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Westminster Hall

Volume 449: debated on Tuesday 18 July 2006

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 18 July 2006

[John Cummings in the Chair]

Inter-Parliamentary Union

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

I advise the television cameras not to come too close. To dispel any rumours, I met the ground rapidly, which accounts for my rather strange appearance this morning.

As chair of the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union I want to use today’s debate to raise awareness of the IPU’s work, especially on human rights, and to ask parliamentary colleagues and the Government to continue to support that important work. First, I shall give some background. It is amazing that people can be Members of Parliament for many years without being fully aware of what the IPU does. I hope that many more people will join it when they realise what kind of work that is. The IPU is the international organisation of Parliaments of sovereign states and was established as long ago as 1889. It is the focal point for worldwide parliamentary dialogue, and works for peace and co-operation among people and for the firm establishment of representative democracy. To that end, the IPU fosters contacts, co-ordination and the exchange of experience among Members of Parliament of all countries.

The British group of the IPU organises incoming and outgoing delegations. In the past 12 months the British group has hosted visiting parliamentarians from a number of countries, including Lebanon, Tunisia, Croatia, Ukraine, Burundi, Bahrain and Colombia, and has organised or assisted visits to, among others, Iran, Thailand, Gabon, Peru, the Palestinian Authority and Saudi Arabia. There are plans afoot to host inward delegations in the next year from, for example, Gabon, Brazil, Israel, Japan and Moldova, and to organise outward delegations to Israel, Mexico, Albania, Egypt, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Jordan. Only two years ago, I led the IPU delegation to Lebanon, and those of us who were present during the visit know with what great pride the Lebanese showed us the reconstruction of their country. All of us who have been watching the events of the past few days will be deeply saddened at the damage that has been inflicted on that country and its people.

The IPU deals with questions of international interest and concern, and expresses its views on such issues to bring about action by Parliaments and parliamentarians. In the past year, the IPU has considered such issues as violence against women, abandoning the practice of female genital mutilation, the role of national Parliaments, various forms of financing for development, HIV/AIDS, and women in politics. The IPU also contributes to the defence and promotion of human rights—an essential component of parliamentary democracy and development—and I shall talk in more detail about the work of the committee on the human rights of parliamentarians. The IPU also organises seminars for parliamentary human rights bodies, and we shall be holding one in October on the administration of justice.

The IPU currently has six main areas of activity: human rights, representative democracy, international peace and security, sustainable development, women in politics, and education, science and culture. More than 140 national Parliaments are members of the IPU and seven regional parliamentary assemblies are associate members. Most members are affiliated to one of the six geopolitical groups that are active in the IPU. Of course, the IPU is financed by its members mainly from public funds. Today I shall concentrate to some extent on the IPU’s activities in promoting and defending international human rights, because one of its main objectives is to contribute to the defence and promotion of human rights, in the knowledge that respect for human rights underpins parliamentary democracy.

The work of the committee on the human rights of parliamentarians, which was set up in 1976 and is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, serves as a concrete way for the IPU to protect the human rights of parliamentarians and their wider communities. Parliamentarians are given a mandate to represent the people in their countries, and to do their work effectively they must be able to carry out their mandates free from persecution, threats of violence and imprisonment and other human rights abuses. It is essential that we, as Members of Parliament, support our colleagues all over the world who are being harassed, abused, tortured, detained or even killed just for doing their work.

Often, however, the abuse of parliamentarians is simply the tip of the iceberg. If those who are well known and to a large extent protected are abused, others are often being ill treated as well, so by raising the awareness of the position of the MPs, the committee also raises awareness of the wider situation in the country in question. In addition, by actively and publicly defending parliamentarian colleagues, the committee helps to foster in many of the relevant countries an arena for public and peaceful debate and dialogue. Once the parliamentary arena is secured, that public forum can often be widened and greater protection can be extended to all the country’s citizens. By working on the cases of parliamentarians who have not been able to carry out their mandates that are brought to the attention of the committee, we help to foster good governance and a climate of respect for human rights.

I have had the honour of chairing the committee internationally for the past three years, and have been a member for five years. Its working methods are not widely understood and I should like to explain them. The committee has five members, representing different geopolitical areas in the world. It meets four times a year, in private, to consider the cases of MPs who are thought to be under threat. We receive the initial complaint about the situation of a member of Parliament from a variety of sources, and the source can remain confidential if that is requested. The committee must first decide that a case is within its remit. The allegations in question are then transmitted to the authorities of the countries concerned, so that they can make their observations. We act as a channel of communication between the parties.

The committee can do much more. It can ask for information, send trial observers and organise on-site missions. I was a member of an on-site mission to Syria, where there was agreement to receive members of the committee to the country, but, after three days of argument, we were refused a visit to the parliamentarians in question, who were in prison. To my knowledge and that of the IPU, Syria is the only country to have done that. That deeply regrettable incident was made public at the time. I am pleased to say that the two MPs have been released in the past six months, but we have failed to get further information about their conditions and state of health.

If the authorities involved are not dealing with a case satisfactorily, as in Syria, and when the alleged abuses are of a serious nature, the committee can turn up the pressure and go public. That is when others get involved and raise awareness of MPs’ cases. When I gave my report to the delegations in Nairobi earlier this year, only two countries got up to protest: Turkey and Zimbabwe. It is interesting that the person who came to protest on behalf of Zimbabwe was Mr. Mugabe’s nephew.

Committee members sometimes want to comment immediately on cases that involve serious violations of MPs’ rights, but we have to exercise restraint. Last week, at a meeting in Geneva, we discussed changing the rules of the committee, because it is extremely frustrating for members of the committee to give a press conference, as we did in Nairobi, and not be able to comment on various cases because they are still private. However, irritating though it is to have to sit there and keep quiet, especially to a former journalist such as myself, that method works quite constructively in that when we make representations to the relevant countries on behalf of the MPs who are in trouble, those countries are more likely to come to an agreement privately than if we had gone public and made a big song and dance about it. Many of the committee’s success stories were dealt with under the confidential procedure. I cannot talk about them, but I assure hon. Members that many cases were solved with pressure from the committee.

The cases in which the committee’s work—often alongside that of other parliamentarians—has been an important factor in securing the rights of MPs include those of Mr. Yorongar, the former presidential candidate from Chad; Alpha Conde, the former presidential candidate from Guinea; and Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia. I shall quote their words to give hon. Members a flavour of how people feel when they know that somebody else is speaking on their behalf. Mr. Jorongar said:

“I was heartened when the IPU took up my case and its mission to Ndjamena played a decisive role in my release. I strongly encourage them to continue their efforts on behalf of political prisoners throughout the world who are rotting in dictators’ jails.”

Mr. Conde said:

“I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to the IPU and salute the struggle for freedom it waged alongside us during all those years of suffering.”

Mr. Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, said:

“I was held in solitary confinement in Malaysian prisons for six years and at the worst moment when my situation seemed desperate I received a note from the IPU. It revived my hopes to know that someone in a far corner of the world who cared about democracy and human rights had taken up my case.”

As politicians, we are all focused on getting results. Against that yardstick, the committee is one of the IPU’s most effective mechanisms. Some of the cases that it is reviewing now have been made public. In our May session in Nairobi, the committee considered 64 cases in 35 countries, many of which involved more than one parliamentarian, and held face-to-face meetings with 12 delegations. We considered seven cases for the first time. Taking into account both public and confidential cases, there are now, unfortunately, a record number of human rights cases before the committee.

Recent positive developments reviewed by the committee in Nairobi include the release from prison of opposition MP Cham Chainey in Cambodia and the ability of the Cambodian opposition to work more effectively in Parliament. Also, the committee is working with the Parliament of Burundi to ensure that the deaths of former MPs are properly examined, in the context of work that is being done to bring about peace and reconciliation there. The committee is also being helped by the Rwandan Parliament in connection with the disappearance of MP Mr. Leonard Hitimana, who disappeared in April 2003 and still has not been found. The National Assembly has submitted his case to its national human rights commission, which is now also investigating.

I wish to remind UK parliamentarians, the UK Government and the wider world about the plight of parliamentarians in certain countries. In Burma, the situation is particularly tragic. No real progress has been made, despite all our efforts to allow elected MPs to take up their mandates. If anything, the situation is worsening. Recently, a parliamentarian-elect was sentenced to a 90-year prison term, and the imprisonment of two others was extended under draconian laws. There is continuing pressure on parliamentarians elect to resign their mandates and membership of the National League for Democracy, and the authorities have totally ignored the NLD’s proposal to convene the Parliament that was elected in 1990. The committee has constantly condemned that state of affairs, and has appealed to everyone to do what they can to help to bring democracy to Myanmar—Burma—and its people.

I endorse wholeheartedly what the right hon. Lady says about the appalling plight of long-suffering political prisoners in Burma. Does she agree that it might be beneficial if the IPU committee were, at some stage, either publicly or privately, to press for a second discussion of the behaviour of the Government of Burma in the United Nations Security Council, with a view to achieving the successful passage of a binding resolution instructing the regime to cease abusing the human rights of its citizens and start respecting them?

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. In fact, various people have made similar suggestions. One positive development is the setting up of the Association of South East Asian Nations inter-parliamentary Myanmar caucus, with MPs from Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand. The caucus has been putting pressure on the Burmese authorities and will continue to do so. I agree that all forums should be used to try to exert pressure in what is obviously a totally unacceptable situation. We know that members of Parliament who were elected in 1990 are dying off in prison, detention or exile. A lot of pressure has been put on the authorities in Burma to release the leader of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi, from her continued house arrest, but we are particularly concerned about the elected politicians. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to exert that pressure.

In Bangladesh, there are two serious cases which the committee is considering. The first is that of Mr. Sha A. M. S. Kibria, who was killed by a grenade explosion on leaving a meeting in his constituency in January 2005. Although several suspects were arrested, the investigation has failed to address essential questions, and there are allegations of testimonies being obtained under torture. The investigation was closed, and the Supreme Court in Bangladesh is now considering whether it should be reopened. The committee is keen to follow the proceedings closely, and has recommended sending an observer. Grenades were also used in the second case, but Sheikh Hasina, the Opposition leader, was more fortunate. She survived the attack, which took place on 21 August 2004, during a meeting of her party; however, 25 people were killed and more than 100 maimed. An investigation has been ongoing, but sources and the authorities have different views about its results so far. A judicial inquiry commission has been set up, but its report is confidential, and not even the aggrieved parties know what is in it. In both cases, it has reportedly been impossible to raise the attacks in the Parliament of Bangladesh. Nevertheless, our committee has concluded that that Parliament has a responsibility to ensure that both crimes are properly investigated, and we have called on it to follow the investigation more closely.

The committee continues to press for a full royal pardon for Mr. Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia. It has once more called on the Prime Minister of Malaysia to provide the King with the necessary advice so that he can consider the pardon petition that a large group of Malaysian citizens have submitted. When Anwar Ibrahim was released from jail, he came to Geneva to thank the committee for the efforts that we had made on his behalf, and the same is true of many of the people who are released as a result of IPU pressure. Other examples include MPs from Zimbabwe and the former President of Indonesia, Mrs. Megawati, who was in trouble before she became President of Indonesia, but who was able to carry on her activities because of the IPU.

Unfortunately, the committee has been unable to report any positive developments in either of the cases in Pakistan that it has been examining. Mr. Asif Ali Zardari was released on bail in November 2004. His name was struck off the exit control list and he was issued with a passport. However, he has been declared an absconder, despite the fact that the authorities know that he is receiving medical treatment abroad and he is regularly represented in court in Pakistan by his counsel. More important, the authorities have done nothing to identify and bring to justice those who tortured him in May 1999 during his interrogation.

The other case in Pakistan is that of Mr. Hashmi, who is serving a seven-year prison term, which was handed down in April 2004. The committee is concerned not only about the conduct of the trial proceedings, but about how long it is taking the courts to hear Mr. Hashmi’s application for suspension of the sentence and his appeal. The committee is also worried because the information that the authorities and sources have provided about his conditions of detention is quite different, and it considers that an on-site mission would help it to gain a better understanding of the case. I found it particularly disappointing that senior legal representatives from Pakistan who come before our committee constantly tell us different stories. It is appalling that such senior officials, including attorneys-general, can come before our committee and give quite misleading statements, to put it mildly.

In Sri Lanka, the committee has been examining the case of Mr. Dissanayake, who was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for contempt of court. In early February, the President of Sri Lanka remitted the remainder of the sentence, with the result that Mr. Dissanayake was released on 17 February, several weeks before he would normally have been entitled to release on the grounds of good conduct. The committee obviously hopes that he will be fully pardoned, because, like Anwar Ibrahim, he will not be able to resume his political role unless he receives a pardon. It is therefore important that pardons are tagged on to the release in countries that have such a system.

Another case from Sri Lanka involves the murder of Joseph Pararajasingham, who was a well-known human rights advocate. He was shot dead in his local cathedral during the Christmas eve mass last year. The fact that the cathedral is located in a high-security area and additional security forces were on duty that night suggests that the murderers enjoyed the complicity of the security forces. However, the investigation has not made much progress so far. Again, the committee has stressed that the authorities have a duty to conduct a prompt, thorough and independent investigation. It also expresses concern at the potential effect of that murder on the willingness of parliamentarians in Sri Lanka to speak out on human rights issues and minority rights.

In praising the IPU’s work on these matters, will the right hon. Lady also recognise the bravery of politicians in some countries, who know the hostility and danger that they will face if they speak out on human rights issues, but who are still prepared to do so, even if they face death? I feel nothing but pride and admiration towards such politicians for speaking out in the manner that they do.

Yes—that is a good point. That is what comes over from the testimony of some politicians when they come to us in private, as happened recently in Geneva. I happened to be sitting in a room, when a member of Parliament from another country—I will not say which country—came in with a letter for me. He said, “I’m just leaving this letter. If they knew I’d come here to see you and what was in the letter, I wouldn’t be safe going back to my own country.” However, he wanted us to know what had happened, because when we raised his case during an interview with representatives from his country earlier in the day, they denied everything that we thought had happened. However, his letter confirmed that it had happened. There are people, even in the delegations that come to Geneva or to the IPU’s annual conferences, who risk their lives just by approaching us at those conferences. The man whom I met had been tortured in custody, but the authorities denied everything that he said had happened.

On Lebanon, there is a lot more that I should like to say, but that is not my role today. However, the committee is considering the case of Mr. Gibran Tueni, who was murdered on 12 December 2005. His assassination took place the day after his return from Paris, where he had been staying because of death threats. An investigating judge has finally been appointed by the competent authorities, and the National Assembly has initiated a civil court action.

Again, there is much that I should like to say in relation to Palestine, but I shall confine myself to saying that the Committee continues to monitor developments in the cases of two Palestinian Members of Parliament who are in Israeli jails. One is Marwan Barghouti, who was re-elected as a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council in the January 2006 elections and who continues to serve his prison sentence. The committee has great concerns about the fairness of the judicial proceedings to which Mr. Barghouti was subject. We have reiterated our desire for a committee member to pay Mr. Barghouti a private visit. In the case of Mr. Hussam Khader, a former member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the committee observed his trial in Israel and has considerable concerns about the fairness of the proceedings. Again, the committee has stated its wish to pay Mr. Khader a private visit in prison.

In Turkey there is long-standing case, which has been made public, involving 15 former members of the Turkish Parliament who, back in 1994, were charged with separatism. The case of four of them, including Leyla Zana, is well known and has had plenty of media coverage, especially when they were released from prison in July 2004. The European Court of Human Rights has concluded that their trial failed to uphold fair trial guarantees. As a result, a review of the trial was ordered and is under way. Six of the former MPs went into exile; should they return to Turkey, they will be arrested on charges of separatism. The committee is trying to find out what grounds and facts support the separatism charge still pending against those former MPs. One former parliamentarian, Mr. Sincar, was murdered. Some time ago, the Turkish IPU group informed the committee that several persons have been brought to justice for his murder, but we failed to receive further details.

Eritrea is a country where there is great cause for concern, particularly in relation to Eritrean MPs. Since September 2001, 11 MPs have been languishing in jail and their fate has largely been forgotten. No one knows where they are held or even whether they are still alive and they have never been brought before a judge. They were arrested after the publication of an open letter in which they called for democratic reforms. The Government state that they committed crimes against the sovereignty, security and peace of Eritrea during its war with Ethiopia and that they can therefore be tried only once the peace process has been completed.

The right hon. Lady is giving moving accounts of individual cases. For some countries, there comes a time when they want something. Turkey wants to become a member of the EU, and human rights are critical to that membership. How does the IPU interact with individual Governments and with the EU in particular to try to secure the release of people in prison, these separatists who are not allowed to return to Turkey, and others who are still in jail?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the human rights requirement is one of the conditions of EU membership. The situation is much improved in Turkey. I hope that Turkey will join the EU—indeed, it is imperative that it does. I have many friends in Turkey. I visited Leyla Zana, for example, when she was in prison. I was given special dispensation as an individual to go and visit her and I spent one and a half hours with her discussing her circumstances. Turkey is very sensitive to international criticism. Certainly, when I talked in Nairobi about the situation of those parliamentarians the Turkish representative could not wait to get to the platform. The Turkish delegations and I have had that conversation several times over the past few years.

I know Turkey well and I know when it is making progress. It has made progress since I was a Member of the European Parliament, as was the Minister, and my right hon. Friend knows, too, that the topic of Turkey was often raised. It is incumbent on us all to take every opportunity both to congratulate the Turks on the progress that they have made and to encourage them to make further progress. They must make further progress. The situation in south-east Turkey is still precarious. There are younger political activists now among the Kurds in south-east Turkey who will not put up with the situation. Although progress has been made on language rights, for example, the Kurds are nevertheless a minority in Turkey and deserve much improved treatment from the Turkish Government.

In the case of Eritrea, the committee has gone back to the Eritrean delegation and reaffirmed that, in our view, the human rights of the MPs in jail are being grossly violated and that nothing can justify such a violation. That is also the view of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which concluded in November 2003 that the state of Eritrea had violated those MPs’ right to liberty and security, their right to fair trial and their freedom of expression. It urged the state of Eritrea to order their immediate release and recommended that they should be compensated. The committee has put out an urgent appeal, particularly to our African colleagues, to make every effort to ensure that the recommendations of the African commission are applied and the former parliamentarians released.

We are all aware, unfortunately, of the situation in Zimbabwe. I want to highlight the cases of two members of Parliament: Mr. Job Sikhala and Mr. Abdenico Bhebe. Mr. Sikhala was tortured in January 2003 and gave a detailed statement about it to the court, which had widespread media coverage in Zimbabwe. In his official complaint, he provided names and medical certificates. Although the Zimbabwe police initially spoke of progress being made, more recently they said that there had been no progress owing to Mr. Sikhala’s lack of co-operation. The committee found that hard to understand and has emphasised the duty of the state to investigate the crime with all due diligence and thoroughness. Mr. Bhebe was almost beaten to death in May 2001. He reported that to the police and provided them with the names of those responsible. When the case was to be heard in January 2005, it turned out that the case file had been lost. The committee trusts that the case file will reappear so that justice can take its course.

Six cases relating to Colombia have been made public. They raise a wide range of human rights issues. The first involves parliamentarians who were assassinated and justice, again, has not been done. The second involves a former parliamentarian who was forced into exile because of death threats. In both cases, the parliamentarians were members of the Patriotic Union party, whose members were and still are the target of what has been termed political genocide. The third case, that of Piedad Cordoba, also raises the question of impunity.

The fourth case is quite different, because it concerns parliamentarians who were kidnapped by FARC, the main guerrilla group in Colombia, and who have been in the hands of the FARC for several years. The likelihood of a humanitarian agreement has recently receded but will, I hope, be a priority of the next Colombian President. The committee has always believed that negotiation is the only way forward and that the Colombian Parliament has an essential role to play in arriving at a national consensus.

The case of Mr. Lozano, a member of Parliament and the victim of fundamentally flawed judicial proceedings, raises questions on fair trial guarantees, and the committee is in contact with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to help address those matters. Lastly, the case of Mr. Petro, who is also an MP, involves a number of death threats made against him by paramilitary groups, and the authorities not taking appropriate action to protect him. As do the other cases, the case demonstrates that impunity can only encourage the continual repetition of such crimes.

The cases that I have mentioned represent only a small selection of those that the committee is considering. I have thoroughly enjoyed my five years on the committee. I believe that it is worth while because one day—although I hope not—we could all be in a similar situation to our colleagues all over the world. We are lucky; we have freedom of speech and we can speak out. It is incumbent on us to do so, and I encourage all my colleagues to do so on every occasion. We can use the Floor of the House of Commons and Question Time, and we can make points of order. When we are members of delegations, it is sometimes a bit embarrassing to have to raise issues with our counterparts, particularly if we are meeting one of the countries that are responsible for violations, but it is necessary that we do so on every occasion that presents itself.

I shall give way to the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and then to the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow).

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Lady. On speaking out on human rights, when it was first mooted that we ought to send a delegation to Iran I was nervous, because I did not want to see any delegation from the UK giving succour to the wretched regime that operates in Iran. Does she believe that talking to parliamentarians there and raising the issues of human rights at every opportunity did some good? It appears to me that the Iranian Government got no succour from it but we have established some relationship with parliamentarians in that country.

I heard the report from the members of the delegation when they returned from Iran, and it was fascinating to listen to because they obviously had worthwhile discussions with the Iranians. I know that the Secretary-General and others had meetings with the Iranians in Geneva the previous year to try to set up such a visit, and we found that exchange to be useful. It is worth going to listen to some of the reports that people make about their important visits. I again encourage my colleagues to listen to those when they get the opportunity. I thank the hon. Gentleman for agreeing to be a member of that delegation—

Sorry, the hon. Gentleman was not on that delegation. It was very good. Particularly at these more difficult times, that kind of exchange of views with countries that we may feel very annoyed with at various times is worth while and must deflect the aggro which undoubtedly exists. Again, that is an important part of the IPU’s work, and I hope that there will many similar delegations.

I am glad the right hon. Lady has enjoyed her five years’ service on the committee. It would be safe to say that the IPU, which is an admirable organisation, her fellow parliamentarians and, above all, the victims of human rights abuses are very appreciative of the service she has given. There has been no more consistent or passionate champion of human rights over a very long period than she.

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much. It has sometimes got me into trouble, but we must use the opportunities that we have, even if that sometimes means getting into trouble. It is important that we do so because we have a voice and platform, and we should use them. I never understand the view of people who feel negative towards this place; I consider it a great privilege to be here, and if Members do not use the opportunities it gives, they are missing a lot. I encourage my fellow MPs to stand up for the rights of their colleagues. They should do so in our Parliament, in the media and through the IPU. The information contained in the cases that the committee makes public can be used in all kinds of forums, as I said.

The Government, too, should raise the cases when meeting their counterparts abroad. Such lobbying would feed into their work on good governance. I know that we all ask questions of Governments such as, “When you met so and so, did you raise this?”. The answer is usually yes, but all too often I am afraid that such issues are nowhere near the top of the list of subjects that are under discussion.

I wholly endorse the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) about the right hon. Lady; a great tribute should be paid to her. She has been talking about her interaction with the Government. How often does she meet Ministers to discuss these cases? What interaction does she have with other multilateral and supranational agencies, for example the EU? The IPU does a lot of work with the UN, does she meet its senior officials regularly to discuss these cases?

I shall start with the last question. The IPU has a presence in New York and would like more interaction with the UN than it currently has—that is one of the aims of its reform programme. Obviously, I talk to my Government colleagues on a range of these issues, sometimes with more satisfactory results than on other occasions. Nevertheless, it is important to continue to push certain issues. As my colleagues know, Iraq has preoccupied me quite a bit during the past few years, and I suspect that it will continue to do so. However, it is not for me alone to do that work; it is for everybody in this place. All of us, in our various ways, can make those contributions. We can call Government to account, and, particularly when they are having bilateral meetings with colleagues from other countries, try to push human rights up the agenda.

It is a great pity that the only group on human rights in this House—the all-party group on human rights—is completely reliant on outside help. We would not have our very good parliamentary researcher were it not for the Barrow Cadbury Trust supporting us. When I consider the other all-party groups in this place and the huge sums that are available for the activities of some of them, which I shall not list because we all know them, I think that it is a disgrace that an important issue such as international human rights is not given more financial support. I shall end with that plea, and I hope that my colleagues will join in the discussion.

I intend to speak only very briefly, because I know that not much time is left in the debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on raising the issue of the IPU and all the good work that it does. She mentioned the fact that there are a number of inward and outward delegations from the United Kingdom. The dialogue that is established between members of Parliaments is very important. It is not just about us talking to the rest of the world; we listen to what they have to say as well, because we do not have the answers to all the problems in other countries. We can learn by some of the practices operated in those countries.

I recently chaired a luncheon with the Chinese delegation that we had here. We all recognise the importance of China throughout the world now. In 50 years or less, one can only imagine what sort of status it will have in the world. Very different cultures are involved, and there are human rights issues in China as well. The death penalty in China is one such issue; I believe that its use of the death penalty is one of the highest in the world. I have issues with the way that the penalty operates in China, but it would be completely irresponsible for me then to walk away from China and say, “Well, that’s it. We will not have anything more to do with you.” The fact is that we must recognise the influence that China now has throughout the rest of the world and, thanks to some of the IPU visits that I have made, I have seen that influence.

I hope that the Minister will say something about those parts of the world where we have little or no representation. For example, an IPU delegation, of which I was privileged to be a member, recently visited Gabon and we co-chaired that visit from Yaoundé in Cameroon. That it is not the best way to have British representation in that part of the world, but China is there big time. There are huge issues in Gabon concerning the environment, as well as democracy, that we need to address—for example, illegal logging and China’s influence. On our visit, we learned that the Chinese are responsible for building not just one but two parliamentary buildings in Gabon. We must question why we have little or no presence when other countries, such as China, are doing well there.

I was at an international conference in Tonga in the summer. We have pulled our flag down there, yet the Chinese are increasing their representation. I hope that the Minister will say something about the representation that we have throughout the world and whether pulling the flag down in a number of countries, as we have done, and lessening our representation in other countries, including Germany and the United States of America, is the best use of money.

In some ways and in some countries, it might be better if we reduced our representation rather than cutting it. I hope that the Foreign Office is looking carefully at something like a Tesco Metro appearance in some of those countries rather than no appearance whatever. With a limited and fixed budget, we shall have at least some influence in those countries, particularly with those with which we have had long relationships over centuries. To walk away after putting in huge investment over a long period is a grave mistake.

I praise Ken Courtenay and his staff in the IPU who give great support to all delegations, both inward and outward. They do a fantastic job, sometimes at incredibly unsocial hours, and must deal with all sorts of problems that arise with inward and outward delegations when huge pressure is put on them by parliamentarians of all countries. I praise their work.

The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley mentioned Colombia, which we visited under the leadership of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) who did a tremendous job. The one thing we learned there was the importance of the Chevening scholarships and the fantastic work of the British Council throughout the world. Being able to visit some of those countries means that we see at first hand what it is doing on the ground. President Uribe was a Chevening scholar and when we visit such countries, we can get privileged access because of the earlier investment.

The point about the Chevening scholarships is that we tried to recognise people who would have influence at a later stage and bring them to the United Kingdom so that there would be a dialogue because they would already know what the United Kingdom was all about. My goodness, that paid dividends when we visited Colombia and met the President for an hour and a half in private audience. That was tremendous and it was superb to talk to him. He has a great fondness for this country. Again, I hope that the Minister will say something about the Chevening scholarships. I know that they have been overhauled, but I hope that they will not lose the essence of what they were all about. We look at certain countries to work out which people will have influence at a later stage and we bring them to this country so that there will always be dialogue.

Tremendous joint work was done recently at the Africa conference between the IPU and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. A number of parliamentarians came here from Africa. We went to the British Library over a three-day period and there was superb dialogue between members of Parliament from Africa and the United Kingdom. Going back to what the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley said, there is a huge advantage in having a private dialogue with them when they are outside their own countries because they feel more comfortable talking to us privately about some of the issues in their own countries. We can talk about those issues in relation to the United Kingdom and the democratic processes in this country, which they can see first hand. They take that back with them to their countries. I cannot overestimate the importance of our recent conference, which was a tremendous success.

Almost finally, I want to talk about the Iran trip. I am a member of the Council of Europe and when I spoke to representatives of the opposition to the Iranian regime, they told me about the public executions that take place. Two young lads were recently executed because they were accused of being gay. The photographs that appeared in our newspapers shocked every decent, thinking person. Women are publicly stoned for adultery. It is incredible that that goes on in the 21st century. When I heard that a delegation was going to Iran, I thought that it was the right thing to do. I was delighted to speak to one of the members of that delegation who said that it spoke privately to members of Parliament from the Majlis and was able to get across human rights issues so that they could better understand where we are coming from. It is not a case of just wagging the finger. The delegation spoke not to the Government but to the members of Parliament, who clearly must operate within the current regime. I take my hat off to those who are opposed to the regime but work within it to try to alter it for the better.

The visits and conferences that I have described all cost money and I understand that the IPU’s budget is under pressure this year and next year. If the budget remains frozen in real terms, there will either be a cut in the number of inward delegations and what we can do when they come here or in the number of outward delegations. That will hit at the group’s work. I hope that the Minister, as well as parliamentarians generally in this country, recognises the hard work that is being done. We have heard what is done in the committee work behind closed doors. Many people do not even know that that goes on. There is work in dialogue and constructive help for parliamentarians throughout the world daily. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that the budget for forthcoming years will be maintained to recognise the IPU’s work.

I shall also try to be brief. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on securing this debate and on her consistent work over many years. She has championed human rights even when it has not been popular to do so and when it has been at great cost to herself.

I want to refer briefly to a visit that I made to central America under the auspices of the Inter-Parliamentary Union when I led a delegation. It was a good example of the effective work that the IPU can do on the ground to serve human rights. That visit occurred in the early part of June to two countries in central America: Guatemala and El Salvador. Visiting two countries was a useful experience in itself because we could develop a regional perspective and we saw the contrast between two neighbouring countries in central America.

In El Salvador, we found a relatively stable, democratic process. The two parties, the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional and the ARENA party, which had been at war during the 1970s, 1980s and early part of the 1990s, were pursuing a peaceful democratic process and had laid down their arms. The ARENA party was in government and the FMLN was in opposition, and we thought that there was genuine determination across the political spectrum to make the peace accords of the 1990s work effectively. Of course, we saw great problems in the country—land issues, high criminality and widespread poverty—but there was great optimism and that came across clearly from everyone we met.

To be blunt, the situation in Guatemala was quite different. The country was less prosperous with less business confidence, widespread corruption and high criminality, particularly from the “maras” gangs. It was pointed out that more people in Guatemala lose their lives through crime than died during the civil war of the 1980s and 1990s. Before we went to Guatemala, the delegation had graphic briefings from Amnesty International. Its two basic concerns were the ongoing land disputes and the high level of evictions. It was concerned about the human rights abuses and the way in which peasants and rural workers in particular were being treated.

Secondly, Amnesty International was concerned about the violence against women. I would like to read an excerpt from one of its reports that graphically shows the appalling situation in Guatemala. A mother, referring to her daughter, said:

“My 15-year-old daughter Maria Isabel was a student and worked in a shop in the holidays. On the night of 15 December 2001, she was kidnapped in the capital. Her body was found shortly before Christmas. She had been raped, her hands and feet had been tied with barbed wire, she had been stabbed and strangled and put in a bag. Her face was disfigured from being punched, her body was punctured with small holes, there was a rope around her neck and her nails were bent back. When her body was handed over to me, I threw myself to the ground shouting and crying but they kept on telling me not to get so worked up.”

We had the opportunity to raise such issues when we were in Guatemala during a long discussion with President Oscar Berger. Naturally, his responses were unsatisfactory from our perspective. What came across clearly to us in Guatemala was that although the political will might have existed among decent people to get to grips with such problems, the political or civil infrastructure was not in place to do so. The police in Guatemala suffer from widespread corruption and the judiciary is both corrupt and inept. Many of the large property owners do not feel that they have a stake in the country; in fact, many live in Miami and visit the country only occasionally.

Above all else, we did not find the same commitment to democratic politics in Guatemala as we found in El Salvador. That is largely for historic reasons. During the civil war in El Salvador, it was recognised that neither side could win—neither the left nor the right, neither the FMLN nor the ARENA party. A historic compromise was therefore reached, with both sides laying down their arms and making a genuine commitment to the peace accords and the democratic process. That did not happen in Guatemala. There the army won, and democratic politics suffered as a consequence. What political parties exist in Guatemala have shallow roots. To build up respect for human rights and to crack down effectively on criminality, there is a need to enforce democracy and the political process. That is one of the lessons that we learned, and one aspect of our international work that we must continue to pursue.

In conclusion, the example of our visit to central America shows clearly the worth of the IPU. Parliamentary democracy has a central role to play in promoting human rights. The IPU, as the international manifestation of parliamentary democracy, therefore has a crucial role to play. One the of the most telling moments that I experienced in El Salvador was when one of the members of the assembly who belonged to the left-wing FMLN said to me, “Mr. David, at one time my colleague”—he pointed to a friend of his from the ARENA party—“and I were literally trying to kill each other in the civil war. Today, although we have political differences, we are nevertheless friends in the legislative assembly.” That better than anything else illustrates the importance of parliamentary democracy and the work of the IPU.

I shall speak briefly because this debate is drawing to its conclusion. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on her introductory speech and the work that she undertakes through the course of the year on behalf of the IPU. I am a member of Amnesty International and I thought that there was a lot of overlap between what she said about work at the parliamentary level and what I am sure all hon. Members wish to promote more generally—respect for human rights and the right of every individual to live free from an oppressive state.

Certain benefits continue to make the IPU relevant, even though it was founded more than a century ago. First, it is important that Parliaments throughout the world assert themselves. People often ask me why I became a politician—they wonder what the benefits of parliamentary life are and what the role of Parliament is. They ask, “What about big business? What about the internet and the media?” However, Parliaments are still the way by which people can decide their priorities and administer their affairs in a logical, coherent and accountable manner. It is in our interests to promote parliamentary democracy throughout the world, particularly in the face of some of the alternative sources of power, which have become more prevalent in recent decades and which perhaps make the IPU even more relevant.

When I talk to constituents and others, I am struck by the increasingly international dimension to politics. The big issues that concern people who organise high street petitions in my constituency and elsewhere are the effects of globalisation— whether they regard them as adverse or positive—the global environment, particularly the warming of the planet, and the effects of global policy, such as population increase, immigration, work permit arrangements and so forth. More and more, we live in an interdependent world, so we need to relate to other countries—not just those that we find it the most amenable to have relations with, but those that are perhaps more challenging to deal with directly. The IPU plays a key role in that.

The final positive aspect, of many, is that the IPU is a means by which we can spread best practice. We can advise parliamentarians in less mature democracies than ours about procedures and how scrutiny can be improved. As was mentioned by a previous speaker, however, it is only reasonable that we learn from others too. After all, one of the two Houses of our Parliament is non-elected and the other one has a majority Government with the support of 35 per cent. of the electorate. Occasionally it does us no harm to stand back and reflect on how others might see us and on whether we can learn any lessons from parliamentarians elsewhere in the world.

When I and a number of others were recently in Saudi Arabia, extolling the virtues of democratic elections, those we spoke to pointed out that their Majlis, which is entirely appointed, has many similarities with the House of Lords. We agreed that the abolition of both of them was a good idea.

I do not want to stray too far from the brief, but I have a lot of sympathy for what the hon. Gentleman says. British parliamentary democracy has been established over many years and has a great deal to recommend it, but we should be cautious about assuming that our models are superior to others. He cites a particularly good and topical example.

I want to raise one or two more points that perhaps the Minister will touch upon if he has enough time. One is that the IPU faces challenges from a number of competitor organisations. I see, for example, that you are the chairman of the all-party British-Czech and Slovak group, Mr. Cummings, and there are many other groups that conduct bilateral relationships between our Parliament and other Parliaments, as well as Commonwealth, NATO and other groups. The IPU needs to ensure that it continues to be relevant and punch its weight. It is a source of great concern to me, and I hope to others, that the United States, which is the most powerful country in the world and has an impressive democratic tradition, is not playing its part in the IPU. The organisation is clearly diminished by its absence.

As the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) mentioned, the IPU always faces the challenge of defining precisely what its role is. It is clearly beneficial for us to continue to have discourse with countries around the world, but in Iran, for example, to which there was a trip earlier this year, not everybody is free to stand for Parliament in the first place. Iran’s parliamentarians are a group of people who have been elected only after satisfying the people in positions of authority that their views are broadly aligned with those of the regime.

The IPU is engaged in a difficult balancing act. I congratulate everybody on the IPU executive in Britain for trying to strike that balance and on their vigilance and their determination to represent the cause of parliamentary harmony and discourse around the world. I hope that, in another 117 years, it will be functioning as successfully as it does today.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), not only securing the third of what I gather have become annual debates—I hope that we will continue to hold them annually—but on her long-standing work on human rights in various guises. She is the Prime Minister’s special envoy to Iraq, but she did not even touch on Iraq in her speech. However, she gave numerous examples of human rights abuses by some pretty nasty regimes, and she is to be congratulated in the highest terms for her work. We have also heard excellent speeches by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David).

I shall touch on only one or two points, because time is pretty limited. One of the main functions of the Inter-Parliamentary Union is the strengthening of democracy and good governance around the world. The dreadful news that we see on our television screens and read in the newspapers each day tends to cloud our thinking and make us think that democracy is perhaps on the wane and that human rights abuses are getting worse. I am not sure that that is the case. If we consider the historical context, we see that some of the worst abuses in human history occurred in the last century—the second world war, Pol Pot’s killing fields and Stalin’s gulags, to give a few examples. The IPU’s work has huge influence around the world, and it is vital that it is continued and strengthened. Those involved are doing a great job of work.

As I said, the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley is the Prime Minister’s special envoy to Iraq, where in December last year 75 per cent. of those eligible to vote turned out and voted in the National Assembly elections, despite huge intimidation. In Afghanistan, despite enormous threats from the Taliban, supporters turned out en masse and elected a president in 2004. Ukraine saw the orange revolution in 2004, and Georgia the rose revolution in 2003. The bulldozer revolution in Serbia brought Milosevic down in 2000. There are great examples of democracy being spread throughout the world. The IPU’s contacts with parliamentarians in those democracies do a great deal to strengthen them and bring about better human rights and well-being for the peoples of those countries.

As I said in my intervention on the right hon. Lady, the IPU could build better relationships with multilateral and supranational bodies such as the EU and, in particular, the UN. The latter does a great job of work, but with the resources that it is given, it could do an even greater job. Last year, it had an historic summit, but the process of reform seems to have stalled. It is the job of parliamentarians—the IPU is well placed—to have high-level contacts within the UN, to ensure that that process continues.

One of the main successes of that reform, as the right hon. Lady will know well, was the creation of the Human Rights Council, which had its first meeting in Geneva recently. We will all look to see how effective that organisation is, and how it deals with those of its members who have bad human rights records. Relationship building, not only with individual countries and members of Parliament, but with organisations of that sort, could go a long way to helping to improve democracy and human rights. Relationship building and education are critical parts of the IPU’s work. The hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) referred to the visit to Saudi Arabia, a country that has a faltering human rights record, but which is an important ally of the United Kingdom and a very influential country in the current middle east conflict. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) spoke warmly about the success of that visit to Saudi Arabia and the two nations’ conference. Through such contacts and networking, the IPU can do a great deal of good.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley referred to engaging with young people, which is another critical part of the IPU’s work. If one can engage with young people at the start of their parliamentary careers, they rise up through the system and can eventually become influential people in their own country. My hon. Friend also referred to the work of the British Council and to the Chevening scholarships given by the Foreign Office. Those are excellent things, but it is a pity that the remit of the Chevening scholarships has been narrowed recently. I ask the Minister to look into that carefully.

As my party’s spokesman on trade, I was particularly interested to read in the 2005 annual report about the work of the IPU in a symposium and steering committee chaired by Lord Paul in Geneva on 21 to 23 April on the subject of the Doha trade round. It demonstrated that really successful initiatives, such as that symposium, should be followed up when the right things do not happen. This is a critical time for World Trade Organisation talks, and I wonder what sort of emergency procedures the IPU has to enable it suddenly to summon a new symposium to find out what further impetus the IPU could give stalled WTO talks. The WTO talks are one of the best ways of improving human rights and standards of living in the poorer countries of the world. If those talks stall, it would be a great setback.

We are all talking about the environment these days, but I did not hear the words “environment” and “sustainability” mentioned once, although sustainability, the environment and human rights are one and the same thing in terms of good governance. What work could the IPU do to encourage some of the less well functioning democracies of the world to improve their environment and sustainability?

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley mentioned embassy closures. The hon. Member for Caerphilly mentioned two visits to central American countries. We now have embassies in only three of the six central American countries. In addition, I note that we do not have an embassy in Madagascar, from which an inward visit is envisaged. The Foreign Office is closing embassies and removing British representation, all for the sake of a very small amount of money, compared to, say, the overspend of the Department for Work and Pensions. The Foreign Office closes embassies and saves perhaps £1 million, but the Department for Work and Pensions overspend far exceeds that.

Through those closures, we are cutting off our nose to spite our face. I hope that the Minister will reflect on the strong concerns expressed in this debate, and that he will think about whether we cannot have at least a very small delegation in such countries, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley suggests. This week, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) asked an interesting parliamentary question about how many embassies are manned by one person. The answer is that there are quite a lot around the world. However, that is a better model than closing an embassy, because that way there is at least some presence on the ground when something goes wrong, when some dreadful tragedy occurs, or when some human rights abuse takes place. There is at least someone to make representations to the relevant Government.

The work of the IPU is vital. I again pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley for her work, and to her staff in the IPU. I see that Mr. Kenneth Courtenay is listening to the debate: as has been said, he does a great deal of work and organisation, often at very antisocial hours. The work of the IPU is vital, as is the work of its sister organisation, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which has not been mentioned this morning. I hope that they continue. I hope also that the right hon. Lady continues to strengthen her work, particularly in dealing with some of the nastier regimes throughout the world, to help to alleviate the suffering of those parliamentarians who are caught up in such regimes, and that through her work, human rights will be improved and the well-being and good governance of those countries will continue to improve.

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on securing this debate. I pay tribute to the role that she plays in the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and its important work to foster good relations with parliamentarians throughout the world. It is encouraging to hear about the positive work that the IPU undertakes on a range of difficult and topical issues.

I have heard in the debate and from my officials about the active inward and outward visits programme, and the important role that it plays in encouraging good government through a strong parliamentary system. Engagement with Members of these Houses of Parliament can only help the sharing of good practice with other Parliaments throughout the world. Hosting the inward visits programme gives Members the opportunity to share the strengths of our system, and travelling overseas allows many of us to experience at first hand the problems and challenges facing our colleagues in other countries.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been delighted to be involved in the programme of visits during the past year with delegations from Africa, the middle east, Latin America and eastern Europe, and we were pleased to offer help before and during overseas visits to regions including Latin America, the middle east and Africa. The visits complement the FCO’s traditional diplomacy. A recent good example mentioned by Members is the IPU visit to Iran, which added a welcome parliamentary dimension at a sensitive time in our relationship with that country. We look forward to continuing to help IPU programmes.

My right hon. Friend raised the question of human rights generally and specifically. I have already told her that I shall deal in correspondence with individual cases and countries where appropriate and necessary. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Her Majesty’s Government are committed to protecting and promoting human rights, democracy and good governance throughout the world. Those fundamental values lie at the heart of our foreign policy. Democratic countries that respect the rights of their citizens are more likely to settle disputes peacefully and respect their international commitments and obligations. The promotion of democratic practices and values is essential if we are to help other countries achieve the high goals that are set for emerging democracies.

I was an IPU observer of the Palestinian elections at the beginning of this year. In addition to addressing the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) about the two Palestinian parliamentarians who have been in prison for some time, will my right hon. Friend the Minister say something about the 21 further Palestinian parliamentarians who were picked up in the past few weeks, and the four Palestinian parliamentarians who are having their east Jerusalem residency rights revoked by Israel, apparently on the ground that they refuse to give allegiance to the state of Israel, when the city in which they live is occupied territory? He knows that those provisions are illegal under The Hague convention.

I have referred to those cases, and I shall deal with them in correspondence with my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley.

We very much value the IPU’s work in working towards the goals of achieving democracy and respect for the rule of law. As chair of the IPU committee on the human rights of parliamentarians, my right hon. Friend has been active over the past few years. She recently presented her newest report, which details 118 cases in 21 countries where the rights of parliamentarians are curtailed or worse.

The ability of members of Parliaments to speak freely and question Governments properly is fundamental to a democracy. The curtailing of that right in some parts of the world is totally wrong. I am pleased that some cases have been brought to a satisfactory conclusion through IPU action. My right hon. Friend’s update is welcome, and it shows yet another aspect of the IPU’s positive work.

The British group continues to contribute positively to the work of the IPU through its active participation in the six-monthly assemblies. The Government strongly welcome the bilateral meetings that the IPU organises in the margins of the international conferences, and indeed, the feedback that we receive from them. Such meetings are vital if we as parliamentarians are to understand better what happens in other countries.

The work of the three standing committees is ably assisted by contributions from Members of this House, and that work in turn contributes to our efforts to alleviate the suffering of many people throughout the world. This year the committees have focused on combating violence against women, the control of small arms and the environment. They are all important ambitions, and it is right that the world’s parliamentarians should consider such matters of global importance.

I am pleased that the IPU continues to work closely with the United Nations. It is important that there is a dialogue between parliamentarians and the UN, and it is right that the IPU plays a leading role in that dialogue. As the UN continues to strengthen its links with civil society, the parliamentary dimension becomes even more important, and as the major global parliamentary group, the IPU has much to offer the UN’s work in support of democracy.

The Foreign Office takes part in regular discussions on the future programme of the British group of the IPU. Our geographical desks continue to offer briefings before visits overseas and our embassies contribute to the success of IPU visits, and that help will continue.

In response to the points raised by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), the Foreign Office deploys its resources to meet its strategic priorities. I was intrigued by his Tesco Metro approach, and I hope it means that he will give strong support to our efforts in several countries to co-locate our embassies and staff with those of other countries. I know what an enthusiast he is for the European Union, and I am delighted to hear him advocate the way in which we have sought to anticipate his suggestion.

There may be times when we do not have a resident ambassador and it is not possible for diplomats to visit a particular country at the same time as the British group of the IPU. Those occasions should be rare, and I am sure that hon. Members will understand that in those circumstances our help might be more limited than that which we would usually expect to offer. However, we look forward to another year of continued co-operation. The Foreign Office and our posts stand ready to give what support they properly can.

In closing, I repeat my congratulations to the British group of the IPU for its effort and successes of the past year. I wish it well for the coming year, and I know that the British group’s participation in a range of activities will contribute enormously to the spread of democracy and good governance throughout the world.

Will the Minister say something about the British Council and Chevening scholarships before he finishes his speech?

I judged that that subject was not strictly relevant to a debate about the IPU, but I am prepared to take note of the injunction that Members have set out, and I shall carefully consider the hon. Gentleman’s speech.

I congratulate the IPU and wish it well in its future work.

Defence Jobs

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important issue.

Shropshire has a proud and long history of serving this country in Her Majesty’s armed forces. There are 6,000 people employed in the defence sector in Shropshire, and long may that continue. The Shropshire work force are committed and skilled, and they are dedicated to continuing for many years to come the service that they have provided to the county and the nation.

Earlier this year, the Army Base Repair Organisation lost almost 100 jobs, but 770 jobs were saved as a result of the Government listening. They listened because of an Afghanistan inquiry by the Select Committee on Defence. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), who agreed to hold that inquiry, which considered attrition on vehicles such as the Warrior. I believe that as a result of the inquiry, the Ministry of Defence changed its mind about closing the ABRO facility at Donnington. That decision was only a three-year stay of execution, however, and I hope that today the Minister will commit to a further extension of the facility’s life. I ask for that because the deployment to Afghanistan will last at least three years—that has been put on record by Ministers and many in this House believe that the deployment might last beyond that. If that is to be the case, it is only fair that the work force should know. That would also make sense as far as military planning is concerned. Of course, we also have what I suggest will be a very long commitment in Iraq. I hope that the Minister will allow the ABRO work force to hear that the three-year extension has been agreed at long last.

I put on record my thanks to the Minister with responsibility for the armed forces, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram) and to the former Under- Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), now in the Privy Council but on the Back Benches, for their flexibility in the allocation of MOD resources.

I turn to the Defence Logistics Organisation. Sadly, it was announced two weeks ago that several hundred jobs will probably be lost at Sapphire House in Telford, the neighbouring constituency to mine. The DLO work force have given many years of service and commitment to the armed forces and this country. I question whether the merger of the Defence Procurement Agency and the DLO is right, but if I put that aside and accepted that it is, I would still ask whether now is the right time. Given our deployments around the world—not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but in the Balkans, Congo, Cyprus and Gibraltar; we have more commitments now than since the second world war—is it right to make a fundamental, key change to the operating framework of the DLO? I think not.

If we agree with the principle behind the argument that the timing of the ABRO decision was wrong, that argument can apply equally to what is happening with the Defence Logistics Organisation. I hope that the Minister will say that the timing is wrong and that the plans to move some jobs—only some jobs are involved—to Bristol and the south-west will be parked for the time being. There is also much concern among DLO workers about how the consultation has taken place and the new consultation that has been announced. I hope that the consultation period will be extended from 30 days to 90 days so that the case for Sapphire House can be made again to Ministers.

I also want to comment on RAF Cosford. Unemployment in Shropshire has increased by 30 per cent. in the past year and it continues to increase because of an outflow of manufacturing jobs. Sadly, we are seeing the same all over the west midlands. I hope that the west midlands will reinvent itself and become a centre of environmental technology manufacturing, rather than try to hold on to the manufacturing of years gone by. The situation is a little like that which followed the second world war, when munitions factories were turned into car manufacturing plants. Perhaps we need to convert some car manufacturing plants. They could become involved with new types of technology—for example, they could make parts of wind turbines or biomass machinery, or do biofuels engineering.

RAF Cosford is key to the future of defence jobs in Shropshire. About 2,500 people are employed there, and we want that number to expand. I am talking not only about direct military and civilian jobs at Cosford, but the supply chain, not only in Shropshire but in the west midlands more generally. Hon. Members will know that the west midlands has a proud record of serving the aerospace industry. Given recent changes at Airbus, I hope that the Government will be mindful of their need to remain committed to keeping the aerospace industry and the sector’s skills, technologies and work force commitment throughout the west midlands within our region. That can come only through Government commitment and Government leadership. I hope that we shall have some response from the Minister today.

RAF Cosford is key. The defence training review, which we hope will be announced in a few months, must come to Shropshire, and not only because of our high unemployment. Around the other competing site, St. Athan, unemployment has decreased considerably, and I give all credit to the Government for that. However, if they are serious about addressing employment issues, they need look no further than the west midlands.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. As he knows, many of those who work at RAF Cosford are my constituents, so I am grateful to him. Does he agree that the threat to RAF Cosford and the jobs there is indicative of the Government’s lack of attention to Shropshire as a whole? Does it not show that, despite their lack of representation in that county, the Government need to take Shropshire far more seriously?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention; he makes some valid points. In the past week or two, the sugar beet industry in Shropshire has been under threat as a result of British Sugar’s announcement of the closure of the Allscott factory. If the Government are serious about climate change—I digress slightly, but am answering my hon. Friend’s point—they should come to Shropshire and encourage the extension of biomass plants. There is one at the Harper Adams agricultural university and another over the border in Eccleshall; there may be one in north Shropshire as well. Sugar beet can be used to help to reduce climate change and carbon emissions through the use of biofuels, so I hope that the Government will consider what they will do to save the livelihood of 700 Shropshire sugar beet farmers, as well as the factory work force. My hon. Friend is right to underline the link to RAF Cosford, and the fact that the Government need to show commitment to the west midlands.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, he will find unity across the entire west midlands on securing the future of Cosford, but I say to him and the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) that the people of the west midlands watching this debate will be looking for unity across the Chamber on putting the west midlands first, rather than Members trying to score party political points on something so key to the future of our whole region.

I am grateful for that intervention, but was unaware that any party political points were being scored. The intervention itself might be regarded as an attempt to score party political points, but I leave the audience to make their own judgment on that. It would be easy for me to say that the Labour Government were cutting the jobs, but I shall not go there. I am happy to stay united.

It is right to put party politics aside; my view is that we are all in this together. We have to work for the corporate good and that of the whole community. It is incumbent on us as Members of Parliament to work for our constituents, putting aside party politics and working for the good of all. I agree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) on that point.

I spoke to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) outside the Chamber. He represents a Welsh constituency. Members with constituencies in Wales can raise points about defence issues in Welsh questions and Defence questions. Other Members with constituencies in the west midlands no doubt want to intervene, so, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall press on with the debate.

I am happy to invite the hon. Gentleman to RAF Cosford to see the fabulous facilities there. He asked about Wales. I have extrapolated some points from the vast amount of data available in the defence training review—I hope that the Minister is taking notes. The review calls for a reduction in the number of sites from 10 to two in a phased four-year programme. The key is a phased programme that is sustainable, that maximises previous investment and that does not require significant investment in local infrastructure.

Shropshire has a marvellous road network, and we know that the Government and the private sector are committed to extending the M6 toll road and linking it with the M54. What better road than one to link up with Cosford? There is also a commitment from local railway companies—it is part of the bid—to regenerate Cosford Halt station, which goes right into the heart of the Cosford airbus area. What better railway than one going into Cosford?

Cosford also has access to Birmingham regional airport. Some Members may disagree with me, but I would be happy to have an extra runway at Birmingham rather than at Heathrow, as it would attract investment and jobs to the area. In addition, the Cosford bid provides for new accommodation and training facilities in the first year, not in the second, third or fourth year.

Most of all, Shropshire has a vibrant community. The Albrighton Traders Association recently handed me a petition that I handed in at 10 Downing street. It asks the Government to consider the consequences to the whole of the community if Cosford does not win the bid. The decision is not just about the military or the work force, although those people clearly are important. It is about the communities of Albrighton, Shifnal and the wider Shropshire area. The impact on local schools if we lost the bid would be dramatic: pupil numbers would fall, budgets would fall and schools would have a difficult time. What would be the impact on traders, bed and breakfasts, hoteliers and local public houses? Even hairdressers—I use the same barber as many of the people at Cosford, as hon. Members can probably tell. My hair is rather short.

I can recommend Mark Egerton of Shifnal. I do not declare an interest: I pay every time and even give a minor tip.

I pay £6.50.

The impact on the community would be serious. I hope that the Government will take an holistic, regional view of the effects should Cosford not win the bid.

At present, I am negotiating with the chief executive of Arriva Trains, Mr. Holland, significantly to improve Arriva’s service between Shrewsbury and Birmingham, which passes through Cosford. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be far more difficult for local MPs and organisations to campaign for better rail services if Cosford were not successful?

We must improve on a rail system that, for the most part, is a good service. My hon. Friend is right to push for improvements, and Arriva Trains, Central Trains or whoever might win future franchises must ensure that they continue to improve the services. This is—forgive me—a twin-track process, whereby the railways would benefit from Cosford, and Cosford would benefit from the railways. Obviously, the local community would benefit from both.

That links nicely with the education sector. Wolverhampton university is an excellent university. It works closely with organisations in the West Midlands technology corridor, which is a cluster of aerospace and technology companies. I hope that that will be a key factor in the decision-making process of the Ministry of Defence. There is an important geographical economy of scale as far as Cosford is concerned. There is a skills set right on its doorstep, and that should be a central consideration.

People who might be required, asked, invited or told to move to St. Athan, should it win the bid, may not go. We are seeing that in the Defence Logistics Organisation. Much of its work force are unable to move to Bristol and the south-west. The fact is that the house prices in St. Athan are 30 per cent. above the regional average. Compare them with the house prices in Cosford, which are 30 per cent. below the regional average. If the Government think that everybody will up sticks and go to St. Athan, they are mistaken, as they were mistaken in respect of the DLO.

I am an admirer of the hon. Gentleman, but I always admire him more when he is silent. I am sorry to tell him that this will be such an opportunity. I told him earlier that I was unable to take his intervention, given that he has an opportunity to raise the issue during Welsh questions. I look forward to his tabling a question on St. Athan for the next Welsh questions. No doubt he will also ask a supplementary on Cosford. [Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Cummings.

The education sector is important. I pay tribute to Professor Caroline Gipps, who is the vice-chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton, and to all the work that is being done to help RAF Cosford to win the bid. It is vital that the Government take a regional and holistic view. I come back to that point, as the decision will be critical to the local education sector—not only primary and secondary schools, but the university sector as well. The university works hand in hand with RAF Cosford and the Defence College of Aeronautical Engineering.

In the context of what is happening around the world, it is likely that there will be more emphasis on aeronautics and, dare I say it, even missile technology. Should Britain become part of the ballistic missile defence shield—I am not saying that it should, but there must be a debate in the House at some point—Cosford will play a part in that. Therefore, we should not disrupt Cosford at this time.

I conclude on a wider point. This is a personal view, not a party view. I question whether this country’s defence privatisation has gone too far, and I say that as a Conservative. These are not party political matters. National security goes beyond that. It is the duty of all Governments first and foremost to protect their citizens, and that is also the duty of humble Back Benchers, which most of us are. I question whether the present Government, in their desire to be more macho on privatisation than the Conservative Government, are privatising too much and undermining our national security in the process. Secondly, do they compare post-privatisation or possible privatisation outputs with public sector outputs?

Thirdly, the Government may be underplaying the importance of the military ethos within such organisations. Many civilians working at Cosford, for example, are ex-military. Not all of them are, and people do not have to be ex-military to be good at their job, but there is a clear link between the military ethos and the hard work, commitment and dedication of employees at Cosford and, indeed, the DLO.

I hope that the Government will put a brake on some of their privatisation plans. For example, there has not been an in-house bid in respect of RAF Cosford. I would like to see an in-house bid. How can we have an open consultation process without one? How can the Government consider economic factors, specific training factors and the wider socio-economic factors—the hard and soft measures—when they have not considered an in-house bid? I should be interested to hear what the Minister has to say. The Government have denied that the review is about an estates package; they say that it is not about property and buildings but just about defence training. If that is the case, let us see an in-house bid and if that is not good enough, so be it. But we need to tread carefully before stepping forward to even more privatisation when there have been some pretty big disasters.

There is a certain so-called British company that seems to win virtually every defence order at the moment in this country, yet a lot of its defence manufacturing is undertaken abroad. How is that British? How is that protecting British jobs? I shall mention that company: it is BAE Systems. It may be said that it employs a lot of people in this country; it does, and I am grateful for that, but do we want to put all our eggs in one basket? BAE seems to be winning virtually every contract under the sun and I ask whether we should require the company to commit to undertaking a larger proportion of its defence manufacturing in this country rather than letting it say, “We are listed on the stock market in the UK, therefore we are British and we are protected from any criticism about outsourcing manufacturing abroad.”

Shropshire has a proud history and heritage in the defence sector. It is committed to serving this country and Her Majesty’s armed forces. It wishes to retain and expand its 6,000 defence sector jobs; it wishes to see an extension of the lifeline to the Army Based Repair Organisation at Donnington in my constituency and a proper consultation process in respect of the DLO at Sapphire House in the Telford constituency. Many of my constituents travel across the parliamentary boundary to work at Sapphire House. It also wishes to see a commitment to provide the best defence training for the 21st century, which, in my humble view, can only be delivered view through the skills set provided and experienced at RAF Cosford. Overall, it wants a commitment from the Government to jobs in Shropshire and the west midlands.

I will be brief, as I know that local Members will want to speak. I speak simply as the Chair of the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary group to make one plea in relation to the Defence Logistics Organisation, the defence training review and the supply-chain initiative. There has been a distinct lack of consultation with the PCS as the trade union representing the staff in all the organisations.

The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) referred to Sapphire House in Telford and the potential loss of 400 jobs. The Ministry of Defence admits that the DLO co-location will save less than £8 million. A survey of the staff at Sapphire House was undertaken and 96 per cent. made it clear that they will not move. Their main argument, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, is that the move to Bristol is unaffordable for them. Let us look at the salaries of staff working within the DLO: more than 60 per cent. of PCS members working at the DLO earn less than £16,000 a year. The average price of a two-bedroom property in Bath is about £285,000. It will be physically impossible for a number of the staff to take up any potential offer of a job under relocation. That will result in not only in discomfort for the individual families and a potential disturbance to their future well-being, but in a considerable loss of expertise to the service.

The DLO has attempted to recruit elsewhere, within the Bristol area. It attempted to recruit 12 commercial officers in Bristol, but failed to do so because the pay offer was too low. The challenge of recruiting to fill 4,000 posts in the new area will become insuperable. The various consultations that have taken place have not included the staff. On a number of occasions, the union has sought representations with management but it has been rebuffed. I ask the Minister to pass the message back through the DLO management structure that the staff need to be fully engaged in the discussions. At present, the trade unions have not been kept informed about emerging proposals on co-location; in many instances, management have simply refused to talk.

On the defence training review, I share the concerns that have been expressed across the House about privatisations going too far. PCS members have organised a 24-hour vigil today outside the Ministry of Defence and I invite hon. Members to attend to meet the staff involved. They are dedicated, committed professionals who want to provide a service in the future but who are now threatened with privatisation. As hon. Members have said, people from Cosford and St. Athan are involved and face the potential of considerable disturbance to their lives and families as a result of forced moves. I repeat, we will lose their professionalism—a professional capital that will be difficult to build up elsewhere. The savings involved appear to be relatively minor. In addition, we risk creating what is virtually a monopoly in awarding the contract.

Finally, I want to talk about Stafford. The in-house option “Do Different” has been determined, which I welcome on behalf of the PCS. However, no information has been provided on how or why Stafford was earmarked for closure; there has been inadequate consultation and discussion with staff, which has caused considerable concern. Many of those anxieties could be overcome not only by changing the decision-making processes within the Department but by ensuring that there is a free flow of information, adequate consultation and full involvement of what is, I repeat, a very dedicated team of staff in all these establishments, who have served this country well over the years.

I start by congratulating my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), on securing this important debate. I am pleased that there has already been a measure of cross-party consensus on the issue of Cosford, to which I shall come later.

I congratulate the Minister on his new post, and I start by emphasising the long tradition of defence within Shropshire. It has an important role not only in terms of employment in Shropshire and the west midlands, but in the nation as a whole. The barracks at Copthorne are one of three regional divisional headquarters in the United Kingdom. The general there is responsible for 40,000 troops, and service personnel from Coventry in the east to the Irish sea, and from Cornwall to north Wales are commanded from Copthorne primarily because of its importance geographically. It is roughly in the centre of the country. I shall come shortly to why that is important for Cosford.

The people of Shropshire supply regiments in the armed forces; the Regular Army has the second battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment currently in Iraq; Territorial Army soldiers from Shropshire are serving in Iraq and in other commitments abroad at the moment. In these particularly difficult times, it is important for the Minister and incumbent on him to provide security for their families back home in terms of the job prospects that they have to look forward to. The more uncertainty there is because of the reorganisation of the defence establishment, the more difficult and challenging it is for our service personnel to perform their duties, and I hope the Minister will respond to that.

The RAF has an important role in Shropshire. Along with RAF Cosford, there is RAF Shawbury, which is an important base. It is not in my constituency but I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) will refer to it.

The subject of the debate is employment in the defence sector and it is important to recognise that we are going through a slightly more difficult time than we have done in recent years in relation to employment in the west midlands. In my constituency alone in the past 12 months, unemployment has increased by 35 per cent. admittedly from a very low base. In Ludlow, unemployment rose from 1.2 per cent. to 1.6 per cent. in the year to June, which is a matter of increasing concern. That is happening particularly in the manufacturing sector. Relatively few residents from the defence establishment live in my constituency; they may not have been affected thus far, but I anticipate that further job cuts will have an impact on my constituency and many others in Shropshire.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, given the astonishing increase in unemployment in his constituency that he has sketched out and given that four of the 15 constituencies with the highest rates of unemployment are in the city of Birmingham, the west midlands surely has the highest claim of any region, including Wales, to be looked on favourably by the Minister?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s welcome intervention. It reflects concern among representatives from across the west midlands about the threat of increased unemployment there. However, I would point out to him that there is a political connotation.

My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin was very restrained in not seeking to score party political points, but there are 10 Labour-held seats in the west midlands in which Members have majorities of less than 3,000—roughly equivalent to the number of jobs at stake at Cosford—and it is a shame that not one of the Members representing those seats is in the Chamber to argue their case.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) speaks with considerable authority about unemployment in Birmingham, and I have much sympathy with that. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who intervened earlier, for his work in drawing together cross-party consensus to try to secure jobs for those who were put out of work through the bankruptcy of British Leyland. [Interruption.] Excuse me. I meant the bankruptcy at Rover.

That brings me to the main topic, which is to argue that RAF Cosford should secure a position as a national centre of excellence in the defence training review—a decision that I understand is due to be made in October. I shall be accompanying my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin tomorrow to argue the case with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I thank my hon. Friend for securing that meeting, although the decision rests primarily with the Ministry of Defence. From separate conversations, I am aware that the Ministry is under considerable financial pressure; any help that the Treasury can give to relieve that pressure will, I am sure, be welcomed by the Minister. We will try to argue the Minister’s case for funding, particularly for Cosford.

The “Let’s Fly” campaign, spearheaded by Advantage West Midlands, to champion Cosford’s case, has presented a compelling case for Cosford to be selected under the defence training review. I am sure that the Minister will have received many submissions, not least from me, to argue Cosford’s case, but I shall focus on three aspects.

First, the skills inherent in the area are considerable. They include not only the aerospace and motor vehicle engineering skill base of the west midlands—with the possible exception of parts of the south-west, it is the centre of excellence in the UK—and there is no question but that it could provide an additional work force for recruitment that does not exist in the competitive market. We have heard that it is unlikely that many of those employed at Cosford would relocate in the event of the wrong decision being made—if Cosford does not secure its future.

I am told that there are 1,386 technical and manufacturing companies in the area immediately surrounding Cosford that employ 22,000 people in the aerospace industry, and there are another 300 related companies in the region. In addition, a strong and growing university capability can be built upon to provide for the training requirements of Cosford. Unfortunately, we do not have a university in Shropshire, although we have various tertiary education establishments that cover other sectors and there is the move to develop one that I suggest would merely increase the skills base.

The second aspect is the transport infrastructure, to which my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin referred. The county is not as well served as others in terms of the county town’s access to London. As it happens, Cosford is well served because of its proximity to the motorway network. One cannot get any closer than Cosford is to the M54; the M54 is within a few miles of the M6, the north-south trunk road that leads to the south, to the M42, to the M1 and to London. The railway passes within a few hundred yards of the entrance to Cosford; although the station is not served by a large number of passing trains, it is capable of coping with more regular trains. As has been said, discussions are ongoing with a couple of train companies to provide a more regular service.

The infrastructure is there; we need to encourage the operating companies to use it more. My hon. Friend has already touched upon the airport infrastructure. I endorse his comments about Birmingham being more suitable for any increase in air transport facilities than Wolverhampton business airport in my constituency. The latter is little more than a general aviation field, and is not suitable for significant expansion.

Although I support the expansion of Birmingham airport rather than of Wolverhampton business airport, any increase in air traffic and in air routes should not result in planes flying low over the Shropshire hills, causing noise pollution and disrupting the Shropshire way, birdsong or animal welfare in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the fact that approximately 88 per cent. of the South Shropshire district council area, which is entirely within my constituency, is in an area of outstanding natural beauty. There is considerable concern about the recent rerouting of the flight path into Manchester airport and the consequent increase in air traffic that has resulted from the lower flight path ceiling. It is primarily civilian traffic, but some noise irritation also results from the helicopter training from RAF Shawbury. One reason for that is that the area in which they have chosen to do their training descents happens to be on the edge of an area of outstanding natural beauty that is also in my constituency. However, that is somewhat of a side issue in relation to the future development of RAF Cosford for training, as I understand that no flights will emanate from that site.

Thirdly, aside from the central transport infrastructure of the location, the general location of Cosford is important in relation to the nation as a whole. The nationwide review is there to provide a national centre of excellence. To site such a centre in the middle of the country means that it will be accessible to an immediate catchment of the 4 million people living within one hour of Cosford. The comparative figure at the competing site of St. Athan is approximately 1 million, so Cosford seems relevant, not least because of its accessibility to all parts of the country for military use and for recruitment and training. That should be welcomed by the Minister.

Finally, I should also add that Cosford lies just outside my constituency, but within Bridgnorth district council, which is predominantly within my constituency. I have had discussions, as has my hon. Friend, with the chief executive of the council and council leaders. I understand that the planning situation for RAF Cosford is that if it ceases to be used for military purposes, it will revert to its original use for agriculture. If the Department imagines that there is a honeypot to exploit from the redevelopment of the site, it should be under no doubt that that will be fiercely resisted by the local authorities in whose domain the planning decision would lie.

Will my hon. Friend say in front of the Minister that he shares my view about the strength of feeling among local people in Shropshire? They feel passionately that they wish to stay in our county and do not wish to move down to Bristol. All of us who represent Shropshire are Salopians: people of Shropshire who feel proud of our county and want to stay rather than be forced to Bristol.

I am grateful for a somewhat typical intervention championing the cause of Shropshire from my hon. Friend and neighbour—he does so with considerable aplomb and style at every opportunity.

There is no doubt that people who work and live in the surroundings of Cosford will want to stay there, particularly the non-service personnel. The service personnel obviously are used to moving around the world and country at the behest of their superior officers, but the civilian personnel—who make up approximately half the people employed at Cosford—would find it difficult to move for the reasons explained by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and would have no inclination to move.

Many people who work at Cosford live in the Bridgnorth area of my constituency and I have met many of them who have explained that they are concerned that the results of the proposed review will come out the wrong way. I urge the Minister to accept the arguments that have been put to him in favour of RAF Cosford. We look forward to the right result from this training review.

I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this debate—he has done us a real service. From the range of Members present, we can see that this is an important issue across the west midlands and it is also nice to see a full set of Shropshire MPs here. I can speak in defence of jobs in the county as a Shropshire lad who was born and raised there.

I want to focus my brief remarks on three areas. First, I want to talk about ABRO, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for The Wrekin, who I was going to call my hon. Friend—indeed, I will do that. I also want to talk about Cosford and particularly Sapphire House and the Defence Logistics Organisation at Sapphire House. We have had a problematic time in Shropshire over the past 12 months. A number of announcements in relation to defence jobs have been very negative and, on Sapphire House, the Ministry of Defence is plain wrong.

The organisation at Sapphire House has a large number of highly skilled people who procure equipment for our armed forces. It is easy to think that those people sit around, press buttons on computer screens and make default decisions assisted by a computer in relation to equipment provided for the armed forces. That view is completely wrong as those people are in regular contact with the front line and take telephone calls about the provision of equipment for the armed forces from people who are fighting wars on the front line. If we proceed with the proposal to move jobs out of my constituency to the Bath and Bristol area, we will lose that experience. There are generations of families who have worked at Sapphire House and the culture of supporting defence procurement has existed for more than 60 years in the wider Telford and Shropshire area. The loss of those jobs would be extremely negative for the Ministry of Defence and for the local economy.

Yesterday, I took a number of trade union colleagues and Councillor Keith Austin, the chair of the local defence support group, to see the Minister. The Minister suggested he would look at making the consultation period for the decision in relation to Sapphire House more flexible. I hope that there will be flexibility and that the Minister will seriously consider the representations made to him by the trade unions yesterday—PCS members put together a strong and coherent case. We need to preserve the skills and capacity at Sapphire House. There is a community and generational aspect to the support given to Sapphire House and there will be recruitment and selection problems if the facility moves to the Bath and Bristol area. Hon. Members have already discussed the difficulties in recruiting staff in that area.

There will be a significant problem given that, when the trade unions consulted their members—more than 400 at Sapphire House—97 per cent. said that they did not want to move to Bath or Bristol. There are a number of reasons for that and they include family ties and connections, house prices and income. The Ministry of Defence actually gets a very good deal out of Shropshire people. I do not want to talk down salaries, but the Government get a very cheap deal and good value for money in terms of the people who work at Sapphire House, who are committed to the organisation and to the Ministry of Defence and go the extra mile. Those people deserve to be listened to and the Minister needs to take the message to the Government that they need to think again about Sapphire House.

A number of the integrated project teams on that site are saying that they do not want to move. The drive for efficiency will not secure the savings that the Ministry of Defence require. We will see a fall in the quality of the service and that is particularly damaging at a time when our armed forces are heavily committed around the world.

The Minister decided to change his view on ABRO, which is in constituency of the hon. Member for The Wrekin, largely due to the pressure brought to bear by the trade unions, the defence support group and by Members from across the political spectrum, particularly the Shropshire five as we could call ourselves. We need to go forward now and ensure ABRO has not just a medium-term future, but a long-term future based at Donnington. A number of Amicus trade union representatives from ABRO came to see me at my surgery a couple of weeks ago. They are keen to work constructively with the Ministry of Defence and with management to make sure ABRO at Donnington is extremely efficient and indispensable. The trade union representatives are developing new opportunities for on-site training and are flexible in their approach.

We would like to explore in more detail the proposals that the Government are considering in relation to a Govcom for ABRO and we need to go out and win more private sector work, which I know the work force are keen to do. When there is a surge in demand for armoured repairs because troops are in action, the only real place that can deal with it is ABRO. The people who work at ABRO, like those at Sapphire House, go the extra mile—if there is a job to be done, they make sure it is done. They do not watch the clock, they turn up outside their normal hours and do the work for our front-line troops. This means that when there is a surge in demand because our troops are under threat and they need armour to be repaired, they can rapidly go back out onto the front line. There is great commitment both in Sapphire House and ABRO to our front line, and we should thank all the civilian staff involved in that work for ensuring that our armed forces are supported professionally and will continue to be supported professionally as long as those jobs are retained in Shropshire, in Telford and in Wrekin.

I shall finish by speaking about Cosford, which is crucial for the long-term future of our manufacturing base in the west midlands. Cosford is ideally placed to be the defence training establishment for the UK. It is central geographically, as the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) said, and the transport links to the site are superb. The M54 runs probably one mile away from the site, and the rail link is virtually on the site. There is also a great history and heritage about the RAF at Cosford. With the aerospace museum and the new museum on the cold war based on the site, there is a real connection between modern-day training and the history and heritage of the RAF. That is significant when it comes to getting people through the training environment and ensuring that they understand the history of the RAF and the future dynamic of the RAF and other services.

Given the knowledge, skills and training base across the west midlands, we have an unsurpassed level of expertise. As part of the proposal, Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency, proposes to create a national manufacturing skills academy focused around the Cosford site. That is very important.

Does the hon. Gentleman support me in supporting the idea of an in-house bid for the defence training review? Would he like to put that on the record?

I am happy to put it on the record that I have always supported the idea of an in-house bid. I met PCS colleagues before the hon. Gentleman was elected in order to talk about an in-house bid. I supported that idea right through the process and was very disappointed when the MOD did not allow an in-house bid to be made. However, we are where we are, and it is crucial now that we compete with St. Athan and win the proposal. That said, I supported hon. Members who wanted an in-house option. I hope that they will be reassured by the fact that there is unity across this Chamber today and that we arguing for jobs in Shropshire to be protected. That is the key thing that we want to deliver today.

On the manufacturing sector, we have heard about the number of companies that are connected to RAF Cosford and about the strategy of Advantage West Midlands for that area—the western side of the conurbation, if I can put it like that. The technology corridor along the M54 is particularly significant. We have university sites in both Telford and Wolverhampton. We also have the excellent Telford college of arts and technology, which is the leading college in the UK, as shown by its recent Ofsted marks. It is keen to key in to training and skills in relation to Cosford and to connect companies in Telford to the defence training activity that it is hoped will take place at Cosford.

I am conscious that other hon. Members want to speak and that those on the Front Benches need time to respond to and wind up the debate, but I have three messages to give. They are about a long-term future for ABRO, the defence of jobs at Sapphire House, the DLO site in my constituency, and the proposals for Cosford being supported by the Minister to deliver long-term manufacturing job growth in the west midlands.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood—it takes us back to the good old days of the European Scrutiny Committee. It is a great pleasure also to follow my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright). Like him, I congratulate most heartily my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on landing this debate at a critical time. Time now is short and I shall be brief. I would like to mention three subjects.

The first is RAF Shawbury, which is the jewel in the crown as far as Shropshire’s defence activity is concerned. It supports at least 1,500 jobs locally and injects £20 million into the local economy. It is immensely important locally, but it is also hugely important nationally and, potentially, internationally, as it is the seat of the defence helicopter flying school.

My comments to the Minister are simple. Ten days ago, I went on a simulated flight in the Bell simulator round most of north Shropshire and then did exactly the same thing in a real helicopter to compare the difference. As I said, Shawbury is immensely important locally, but a small number of people living close to the airfield are aggravated by noise, and it was most interesting to learn that 30 per cent. of day flying can be done in a simulator and 70 per cent. has to be done for real but at night it is half and half. It was clear from that exercise that people had to do the real thing. When we came to land, for instance, in the simulator, I always thought that we were about 30 ft higher than we actually were according to the simulator, so it has to be done for real and I stress that Shawbury has enormous support locally. Many farmers are very co-operative and offer landing sites, but there are two other points to be made.

First, a small number of people are very badly affected—the Slater family, for instance. I saw a predecessor of the Minister, who is now Lord Moonie, about that. At the time, there were discussions about insulation materials and there were NATO trials. Can the Minister tell us what new technologies are coming along? We welcome the helicopter training at Shawbury, but for a small number of people there is aggravation, although I take my hat off to the RAF authorities for the way in which they have liaised with parish councils and done their bit to mitigate complaints. However, the local question is: what is the form on new technologies coming along for low-frequency noise?

The other question, which is of national consequence, given the demands particularly in Iraq and the extreme demands for helicopter pilots in Afghanistan, is: what steps are the Government taking to speed up the training of helicopter pilots? The Minister gave me a reply last week, saying that it took 87 weeks to train a Royal Navy pilot, 71 an Army pilot and 110 for a Royal Air Force pilot. When I went to Shawbury, I glibly said, “Well, we used to stick Spitfire pilots in the air after 10 hours,” but I was told, “Yes, and a lot of them crashed.” The people there insisted that it was extremely difficult to shorten the training. However, given the demands on our forces, particularly with the increasing role in Afghanistan, it seems that there will inevitably be a shortage of pilots, so can the Minister explain what steps the Government are taking to increase the number of pilots and what part Shawbury will play? Obviously, Shawbury will play a key role and will welcome that.

Sadly, two soldiers from Tern Hill barracks in my constituency were recently killed in Iraq. They were killed by an explosive device hitting a Land Rover. I have asked the Minister questions on this issue and I understand that he is being cagey for operational reasons, but I understand that there are vehicles that will repel those explosive devices. Lord Drayson, in the other House, has stated that a vehicle called the Mamba was trialled in Bosnia and sold off because it was unreliable. I have read reports in the press, which I would like the Minister to verify, that actually the Mambas were sold to a private security firm and are now running down the most dangerous road in the world—the one between Baghdad airport and Baghdad town centre—carrying personnel of pretty high importance. I have also read a report that a Mamba has sustained two direct hits and all those in it got out alive. Therefore, can the Minister explain the Government’s position on putting our troops in extreme danger in soft-skin Land Rovers?

To take another country, Canada yesterday cancelled a major element of its FRES—future rapid effects system—programme. We are planning to spend £14 billion on FRES. That is a very grandiose expensive scheme down the road. Canada has decided that its troops need help now—that for operational reasons they need improved equipment—and it is diverting some of its FRES money now into improved equipment for deployment in Afghanistan. We have Alvis in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin. Could—

Order. May I ask the hon. Gentleman to address the subject of this Adjournment debate, which is defence sector jobs in Shropshire and the west midlands?

Absolutely, Mr. Hood. The vehicle that I am about to mention, called the Scarab, was made at Alvis in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin. My question to the Minister is: does he have plans to divert some FRES money into investment immediately to provide vehicles for our troops in Afghanistan or in Iraq that would be more resistant to explosive devices than the Land Rovers used currently and that could be made in the west midlands, where we have a long history of vehicle manufacture?

Finally, I will touch on the points that other hon. Members made on the importance of Cosford. I will not repeat them, but we must consider what has happened with Sapphire House, the British Sugar closure at Allscott and the recent comments by Professor Les Worrall. He said:

“If I were a betting man, which I am not, I would have a few quid on the Shropshire economy being in for a tough time over the next year”.

Given the experience of the benefits that Shawbury brings, we need a mixed economy. It is inevitable that there will be a reduction in the importance of agriculture and manufacturing. Therefore, the establishment of what is proposed at Cosford is of immense importance to the economy. I shall not repeat the comments that were made earlier—that would be invidious—but I stress that they have the support of all organisations across the county, and, I think, across the west midlands. I should like the Minister’s comments on what is going to happen at Cosford.

It is a pleasure to serve under your wise guidance this afternoon, Mr. Hood. I shall try not to repeat the comments of other hon. Members, because I am sure that we all want to hear what the Minister has to say. However, I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on bringing this important subject before the House for debate today—as well as the hon. Members who have spoken, and those who have not had the opportunity.

I want to see whether I can come at the subject from a slightly different angle. As west midlands Members of Parliament we are all keen that the area should prosper. However, the job of the Ministry of Defence is to find the best service for the best price. I want to argue that the west midlands is in fact the best area to choose. The hon. Member for The Wrekin has described the west midlands as a centre that reinvents itself—and it does. It is the birthplace of industry, and that is particularly true of the area that the hon. Gentleman represents. It happens all the time. As industry develops and things move on, we take our knocks. We remain competitive by inventing new industry, such as environmental manufacturing, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. That is an exciting development and I echo what he said about it.

I understand that the announcement about the Defence Logistics Organisation was made about two weeks ago. However, the MOD bought the premises in Bristol, a point that the hon. Member for The Wrekin raised in May 2005, before the consultation was concluded. I wonder what the Minister’s view is about that, given the relocation of staff who do not want to leave the west midlands and who would prefer to stay where they are. There may be a great skills shortage, resulting in a challenge to the Government in the provision of the service, because of the lack of people who want to move.

Members on both sides of the Chamber have spoken about the defence training review and have raised the question whether privatisation has gone a step too far. Although I am a Liberal I am not a great fan of privatisation, and I should also be interested to know from the Minister why an in-house bid was not considered feasible. The justification was that outside expertise would be required, but how did the Government know that the expertise was not available if no in-house bid could be made?

On the question of the appropriateness of Cosford as a site for the defence training review, hon. Members on both sides have talked about the infrastructure, the universities, and the existing skills base and supply chain. I take issue with comments by Conservative Members on only one issue, in relation to the second runway at Birmingham International airport. I certainly do not consider that Wolverhampton Business airport would be at all appropriate. However, there is no need for a second runway at Birmingham International airport. It can expand with the lengthening of the main runway, and with other proposals that are being made as part of the plan there is no necessity for the second runway.

I should be grateful if the Minister would take on board the comments of hon. Members on both sides of the House about the suitability of Cosford.

Is the hon. Lady actually saying that she has set out the official Liberal Democrat position, and has cleared it with all her Liberal Democrat colleagues in the south-west of England—and, indeed, Wales—who would benefit if the defence training review went to Wales? Is she seriously saying that their view is that the review must go to Cosford?

The hon. Gentleman is implying that there must be exclusivity and that the defence training review must go either to one area or another. As I understand matters, a number of sites are being considered.

Since there are two sites available I am merely putting the case for Cosford. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, it is up to the Ministry of Defence to decide which is the best place. However, Cosford is uniquely placed because of its educational and communications infrastructure, its skills and its supply chain to fulfil the requirements of the Ministry of Defence.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood. Before I turn to the debate, I want to say that I am mindful of the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and your right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and I shall try hard to resist the temptation to come and hug you.

I knew that I was taking my life in my hands with that remark. It is a defence debate, and I am well defended by the Minister.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) for securing the debate, and to hon. Members on both sides of the House, representing constituencies in Shropshire and the west midlands, who have spoken very eloquently about many local issues. They ably represent their constituents on this subject.

I want to touch on two issues—the merger of the Defence Logistics Organisation and the Defence Procurement Agency. We accepted at the last election that there was a need to introduce effective through-life management of major capabilities. Indeed, in 2003 the National Audit Office found that one of the barriers to through-life management was the relationship between the DPA and the DLO. It certainly makes sense that there should be one organisation to manage that capability from its inception to the completion of its service life. We felt that that justified a merger with the capability functions of the DLO and the DPA.

We feel that the full merger of the two organisations has the potential to create a very large and cumbersome organisation, and there seems to us to be no reason why the purely logistical functions of the DLO should be included in a merger with the DPA. Consumables such as ammunition and nuts and bolts do not need to be provided by the same organisation that has responsibility for procuring aircraft, ships and tanks. The risk is that the Government will create a huge, unwieldy empire that will not perform either task particularly well. We support merging the capability functions, but think that there should be a separate logistics command specifically to take account of the logistics items, as opposed to the large procurement areas.

On the defence training review, hon. Members will know that my constituency is beautifully positioned, being adjacent to both Wales and the west midlands. I therefore find it easy to take a balanced and neutral position between the two bids. Hon. Members from the west midlands and Shropshire have put their cases very ably, and no doubt others will make strong cases for their bids. I am sure that the Minister will make a very wise decision on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government.

All the joshing apart, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the most important issue that the MOD has to decide on this is not whether there is a higher level of employment or unemployment in one area or another, or the level of relative deprivation between areas, but which bid will provide the best level of training for our forces? If we were to do anything other than that, we would be failing in our duty to our troops.

That is a helpful intervention. I agree that the decision about the defence training review—indeed, all decisions about MOD responsibilities—should absolutely be made on the ground of providing the best possible defence for our nation and, therefore, the best possible training for our forces. That should be the criteria on which the decision is made.

I will not give way again, as time is short and I want to allow the Minister to deal with the many issues that have been raised.

I shall say a brief word about the defence industrial strategy. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin drew attention to the defence industrial strategy’s references to sovereignty and what is meant by the term British. As far as I am concerned, we mean the ownership of intellectual property, companies being based in this country and, very importantly, contracts and companies that will ensure the security of supply of defence capability for this country. Taking those three things together, we can focus on what the defence industrial strategy means by sovereignty and a preference for British companies.

I repeat that the absolute priority of the MOD must be to ensure that we maintain the standards of service and support that our forces deserve and need. However, it is worth making one more point about the defence training review as a caution: whatever decision the Minister takes, it should not undermine the military ethos of that training. We are training soldiers and servicemen, and that is not the same as training people for a role in private business. We ask a great deal of those who serve in our armed forces. Our training should recognise that, and the military ethos should be properly preserved to recognise that we ask our armed forces to do a very separate and distinctive job. We must ensure that we maintain the military ethos and professionalism of the armed forces on which we depend, as we have in the past and will in the future.

It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr. Hood. If we could physically hug each other, I would have no problem with that. After all, this has been a very “new man” debate, with the exception of the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt).

The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) should be congratulated on securing the debate. He talked about taking an holistic approach. I shall give an holistic response if I can. Before I begin to talk about some of the key issues, I must say that never in the field of party political conflict have so many press releases been owed to the Shropshire Star. I say to the famous five from Shropshire, somewhere in that newsroom, a man—or woman—is generating page leaves as we speak. I commend you all.

I congratulate in particular Mr. Mark Egerton, the barber of Shropshire. The hon. Gentleman has probably bankrupted him by now, but I am sure that, given the excellent employment opportunities across the region, he will be able to find alternative employment.

On a serious note, the hon. Gentleman raised several points. I shall talk about the defence training review at the end of my speech, because I want to talk about wider defence issues across the region, if hon. Members will allow me to. This debate has been a thinly disguised opportunity for Members to lobby for the defence training review, but I do not object to that, in the interests of fairness, because, as the hon. Gentleman will know, I was invited to talk to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs about defence in Wales, and that was also a thinly disguised lobby on behalf of St. Athan. I expect hon. Members to argue for their regions.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper)—I shall call him my hon. Friend—on staying studiously neutral on the matter, both geographically and politically. I commend the hon. Member for Solihull on coming out, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, for RAF Cosford—I think—but let us see what happens with that.

We have even got a press release for south Wales out of a debate on defence in the midlands.

Our broader plans for the Ministry of Defence for the next few years are to modernise the MOD, our armed forces and our defence capability. The changes include initiatives in areas such as logistics, on which we have touched—I will respond to hon. Members’ comments on that later—information systems, personnel and estates, and training. They apply to all service and civilian personnel, not only in the west midlands region, but throughout the UK and worldwide.

We are managing the defence change programme as a single, coherent effort with the goal of modernising and improving our defence business processes. That will allow us to reallocate our scarce resources from back-office functions towards the front line in order to improve our operational capability. That is the best way to make sure that we can go on giving the best support to our servicemen and women in the future, to which so many have referred today. That means that we have to do things better and cut out waste.

The hon. Member for The Wrekin made a point questioning privatisation. I hope that that comment will not come back and haunt him as he progresses through his career in his party. He is bold enough to shake his head. There is no ideological commitment for or against privatisation in the MOD. We pick a view that—

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; I know that he will want Hansard to be accurate in reflecting my earlier comments. I am not objecting to privatisation in principle; I am saying that it needs to be undertaken on a case-by-case basis and should be done objectively rather than driven by some ideology. With the MOD there has, perhaps, in some cases, been a privatisation too far.

I am grateful. I am sure that that clarification will go into Hansard. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) who is, dare I say, the unity candidate today was nodding vigorously at the hon. Gentleman’s stateist approach and his arguments for protecting jobs in the region. I am certain that they can reach a consensus today about how we should protect jobs in the region rather than open up to the market. That allows me to answer the central point of my future leader’s argument about consultation. [Interruption.] I am only joking. He would not expect a former trade union official not to want greater consultation.

I understand that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, who has responsibility for the armed forces, yesterday met a delegation that was led by my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) to talk about some of these issues. Other meetings are planned, and I expect representatives of the work force to be heard at all levels in the MOD and across the management.

I shall give one example of a lack of information flow. In relation to the future defence supply chain initiative, no information has been provided regarding the estimate that has been provided to the unions of cost savings of £400 million. The unions have not been provided with a copy of the investment appraisal, or financial data setting out how any of those savings are to be provided. That level of information would give some assurance to members of staff working in the field that they can have a guaranteed future.

Unlike my hon. Friend, I do not have the benefit of the PCS brief, but I hope that he can be reassured that the commitment that I gave is absolute: we want our work force to be involved. Indeed, I think that they are consulted extensively, but my hon. Friend’s points will be taken up, and if there is a problem, we will deal with it.

On privatisation, the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) and I met a delegation of workers in the House some time ago. It is not only Conservative politicians who are concerned about privatisation; ordinary workers and members of the public are concerned that the British defence industry could end up in the hands of foreign companies that have no good will towards this country.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. Indeed, I understand that representatives of Amicus, the manufacturing union, are in the House today. They represent ordinary workers in Shropshire and from across the region, and I would be delighted to show the hon. Gentleman the room where they are trying to lobby. He could put to them his view that he stands for ordinary workers in Shropshire, and I am sure that they would like to engage him on their views about privatisation.

I just want to put something on the record. There is no such thing as ordinary workers in Shropshire—there are only extraordinary workers in Shropshire.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) will feel admonished for having referred to ordinary workers in Shropshire.

I do, because I was making a serious point. The Minister is trying to say that I used the word “ordinary” in some derogatory way, but that is not correct. I simply said that those people felt passionately about this issue and that they reflected public opinion.

In that case, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will attend the Amicus meeting straight after this event to put those points.

I have a lot to say about defence and jobs in our region, so let me move on. I know that hon. Members want me to talk about the defence training review, and I shall try to get through my comments as quickly as I can so that we can talk about my position on the review at the end.

Our goals are ambitious. We have committed ourselves to achieving £2.8 billion of efficiency savings by 2007-08. That money will be reinvested to maximise front-line capability and will come partly from cutting numbers elsewhere. We are committed to reducing the number of civilian posts by at least 10,000 and the number of military posts in administrative and support roles by at least 5,000.

As I am sure that the hon. Member for The Wrekin is aware, the Defence Medical Services branch of the Ministry of Defence already enjoys a strong presence in the west midlands. The Royal Centre for Defence Medicine, which is based in and around Birmingham, has recently benefited from a £106 million refit, which I am sure that all hon. Members welcome. That refit was carried out in partnership with the regional development agency.

In that respect, perhaps I can answer some of the cogent points raised by the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne), who talked about the “Let’s Fly” campaign led by the RDA. That is the west midlands RDA at its best, and I hope that we will be able to stand up for it when we talk about the future of RDAs in other forums, because it is the only body in our region that could mount such a campaign. I know that the hon. Gentleman will want to stand up for RDAs up and down the country, given that some hon. Members believe that there is a question mark over their future.

The chief executive of the Defence Medical Education and Training Agency is now leading a programme to improve accommodation and support facilities for military medical personnel in Birmingham and is exploring a number of options to consolidate the command, control and training elements of the Defence Medical Services. That is intended to create an international centre for clinical excellence and to provide a suitable environment for DMETA military and civilian personnel, including those who are currently serving in Birmingham without access to MOD accommodation or facilities. That would result in significant numbers of staff and jobs being relocated to the west midlands from around the country, and I know that all hon. Members will support the Government in trying to achieve that goal.

In the few minutes that remain, I should like to move straight on to the defence training review. The in-house bid was not considered appropriate, because it could not have provided comparable technical innovation, performance discipline and risk transfer. The DTR programme is about improving training and its environment, as well as managing the risk of demand ebb and flow without compromising the quality of training. A PPP arrangement will offer the best value-for-money solution, while still meeting the MOD’s critical requirements.

Our initial studies identified six streams of specialist training, which are currently being conducted on about 30 separate sites around the country. Together, those streams offered the greatest potential benefits from the rationalisation and harmonisation, and hon. Members have referred to that. Consequently, they have been grouped into two packages for what my officials describe as maximum synergy, or what I would describe as a common-sense solution. Package 1 comprises training for engineering and communications, while package 2 will provide training for logistics, security, policing and administration.

Our overall procurement strategy has required bidders to select sites as part of their training proposals. They were given a free hand to decide which MOD or non-MOD sites offered the best solution. That geographical freedom has been essential for bidders to develop coherent value-for-money proposals that take full account of the service training requirement, their training design and delivery solutions, the necessary personnel and skills, and the environment in which solutions would be delivered.

There are two bidders for each contractual package. The evaluation process is drawing to an end, and I can provide an assurance that an extensive and robust evaluation methodology has been in place to ensure that bidders’ proposals meet defence requirements and are evaluated on an equitable basis. All factors are being considered. The process has been led by a Ministry of Defence project team, although it has involved several hundred other training and estates subject matter experts. The relevant procurement rules have been carefully applied, and the work has been overseen by our own private finance unit specialists and independent academic experts to ensure there is a level playing field.

The project team and those involved in the evaluation have been commended by Professor Molyneaux, the independent auditor of our evaluation process and a leading expert in learning technologies, for operating with the utmost professionalism and objectivity throughout the process. The evaluation process has properly weighted the training element of bidders’ proposals, including the ability to deliver distance learning in front-line command units, above other supporting and enabling capabilities, such as the future estate. It has also strongly emphasised the application of innovation in that process.

We therefore have good reason to expect a solution that best delivers value for money for defence specialist training. However, lower-priority factors, such as location, regional economic and sociological impacts, transport links and other related points will not be ignored. I am aware, for example, of the proposal to establish a national manufacturing skills academy in the west midlands. We welcome that initiative, which would have a role in achieving the Department’s desire for national centres of excellence as part of preferred bidder negotiations, whichever bidder is successful.

As I have explained, I can make only limited comments on any likely use of sites at this competitive phase of the project, as I am sure that hon. Members understand. Those who have spoken have raised several specific points that go beyond the DTR, but I have not been able to cover them, because of time limitations. However, I shall make myself available to anyone who needs me to pick up any of those points afterwards or who needs to write to me.

However, I can also assure the House that there is no question of the MOD systematically withdrawing from the west midlands. Many options remain available for the use of existing MOD establishments in the region. I acknowledge that there might well be closures in the future, but we are actively pursuing numerous possibilities. We certainly recognise that change can be unsettling for individuals, so staff and the trade unions are being kept closely informed of the latest developments.

To conclude, I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin on allowing us to talk about the excellent future that defence has in the midlands. I also congratulate all other hon. Members who have made a contribution.

Educational Activities (VAT)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to introduce this topic. I ask your forbearance for the first minute or so, Mr. Hood, because during it you might wonder whether I have drifted into the wrong speech. If you bear with me, you will see that my opening remarks are extremely relevant to the substance of the discussion.

Last week, a famous institution closed its doors for the last time. North Westminster community school achieved many great things over the years, and many fine people worked and studied there, but ultimately, it was overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges it had to face. It had three times as many pupils entitled to free school dinners as the national average, twice as many pupils with a lower level of English as an additional language than even the Westminster council average, 64 languages spoken among its pupils and a fifth of its pupils were either statemented or had a school action plan. We needed something extraordinary, but in fact we had a huge, three-site school that was simply too hard to manage as effectively as was needed to deliver a quality education to those children.

Over the next 15 months, North Westminster community school will be replaced by three new academy schools. They will bring in £70 million of new investment, which will help transform secondary school provision in the borough. All of our three schools will be in wards that are among the most deprived in the UK. One of the academies, opening next year, is sited in Church street, which was found to be the most deprived ward in London according to the 2001 census.

Academies originally sponsored by Chelsfield and the United Learning Trust are opening in the Harrow road and Westbourne wards, both of which qualify for neighbourhood renewal funding on the basis of their deprivation. The neighbourhood served by the three academies has higher unemployment than Jarrow, from where the hunger marches originated, and a higher proportion of children in households dependent on benefit than most of Liverpool and Newcastle, areas traditionally associated with the highest deprivation in the country. Statistics produced by the primary care trust in its recent annual public health report showed that the ultimate indicator of inequality—life expectancy—varied by a staggering 16 years between the most affluent wards in Westminster and the Church street ward. Almost all our low-income families live in flats, and outside or open space is at a premium.

The level of need is starkly obvious not just for the schools themselves, but for what the buildings and facilities could contribute to improving the quality of life in the communities they serve. Yet, perversely, the buildings serving the neediest populations are saddled with a burden which will restrict the very thing we need the most.

The core of the problem is that academies, unlike local education authority schools, incur a liability for VAT on aspects of their construction and use. Academies are organised as charities, of course, which means that they can recover VAT, quite reasonably, on the construction of new schools. However, there are three problems. First, VAT can be recovered only on the construction work itself. Architectural, surveying and other professional fees all attract VAT, which can amount to up to 10 per cent. of the cost of a building.

Secondly, zero-rating applies only to the construction of a new building. Full VAT is payable where an existing school is refurbished or an extension is built on to it. Given that land in areas such as mine—Westminster—is at such a premium, and that other restrictions frequently apply to its use, such as listed building status, that seems to impose a unnecessary penalty to making the best and most imaginative use of such space and facilities as we have.

Thirdly, and most relevant of all in the context of my remarks about deprivation, is the restriction that applies to the community use of the building. A relevant charitable purpose is defined, for this purpose as

“use by a charity in either…otherwise than in the course or furtherance of a business”

or

“as a village hall or similarly in providing social or recreational facilities for a local”

authority.

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs regards the letting of facilities to community groups or others as constituting a business purpose, and as such, the amount of VAT that can be recovered is determined by the scale of lettings in the first 10 years. I also understand that the method of calculating the level of the VAT refund tends to result in a disproportionate part of the construction costs being attributed to any such business use.

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs seems to take the view that anything generating income is, by definition, a business activity. That includes even the letting of a sports hall for a community football scheme such as that operated by our Bangladeshi-led London Tigers team; a parents’ class supported by Sure Start; healthy-living activities operated by the primary care trust; or a forum organised under the auspices of our neighbourhood management programme.

In other words, the better the academies serve the community, by opening their doors and promoting the use of the buildings for extended school activities, the greater the penalty. On the one hand, we say that we want, and, in the case of academies, we specifically require through the nature of the funding agreements, school buildings to be open in the evenings, and on weekends and school holidays for adult learning, sports clubs, supplementary schools and so forth. On the other hand, we treat such lettings as a pure business activity, thereby, of course, making them more expensive than they need to be, and therefore either reducing demand, or shifting towards a different demographic from that which we want to appeal to most.

There is, of course, a 10 per cent. concession—on time, space or footfall—built into the calculations. However, it is not only inadequate to meet the needs and demands of full community use, but it imposes its own administrative burden. The school’s management has constantly to monitor lettings to ensure that they do not exceed the permitted level. The United Learning Trust, for example, faces a frustrating and unnecessary constraint in letting facilities such as its art and music studios at the Lambeth academy, the state of the art rubber crumb pitch at the Northampton academy, which has a sports specialism and is much in demand within the local community, and the sports facilities at its two Sheffield academies, which are used for about a quarter of the time that the school is not in session. The ULT states that it is committed to allowing community use to the maximum extent possible under HMRC regulations, but it is simply not enough to meet the demands on its services.

The hon. Lady and Ministers will know that in my constituency we have had the same long-running argument, meetings with Ministers and questions answered. We were led to believe that there would be a satisfactory resolution, particularly in relation to our city academy which has recently opened. Part of its premises took over a community park. That was agreed to only on the basis that it would be then open to the community not just for 10 per cent. of the time or less—or for 10 per cent. of the cost or less—but in the school holidays, in evenings and on weekends. There is great frustration that the promise of Government has not been fulfilled.

The hon. Gentleman adds another example to my list. Indeed, exactly the same thing will happen when the Westminster academy opens its doors, when the building is completed in the early spring. It, too, will be taking over a series of sports facilities, which, although currently unsatisfactory, are free and open to the community. There are huge advantages in terms of safety and quality of service in having the academy take over some of that space, but implicit in the agreement was that its use would be open to the community. Yet, if a resolution is not found, we shall find ourselves coming up against exactly that same barrier.

At the risk of treading on political corns, I suggest that we need to do all we can to ensure that academies win hearts and minds, in the face of an indisputable fear in some quarters—one that I believe is wrong—that they will not turn outwards to the community. What seem to be arbitrary restrictions on the level of community lettings, or higher than necessary charges for such use, will do little to deliver those hearts and minds, and above all, will not help the still much needed transformation of our much challenged neighbourhoods.

As I have said, an LEA school does not have to bear a comparable cost, because it is able to recover VAT under a specific legislative provision: section 33 of the Value Added Tax Act 1994. What I am requesting, therefore, is that academies should either be brought into line with LEA schools for this purpose, or that a less restrictive application of the village hall exception be applied, to reduce the liability. Granting section 33 status would, I believe, resolve the problem more or less in its entirety. Applying the exclusion for business activities in a less restrictive manner, or accepting that, when letting our facilities, an academy functions as a building similar to a village hall in providing social or recreational facilities, offer two alternative, albeit slightly less satisfactory, options.

I have talked about academies because they are the starkest example, but many of the same points apply to colleges of further education, such as my much appreciated City of Westminster college, which occupies a prime site in central London just off the Marylebone road and serves a very deprived student profile indeed. When that facility decides to decant and rebuild we will face exactly the same problem, even though ideally we would like the rebuilt City of Westminster college to do everything it can to ensure that its open and outdoor space serves the communities around it. I understand from the Association of Colleges that colleges as a whole paid more than £200 million in irrecoverable VAT last year.

I fully accept that EU rules limit the Government’s flexibility. I also accept that, by definition, if VAT could not be recovered from academies and colleges in that way money would be lost to the Exchequer and other provision would be required. However, my worry is that, as in so many other examples—we have neighbourhood renewal funding, a neighbourhood management programme, Sure Start and a positive futures programme for young people—we are putting public money into community services such as our primary care trusts and our healthy living provision only to have a certain proportion returned in fees and charges for such facilities and if VAT is charged it goes back to the Treasury. There seems to be a bureaucratic spiral of money chasing itself, which we should be able to cut out.

I do not see any need to keep the subject under further review. My academies will open this year and we need those facilities to be in full community use straight away. We must act as quickly as possible or give a clear indication that action will be forthcoming. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response and I hope that, depending on what she can say today, we might be able to meet, perhaps in September, to discuss how this can be taken forward.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on raising this issue. I want to respond to her two central points and to her final point to suggest a way in which we can move the matter forward.

My hon. Friend’s two basic concerns about academies are, first, VAT on conversion and extension of existing schools that become academies—the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) also touched on that in terms of responsibilities that may be combined—and, secondly, the interaction between VAT relief for the construction of charitable buildings and the wider community use of academy facilities. My hon. Friend made a strong case and I agree that one of the purposes of academies is the wider use of their facilities by the community.

On the first point, I want to make clear what happens with VAT. VAT is chargeable on the conversion and extension of existing school buildings but, consistent with the general funding of public services and bodies, those VAT costs are taken into account by the Department for Education and Skills and the Treasury when funding is allocated for academies, including their educational activities. That VAT cost is not, therefore, an unfunded liability to the academies.

The general principle is that we do not have a tax on a tax. Academies are directly funded by the DFES, which receives its allocation from the Treasury, plus its VAT liability to balance the books. There is no circulation or movement of money because it is front-loaded. It is different from local authorities and the use of section 33 of the VAT Act 1994 simply because local authorities raise local taxation, so there is a slightly different interaction. Section 33 provides for the equivalent of what is given to the DFES to neutralise the VAT. My hon. Friend touched on further education colleges and it has always been understood that their funding arrangements and settlements take account of VAT costs.

An entirely new set of questions is now being asked. Having been given the VAT costs and perhaps spent it on other things, the academies now want to return to the pot for the VAT cost that they have already been funded for. There is some confusion and complexity there and my hon. Friend raised the important point of sorting the matter out clearly so that responsibilities are understood and academy facilities are properly used in the community. That deals with the central funding point. The VAT is provided when they receive the money. It is not unfunded.

The second point, which has been raised by a number of hon. Members in the House, concerns the operation of VAT rules and the 10 per cent. I should make it clear at the outset that the VAT rules do not prevent any academy from making facilities available for extended community use and making a small charge if they decide to do so. VAT should have no real impact—this is part of the problem and the quizzical “Why?”—on the extent to which a converted or refurbished school building is part of wider community use. However, I recognise that the VAT rules can impact on the extent to which some academies can offer their facilities on a chargeable basis. If they do not charge a fee, there is no VAT impact. The problem arises when they want to charge and that is the point that my hon. Friend made about the 10 per cent. That is the core issue that I want to address in my closing remarks.

My right hon. Friend may not be able to answer this question now, but one of the key reasons for charging is to cover the cost of caretaking, security and insurance, for example, and I wonder whether that is liable to VAT or whether it is purely a profit element over and above the running costs.

Rather than going into the vagaries of the VAT system—that is not pertinent—I can give an example. The problem seems to be the scale of academies’ use, and whether it tips past the 10 per cent. and is therefore considered business use if they make a charge. The method that Her Majesty’s Customs and Revenue uses to calculate the extent of relevant charitable use of a building is to take a year as a whole, and an academy with 1,000 students could charge for extended services for an average of 50 people a day without any impact on the VAT relief for construction and still remain within the zero rate regardless. The issue is the scale of that use and whether it becomes a business use. The problem—I am sure that my hon. Friend will know this because she has served on Standing Committees of Finance Bills—is to protect the whole VAT system. It is a European tax so we are prevented from extending the zero rate and we cannot behave unequally if something happens to be in the public sector because the position of other designated charities and so on would need to be addressed. I concede that that would not deal fully with the issue of unrestricted use that my hon. Friend raised, but it would represent substantial progress for academies.

The position with regard to VAT is that under our European agreements we cannot extend zero rates, because the academies are funded through the public sector. Instead, we put extra money in, and say, “Here’s your funding plus the 17.5 per cent. VAT.” That way, one does not have a VAT liability, because the VAT is included in the funding in the first place. That is how academies are funded. Although there have been discussions with representatives from the academies on the subject, we need to attempt to do that again.

My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North, will appreciate that our European agreements govern how VAT reliefs work, and we cannot step outside of them. Access to section 33 has been for public bodies that raise local taxes, which academies do not; that is why they are not provided for under section 33. We fund them up front, so they have already got their VAT. We could not possibly attempt to extend zero rates beyond its current operation; the European Community would not allow it. However, I recognise that concerns are still being raised on the issue, including by my hon. Friend today.

I shall just make this point first. The hon. Gentleman has to address the issue; as a good European, he will appreciate what I am saying. If the academies are funded, and not only their construction costs but VAT costs are paid, why would we again fund the costs that we had already met? It would not be possible to make academies unique without causing problems elsewhere.

I have spoken to my officials, and I would like them to have discussions with academies again, because the issue still has not been sorted out, even though I understand that they got their financial advice from their accountants. I want to be absolutely satisfied that the existing VAT rules and the operation of the allowance within the zero rate are being used to the fullest extent. If not, we must make sure that they are, and we must discuss what assistance the Departments can give to ensure that. That has to be the first step, so although I am happy to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North, again in September or October, the first thing is to once more get representatives from the academies round the table with the officials, to find out exactly what the issues are and to find a way through under the current rules. If any matter is outstanding after that, my hon. Friend and I might need to have a discussion. That offers a positive way forward, because I absolutely accept the points made by my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey about the urgency with which we must sort out the issue.

I am sure that, like me, the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) has been encouraged by the Paymaster General’s response. First, about a year ago I went to see one of the Paymaster General’s colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills. I was told that we were within sight of a combined Treasury-DFES decision—one that came within the European rules, which we all have to accept. What happened to that prospect of an immediate solution? It seems to have disappeared. Secondly, does she accept that the practical problem is that new-build city academies cannot plan maximum use of their space unless they have enough private funding coming in to cross-subsidise the community activity that will keep them open effectively round the clock—well, not 24 hours a day, but 18 hours a day, which is what was intended?

On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, I have been the Minister with responsibility for the subject for some considerable time, and I am not aware that we had any imminent solution, but I shall certainly go back over the records. Perhaps he might like to disclose to me privately which DFES official—

Sorry, which Minister told him that.

On the second issue, and on the point that I am trying to make, I am a little perplexed, in that academies’ VAT is fully funded—it goes into the core grant—so why is the issue being raised? They have had the VAT money. However, sometimes we are talking about the interaction between charitable and business purposes, and that is always a difficult boundary. Where the academy offers its facilities for free, VAT is not an issue. It becomes an issue when academies wish to charge on a business basis for the use of the facilities. Then, the category becomes rather a difficult matter, as always in VAT law. That is what I want my officials to explore with the academies.

We will write to the academies’ representative body after the debate, and I will send my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North, a copy of the letter. We will ask them, as a result of this debate, to come in again for discussions on the specific issue—not to discuss section 33, but to discuss the operation of VAT. When I have the report of that meeting, we can focus, and I shall be happy to meet with my hon. Friend to consider the issues. Clearly, there will need to be discussions between the Treasury and the DFES on why they are experiencing the difficulty, and how the money from DFES to the academies is being processed.

I should make it clear that academies are entirely and wholly funded by the DFES, and therefore their VAT costs should be met. The problem occurs when the use of academies’ facilities flips over into business use; then, rules apply that the rest of the economy has to work with, too, and we need to be careful about the boundaries. That is the point that I want to explore, so that there is no longer the detrimental effect that my hon. Friend, and the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey, clearly identified today. That detrimental effect could undermine future community use, and that would not be acceptable. If my hon. Friend is happy to leave the discussions until September, I will move them forward as quickly as I can.

I am happy to give the Paymaster General any other information. Will she add to her considerations the issue of those charitable bodies that are semi-educational, including youth clubs such as the Salmon youth centre? They have the same sorts of Treasury and VAT issues. I am happy to write to her to make sure that she is fully briefed about them, too.

No, I shall not add that to my considerations. The Treasury has undertaken two reviews into that difficult subject since 1997, one of which I conducted. Charities were given lots of concessions on the direct tax side—gift aid to name but one—because of the difficulties surrounding VAT business use and charitable use. Opening up our discussion into a wider debate about all charities will prevent us from finding a solution to the problem before us. The hon. Gentleman can certainly write to me, but I will not lump that subject with the subject of academies. I will address the question of academies with my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North, after my officials have had the meeting. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but I will not move on that point.

Kosovo

I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for allowing me to raise this important subject. I believe that today, in Vienna, the seventh round of talks on the future status of Kosovo is taking place. I do not intend to undertake an historical resumé, but my speech makes it clear that although we must move forward, we are wise when dealing with Kosovo or anywhere else to take lessons from the past and to remember that some issues run deep in the psyche of the nations involved and have done so for a long time.

I have taken up the subject of the Balkans because of my studies at university, but despite that, over the years in this place, I and others who have raised the matter have been regarded as apologists for certain regimes—in particular, the Milosevic regime. Before I entered this place, I was a member of a voluntary group in my constituency trying to ensure press freedom in what was then Yugoslavia, and I actively opposed many policies during that period.

The subject is far too important for us to engage in polemic. Whenever Serbia is mentioned, the stumbling block is compliance with the requirements of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. General Mladic would be top of the list—Radovan Karadzic is regarded as being not necessarily within the confines of Serbia. Every time I meet visiting politicians from the region, I say that I wish the situation could be resolved. Many—not all but most—of the visiting politicians and Serbs share that view. The Minister, because of his previous incarnation as Secretary of State for Defence, probably knows better than a mere Back Bencher such as myself whether there is anything that our country or NATO can do to help. It is a stumbling block, but we must get round it because it is so important, particularly in relation to the status of Kosovo.

We can always argue about whether mistakes were made, but what happened in 1999 happened and there is a de facto independent state within what is now Serbia and was previously Yugoslavia. Kosovo is a virtual protectorate, but whether it is run by the United Nations, NATO or the European Union, it cannot continue like that. The situation must be resolved. I am pleased that efforts to resolve its status have moved on in earnest in the past year. The Minister recently answered some questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), and I was encouraged by much of what I read. I do not envy the Minister or anybody involved in that area, because there are no easy answers. The negotiating skills of all those involved will be tested.

The general aim seems to be to sort out the situation by the end of the year. Although that may be necessary and worth while, we must be careful not to rush into a quick and—apparently—easy answer. As we know from elsewhere in the world, if we get the answer wrong, it will come back to bite us and the region.

Serbia is an important country; it is fundamental to the whole Balkan region. It is important that we bring the Serbian nation back into mainstream European politics. I was delighted that last week the British Government invited Bosnian and Serbian delegates to come over together as part of a plan for European integration. We would all be pleased to go down that road, although it is a little way off. Some aspects of European integration are not as easy as they might seem on paper; although we might wish for them, they cannot be realised that easily.

The problem that worries me about the future status of Kosovo is the message that we might send out. If Kosovo were to become an independent country, there would be a question about its viability. Before all the problems, few people had heard of Kosovo. I have travelled around it, and although I do not know its equivalent size, it is not much bigger than a large English county. It is landlocked and poor, and I doubt that it could be a viable state. Recently, Montenegro became independent, and in the greater scheme of things, if there were a wider Balkan organisation, there might be some means of Kosovo becoming independent, too. Currently, however, an independent Kosovo would have to align itself with one or two other countries. An obvious country would be Albania—I doubt that Kosovan Albanians would be particularly delighted to work closely with Belgrade, however much we might wish it.

The British Government’s position was, and officially still is, that Kosovo is a part of the country that was Yugoslavia, became Serbia and Montenegro, and is now Serbia. To change its status as proposed might set a difficult precedent for other regions of the world, and I would be interested to know how the Minister feels about the message it would send to other small regions where movements are trying to gain independence from the larger part of their country. Even in Serbia there are potential problems. I do not know what consideration has been given to the future status of Vojvodina, to the north, and whether granting independent status to Kosovo-Metohija might mean that more people in Vojvodina want to go down the same path. Historical differences exist, but thankfully, there has been no conflict, recent or otherwise, in that area.

Another problem is how we in the west, the contact group, or whomever, are to instil confidence in the minority peoples. In Kosovo, there are not only Serbs, but a variety of minority peoples, and no ethnic group lives within fixed borders. That is true throughout the Balkans. There is a mixture. You are probably aware, Mr. Hood, that the French for fruit salad is “macédoine”, meaning Macedonia, because it is a mixture of different things. That is what makes the problems so difficult to resolve.

As most now realise, Kosovo runs deep in the heart of Serbian statehood and nationhood for historical reasons. Monuments going back to the middle ages testify to that integral part of its cultural and spiritual life. Unfortunately, a large number of them have been destroyed in recent years. Some have been protected by troops, but there are so many that it is probably impossible to protect any but the most important. There is real worry. The monuments are not just buildings—they mean a lot to the Serbs and, by the same token, for the Kosovan-Albanian population they stand for something else. I hope that we can get the message across that the monuments are part of their culture too.

However, that will be difficult. In Britain, we have got used over many centuries to waves of immigration, and by and large we have a pretty sound view on such things. As I have said in other debates, years ago I remember being almost physically attacked—certainly verbally attacked—just for speaking Serbian. I then realised that it was no good my showing off that I could speak the language; it was better for me to revert to English, which was safer all round. That reflects the nature of what has happened in the region over the centuries.

We need to give confidence, and the form of words will be crucial. Although, as I said, there may well ultimately be a European solution, I think that that, unfortunately, is decades away. What we do in the meantime is important. As the Minister knows—sadly, we all know it—such problems keep flaring up. We have only to look at the middle east today to see how, every so often, perceived or perhaps real, rights, wrongs and injustices are allowed to flare up in the hands of extremists, who want neither peace nor stability but have their own agenda. I worry that if we do not get the resolution right, it may seem that we have sorted it for the time being, but a generation or two down the line, that poor, unfortunate area of the Balkans will become the centre of strife in our own continent.

The most important thing is not flags and symbols, but getting people together to give them confidence. I end by telling the Minister that if in our own small way there is anything that I or the other members of the all-party group on Serbia and Montenegro can do to help work something out, we will be happy to do what we can.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on securing this debate at an important stage of the Kosovo status process. I shall respond directly to his offer of help; given his knowledge and experience of that part of the world, in which he takes a keen personal interest, I shall ascertain whether there are any opportunities to enlist him in our efforts. It is in the UK’s strategic interest to work to ensure that the key part of Europe that we are discussing continues to leave the tragic events of the 1990s behind and moves ahead to a stable, prosperous, democratic European future.

I shall set the context for this debate by providing a brief update on the UN-led status process. Last week, UN special envoy for Kosovo and former Finnish President, Martti Ahtisaari, whom I saw very recently, briefed the UN Security Council on progress so far on technical-level talks on status-neutral issues such as decentralisation and the protection of religious sites. Those talks are continuing; indeed, negotiations on the protection of religious and cultural heritage sites are taking place in Vienna today.

Martti Ahtisaari also signalled his intention to move in parallel to the important next phase: direct, high-level talks on status. That stage will continue over the summer, and he plans to brief a ministerial meeting of the contact group in the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York in September. We expect him to work with the parties and the contact group to draw up and agree proposals for a settlement, and to present his recommendations to the Security Council in the autumn.

President Ahtisaari was appointed by the UN Secretary-General, and his appointment was endorsed by the Security Council. The Government support him and his team fully, and stand ready to assist in our national capacity, as well as through the contact group, the Security Council, the European Union and NATO.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Government’s thinking on the status process’s possible outcomes. It is for Martti Ahtisaari to make his recommendations, and as I said, he will have our full support. Our hope is that the issues can be resolved through a negotiated agreement. However, if in the UN special envoy’s view, an agreed settlement is not possible, the international community must be prepared to draw the necessary conclusions and face up to its responsibilities.

The contact group has set out conditions for the negotiating process and the outcome in a set of guiding principles, endorsed by the Security Council, and in a ministerial statement following a meeting in London in January. The texts make clear that Kosovo cannot return to the situation of before 1999; that it cannot be partitioned; that it cannot join in union with any, or part of any, other country; and that the settlement must be acceptable to the people of Kosovo.

The conditions also stipulate that every effort should be made to conclude the process by the end of 2006, and that, having started, it cannot be blocked. There seems little to be gained by extending the process because one or both parties refuse to engage constructively, but there is a considerable risk of instability and unrest if the negotiations become bogged down or appear to be open-ended. In the interests of Kosovo, of neighbouring countries and of the region as a whole, it is important that the status process conclude as soon as possible, and in a way that achieves a sustainable, democratic, multi-ethnic Kosovo.

It is not for me to prejudge where the current negotiations might end up or what will be the recommendations of the UN special envoy. However, it is fair to say that there is growing international recognition that one option is likely to involve some form of independence—qualified by a robust international civilian and military presence, and with cast-iron guarantees protecting the rights and security of the Kosovo-Serbs and other minorities. Such an outcome would be consistent with the guiding principles and ministerial statement agreed by the contact group.

It is perfectly understandable why the Kosovo-Serbs feel insecure in this period of uncertainty and transition. Belgrade should seek to ease that insecurity and encourage the Kosovo-Serbs to take practical advantage of the new arrangements designed to improve their lives as an integral part of Kosovo society.

No one in the international community wants to damage the interests of Serbia. Indeed, for the first time in its long and difficult history, Serbia is being offered the prosperity and security that would come from membership, ultimately, of the European Union and NATO. Serbia should look to the future, to accept that regional stability requires a settlement acceptable to the people of Kosovo and that events since 1989 have created political realities and shaped public attitudes in Kosovo.

For its own sake, and that of the Serbian community in Kosovo, Belgrade needs to think through its current approach. Although not strictly relevant to the Kosovo debate, that also applies to Belgrade’s attitude to co-operating with the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.

Nobody pretends that there is a perfect solution. Dispassionate analysis of the options is needed to identify and define the one that stands the best chance of delivering the outcome that we want for Kosovo and Serbia: stability, democracy, prosperity, multi-ethnicity, and with sights firmly set on a future in the European family. That is why we remain fully supportive of the UN process, led by UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari.

Sitting suspended.

Worklessness and Poverty (West Ham)

I want to deal with three things that affect poverty and income in my constituency: the minimum wage, the campaign for a living wage for Londoners and the poverty trap, which contributes to continuing high levels of worklessness, limits the aspirations and economic advancement of those on low wages in London and holds back reductions in child poverty and health inequalities. Finally, I want to suggest for consideration things that could be done to improve the lot of those living in my constituency on low incomes.

Despite the popular image of London as a roaring economic success—the London of city bonuses and champagne charlies that holds a place in the national imagination—there is also a London of real economic deprivation and hardship in which many struggle to survive. Those people are the workless and the hundreds of thousands of workers who service London’s economic success: the cleaners, caterers and porters, to name a few. Their stories are shaming, and the facts are stark.

If we exclude pensioner households in 2003-04, one half of the people in income-deprived households had someone in employment in their homes; in other words, one half of the problem of poverty among non-pensioners is now about poverty in work. The UK is the fourth biggest economy in the world, and London is at the core of its wealth, yet 41 per cent. of the children in London are growing up in poverty. London is way ahead of the region with the second most deprivation. In the west Midlands, 32 per cent. of the children are affected by poverty.

Poverty costs us as a country and as a society, yet it was almost impossible to get official recognition of the existence of poverty among British citizens, particularly working British citizens, before this Government came to power. We have moved on since then with the introduction of the minimum wage and a system of tax credits, but we need to go further.

I pay tribute to the living wage unit, which has led some ground-breaking work at the Greater London authority. It has been aided by technical support from the family budget unit, which is a charity that undertakes comparative living standards and living costs analyses. It defines a low-cost but acceptable standard of living as one that achieves an adequate level of warmth and shelter, a healthy, palatable diet, social integration and avoidance of chronic stress for earners and their dependents. It uses a shopping basket technique to arrive at an across-the-board average for meeting the standard. The figure for Londoners after benefits and tax credits are taken into account is about £6.15 an hour.

The figure is an average. As many people fall below it, the unit increases it by 15 per cent. to £7.05 to come up with the difference between a poverty threshold wage and a living wage. To give a reality check, the families in such households do not smoke or drink, and do not have a car.

The family budget unit’s original estimates were based on living costs in York. For London, costs have been calculated to be 31 per cent. higher than those in York for a couple—one working full-time and one working part-time—with two children, 35 per cent. higher for a working single parent, and 28 per cent. higher for a single person. Those are staggering figures.

It is in private rents that there is such a huge gulf between costs faced by Londoners, who cannot afford to buy and cannot get into social housing, and the rest of the country. Private rented, two-bedroom flats subject to housing benefits claims in 2004-05 averaged £165 a week in London, £77 in the north-west and £92 in the south-west, and that is what we need to focus on.

My constituents raise the issue with me constantly. Unless they live in the public sector and have a relatively low rent they find it so difficult to work. We must acknowledge the difficulty in establishing national minimum levels of disposable income while these inequalities in housing costs exist; £7.05 is a living wage for a low-cost but acceptable standard of living, assuming that all benefits and credits are received, so how does the national minimum wage compare? The answer is not very well; it has been catching up fast, but progress now appears to be at risk. Between September 2005 and October 2006, the minimum wage will have risen from £4.85 to £5.25, an increase of 8 per cent. However, in the Low Pay Commission's report this year, Adair Turner writes that

“looking forward, the Commission will start with no presumption that further increases above average earnings are required”.

That is not good news for Londoners.

Supported by the Mayor, London's living wage campaign has begun to deliver real successes and I pay tribute to the Mayor and to The East London Community Organisation—Telco—for their very effective strategies, which have been really successful. Telco and the Transport and General Workers Union campaigned to raise the hourly rate of cleaners working in banks who were earning as little as £4.20 an hour.

In 2004, Barclays bank increased the pay to contract cleaners to £6 an hour in its new headquarters in Canary Wharf, with 15 days' entitlement to sick pay and eight extra days’ holiday; two months later, HSBC topped that. Following threatened demonstrations, the Deutsche bank in the City agreed to pay its cleaners a significant increase to a living wage level. Deutsche bank made a profit of £674 million in the last quarter. The increase in pay to its cleaners will cost it an estimated £350,000 a year, which clearly will not cause the bank any pain or any detectable dent in its profits.

It is time to change the culture; employers need to know that we as taxpayers are not prepared to subsidise bad employment practice, because that is effectively what we are doing. Despite the successes I have mentioned, and others, there is a long way to go; in London, one in seven employees receives less than the poverty wages of £6.15 an hour, and one in five less than the living wage of £7.05 an hour. London is Britain's low-wage capital as well as its snouts-in-the-trough capital.

The reason for this debate is to put some important questions on the table: is it possible to have differential minimum wage policies for different regions, thus recognising the massive differences in the cost of living within the United Kingdom? Would the London economy sustain differential wages? What would be the impact on the regional and national economies?

Given that there is already a London weighting allowance, does my hon. Friend agree that that analogy should apply to the minimum wage?

I thank my hon. Friend for that example, which is a logical extension of the issues that are clearly seen in the pay of civil servants and, indeed, Members of Parliament. There is a London weighting for those in inner-London constituencies which there is not in the minimum wage.

In my introduction I said that I wanted to reflect on the poverty trap, which will not be solved even by the living wage. Wage increases mean that some lose their tax credits, some their housing benefits, and some pay more tax and national insurance; all pay a marginal tax rate that would make a banker’s eyes water. This is not an argument against the living wage—far from it—but an argument that seeks to highlight the other difficulties faced by communities who want to work.

I shall give an illustration of how the poverty trap works. The social regeneration unit of the London Borough of Newham—a fabulous, dedicated group of people— worked out the consequences of an increase from the national minimum wage to the living wage for my constituents—from £5.05 an hour to £7.05—for a couple with a three-year-old child who between them work a 50-hour week, and who pay an average private rent for the area and average council tax. Let us imagine that the employers have an “A Christmas Carol” moment, and decide to move my constituents up from the minimum wage to that magic living wage figure of £7.05 an hour, an increase of 40 per cent. in gross earnings. What happens? They get £100 more in gross income; less tax credit; less housing benefit; less council tax benefit; more PAYE; more national insurance. They see £10.31 of their £100 increase. In other words, a marginal tax rate of 88.7 per cent.

I have lost count of the number of constituents who have raised this issue with me. I have constituents who have asked their employers to retract their wage increase because they were worse off than they were before they received it. I have constituents who work part-time who want to increase their hours to full time, who want to progress at work, to have a career and to access shared-ownership housing schemes but who simply cannot afford the additional rent they would have to find for their private rented accommodation to take that first step. They find themselves in the poverty trap, and cannot find their way out.

We must do something to ensure that the real gains of this Labour Government are not defeated by the poverty trap. In the case that I described the hourly rate of the individuals concerned would need to be doubled to ensure that their wages took them beyond its grasp. Doubling wages is unrealistic, so we have to find alternative solutions.

The poverty trap is too complex an issue to address in detail here, and there is no easy consensus. There are attractions in addressing housing benefit, for example, which is at the end of the food chain of the tax and benefit system, by increasing earnings disregards and reducing the rate of withdrawal of benefit as income rises. But I am aware that that moderates but also extends the problem up the income scale, and it is only tinkering. We need to be bold; frankly, we need to think outside the box.

I have four over-riding questions. First, is there a way to recognise the huge differential in living and housing costs through some form of differential minimum wage policy for the capital? We would need to assess the impact of such a policy on regional labour markets.

Secondly, can we, and should we, raise the threshold of income tax and national insurance to larger groups of workers? Should that be nationwide or regional? Should there be regional variations in tax codes, for example?

Thirdly, can we address some of the underlying factors that make the problem of poverty pay such a difficult nut to crack—for example, the continued existence of a deep poverty trap, and a shortage of housing that is affordable to those who want to work? Would the Government consider appointing a panel of experts to make one more effort to solve the poverty trap that is the key to working incentives?

Fourthly, should we make a commitment to continue to increase the national minimum wage at a rate that is significantly higher than inflation, as we have done in recent years, as a major contribution to the promise to reduce child poverty? Such a commitment needs to take account of the painless increases in the minimum wage in past years, and the real benefit of local spending to the economies of deprived areas.

It would be reasonable to ask what my proposals are on such an issue. I have argued that London has a particularly acute problem of low wages, which impacts gravely on child poverty and health inequalities, a cycle of deprivation that is reflected in the poverty indices. It is exacerbated by a cost of living far in excess of that of most of the rest of the country. Finding solutions to these problems is clearly not easy, otherwise we would have found them.

It is a complex subject. We need to review the inter-relationship of the benefits available to in-work families and the taxation paid by them, with a view to diminishing the deep poverty trap. We need also to build on discussions with the Department of Trade and Industry about socially irresponsible contracting; to create an equivalent to the Greater London authority’s living wage unit in all regions of Britain; and to review the terms of reference of the Low Pay Commission. Finally, we need to create regional living wage strategies that integrate with neighbourhood renewal and regeneration, particularly to ensure that workers in low-paid sectors in deprived areas benefit from Government investment. I accept that they are not glamorous or headline-grabbing proposals, but neither are they impractical.

One thing that the Government have done really well over the years is to change the terms of the debate and to shift the middle ground. I want the middle ground to be shifted again so that it will no longer be acceptable for the armies of low-paid workers to remain unrecognised at the cost of society’s well-being. A wage that achieves an adequate level of warmth and shelter, a healthy and palatable diet, social integration and the avoidance of chronic stress for earners and their dependents is an entirely reasonable policy step. It would build on the concept of the minimum wage, and it is an essential prerequisite for the objectives that would reduce inequality to which we on this side of the House are fiercely and strongly committed.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) on securing the debate, which is on the impact of the Government’s economic policies on worklessness and poverty in West Ham. Those listening this afternoon will immediately have recognised why she deserves her reputation as a great champion for her constituents, particularly those who, because of grinding poverty, are least able to speak for themselves.

I shall outline the Government’s strategy in tackling the issues that my hon. Friend has identified, touch on London’s particular problems, and conclude by answering the points that she raised. The Government’s long-term goal is employment opportunity for all—a modern definition of full employment—and ensuring that employment pays, which is what my hon. Friend wants. Delivering that requires that everyone should be provided with the support that they need to find employment and to develop skills—and, indeed, to earn a decent wage. As she knows, the Government are firmly of the view that the best route out of poverty is paid employment of the sort that enables people to live their lives constructively.

The Government have taken many important decisions to help achieve that goal. As my hon. Friend said, we introduced a national minimum wage, and I shall return to that subject later. We have also reformed the tax and benefit system, and substantially increased the gains of working for most groups. In particular, the working tax credit ensures that everyone has improved incentives to work, which consequently tackles the unemployment trap. A single person living in London, with housing costs of £80 a week, would see a £40 per week gain from full-time work at the national minimum wage; and a lone parent facing housing costs of £120 per week would gain £63 per week when working full-time work at the minimum wage.

The number of people in employment has risen by 2.4 million, and our employment rate is 74.5 per cent., the second highest among the G8 and close to record highs. However, as my hon. Friend said, London’s labour market poses particular challenges. Of all the regions, London—if I may call the capital city a region—has shown the smallest improvement in employment rates since 1997.

In 2005, London’s employment rate was 69 per cent., compared with 75 per cent. in the rest of the UK. That is despite the fact that London has created new jobs at an average rate of 70,000 a year since the early 1990s. The people coming to London have made the difference. London’s population differs from the rest of the country in many ways. It is home to more people with the characteristics associated with disadvantage in the labour market, and it is home to more people with multiple barriers to work. Skills and mobility problems are key factors in the relatively high rates of worklessness in the capital. Another is housing.

Our policy response has been based on national welfare-to-work policies, including the new deal and, more recently, pathways to work. Those policies have helped. We have seen them working in West Ham; between 1997 and 2006, we saw a reduction of more than 2,000 in the number of unemployed claimants. Indeed, the new deal has made headway; as my hon. Friend acknowledges, it has helped nearly 4,000 people in West Ham.

The Government are also providing additional resources for area-based initiatives. For instance, my hon. Friend is aware of the action teams, one of which operates in the Newham area. The actions teams target those who face serious challenges to getting work or staying in work, and they often concentrate on the groups that are hardest to reach, including the long-term unemployed.

In addition, in the welfare reform Green Paper, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions proposes a city strategy to address questions of worklessness in urban areas. The strategy is aimed at improving co-ordination at the local level. It will be a valuable tool, and we will need to build on it to address the points raised by my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend has been a great champion for the Olympics in 2012, as they will provide some 12,000 jobs. We must ensure that investment in the Olympics creates decent jobs that will go to my hon. Friend’s constituents and others who live in the area.

The Government’s strategy has four separate strands. They are to provide financial support for families that need it; to support employment opportunity for all; to tackle material deprivation, which is what my hon. Friend rightly concentrated on; and to deliver excellent public services, one of which is housing. We are providing financial support and making the necessary reform, but we need to build on that. We are creating employment opportunities, but we need to do more. We are tackling material deprivation by promoting financial inclusion and improving housing, which is a great challenge in the capital. We are also delivering excellent public services in order to improve children’s life chances and to deal now with the poverty that my hon. Friend describes. I know that she wants us to break that vicious cycle.

My hon. Friend went on to raise further matters, and I shall briefly respond. We need to explore, outside today’s debate, how the city challenges in the welfare Green Paper might focus much more on London and working in partnership. I turn first to the national minimum wage.

Variations in the national minimum wage are already vast, and not just between London and the rest of the country. There are also variations within regions. For instance, my region of the south-west includes Cornwall and Bristol, but the variations can be enormous in terms of labour market opportunities. Trying to respond to regional differences would make the national minimum wage impossible to operate and, more important, impossible to police. It would increase the chances of it being exploited by those few employers who would try to pay below the national minimum wage.

We take advice from the Low Pay Commission, which has considered the issue. The commission is our expert panel and is independent. I do not know whether it is possible to ask the commission, in light of the welfare reform Green Paper, to consider specifically the issues in cities. Those who represent rural areas might say that the situation is the same in some isolated rural areas, but perhaps we can pick up the issue and see whether the commission can take it forward. However, regional variations in the minimum wage would be a nightmare and difficult to enforce.

Housing benefit already takes into account regional differences in housing costs, and of course people’s eligibility fluctuates according to whether their rent is lower or higher. A great deal of work has been done on trying to reduce the tapers and the effect of the tapers on housing benefit and therefore the marginal rate of tax that my hon. Friend described. The solution is to provide decent jobs that are well paid and to invest in public services, and the Government are confident that that can be done in London.

My hon. Friend touched on the use of tax codes. The Government strategy has been to try to lift families out of paying tax, and I think that she will be familiar with the following figure because she heard me give it only last week. In 1997, fewer than 2.5 million families paid no tax; now, more than 3 million families pay no tax. The effect of our measures, particularly tax credits and child benefit, has been to lift families out of tax.

The recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures show that the gross tax of a one-earner family of two adults and two children on about £21,000 a year has gone down from just over 19 per cent. to about 9 per cent. Their exposure to tax has been reduced. Again, that has been done by using the main planks of policy that I have described.

I encourage my hon. Friend to keep pushing the points that she has made and to keep challenging the Government in this crucial area, which is about people getting out of the poverty trap and breaking the cycle. We need to recognise the combination of factors involved, including housing, employment, lack of child care, other social deprivation indicators and special additional support in respect of skills or language if English is not the first language. In particular, we need to continue with the strong partnership that has developed with the Greater London authority and the Mayor’s office in examining the particular challenges in London—not in wealthy parts of London but in constituencies such as that represented by my hon. Friend—to ensure that the Government’s policy finally puts an end to the vicious poverty cycle that her constituents are experiencing. She is so right to champion their cause, and again I congratulate her on obtaining the debate. I do not have instant solutions for her today, but I hope that she will be reassured that the Government have the levers in place, although we need to do more.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Two o’clock.