more than 12 months in their employment. One of the effects of that was that Celsa did not take over responsibility for their pensions. Although it is of no benefit to the deferred pensioners, as they are known, the fact that Celsa has restarted steel production in Cardiff and is spending £100 million on modernising the complex is to be welcomed.
I agree with my hon. Friend that the investment by Celsa in Cardiff is welcome. Many were cynical about the possibility of that investment. Does she agree that the efforts made to avoid the gap that she referred to and ensure continuity were important? Our colleagues who were then at the Department of Trade and Industry co-operated with local Members in trying to keep the plant open rather than having the closure that led to the consequences that she is talking about.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. Yes, huge efforts were made to avoid that gap but unfortunately it did occur.
The issue of pensions for ASW workers has never been resolved. The workers have continued to campaign to this day. As a result of the problems faced by employees such as ASW workers, the Government set up the Pension Protection Fund. It will protect future pensioners from the fate of the ASW pensioners. It is essentially an insurance scheme. As we all know, it is not retrospective. It is ironic that those who campaigned hardest for this protection did not themselves benefit.
As a result of persistent lobbying, the Government set up the financial assistance scheme to help members of private sector schemes winding up with assets insufficient to meet liabilities which would have benefited from the Pension Protection Fund had it existed. The schemes would have had to start to wind up between 1 June 1997 and 6 April 2005, when the Pension Protection Fund came in. Initially, the scheme applied to members who had reached retirement age, or who had been within three years of doing so. However, it applied to very few people. I believe that, at the last count, only 17 of the ASW pensioners in Cardiff had benefited.
I was very pleased, as I think were all hon. Members, when, in the pensions White Paper of 25 May, the Government extended the scheme to those who were within 15 years of retirement on 14 May 2004. That will bring the actual pension up to 80 per cent. for those who were up to seven years from retirement date, 65 per cent. for those between seven and 11 years away and 50 per cent. for those between 11 and 15 years away.
I join the hon. Lady in welcoming the additional funds that have gone into the financial assistance scheme. Does she share my concern that, despite the extra funding, 620 of the 1,000 affected ASW workers in Cardiff are too young to receive anything under the new guidelines, so many people will still miss out?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I shall come on to that.
The Government also extended the funding for the financial assistance scheme from £400 million over 20 years; the total will now be £2.3 billion. That is a big step forward, and I congratulate the Government on it, but there are still serious gaps. Will the Minister confirm what percentage of eligible pensioners will benefit from the proposals? I am told by the union Community that 38 per cent. of those in the ASW pension scheme are likely to benefit: 9.5 per cent. benefit from the 80 per cent. top-up; 12.5 per cent. from the 65 per cent. top-up; and 16 per cent. from the 50 per cent. top-up. What is the Minister’s knowledge of that, and will he explain the decision not to consider length of service as well as how close a member was to retirement?
I know of glaring examples of people who miss out on the 15 years, even though they have paid into the pension fund for more than 30 years. My constituent Mr. Saxby of Whitchurch misses the 15 years by three months. He worked at East Moors for eight years from 1970, came out of SERPS and went into the ASW occupational pension scheme in 1979, and paid into that for 23 years until 2002.
Another constituent of mine from Heath worked in the steel industry in Cardiff from August 1968, from the age of 15. He worked with ASW until the closure in 2002, contributing to the works pension scheme. Previously, he had contributed to SERPS and he transferred to the final salary works pension scheme, believing, under the guidance of the Government, that that was guaranteed. He wrote to me last month after hearing about the increased funding:
“To my utter dismay, I find that no assistance is available to me, since I do not fall into the category of being within 15 years of retirement, being 2 months short of the qualifying period. This is totally unjust, as up to the closure of ASW, I was employed in a very harsh environment, paying taxes fully, while doing my utmost to secure my future for retirement via the works pension scheme, as recommended by the Government ... After 34 years contributing, I face a bleak retirement.”
These years have placed a heavy toll on the ex-ASW employees and their families. I am told that there is no provision to make any payment to the dependants of deceased scheme members until the deceased members nominally reach 65, whatever hardship their dependants suffer. I understand that four former ASW workers have died in the time that has elapsed, three of whom have left widows.
I have also met a man who was about to retire on grounds of ill-health, and was negotiating his pension after having had heart bypass surgery, when the scheme collapsed. He has had to survive on sickness benefit ever since, and that has been very hard for him. Will the Minister explain why such people have been left out, and may I appeal to him to look again at the scheme?
Other avenues are being pursued by the former steelworkers. As the Minister will know, the ombudsman, Ann Abraham, has said that the Government are guilty of maladministration and has called for compensation to be paid to those who lost money when their pension schemes went bust. The Government have rejected her finding of maladministration and have estimated that it would cost £15 billion to comply with the ombudsman’s report. Will the Minister tell us how that figure was reached?
Will the Minister also comment on the action taken in the European Court of Justice by Community and Amicus? Those unions took the Government to court on 1 June over the failure of the Conservative Government in 1983, and of subsequent Governments, adequately to implement article 8 of the 1980 insolvency directive. We are now waiting for the Advocate-General to publish his opinion of the case. If the action were to be successful, would the Government have to reimburse in full all eligible members of the pension schemes?
The financial assistance scheme is a good idea, but it is far too limited in whom it will help. There is a strong case for considering length of service. For younger deferred pensioners who have years of contributions and have been re-employed, for example at the Celsa site, there is much less opportunity to build up a second pension entitlement. Celsa has contracted out much of the work that was previously in-house. Last weekend I met another ex-ASW worker, a forklift truck driver, who now does exactly the same job for a contracted-out firm. He has done the same job for 24 years, at the same site, but has lost his pension from ASW. He has had no opportunity to build up another pension, and his future looks bleak.
Will the Minister re-examine the financial assistance scheme? It has the basis of being a good scheme, but it needs to be extended. The ex-workers of Allied Steel and Wire have put up a magnificent fight for justice, and what has happened to them is one of the most unjust things that I have seen since I have been in the House. I wanted to use the debate to speak up for those people, who are campaigning to this very day. I urge the Minister to look sympathetically on the request to extend the financial assistance scheme to all who have suffered in such a way.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), on securing the debate. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), and the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), who provided soft support when he was a Minister. He always saw us in the Lobby and asked what had been going on.
We know well the ASW case. My concern is the court case in Europe, on which I shall ask the Minister two questions. I have already tabled parliamentary questions, but as I have not had a response I hope that the Minister will answer them. In the court hearing on 1 June, the Government applied for a temporal limitation procedure on the Amicus and Community European Court of Justice case. If it is granted, the case would be relevant only to Amicus and Community, whereas we know that at least 165 occupational pension schemes are caught by the problem of negative equity. Was it not rather unethical and immoral for the Government to do that? Amicus and Community are acting on behalf of their members but there are implications for occupational pensions as a whole. Has the Minister sought the support of the Irish Government in seeking a neat temporal limitation procedure in the case? I could say more, but I recognise that the Minister must respond.
The Secretary of State said in the discussion on the White Paper that he is open-minded on further initiatives. How can we bring back for discussion the cases that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North, and others have raised in the House continually in the past four years?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Bercow. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), on securing this important debate and I pay tribute to her work. I pay tribute, too, to the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) and my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) and for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt). In the previous Parliament, they played a crucial role in persuading the Government to introduce the financial assistance scheme. They have all been absolutely dogged campaigners on behalf of their constituents, and the whole House recognises the success of their campaign.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North spoke eloquently about the loss suffered by members of the scheme, and Members on both sides of the Chamber recognise the plight that they must be in, as well as their disappointment, anger and frustration at losing their benefits. I should therefore like to go through the points that my hon. Friend has raised and to put on the record some of the background to our decisions.
The FAS was introduced through the Pensions Act 2004. We set it up to help members of underfunded pension schemes that commenced winding up between 1 January 1997 and 5 April 2005 and were sponsored by an employer that had experienced an insolvency event. The first qualifying schemes were announced on 25 October 2005, and as of 16 June there were 455 of them.
We set up the FAS operational unit in York as part of the Department for Work and Pensions and it opened on 1 September 2005. I pay tribute to the huge amount of work that the unit has done to collect scheme and member data, thereby allowing decisions to be made on whether schemes and individuals qualify for the FAS. Decisions can be made, and assistance can be paid to affected scheme members, only once that information has been provided, and that has involved a significant amount of work. I was particularly pleased that some ASW members were among the first to benefit from the scheme and I thank the scheme’s trustees for making a significant effort to ensure that that could happen.
We recognise that there will always be frustrations with such cash-limited schemes. We are therefore extremely grateful for the support that was expressed at the time for extending the FAS and for the welcome that the proposal has been given today. As with any cash-limited scheme, there will always be people on the margins who do not qualify, and we recognise the frustration that they feel.
In setting out the context within which we took our decisions, it is important to say that the FAS is not a compensation scheme. The Government are not saying that they are liable for pension schemes that have faced such problems. We put the FAS in place because of the plight of those involved, not because we recognised liability. That is why we have targeted the money at assisting them in the difficulties that they face, not at restoring their benefits. Given the limited amount of money that we had available, it was correct to target it at those closest to retirement, who have the least time to make up any pension shortfall.
My hon. Friend mentioned the plans announced on 25 May to extend the scheme. To respond to her question, we envisage that about 40,000 members, or a third, will qualify out of the 125,000 who are affected. Essentially, the population breaks down as follows. One third are not covered by the scheme because they have lost less than £520 a year, and the scheme does not make payments for losses below that level. Then, there are those who do not qualify because they are within 15 years of scheme retirement age. Finally, there are the roughly 40,000 who will be covered by extending the scheme.
As my hon. Friend said, that represents a significant increase in the amount of money being provided. We estimate that extending the scheme in that way will mean providing another £1.92 billion over the lifetime of the scheme, on top of the £400 million over 20 years that we had already committed. That is a cash figure; if Members want the net present value figure, it is £540 million.
On the administration of the scheme, I know that some Members have been concerned about the speed of payments. Administration needs to be seen in the context of the work that has been needed to identify the qualifying schemes, because we are dependent on trustees providing us with information both on qualifying schemes and on the members who are eligible for assistance. However, a huge amount of work has been done and we have now identified the 455 qualifying schemes and can start making payments. I believe that we have now reached a figure of 93 payments made.
Nevertheless, we recognise that members and people affected by the situation want to see the payments made as quickly as possible, which is why we have announced that we shall review the administration of the financial assistance scheme to ensure that it is delivered most effectively. The review will examine a full range of delivery and organisation options to ensure that that is the case. We want to ensure that benefits are delivered to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, and we have asked that the review produce its report before the summer recess. At the same time we shall continue to make as many payments as possible to members.
My hon. Friend mentioned the current deliberations in the European Court of Justice. The Government believe that they have met their obligations under article 8 of the European insolvency directive, as have successive Governments since implementation of the directive in 1983. As the matter is currently before the court, it is inappropriate for the Government to comment further. However, I reject the accusation made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey that what we have done is immoral, and I point him to the fact that normal legal procedures apply. I would reassure him that I shall answer his questions in full as soon as possible—there was no intention to do anything other than follow the applicable legal procedures in ECJ cases.
Hon. Members have also mentioned the process that the Commission is undertaking. The Commission is reviewing how the complete regulatory framework of all member states complies with the directive.
Mention was also made of the ombudsman’s report, which I know has been of concern to many Members. It is important to clarify the Government’s position on the £15 billion, because it has been misunderstood—possibly deliberately—in some quarters. That figure is not misleading; it has been calculated by the Department’s professional economists, who have estimated the cost of implementing the ombudsman’s proposals. On 16 March, the Secretary of State told the House that the cost would be between £13 billion and £17 billion, and he made it absolutely clear that the figure was in cash terms. That is the way the Government express the figures, and it is the right way to ensure that public expenditure is controlled: Budget and spending review documents are costed in cash terms.
There are, of course, different ways of considering future costs. The alternative way is by a net present value calculation. In this case that produces the figure of £3 billion that was quoted by the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott). However, we entirely reject the accusation that the figures have changed or are misleading; they are the same as the figures that the Secretary of State gave to the House when he made his announcement. We promised that we would explain the calculations and present the figures both in cash and net present value terms, and that is exactly what we have done. The figures were not different; they just concerned two different ways of presenting figures such as these for the long-term future: in cash terms—the normal way of Government budgeting—and in net present value terms, which we have also given.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North mentioned long service. I understand completely the point that she makes. We return of course to the question of what the financial assistance scheme is for. I know that this will be of no comfort to the constituents that she mentioned, but the scheme is not intended to be one of compensation, nor it is meant to restore people’s rights; it is intended to help those in the greatest need. The Government judged that the most effective and efficient way to do that was to target the money at those closest to retirement.
I understand that the other difficulty with seeking to calculate people’s contribution records is that data on length of service are not always readily available. That point was made to us by the pensions industry when we were devising the financial assistance scheme and trying to find a simple way of administering it.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the hardship suffered by those long service deferred pensioners should be recognised by the Government? Does he not think that there might be a case for looking further at the financial assistance scheme, as I believe was said when the White Paper was introduced to the House?
We would of course be very happy to continue to meet with Members concerned about the financial assistance scheme. Other Members raised concerns about employees of companies still solvent. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that further.
Of course, we recognise the injustice that those members will feel they suffered. Everybody recognises that. The difficulty is that the scheme is cash limited, and although we have been able to extend it significantly, the amount of money that we have is not sufficient for all 125,000 people involved. We have therefore had to target the money in the way we felt was most appropriate.
The Government took the view that the way to do that was to focus on those closest to retirement because they have the least time in which to make up loses and provide themselves with a pension. I recognise that that will not minimise their frustration nor bring any comfort to those who were in the service of a company for a long time, such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend.
We extended the scheme significantly because we recognise the plight in which individuals have found themselves, but we decided to target the money in the way that we have because it was administratively the most simple and because those people were closest to retirement. I do not want to give my hon. Friend false hope by pretending that I have a solution in my back pocket, but I am happy to meet her and her colleagues to discuss the issue.
This has been an important debate, and again I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing it. As I said, I would be happy to discuss the issue further with hon. Members, as we are doing with the financial assistance scheme overall. We recognise clearly that not everybody benefits from that scheme and therefore people who fall outside it will be frustrated. On the other hand, I hope that the House will recognise that we have extended the scheme significantly; it has gone from £400 million over 20 years to £2.3 billion over its lifetime. That is a significant recognition of the plight of the individuals concerned, and I hope that it will be seen as a sign of the good faith of the Government in trying to address the issue.
Rail Services (Exeter to the South-West)
There is a debate going on in Devon at the moment about who is the greatest Devonian. I shall not take the House along that line; however, a gentleman who was not a Devonian but was born in Portsmouth had probably the most significant effect on the west country and, indeed, other parts of the UK. He was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who designed and built the Great Western railway. That line brought business and trade to the south-west and later brought thousands of tourists pouring into the beautiful seaside resorts in my constituency—Teignmouth and Dawlish—and those further west in south Devon and Cornwall.
Those who constructed the original line ran across problems. A line of hills in south Devon called the Haldon hills reaches up to the north. They were a barrier to communications between the east and west for years. Indeed, only one or two passable or navigable roads existed over the top of the hills in the last century and the one before. Tunnelling was not uncommon in the Victorian era, but it was considered and rejected. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, in his usual way, took a bold decision, against much advice, to go along the sea and the sea wall, carving tunnels and creating a stretch of track between Exeter through Dawlish and Teignmouth to Newton Abbot.
Problems arose immediately afterwards, because of cliff falls on to the track. Other difficulties included waves occasionally breaking over the wall. In the last century, the rail companies and British Rail considered alternatives and in the 1930s came up with an alternative route, to cut inland, tunnelling under the Haldon hills and coming out over the beautiful little village of Bishopsteignton on a big viaduct, then travelling down into Newton Abbot. That scheme was rejected on the grounds of cost. It was decided then that the problems on the sea wall were not insurmountable and that the cost of coming inland was too great.
Today the same problems exist. They include a crumbling cliff face and problems with waves and storms breaking over the railway line. I recall from my early days living in Teignmouth—we moved from Exmouth to Teignmouth—that I had been up in London and was travelling down one night during a great storm. The train was held up at Dawlish while the storm broke over. Track men worked on the line to keep it open in fairly hazardous conditions. I clearly remember what it is like to be sitting in a static train with the waves breaking over the carriage. Shortly afterwards we arrived in Teignmouth; I met my wife and we had a pleasant evening.
During the 1990s other storms and flooding caused further problems, but many of those attributed to the section of track that I am talking about had nothing to do with that section. Many of the delays in the 1990s were to do with a bridge east of Exeter that was damaged by flood waters coming from Tiverton, rushing under the bridge and damaging its support, or over the track, cutting services from the west to London.
In the late 1990s and in part of the new millennium we have of course seen dramatic pictures of storms, including trains stuck on the track with the waves beating over them. Some of those delays were caused by problems with the track: damage to the rock face and to the surface of the track, particularly where the waves would break over the track, wash the gravel from under it and pull it out. To deal with that, Network Rail has spent a vast sum on securing the rock face and stabilising the track. It had problems with signalling, because the signals were shorting. That problem has also been dealt with and should not occur in future.
There was a problem for which the great storms were blamed which was actually a man-made problem—it was a design error. Virgin Trains had its wonderful new Voyagers, which are beautiful trains. I went on one of the early runs from Paignton to Exeter. It was the fastest run. That was on a clear day, and the trouble was that when the waves broke over and hit the top of the trains, it would bring them to a standstill. There were problems with the electrics and the heating on the trains and with the doors. So we were in the terrible position in which a Virgin Voyager would be stuck on the track for four hours. Often it had to be towed away by a 25-year-old high-speed train belonging to another company, or by one of Virgin’s own. That problem has been resolved. Network Rail has put in a large sum to resolve some of the problems relating to the track and the cliff face, and the design problems that Voyager faced have now been resolved. I hope that the lessons from that have been learned and that new rolling stock will not succumb so easily to the vagaries of British weather.
That prompts the question—one that I have asked many times—what the effect of climate change will be. The Hadley centre, which is part of the Met Office, has made predictions about what the net effect will be in the south-west. A letter from Paul Hardaker of the Met Office says that
“the Hadley Centre model from 1860-2100”
gives a rise
“of 0.4 metres. About 0.1 m of this has already occurred so we expect a further rise of 0.3 m over the next 100 years.”
It goes on to say that a further study
“showed that by 2080, assuming a medium-high emissions scenario, a further 0.3 m sea-level rise and including land movement, that the 1-in-50 year highwater event will increase by about 0.5 m around the S. Devon coastline.”
Some people have concluded from that that it is all up for the line: it will no longer be sustainable.
Indeed, if we were to read The Observer—my paper of choice on a Sunday—from a few weeks ago, we would believe that the line is in imminent peril and threat of closure because of climate change. Nothing is further from the truth. The sources quoted, by the newspaper, by other campaigners and by Members of this House have not quoted but misquoted both the Met Office and Network Rail. The Met Office has been clear. It has said that the line may have to close if we do nothing, but as the gentleman from the Met Office said to me last week when I visited it, “Actually, if you do nothing, the railway will have to close anyway because even if there were no climate change or rise in the sea level, the current storms would close the line for you.” Maintenance is a factor of that railway, one that was recognised by the builders of the rail line and by British Rail when it rejected the inland route. It is certainly recognised by Network Rail today.
The Met Office view is not that the rail line must close but that Network Rail must consider what it needs to do to keep the line open. The Met Office is fairly indignant that it has been quoted as saying that the line is not sustainable. It says that its job is not to tell other bodies whether something is sustainable, but to give advice about the effects of climate change, as the Hadley centre did in the case that I have just quoted.
Network Rail was also quoted, particularly in The Observer, which implied that £200,000 was being spent on the line every year, and that it was not sustainable. Network Rail says that that is not the case; it has not concluded that the line cannot be sustained. Indeed, I have a memo here in which Network Rail says that it has
“invested £9 million in the last few years to stabilise and manage the historic coastal route between Teignmouth and Dawlish Warren”
“Network Rail has no plans to re-route the railway line at Dawlish in the foreseeable future.”
It goes on to say:
“We do, however, remain alert to the issue of climate change and coastal defences and continue to play an active role in the local coastal group led by the local authority and funded by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs…to discuss the affect of climate change on transport systems.”
I shall come on to some further quotes that touch on what is being done in that respect.
The regional development agency has also, although it has not supplied any quotes, contacted me to say that it is supportive of a proper debate on the issue. However, at the moment it sees no reason why we should presume that the line has to close. I was told this morning that it had carried out a consultation among local people, and that they do not want the route to change; indeed, they do not want the service to change. I hasten to add that we should interpret that to mean that they do not want the service to be cut. It goes without saying—if the rail companies are listening—that most of us in the south-west would like it to increase. Basically, local people find the existing route satisfactory. So they should: some 67 trains a day travel up-line and a further 67 travel down-line. It is a fairly busy stretch of line.
I hope that the Minister will continue to support that rail link with the south-west. If the campaigners were to have their way, what would happen? Currently, 69,175 people a year board the train in the little Exe estuary village of Starcross. Further down the line, at Dawlish Warren, where there is a wonderful bird sanctuary, 69,707 passengers use the train every year, as do 297,836 passengers from the town of Dawlish, further still down the line and famous for its black swans, and 319,075 passengers from my home town of Teignmouth. The immediate effect of closing the line would be to close those stations, and to prevent local people from having access to the railway. They would have to either use their cars or take buses into Exeter or Newton Abbot.
Closing the stations would not just inconvenience commuters; it would have a damaging effect on local businesses and on the hotel and holiday park trade in Dawlish and the hotel trade in Teignmouth. One hotel in particular relies heavily on the rail service. The Clifden hotel in Teignmouth is run by Action for the Blind for people who are partially sighted. I am told that 70 per cent. of its customers use the train. Those customers would have to stop at Exeter and then be collected and taken to the hotel. It would be a great inconvenience if the customers had to arrange that themselves, and it would be a great cost to the hotel if they had to start transporting people in from Exeter, some 14 miles away. If the closure itself were not damaging, the talk that the line is unsustainable is itself damaging to Dawlish, Teignmouth and that part of the south Devon economy. People believe what they read in the papers and think, “There’s no future here. There’s going to be no rail line. Why should we invest here? We might as well invest in those areas where we are certain there’s going to be a rail link, rather than one where there might not be.”
Finally, if the line were closed, would the sea wall that currently runs along there be maintained? Certainly, there would be no reason to maintain certain sections of it, and we would then see coastal erosion, denuding, and threats to properties high up on the cliff. The cost of keeping the line open is not just the cost of doing so, but Network Rail is keeping the properties above safe. A new line would cost in excess of £100 million. That is an awful lot of money. Are we saying to the campaigners who want to close the line and commit to a new line that we are going to commit £100 million plus, which might not be necessary? Network Rail is very aware of the issue. It has undertaken its own one-year study into the effects of climate change on the rail network, and is doing a particular model on the track at Dawlish. There are eight studies currently being carried out on the impact of climate change on the railway line along that section. Would it not be better to wait until those studies are completed before we rush to any decision? I believe that, in this case, waiting is beneficial. The sea change, as I said earlier, takes effect over a 50-year period, so there is no need to rush today. The line is one of the most beautiful stretches of railway in England, and to me, one of the finest in the world. The question that we should be asking is not when we close the line, but how we can keep it open.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley. The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) concentrated on the area around Dawlish and the sea wall there. However, I should like to say a few words about the Greater Western franchise, which covers the area. If I mispronounce any of the names, I apologise. There are some beautiful-sounding names, but coming from the north, I may not always get them right, so I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will correct me.
As we know, the Greater Western franchise has now started and it has not been without controversy. First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. We are seeing significant investment of around £200 million in trains, stations and improved performance. Network Rail will be spending in the region of £765 million on the investment programme on track and infrastructure. The first phase of the new integrated control centre has recently opened, so we are seeing closer working relationships between Network Rail and First Great Western to bring about the performance improvements that we want to see in the Greater Western franchise.
This is obviously a very large and complex franchise serving a significant area of the west of the country. As I said, it has not been without controversy: I have attended a number of debates in Westminster Hall and elsewhere about the changes that came about, but I am pleased to say that the Department has been working with First Great Western, which has already announced a number of improvements and changes to services. The changes are significant responses to the consultation and a real improvement that should meet the aspirations of those who have raised concerns.
It is important to stress that significant investment is still to go into the Greater Western franchise, which will bring about improvements for all passengers who use its services. That fits in with the Government’s overall aim to continue significant investment in the railways—more than £87 million a week is being spent this year. There is also a record investment in rolling stock and there were more than 1 billion passenger journeys again last year. There is improved performance overall nationally, exceeding the public performance measure target of 85 per cent.—we reached more than 86 per cent. Reliability and performance are therefore improving. That is borne out by passenger surveys, which show that about 80 per cent. of passengers are pleased with their journeys and that an increasing number are satisfied with the punctuality of trains. Many improvements are happening, and working together with the industry we can further build on them. There are still many challenges to be addressed, not least capacity in some areas, but overall it is a good news story for the railway.
I am conscious that concern has been expressed in the south-west that the Exeter to Newton Abbot line is vulnerable to storm damage where it runs along the sea wall in Dawlish, and that in the longer term the route might cease to be viable because of the rising sea level due to climate change. I shall address those issues, which the hon. Gentleman raised from his own experience and knowledge of the area.
The section of track in question is on the main line to Torbay, south-west Devon and Cornwall and provides those areas with their only rail link with the rest of the country, as the hon. Gentleman made clear. It lies between the sea wall and an 85 m-high cliff face and is one of the most exposed stretches of line in England. Maintaining services can be challenging in extreme weather conditions. We have heard some descriptions of such conditions and we have recently seen dramatic pictures in one of the Sunday newspapers. In October 2004 the sea wall was damaged and the route had to be closed for several days. Less severe disruptions happen more regularly, such as the slow running of services during storms to ensure safety.
Network Rail is aware of the importance of the stretch of track and has undertaken substantial work to improve the reliability of services. Some £9 million has been invested over the past few years, including money to strengthen the foundations of the sea wall. About £500,000 per annum has been spent on maintaining the sea wall. Five Network Rail employees work on the relevant section of line throughout the year, and regular weather updates are provided by the Met Office to help anticipate likely problems.
Network Rail says that it is ever alert to the potential problems from global warming, and I have recently commissioned a research study on its likely longer term effects on the network. Dawlish Warren is a case study. Network Rail recognises the importance of the line and continues to devote considerable resources to maintaining it to an appropriate standard. It does not believe that the railway sea defences in Dawlish are likely to fail in the foreseeable future, thanks to the work carried out and the ongoing maintenance and monitoring.
There have been suggestions that an alternative rail route avoiding Dawlish sea wall should be constructed. There are two possible options, each with disadvantages in the places served. The first is to reopen the former Southern Railway main line along the northern edge of Dartmoor from Okehampton to Bere Alston, rejoining the existing main line in the western suburbs of Plymouth. The service would not serve Dawlish, Teignmouth, Torbay, Totnes or Ivybridge and would be about 50 miles in length. At the east end the line is used by the Dartmoor Railway between Crediton and Meldon Quarry, where passenger trains have been reintroduced, although there is no regular year-round service. The middle section between Meldon and Bere Alston is either completely disused or used as a cycle route, and we understand that the track bed has been built upon in at least one location. There are proposals to extend the cycle route, and ownership of the track bed is in a number of hands; much work would be needed to reopen the line. However, the line between Bere Alston and Plymouth is open and used by regular passenger trains; it is part of the Tamar Valley Line.
Secondly, reopening the former secondary line from Exeter to Newton Abbott that goes through Chudleigh—closed almost 50 years ago—which joins the existing main line, would not serve Teignmouth or Dawlish. The route would be only 15 miles long, but the track bed has been lost in many locations and it would be difficult to reinstate.
We are not aware of costings having been undertaken for those proposals. They were not considered as part of the Greater Western route utilisation study published in 2005. I hope that I have reassured the hon. Gentleman about the viability of that part of the line.
Specifying a new franchise as large and diverse as Greater Western and balancing the needs of the taxpayer and the user is a complex task. Overall, I reiterate that the new franchise is a good deal, with all passengers benefiting from the investment of £200 million for improving trains, stations and performance. We are now immersed in the process of replacing the south-western franchise, and we recently published our consultation on the cross-country franchise—as we did for the east midlands and west midlands franchises—and we will listen carefully to rail users before finalising them.
We are mindful of the vulnerability of the rail route west of Exeter, and the Department will continue to work closely with Network Rail to assess the level of risk and how it can most appropriately be mitigated, and, if necessary, to assess the viability of alternative routes. Given what Network Rail has said about its commitment to maintenance and the fact that it regularly has a number of employees working there, it does not see a significant problem in the immediate future. I hope that I have offered the hon. Gentleman some reassurance.
May I, through you, Mr. Illsley, thank the Speaker for granting me this debate? I have tried for a long time to secure one on this subject, and I am happy to have achieved it. I welcome the Minister to her new portfolio, and I am happy to see her here. She has escaped the Whips Office, and I hope that she has many happy years in her new post.
I shall highlight a number of crucial issues relating to the transport needs of the rural communities in my constituency. They have regularly been the subject of discussion at coffee mornings in villages throughout my constituency, as well as in my postbag. I wish to focus on the provision of public transport and the problems that can be caused to isolated communities when there is one public transport provider. I shall also suggest some solutions to the problems that surround the provision of rural bus services. I will argue that bus operators should not be completely free of regulation, but that they should be subjected to greater openness. I will suggest that bus franchising should follow the same model as rail services, which will ensure that bus companies provide a useful service to the public.
The rural communities in East Cleveland share a common historic and geographical pattern. They are small villages that date from the 19th century—a time when ironstone mining was booming. With industry now long gone, many people in those villages and small towns have to commute to and from employment elsewhere in urban Teesside. They also regularly have to travel to Teesside or nearby market towns such as Guisborough and Redcar for their shopping and social life and to meet friends and relations.
Many of my constituents in these areas do not own cars. In some of the smaller, more deprived communities, access to cars is very low. In some cases, up to 42 per cent. of households have no access to a car. Consequently, they are forced to rely solely on buses. Bus services are therefore absolutely crucial to their everyday lives.
Approximately 95 per cent. of all bus routes in the area are under the control of one bus company—Arriva North East. The 5 per cent or so that are not all belong to small niche operators who provide buses for school and hospital runs under contract to the local council and minibus services on some estates.
Arriva recently introduced a number of radical changes to its local service, with serious repercussions for my constituents in East Cleveland. As a commercial operator, Arriva is fully entitled to make changes to its services, but the manner in which it did so has been a cause of concern among my constituents. The changes are based on a consultant’s report that was commissioned for the Tees Valley joint strategy unit. The unit is a Teesside-wide organisation made up of all the local councils and its remit is to develop Teesside-wide planning and transport policies.
On the whole, the report was acceptable. It stated that transport patterns on Teesside had changed and needed addressing by the area’s bus companies. It then suggested core routes across all of urban and rural Teesside. Crucially, however, it also recognised that the changes needed to be implemented with care and that structural elements should be in place before any changes were made.
The changes were to be introduced over at least a year and based on setting up a quality partnership between all the local authorities, bus operators and other stakeholders. That was to allow local councils to develop a pattern and build up financial provision for their tendered services to supplement the core commercial network.
I have to say, however, that Arriva completely ignored many of the report’s recommendations by announcing that it would adopt the core service model within weeks. That meant that many communities found to their horror that there were to be large-scale cuts in their bus services. Those cuts would be partnered by reductions in frequencies, changes of route and, for some communities, a total loss of service.
A recent survey by Redcar and Cleveland borough council found that 10 per cent. of local residents use a local bus service every day and that another 14 per cent. use one once a week. It also found that the number of people using local bus services regularly was considerably higher in areas where the population was older than average and on a lower income. That is where the cuts have really hit home.
Letters from concerned constituents affected by the changes poured in to my office, the local council and Arriva itself. I was particularly distressed to learn that schools were faced with a problem because the new times did not meet the needs of their pupils. I have received correspondence to that effect from both Huntcliff secondary school in Saltburn-by-the-Sea and Laurence Jackson secondary school in Guisborough.
In addition, timetable information was available only days before the new routes were to operate. Local employers found that key staff were having to alter hours of work or to adopt new modes of transport simply to keep their jobs, but Arriva has not dealt with any of those issues, despite strong pleas from me, the local borough council and other organisations and groups in the East Cleveland area. It could be argued that if one bus operator—in this case, Arriva—behaves in that fashion, that will create a gap for a competitor to capitalise on what may be seen as a bad judgment by Arriva. However, that has not happened, for a number of reasons.
On Teesside as a whole, there are two major bus operators: Arriva and Stagecoach. Although I do not allege that there is a monopoly, I do find it fascinating that those major multinational transport companies, with all the resources available to them, do not seem to compete with each other in a meaningful way. For evidence of that, I examined a copy of the last local bus timetable guide issued before the latest changes. Although Arriva operated no fewer than 38 separate services in the borough, Stagecoach operated only one solitary bus route. That was a small late-evening-only tendered service covering a section of route operated by Arriva for the rest of the day.
Such domination can lead to an arrogance of power and an unwillingness to respond properly to complaints and observations from passengers. In recent weeks I have been receiving plenty of both from disgruntled Arriva passengers. It is clear from the letters that, following the latest sweeping changes, things are little better. There have been numerous stories of missing or late-running buses and cancellations without warning. Additionally, there has been increasing use of elderly, small and unsuitable buses on many busy routes.
The survey by Redcar and Cleveland borough council found that, across the borough, only 22 per cent. of people are satisfied with their local bus services. In addition to the poor standard of the overall service provided, there have been reports of constant fare increases.
Arriva has devised a standard response to such complaints, which is to suggest that if the complainants are not happy, they should approach the local council—in this case, Redcar and Cleveland—and get it to subsidise journeys by putting in tenders. Although that sounds simple, it certainly is not. As a former councillor, I am well aware that councils have limited financial resources. In this case, the sheer scale of the Arriva cuts was such that the local authority had no further financial resources available to it. This is a real problem and is replicated up and down the country.
When the bus industry was deregulated by the late Mr. Nicholas Ridley, the intention was to liberate bus companies from the oppressive state to allow them to flourish in a more competitive environment. That vision depended on the notion that the routes catering for existing and potential demand would emerge and the market would meet the needs of the travelling public. However, the vision never became a reality.
The bus industry is now dominated by the so-called big five: Arriva, Stagecoach, National Express, First and Go-Ahead. According to the passenger transport executive umbrella group, those companies operate about 80 per cent. of all bus journeys in the country. However, their record is not good. Outside London, bus use has declined by about one third since deregulation in 1986. The cost of using the bus has escalated. Since 1985, it has risen on average by one third, while the cost of private motoring has been largely static. The extra costs have been borne, by and large, by people with no alternative to the bus—those who cannot afford cars and are therefore left at the mercy of the bus companies. According to the passenger transport executive, 60 per cent. of all bus journeys are made by people who have no private means of transport available to them.
Those figures are true of the local situation as well. In the wider Teesside valley there are 42 million bus journeys every year, reflecting the fact that car ownership in the area is lower than in any other part of the UK. That is a figure in decline, however; based on official council estimates, bus travel in the borough of Redcar and Cleveland dropped by about 8 per cent. between 2003 and 2005. The net result is that bus companies that are in a dominant market position have to adopt two distinct strategies. Either they can invest heavily and can market intensively where—and only where—there may be untapped potential, or they can prune back services and cut routes and buses.
Arriva has opted to take both options, as is clear from its half-year report for 2003, in which it said:
“Outside London, our approach to what is a mature market is to focus on a twin track strategy of targeting investment to deliver growth and eliminating low margin and loss-making routes.”
It does not take a genius to understand that in rural areas such as East Cleveland it is likely to be the latter approach that will be more attractive.
So what can be done? For a start, I suggest that the concept of a total free-market approach to bus services be reviewed. Buses are an absolutely essential public service, and many people—usually those who cannot afford cars—are completely dependent on them. Other private operator services that are used by the public have to live either with a degree of regulation, or with direction that lays down a public service duty. That is the case with utilities, gas, water and power, and is also embodied in the way that passenger rail services are managed, through the setting up of the Department’s franchises which are overseen by the rail regulator, and through the subsequent bidding for those franchises.
As a minimum requirement a duty should be placed on bus operators to support services in some of the less commercial operation times. If an operator intends to run a commercial service from 8 am to 6 pm, it should also be required to operate some early morning or evening services on the same route, if there is a demonstrated need. That would ensure that operators would begin to see their operations as a public service that addressed social needs and concerns, such as traffic growth.
There must be far more openness in the bus industry. There is a strong local suspicion that many of the services axed by Arriva were not as unprofitable as the company maintains. One axed service—the No. 71 from Guisborough to Saltburn and Eston—was regularly criticised for being overcrowded. The books should be opened to local authorities on the basis of commercial confidentiality, so that they can see that any decision they make to offer tenders for services are based on hard economics and reality.
We could go a lot further to re-regulate provincial bus services, and I believe that there is moral justification for that. Taxpayers make a great contribution to the bus operators, so it is wrong for those operators to act merely on the basis of making profits. The recent Public Accounts Committee report on the bus industry said that up to £359 million was paid to bus companies in the form of operators’ grants, which subsidise their fuel costs. The Committee estimated that the operators will also receive £350 million in the shape of payments for concessionary fares and bus passes for old-age pensioners, disabled people and school students. Add to that the transfer payments to local authorities for them to subsidise tendered routes and we have a huge sum of public cash going to the bus operators with little in return.
On that basis, we should take a bold step and look to the introduction of bus franchising in England. That could follow the model used for rail services and be overseen by local authorities. Franchises could be as big or as small as is needed. They could cover a conurbation, a local authority area or even a single town. They could combine the urban core services and purely local services for outlying estates and communities. They could be based on contracts that stipulate core needs and set levels of frequency, accessibility, integrated ticketing and customer care. That is exactly the model used for rail services, and could be used for bus services.
Many of my constituents in the East Cleveland community have been badly let down by what they see as the unfair use of Arriva’s market dominance. Many people in that area do not own private cars out of economic circumstances, not choice, and in many car-owning households family members do not have access to the car at times when they need to travel. Those people are looking for Government action to ensure fairness and the reintroduction of a public service ethos into the bus operation. That would certainly work in conjunction with the Government’s drive to encourage people to use public transport to reduce road congestion and, more importantly, to protect the environment. I believe that that public service ethos could be reintroduced easily into the bus services, but we need action and commitment from the Government for it to happen. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing the debate. He has provided an opportunity to discuss what I believe is an important subject: rural transport, and how its quality, or indeed lack of it, affects people and their day-to-day lives. I know that my hon. Friend is a dedicated and effective representative of his constituents on the subject before us and on many other subjects dear to their hearts.
It is essential that people in rural areas can get out and about, whether to their jobs, shops or services or to friends and family, and many of them rely on cars to do so. However, there are also those without cars—nationally, one in 10—who rely on public transport. Like my hon. Friend, I believe that it is crucial to ensure that they do not suffer exclusion because of poor access to transport. My hon. Friend focuses rightly on buses, and so shall I, because they are the main means of transport for people in rural areas. I shall comment on buses, first in general terms, and then more specifically.
As we know, since the 1950s, bus patronage has been falling, largely as a result of car ownership. That is particularly noticeable in rural areas, and as a result services there have become increasingly difficult to sustain. In recognition of that, rural bus services now benefit from a range of Government support. All operators receive a bus service operators grant, which provides a rebate of some 80 per cent. on fuel duty. For environmentally friendly fuels, that rebate is 100 per cent. Of course that will contribute to the financial viability of many rural services, including those in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
We recognise, however, that conventional bus services are not always the most appropriate way to meet the needs of people in rural areas. In recognising that, in 2002, we extended the eligibility of the grant to community transport operators, and, in 2004, demanded responsive buses.
It is also worth noting that since 1998 rural communities have also benefited from the rural bus subsidy grant, which has provided £32 million a year to local authorities for new bus services in rural areas. The grant level has been increasing and it is now providing more than £54 million across England, funding about 30 million passenger journeys a year. The grant can be used to support not only conventional buses but a wider variety of flexible bus services, such as those that deviate from their route on demand—in my areas they are provided through Lincolnshire Interconnect—and demand-responsive buses, which are fully pre-bookable.
We have also used Challenge and Kickstart funding to support innovative schemes in rural areas. My hon. Friend will know that Redcar and Cleveland received over £150,000 of rural bus Challenge funds for the East Cleveland dial-a-ride initiative, to provide an extra dial-a-ride vehicle specifically for disabled people in rural areas. Since 2003, we have used a new approach called Kickstart to provide pump-priming for services with the potential to become self-sustaining after three years. My hon. Friend will also know that under Kickstart, Redcar and Cleveland received over £130,000 to enhance service 81, between Redcar and Guisborough, bringing better travel for residents of those towns and villages.
In addition to what I have outlined, we provide all local transport authorities with capital funding through the local transport plan system, in which a block of funding is provided to cover road maintenance and integrated transport. It is for local authorities to decide how that allocation is best spent, but some of it will be used to support bus services with the provision of bus stops, bus lanes, dial-a-ride and other flexible transport services.
Over the past six years, block LTP funding for Middlesbrough has increased by 95 per cent. and that for Redcar and Cleveland has increased by 89 per cent. As part of their second LTPs, which were delivered to the Department in March, all authorities have prepared an accessibility strategy. They were asked to work with local service providers to prioritise the problems that local people face in obtaining access to key services, such as those described by my hon. Friend.
I just want to say a word about the importance of free off-peak local bus travel for people aged 60 and over, and for disabled people, which my hon. Friend mentioned. I am sure that he and his constituents welcome the fact that the entitlement will be extended further, to national bus travel, from April 2008, for which the Treasury has earmarked an additional £250 million a year. I anticipate that in my hon. Friend’s constituency alone that will benefit more than 17,000 people. The scheme will help to boost bus patronage in all areas and may make some rural bus services more viable.
My hon. Friend made some specific points about his constituency and I want to answer those. He is concerned that Arriva provides the vast majority of all local bus services in the area. That situation is not unique to his area, or to rural areas, but I agree that 95 per cent. is a very high figure. As my hon. Friend is aware, there is nothing to prevent another operator from challenging the situation by registering services in the area. If Arriva is, as my hon. Friend suggests, giving up profitable services it would surely be an attractive proposition for other operators to take them on.
My understanding of the situation as described by my hon. Friend is that the Tees Valley local authorities have carried out a review of the bus services in the area, in consultation with the bus operators, and have found that many of the traditional routes do not really serve the travel needs of today. Their intention is, by working together, to devise a better way to serve my hon. Friend’s constituents. I know that the local authorities have plans to improve the bus infrastructure further as part of that work. That is the kind of co-operation that I am looking for and want to support and encourage. Neither operators nor local authorities have a monopoly on wisdom about where buses are needed and who will use them, and I would expect them to consult the local community.
Of course, any change in a bus network will result in losers as well as winners. My hon. Friend is realistic, and he knows that we cannot expect buses to be provided everywhere and at every time. Local authorities are best placed to decide how best to use their financial resources to support services that are not commercially viable. Such support could include subsidising services to replace those that are withdrawn.
Bus operators are entitled to protect commercially sensitive information, but we encourage them to provide data in confidence to local authorities in the interests of better performance. We have given local authorities the tools that they need to work with bus operators to improve services, and those include quality partnerships and quality contracts.
I am concerned about the situation that my hon. Friend describes. In view of that, I shall ask my officials to raise the issues that he brought to my attention with Arriva through the north-east bus partnership forum. I urge my hon. Friend and, indeed, any other hon. Members who know of problems with access to public transport in rural areas to bring them to the attention of their local authorities, especially as many of them are already working hard to try to address problems through their local transport plan.
My hon. Friend may be interested to know that my officials and I are reviewing future bus subsidies and many other aspects of bus policy. I assure him that I shall bear in mind his useful and carefully considered contribution, for which I thank him.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Two o’clock.