Wednesday 11 October 2006
[Mr. Mike Weir in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Kevin Brennan.]
It is a pleasure to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Weir, and it is a pleasure to welcome the Minister for the Middle East, who is one of the few members of the Government who has made any sensible remarks on this subject for a very long time, as we heard when he was in Israel and Lebanon after the events there.
When on 11 September we saw the horrific pictures of the destruction of the twin towers, I said that the people of the United States were more than our friends—they are our kith and kin. I said that they had been the greatest advocates and proponents of freedom and democracy in the 20th century, that without them we and all Europe would have been condemned to live in tyranny of either the Nazi or Soviet type, and that it was not only our duty but our pleasure to stand shoulder to shoulder with them when they were under attack. I supported the invasion of Afghanistan to remove the Taliban and to root out the command structure of al-Qaeda—I do not resile from that support—but then we moved on to Iraq.
Many better people than I opposed that intervention. Indeed, many better people than I supported it. I voted against the war, principally because I did not believe the Prime Minister and his dossiers. I did not know that they were dodgy; they simply did not add up. President Bush’s reason for invasion—regime change—was clear and honest, but the Prime Minister hid behind a smokescreen of non-existent weapons of mass destruction in an attempt to justify the invasion to Parliament. His key failures were in respect of securing the support of moderate Arab opinion and having a realistic post-invasion strategy. The result was to inflame the Arab world, to create division at home between Muslims and most other United Kingdom residents, to lose our reputation as an honest broker in the middle east, to drive the Arab in the bazaar into the arms of extremists, particularly in Palestine and Lebanon, and to damage domestic race relations, leading to the attacks on 7 July.
Significantly, the Prime Minister committed our forces and their NATO supporters to the subjugation of Iraq, leaving the new democratic Afghan Government naked against a resurgent Taliban. He failed to provide adequate resources for our troops. They were left alone and unduly vulnerable on both fronts. Of course, despite that, they committed themselves to their allocated task with their customary resilience and fortitude. None of us is in any doubt as to their professionalism and skill, and attempts from the Prime Minister down to suggest that any criticism of the Ministry of Defence is designed to undermine our troops is a distortion that few are now taken in by.
On 24 July, the Secretary of State for Defence committed himself to providing two extra helicopters in Helmand province of Afghanistan to support our forces there, but he said that it would take more than three months to do so. He told the House:
“I have not, and nor have any of my predecessors, refused to provide anything that has been requested for our operations in Afghanistan.”—[Official Report, 24 July 2006; Vol. 449, c. 596.]
However, the Scottish Sunday Herald reported on 8 October:
“The most senior British commander in Afghanistan yesterday demanded more troop-carrying helicopters after Tony Blair promised to give the army whatever resources it needs to fight the Taliban.”
Brigadier Butler is quoted as stating:
“Helicopters have always been…my priority.”
The article goes on to state:
“The Ministry of Defence said that it was not aware of a request…‘The commanders have what they need to do the mission. Obviously, if they had more they could do more’…an MOD spokesman said.”
The article illustrates two points: first, commanders may be asking for more equipment but are not being provided with it, and secondly, the Prime Minister’s attempt at spin. He described such criticism as “negative reporting” and stated:
“I think the morale of our troops carrying this out is high, but they get fed up—as does everyone else—when it’s all presented in a negative light”.
It is spin and the constant failure to respond to honest questions in an honest way that characterises the approach of many members of the Government to the problems of the middle east. I exempt the Minister present today from that statement.
To get back to the narrative, we had warnings of an attack by Muslim extremists in this country for many months—indeed, for years—and on 7 July there were such attacks. I shall explore why in a moment. To many, the Prime Minister’s credibility had already been destroyed by the dodgy dossier revelations and Hutton’s incompetent inquiry, and many people believed him to be grandstanding. This time, when he said, “Trust me, we are going to be attacked”, many people did not trust him, and that was the case for months before the general election as well as afterwards.
We were attacked on 7 July, and the Prime Minister denied that the attack had anything to do with conflicts in the middle east. What could be less credible? UK-resident Muslims were beginning to fight the battles of the middle east on our streets.
Meanwhile, in Palestine, elections in 2006 returned a Hamas majority. I realise, of course, that the Palestinians have been guilty of the most vile attacks on civilians in Israel by means of suicide bombers, and I am prepared to believe that those attacks were organised by Hamas—that Hamas was the brain behind them, just as the brain behind the attacks on civilians in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK was that of Sinn Fein. The response of our Government was to pretend that the elections had not happened, and to attempt to set aside the result of one of the first democratic elections ever held in Palestine on the grounds that we do not like the outcome.
Would the hon. Gentleman accept that a major obstacle is the explicit refusal of the Hamas-led Government in the Palestinian Authority ever to accept the existence of Israel, and that Hamas continues to commit itself to armed struggle that targets civilians?
Of course I recognise that. In exactly the same way, I felt that about Sinn Fein.
The fact is that Hamas expresses several contrary views at the same time and that the people supposedly in government in Palestine are stronger on rhetoric than on action. Of course I accept that they are not making things easy, but I do not believe that that gives us the right to set aside the democratic decision of the Palestinian people, in so far as such a decision can be reached when many parts of what we regard as Palestine remain occupied. I question how in the minds of Labour Members it is right to set it aside when it was so wrong to do the same 50 years ago in respect of Iran.
My hon. Friend is making a reasonable and well-informed case, but does not the approach to Hamas involve rather more than the British Government? The Quartet, the international community, the United States and Mr. Javier Solana have all told Hamas that it must recognise the state of Israel, renounce violence and accept the commitments that had already been entered into by the Palestinian Authority. That has been said to Hamas since the elections.
My hon. Friend says that there is some ambiguity, but the leader of Hamas early this week was completely unambiguous. He stated that Hamas would not recognise the state of Israel. If the international community were to alter its response to Hamas, having already said what it has, what sort of message does he think that would send to Hamas? Perhaps one with which students of the 1930s might be familiar.
I am grateful for the way in which my hon. Friend put that. He listed a range of things said by the Quartet, the United Nations and so on, and I agree with him. I do not agree with the presumption that because Hamas will not say certain words we are entitled to set aside the result of the Palestinian election. Let me remind the Chamber that until 1997 the Government of the Republic of Ireland did not accept the right of Northern Ireland to be part of the United Kingdom. That did not mean that we pretended that they were not the Government.
Of course I recognise that. I am asking what is so different; what entitles us to disregard the democratically expressed view—[Interruption.] Yes, to pretend that a Government do not exist and to set aside the democratically expressed view of the people of Palestine.
The election was followed first not by the matters in south Lebanon but by attacks on Gaza. The first pictures that most of us saw were of children being attacked on beaches. I am quite prepared to believe that they were concealing weapons or terrorists because that is the way in which the terrorists of Palestine behave. The attacks on the beaches, which I believe followed the capture of one Israeli soldier who was approaching the border of Gaza, were followed by attacks on power stations and civilian installations in Gaza.
Would the hon. Gentleman like to remind the Chamber that the Israelis correctly withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and that that was followed not by attempts to set up a peaceful administration in Gaza but by rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, including the town of Sderot, on numerous occasions? The reaction to that has unfortunately caused civilian deaths but those rocket attacks on Israeli civilians continue despite Israel’s correct withdrawal from Gaza.
I am prepared to accept that, too. I am not trying to express the view that one side are the goodies and the others are the baddies in this conflict. There are serious errors on both sides, which it would have been better if our Government had been more equal in recognising. That is the failure of our Government that I so strongly criticise. There were, let us say, few words of condemnation from the Government. There had been plenty of words of condemnation of suicide bombers, but few on the Israeli attacks in Gaza, in particular the attacks on civilian installations, a matter on which our European colleagues, who helped to pay for those installations, were rather less reticent than our Government.
The last act—the last act so far, I fear—has been the conflict in Lebanon and the Government’s failure, in line with that of the United States and virtually no other nation, to call for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon. Indeed, they blamed Hezbollah and the seizing of two soldiers for the conflict in Lebanon and Israel’s reaction to the seizing of those soldiers. Human Rights Watch condemns both sides pretty unequivocally for breaches of international law and of internationally recognised human rights. It condemns Hezbollah for hostage taking and using the soldiers as pawns to negotiate the release of prisoners held in Israel, for its indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel and for hiding military targets and personnel in civilian areas, and it condemns Israel over the lawfulness of its attacks on south Lebanon, for the extraordinarily high level of civilian casualties that followed, for its repeated attacks on infrastructure, on Beirut airport, roads and bridges, and for attacks on fleeing civilians. Those were the tactics of the Nazis in 1939 and 1940: attacking fleeing civilians from the air. I know that that offends the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) and I do not mean to do so, but I must tell the truth.
What a stupid intervention, if I may say so. Of course I am not comparing it to the holocaust. If the hon. Lady was a little more careful in the way in which she listened to other hon. Members instead of parading her prejudices, she would have heard what I said, which was that Israel attacked fleeing civilians. That is all that I said.
I went to Lebanon two weeks ago and I have to say that my hon. Friend’s central thesis, which is that the United Kingdom’s policy has not been helpful, is certainly the case in Lebanon, where our Prime Minister is seen as personally responsible for the extension of the conflict beyond the second and third week and for the number of casualties that happened towards the end. I regret to say that my hon. Friend is correct that there are authenticated incidents, with witnesses, when children in pick-ups were machine-gunned by Israeli aircraft until they were apparently dead. That does not condone anything else that was done on the other side but I am afraid that we need to try to deal with the facts as they occurred on the ground and to move forward.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In a similar way I condemn the Palestinians and their supporters for using those children as human shields, as has also happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. There seems to be a significant difference of view of the value of human life between Muslims and Christians and Jews. That is a cultural difference with which we must cope. I am deeply and gravely concerned that the position of our country and the security of our people at home are being undermined because of the Government’s incompetent management of that difficult crisis.
Let me remind hon. Members of what has happened at home. Some 200,000 Muslims supported the actions of the London bus and tube bombers and yet when Muslim leaders wrote a letter to The Times it was condemned by the Government as an excuse for terrorism. That letter warned that there are some people who would already be supporting terror and asked how anyone could believe that those attacks were nothing to do with the events in the wider middle east that had led up to them.
I am gravely concerned that we have a minority in this country who are becoming more extreme or have a significant number of extremists among them. I believe that whether they were born here or move here they should adopt our way of life, our customs and our democratic way of settling disputes. They should not fight foreign battles on our streets.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for being so patient in giving way twice. Before he moves off the point of what is happening in the middle east, will he find time to think a little about the position of Mr. Mahmoud Abbas and about what can be done practically to enhance the peace process from where we are now rather than going through the terrible things that have happened on both sides in the past? My hon. Friend has mentioned Hamas, but he has not mentioned Mr. Abbas, who is prepared to recognise Israel and to be constructive but is in a difficult position at the moment. Perhaps my hon. Friend might want to press the Government on what they can do to help.
The Minister will have heard what my hon. Friend has said, so I shall not prolong my speech. I was hoping to take a quarter of an hour, and have already taken 19 minutes.
Those who accept UK citizenship should leave their old loyalties behind and not fight for the state of Israel or for Arab nations in our country.
The hon. Gentleman talks about people accepting UK citizenship, as though those responsible for the London bombings came from overseas and had to adapt to our way of life. Does he not accept that those people were British born and bred?
As someone once said, to be a British citizen is to win first prize in the lottery of life, and certain obligations go with that citizenship.
When I came to the House, I realised that the Prime Minister was a fantasist, but I had not thought that he was a warmonger. I do not believe that he wilfully lies about such things, but I do believe that he is wilfully careless of the distinction between truth and fiction and intellectually too idle to do the homework necessary to justify the position that he has taken on the middle east. He believes that today’s performance and tomorrow’s legacy are more important than the long-term good of our country and its people.
Bluntly, I think that the Prime Minister saw the middle east in the same way as he has seen other overseas escapades: as an opportunity to parade on the world stage. He never thought that we would lose so many people or so much respect, or that the war would escalate to the extent that it has, and he is not capable of resolving the situation. It was interesting to hear this morning that the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not want to go to war, although that is perhaps mischief put out by the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett).
In taking the approach that he has, the Prime Minister has done grave damage to the Labour party, to community relations in our country and to the peace of the wider world, and I fear that it will take a generation for hon. Members on both sides to remedy all that damage.
I will seek to be succinct, but I must respond to one or two of the comments that have been made. I must congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on winning the debate, although I regret the rather intemperate tone of some of his comments. I would be prepared to concede his case that there is a connection between the extremists in the UK who engage in criminal acts of terrorism, and those who engage in such acts elsewhere in the world, but I would argue that that is precisely why it is vital that members of the international community stand together and that the UK work with the United States, the United Nations and Europe to ensure a united response to what is, in reality, a war that is being waged against our way of life. I agree with that element of what the hon. Gentleman said, but I hope that his hon. Friend who visited Lebanon—I hope that he will forgive me, but I have forgotten his constituency.
Of course. I should remember, having worked with the hon. Gentleman in Northern Ireland. I hope, however, that he will challenge people in Lebanon who say that our Prime Minister is personally responsible for the war having been prolonged for two or three months. Had there been a Conservative Prime Minister, and had I been in the hon. Gentleman’s position, I would have challenged such an extreme depiction of what had happened. Those responsible for prolonging the war were the two sides in the conflict—Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Israel. We needed to find a solution to bring about a ceasefire.
The perception in Lebanon is that the Prime Minister is responsible, and the international community’s failure to call for a ceasefire was seen very much as the responsibility of the British. One would have expected the United States not to call for a ceasefire, but the fact that the United Kingdom did not do so and did not lead the rest of the international community in putting pressure on Israel has properly fingered the Prime Minister as one of the leading actors in failing to put sufficient pressure on Israel to desist when it became clear that its action was not only criminal under international law, but a disastrous policy for the state of Israel and the people of the Lebanon.
I am very sorry and disappointed to hear the hon. Gentleman come out with that point of view. He is entitled to his view, but he is fundamentally wrong.
I want to talk about the situation in Lebanon because so much has happened since we last debated it elsewhere in this place, and it is a pleasure to be back in Westminster Hall debating it this morning. I also took the opportunity during September to visit Israel and Palestine, and I hope that those elsewhere in this place will note that September is an important month for those of us with other things to do than meet permanently in this place—the Leader of the House please note. I went there with Labour Friends of Israel as part of a large delegation, and we listened to people who were directly involved in what was going on, as the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and other hon. Members will have done. During September, there was much debate in this country about what had happened, and the Prime Minister himself said that the conflict in August
“was a war that should never have happened”.
I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to consider why that is so and perhaps to give us his views on the issue.
It is important to remember that the north of Israel contains Israel’s industrial zone, and Haifa university is extraordinarily important to Israel. The region is a centre for heavy industry and its development. Between May 2000, when Israel withdrew from Lebanon, and June 2006, Hezbollah carried out more than 217 attacks on the north of Israel. There were 111 anti-aircraft attacks and a long list of other types of attack, involving various missiles and shooting incidents.
If I am able to catch your eye later, Mr. Weir, I might expand on this point, but is my right hon. Friend aware of the statistics on Hezbollah attacks on northern Israel in the months leading up to the war, rather than in the period since 2000?
I do not have the exact statistics month by month, but I am sure that they will be available. None the less, many families in the north of Israel had to spend significant parts of their daily lives in bomb shelters during the conflict. Israel faced a serious problem that required it to respond, and I should like the Minister to concentrate on the way in which that problem developed. I say that because, in playing its future role, the UN will be crucial in helping to move forward positively with a progressive solution to that problem.
As a result of the blanket media coverage of the Lebanese side, we know of the huge number of victims of the war on that side. There were more than 1,000 dead, and many more were injured and maimed for life. We know less about the dead and injured on the Israeli side because there was not the same coverage, but there were dead and many hundreds of injured. More than 800 people suffered shock and 300,0000 were displaced from their homes in northern Israel. We therefore know that there was suffering on both sides, and the hon. Member for Isle of Wight acknowledged that.
Let us look at how the situation developed. We know the history of Hezbollah, how the organisation developed and what its purpose is, and we know that Israel withdrew in 2000. Organisations such as the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades have openly acknowledged, as late as March 2006, that they receive funding, arms, training and support from Hezbollah. If the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades are not on the UK’s list of proscribed terrorist organisations, why are they not? Are the Government considering proscribing them?
I turn now to the role of the UN in Lebanon. When it was created in 1978, its role was to confirm Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, restore international peace and security and assist the Lebanese Government in restoring their authority in southern Lebanon. In 2000, the UN was able to confirm that it had carried out the first of those three roles, but it failed singularly to carry out the other two. That failure enabled Hezbollah to grow and develop, and to take such a deep hold in the community in south Lebanon that it was effectively a state within a state, operating its own social security system and almost its own system of taxation. That was a problem for Lebanon as much as for Israel. We now have a United Nations force with a new mandate, which has been enhanced. The force has been enhanced, but the new mandate, which includes monitoring the cessation of hostilities, also includes accompanying and supporting Lebanese armed forces as they deploy into south Lebanon.
The delegation of which I was a member met officers of the Israel defence forces who were responsible for part of the border area and had been involved in the conflict. We were taken to see the border and we listened to both Palestinian and Israeli voices about the conflict. The officers told us that they could see the development of Hezbollah positions on the northern side of the Israeli border. They could see arms being cached in those positions and the training that was going on across the border. In some instances they could observe that with the naked eye, because the positions were only yards from the border. When they drew those things to the attention of the United Nations patrols they were told, “We know. We see it too, but there is nothing that we can do. All that we can do is watch and monitor.”
It cannot be imagined that a British Government, in a similar situation, with a similar direct threat to their people, would not feel the same tremendous degree of threat that Israel felt in those circumstances. We have seen the conflict, and we all have our views about how it arose. We must accept that, the conflict having taken place, the best way forward now is to discuss how the UN role should develop. In future years will there be a UN force that performs a similar mandate? If that happens, it will lead to the risk of exactly the same circumstances developing in the future.
Would not my right hon. Friend also consider the necessity of de-escalating the level of armament in the region, and the fact that neighbouring countries feel concerned about the fact that Israel has such a vast army, such a huge arms industry, and nuclear weapons? Does she consider that that could be seen as intimidating to Israel’s neighbours, also?
I am happy to accept that there is that concern. We need not only an understanding of why Israel feels that threat, but an appreciation of the role that the UN could play. I think that the international community is united in wanting progress in the region. We are looking for a role that the UN could play, through its forces on the ground, that would materially assist the Lebanese Government to step into the void that Hezbollah filled, and to take over and bring the rule of law to the area, so that Israel could feel confident that there was security to the north of Israel, which would allow its people there to live the kind of lives that we live here.
I shall be brief and discuss just four or five points. First, as to our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, although I was not a Member of the House when it was decided that our troops should go to war, I believe that we should fully support everything that our troops do, because we sent them there. We must remember who sent our troops to war, and give them our utmost support. That should be the loud message that goes out from here today. I believe that most hon. Members, if not all, would agree with that.
I now want to move on to discuss Hamas. As I pointed out earlier, it is quite unusual when Hamas, Hezbollah and, indeed, Iran call for the destruction of the sovereign state of Israel. That must be put in context. The people who are in fear are, indeed, the Israelis. On many visits to the middle east, I have not once heard Israel make threats to destroy another country, or about that country not existing. That is not reciprocated. The soldiers who were kidnapped are still being held illegally. Governments of any political persuasion are duty bound to protect their people. In response to thousands of missiles—and we can argue about how many, but I do not think that there is any dispute about hundreds of missiles landing on Merom Hagalil, northern Israel, Haifa and beyond—the Prime Minister is duty bound to protect his people, regardless of political persuasion.
No sane person wants human life to be lost. It is precious, whether it is Palestinian or Israeli. However, the matter must be taken in context and we must look at what happened. I am delighted that there is a ceasefire. I hope and pray that peace can come to that troubled region. Visiting the House today is my brother-in-law, who lives in Israel, where there is a call-up every year into the army. For him, his children and my relatives, I hope that there is peace for everyone.
I want to pose my hon. Friend a question about what he called the destruction of the state of Israel. He implies that that means the destruction of all the people of Israel. The Iranian leader was pressed on precisely what he meant, and he was talking about the political end of the state of Israel. Are Hamas or Palestinian representatives allowed to have a negotiating position that holds that the state of Israel, as a political entity, should cease to exist? Obviously, if we are talking about people and the consequences for people, that is a different issue, but are they entitled to that as a negotiating position?
If the context and the text of what the Iranian Prime Minister said is read, it referred to the people of Israel—not the state of Israel or a political system: he referred to Jews and Israel. That was in his speech and was published in many middle eastern newspapers, so I do not think that there is any right in that. Anyone can, as a negotiating position, disagree with a political entity, but not recognising the state of Israel—if it is not allowed even to exist in school atlases that are given to children—is heading for trouble. That, in my view, is to call for the destruction of the state and people of Israel. Perhaps there is the interpretation that my hon. Friend gave, but the words that were published in English are not quite the same as what was said in some middle eastern newspapers.
I want to move on to talk about terrorism. I have worked closely for many years with the Muslim community of this country, and I passionately believe that most Muslim people in our country want peaceful co-existence with us. I think that in my constituency we are a beacon of light. We work together. We have a joint Christmas, Eid, Diwali and Hanukkah party every year and have worked in that way for many years. I pray that we shall do so for years to come, and I honour what Muslims have done for our community, but I do not believe that, whatever the figure for how many Muslims in Britain support terrorism, this country’s foreign policy should be dictated by terrorists. It is not the way forward for anyone. Appeasement has never worked in the past and it will not work in the future. The way to overcome it is to look at some of the difficulties.
It is easy to say that all the problems derive from the middle east, but I do not believe that to be the only issue. Many other social and economic issues are at stake, which drive people to certain ways. We must also look closely at indoctrination, and at what people are being told. However, I reiterate that I have not experienced any problem with most, if not all, of the Muslim people with whom I have personally come into contact, who, I believe, do not have a bad thought in them. It is always a minority who spoil it for the majority. That should not be forgotten.
I want briefly to mention one thing that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) said. I accept that when he spoke about the Nazis, he was not referring to Israel as doing anything equivalent to the holocaust. However, linking the word “Nazi” to Israel is unfortunately offensive. I have to say it openly: I have a personal difficulty with that on the ground that Israel has never and would never have concentration camps and would never do everything else that the Nazis did. I know that he did not mean that, but it can be interpreted in that way, and I would not want that to happen.
Finally, I turn to Iran. The biggest threat to the middle east, whether Israel or the other middle eastern countries, is Iran. I am not convinced that the daily sabre-rattling and the stage-managed street protests of hatred, not only for Israel but for Britain and America, would be any different if other regimes were in place in those other countries. We must be mindful of the real threat; perhaps others in this debate will talk of some of the other issues regarding Iran.
I too was able to spend a little time in Israel and Palestine in September. I shall speak on three subjects—first, a couple of reflections on the Lebanon war; secondly, on the situation of Arab communities within Israel; and, thirdly, some observations on where the peace process is going.
I said quite a lot over the summer condemning what Israel did in Lebanon, and I do not resile from that. Israel’s action there was immoral, illegal and unacceptable. Although I understood that, I thought it was important for me to go to northern Israel to see what was being and had been experienced there. I went to a village called Shlomi, and I have seen the communities living there; it is unacceptable for families to have to live in bomb shelters for extended periods.
Deaths are unacceptable, on whichever side. It is important that we all acknowledge it. If we are to draw conclusions for the future, however, it is important that we understand what happened and cut though some of the spin, some of which we have heard today. The impression has been given here, and I know it is given over there that somehow, before the conflict started, as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) said, hundreds of Hezbollah rockets were raining down on Israel.
The Sunday Times said in its editorial of 6 August:
“Whatever the rights and wrongs of Israel’s military engagement in Lebanon and Gaza, for instance, nobody can deny that it began with the near daily bombardment which Northern Israel has suffered from Hezbollah terrorists in the past few years.”
If we go back to 2000 to the present day, we find about 200 rockets coming down. It is difficult to find evidence of that in the period leading up to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In July, I tabled questions to the Foreign Secretary asking how many incidents there were, and when and where, in the year leading up to the Lebanon war. I am still waiting for a reply.
I asked the Library to investigate; it checked in journals such as those on the Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre. As far as I can tell, in August last year there was one mortar attack on a northern Israeli town, which caused no injury and it is thought that Hezbollah may not have been responsible. There also appear to have been two attacks from Lebanon on Israeli military positions in the Shebaa farms area. There is disagreement about whether that territory is Lebanese or Syrian, but it is not part of Israel. However, it has been under Israeli military occupation for decades. A couple of Hezbollah attacks have been made with small arms on Israeli military positions. In all, however, there were two Israeli military fatalities and no civilian ones.
The death of anyone from armed conflict is tragic, whether soldier or civilian, but it tells a rather different story from what we sometimes hear, so I went to Shlomi and asked the villagers how many attacks there had been. They said that there had been loads, and that they had presented evidence. They said that since 2004 there have been a couple of Katyusha rocket attacks on an industrial area, but no casualties were suffered.
I cite the evidence given by the town council of Shlomi. On 22 February 2005, it said:
“There was an attempted Syrian invasion;—
I thought that that was pretty serious, but I had not heard about it—
“the culprit was captured while trying to enter Israeli territory via Sholmi. He is trying to obtain political asylum.”
I do not know who that was, but to describe it as an attempted Syrian invasion is pushing it a bit.
I do not say that the fear of those living in Shlomi is anything other than real; of course it is. If there are armed people over the fence from you in Lebanon, you are going to be scared. And those who live in southern Lebanon, who have the Israeli Defence Forces over the fence from them will be pretty scared as well. The only invasion that has happened in recent years has been the Israeli invasion of Lebanon; it was not the other way around. The fear on both sides is real, but I raise the matter because we need some rigour in understanding what happened in the run-up to the Lebanon war.
Those statistics indicate that the Shebaa farms issue is a major source of tension in the area. It is the pretext for Hezbollah retaining its arms in Lebanon. In practical terms, that is where progress is needed. Resolving that is the key. I caution any Government who want to put preconditions on resolving the issue of the Shebaa farms, because getting that sorted will allow so many other things.
I shall now speak about Arab communities in Israel. Much attention has been given to the fears of Israel’s Jewish communities—and rightly so. I noted a huge polarisation of Israeli society, and the Palestinian communities, particular in northern Israel, feel utterly alienated from the state of which they are citizens. Long-standing matters such as nationality laws that discriminate against them, or regulate who they can live with or marry are a problem. That alienation was brought to the fore by the fact that when Hezbollah attacks were coming—after the war had started and not before—Arab communities were not given the same protection as others. They were not given bomb shelters or the early warning systems that other communities in Israel had. That increased the sense of alienation.
Israel talks about the need to withdraw from certain areas of the occupied territories—which I would like to see—in order to solve the demographic problem; it means that Israel should not be ruling over territories where the non-Jewish minority might one day become a majority. What signal, what message, does that send to Israel’s Palestinian and Arab citizens? The message is that they are tolerated, so long as they know their place and never become a majority. They now feel that they are regarded as a sort of fifth column in the state of which they are citizens. The international community needs to bear that in mind.
I turn to the peace process. When I was on the plane going to Israel, there was every hope of a national unity Government between Hamas and Fatah. By the time we landed, it seemed that those hopes had gone. I hope that it was nothing to do with my journey. Hamas and Fatah have real issues to deal with in order to go forward. Hamas needs to deal with what the international community says about violence, about accepting Israel as part of a long-term settlement and about abiding by existing agreements.
The international community, too, needs to make a few decisions. Do we want to encourage Hamas down that political route, or do we want to issue fog-horn demands that are not made of the other side? Should we insist on every dot and comma of the most inflexible interpretation of the preconditions, so that when they do not accept that we can say, “We told you so. There is no chance of progress. There is no partner for peace. We have a choice. I want to go down the first route. Sadly, diplomacy from the United States and sometimes from our country, seems to be going down the second route.
It is important to remember that actions speak louder than words. There was violence from Palestinian groups during the latter part of 2005. My right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) was right to say that. Hamas was on ceasefire for the best part of a year, and it then entered elections for the first time. I wish that that was sometimes acknowledged. Hamas has never said that it recognises Israel or that it will renounce violence, but in practical terms it had a ceasefire for a year. Israel said that it accepted existing agreements and says that it wants to support a Palestinian state, yet 3,000 Palestinians have died since the start of the intifada, settlement building has continued in defiance of international agreements, and the wall is being built which closes in many ways many of the chances of there being a viable Palestinian state.
If we want to make progress, it is important that we look at the actions of the parties involved, not just what they say. In order to ensure that Hamas moves towards a political route and accepting a two-state solution, it is absolutely vital that we understand the dynamics. That includes recognising the levels of poverty and deprivation in Gaza and increasingly in the west bank, where there are 160,000 public servants—refuse collectors, teachers and health workers—who have not been paid for months. That is causing real hardship, and it is a problem when those people hear all the demands apparently coming to one side and polite reminders going to the other.
The whole international community is asking Hamas to recognise Israel; it is a United Nations request. It is not one small thing, but a significant thing that would allow the sovereign Governments of other nations to say that this is now a Government with whom we can deal.
The international community is saying that it wants Hamas to recognise Israel. I would like Hamas to recognise Israel. However, I want to find ways to make it happen, rather than simply saying that Hamas has not done it so there will be no talking and the conflict will continue. The international community has also said clearly to Israel that it should discontinue building settlements and that it does not agree with the wall in occupied territory, and rightly so. Do we ever hear the international community saying to Israel, “We won’t talk to you unless you change your policy.”? Do we ever hear the United States Agency for International Development saying that the huge financial support they give to Israel for development should be cut off until Israel abides by international agreements and recognises in practice, not in theory, how to achieve a Palestinian state?
I am not suggesting that the international community should stop talking to Israel. However, considering the approach we take with Israel, simply saying that we will not even engage in a dialogue with Hamas and ignoring its ceasefires and the fact that it has been democratically elected, we have a problem. We should not ignore what President Abbas, who has no love of Hamas, has said about encouraging dialogue and moving Palestinian society forward.
I welcome our Prime Minister’s commitment to do everything he can to move the peace process on, but that requires movement from both sides. I would like to draw attention one more time to an issue repeatedly brought up by Palestinian communities and people in the Lebanon: that the west, and all too often Britain, displays double standards. If we give the impression that we have double standards, our credibility will be reduced, as will our chances of promoting peace with justice for all peoples in the region.
I commend the speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and the enormous amount of work he has done over a prolonged period to advance the understanding of the situation in the occupied territories as chairman of the Britain-Palestine all-party group. It is a pleasure to work with him on that group as vice-chairman.
One of the purposes of these debates should be to advance our understanding of the region, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on obtaining this debate and on his speech. I do not necessarily agree with every dot and comma, but I agree with his general thesis.
The past five years have been a disaster for the British national interest in the middle east. There has been constant debate about how we arrived at that position, but whatever the reasons, the reputation of the United Kingdom has taken a heavy hit, and the war in Lebanon has made that position even worse.
The right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) said that we are engaged in a war against our way of life. I urge caution in the use of such rhetoric. There is a conflict, but much of it is about the future and shape of Islam, and we are in many ways witnesses to it. When we take part in that conflict and try to act on the side of the people who want a rational interpretation of Islam consistent with liberal western values, often the consequence of our policy is precisely the opposite of what we intended. Direct foreign intervention in a number of countries has in fact helped the people who really do have very different values from ours.
A week ago, I returned from a day in Syria and four days in the Lebanon with the Conservative Middle East Council. We had an outstanding visit, and I am grateful to the ambassadors of both countries for helping us to arrange it. We did not ask our embassy in Syria to assist, because it is Government policy that we should not talk to the Syrians—which I think is a mistake. I understand why the Government wish to isolate and punish Syria for its activities, some of which, in the light of the Hariri inquiry, look deeply unattractive. However, Syria is governed by a secular, socialist party—in name—and we have driven Syria into the arms of Iran. When we ask Syrian politicians how that has happened, with two Governments with very different attitudes now in almost formal alliance, we find that they feel that my enemy’s enemy is my friend.
Following the sense of hope that accompanied the arrival in office of President Bashar al-Assad, we should continue to work at reinforcing what we believe and understand to be his policy to aim at modernising Syria and breaking it away from its past record, particularly under his father.
One of the encouraging parts of my visit to Syria was to meet Deputy Prime Minister al-Dardari, who is in charge of economic affairs and is a most impressive figure. He has a clear idea of the economic challenge faced by Syria and the need to liberalise and modernise its economy. When we engaged with him about the capacity of Syria to do that in terms of its administrative structure and ability to find the entrepreneurs to deliver economic modernisation, he had a clear idea of the difficulties that he faced, but it was very clear to us that he enjoys the unqualified support of the President in the effort to modernise the economy. If the system is open and liberalised and can bring benefits by, for example, providing transit routes from port facilities to Iraq, there is an opportunity for the Syrian economy to develop, and that can only be a good thing.
The right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree said that we know the history of Hezbollah. I am not sure that we do. Lebanese politics is horrendously complicated: the Lebanese ambassador once said that if one had begun to think that one understood it, it was a clear demonstration that one had not. The history of conflict in the Lebanon between all the different groups that make up Lebanese society is long and involved and goes back many hundreds of years.
For example, we went to the Shatila refugee camp. We had all heard of the massacre of the Palestinians in 1982 when the Israeli armed forces surrounded the camp and enabled the Phalange to carry out the massacre. What I was not aware of was that the camp was entirely flattened between 1985 and 1987 as an extension of a row between President al-Assad of Syria and Yasser Arafat of the PLO. Although the camp that we saw had been completely rebuilt since 1987, it still looked as if it came out of one of the worst parts of mediaeval London with buildings on top of each other, very narrow streets, poor light and frankly appalling conditions. One goes from there to the wealthy side of Lebanon, the success of entrepreneurs and the amazing renaissance of Beirut.
In trying to understand Hezbollah, we should avoid characterising its supporters too simply. One example will suffice. I spent some time talking to a young Shi’a Muslim man who was a convinced Hezbollah supporter, but when I tell hon. Members that his occupation of choice was clubbing and his drink of choice was vodka, they can see that to characterise Hezbollah as some fundamentalist Islamic organisation might be slightly wide of the mark. Hezbollah enjoys enormous public support in southern Lebanon from the Shi’a Muslims, because it is seen as the liberator of most of Lebanon in 2000.
Lebanon remains to be fully liberated. The issue of the Shebaa farms continues to exist and to give Hezbollah a cause and a reason to remain armed as a militia. If nothing else, it is essential that Israel deals with that excuse for Hezbollah to remain armed. One beneficial consequence of the war—there are not many—is that the Lebanese army is now deployed right down to the border in southern Lebanon, and there will be a substantial United Nations force, but we need to remove as far as possible any excuses that Hezbollah has to remain an armed organisation within a state, and the continued occupation of part of Lebanon is one of those reasons.
Thank you for calling me to make the first of the winding-up speeches, Mr. Weir. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on securing the debate. It is interesting to follow the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), who I suspect laid out in very concise and interesting terms the advice that the Foreign Office has been providing for the Prime Minister and that the Prime Minister has continued to ignore over recent months and years.
This is a wide-ranging subject for debate and because time is limited I propose to concentrate on two issues. One is taking stock of the position in which we find ourselves in Iraq, and the other is the issue that came before the House prominently before the summer recess and that has continued to be prominent over the summer—the situation in Lebanon.
I shall start with Iraq. As hon. Members will recall, the Liberal Democrats, before I was elected, vigorously opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. We regarded it as a war not of necessity but of political choice on a flawed prospectus and a fabricated threat, and that has proved to be the case. The war should never have been fought. It has led to the deaths of approximately 40,000 civilians and the figure for coalition soldiers is approaching 3,000, and it has not delivered the benefits that the Iraqi people were promised in advance would be a consequence of it. In addition, it has certainly not decreased the terrorist threat in Britain. It has caused widespread resentment against western states, particularly from within the Muslim and Arab world, and it has undermined the international authority both of the United Nations and of Britain and its allies.
However, as I think most people would agree, by invading Iraq the Government created a moral obligation and strategic imperative to work towards the reconstruction and stabilisation of Iraq. I and my party support that process, but we cannot hand on heart say that the current strategy of the British Government or the United States Government is an unequivocal success, so we now need to consider how we can build on it and put in place a strategy to take us from where we currently are to a more successful resolution.
At the moment, the very survival of the state of Iraq is in jeopardy, and if Iraq is allowed to become a failed state, the economic and security implications for both the region and the western world will be devastating. Civil war in Iraq would clearly risk drawing in neighbouring states and making the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territory even worse, as well as having implications for our nuclear negotiations with Iran. I know that other hon. Members who have been unable to speak wished to touch on that subject. Therefore, it is of great importance, as I think everyone would agree, that we have a successful strategy in place for Iraq.
I do not have time to go into great detail, but as features of that strategy we should be considering internationalisation of the forces in Iraq, greater strengthening of the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Iraqi Government and their being able to demonstrate that they can deliver essential services to their people, and strengthening the rule of law and human rights in that country. I hope that the Government can work towards that. I suspect that, at the moment, we are carrying on and hoping that matters will improve without necessarily having a firm enough plan in mind for how we can reach a satisfactory conclusion.
The second issue is Lebanon and I shall start by reminding hon. Members of the bare facts of the events that took place a few months ago. One million people—a quarter of Lebanon’s population—were displaced by the fighting. More than 1,000 people—mainly civilians—were killed in Lebanon during that brief war. It is worth noting that, on the other side, about 150 Israelis—mainly soldiers—were also killed. The total estimate of the cost of repairing the damage done during the brief conflict was in the range of $5 billion.
I want to make something clear straight away, because I want to correct a misconception that I sometimes hear. The Liberal Democrat party is not an anti-Israel party. We recognise the threat that Israel faces and we strongly support the continued existence of a viable, secure and prosperous Israeli state. We are unequivocal in our condemnation of the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers and much of the action undertaken by Hezbollah in the recent conflict, but—this is a reasonable “but”; I have not come here to argue the case for one side or the other, although I know that many hon. Members in this debate regard themselves as representatives of one side or the other—it is wholly appropriate to recognise that the response of the Israelis was disproportionate.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight spoke about this in graphic terms, and I would not necessarily choose to use those terms myself, but the bombing of infrastructure such as bridges and civic buildings demonstrated a recklessness that was not in Israel’s interests, that led to considerable loss of human life and an even greater loss, possibly, of political good will, and that obviously was extremely expensive in financial terms. Someone will have to pay the bill for the reconstruction. The use of, for example, cluster bombs was, in my view, entirely inappropriate in that context, but we are where we are. I hope that a more secure future can be found and that the prosecution of that case by the United Nations will be advantageous.
I shall finish with a slightly party political point. When this situation arose, the leader of the Liberal Democrat party was, I think, the first to urge restraint and the use of diplomacy and to urge that the response be internationalised. That was a significant moment in terms of our view in this House about the situation. The leader of the Conservative party had nothing to say for several weeks and waited to see which way the wind was blowing, which I suspect was a cause for concern for people in his party who hold views on both sides of the argument. The leader of the Labour party, the leader of the Government, isolated himself and chose to support the United States in giving what appeared to be tacit approval to the Israelis to carry on their attacks in Lebanon. I regard that as a huge error of his, which has confirmed in the minds of many people in the middle east his inability to resolve the conflicts in that region. I fear that, while he remains Prime Minister, we will make less progress than we otherwise would.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on securing this broad-brush debate on developments in the middle east. In applying for it before the summer recess, he was shrewd enough to recognise that events might have moved on and that if he had concentrated on just one area, he might have found the issue resolved. Unfortunately, it was not. However, he opened up a debate in which, as is usual in these debates on the middle east, there is a tremendous amount of passion, and we have advocates speaking on both sides, particularly about Israel and Palestine, and strongly articulating their views. I suppose that I must say that the Liberal Democrat spokesman lived up to the highest reputation of the Liberal Democrats that many of us are used to in these kinds of debates.
I shall comment in broad terms on developments in the middle east. When the House adjourned for the summer recess in July, there was great concern across the board about the conflict involving Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah, which had dragged Lebanon in, and about wider issues such as the situation in Iraq and the open defiance of Iran. It is impossible for us not to see that those situations are, at different levels, connected, and that Britain has a role to play, although I suspect that that role is limited. There was a feeling in the House—I choose my words carefully—that there appeared to be some drift on the Government’s behalf in July. Indeed, many of us felt that they were reluctant to have the middle east debated on the Floor of the House, and some pressure had to be brought to bear to get such a debate.
Over the summer, there have been efforts from the international community to set up some form of stability in southern Lebanon, there has been a lot of commentary about what continues to be a deteriorating situation in Iraq, and there has, of course, been an attempt to persuade the Iranians not to go ahead with the development of nuclear weapons, but that international commitment appears to have been half-hearted, to say the least, and often counter-productive. The question that we must ask about the overarching problem in the middle east is: what role can the British Government play? It is always embarrassing to any British Government, but particularly so to this Government, that while we stand always four-square alongside our major ally, the United States of America, we are the junior partner. There is nothing wrong with being the junior partner, but it would be nice if at times we were told what we are supposed to do before reading about it in the press or hearing about it in the media.
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me; I have only a limited amount of time.
There is no doubt, as far as the situation between Israel and Hezbollah is concerned, that it was absolutely intolerable that Israeli civilians came under direct rocket attacks. Somebody said to me, “You Brits have never experienced that,” but actually we did in 1944 and 1945, when there were probably as many British civilians killed by V1s and V2s as by conventional airpower. That was pretty frightening.
As we have said in previous debates, the problem for Israel was that, sadly, the Israeli military got it wrong. As always, what airpower can deliver was overestimated: everyone a coconut; no collateral damage. Many Israelis, both civilians and those in the military, would recognise that one of Israel’s problems in dealing with Hezbollah—its rocket attacks and hiding among civilians—was that the very nature of its strategy meant that there would be collateral damage, to use that awful expression, and that large numbers of civilians would be killed. That was equally unacceptable, including to many Israelis.
A number of hon. Members talked about Hamas and Fatah. We are restrained on this issue. Whatever the problems with Israel and its negotiating strategy with its Arab neighbours, the Arabs have been utterly incompetent in coming up with any strategy, tactic or negotiating position that would, given that they are in the majority surrounding Israel, persuade the Israelis to come to any form of negotiation.
No; I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me, but I have only a couple of minutes left.
Fatah and Hamas have been at each other’s throats and have killed each other’s people. Time and time again, Fatah, certainly, has failed to take the opportunities it was given by the international community.
Syria and Iran have played an inflammatory role, to say the least, in the situation in the middle east in the past few years. Iran is now in a position almost like—I hate to use historical analogies, but I shall use one here—revolutionary France in the 1790s. We should bear in mind what happened there with the ancien régime countries that surrounded Iran and the kind of revolutionary export that took place.
I turn to Iran. I should be grateful if the Minister would give his thoughts on the fact that many people are beginning to think that there is an almost inevitability to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. The Iranians are playing for time, and the United Nations Security Council seems unable to produce any form of sanctions that are likely to persuade them not to acquire them. Russia and China are, to say the least, equivocal. We face a similar problem in trying to restrain and constrain North Korea on the other side of the globe.
It is impossible to disentangle the situation between Israel, the Palestinians and Lebanon from those in Iraq and Iran. I would like to think that, having sat through the summer, the Government now have a strategic path to deal with these interconnecting problems, because, as many hon. Members have said, they lead directly back here. It is in no way acceptable that British citizens should believe that the activities of the British Government and their foreign policy, even if one fundamentally disagrees with them, give one the right to commit atrocities in this country or abroad. There are other ways of doing things. Many of us have deep disagreements, and other minority groups in the UK have held such views.
Finally, the Minister may not agree, but it is unfortunate—I am again being careful with my words here—that in a time in which the situation in the middle east appears to be deteriorating, the Prime Minister has for some time given the impression that he intends to stand down. There is a hiatus, and if one goes to the middle east and talks to people there, one will find that they are aware of it. There is an uncertainty about who is to succeed as Prime Minister. The ongoing hustings—I put it no stronger than that—within the party in government, such as the revelations in diaries and elsewhere, do not help to resolve a deteriorating situation in which there appears to be no overarching strategy from the British Government.
I, too, thank the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) for initiating this debate. I say to my friend, the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), that if I could stymie the literary ambitions of my colleagues, I would be doing a great service to everyone. [Laughter.]
I do not have time to keep a diary, but I should have done.
I have enjoyed this morning’s debate. This issue has certainly generated passion, as the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said, as it has in every such debate that I have been to. I know that hon. Friends of mine who contribute regularly to such debates, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), would have liked to speak in this debate.
We quite properly have many debates on the middle east, although perhaps not enough, in some people’s opinion. The issue is certainly a key concern for the Government, and much of our energy is devoted to gaining visible evidence of some progress in achieving a stable, secure and prosperous region. We have heard this morning that that is in the interests of everyone, not just those who live in the region, because of the centrality to the issue of world peace of the middle east conflict.
We have heard some interesting contributions this morning. The debate must centre itself on certain assumptions. The one that I hold is that, in different ways, we must arrive at a situation where there are two viable states alongside each other—the Palestinian state and the Israeli state—both of which can live in peace and prosperity. I am unsure whether all hon. Members present agree with me; I know that some believe that that can never be achieved, and that there must be another arrangement in that area that would allow some other political entity to be created. I do not agree with that. During the past 60 years we have examined many ideas about what could evolve in that area, but I cannot see a better target than the one that we have at present, to which the road map is designed to try to allow us to get somewhere close. We must keep that in mind.
We are working to support the emergence of a dynamic region at peace with itself and its neighbours. Our policy focuses on creating the conditions necessary for stability and security. It tackles the obstacles preventing progress, and promotes the opportunities and freedoms that are universally agreed and which we enjoy in the UK. We want the youth of the region to grow up with optimism in environments that reflect international standards of governance and the rule of law, where they can express freely their opinions, be free from repression and terror, obtain a good education, have the prospect of meaningful employment, and benefit from globalisation. The significant amount of humanitarian and development assistance that we provide to the people of the region is helping to achieve those objectives, but it is not doing so quickly enough.
I have said before that I fear the consequences of another generation of children in Gaza not receiving an adequate education. I have seen for myself in many countries the effect of an entire generation of young people receiving virtually no education. I am thinking of some of the appalling madrassahs that I have visited in many countries in the eastern part of what is rather frivolously called the “middle east”. We began by mentioning Afghanistan, and as a child at Mountain Ash grammar school I would have been surprised if I had heard Afghanistan described as part of the middle east; it might have been described as being in south or central Asia. I think that we still have a rather imperialist attitude in the way in which we use these terms. I have seen the effects there of a lack of education and a complete lack of health care, and we must address ourselves to such things.
The Minister mentions children. Will he discuss with the Minister for Women and Equality the discussions that she had in Helsinki last week on women’s rights, the protection of women and children in the region of the conflict, and, in particular, support for the international women’s commission?
That is an enormously important issue. I was in Nepal last week, where I saw the effects that a small literacy and health care project that the embassy is running had on women’s lives in a little village. The situation was extraordinary: people were speaking up with confidence about how they could alter their lives. I want to say something about that because it is so important. These are the goals that terrorists and extremists fear; they do not want people liberated in that way or for people to feel that they can speak with openness, freedom and impunity about matters that affect them so much. That is why terrorists want to provoke instability and why our objective of creating the conditions for lasting stability is such a threat to them.
Will the Minister address how our current policies and those of the international community towards Gaza—the cutting off of aid, the colluding with the Israeli siege of Gaza, which has led to a total breakdown of law and order and a humanitarian crisis to which the UN is drawing our attention—are contributing to stability?
That is a good rhetorical question and I am sure that my hon. Friend knows what answer I shall give: we very much believe that the Palestinian people must be aided in all kinds of ways. Per head of population they have probably received more aid than any other country that we assist in the entire world, and we are the second largest contributors to the Palestinian people. I must also draw her attention to points that have been made by the hon. Members for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott), and others. I could not commit a Government to giving money to a regime that has, and will in the future, give that money to suicide bombers to attack and murder innocent people in another country—that is no way for a democratic Government to behave. We need to find a settlement in the middle east.
I remember recently, being in Ramallah and meeting Abu Mazen and his Cabinet in the middle of the night. They want a Government of national unity and I believe that they can achieve one, but they will not do so, and they will not achieve a dialogue with Israel, if the Israelis believe that all that will result from a relaxation of the situation is more suicide bombers.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I do not think that Members of Parliament should be arrested and held. We are not entirely free of a history of parliamentarians being involved in nefarious activities, so I would not like to see them being above the law, but I do not think it sends out good messages when elected Members of Parliament are arrested.
In the few moments that I have left I should say that I was taken with some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt). I was glad to hear that he had been to Syria and had discussions with its Deputy Prime Minister—
I hope that Syria realises that its future does not lie with the present regime in Iran, which is not a popular regime inside Iran. It is involved in some pretty despicable activities, of which the arming of Hezbollah is just one. I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman say that Syria is examining its position carefully, as it should be doing so. It is a difficult position and has always been so. Part of the reason for all of these disputes is probably a weekend in Cairo in 1921 when Winston Churchill, along with his so-called “experts”, drew up the borders in the first place, but we have to live with that.
I have many friends back home in Wales, here in London and in all parts of the country who disagree profoundly and fundamentally with the Government’s foreign policy. Throughout my life, I have many times disagreed with the foreign policy that has been followed by our Government, but I do not strap explosives to my chest, go to the underground and murder 52 people. There can be no rationalisation for doing such a thing and to suggest one is nonsense. We cannot live with the idea that where someone feels passionately about something, they can have some kind of religious compunction to go out to murder people, whether on the streets of Kabul, Haifa, Karachi, Mumbai, Buenos Aires or Istanbul. We are a democratic society. It has taken many long, hard years of struggle to create the democratic institutions that we have in this country. The idea that we should back down and say, “They are very passionate about this, therefore they should be allowed to murder other people” is completely beyond me and we should resist it—
A419 and A417
I thank you, Mr. Weir, and Mr. Speaker for allocating time for this debate. I also thank the Minister for being here this morning to respond to this debate.
The A419/417—which I shall rechristen the last missing link—and its road surfacing problems have been among the longest running and most contentious issues that I have encountered during my 14 years as Member of Parliament for Cotswold. I was present when John Watts, the then Transport Minister, opened the Brockworth bypass in 1994. At the time, I am sure that, as the Department had spent £150 million on dualling the rest of the road, there was every intention of completing that last missing link from Swindon to Gloucester. I secured this debate this morning to urge the Minister to rectify the situation and to finish the project that was started so many years ago.
I should add that part of the road is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), and I am delighted to see him and my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) here today.
Let me explain why this road link is vital not only to my constituents but to Gloucestershire and the nation as a whole. It is vital on safety grounds because of environmental concerns in an area of outstanding natural beauty and because it is the main link from the M4 to the M5. It is also vital because businesses in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire rely on this connection to ensure our economic success, and Gloucestershire is the gateway to and from the south-west and the rest of the country.
My hon. Friend’s intervention—I had no idea what he would raise, although I knew that he would intervene—is prescient because, as I shall explain, a largely sea-locked region of the south-west depends vitally on its transport links, which include rail and road. That is why the A417/419 link is so important. With the completion of the dual carriageway at Stratton St. Margaret, this is now the last stretch of single carriageway along the route. One can drive from Palermo in southern Italy to Perth in the middle of Scotland along unbroken dual carriageway with the exception of this three-mile stretch.
My parliamentary colleagues, Gloucestershire county council, and local communities, businesses and individuals have been vociferous in the search for a solution, and I believe that the A417/419 should be a national and not a regional priority. The issue highlights a deficiency of regional government and how a project such as this, based in a county on the periphery of three adjoining regions, can suffer disproportionately.
It is particularly important to my constituents because we are not only in Gloucestershire, which is on the edge of our region, but on the edge of Gloucestershire on the other side of the river. Completing this road link is extremely important for the economic prospects of my constituency. I wish my hon. Friend good luck and look forward to the Minister’s reply.
A section of my speech will enhance what my hon. Friend said about this being the bottleneck to the south-west region, and he will hear how I make that case.
This section of the A4l7 has a poor safety record and suffers from severe congestion. Traffic volumes are approximately 28,000 to 31,000 vehicles a day, of which approximately 12 to 14 per cent. are heavy goods vehicles. It is not true to say that nothing has been done about the road. Three small local improvement schemes have been completed recently to improve safety at the Golden Hart public house, the Air Balloon roundabout and Birdlip junction. A number of additional small improvements are planned in the next few years. However, it must be recognised that a longer-term solution is required.
I know from both personal experience and my constituency mailbag that queues occur regularly at peak periods. Traffic on the steep hills at Nettleton and Crickley, which are partly in the Forest of Dean constituency, is slow moving, and heavy goods vehicles compound the queuing problems, particularly in inclement weather when HGVs break down on the hill, causing severe congestion. In some places the road standard is generally quite poor, with tight bends and narrow lanes. Vehicle shunts occur regularly at the Air Balloon roundabout and there are accident clusters at Nettleton Bottom, Birdlip, the Air Balloon roundabout and on Crickley hill. One HGV ploughed into the end wall of a rather nice pub, the Golden Hart at Nettleton Bottom. It demolished the wall and killed the driver. That is the sort of thing that occurs.
I contend that this is a nationally important scheme. Other road projects throughout the south-west—I am coming to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean—have gained priority over the A417 and A419, but the great majority of those under construction are deeply embedded in the south-west region: for example, the A30 at Merrymeet in Devon, the A30 Bodmin to Indian Queens dual carriageway in Cornwall, the Chiverton roundabout in Cornwall, major road resurfacing works on the A38 at Peartree in Devon or Cartuther to Liskeard in Cornwall.
The list continues. Those are deeply embedded schemes in the south-west and while I am sure they all have tremendous merit, the crucial point is that Gloucestershire and the A417 act as the gateway to the south-west. However, the Minister, the Department, the south-west regional bodies and the Highways Agency must consider how crucial are major projects at the very bottleneck of the region. If the bottleneck is not clear, however much infrastructure regeneration there is further down the line, there will always be constraint at the top of the bottle.
The road has an environmental impact. For example, the standard of living is affected by traffic congestion, daily queues and road closures as a result of accidents. A particular problem in our area is that rat-running is common through Cotswold villages and communities and includes heavy goods vehicles on small, single-track roads. When there is an accident or road closure, massive, 44-tonne HGVs are routed along single-track roads through little Cotswold villages, and a serious accident is waiting to happen if that continues.
My hon. Friend has touched on an important point. When roads are closed, many of the turns on and off are more than dangerous. When two HGVs have met on those single-track roads there has been absolute chaos. People may be walking along a single-track road and drivers who come off the dual carriageway may not realise that they are on a single-track road and be driving far too fast. A serious accident is waiting to happen.
My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean referred to economic prospects. The last missing link is also a bar to our continuing growth and the economic prosperity of businesses throughout Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. The Gloucester business park is one of the fastest expanding business parks in the country, and I urge the Minister, if he ever has time, to have a look at it, because it is a prime example of really good planning close to a motorway and shows how successful a business park can be. However, with today’s modern economic environment and just-in-time deliveries, it is being hampered by the missing link, as are businesses between Swindon and Gloucester, and all economic activity in the southern half of my constituency. It is not just a matter of building infrastructure; economic growth is being hampered.
There have been various schemes over the past five years, as the Minister knows only too well. A tunnel and various surface schemes along the way have been investigated. Three years ago, the Minister’s Department discarded the tunnel option, which would have incurred very large capital and running costs. Since then, it has developed a surface scheme for a dual carriageway which largely follows the layout of the existing road. The Department’s consultants, WSP, have been working closely with statutory environmental bodies to minimise any negative impact of the scheme on the environment, particularly the area of outstanding natural beauty and the aquifer. I am encouraged by the positive feedback about that process, because as the Minister knows, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury certainly knows, it is a technically difficult problem. Traffic needs to be turned 275° going up Brockworth hill in my hon. Friend’s constituency and approaching Cirencester and Swindon in mine. The steep gradients also add to the difficulty.
A further dimension to consider is traffic entering the Air Balloon roundabout via the A436 from Oxford. It is not easy to find an engineering solution. Although the latest designs by the Highways Agency’s consultants are not perfect, they at least show some progress and that, crucially, the issue is still live. However, studies, reviews and investigations do not deliver an improved road, better safety, decreased congestion or economic growth.
In February, I joined my parliamentary colleagues, the county and district councils and Gloucestershire First in sending the Minister a letter of support for the scheme. It was our intention to have the project included in the national trunk road programme, and more specifically in the targeted programme for improvements. Our aim was hampered, because all transport investment is subject to regional prioritisation. The A417 needed support from others in our region. The vast south-west region has produced its initial transport spending list, and the implementation plan for transport is part of the regional spatial strategy, as the Minister knows. The spending list includes our scheme, but only under its third most important priorities—projects after 2016. Most schemes that are not in the programme will see no further work, even in terms of planning, for the next five years. Even the Highways Agency would be uncomfortable with that decision.
The Government office for the south-west and the Highways Agency appear to acknowledge that the plans may not have recognised important road schemes on the periphery of the region, and also on the periphery of three other regions. I am sure that the Minister appreciates the area’s vast geography, but it is worth noting that Chipping Campden, a pretty market town in the north of my constituency, is closer to the Scottish border than it is to Land’s End at the end of the south-west region. That is the difficulty with making decisions in such a large region.
On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean, in a largely sea-locked region, road links are crucial to regeneration and economic prosperity. Although the Highways Agency is sympathetic to our plight, the prioritisation process is new, and many admit that it needs further development and refinement. The South West regional assembly has not recognised the vital link that the road provides for my constituents, the rest of Gloucestershire, the south-west region, and the regions of the south-east, west midlands and Wales, which adjoin my constituency and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Tewkesbury and for Forest of Dean. I am concerned that the road’s poor safety record and the fatalities along it will grow as car numbers rise inexorably and the road quality deteriorates.
How else might we proceed? If the project is not accorded the national prominence that it deserves, I hope that it will be considered under the new study pool scheme. The Highways Agency is working on a review of the A417, which it aims to deliver to the South West regional assembly by about the end of the financial year. If we fail to press the regional assembly and fail to secure a place for the last missing link within that study pool, the project may be dead for at least 10 years. In order to improve and protect lives and build prosperity for Gloucestershire and the rest of the south-west, I urge everyone present to help me to add pressure to secure a better road.
Those parts of the A417/419 with concrete road surfaces are incredibly noisy, and they blight villages along the route. Following an earlier Government pledge to resurface 13 major road surfaces in that category, a letter dated 9 April 2003 from the then chief executive of the Highways Agency, Mr. Tim Matthews, stated:
“The results of the noise survey showed the current noise levels on the A417/19 are 5 decibels greater than predicted at the time of the Public Inquiry and”—
“this stretch of the concrete road has therefore been included in the first phase of the concrete stretches to be resurfaced between 2004-2005 and 2006-07.”
Despite that assurance, however, in answer to my parliamentary question of 28 November 2005, the Minister said:
“Following detailed scrutiny of departmental and the Highways Agency’s budgets”—
we all know what is coming—
“Ministers agreed that the resurfacing of roads ahead of a maintenance need, for noise alleviation reasons, would not be allocated funding...While the Highways Agency will continue to consider remedial measures, these will have to take their turn in the regional priorities for trunk road improvement schemes. The A417/A419 will be re-surfaced when maintenance need dictates and, if this is during the life of the DBFO contract, then the DBFO company will carry out the work and be responsible for the costs.”—[Official Report, 28 November 2005; Vol. 440, c. 133-134W.]
Why that monumental change of heart? The Government’s decision is particularly severe, because the road was the first PFI road to be built in the country. One might expect 20 years of life for the concrete surface before it requires routine maintenance. Meanwhile, the lives of my constituents in those villages continue to be blighted.
I have taken up more than enough of the Minister’s time. I am delighted to see him here, and I hope that he will have some good news for my constituents.
I thank the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) for raising this important issue, and for his diligent and unflagging campaigning for the scheme. I thank also his colleagues, the hon. Members for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) and for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), for their interest.
The Government and I recognise the importance of improving this key strategic route. Indeed, that is why bypasses have been provided for Latton, Cirencester and Brockworth; there has been an online improvement between Stratton and Nettleton; the Brockworth bypass, at the northern end of the route, has provided a new junction with the M5; and further major improvements are under way at the southern end of the route.
The hon. Member for Cotswold specifically referred to the Blunsdon improvement scheme in an intervention in an Adjournment debate about the missing link six years ago, and I am pleased to say that work to construct that long-awaited bypass north of Swindon started last month. I do not know whether it is any consolation to him that such projects start six years after he makes an intervention, but at least he knows that his words were taken seriously.
Taken together with the Commonhead junction improvement, which is due to open to traffic next year, this will leave only the missing link—the hon. Gentleman’s phrase, which I am happy to use—on the A417 near Gloucester requiring improvement to complete the upgrade of the entire route.
The reasons why the last section remains to be comprehensively improved after so many years are clear. Traffic from Gloucester has to negotiate a rise of more than 600 ft from the Vale of Gloucester to the top of the Cotswold escarpment. Topography is not the only challenge for road builders there, however. The missing link is located within the Cotswold area of outstanding national beauty, close to sites of special scientific interest, scheduled monuments of national importance and land owned by the National Trust.
The Highways Agency has reviewed opportunities over the years to carry out localised improvements wherever possible to address safety and congestion along that length of road, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged. The work at Nettleton Bottom, carried out in 2000, provided a right-turn lane for the Golden Hart public house. Combined with a 40 mph speed restriction throughout the steep gradients in and out of Nettleton Bottom, it has reduced accidents by about 50 per cent.
The Birdlip junction has been progressively improved over the past decade to make it safer, and at the Air Balloon roundabout, two lanes have been added uphill near the junction to improve traffic circulation and increase capacity. The Highways Agency is considering how to improve journey time reliability by way of further, smaller-scale improvements at the Cowley roundabout, Birdlip bypass, Birdlip hill and Crickley hill, alongside the possibility of further work at Nettleton Bottom and the Air Balloon roundabout. However, the difficulty is that substantial environmental constraints and the steepness of the topography, in combination with high traffic flow, conspire to make typical localised improvements that would be achievable elsewhere either environmentally unacceptable, uneconomical or capable of providing only short-term relief.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is a staunch supporter of a major scheme that would comprehensively address the shortcomings of the missing link, and that he has followed every twist and turn in recent years as possible solutions have been considered. He has made a strong case today on congestion, the strategic importance of the scheme and safety, and I acknowledge it entirely. He suggested that the Highways Agency is uncomfortable with the existing situation, and I have no hesitation in confirming that both it and the Government are uncomfortable. We would like very much to see major improvements, but in recognition of the exceptional environmental sensitivity of the scheme, we instructed the Highways Agency in 2001 to commission a study examining the environmental aspects of plans to improve the missing link. As the hon. Gentleman said, two surface options and one tunnel option were identified. Although there was considerable support for a tunnel, including initially from him, we had to reject the idea because of its high cost and poor value for money. It would have been effectively undeliverable, and I believe that he now accepts that it was not a realistic option.
The favoured surface option was further refined, in an iterative process of development, impact assessment and extensive consultation, to the present scheme, in 2004. For the first time, importantly, the Highways Agency had a major scheme design, and the Countryside Agency, the Environment Agency, English Nature and English Heritage were all content to see it proceed to the next stage: entry into the targeted programme of improvements.
In my experience, it was probably the first time in national history that anyone had managed to get those four agencies to agree on such a sensitive matter, so that boded well, but that was before the Government asked the south-west region for its advice on transport priorities in 2005. It is important for us to ask regions for their advice, as Ministers in Westminster are often not the best judges of which are the most important schemes to go ahead.
The advice that we received in January was that the Cowley to Brockworth bypass improvement should be included in the longer-term category, outside the 10-year programme to 2016. On the positive side, the region recognised the need for an improvement of the missing link and requested that the Highways Agency examine whether there was any possibility of a lower-cost solution than the present scheme with its high-cost estimate of £150 million. We announced our response to the south-west region in July, accepting its advice on the prioritisation of the scheme. We wanted, wherever possible, to stick as closely as possible to advice from the regions.
The challenge is now to identify an improvement solution that is affordable to the region, environmentally acceptable and deliverable. It will be difficult; were it not, the missing link would have been delivered a long time ago. The next step is for the Highways Agency to commission a thorough review of the major scheme design and the possible smaller-scale improvements to which I referred. That work will not be constrained by what has already been considered, and the agency will adopt a holistic approach to ensure that all options are thoroughly explored. We will, of course, wish to engage our stakeholders in the work once the review has been completed. The agency will then extend invitations to key stakeholders to attend a structured value management workshop, which will be arranged for early next year. The results of the work will be made available to the South West regional assembly and it will then be for the region to consider recommending that we reprioritise any more affordable scheme that may have been identified when it is next asked for advice on its transport priorities.
One of the most important factors in the debate is that it is difficult for a region to consider problems at its periphery. I have come across that difficulty in the regional spatial strategy and in planning issues. It applies particularly when a certain programme will benefit that region only partly and another more. The roads in question are part of the national jigsaw, covering four regions. The scheme therefore needs national input. I hope that, through his Department, the Minister will be able to bring a national perspective to the problem.
I shall be honest with the hon. Gentleman: he makes a good point. The regional funding allocation process, which we have gone through this year for the first time, was an important stepping stone towards devolving decision making to local people and getting their advice. However, it was the first time that we had tried it, and it was difficult to get it right first time. Although by and large the regions did an exceedingly good job, I acknowledge that there were problems, some of which related to schemes on the edge of regions that might not seem of such central importance to the region. Sometimes a scheme might be located in one region but its importance might be to another, so it is not given priority.
We have made it clear that, considering that this was the first time we had undertaken the regional funding allocation process, we shall ask the regions to re-examine their priorities some time within the next two years. In that time, we in the Department will examine the process, including such issues as the edge factor to which the hon. Gentleman referred, to see whether we can improve it and make decision making easier.
I have a bit of a deal to offer the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Members for Tewkesbury and for Forest of Dean. I have acknowledged the importance of the scheme in question, and I can see why the hon. Gentleman believes it has national as well as regional importance. The problem might have been my fault, because we divided schemes into the regional and the national before starting the process. Some schemes were in a grey area, and somebody had to decide whether they were national or regional. Two schemes in the west country were put to me as possibilities for being put in the national pot: the M5, which was originally a regional scheme, and the missing link. The M5 was clearly a national scheme, so I put it in the national pot, but I took the view that the missing link was a regional scheme. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is right that I got that wrong, and it is something on which I must reflect.
The deal that I wish to offer is as follows: I shall press the Highways Agency to come up with alternatives, try to lower the costs and find the best value-for-money scheme to deal with the problem. I shall also examine the regional funding allocation process for such schemes and whether we can make it better. In two years’ time I shall ask the regions to reprioritise. That is my part of the deal. I ask the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Members for Tewkesbury and for Forest of Dean, irrespective of their views on regional prioritisation and the importance of regional government, to work in the region to make the case for the scheme so that we can push from both ends: winning the case locally by convincing the region that it should make the scheme a higher priority, while I work from my end to find ways to facilitate it. If we do that together, perhaps we can find some way to carry it out before 2016. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentlemen some comfort.
I wish briefly to address the matter of concrete road surfaces, which the hon. Member for Cotswold raised. I understand his concern entirely. It must have been a great disappointment to people throughout the country when we had to overturn our original decision to replace concrete road surfaces quickly, but it is simply a matter of money. If I were to spend money on replacing concrete road surfaces ahead of maintenance need, I could not carry out schemes such as the one that he is asking for. That is a conflict for him to consider: if money is going into taking up concrete roads, I cannot do the vital bypass and road improvement schemes that I am being pressed for. We have decided to replace concrete roads with low-noise surfaces when they require maintenance. In the meantime we might be able to consider other noise mitigation measures for the stretch of road in question. I am happy to have the Highways Agency review the situation and examine whether measures can be taken.
I hope that, with those reassurances, the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not promising that we shall go ahead with his new road.
Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.
Animal Husbandry (Welfare Standards)
Thank you for that clarification, Mr. Weir.
A high priority for me throughout my political life has been campaigning for higher standards in animal welfare—recently, as a member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and before that through many ways in the community. I am therefore grateful to have secured this debate and delighted to see that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), is to respond. He has a truly superb track record on animal welfare matters, so it is good that he is here.
How we treat animals, how they are viewed by society, what legislation exists to protect them and how it is enforced must all underpin any claims we might have to being a civilised, compassionate and caring nation. The Government have a good track record, with such legislation as the Hunting Act 2004 and the groundbreaking Animal Welfare Bill, which is teetering on the brink of the statute book. I am also pleased that we have a wide range of powerful and persuasive animal welfare organisations in the United Kingdom, including Compassion in World Farming and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. I pay tribute to both for their continuing work.
The RSPCA recently launched a new initiative—a gauge to track what is happening with animal welfare, which is not only crucial from the perspective of animal protection, but essential as regards feeding into Government policy and better informing decision makers and stakeholders. The gauge will point up where policy, industry practices, education and social attitudes need attention and reform. It is a new and potentially valuable concept that I welcome.
I referred to the Hunting Act, which devoured an enormous amount of time in this place. The use of animals in laboratory research understandably generates a good deal of attention, and not a little legislation. By comparison with those two issues, animal husbandry is less debated, and I regret that. For every fox that was killed by the hunters in red coats, at least 200 animals are killed by experimenters in white coats. For every rodent killed in a laboratory in the interests of our health, 200 hens are killed, often in inhumane conditions in broiler units, in the interests of our nutrition. We must get our priorities right, and I contend that we need to focus more on animal husbandry.
The large numbers of livestock bred annually in our land generate a great variety of welfare issues, which are linked to the rearing, handling, transporting and slaughtering of various species. It is indeed a challenge to ensure an acceptable quality of life for all farm animals, in which their physical and behavioural requirements are recognised by an appropriate environment, suitable management and proper health care. However, it is a challenge that we must take up. I will deal with my concerns in two prime areas—later in animal transportation, but first in the poultry industry.
It is encouraging that more than one third of hens in the UK are now kept in barn or free range systems: 31 per cent. of hens are kept free range, with 5.5 per cent. in barn systems. The majority of hens, however, continue to be kept in battery cages. Around 18 million hens are kept in battery cages in the UK, which amounts to about 63 per cent. of the UK’s flock of 30 million.
The battery cage system is inhumane. Hens are crammed into cages so tiny that they cannot even stretch their wings. Scientific research has established that hens have strong instincts to lay their eggs in a nest, peck and scratch in the ground, dust bathe and perch. None of those behaviours are possible in the battery cage. Moreover, the severe restriction of movement in the cage leads to high levels of osteoporosis and so to many battery hens suffering from broken bones.
The 1999 EU laying hens directive bans conventional battery cages for egg-laying hens from 2012, but that ban is now under threat, because the directive requires the cage ban to be reviewed before it comes into force. That review is currently taking place, and many EU egg producers want the ban to be dropped or, like our own British Egg Industry Council, postponed for many years. I urge the Minister to take the lead at the EU Agriculture Council in opposing any postponement of the ban. The ban on battery cages must come into force in 2012, no later.
Many farmers plan to switch to so-called enriched cages, as the ban on battery cages approaches and as the laying hens directive permits. Under the directive, hens kept in enriched cages are given just 50 sq cm more useable floor space than those kept in battery cages. Such cages provide perches, a nest box and a littered area, which are largely inadequate to meet hens’ behavioural needs. Enriched cages do not in any sense overcome the welfare problems inherent in the battery cage system. As animal welfare campaigners, we must urge consumers not to buy battery or enriched-cage eggs, but instead to buy barn or free-range eggs.
The supermarkets, food manufacturers and food service operators have their role to play too. It is important that the ban on battery cages is supported both by individual consumers and by those groups, to ensure that UK egg producers are not undermined by the import of battery eggs from outside the EU when the prohibition on battery cages comes into force in 2012.
It is well recorded that many UK consumers are willing to pay extra to buy non-cage eggs. Several major supermarkets report that a majority of their shell egg sales are barn or free-range eggs. Those supermarkets include Tesco, the Co-op, Waitrose and Marks and Spencer. All supermarkets should adopt a policy of selling only non-cage shell eggs. Once that is in place, they should introduce a policy of using only non-cage eggs in their processed foods. Food manufacturers and food service operators should support the cage ban by committing themselves to not importing battery eggs or battery egg products from outside the EU once the ban comes into force.
The public sector has a big part to play, providing meals and food in hospitals, schools, prisons and staff canteens, and to the armed forces. It should be encouraged to source and provide only eggs and egg products that have been produced to EU welfare standards. I hope that the Minister will be able to say that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will promote a policy within government and other public bodies of supporting the ban on battery cages by committing themselves to not sourcing battery eggs and products from outside the EU, once the EU cage ban comes into force.
More than 800 million broiler chickens—chickens for meat—are reared each year in the UK. Nearly all are farmed industrially. They are kept in huge windowless sheds that are so overcrowded that as the birds grow bigger one can barely see the floor, so thickly is it carpeted with chickens. Up to 50,000 chickens may be crammed into one shed. The main welfare problems faced by today’s broilers stem from the fact that they have been pushed, mainly through selective breeding, to reach their slaughter weight in about 41 days, which is around twice as fast as 35 years ago. The legs fail to keep pace with the rapidly growing body and often buckle under the strain of supporting it. As a result, millions of broilers each year suffer from painful, sometimes crippling leg disorders. Some of the chickens have difficulty reaching the food and water points in the broiler sheds, and in the worst cases they can barely move at all. The heart and lungs, too, often cannot keep pace with the rapidly growing body, and millions of broilers succumb to heart failure each year.
Again, I urge the Minister to ensure that his Department addresses those problems by working with the breeding companies to encourage them to give a higher priority to leg health and strength in their selection programmes, and to stop selecting for even faster growth rates; to encourage broiler farmers to reduce growth rates and/or to change to slower-growing breeds; and finally, to adopt the target of emulating France, where one in six broilers are slow-growing breeds that do not reach slaughter weight until about 86 days of age, as opposed to the industry norm in this country of about 41 days. At present, very few UK broilers are slow-growing breeds.
I welcome the proposed, first ever EU directive on broiler welfare. It is currently being negotiated; perhaps the Minister is involved in that. At present, there is no species-specific EU legislation to protect broilers on farms, although they are covered by the directives on transport and slaughter. The broiler welfare directive could be settled next month, so it would be helpful if this debate sent a clear message to the Government about what campaigners and MPs, here and elsewhere, hope will be included in it.
I have one or two suggestions. Most broilers are kept in extremely overcrowded conditions, and scientific research shows that stocking density is an important factor in determining broiler welfare. Scientific papers show that higher stocking densities lead to poor litter quality, and so to an increasing incidence of foot pad dermatitis and deep dermatitis.
Owing to the reduction in activity, there is a greater incidence of leg disorders at higher stocking densities. In overcrowded conditions, chickens find it difficult to move around and they get less exercise, which means that they have less opportunity to develop leg strength. That is one of the factors that leads to the high level of leg problems among broilers. Another issue is poor air quality. Higher stocking density leads to a higher concentration of ammonia in the air, and that increases the risk of respiratory disease. I have identified two other issues: the increased level of heat stress during the later stages of life and increased mortality from about 24 days of age onwards.
The proposed EU directive lays down a maximum stocking density of 30 kg—about 15 chickens—per square metre, but allows a higher density of up to 38 kg—19 chickens—per square metre for producers that comply with certain additional requirements. Those figures are far too high and lead to severe overcrowding.
The UK is one of the member states that wants a maximum density to be set from the start of the directive. I am pleased about that; it may be down to the Minister’s influence. I urge him to continue to insist on the issue. We should not delay until an uncertain and distant date the setting of that important welfare determinant.
I turn to transportation. The continuing and recently expanding transport of live farm animals from this country for further fattening or slaughter abroad is pointless and shot through with risk to animal health and welfare. It is a basic principle that animals should be slaughtered as near to their place of rearing as possible. Although I accept that most livestock animals have to be moved at some time in their lives in their own interests, the frequency, length and complexity of such journeys should be kept to an absolute minimum, and there should be the optimum available standards of care en route.
I have listened to my hon. Friend with interest. Like him, I have spent many years campaigning against live animal exports. My time goes back to when I used to sail on cross-channel ferries that carried on that wretched trade. The introduction of the carriage of calves was a great disappointment to me.
We acknowledge that there have been improvements—marginal, I would say—in the carriage of live animals, but just this afternoon I have heard that two consignments of calves arriving at Dover docks have been inordinately delayed. One of the lorries has been there for more than 14 hours. It might have to wait another 10 hours before it leaves, and even after its trip across the sea it will continue on to places far beyond. I hope that I shall get the opportunity to talk to the Minister directly after this debate.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. From our conversations in Strasbourg and elsewhere, he will know that I agree with every word that he has just said.
Live export for fattening or slaughter fails on every count. It is unwarranted, as animals can readily be fattened and slaughtered at home and their meat exported. Live export frequently involves both land and sea travel, which are covered by legislation that is wholly inadequate to protect animals’ health and welfare. For instance, very little account is taken of such basic animal needs as space allowance, temperature and humidity. The unfamiliar experiences and conditions are highly stressful and facilitate the transmission of illnesses in transit.
In 1996, the BSE-related beef ban led to the end of live calf exports. Before that about 500,000 calves a year had been exported from the UK, mainly to veal crates in the Netherlands and France. Sadly, the lifting of the beef ban has resulted in the resumption of live calf exports to continental veal units, and thousands of calves have been exported since the trade started again in May. As the Minister will confirm, DEFRA figures show that 4,400 calves were exported in May and June. Figures for July and August seem not to have been published, or perhaps I have just not been able to get my hands on them.
Since the resumption of the trade in May, the destinations for UK calves have been Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Italy. They are shipped from Dover—my hon. Friend’s constituency—in chartered roll-on/roll-off ferries. I am strongly opposed to live calf exports because of the detrimental impact of long journeys on welfare and the very poor rearing systems in which calves are often kept on the continent.
Typically, calves are just 15 days old when they are exported from the UK. Scientific research shows that such young calves suffer greatly during long journeys.
Dr. Toby Knowles of Bristol university has concluded:
“Evidence from the literature suggests that young calves are not well adapted to cope with transport and marketing, often suffering relatively high rates of morbidity and mortality, both during, and in the few weeks immediately following transport”.
Veal crates become illegal EU-wide at the end of this year—if I had not said that, I am sure that the Minister would have. We all welcome that move. However, many veal crates have been replaced by extremely barren systems in which calves are kept on concrete or slatted floors without any straw or other bedding.
That is a pertinent and important question, which I shall transfer to the Minister as one that I would have put myself, had I been able to do all the necessary research.
The systems that will follow veal crates would be illegal in the UK, as our legislation requires calves to be provided with appropriate bedding and to be given more space and more fibrous food than is required by EU legislation. Surely it is morally wrong for UK calves to be sent for rearing abroad in systems that have been prohibited on welfare grounds in the UK.
Unfortunately, thousands upon thousands of calves are shot at birth. I suggest to the Minister, who is an influential figure, that they should neither be shot at birth nor exported for veal production. Instead, the dairy and beef sectors and DEFRA should work together to find welfare-friendly and economically viable uses in the UK for male dairy calves. They could include rearing calves for veal in the UK, where legislation requires higher welfare standards, and/or rearing them for beef. Much of the veal consumed in the UK is imported, so UK retailers and caterers should be pressed to use UK veal, which is produced to higher welfare standards than those that generally obtain on the continent.
In addition, as the UK is not yet self-sufficient in beef, it should be possible to expand the proportion of male dairy calves reared for beef. I recognise that they would not provide prime beef, but there is a large demand for second-quality beef, which is used for a range of processed foods.
In July, the CIWF and the RSPCA organised a multi-stakeholder forum entitled “Beyond Calf Exports: Forum for a Humane Dairy Industry”, which was attended by the Minister—as ever, he had his finger on the button. Senior industry figures were also at the forum, which examined ways of finding humane, economically viable uses in the UK for male dairy calves. As further stakeholder meetings are due to take place later this year, will the Minister indicate his assessment of progress so far?
Finally, I turn to live sheep exports. Although the volume of such exports for slaughter abroad has been much reduced in recent years, the trade still persists. In 2000, the year before the foot and mouth disaster, 750,000 sheep were exported for slaughter abroad. In 2004, that figure had sunk to 48,000; last year, exports stood at 37,000 sheep. Almost 7,000 sheep were exported in the first six months of 2006, although that figure is deceptive as sheep exports really begin only in late July, as lambs come to slaughter weight. DEFRA has not yet published figures for exports in July and August, but my impression is that sheep exports this year will end up even greater than in 2005. I would like to hear the Minister’s assessment of that situation.
Sheep export destinations this year include France, Germany and the Netherlands, and some sheep will also go to Italy and Portugal. Traditionally, UK sheep that are exported to the Netherlands are often re-exported within a day or two to Italy or Greece. Over the years, many investigations have documented the great suffering imposed on UK sheep by long journeys to abattoirs in southern Europe. As the hours and days wear on, the sheep become increasingly exhausted, dehydrated and stressed. Some are injured, and some collapse on to the floor of the truck where they risk being trampled by their companions. Sheep should not be exported to continental abattoirs. They should be slaughtered in the UK, and our exports should be in meat form. The sheep industry can and must bring live exports to an end.
In conclusion, I have dealt with only two topics in this enormous field, but I hope that the debate will be a useful contribution to improving animal welfare. Several sectors have an impact on, and some responsibility for, the welfare of farm animals. Clearly, the farming industry has the most obvious and significant effect, and the Government, through their enactments, regulations and enforcement, are charged with ensuring decent standards of care. However, the food industry must carry its share of accountability. Retailers, restaurants and caterers cannot turn a blind eye to animal cruelty carried out by proxy on their behalf.
In the final analysis, consumers have the greatest power of all: buying power. We can drive up standards. But to do that, we must be alerted to the key issues through awareness-raising initiatives, and we must be able to recognise higher welfare products such as the RSPCA’s freedom foods through open, honest and accurate labelling. The room for animal welfare complacency in this nation is even more restricted than the space for the thousands of animals squeezed together on cross-channel ferries or the millions of birds packed in appalling conditions in windowless sheds—all of that in our name.
I shall endeavour to be brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) on securing this important debate. Outside the House, I regard him as a personal friend, but parliamentary convention requires that I refer to him as “the hon. Gentleman”. He does the House a service by raising these issues.
I would like to pay tribute to another friend, the hon. Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser), who has played a considerable part in contesting the export of live animals through the port. Many of those animals go through the county of Kent, part of which I also have the privilege to represent.
It is a sad fact that the trade in veal calves and meat on the hoof has been resumed. Several cross-channel ferry companies have honourably and properly decided, on a commercial basis, not to carry animals. The fact is that they carry the traction units, the animals are carried by commercial freight ferries in animal transporters without the traction units, and the traction and freight units are married up on the other side of the channel. In other words, the exporters are finding ways of bypassing the wishes of the passenger ferries. I regard that as a retrograde step and a great sadness.
I now take no pride in this whatsoever, but I was one of those who worked with Compassion in World Farming and managed to secure from the Conservative Government of the day a ban on the use of veal crates in the United Kingdom. At the time, we thought that that was a tremendous victory, but it was a pyrrhic victory. What in fact happened was that we banned the use of veal crates in the UK and then saw a flood of veal calves that were unwanted in the UK exported across the channel under infinitely worse conditions than they would otherwise have experienced to be reared briefly under even worse conditions in Belgium, France and Holland. Far from achieving an enhancement in animal welfare, we actually made it worse.
I learned one lesson from that. If the problem is to be solved, it must be solved on a pan-European basis. I say that with a high regard for the British farming industry. It is by no means perfect, but I believe it to be among the best in Europe and, probably, the world. I now see no merit whatsoever in seeking to disadvantage the British farming industry as against our European and worldwide competitors in the name of animal welfare. If we are to solve the problem, we will not solve it by moving it from A to B and pretending that we are done. We will solve it by ensuring that the rest of the world—most certainly the rest of the European Union—raises its animal welfare standards to the same high level that exists throughout most of British agriculture.
The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire rightly made a point about the plight—I use the word advisedly—of battery and broiler chickens brought up in cages. That is no life for any living thing—it is frightful. The method of execution following that brief life is almost worse. Such practices bring shame on humanity, but, again, we will not solve the problem if we penalise British farmers, egg producers and producers of birds for the table only to import an equivalent or larger quantity of eggs and birds from the new European Union entrants in the east or from other countries. That will do nobody any service at all.
At present, the farming industry is unable to afford proper animal welfare, and that is a disgrace. I have to say to the Minister that the imposition—again, I use the right word—of the veterinary medicines directive has militated against the use of proper veterinary medicine by the farming community, which finds that the value of the animals, birds and livestock that they are rearing no longer justifies proper veterinary medical attention. It is cheaper, easier and quicker to kill a bird or an animal and quietly dispose of it by whatever means than it is to call in the vet, pay for the medicine, treat the animal or the bird properly and move on from there.
We have done the farming community a grave disservice by putting it in a position where animal welfare is no longer commercially viable. I know farmers who are passionate about their animals and who care about them enormously. In the end, those animals may go to the table, but that is not the point. The farmers care about the animals in their charge while they are alive, and they want them to be properly looked after, but the commercial reality that they face, particularly with the disgraceful single farm payment system and delay, is that they can no longer afford to pay for proper animal welfare, unlike their contemporaries in mainland Europe who can afford to pay through subsidy.
If we are to move further down this road, as we must, it behoves all of us, whether in government or opposition, to take a clear view of the matter and to seek to ensure that no animal, bird or farm produce raised elsewhere under conditions that would not be permitted in this country should be allowed to enter the UK. My late friend, the right hon. Eric Forth, who was the MP for Bromley and Chislehurst, found that it was his duty—peculiarly, in his case—as a Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry to abolish the trademarks legislation and bring us in line with the European Union. Subsequently, it has been much harder for us to brand English and British food in the way that we would wish, but I urge the Minister, with his colleagues in the DTI, the Treasury, the Foreign Office, the Cabinet Office and Downing street, to investigate every conceivable way of making absolutely certain that the purchaser of food stuffs in the UK is completely aware whether the foods that they are buying have been produced under the standards that we in this country find acceptable. And I urge him to go one stage further: we must insist that all produce sold in this country adheres to the standards.
The hon. Gentleman would probably agree that there is a growing love affair in Britain with ethically sourced food, and that there is a demand and a market for the standards to which he refers. The egg industry has successfully promoted higher standards to the extent that 40 per cent. of all sales are of free-range eggs, but the broader industry has yet to do that. Only 3 per cent. of chickens are brought up by high welfare standards. That is the target and the focus. That is where the Government can be active.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman to this extent: the fact that 40 per cent. of the eggs sold in this country are produced under acceptable conditions is to be applauded. It is not acceptable that 60 per cent. of eggs, by implication, are produced by hens living under other conditions. It is not acceptable that 1 per cent. of produce sold in this country should be produced under conditions that we would not permit and under which British farmers would not be allowed to operate. I hope that the Minister will be address those issues.
It is a privilege to follow such doughty fighters as the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) and my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser), who made an intervention. They have established a reputation in the House on this important issue, and much though we might not be great in numbers here today, I hope that the quality of our input will make up for that.
I make no apology for concentrating on just one issue, perhaps to the despair of my hon. Friend the Minister, who will not be surprised to hear that I am going to talk about bovine tuberculosis. In passing, however, I want to look quickly at five issues relating to the subject, two of which were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire.
First, I am pleased that the Hunting Act 2004 eventually made it onto the statute book, but it behoves us to make it clear that we will monitor the behaviour of hunts. It might seem that hunt monitors—human beings—are the most endangered species in the country, but it is important that we do not simply pass the legislation; we must make it clear that we want it to have an impact.
Secondly, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe)—I consider her my friend in this case—is presenting a petition to Downing street at this very moment, in which thousands of signatories are demanding that the Government ban snares. I took that campaign up some years ago, and there is an early-day motion on the subject in my name. However, as it is not necessarily related to this debate, I shall pass quickly on. It is an important, though, and there should at least be a debate about it. The majority of farmers to whom I talk want to ban snares because they are a pretty hideous way of trying to control wildlife.
The third issue is that of animal experimentation, to which my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire alluded, and I have had a debate in this Chamber on the way in which the 3Rs—reducing, refining and replacing animal experimentation—are evolving. Although that is the responsibility of the Home Office, not my hon. Friend the Minister, and although I understand that the time for a royal commission on that may have come and gone, I am concerned that, having had a commitment in a previous manifesto to establish a royal commission, we still have quite large numbers—indeed, there is a steady increase in our laboratories—
I certainly take your advice, Mr. Weir. I was merely commenting on what my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire said.
Fourthly, on husbandry, it would be remiss of me not to mention the reports that have come out in the past few days on the foot and mouth outbreak. Like other hon. Members, I read the article by Magnus Linklater in The Times today, which talked about “carnage by computer”. We must learn the lessons of that outbreak. I was sympathetic towards the Government at the time, but we must do something about the problem. It is not a matter only of the way in which we dealt with the outbreak, and all the ways in which that showed how our husbandry was deficient, but of the way in which the whole EU apparatus encouraged us to send animals around the country, which resulted in the outbreak being that much worse than it would have been.
I do not agree with it, but it is right to hope that we learn some lessons. We must prevent such diseases. If we cannot, we must shut them down as soon as possible. The only way to do that is to have good animal husbandry and methods in place that work on the basis of consensus. The saddest thing about the outbreak was that it brought division rather than the consensus that we needed to deal with the problem.
The last point that I want to mention in passing is also one about which I am very concerned. In passing EU regulations into British law to prevent farmers from burying dead stock on farm, we have brought about a situation in which farmers come to me saying that they have no means of disposing of animals and wildlife on their land—some of those animals may, indeed, be theirs—and certainly on the roads abutting it. I hope that the Government will understand that if we are to bear down on disease and have good animal husbandry, it is crucial that we have mechanisms in place to allow us to deal with the problems that wildlife can cause, not least when it is, sadly, lying dead on the side of the road or on farmers’ holdings.
On bovine TB, my hon. Friend the Minister knows that I have enormous sympathy with him—I have expressed it more times than I care to state—for his having to face the problem of bovine TB. I despair of the extreme things said by the two sides involved, none of which is credible, let alone fair or reasonable. There must be a way of dealing with this dreadful disease. It has a direct impact on the way in which we keep our livestock, but it is also prevalent in our wildlife.
All that I ask my hon. Friend to do is to consider the comments of those of us who have served on the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or who have taken part in the various debates in this place and not to take any precipitate action. From all the evidence, however, I would not say that he is going to do that. As he knows, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recommended continual investment and interest in good husbandry as one way of bearing down on bovine TB, and I hope that that will continue. However, given all the other issues involved, including whether to cull or not to cull, the danger is that some of the sensible things that could be done in passing will often be left out.
On whether to cull or not to cull, I am against a cull on one simple ground: the scientific ground. There is no evidence that culling—certainly at the level that some would have us believe is necessary to make an impact on bovine TB—will work. In fact, all the current scientific evidence tends to suggest that the opposite would happen and that there would be a further increase in the disease. That would be completely bizarre, but it might well occur because of the impact of perturbation and badgers moving around more readily, which seems to happen when they are diseased and because they are often expelled from their lairs. There is also the fringe issue of driving diseased badgers to move among those that are clean. That has a major impact on husbandry.
I am pleased to see that the number of animals affected by bovine TB has come down, but I would not jump to the conclusion that that is entirely due to pre-movement testing and bearing down on cattle involved in cattle transfer. I have to hope that that is one of the reasons, but it is too early to reach that conclusion. However, I hope that the Minister is looking carefully at the issue and that we will continue to consider the need for good husbandry. I also hope that we will continue to search for a vaccine, and I am pleased that an experiment is going on in my area, as he knows. I hope that that work bears fruit in due course.
The most important thing is that we use science, that we do not jump to ready conclusions, that we ensure that husbandry is at the forefront of all that we do with our livestock, and that we continue to investigate wildlife issues, such as avian influenza, foot and mouth and bovine TB. I wish the Minister good fortune in dealing with those things because we are only one jump ahead of the next problem caused by animal disease.
We underestimate the impact of animal disease in this country. We talk about terrorism and other things happening around the world, but animal disease, as we know from foot and mouth, can cost us millions of pounds—let alone the moral dilemmas that it confronts us with. We must move it up the agenda. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire has done us a great service in raising again in Westminster Hall the need to see the subject as much more important, because the welfare of our livestock and wildlife is crucial to millions of people. We should never forget that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) on securing the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) is quite right: British consumers should be able to know that they are buying British food when they go to supermarkets. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) is also quite right to raise the important issue of bovine tuberculosis and its connection with the badger population.
I want to draw attention to a matter of crucial importance with regard to animal welfare and husbandry—the operation of the greyhound racing industry. In particular, I want to speak in support of an organisation called Greyhounds UK, which is campaigning not for a ban on greyhound racing but for the improvement of standards of welfare for racing greyhounds.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said:
“We are unconvinced by the argument that the greyhound racing industry should be allowed until 2010 to regulate itself and improve its own welfare standards.”
It went on to comment that
“greyhound racing tracks should be subject to a licensing regime”,
which should not wait until 2010.
With regard to the husbandry of greyhounds, there are 30,000 active racing greyhounds in the UK. Three quarters of those are imported from the Republic of Ireland. About 10,000 leave racing every year. The industry-controlled Retired Greyhound Trust is said to find homes for 3,000 of those 10,000 every year, which leaves something like 7,000 retired greyhounds a year whose fate no one knows. The rules of the National Greyhound Racing Club allow euthanasia by veterinary surgeon, but no figures are kept for the number of dogs for which homes are found other than through the Retired Greyhound Trust, and no one knows how many are destroyed, by veterinary surgeons or otherwise. That raises the issue of the effectiveness of self-regulation of the industry.
I appreciate your guidance, Mr. Weir. The issue is a crucial one for the husbandry and welfare of greyhounds. My point is that the Government are seeking self-regulation of the welfare and husbandry of greyhounds, while organisations such as Greyhounds UK point out that self-regulation is not working and that the industry needs to be licensed.
In no other sphere of animal husbandry and welfare are such a large number of animals subject to the gambling industry. Racing brings no benefits at all to the greyhounds concerned, but makes substantial profits—from which the Treasury draws revenue—for the bookmakers and race promoters. In 2004 the Association of British Bookmakers declared a net profit of £92 million.
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman again, but now that he is talking about gambling he is well outwith the terms of the debate. Unless he can bring his remarks back to animal welfare standards and husbandry I shall have to cut him off.
My fate lies in your hands, Mr. Weir. The point that I am trying to make is that the husbandry and welfare of greyhounds is subject to the gambling industry. I am seeking to use the opportunity of the debate to draw to the attention of the Minister responsible for greyhound welfare and husbandry the reasons why the system is not working, and why the industry needs to be licensed as other aspects of animal husbandry and welfare are licensed.
Sparing your wrath, Mr. Weir, I think that I am right in saying that it was in the early 1990s when the Select Committee on Home Affairs, of which I was then a member, and which had responsibility for the issue at the time, conducted an inquiry into the greyhound racing industry. We concluded that the beneficiaries of the industry—the industry and the bookmakers—were paying a pitiful sum towards the husbandry and welfare of racing greyhounds. It is an incredibly sad fact that 10 years have gone by and no significant improvement has so far been made.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet is, as always, spot on. In fact, in 2005 bookmakers increased their voluntary levy to the greyhound racing industry, but only from 0.4 per cent. to 0.6 per cent. of off-course turnover.
Those who manage rescues for greyhounds will testify to the frequent abuse of greyhounds, which are found wandering, injured or starving. Those can include old or injured ex-racers or unwanted dogs that failed to qualify in the first place. The experience of organisations such as Greyhounds UK is that although the greyhounds may have identification in the form of ear tattoos, the NGRC, citing the Data Protection Act 1998, will not disclose details of the registered owner to anyone, including the police.
We will all have read during the recess the appalling stories about the treatment of greyhounds and the disappearance of large numbers of them. My hon. Friend will know that that is covered by the Animal Welfare Bill, for which the Minister is responsible. I hope that my hon. Friend will also agree that the priority given to regulating, through codes of conduct, the keeping of greyhounds has been set far too low. Should not that be moved further up, and should it perhaps even be the Government’s first priority?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whose constituency I had the pleasure briefly to visit in the summer. He is, of course, right. That point was made about the Bill on Report. I had the privilege of sitting as a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Bill, and although I could not move my amendment on Report, I requested of the Minister that when he got round to drawing up codes of practice for the different categories of animal covered by the legislation, greyhounds should be at the top of the list.
The sad truth about the husbandry and welfare of greyhounds is that over the summer some very disturbing articles appeared in the national press, including, for example, details published by The Sunday Times on 16 July of the destruction by means of a bolt gun of thousands of greyhounds, over decades, and their burial in a field in Seaham in county Durham. The names of the trainer and racing manager who were involved were also published. On 17 September, The Sunday Times published an account of the routine destruction, without veterinary intervention, of greyhounds allegedly from NGRC-approved tracks, by a so-called animal sanctuary in Wigan.
I suggest, Mr. Weir, that it may be helpful, not necessarily in this debate, but in a more general forum, for all Members of the House to receive the updated legal advice on sub judice matters and parliamentary privilege.
I am grateful for the Minister’s advice and for yours, Mr. Weir.
In conclusion, the greyhound racing industry is an industry. It is controlled by gamblers and those involved in gambling. Each year, 7,000 greyhounds disappear, effectively without trace. It is high time that the industry was licensed and that the Government stopped allowing it to self-regulate because the industry has been guilty of too many abuses over too many years.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), and everyone else who has contributed. Although there are not many people in the Chamber, it is important that we continue to press down on this issue. Over the years it has been demonstrated that continual pressure has significantly improved animal welfare conditions in this country, in farming and elsewhere. We hope that through continued pressure from individual Members, pressure groups and other organisations, which will put the subject in the public domain, and by dragging up the standards of our European partners, in particular, who are way behind where they should be, we shall continue to raise standards not only here but abroad.
The problem is that in this country we raise some 900 million livestock a year. A huge variety of welfare issues are associated with the rearing, handling, transportation and slaughtering of such a number of animals. To ensure that throughout the process we consider the quality of life of farm animals is, for anyone, highly challenging, not least in terms of legislation.
We are paying the price, as we all recognise, for what we might call cheap food—inexpensive food. Over the years, through a range of actions—some of which had implications that we had not quite realised—we have borne down on the cost of food. It was the objective of a number of Administrations to ensure that quality food, which was also affordable, was available, but we have concentrated on the cost and, as is so often the case, forgotten some of the other issues. We are beginning to learn the lessons. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) mentioned disease, and I have no doubt that some of the intensive practices in which we have engaged in recent years have contributed, in a way, to the extent of disease that we have seen.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if he were to go to the largest supermarket in his constituency, whichever it might be, with a clipboard and urge people to sign a petition protesting against the iniquities that we visit on broiler chickens—how they are brought up and how they have their throats cut, often when still alive—people would queue up and push others aside to sign it? However, 97 per cent. of people buy chickens according to price. How do we bridge that gap between the welfare approach clearly adopted by many people and the decisions that they make when they put their hand in the chiller cabinet?
I totally agree. There is little doubt that many people would sign up to require animal welfare standards to be implemented but immediately go and purchase a product much cheaper than it would be if those standards were in place, and they will find no problem with that. We can deal with that by the usual methods: trying to raise awareness, putting information in the public domain so that consumers have choices and ensuring that those choices can be made with better labelling and better promotion. We need also to deal with the issues that arise as we begin to recognise that we have gone too far and need to draw back. As an aside, we have not only done such things to animals but to the soil and things that grow. We have produced such intensity that the nature that we control is at risk.
Tribute has rightly been paid to the farming industry for its role in improving the situation. I also pay tribute to the Government, who during this period of administration have concentrated much more on some of the issues that are important to us.
The live transport of farm animals from the UK for slaughter or for further fattening is, I totally agree, unnecessary and fraught with risk to animal health and welfare. It has an economic aspect, too. It is better that animals are slaughtered in this country than exported. However, we must recognise that banning the trade might simply export the problem. The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) recognised that unless we have EU-wide legislation on the matter we will not get the effects that we want and, of course, we will disadvantage our farmers who are compelled to or want to raise their standards and bear the resulting costs.
Standards have to be raised and we have to ensure that others raise them. That is the message. We want better standards and EU-wide legislation that will force others to raise standards so that we have the mythical level playing field to which we all refer on occasion. That will mean that we do not export the problem or see absurd situations where, because of consumer demand, we import and put on sale animals produced under processes that would be banned here. I cannot let the time go by without saying that some of my colleagues represent constituencies in the Orkneys and Shetland where farmers are quite horrified at the fact that they might not be able to export their animals to the mainland. We must recognise that there are always exceptions, but I am sure that proper legislation could always take account of the exceptions when trying to deal with the generalities.
Another aspect of the question that we have not really tackled is the fact that we do not have a network of local abattoirs to the point where we have slaughtering facilities closer to the rearing establishments. Although there may only be a short journey involved in taking animals to slaughter, that can sometimes mean that standards are not as good, and we need to encourage a better network of abattoirs.
Our key welfare concerns with broiler chickens in particular have already been mentioned. Slower-growing birds should be selected for meat production. The rapid growth rates that have come about have produced welfare problems. There are many ways of trying to measure the space allowance, but the measurement that I have considered and that has been recommended to me relates kilograms of bird to square metres of space. Of course, some birds are bigger than others. At the very minimum, space allowance needs to be increased so that serious welfare problems are diminished.
Those of us who have visited the facilities for broiler chickens have seen that they live in a barren environment, with dim light to discourage activity so that the growth rate is maximised. It seems pretty bad to have to live in half-light all the time. All animals need a day and a night—a proper rest period where the lighting levels are brought down. We have to try to enrich the quality of life of chickens and animals in general. The natural behaviour that we enjoy as animals is in many ways destroyed for other animals, and we must recognise that they need to enjoy their natural behaviour.
I do not want to speak about greyhounds. I do not know much about them, although I accept that the subject needs to be considered. As for husbandry generally, I was fortunate to be a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which undertook the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Animal Welfare Bill. I am pleased that it is making progress, albeit somewhat slowly.
The husbandry of circus animals needs some attention. I believe that not much of a case can be made for considering how they are transported and shown. The Government were keen to ban hunting and so on. I believe that, as a minimum, there ought to be some sort of licensing arrangement setting minimum standards for circus animals. As I say, I do not think that there is any need for it, but as a minimum it ought to be considered.
Bovine TB is a subject on which the hon. Member for Stroud and I have spoken many times. Whatever the transmission rates from cattle to cattle, cattle to wildlife, wildlife to wildlife and back again, I am convinced that if we merely slaughter out one part without addressing the other, we will not have a prolonged effect. The disease will go on and on. We need to understand that the eradication of this disease is necessary; it is a welfare issue as much as anything else. We may have seen a dip lately for some reason, but while we merely concentrate on one particular animal among our livestock and slaughter it out, without recognising that we have to do something about the wildlife, we are deluding ourselves.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) on securing another debate this year on this extremely important subject. I am sorry that he did not attend the debate on the ventilation shutdown measure in Standing Committee in June. His presence was missed, as I am sure that he shares my anger at the Government for even expecting to fail to control avian influenza and therefore factoring into their plans ventilation shutdown as a legal method of killing chickens.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern. I tabled an early-day motion almost immediately the news broke—it received wide cross-party support—that condemned the suggestion of slow suffocation as a means of eliminating the national flock should avian flu, God forbid, start to affect it.
I know that the hon. Gentleman did so, and I shall tell the House of something else that he did. On 24 May, when Westminster Hall last debated animal welfare, he raised a number of points about the inclusion of animal welfare in the England regional development programme.
During DEFRA questions the previous week, I pressed the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner), on the issue. He responded that the Department thought that it could deliver improved animal welfare through a training and access to skills scheme, like the one that it is already using. That lacklustre response was very disappointing, especially when we consider that the rural development programmes in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and in other countries such as Germany and Austria, have more animal welfare improvement measures. In Germany, for example, RDP funding is being used to provide for higher welfare standards, including a stocking density of 25 kg per square metre—that is 13 kg lower than the 38 kg that the Commissions want to enforce through the draft directive that the European Standing Committee debated in April. In Wales, RDP funding will be available for reducing stocking densities and joining an assurance scheme. If other countries can use their RDP to raise animal welfare standards, we in England should be able to do so.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is totally wrong to link competition with welfare standards? It depresses me that people should argue that improving welfare standards, particularly of farm animals but also of wildlife, always has a huge anticompetitive effect. It is a dangerous line to take. Welfare should be considered because it is right.
If I understand correctly what the hon. Gentleman says, I do not have a problem in agreeing with him. Yes, competition is a separate issue. However, I am talking about the Government’s failure to support schemes similar to those going on elsewhere in the world which would reward good behaviour. We are used to seeing plenty of sticks; this was a carrot opportunity, and the Government have missed it.
Another disappointment is DEFRA’s failure to meet its own targets for supporting ERDP projects benefiting animal welfare. The target during the 2000-06 programme is to support 91 such projects. In 2002 only one project was achieved; in 2003 only five were achieved; in 2004 another five projects were achieved; and in 2005 only two more projects were achieved. Only 14 projects are up and running, which is 77 short of DEFRA’s target, and there is only one year to go. At that rate, it will take DEFRA at least a quarter of a century to achieve all 91 projects. The Department’s animal welfare ambitions for the ERDP relate only to training within the rural enterprise scheme, and it is still failing to provide it.
In May, I asked the hon. Member for Brent, North about linking animal welfare to the ERDP. He said:
“Far from excluding animal welfare from the rural development programme, we have specifically stated ways in which we can deliver on that agenda through training and access to skills under axis 1 and axis 3.”—[Official Report, 18 May 2006; Vol. 446, c. 1116.]
It is bad enough when DEFRA does not significantly promote animal welfare through the ERDP, but when the Department considerably fails to reach its own targets, it demonstrates that farm animal welfare matters are being excluded and sidelined.
Will this Minister let us know how many projects have been achieved this year? Have 77 been achieved to reach the target? If not, why is the target not being reached? Will those projects continue into the ERDP for 2007 to 2013? DEFRA has announced that it is unlikely to make the January 2007 start for the new schemes. Will the Minister confirm that he intends to use the extra time to reconsider the animal welfare component?
Despite the Department’s being lobbied by the RSPCA and the Wildlife and Countryside Link for the inclusion of further animal welfare measures in the next ERDP, animal welfare does not get a single mention in DEFRA’s initial summary of consultation responses. Given that DEFRA excluded animal welfare from the ERDP in the original consultation document, I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that animal welfare measures were still considered by the Department. I hope that he will be able also to let us know how many respondents lobbied for its inclusion in that scheme.
The apparent exclusion of animal welfare from the 2007-2013 ERDP is surprising when we consider the growth in public interest in the subject. Public interest in animal welfare matters has never been higher. I am aware that animal welfare-related matters are among the top three most asked questions that DEFRA receives from the public, and the most asked question relates to the live export of calves. Although members of the public are demanding higher welfare standards for the animals that they consume, the Department refuses to use a crucial measure to raise the welfare of farmed animals.
We would all like to see improvements in animal welfare, starting with better husbandry on the farm and going right the way through to the abattoir. People should be rewarded for doing the right thing, for going that little bit further; and it would be a missed opportunity if DEFRA did not improve the range of support for animal welfare measures through the ERDP.
The export and transportation of live animals is an important issue that Parliament has rightly debated at length over many years. I am sure that we would all prefer to see livestock reared close to the point of slaughter so that our animals do not have to endure hours of travel, whether they are staying in their country of origin or being transported for rearing abroad. We have all been lobbied by various NGOs and our constituents on the matter. We should develop policies that produce high animal welfare standards throughout the food production chain.
The UK is typically at the forefront in animal and livestock welfare, and that is something of which we should be proud, but we want to see consistency in other countries, and in particular in other EU member states. The UK has traditionally had higher standards of animal welfare than other countries; we interpret and enforce directives more stringently and readily, and our high level of compliance has left British farmers at a competitive disadvantage. While UK meat supplies have increased since 1997 from around 4 million tonnes of dressed carcase to 4.5 million tonnes, domestically produced supplies have remained static and imports have increased by 50 per cent. I am keen for British farmers, who have superior husbandry standards, to fulfil the demand for more meat and reap the rewards.
On livestock transportation, the UK has led the way. In 1990, the Conservative Government banned veal crates and it is a shame that it has taken 17 years for the rest of Europe to follow our lead. I thought that my hon. Friend the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) made an important and powerful speech. I am worried about further livestock transport regulations. Under the new EU regulations to be introduced on 5 January 2007, transporters carrying out journeys of more than 65 km lasting under eight hours must be authorised by the competent authority. Journeys by road lasting more than eight hours must be authorised by the competent authority and vehicles and livestock containers inspected. So far, that is all right. New vehicles will have to be fitted with satellite navigation systems and training will be a requirement for all personnel who work at markets and assembly centres. On 5 January 2008 all drivers transporting farmed animals, horses or poultry on journeys of more than eight hours or 65 km will need to be assessed and receive a certificate of competence. That worries me because 65 km is 40 miles, which is not a great distance. If one travels through London the average speed would be 11 mph, so in eight hours one could go considerably further than 40 miles—that is a discrepancy.
Those issues have been raised so that the Minister will consider the regulations, decide how appropriate they are and ensure that we get proper animal-driven welfare regulations, rather than ones that appear to be helpful but are not.
Earlier, we talked about poultry. There have been significant changes in that industry. I would like to take a moment to pay tribute to the British Egg Industry Council, which has promoted the lion brand so successfully. Yes, we do have a problem with battery chickens—I have visited them. My hon. Friend said that if we are not careful we will simply export the problem—that is an extremely valid point. We want the highest standards of welfare for everything that we eat, not just the eggs that look like eggs, so we have to be careful about the catering sector.
This morning, I was excited to read that it is now possible to buy an egg with a lion brand on it which, when the egg is boiled, will change colour and indicate whether the egg is soft, medium or hard boiled. That type of innovation can only be good. It is a tremendous idea that encourages people to eat eggs and read on the label where they originated. We should recognise that the industry is doing everything that it can to promote higher welfare standards through its ability to innovate, and it deserves credit for that.
We are supposed to have a common agricultural policy with our European neighbours, but it is of less benefit to British farmers when the rules that we implement are different from those of our competitors. One of the most prominent issues relating to farm animal transport is the export of veal calves and part of the problem is that there are different standards and policies between the UK and other EU countries. Although farmers on the continent can claim a premium for raising a veal calf, British farmers cannot. Consequently, they are faced with the choice of either disposing of the calf or selling it for export. That is just one example of where British farmers are missing out and broader animal welfare issues are ignored because of our anomalous application of the common agricultural policy. The Government can make a real difference to animal welfare by ensuring that our farmers either have a level playing field or create the right circumstances for a veal market in the UK.
One way that we can all agree to reduce livestock transportation is through promoting consumption of local produce and strengthening the domestic market. The Secretary of State has referred to that being part of one-planet farming and the Government should use the full range of tools at their disposal to reduce livestock transportation and promote better animal welfare.
The single greatest correlation between poor animal welfare and the Government’s ability to make changes is when it comes to poverty. The Government have an opportunity to ensure that the 2006 single farm payment is made on time. I hope that the Minister will give us an assurance today that the 2006 payment will be at least 80 per cent. paid by Christmas day, thus breaking the link between poverty and poor animal welfare and ensuring that we have a British farming industry that is properly supported and that the Government rectify the appalling record they have in paying the 2005 payment. I hope that the Minister will assure us that farmers can look forward to receiving at least 80 per cent. by Christmas day.
I almost thought that the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) was announcing that he had converted to my long-held view that there is a connection between animal welfare and human poverty. We will do all that we can to ensure that the farmers receive the payments he talked about.
I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), a long-time champion of animal welfare both inside and outside the House, on securing this timely debate. It is timely because as he has acknowledged, we have already agreed and are about to implement new rules on animal transport and there is an important broiler directive currently being debated under the Finnish presidency.
I will confine my remarks to the title of this debate. We have had a debate that has ranged widely over the whole gambit of animal welfare issues. If I have time, I will come back to one or two of the points that were not strictly within the subject of my hon. Friend’s debate.
It is worth reminding ourselves that, as a number of hon. Members have acknowledged, we probably have the highest animal welfare standards we have ever had and that they are among the highest in the world. This Government have been not only at the forefront of implementing higher standards domestically, but active both on a European and international level in trying to improve standards. The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) made a vital point, to which I shall return, that it is no good our having the highest animal welfare standards in the world if they are not replicated elsewhere. In a single market and an increasingly global economy that would result only in our farmers finding it more and more difficult to compete and going out of business, as the hon. Gentleman has warned. We would then suck in imports from countries with far lower animal welfare standards. It is a very difficult balance to strike, and although we have improved domestically, the Government, animal welfare organisations and all political parties will have to think carefully about how to move the agenda forward on a European and international level.
I will come on to that shortly if the hon. Gentleman is patient.
It is worth reminding ourselves what we have already achieved in the past few years. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire said, we are on the brink of enacting a historical Animal Welfare Bill, which will be the single most important piece of legislation governing the welfare of animals for a hundred years. We have banned veal crates and battery cages for chickens, and we have successfully argued for an EU-wide veal crate and battery chicken ban as well as for inclusion in the proposed EU constitution of a specific article on the protection and welfare of animals. We have worked for agreement on the farm animal welfare directive, which sets minimum standards across the EU and relates to the important issue of labelling raised by the hon. Member for North Thanet—I will come back to that shortly. We banned the close confinement of sows in stalls, and the EU is preparing a similar ban. We have introduced new codes on the welfare of sheep, cattle, pigs, laying hens and broilers, and we are preparing new codes for goats, ducks and turkeys.
We spend £3.4 million a year on research on animal welfare to ensure that our policy and its application have a sound scientific base and to support the UK’s negotiating position in the EU. That money has supported a wide range of research, including on the management and welfare requirements of broiler meat chickens. I shall come to that in a little more detail.
We have improved the welfare of animals at slaughter, accepting nearly all the recommendations in the report of the independently established Farm Animal Welfare Council, and we will consult on a new code of practice shortly. We have introduced new regulations to improve the welfare of pigs. They relate to the minimum space for sows and gilts and increase the minimum weaning age from 21 to 28 days.
On transport, which formed a major part of my hon. Friend’s speech, we have always said that we prefer a trade in meat to the long-distance transport of live animals to slaughter, whether in the UK or across borders. A number of hon. Members said that they would like this to happen, but we cannot stop the export of live animals under European law. However, the House should note that the proportion of live sheep exports, for example, has fallen from some 15 per cent. in 1999 to 3 per cent. in the last few years.
One thing that we did during our presidency was to push the Commission for more radical changes on the rules for transporting animals. Although I acknowledge, as I have before in the House, that we did not achieve everything that we wanted, we have won important improvements through new regulations that will come into force from next January. Those will give more clarity on an animal’s fitness to travel; improve the protection of horses and young animals, including calves; require training and assessment of drivers, attendants and transporters to be authorised; set standards for transport, be it by sea, road or air; and introduce additional requirements, including the inspection and approval of vehicles, for journeys of more than eight hours. We fought hard for an eight-hour journey limit; unfortunately, we were not successful. The regulations will also improve co-operation and the exchange of information between member states so that rogue transporters can be tackled and enforcement across the EU is more uniform.
I think that we all support those measures, but they will all involve some cost to the industry. It would be helpful if, after the regime has been established for a while, there is a review of how those costs are bearing down on the industry. One idea may be to reduce the number of inspections down to one, rather than having lots of different ones. We want to maintain standards, but we need to reduce the costs of that on the production side.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. The industry has been very supportive of the UK negotiating position on the animal transport regulations. Yes, the UK industry does not want extra costs imposed on it over and above what is happening in the rest of Europe, but it does want a level playing field, and those measures were about trying to raise the standards in most other EU countries to the level of standards here and about trying to ensure that we have more consistent enforcement. We will shortly lay secondary legislation before Parliament to support the regulations.
The issue of veal calves was raised by my hon. Friends the Members for North-West Leicestershire and for Dover (Gwyn Prosser). Indeed, the latter spoke about an issue that has arisen in his constituency today. I am well aware of the public concern regarding the resumption of live exports of calves and veal calves in particular. The rules governing the welfare of veal calves and their transport have improved considerably since the trade last happened, before the ban because of BSE. However, I am working closely with the farming industry and the welfare organisations.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire kindly highlighted the fact that I had attended a summit meeting bringing both sides together to try to find a way forward to boost our domestic veal production. I recommend all hon. Members who are not vegetarian to buy British veal, support it and encourage other people to buy it, because one of the big problems that we have here is that we simply do not have a strong veal market. I will go away and write to my hon. Friend in detail about some of the ideas that he has proposed in his paper.
On the question of market price, because there is not a strong consumer demand for veal in this country, there are much higher prices to be gained on the continent, where consumers eat veal in greater quantities. Before the live export, particularly of male dairy calves, resumed, many of those calves were simply shot because of their low value, but we are working hard to try to address the problem.
I am extremely concerned to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Dover says about the particular incident in Dover today. I have tried to get some information on that during the debate and I understand that there was an incident with consignments of calves for export that suffered considerable delay. Our staff at Dover docks ensured that the animals had water and they made the best possible arrangements for the calves to reach a place where they could rest, but I have to say that the transporters should have had contingency plans for such an event, and our officials will investigate the incident closely.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that assurance. Since my intervention, a further note has been passed to me that says that a second consignment of 1,800 calves has been on the quayside for 15 hours. Another four or five hours’ journey time is expected, with five hours beyond that, so it will be more than 24 hours’ journey time in total. That report is from KALE—Kent Against Live Exports—of which I am proud to be a member. Its observers say that the animals have not been properly watered or fed and that they are clearly in distress—they are howling and crying.
I will investigate that as a matter of urgency and get back to my hon. Friend after the debate.
On the issue of broiler chickens, negotiation is, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire said, going on in the EU to introduce the directive, which is long overdue in my view. The UK is among the countries committed to a maximum stocking density and we will continue to push for that. This comes back to what I said earlier. EU enlargement has been very good for the UK in many ways, but on animal welfare it is making it more difficult for welfare-minded countries, such as the UK, Sweden and Germany, to win the arguments in the EU. One reason the animal transport directive was, in the end, not as good as we would have liked was the accession countries voting with the Mediterranean countries, which traditionally do not have such strong concerns for animal welfare. We must redouble our efforts in this country, across parties and with animal welfare organisations and their international partners, to make the case for animal welfare in Europe so that we win back that majority on the Council, otherwise we will face real problems.
Does the Minister accept that labelling is an issue? Ninety-four per cent. of unprocessed meat in British supermarkets has country-of-origin information clearly attached to it; only 19 per cent. of processed meat has such information. The National Pig Association argues that low-welfare foreign produce is often passed off as high-welfare British pork. That cannot be allowed to happen without damaging its members and damaging the welfare of pigs, can it?
No. I agree with my hon. Friend. One thing that the UK pushed for strongly, which we are pleased has been agreed, is animal welfare labelling as part of the EU animal welfare action plan. That is work in progress and we will continue to push for it to happen as soon as possible.
Let me deal briefly with specific points raised by hon. Members. Ventilation shutdown has been comprehensively debated in the House. We have argued before that we took the view that we needed every tool in our armoury to tackle avian flu. Ventilation shutdown would be used only as a last resort. There are other, preferable culling methods that we would use, but there could be circumstances in which it was better for the welfare of birds infected with the disease for them to be killed quickly than to let them die slowly from a very nasty and painful disease.
ERDP funding is a matter for the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner), but I will ask him to write to the hon. Member for Leominster with the details of the projects that he requested. However, one consequence of devolution is that different decisions will be made on funding details in England, Wales and Scotland.
Greyhounds have been comprehensively debated in the House in proceedings on the Animal Welfare Bill. I agree with the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) that the reports over the summer were particularly shocking. They are being investigated and a court case may be pending, so we have to be careful about what we say on that, but I have summoned the greyhound authorities to come and meet me to talk about what they will do to deal with the issues raised by that case.
As I said earlier, it is no good for our animals, or indeed the world’s animals, if the UK acts unilaterally. I am asking our chief vet to consider how we can engage better on a European and international basis to increase welfare standards across the world, so that we can carry on improving our welfare standards without jeopardising the livelihoods of our producers.
Couples Living Together
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Weir. I believe that this is the first time that I have spoken under your chairmanship.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to debate this subject with the Minister of State, and I look forward to sharing thoughts and ideas on this topic with her and other hon. Members.
I begin by telling a story about a woman whom I met at a roving surgery in my constituency in August. She was homeless, and she and her 14-year-old daughter were sleeping on sofas facing each other in their friend’s one-bedroomed flat on an estate. The woman’s long-term relationship had recently broken down. She had lived with her partner for 14 or 15 years, brought up their child and contributed to all the household bills, but when the relationship broke down she was entitled to nothing, and her partner forced her to move out of the family home. She is unlikely to be entitled to a share of their home unless she can prove to a court that there was a common intention of joint ownership, either by agreement or through financial contributions to the property itself. When they moved out of the home, her daughter had to change schools at a critical time, just as she was about to start her GCSEs.
My constituent’s case shows, on a human level, the dangers that couples face when cohabiting relationships break down. Because she was not married, the courts do not have the power to consider what might be a fair outcome, so she is effectively left destitute. Sadly, she is not alone. The statistics show that substantial and increasing numbers of people choose to live together. Between 1996 and 2004, the number of cohabiting couples with children increased by more than 50 per cent. to 2.2 million. The proportion of unmarried women who cohabited with a partner trebled between 1979 and 2002. Today, one in three babies is born outside marriage, compared with one in 20 in 1963. Those statistics show the huge social changes in our society.
I am sure that everyone in the Chamber recognises that people choose to marry or cohabit for various reasons, but most couples have no idea that there is no such thing as a common law marriage. It is not surprising that people who are not lawyers do not know anything about the law. Fortunately, most of us do not have much to do with the law. A recent survey showed that more than half of British people believe that couples who live together for a certain amount of time acquire the same legal rights as married couples. Despite the fact that common law marriage was abolished in 1753, the idea that it exists is still prevalent.
I have been working with Resolution—a professional organisation of family lawyers who advise people on the legal aspects of their relationships when they break down. Many people who seek legal advice are devastated to discover they have no rights on the breakdown of a cohabiting relationship. The reality is that men and women, whether heterosexual or homosexual, who live together without a marriage or civil partnership, can face devastating hardship when their relationship breaks down. People who live together outside marriage or civil partnerships have no claim against their partners for financial provision when the relationship ends, except on behalf of their children.
A cohabitant can make a claim against property ownership, but the rules governing property claims are complex and confusing. Unless there has been a financial contribution, it is difficult to establish an interest in a home owned by one partner, or that the other partner has made a contribution to that home. Often, such matters can be decided only in court, which is expensive and time-consuming and has uncertain results. It is an emotionally exhausting and adversarial process for people at a time when they are vulnerable and frightened. Many people feel they cannot risk destitution by ending a relationship, even if their partner has become abusive or violent. We must change the law to aid those people—mostly women—who simply cannot afford to escape dysfunctional relationships.
Another very real and human issue linked to cohabiting relationships concerns the rights of the father. Until this issue emerged in a case in my constituency, I was unaware that a father in a cohabiting relationship has no automatic parental rights unless his name is on the birth certificate, or there is a formal agreement or court order regarding the child. I became aware of this when dealing with a constituency case in which a child’s natural mother walked out of a relationship and broke off all ties with the child and the child’s biological father, but the father was not named on the birth certificate. The mother had changed her name, but because the father could not prove that she had changed her name through any process of documentation, the child has been left in a legal limbo without a nationality, and he is unable to have or apply for a British passport. His human rights are in limbo because of those circumstances, and he finds himself in a bizarre, almost Kafkaesque, situation. We have been working with the Home Office to try to find a happy outcome for that child. It is right that there should be some sort of process, but that child must, at some point, be granted a form of identification.
In many other countries, including Australia and New Zealand, legislation exists which enables the courts to make remedial provision for partners exiting a cohabiting relationship. In New South Wales, for example, legislation enabling financial provision to be made for cohabitants on the breakdown of a relationship was introduced under the De Facto Relationships Act 1984—more than 20 years ago. Sadly, the English courts have no such powers, yet there is no evidence from those countries that the introduction of such laws undermines the institution of marriage or has any effect on marriage rates.
Another interesting anomaly is that cohabiting partners are recognised in law for certain purposes. The Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979 and the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 both impose a liability to pay compensation to the cohabitant of a deceased where the couple have been living together as husband and wife. Similarly, a cohabitant can make a claim against the estate of his or her partner under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 without having to prove dependency if they lived as husband and wife in the same household for two years immediately preceding the death. With welfare benefits, the Department for Work and Pensions recognises cohabitation when establishing people’s benefits claims, and takes into account the duration of the relationship, the performance of household duties and the degree of mutual commitment. It is ironic that the state takes account of cohabitation while the relationship is ongoing, but on the ending of the relationship, couples are left to their own devices to sort things out.
Nearly 10 years ago, the Law Commission described the law on couples who live together in England and Wales as unfair, uncertain and illogical. I was delighted when it produced a consultation paper in May setting out possible reforms. It is certainly time for reform. Several issues are likely to be at the centre of the debate about any new law, the first of which is whether the new law should be an opt-in or opt-out law. I believe that to provide a safety net, any new law should apply equally to all. I also believe in and recognise the right that individuals have to freedom of choice, so there should, of course, be the option for cohabitants to opt out of this law.
Another question concerns whether any new law should apply only to cohabiting couples who have children together. Obviously, if one partner in a couple with a child is leaving the relationship, that could lead to issues about where that child goes, in particular the homelessness of that child. Alternatively, should the law apply to people who have lived together for a certain minimum period of time? I believe that any new law should apply to all cohabiting couples if they have children together, regardless of the length of the relationship. If they do not, the law should apply after a minimum of two years’ living together.
The overriding objective should be fairness, social justice and equality under the law. This means that fair account is taken of any economic advantage derived by either party from contributions, whether domestic or economic, made by the other during the cohabitation. Conversely, account should be taken of any economic disadvantages suffered by the other party in the interests of the family’s children or the other person, for example by their giving up work to look after a child.
It is interesting that today the Church of England is coming out with its position on the Law Commission’s consultation. I am delighted that the Church of England wants what is basically an opt-out law, which should cover everybody unless they choose to opt out. I disagree with its view that the law should apply only to couples with children, because it is not just in the care and upbringing of children that people make contributions to another person’s life. For example, many couples can work together in businesses or can run them together, and someone can simply lose their job or the value of the stake that they have built up in that business over a long period of time when the cohabiting relationship ends. So other areas need to be examined.
I do not believe that the divorce law presumption of equal sharing should apply to couples who live together. There should be a presumption that the parties would be self-supporting, and maintenance orders should be limited to a maximum of three years, unless there were exceptional circumstances that warranted a longer period.
Earlier this year, I tabled an early-day motion on this subject, and I am delighted that it has attracted cross-party support from more than 120 hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who is in the Chamber. I am sure that many of those right hon. and hon. Members signed it after hearing of the appalling situations that their constituents had found themselves in following the breakdown of a cohabiting relationship, because such instances motivated me.
After tabling the motion I received a series of heartbreaking, anonymous letters from people in all parts of the country. One was from a woman who has been living with her partner for 17 years, and they had five children together. She would like to leave that relationship, but is unable to leave her partner as he refuses to give her a share in the family home, which is in his name. In her letter to me, she described her situation as that of a concubine, because she is unable to leave because of her economic dependency on her partner.
In conclusion, the current law is out of step with society and produces very unfair consequences.
It is great privilege to support the early-day motion tabled by the hon. Lady. She makes a powerful case. Will she briefly deal with a point that is often made against her, and, by implication, me, which I believe to be invalid? It is that in some sense, correcting the balance here to protect people who would otherwise be unfairly vulnerable entails a discrimination against or an attack on marriage. It does nothing of the kind. It seeks to redress disadvantage. Marriage is a strong institution, and it can survive on the basis of that strength.
In asking the question, the hon. Gentleman makes the point eloquently. He is correct that there have been challenges from the Roman Catholic Church which relate to the institution of marriage. The evidence from other countries that I have cited shows no discernable trends on marriage rates, and we must also examine social change and the way that people choose, or choose not, to marry. The inverse of that argument is to say, “If people want economic protection, they should get married”. That is the wrong reason for getting married, but it is the logical consequence of such an argument.
We must adapt and update the law so that it catches up with how people live their lives. It must also be about people who are effectively left totally destitute, not just homeless. In some cases, they leave the town in which they have been living, the community that they have known and the support structure provided by the cohabitee’s family. It is catastrophic to have no money and to be in that situation.
The situation also puts a huge strain on social housing because there is an increased demand for homes. I know of another case in which a woman—a cohabitee— with four children left her abusive partner. He was left with the four-bedroomed council house that they lived in together and she presented as homeless to the council, which had to find another four-bedroomed house for her and her four children. The council allowed him to remain in that family home, despite the fact that he had committed violent crime against his partner. However, we are not here to discuss domestic violence, so I shall bring my comments to a conclusion.
It is not fair that my constituent is sleeping on a friend’s sofa despite her having contributed to a family home for more than 14 years. Why is the law not protecting such people? It simply must adapt and catch up with the way in which people choose to live their lives in the 21st century.
Like the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) for her early-day motion. As she said, it has attracted a large number of signatures from all parts of the House. I also congratulate her on introducing the debate. As I listened to her doing so, I found it scarcely possible to believe that she has been in this House only since 2005, because she brings to our attention examples of injustice and unfairness, and problems from her constituency that point to a wider issue. She brings those things together with her commitment to social justice, fairness and the protection of children. That is exactly what we should be focusing on both in this debate and when we look to change the law.
Generally speaking, it is not the business of the Government or the state to interfere with people’s property rights or to tell people how they should live their lives. As my hon. Friend’s example of her constituent’s situation shows, there is a requirement—a public policy imperative—to tackle the problem because the current situation results in unfairness and hardship and, in particular, causes problems for young children.
The first point that my hon. Friend made, with which I strongly agree, was that family relationships are changing. Not having protection for cohabiting couples who subsequently separate has not stopped people cohabiting; nor has it encouraged people to marry rather than cohabit. The relentless trend is for an increase in cohabitation and in the number of children who are born in cohabiting relationships rather than married ones. We must address the situation as it is, because even without that protection, more people are cohabiting and fewer people are marrying.
I discovered that the Government Actuary’s Department, which likes to look ahead in such things, has managed to predict the figures for up to 2031. It predicts that by then there will be 3.8 million cohabiting couples and fewer than 10 million married ones. So cohabiting couples will constitute more than a third of the total. It is a growing trend.
As my hon. Friend said, the problem is that people do not realise that there is no such thing as common law marriage. It is amazing that it is not what it purports to be, and has not been for ages, but is still somehow rooted in the public mind. I think that that is because of the name “common law marriage”; if someone can describe themselves as a common law wife, they must think that some rights go along with it.
The Department for Constitutional Affairs has introduced an awareness campaign about living together to try to tell people what their rights are—or what their rights are not—when they are cohabiting. We must do more than that because, whatever we do to make people aware of their lack of rights, they do live together and will continue to choose to live together instead of getting married. We must consider the public policy imperative to make the situation fair and, in particular, to protect children when a relationship breaks down.
As my hon. Friend said, what might happen typically is that the woman gives up her job when she has children. She stays at home to look after them, thereby enabling the man to go out to work, to keep his income going and to pay the mortgage while she is looking after the children. At the end of the relationship—this is the greatest unfairness—he has the house and his work, and she is left with no job, with responsibility for the children and with no rights in the property.
We have asked the Law Commission to consider how to solve the problem. It has produced a consultation document and will produce its final report next year. It is a commitment of the Government to protect children and to ensure fairness, so we shall take the matter forward. My hon. Friend has provided us with an important prompt to continue to focus on the subject.
The traditional common law living arrangements are those in the Mr. and Mrs. Burns case, in which a woman changed her name and the couple lived, to all intents and purposes, as if there were married. It used to be that the man was still married and could not get a divorce, so the couple lived together. The patterns are slightly different now, but the problems remain the same, so legislation is required, as well as more research.
In anticipation of the Law Commission’s report, I am prompted by the debate to discuss with my fellow Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education and Skills, including my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families, whether we need more research on the current pattern of cohabitation and whether it is causing further problems, so that we have an up-to-date picture of the facts and can show, on the basis of research, the nature of the problem so that we proceed to win support throughout the House for proposals to change the law.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing the debate to the Chamber and look forward to working with her, the hon. Member for Buckingham and hon. Members on both sides of the House in taking the matter forward.
Mr. Weir, imagine a railway line that could get you from Edinburgh or Glasgow to London in three hours instead of the five or six hours that it takes now—a world-class, high-speed link and a journey that is safe, reliable, comfortable and makes the minimum impact on the environment. That would be a journey that the Minister and I would take regularly, if only we could.
I am delighted to have secured this debate at what I believe is an opportune time while we await the publication of Sir Rod Eddington’s review of transport policy. It is important that high-speed rail is at the top of our agenda, and I welcome the Minister to respond to this debate.
Travelling regularly from Edinburgh and Glasgow to London by air and then to Westminster by train is part of our job. I have tried all the alternatives: the train during the day, the sleeper and the car. I am in no doubt that if a high-speed rail link existed it would not only be popular but would have an economic and environmental impact that would benefit cities and regions throughout the land.
On 22 September, Virgin’s Pendolino tilting train broke a 25-year record when it made the journey from Glasgow to London in less than four hours on the west coast main line. The event gained considerable media and public attention, but a French tourist at Euston station would have been less impressed. While we were celebrating our own record, across the channel the French were celebrating the 25th anniversary of the hugely successful TGV high-speed train. While today’s debate will focus on the prospects for high-speed rail links in the UK, it is worth remembering that in many other countries it has been a staple of the transportation system for 20 years. The first high-speed rail line was the Japanese Shinkansen project—the bullet train—which opened in the 1960s in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. However, the main growth era was in the 1980s as lines were built across many European countries. Today there are an estimated 2,500 km of dedicated high-speed lines across Europe and it is expected that by 2020 there will be 10,000 km of such lines crossing the entire continent. To put that into perspective, the UK will contribute an expected 113 km of that total.
A European high-speed rail network is beginning to take shape and those projects have created widely recognised symbols of national pride. It is a great failing of ours that since the 1980s the British railway network has more often been a source of national shame than of national pride. Why can Taiwan move from planning a high-speed rail link in the early 1990s to completing it, when we are stuck in the past?
I hope that the Minister will indicate where he thinks we stand in relation to the rest of Europe and elsewhere, because we were once in the lead in the design, construction and development of the railway industry. The Forth rail bridge—or half of it—is in my constituency. That engineering marvel is recognised worldwide. It shows that where there is a will, we deliver. If we could do that 100 years ago, we should be able to do more today. Today, the main passenger routes between central Scotland and London, the west coast main line and the east coast main line, use track routes that were laid down more than a century ago. Until recently, the west coast line had had no significant investment since the 1960s, despite being the UK’s busiest mixed-traffic railway. Railtrack set out an ambitious upgrading plan, which was costed at about £2 billion. With a completion date of about 2002, it is six years behind schedule, and it is estimated to run over budget and cost up to £7 billion or £8 billion. The channel tunnel rail link, in contrast, will carry trains up to speeds of 300 kph, and it will, we hope, open on schedule and on budget in 2007.
I hope the Minister agrees that it would be impossible to develop any strategic improvements in Scotland without the UK network being part of the plan. I mention that because certain other parties believe that it is possible, and that decisions from a separated Scotland could determine transport south of the border. I shall understand if you, Mr. Weir, take a different view.
David Begg, among many other things, heads the Northern Way strategy’s transport group, a Government-sponsored body that is charged with making northern England more competitive. He recently said that the rail network will soon require a new line anyway, as it will be full to capacity in 12 years. The key point is that our rail network is creaking under the strain of overcrowding, and it will not be able to meet the projected increase in freight and passengers in the medium term—far less in the long term.
Although the network faces undoubted challenges, we should not consider them in isolation from the rest of the transport network. In the near future, we shall have to change our entire transport network because of the environmental, social and economic pressures upon us. Our heavily congested transportation system tops the list of concerns in surveys of business interests. Congestion costs the UK economy an estimated £20 billion a year. We are the most car-dependent country in Europe and, under this Government, traffic has risen by 11 per cent. since 1997, despite repeated promises to reduce it.
There is a growing awareness of the environmental impact of our present transport system. The urgent need to lower our emissions sits uneasily with the recent explosion in air travel and our increasingly overcrowded roads. The emerging consensus on the need to tackle those issues is important, and they are climbing up the agenda.
Similarly, although the vast majority of UK transport emissions are from private vehicles, the aviation industry is rapidly becoming a major contributor. That must be set against a backdrop where the demand for fast and efficient transport will continue to increase. Although aviation produces only 7 per cent. of the carbon dioxide emissions released by Britain’s private vehicles, it is on course to become an equal greenhouse gas emitter by 2012, according to information from the Tyndall centre for climate change research in Manchester.
Only yesterday, the figures for Glasgow airport’s future were released in its 25-year masterplan. If we add them to the planned expansion at Edinburgh, the 18 million passengers using these airports each year will rise to almost 50 million by 2030. That is the equivalent of 50 flights an hour, every hour, of which half go to other cities in the UK. Those destinations could easily be reached by rail if the alternative were attractive and available.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I agree with all that he has said, and I hope that I agree with the rest of his speech, too. On the question of links to other cities in the UK, should not we bear in mind another comparison with Europe? In many European countries, there are cities where, 10 or 15 years ago, air travel was common, but where high-speed rail is now considered the norm. Airline companies choose to route their passengers through rail links between, for example, Paris and Brussels, precisely because a high-speed rail link exists. We could do with them in this country.
I agree with that well made point, which I shall cover in more detail later.
We will justify a high-speed rail link neither merely by pointing out the problems with the high emissions of short-haul flights, nor by complaining about our congested roads. Any argument must show that it will be a quicker, greener and cost-effective alternative that people will choose to use. If we can demonstrate that, the case will be irrefutable.
A north-south link would connect the major cities of northern England and Scotland with the midlands and London. There could be direct routes to Heathrow, the channel tunnel rail link and central London. Journey times would be transformed, with times between Edinburgh and London slashed to around two and a half to three hours.
The evidence shows that throughout the 400 km to 800 km range of journey lengths, high-speed rail is the fastest way to travel. For a country the size of the UK, it is an attractive proposition. Experience abroad shows that provided high-speed rail were affordable, it would have a major impact on those figures. On trips of three hours or less, the TGV dominates the market in France. A further useful comparison is the Eurostar service, which boasts a 71 per cent. market share of the London to Paris route, and 64 per cent. of the London to Brussels route. The key point is that if we provide a rail service with competitive travel times and cost, people will use it.
A similar shift from air to rail would have a dramatic impact on emissions. Passengers who fly between London, Paris and Brussels generate about 10 times more emissions of the greenhouse gas CO2 than travellers who go by rail, according to independent research published only last week. A round trip between London’s Heathrow airport and Brussels airport generates 160 kg of CO2 per passenger, compared with an estimated 18 kg of CO2 for the same return journey by rail.
I am fortunate enough to have Edinburgh airport in my constituency, and I am as aware as anyone of its huge economic benefits. It brings more than 3,000 jobs directly and more indirectly, and it is a gateway for Scottish tourism. However, the most dramatic benefits have come with the increase in long-haul flights. By reducing the number of highly pollutant domestic short-haul flights, we will free runway space for the international flights that people want. They generate more income and provide a bigger boost to tourism.
It is a mistake to assume that the aviation industry is diametrically opposed to high-speed rail or that it would be the major loser because of any link. The Edinburgh airport masterplan published recently takes into account the impact of a potential high-speed link from Edinburgh to London. When all that is taken into account, and when 60 to 90 per cent. of that demand—if France is used for comparison—could be met by the more environmentally friendly alternative of high-speed rail, it simply does not make sense to use scarce airport capacity for domestic flights.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent speech, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. It would be disingenuous of me to use his valuable time to badger the Minister about the loss of the late-night rail service to Newbury, however it would support the argument that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) makes. People—business people in particular—are changing their patterns of travel, and to expand on his point, we must second-guess those travel demands. Does he agree that a terrible lag in business travel developments has encouraged business people to use air? A properly marketed operation would enable more of the business community to use the high-speed rail services that he describes.
To sum up, if the high-speed alternative were available, business men would use it. Businesses, business people and the environment would benefit from it.
In spite of the environmental benefits, in the real world we will win the argument on high-speed rail only if we can show that it will benefit the wider UK economy. One key argument used to persuade people to support the 2012 Olympic games was that it would benefit the whole UK. High-speed rail will do the same, but it must be presented in that way.
The so-called north-south divide widened between 1997 and 2005, but according to a recent study by economic analysts at Cambridge Econometrics, a high-speed rail link would help to relieve that disparity. Regional business groups say that a high-speed line could transform their fortunes, with direct foreign investment in the north-east doubling to £5.7 billion a year, according to one estimate. In the long term, the south can fulfil its economic potential only if its transport system is expanded, and the north only if its perceived disadvantage in location can be overcome.
I have not sought to deal with the matter of route choice. Should high-speed rail be given the go-ahead, there will be a great debate on what route any proposed line should take. The subject is worth a debate in its own right, and I hope that we will be able to have a discussion on it in the future.
Cost is always an important issue and I am particularly aware of the rising cost of transport projects. With the cost of the proposed Edinburgh airport rail link in my own constituency rising to about £500 million and that of the replacement Forth road bridge—or tunnel, as I would prefer—under discussion, we must accept that transport infrastructure is costly. Does the Minister believe that Network Rail has introduced mechanisms that can control costs and allow the planning of major new projects to proceed on time and within budget?
Constructing the high-speed rail link would undoubtedly be an expensive project. Estimated costs range between £11 billion and £36 billion. The Government are understandably wary of major capital investment, but a high-speed rail link would bring massive economic advantages. Even at the highest estimate, a high-speed London to Scotland railway would bring in benefits of double its price tag. As a comparison, a Trident replacement would cost an estimated £76 billion according to some estimates. I leave hon. Members to weigh up the comparative cost-effectiveness and benefits of the two projects.
The cost of construction, of course, is only part of the problem. Land acquisition would be a major issue, as would fares. The UK has the highest fares in Europe and few would argue that our rail network is the envy of the continent. However, if construction costs are properly managed, fares should stay low enough not to choke off potential demand. In view of that, it is unhelpful that UK taxpayers currently give the aviation industry an effective subsidy of £9.2 billion a year. Airlines pay no tax on the fuel that they use and virtually no VAT, and they benefit from duty-free. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on the benefits of levelling that playing field.
Although cost is a major concern, a more formidable obstacle to any high-speed rail link is political will, or rather the lack of it. Cross-party support would be essential. The construction of a major new rail line would take far longer than the duration of a Government, and we need urgently to apply more long-term thinking to our transport network. Moreover, since the advent of devolution, for any plan to get the go-ahead there would have to be agreement between Holyrood and Westminster. I can say with assurance that the current Liberal Democrat Minister for Transport in the Scottish Parliament is right behind the idea. The ball is in the Government’s court and I await the Minister’s response with eager anticipation. Britain invented passenger railways 175 years ago; I urge the Government to take the urgent steps required to reinvent them.
First, I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Weir. I know that you have sacrificed your attendance at an important conference elsewhere in the country. I am confident that you will find that the quality of the debate is far in excess of what you might have expected at your party conference.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) on securing the debate and providing an opportunity for the House to discuss high-speed rail links. I thank him also for providing my first opportunity to address the House in my new role. He raised a number of points and I shall cover many of them. If he wishes to raise something specific I shall be happy to give way.
I shall deal first with Network Rail and its ability to control the cost of capital projects. That is, of course, a priority for the Government and for Network Rail, but nobody can predict with any certainty the precise cost of any capital project because, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the time scale would be a number of years. Nobody knows for sure what inflationary effect there would be on an initial cost estimate.
The hon. Gentleman said that few would claim that our network is the envy of Europe. I take him to task on that, because not only do many aspects of our rail industry outstrip performance in Europe, but the model of the British rail network is being examined by European Governments who wish to privatise and restructure their own rail networks along our model.
The House will be aware that the Labour party’s 2005 manifesto committed us to looking at the feasibility and affordability of a new north-south high-speed rail link. The Government have subsequently committed to take the matter forward in the development of a long-term strategy for the railways, drawing on Sir Rod Eddington’s advice on the long-term impact of transport decisions on the UK’s productivity, stability and growth.
Before I turn to the case for high-speed rail links, it is important that I put the debate the context of the current success of Britain’s railways. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I range slightly wider than the narrow subject matter of the debate. After a number of difficult years, Britain’s railways are a success story. It is interesting to note that when I was first appointed to my job, friends would ask me, “What are you responsible for?” I would first say, “Railways”, and inevitably they would tilt their heads sympathetically and tut, and sometimes shake their heads. There is a gap between the public perception of Britain’s railways and the reality, as I hope to show. Passenger numbers are growing significantly, and in 2005 there was the highest number of passenger journeys for 50 years. Last year more than 1 billion journeys were made on the national rail network, an increase of 2.5 per cent. since 2004. Britain’s is the fastest-growing major railway in Europe. There have been significant increases in long-distance and regional services, with annual growth of about 5 per cent. in each. That growth reflects the record levels of investment in the network. For example, there has been a growth of 34 per cent. in west coast services between London and Manchester since the journey time was reduced by more than 20 minutes and the frequency doubled in 2004.
Alongside the growth in passenger numbers, rail freight is increasing. In 2005-06, 22.1 billion net tonne kilometres of rail freight were moved on the national rail network, a growth of 66 per cent. since privatisation. Performance has improved markedly in recent years thanks to the renewed focus on punctuality of Network Rail and the train operators. A co-operative approach to reliability improvement, improved timetabling and investment in joint control centres have at last improved punctuality levels to pre-Hatfield levels. In the last period for which information is available, 87.2 per cent. of trains arrived on time, as measured by the public performance measure, up from an industry low of 74.2 per cent. in October 2001.
Network Rail and the Association of Train Operating Companies announced in December 2003 the successful installation of the train protection and warning system across the entire national network. At the end of May 2006, signals passed at danger risk has reduced by 87 per cent. from the benchmark set in March 2001. Safety and reliability are permanent priorities for the railway. Rail must always be able to demonstrate that it can move people and goods safely from A to B at a reasonable cost and thus meet the basic minimum requirement of any functional transport system. Rail is a relatively efficient mode of transport from an environmental point of view, and provided that it can continue to deliver safe and reliable transport, coping with the growth in demand will be the central challenge facing the railways in the coming years.
On the matter of a high-speed line, in taking a decision on a project of such a scale we need carefully to consider the need for and benefit of it. In other words, before we determine the solution we should understand the problem. In planning priorities, accommodating growing demand for freight and passengers is the central challenge. The work that we have done so far suggests that there will be robust growth between the major cities in the next 20 to 25 years. However, the challenge will be greatest at the London end of the network and around major cities such as Birmingham. A high-speed line could help to deliver the extra capacity needed, but the existing network also has more to contribute. The railway has responded to passenger and freight growth in the past with greater and more efficient use of its assets, by squeezing more and longer trains on to the same network. Train kilometres have increased by 23 per cent. since 1997, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to generate significant new capacity in that way, as the hon. Gentleman correctly said.
Does the Minister accept that having increased freight capacity, but with slow-moving trains and increased passenger capacity at points in the network where speed is of the utmost importance, means that increasing capacity on bottlenecks such as the Forth rail bridge is a real problem? The slow freight trains are stopping the faster passenger trains from increasing in numbers.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I will talk later about whether freight should share the same lines.
A few years ago the headlines in the press about the railway industry focused on the lack of punctuality and the number of trains cancelled. Now, more often than not, when the press report on the railway industry it talks about capacity and people being squeezed into carriages. That issue is an absolute priority for the Government. When we announced the successful bidder for the South Western franchise a few weeks ago, we were able to say that part of the successful bid included an increase of 20 per cent. at peak times on the network, which is essential across all the franchises if we are to grow the network in future.
It is likely that significant benefits can be gained from within the current rail network by ensuring that we use the available capacity to its maximum. In that regard, Network Rail is taking forward a series of route utilisation strategies—I will try my best to avoid acronyms, which are the bane of the railway industry. The strategies aim to ensure that capacity is used to its maximum and that demand and supply are as closely matched as possible, while ensuring better performance and reliability. The route utilisation strategies process also highlights areas where small to medium-scale investments will enhance capacity and capability.
Solutions such as train lengthening and better timetabling can deliver and have delivered, significant benefits. For example, Network Rail’s recent route utilisation strategy for the south-west indicated that about 50 per cent. additional peak-time capacity can be provided through those measures and within the boundaries of the existing network, yet without the extra expenditure of increasing infrastructure.
Having considered those relatively simple solutions to optimise the use of the network, we should also investigate the important role that technology is likely to have, as we seek to increase the carrying capacity of the railway. Moving from line-side to in-cab signalling, coupled with substantial increases in reliability and selective removal of infrastructure bottlenecks, could release significant additional capacity.
Although we think of rail as congested—the hon. Gentleman referred to the possible congestion on the network in 12 years—there is typically a gap of several miles between trains on the main lines. Most experts believe that it should be possible to use the railway much more intensively by adopting in-cab signalling, where each train knows its own position and adjusts its speed to keep a safe distance from the trains in front and behind. A signalling-based solution could in principle have a lower financial and environmental cost than building new infrastructure. However, although the technology has been proven on metros, it remains expensive and has yet to be fully developed for a complex multi-purpose network such as ours.
The current UK high-speed train fleet, which is one of the great success stories of the British railway, is now approaching 30 years in service. The Government are co-coordinating and sponsoring the programme to develop an appropriate replacement strategy. The challenge includes delivering increased capacity and reducing environmental impacts. For example, by reducing wasted space, a longer carriage vehicle could provide a further 16 per cent. of extra furnishable space, with no reduction in comfort, when compared to today’s high-speed trains. Thus, in the short to medium term, the Government believe that there are opportunities to increase the carrying capacity on the rail network within the current boundaries.
Nevertheless, the Government are still considering the need for a step change in capacity on the railways. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not take any of my comments so far as meaning that the Government have in any way ruled out high-speed rail links. Such a step change can be delivered in a number of ways, for example, through a major upgrade of the existing network—that is, by adding new lines alongside the current alignment—by building a new line of conventional speed or of high speed, or from building a new line using magnetic levitation technology, or Maglev.
This is perhaps an appropriate moment for me to take pause and offer my sincere condolences, on behalf of the Government, to the friends and family of the 23 people who tragically lost their lives in the accident at the German Maglev test facility last month.
I am more than happy to accept that. In fact, I was in Berlin the week the accident happened and was told on my arrival about a plan by the federal and local governments finally to construct a commercial Maglev line—no longer a test line—in Munich. I was interested and glad to hear today that those plans have not been derailed. I also understand that two members of maintenance staff are being investigated for possible charges of manslaughter as a result of the accident, which had absolutely nothing to do with the technology.
To return to the choice between a high-speed link or a Maglev, we will need to take account of many factors to assess the most appropriate solution in considering such a step change. The most critical of those will include the overall cost—that is, up-front capital cost and whole-life costs—the environmental impact of any scheme, and the benefits that are accrued to the passenger and economy from journey time reductions. There is a range of estimates for the cost of a new line, which depend on the route and the technology, but they all suggest that it would cost a very large amount of money, in the order of tens of billions of pounds.
On the face of it, upgrading existing lines might may appear a cheaper option. However, it might prove more cost-effective to build one new line than to upgrade three existing main lines, especially as that would limit the disruption that has affected passengers on the west coast main line during its upgrade.
I failed to congratulate the Minister on his new post, and would like to correct that mistake by welcoming him to it now. His new role gives him a key opportunity to get to grips with the brief and see what is happening elsewhere in the world. Other countries have chosen to move ahead and make substantial investments, accepting that although the financial cost is high, the option might be the best for the future. Will the Minister, in his new role, look at what has happened elsewhere in the world?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I would be absolutely delighted to accept any invitation from almost any Government in a foreign country to take a faraway flight to look at their transport systems. Of course it is important that Governments use the experience of best practice elsewhere in the world. I hope that that is exactly what this one will continue to do.
With either a new line or an existing line, the sums of money involved are substantial. As much of the money would come directly or indirectly from the taxpayer, the Government have a duty to ensure that the scheme would offer good value for money.
Whatever the nature of the upgrade, the speed of operation would need to be considered. In that respect, the case for a new line is not self-evident. As of now, rail emits less CO2 than either cars or planes. In carbon terms, conventional rail is more than twice as efficient as the car and more than three times more efficient than short-haul aviation. However, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, as speed increases, energy consumption—and hence carbon emissions per passenger mile—also increases. Air resistance quadruples with every doubling of speed, so trains, in common with cars or planes, need to burn progressively more fuel to reach and maintain higher speeds.
Furthermore, increasing speed has only a limited effect on journey time where runs between stations are relatively short, as they inevitably are in the UK. The need for the train to decelerate, stop and accelerate again limits the benefits of high top speed. However, it is load factors that might be crucial. Rail’s advantage is much greater at high levels of occupancy, while a low-use rail service is an energy-inefficient transport option, so we want to be running trains that are full across the route.
It is possible that reducing journey times between major urban centres could benefit the economy as a whole, by enabling workers to access a greater range of jobs—and employers a greater range of employees—and by enabling businesses to trade with a wider range of suppliers and markets. The question we must answer is how significant that will be, especially for a country with the geography such as the United Kingdom’s, where most of the major urban areas are already within two to three hours of each other.
These are complex questions that must be addressed from a genuinely multi-modal perspective. The case for, and nature of, such a project will depend on the balance of advantage between the wide range of factors that I have discussed. Robust evidence will be essential to inform what is certain to continue to be a vigorous and important debate. The Department for Transport and Sir Rod Eddington are working through the issues with an open mind. Our conclusions, drawing on Sir Rod’s report, will contribute to the long-term strategy for the railways to be published next summer.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at Five o’clock.