Tuesday 24 October 2006
[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]
Call Centre Activity
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Watts.]
Thank you, Mr. Olner. That was observant at this time of the morning.
I present the debate with heartfelt sympathy for the Minister, who has been dragged away from his weekly five-a-side football match, in which he excels. Today, he has been given the opportunity to excel in examining a serious problem. I am sure that he takes it in that spirit.
May I say to the Minister and many others who play five-a-side football that this is a serious issue, in terms not just of single events, but of a whole service that is being provided in this country? There is growing antipathy in certain quarters to what is happening to the services that customers and clients get from different companies, such as banks and insurance companies. I shall explain that later.
From the 1970s onwards, it was clear that call centres were here to stay, because of the internet, modern technology and so on, in the sense that it is possible to access information across the globe by pressing a button or two. In the farming industry, technology put people on the dole for ever more and meant that we did not need agricultural workers. Technology moves things forward, but it has its repercussions.
I got involved in the subject because of events at Norwich Union a few months ago. I must hold my hand up and say that I have a deep passion for its workers. Along with Clive Jenkins and Lady Muriel Turner, I helped to organised them into the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs in the heady days of the 1970s, when white-collar trade unionism was on the up and people suddenly realised that working with a pen did not mean that they should not have proper terms and conditions. We know that white-collar trade unionism became very important. After about 55 mergers, the ASTMS has now become Amicus, and things are not finished yet; merger mania is upon us in the trade union movement as well.
My constituency party has a constituency agreement with Amicus. The union there is vibrant and continues to campaign for the terms and conditions of many people, not only in Norwich, but across the country where the Norwich Union is organised. The Norwich Union is not the Norwich Union any more, because it is part of a bigger company, Aviva, which I believe is the fifth largest insurance company in the country. Some 4,000 job losses were mentioned a few months ago; Norwich will take about 1,000 of those—I believe the figure is 850—and a large percentage of the 4,000 will be offshored.
That causes great consternation and makes one wonder about the future of a company that at one time took every school leaver in Norwich. People intermarried within the company. When I first went to Norwich it was, in a sense, a one-horse town: people played their sport in the wonderful facilities that they had there; they lived, worked and died there, and so on. Their loyalty and service to that organisation was second to none.
I found it disturbing that the union was informed of what was going to happen only a few minutes before the redundancies were announced. I was informed by the chief executive the night before, at a medical writers awards ceremony in the Tate gallery. Some effort was made to talk to people, but it did not meet the requirement set out by the Department of Trade and Industry, which states:
“Companies should consider all the implications before taking offshoring decisions. Stakeholders including their customers, employees and trade unions, should be consulted before decisions are made. UK call centres should not compete with offshore contact centres on the basis of low costs, but they can by improving quality, demonstrating a viable alternative to the inherent risks of offshoring. Evidence suggests that there are a large number of hidden and poorly understood costs associated with offshoring, such as the cost of relocating senior management, travel costs, and customer discontent.”
I guess that I accuse the firm of flouting that solid advice and of not engaging in good management employee practice. This has happened at a time when the company is not failing—the chief executive gets about £1.3 million a year, which, although peanuts compared with the pay of some chief executives in FTSE companies in the City of London, is still a large sum. Someone makes a lot of money, as usual, but other people lose their jobs and livelihoods, and others wonder what might happen to them.
Offshoring is a phenomenon that has been taking place not just in Norwich Union, but across the country. Banks and insurance companies have different experiences of how it might be carried out, the relative successes and so on. Regulation of employees in the UK is fairly reasonable and well handled. There is not much concern about that, but there is concern about the same company operating in another country and how regulation does or does not—as is the case most of the time—happen.
There are many worries besides the generality of regulation. For example, this weekend—I am sure as punishment for raising the debate—I received six phone calls from New Delhi telling me that the weather was good in Norwich, that we had just beaten Cardiff City, that Delia was happy and had gone to mass again, and everything in the garden was lovely. I received three silent calls as well. I have a lot of tolerance—I will even forgive the Minister for missing open goals when playing for the parliamentary football team—but it is stretched a bit when I receive silent calls or when I get people telling me what the weather is like outside my window.
One wonders what it is all about, why it happens and so on, but one gets used to it and lives with it. People say, “Well, that’s the way it is. There is nothing much we can do about it.” Indeed, there was an amazing discovery in a leaked document highlighted by The Observer, which found that there is a great apathy in the British population about what people can do about the problem. However, that does not mean that they are happy about it.
One thing about such a debate is that we get peppered by papers from all sorts of sources. Norwich Union is a good friend of mine, on and off, and it has told me its position. It is keen on the global economy and its representatives went to the Chancellor’s meeting at Downing street last week, so it has some significance and importance in terms of moving things forward on the global front. It thinks that there are benefits of offshoring
“in terms of increased capability, greater flexibility and reduced cost.”
I think that Amicus disagrees with that, and there is a lot of argument going on about who is right and who is wrong. However, Norwich Union admits that
“we do not pretend that all aspects of our offshore customer service are yet 100 per cent. as we would like them”.
Although it thinks that there is an improvement in customer services, it acknowledges that there are several problems, of which I have illustrated just a few.
There are devastating effects of moving people out of positions and jobs in the local community. At a time of high employment, I suppose we can get away with it, but some of my constituents come to see me or sit at football matches in Norwich—or, rather, they mostly stand, and that is getting quite ridiculous, incidentally—and say, “We are about to be made redundant at Norwich Union.” So people are worried about what they will have to do. That does not mean that they cannot find the bus fare to go to watch Norwich City.
Offshoring is a problem not just in Norwich or other parts of this country; it also happens in the United States. Hon. Members will know about its car industry, and that became part of a major debate in the 2004 US presidential election. Businesses there were criticised for offshoring jobs and using them not just as offshore jobs but as tax havens. Taking call centres overseas provides not just the generalities to which Norwich Union referred, but access to a low-wage economy. It also affects VAT and customer satisfaction, which may or may not be present.
My answer to the problem of low wages in countries such as India is simple. I would let a union such as Amicus—it negotiates with people in Norwich—loose in India so that the people there had the pay rates to ensure that call centres worked efficiently. There has been a reaction in India, and it is not just strikes, but there was a strike there not long after the Norwich events. The work came back to Norwich, where people had to field it because the Indian workers had gone on strike.
Other companies are finding that with increasing demand for better living conditions, wages and so on, they can shift work in the global economy—would that Chomsky was believed—to many other places, but the fact that work can be moved from England to India is only part of the matter. It can also be moved from India to the Philippines, as some companies have done, or to China, although the Chinese economy is developing. Companies can play the global market, but at the end of the day people who work for them are disbenefited.
Client satisfaction is important and lack of it, as well as political events, may mean that call centres do not have the future that they were thought to have. I am not a protectionist and I do not maintain that jobs must be British. A global company such as Norwich Union must provide customers with the best service, but there are question marks about that, and not just with companies that have brought services back to Britain because they could be provided better here. I shall briefly explain some of the problems, which I am sure other hon. Members will take up.
Evidence has been produced in several newspapers—no one has argued against it—that electronic databases can be sold for a fee. I hear sometimes that that is cheap and sometimes that it is expensive. In this country, we have data protection legislation and we are protected, so we do not have those silly phone calls on Sundays, but databases can be sold and that has happened with offshoring.
I said that people go on strike and work forces do not stay around for long, but work forces in India are well educated and many people are graduates. They stay for about two years and then move on. However, they do not have local knowledge, although we have problems enough with that in this country. I know of a case in Norwich when a 999 call was shunted through Cambridge. The ambulance went to someone who had had a heart attack, but it went to the wrong end of the street, where bollards were blocking it, so it had to go all the way round again and the poor chap died. That was an extreme case, but local knowledge is important. It is also important when trying to get train times. There are limitations on what can be put out to offshore companies. It is not impossible, but it is difficult to find a work force with the knowledge that successful call centres in this country have had for some time.
Consumers are becoming dissatisfied and there is talk about regional accents and not understanding what people are saying. I am not too bothered about that because people usually understand when they want to. They may moan a little, but that is not a major feature, although lack of local knowledge is. There is increasing dissatisfaction—I referred to the secret document leaked to The Observer—over customer service and the information provided. I shall not quote figures because the survey was not particularly great, but, as Norwich Union acknowledged, it showed that many people are dissatisfied with what is happening. I know that there is dissatisfaction because I know people who have left Norwich Union and have not renewed their house insurance and so on. It is not a major boycott at this stage, but that could happen if dissatisfaction increased. It is important to introduce regulations so that people know that they are receiving the best service.
Customers often feel that they are kept waiting deliberately while the meter is running. Call centres based in the UK feature in advertising as the best, and companies such as Direct Line and NatWest say that their call centres are based in the UK. More and more companies are bringing call centres back to the UK and providing a better service, and I suggest that that will increase. If we want to prevent such practices, we must stop the non-regulation of selling databases and improve the customer service received by clients, which is not always satisfactory, as Norwich Union admits. Our customers deserve the best service and that can happen with call centres. I am not arguing against call centres in principle, but they must operate professionally and give people the best and most accurate information.
Enforcement of regulations is also important. People may be apathetic at times, but they perceive call centres as tax havens. That rankles when they see companies taking jobs away from places such as Norwich and putting them elsewhere for monetary reasons. Companies argue that that saves money, but they are subtle. They may say that they are taking 1,000 jobs away but creating them in another area. Norwich Union bought up the RAC and provided call centre jobs there. That may look good for work in Norwich, but I believe that offshoring call centres may increase and that more and more jobs will disappear. That has happened two or three times in Norwich and it is slow attrition. No longer can every school leaver expect a job.
I do not think that the world should stay still, but I am not sure that Norwich Union’s policy on where it is going and how it will keep its high profile in the community in Norwich is clear to the public. It may build football stands and so on and contribute to charities—that is very welcome—but there are questions about its provision of jobs and training.
I referred to data protection legislation, and there is a lot of evidence that data including names and telephone numbers are being transmitted, as well as credit card details. There is also evidence of financial swindles, money being misappropriated from accounts and so on. That happens everywhere in the world, and I am not saying that it happens in one place and not another, but companies should not consider offshoring without considering how to block such problems. There will always be a few Nick Leesons, and I am happy with that as long as we catch them, but I do not want 100 Nick Leesons. The media have picked up on the subject, and they are starting to push it forward. Many people get their information from the media, and fraud and credit card swindles have been documented on programmes such as “Dispatches”.
If the same company employs people in India, why cannot data protection law be applied to that country? Do we just allow events to happen without negotiation? Norwich Union’s position is that it provides a better service, and that there are few such episodes, but we are opening a Pandora’s box of more swindle as less regulation is put on the system.
The cost of labour is an issue in developing countries. With the Government’s position of helping countries in the developing world, it does not do us any good to make poverty history and then to make poverty by creating in other countries the situations that I described. The regulations and legislation must be analysed, and union interaction with the company should be at its best. The Department for Trade and Industry’s best position was put forward in 2003, and it seems to be slipping away.
I am cynical and old enough to know that companies do not really care; they will do what they can. In the House later today, we will discuss Enron and the absolute swindles that take place. There are also minor swindles. The more we stamp them out, the better the world will be. It means dealing not only with the problem in our country, but with our relationships with other countries. I welcome those relationships and the interchange of professionals, but a company cannot behave one way in one country and a different way in another.
We do not have regulation, but self-regulation, and it does not work. The problem will grow because of the lack of regulation. As long as there is money and transactions, the Nick Leeson society will be with us, and it takes a lot of time and energy to prevent it. Many companies that go down the road of offshoring come back again, because they find that it does not have the advantage of saving costs. If we are not to go down that same road, we must address the problem now.
There have been many debates in the Chamber about the problem, and things have been done about telephone numbers and so on. I am not saying that the Government have failed to recognise the problems, but we need a serious inquiry and examination into what is happening. We want to ensure that employees do not learn on local radio that they are going to be made redundant, as happened in Norwich, and that proper consultation takes place. It may be that we can effect an arrangement that makes people want to work in another country, because the terms and conditions, including pensions, are not maligned by pursuing that path.
We are on the edge of the precipice, and I ask the Minister to set up an inquiry to prevent any further disillusionment among the public about the services that they receive, be they from a bank or from an insurance company.
I echo all the points that the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) has made, and I congratulate him on bringing this important debate to Parliament today.
The debate is particularly important given that Norwich Union, which is close to the hon. Gentleman’s heart, has shed 4,000 jobs. While I was doing some research for this debate, I was intrigued to discover that on 24 September The Observer considered whether overseas sourcing of call centres resulted in a cheaper product for the customer—the justification that many organisations such as Norwich Union, or Aviva as it is now known, produce. Interestingly, The Observer discovered that on car insurance, Norwich Union was three times more expensive than the cheapest company, Direct Line, which has all its call centres in the United Kingdom. It is questionable whether cost savings translate into better customer service.
The hon. Gentleman touched on the effect on the economy. I am concerned about the effects on women, because call centres can offer flexible and part-time work. However, there have also been repercussions for their male counterparts, who tend to predominate in backroom business processing. I was also interested to discover that the Department for Trade and Industry has estimated that 200,000 extra jobs will be created in call centres in the next three years, which is somewhat contradictory to the doom and gloom that we have heard about. I shall be interested to hear from the Minister how that will translate in the United Kingdom’s economy.
My hon. Friend knows about the importance of the sector to us in Wales, with 30,000 jobs based in the south-east corner of the country. Does my hon. Friend agree that with the inevitable growth of offshoring, a far more robust regulatory regime is needed? The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) agrees, and so do I. My hon. Friend has read the same reports as I have about illegal buying and selling of personal information in India. Does she agree that the fundamental point for consumers is local knowledge and information? When one represents a constituency such as mine, which includes towns with colourful names such as Pontrhydfendigaid and Aberystwyth, and which adjoins constituencies with towns such as Machynlleth, local knowledge that responds to customer need is important.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) for his informed intervention. The points that he makes are right.
Customer satisfaction and local knowledge are important. Returning to the Norwich Union example, the research that the company undertook before outsourcing its jobs discovered that 51 per cent. of respondents were appalled at the prospect of outsourcing call centres abroad. However, it does not seem to have had any effect on the company’s final decision.
I am particularly concerned about disadvantaged individuals such as people from poorer backgrounds and those, like myself, who suffer from blood pressure problems. I am sorry to say that with call centres in the United Kingdom, including, I am sorry to say sometimes Government call centres, blood pressure can be a real problem. One must be emotionally calm and well psyched up before calling, so that one does not end up—in my case—cross, tearful or both by the end of the call, as a result of frustration at being unable to obtain the information that one needs, or even to get through to the individual whom one needs to speak to, in a reasonable amount of time.
The quality of the information that is given has also been called into question. Call centres are not regulated for their quality of financial advice, as banks are. In The Guardian on 18 October, there was an article about misleading advice given by a call centre on individual voluntary arrangements. The individuals who gave the advice stood to benefit from giving that advice. Obviously, the quality of the advice given must be monitored scrupulously.
Telemarketing is a £4 billion industry in the United Kingdom. There is a big challenge for telemarketing companies, because 13 million people are registered with the telephone preference service. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to see me afterwards I shall give him the details of how he can register, but I suspect that he is interested to find out what unsolicited calls he will get. Will the Minister comment on the idea that seems to be gaining ground in the field of telemarketing that, rather than people having to opt out of receiving cold calls, the Government should consider introducing legislation whereby people have to opt in? That would be beneficial for the telemarketing companies, which are fishing in a smaller and smaller pool. If they were fishing in a pool that wanted to be fished, that might benefit both the blood pressure of residents who do not want to receive cold calls and the marketing companies, who would be fishing more productively.
It would not be right for me to finish without mentioning silent calls, which were the subject of a Westminster Hall debate in March. The Government target of 3 per cent. for abandoned calls is welcome, as are the requirements that before a call is ended there must be a recorded message and that the number must be accessible on 1471. The fine has been increased from £5,000 to £50,000 but—it is a very big “but”—regulation will not work unless it is enforced. I am sorry to say that, following the criticisms levelled at Ofcom about the enforcement of rules on silent calls and other such matters, there is little evidence that the situation has improved. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me by giving examples of cases in which Ofcom has prosecuted somebody for the iniquitous practices that cause so much distress to local people.
I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing this debate and on introducing it in his customary style, which is always a delight to listen to. I doubt that any other Member of the House could bring Amicus, Norwich City football club and Chomsky into a debate on call centres. He always enlivens, entertains and educates us, and I pay tribute to him for raising issues on which every hon. Member and their constituents would agree. None of us have had letters from constituents saying how well call centres work and what a wonderful service they get from them. We get a considerable amount of correspondence, including e-mails, about their failings and the need for them to improve.
As the hon. Gentleman explained, the background to this debate is the decision of Norwich Union to outsource a significant amount of its call centre activity, reducing its work force in that field by some 11 per cent. I understand that it is not happening only in Norwich, although 850 of the 4,000 jobs will be lost there. There will also be reductions in York, Glasgow, Sheffield, Cambridge, Perth, Newcastle, Eastleigh, Stevenage, Bristol, Worthing, Belfast and Birmingham. The list sounds rather like a cross-country train journey with Virgin Trains. A massive number of centres will be affected.
We understand why Norwich Union felt it necessary to make such changes. I shall come on to issues of good practice shortly, but we recognise the competitiveness of the world in which Norwich Union operates and understand why such decisions have to be made. They are not easy, but for the future viability and vitality of a company, the decision to move offshore must sometimes be made. Norwich Union’s follows similar decisions taken by companies such as Royal & SunAlliance, which announced in June that it would cut 1,500 jobs in its call centres by 2008.
We should consider such announcements against the background of the call centre industry in this country, which has been a significant success story. It contributed £17 billion to the UK economy last year, so it is an extremely large and important contributor to our national wealth. Astonishingly, it is predicted that by 2007, more than 1 million people—4 per cent. of the UK working population—will be employed in call centres. It is important for the industry to realise that we recognise the important contribution that it can make. The Secretary of State for Health, when she was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, said that we had a “vibrant call centre industry” and that the Government were keen to encourage it.
Much of the debate on outsourcing focuses on India, but we should not lose sight of the fact that it is a global industry. Call centre expertise is being developed in the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania, South Africa and elsewhere. When considering India, we often tend to think that people outsource activity there only because they believe it will be cheaper. If one speaks to the Indian companies involved, one finds out that they do not see that as being their remit at all. They want to be involved in a high-value industry that attracts graduates and highly qualified people, often in working conditions that are much better than can be found in other parts of India. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, when he was in India recently, spoke to someone who heads up a major call centre about his global plans. He was told, “Yes, we are investing globally. Our next planned location is in Northern Ireland.” Indian call centre companies are therefore investing back into the United Kingdom. We must not let the debate centre around the idea that outsourcing is just a matter of cheap labour. Companies would lose their customers if they were not able to provide a good-quality service.
There are undoubted problems with the way in which the industry operates in the United Kingdom. It is estimated that call centres in the private sector are working at between 10 per cent. and 35 per cent. below optimum efficiency. Some 55 per cent. of companies operating call centres have reported difficulty in recruiting the right staff, which leads to a high level of staff turnover. It is estimated that 85 per cent. of direct corporate customer communication is via the phone. Most people employed in call centres are between the ages of 18 and 25 and we all recognise, perhaps from our own children, that those are not the people best able to communicate with adults on the telephone. My children will take me to task on that, but a wider range of ages needs to be represented.
The problems are worse in public sector call centres, which are estimated to be under-performing by 50 per cent. In 2005, the Department for Work and Pensions announced that there had been 13 million abandoned calls in its call centres. The industry association, the Customer Contact Association, carried out an assignment for the General Social Care Council in 2005 and was able to increase productivity by a staggering 1,500 per cent.—that is fifteenfold—in just 30 days. An assessment of the Royal Mail Group’s contact centres in 2004 indicated an opportunity to save £27 million, out of a total spend of £88 million. As Members of Parliament, we consistently come across Government call centres, be they for tax credits or the Child Support Agency, that are simply not working as well as they should. It is easy to see that there has been under-investment in employees and employee relations, and that the service delivered is not as good as it should be.
There are also other concerns. Too often people find that the location of the call centre is concealed. I received a phone call a few weekends ago. I asked the person where they were calling from and they said, “We’re calling out of Watford.” I said, “That sounds rather strange. Where do you mean? Are you in Watford or just outside it?” He replied, “No, we’re in India”, which I thought took the description ‘out of Watford’ a little further than one would have wished. Perhaps there is a Watford near Delhi, although I have not come across it yet.
When I tried to follow the call up and find out how the company had got my details, I was put through to a number that was unobtainable. I dialled 1471, got through to a recorded message and left a message two or three times, but I have never received a call back about where the company got my details. What people find unacceptable is such deception—that is a fair enough word to use—and people pretending that they are calling from somewhere relatively nearby when they are half way round the globe.
More has to be done to address working conditions. Call centres are sometimes described as the coal mines of the 21st century. If they are to be part of a truly vital industry, we must ensure that working conditions are the best that they can be. Staff turnover across the industry is approximately 30 per cent., which leads to huge training costs and problems keeping people motivated. Paying more attention to the working and employment conditions might help to address those issues. We also hear concerns about staff being required to meet impossible targets, with little time for comfort breaks or any break away from the telephone. There are also health and safety concerns. The time spent working on calls and at computers should be limited to 60 per cent. of a day, although 90 per cent. targets are not uncommon in the sector.
The hon. Members for Norwich, North and for Solihull (Lorely Burt) both raised the issue of silent calls, which we must without doubt do more to address. The hon. Lady referred to a debate from earlier this year. Indeed, a statutory instrument was introduced towards the end last year that addressed some of the issues relating to silent calls. It is extremely disappointing that, despite the issues that were raised then, the commitments that were given by the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), have simply not been implemented. He said that any abandoned calls must carry a recorded message that identifies the source of the call. My understanding is that Ofcom is no longer rigorous in requiring that.
We all asked in that debate what the purpose was of increasing the threshold of the fines by so much if no one had ever been fined at the lower level. We were told that the higher fine was needed to make the legal actions and the work involved worth while. It is now many months since that higher fine was implemented, but as far as I am aware Ofcom has still taken no action against a single person making silent calls.
People feel extremely uneasy when they receive a silent call, particularly older people and women. Silent calls make them anxious, and it is little wonder that, as the hon. Member for Solihull said, some 12 million to 13 million people have registered their numbers with the telephone preference service to ensure that they do not receive unwanted phone calls. However, there are powers available, and we would like to hear from the Minister how the Government can ensure that they use them effectively.
Call centres are a substantial industry, with the potential to become even greater. Call centres are evolving into contact centres, which also provide a range of back-office services, so that more information and support can be given in the course of a call. It is quite possible that the number of call centres in this country will increase by about a half over the next few years. However, if that is to happen, there must be more investment in staff, so that they are better qualified, and working conditions must be improved. Measures must be put in place to reduce the high staff turnover. We must also recognise that without that investment we will not see the high quality of service that we want.
There are two aspects to the issue, one of which is good practice. The hon. Member for Norwich, North referred to the fact that the trade union was not advised of the redundancies until the day they were announced, which is an example of bad practice. There is good practice, which can be implemented through the industry itself, but there are also aspects that need to be addressed through regulation. I have already mentioned silent calls and integrity, whereby people are honest about where they are calling from, but callers should also be clear about where people’s details have been obtained. Invariably, if one asks, “Well where did you get this number from?”, the caller will say, “It’s publicly available”, even if one knows jolly well that it is not a listed telephone number and so is not publicly available. Callers will never say where they get people’s details from. It would be quite appropriate for regulation to be put in place, so that the person receiving the call has an absolute right to know where their information has been passed on from, which would be entirely in keeping with data protection legislation.
Regulation may also be required on the cost of calls. Many of us have no idea whether we are being charged when making a call to a call centre or what the charge rate should be. Call centres should be up front about charges the moment callers are connected, perhaps saying, “This call is going to cost a certain amount of money a minute,” so that people are in no doubt how much they are paying.
Finally, I hope that the Minister will be able to deal with some of the international scams. He may have caught a report on the “Today” programme this morning about a call centre operating in Holland that rang people up and encouraged them to buy dubious stocks that were a bad investment or stocks that did not exist. A number of people, particularly older people, have fallen for the operation, but because it operated from Holland it has been extremely difficult for action to be taken against it. We want to know that the Government are taking action on an international scale, as the industry is international.
Above all, however, some of the issues can be addressed by the industry itself. At the end of the day, call centres must recognise what their customers want. Customers will go along with call centres abroad, as long as the calls are handled in a way that is polite and courteous, meets their needs and does not harass them. The industry has huge potential, but it needs to improve its act if it is to achieve that potential.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Olner, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing this opportunity to debate the important matter of call centres. I would normally also thank him for the opportunity to address the Chamber, but he has delayed my return to five-a-side football by at least another week after my recent operation, as he said, so I am not very appreciative this morning. However, the issue is important and I am grateful to be here. I am also grateful for the contributions by the hon. Members for Solihull (Lorely Burt) and for Wealden (Charles Hendry).
In the past decade, call centres have become part of daily life, whether we want to pay a bill, make a service appointment or contact the bank. We come across them in a variety of different roles, from direct selling to customer relationship management, and they are used by nearly all commercial and industrial sectors, and by the public sector, to reach their customers.
There are more than 5,000 call centres in the UK, employing nearly 800,000 people. Many of those jobs have been created in areas of high unemployment. According to a recent Office for National Statistics study, in the three years between 2001 and 2004, employment in IT and call centres grew twice as rapidly as overall UK employment. This country’s open and competitive markets, our flexible labour laws, our relatively low costs, our advanced telecommunications infrastructure, and our business and management expertise have encouraged that success. In fact, the UK is the leading location for call centres in Europe.
I appreciate that from time to time callers to a centre experience poor customer service. People who experience a lack of service are quite rightly vocal—I dare say much more so than those who are satisfied with the service—when they make criticisms, but that is human nature, given the point that the hon. Member for Wealden made.
I apologise for arriving late—I was detained on my way here. Does the Minister agree that call centres could and should improve their reputation and acceptability, and that one way of doing so would be for the Government and the industry to encourage more people to sign up to the telephone preference service? That would cut down the number of unsolicited sales calls, which are particularly annoying, thereby boosting customer confidence in such an important sector of our economy.
The hon. Gentleman raises a similar point to that made by the hon. Member for Solihull, who suggested that the polarity should be reversed and that people should volunteer to be called, rather than excluding themselves. I shall come to that later, but there is a method through which people can exclude themselves from being called. The hon. Lady’s analogy of people volunteering to be fished from a pool sounded a bit like turkeys voting for Christmas; I am not sure that anybody is likely to go down that road. Nevertheless, she made a valid point to which I shall return shortly.
Responsible companies recognise the valuable part that their call centres play in growing business and delivering customer satisfaction. Organisations such as the Customer Contact Association are playing their part; it has set its membership ever-higher standards of skills training and quality customer care. The association is piloting for the industry a voluntary kite mark that will assist in raising standards.
As has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North and other contributors, call centres have been criticised for the proliferation of unsolicited direct marketing telephone calls. I can certainly appreciate the nuisance and inconvenience that such calls cause. They are usually made through a computerised calling device that dials the telephone number and automatically connects to a sales agent or provides a recorded message when the call is answered. Although the machines allegedly give efficiency savings to the company, they can be very irritating to those who receive calls—especially when there is no message, as my hon. Friend said.
The Government listened to complaints and took action accordingly. Under the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003, no one is allowed to make an unsolicited direct marketing call to a subscriber who has previously notified them that they do not wish to receive such calls or to someone who has been registered with the telephone preference service for at least 28 days. The telephone preference service is an industry-run opt-out scheme, operated by the Direct Marketing Association.
Responsibility for the enforcement of the regulations rests with the Information Commissioner’s office and is drawn from the Data Protection Act 1998. Breaching an enforcement notice is a criminal offence subject to a substantial fine—recently raised from £5,000 to £50,000—in a magistrates court. I have heard the criticism, made by the hon. Member for Wealden, of silent calls. I shall look into his point about Ofcom’s role in monitoring and enforcing the regulations.
Protection of personal data is another vital issue, and it has been raised by all speakers in the debate. Many people are rightly cautious about revealing their details to organisations, not least because of the newspaper articles and television programmes that have exposed instances of alleged malpractice by call centre staff in this country and abroad.
However, wherever their operations are based, companies remain bound by the requirements of the 1998 Act, in particular that for data to be kept secure. Companies remain responsible for how data are processed overseas on their behalf, and that includes the transfer and overseas processing of the data. Companies have taken many steps to protect the security of data and many examples of good practice are followed. To monitor standards, it is also important that strong links be maintained between the UK and call centres located abroad.
In March 2006, the British regulator, the Banking Code Standards Board, visited eight Indian call centres. More than 1 million inbound calls from the UK, together with other processing work, are handled each month by those centres. The review identified good standards of compliance with the banking code.
Increasing integration of the international economy presents challenges and opportunities for all sectors of the UK economy. The potential impact of globalisation on the UK’s prosperity will depend critically on business response, in terms of choices businesses make about location and successfully meeting the needs of customers. That has led to the offshoring of some jobs and services, and calls for protectionism and economic patriotism, although I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North was not making that challenge in introducing the debate. Those are part of the competitive challenges facing business and the Government alike.
We need to put the issue of offshoring into perspective. We want to keep jobs in the UK, but we operate today in a fiercely competitive global market, and no sector is more competitive than IT. Changing technology is a fact of life. Some call centre and other service functions have moved to India and other third countries. It is for companies to choose their investment locations; the Government cannot protect jobs by suggesting that industry operate in a certain way, and we cannot stem the tide of overseas or technological competition. However, we can aim to provide the most favourable conditions for businesses, whether they are already located here or want to locate here. In addition, we can encourage all call centres to move up the value chain.
Will the Minister elaborate on why he thinks that offshoring call centre services have worked as well as those services in Britain? How will he protect the data out there? As I said, there is no legislation to stop the flow of information. A server in the United Kingdom may be operating the computer, but the information is still available to staff who work abroad, giving opportunities to the Nick Leesons of this world. How will the Minister prevent that?
On my hon. Friend’s latter point, I mentioned a moment ago that call centre companies are bound by the 1998 Act. The regulator is obliged to monitor and enforce that Act. That is why I mentioned that the Banking Code Standards Board went to India to examine eight Indian call centres. The board is obliged and empowered to deal with any breaches.
I shall come to that later. If I do not, I shall investigate and write to my hon. Friend in due course. The Banking Code Standards Board is the British regulator empowered to monitor and enforce. If I do not have the relevant information in my speech, I shall get it for my hon. Friend.
As I was saying, there is an additional responsibility to encourage all call centres to move up the value chain. We should remember that outsourcing is a two-way process. The UK is the world’s second largest recipient of inward investment. Inward stock was worth £472 billion at the end of 2005 and call centre firms contribute to UK exports, which in turn contribute to our prosperity.
HCL Technologies, an Indian company, has bought two call centres in Northern Ireland. It now employs about 2,000 people, who among them speak eight different languages. The centres service clients such as BT, the AA and Deutsche Bank, and are the largest outsourcing operation in the whole of Ireland. Companies need to think carefully about relocation and to consider the difficulties of managing staff, maintaining standards and offering appropriate customer care when staff are relocated thousands of miles away. We would do well not to forget that customers have a choice about whom they do business with. They have power, and can take their custom elsewhere.
Service quality is one of the many important considerations companies have about relocating. Quality of customer contact is crucial for many companies. Offshore call centre services may be the obvious short-term economic option, but some companies are now sounding a note of caution as a result of strong customer feedback. Customers are demanding successful delivery of goods and services; to achieve that, call centre workers need detailed social, cultural and geographical knowledge of their customers’ requirements.
As a former Minister with responsibility for the fire service, I could digress about fire service mobilising systems, the latest caller ID technology, global positioning systems, local road data and contemporary information. However, I shall not be tempted down that path by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North.
May I tempt the Minister in another direction, which is precisely relevant? Several Members have made the point that the unions are not subject to negotiations. As an ex-trade union activist, does the Minister understand the feeling of employees and trade union representatives when they are told about changes, or find out after they have happened? Should the Department of Trade and Industry guidelines not be much stronger?
My hon. Friend makes a strong point. However, the Government signed up last year to European Union standards in the information and consultation directive, as recommended by the DTI, so we are up with our European partners. Obviously, we always advise best practice, and companies that look after their staff inevitably find that those staff are better motivated to improve the profit margins, as they know that they are valued.
Some companies have taken account of considerations such as customer preference or the difficulty of managing staff at a distance and have decided to bring back operations from abroad. Where jobs are unfortunately lost, we continue to do everything possible to help people to find new jobs and, if necessary, new skills. Jobcentre Plus and the rapid response service provide that help. We encourage companies to consult their employees and unions over relocation decisions, and, as I just mentioned, the information and consultation directive was signed last year by the Government. Co-operation is mutually beneficial.
I do not have any detailed information to hand, but I believe that we are all familiar with anecdotes that reflect the sentiments that I mentioned earlier. Companies are much more sensitive. Call centres abroad have been getting a pounding for a variety of reasons—some are probably not so valid, but others are. I think of the question about Watford raised by the hon. Member for Wealden, people’s dissatisfaction levels and customers who may feel let down or that they are not being offered the best possible service, even though many overseas call centres offer an excellent service. Those aspects make companies think twice about outsourcing and make them think about bringing call centres back. Those are business considerations, and such decisions are taken every day.
If they do, it is obviously because that is in the interest of the company—service that is more satisfactory to customers makes for better business. However, as I said, those are decisions for companies to take in the light of their experience, the services that they provide to their customers and how their business is going.
I was about to quote an example of co-operation between Amicus, the union mentioned by my hon. Friend, and Computer Sciences Corporation, which is an information technology services company. An agreement has been negotiated to provide the company with the flexibility to enhance its competitiveness while aiming to safeguard the job security, skills and careers of its work force.
The Government are investing in schools, higher and further education and the skills of the UK’s work force. While there will be ever-growing pressure from the likes of China and India—together, they produce 2 million graduates each year to our 400,000—to compete for higher-skilled jobs, it is still our best course to have the confidence to find our comparative advantage by investing in a more highly skilled work force who can respond quickly and flexibly to change in the globalised market.
Skills are central to UK competitiveness. The Government are working with key stakeholders to improve productivity by raising the level of and demand for skills, by developing a diverse and flexible labour market and by increasing the take-up of ways of working to foster high-performance workplaces. Skills underpin the ability to innovate, and innovation drives the demand for better and higher skills. We must continually improve the work force’s skills and motivation to deliver.
Call centres have an important part to play in driving UK productivity and competitiveness. Wages in the Indian IT services industry, for example, are rising by some 15 per cent. a year, so competitiveness in that market is narrowing.
In conclusion, research commissioned by the DTI in 2004 showed that the call centre sector will continue to grow. However, the way forward is not regulation, which just adds to the burden of red tape and stifles initiative in an innovative sector. The future lies in continuing the good and positive work of concentrating on staff training and enhancing skills so that the work force move to advanced, high-value work with an emphasis on customer care and satisfaction.
I heard my hon. Friend’s request for an inquiry. I hope that I have given enough reassurance to support the Government’s view that an inquiry is not needed, but I acknowledge the concerns that he and other hon. Members have.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, as he is just about to conclude. He kindly agreed to review Ofcom’s role in enforcing contraventions of the regulations. I agree that regulation is not necessarily what is called for, but the regulations that we have must be enforced. If he is not able at this moment to provide examples of how regulations have been enforced by Ofcom, perhaps he will be good enough to write to me and explain what actions Ofcom has taken since I received the same assurance in the last Westminster Hall debate on this matter earlier this year.
I am grateful for that intervention. I should have said earlier that, further to the research that my office will undertake, I am happy to write to the hon. Lady and to hon. Gentlemen who took part or intervened in the debate to ensure that everybody is up to speed with Ofcom’s role and the data that our research will produce.
Human Rights (Burma)
Today, Burma's democracy leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, will mark a total of 11 years under house arrest. It is therefore highly appropriate that the House should consider once again the current situation in Burma, the gross violations of human rights being perpetrated by its military regime, and the actions that Her Majesty’s Government can and should take to address the growing crisis there.
There are other factors that make this a particularly timely moment for hon. Members to have this discussion. Last month, the United Nations Security Council formally discussed Burma for the first time and just last week the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma, Paulo Pinheiro, presented his report to the UN General Assembly. This debate has attracted interest from various non-governmental organisations working in the field and I am grateful to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and The Burma Campaign UK, which, among others, have asked me to consider various research notes and pieces of evidence in preparation for the debate.
It is good to see the Minister for Europe here. I know that he will not be offended if I say that we were looking forward to the Minister for Trade, who also has responsibility for human rights, responding. Nevertheless, we look forward to what this Minister has to say.
I am sure that I am not alone in thinking that more than 90 per cent. of everything said from the platform in the party conference season is instantly forgettable, and I am sure that that applies equally to all parties. However, in Bournemouth at the beginning of the month I listened to one of the most confident, passionate and meaningful speeches I have ever heard in any political forum. The speaker was a 25-year-old Burmese woman called Zoya Phan, who used an appearance at our conference to make a heart-cry for her people and her country. Zoya spoke of how, at the age of 14, she witnessed a savage assault on her village by troops of the Burmese regime. She spoke of mortar bombs exploding, soldiers opening fire and of her family running, carrying what they could and leaving their home behind. She also spoke of her memories of those killed on that day and the smell of black smoke as her village was destroyed behind them. She brought questions to our conference and asked: why has it taken 16 years for the UN Security Council even to discuss Burma; why are there no targeted economic sanctions to cut the lifeline that keeps the Burmese regime afloat; and why is there not even a UN arms embargo against her country? It was Zoya’s testimony, more than anything, that made me ask for the debate. I would like to use my contribution to bring these questions and others to the Minister.
Aung San Suu Kyi has spent the past 11 years of her life in detention. Despite an overly optimistic assessment of the situation by UN Under-Secretary-General, Ibrahim Gambari, who was permitted a brief audience with her in May this year, her detention was extended by a further year just days later. In addition to the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, there are more than 1,100 other political prisoners in jail in Burma today facing widespread and horrific forms of torture. Since December last year, the International Committee of the Red Cross has been forced to suspend all its prison visits due to the restrictions imposed by the State Peace and Development Council. Last December the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) published a report “The Darkness We See”, which details the different forms of torture used. Many political prisoners do not survive the harsh conditions and torture they face in Burma’s prisons. Another report, “Eight Seconds of Silence”, details the deaths of at least nine political prisoners since last year, and last week it emerged that another prisoner, Ko Thet Win Aung, aged 34, died in Mandalay prison. Will the Minister and his colleagues demand an independent investigation into the cause of death of that young man and make those findings public?
The date of 27 September this year marked the 18th anniversary of the establishment of the National League for Democracy in Burma. Yet, even at the same time as messages of support were sent to the NLD from politicians of all parties around the world, several leading dissidents in Burma, who had already spent many years of their lives behind bars, were re-arrested, including Min Ko Naing, Ko Gyi and Htay Kwe. What action is the Minister taking to raise the issue of those arrests with the SPDC and to secure the release of the prisoners?
Burma still has the highest number of forcibly conscripted child soldiers in the world according to Human Rights Watch, and more than 70,000 children have been forced to join the Burma army. According to the human rights group, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which has interviewed former child soldiers who have managed to escape, those children—some as young as 10 or 11—are taken from bus stops, train stations or off the street while on their way home from school. I know that from previous answers given by the Minister for Trade that he feels passionately about the issue of child soldiers. Will the Minister update us on the Government’s most recent actions to challenge the regime on its use of child soldiers?
As if the suppression of democracy, the widespread use of torture, the imprisonment of people for their political beliefs, and the forcible conscription of child soldiers were not enough, the human rights violations perpetrated by the SPDC against ethnic nationalities, particularly the Karen, Karenni and Shan, amount, according to many analysts, to crimes against humanity and, arguably, genocide. Since 1996, more than 2,800 villages in eastern Burma have been destroyed. That has been reported by human rights organisations for several years. Last week, in his report to the UN General Assembly, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma acknowledged that figure for the first time.
It is estimated that more than 1 million people are internally displaced in the jungles of Burma. They are on the run,
“hunted and shelled like animals”,
in the words of one report, and do not have adequate food, medicine or shelter. This year, the number of internally displaced people rose further. In the SPDC’s biggest and most savage offensive against Karen civilians in almost a decade, more than 20,000 Karen people had to flee their villages. Reports from the Free Burma Rangers and the Karen Human Rights Group reveal horrifying atrocities, including beheadings, severe mutilations and the shooting of civilians at point-blank range. A nine-year-old girl was shot after seeing her father and grandmother killed.
It is essential that we see that campaign for what it is. The European Union and others in the international community have been, in my view, far too timid in the language they have been willing to use. They have described this year’s events as an offensive against the Karen National Union, which is the Karens’ resistance organisation. In reality, it was nothing less than a genocidal assault on the Karen people themselves. The vast majority of the victims were innocent, unarmed civilians who had nothing to do with the resistance.
Evidence of the widespread and systematic use of rape continues to mount and is documented in reports such as “Licence to Rape” by the Shan Women’s Action Network, and others by the Karen Women’s Organisation and the Women’s League of Chinland. The pattern is clearly that wherever SPDC troops are stationed, women are extremely vulnerable. A Kachin woman told Christian Solidarity Worldwide that rape is “very common” and that
“rape happens in every area where there is an SPDC army camp.”
The Kachin have a ceasefire with the SPDC, so rape cannot simply be dismissed as a consequence of “counter-insurgency” operations. Similarly in Mon state, where there is also a ceasefire, women are taken as sexual slaves for the army, as described in the devastating report “Catwalk to the Barracks”.
In his report of last week, the UN special rapporteur says:
“Serious incidents of sexual violence against women continue to be reported throughout Myanmar. Women and girls in ethnic minority areas remain particularly susceptible to rape and harassment by State actors.”
In light of UN Security Council resolution 1674 passed this year, which calls for the protection of civilians in armed conflict, and resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, what action will the Government take at an international level to bring the regime to justice for those crimes? Will the Minister assure hon. Members that in the debate at the Security Council in New York in two days’ time on resolution 1325 the UK will raise the situation in Burma and encourage others to do so? Will the UK call on the SPDC to bring an end to the system of impunity for grave violations committed by state actors, including rape and sexual violence?
On the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Burma, in September the Back Pack Health Worker Team—a group of extremely courageous medics who work in the conflict zones of eastern Burma, at huge risk to their lives, to deliver medical assistance—published a report called “Chronic Emergency: Health and Human Rights in Eastern Burma”. Its findings are an indictment of the regime and of the international community’s failure to respond. According to that report and a similar one published earlier in the year by Johns Hopkins university, Burma faces a dire public health crisis caused by the regime’s lack of investment in health care and its violation of human rights. Eastern Burma, in particular, is one of the world’s worst health disaster zones.
“Chronic Emergency” claims that the situation is as bad as that in the poorest countries in Africa, yet Burma receives only a fraction of the aid and attention given to Africa. Malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS have reached epidemic proportions. Infant mortality rates and deaths from treatable diseases are among the worst in the world, yet Burma’s regime, which spends more than 40 per cent. of its budget on the military, invests less than $1 per person per year in health and education combined. The World Health Organisation’s assessment of health care ranks Burma 190th out of 191 states. Only Sierra Leone has a worse record of caring for its citizens.
I appreciate that the debate continues about the most effective way to deliver aid to the people of Burma and undoubtedly we want to avoid channelling money through the SPDC. I do not intend to try to address here all the complexities of that discussion, but I shall raise one simple point. I am aware that the Department for International Development is in the final stages of carrying out a review of its policy on Burma. I welcome the fact that it has had that review and I look forward to hearing the outcome, but I hope very much that DFID will find a way to provide substantial and much-needed assistance to the more than 1 million internally displaced people who as yet have not been reached by DFID funds. Outstanding organisations, such as the Back Pack Health Worker Team, are carrying out life-saving work and deserve our support. There is a precedent, as I understand that four other Governments do fund such humanitarian groups. I hope that DFID will be able to join them.
I want to focus on current political developments, first within Burma and then internationally. Just two weeks ago, the SPDC began the final session of its national convention to draw up a new constitution for the country. I hope that the Minister will assure hon. Members that Her Majesty’s Government do not give the SPDC’s national convention one iota of credibility and that the Minister will recognise it for what it is—a sham and a desperate bid by a brutal military regime to rubber-stamp its own agenda and give itself a civilian face. The delegates at the national convention are hand-picked and threatened with severe penalties if they criticise the process. The NLD and the major representatives of most of the ethnic nationalities are excluded from the convention.
I understand that the SPDC plans to put the new constitution to a referendum. No one has any confidence that that will be a free and fair referendum. What plans does the Minister have to put pressure on the SPDC to invite international and truly independent monitors, not just on the day of the referendum but in the run-up to it? What hope does he have that there will be a proper period of public awareness raising, information, education and consultation, including freedom for groups to campaign for a no vote?
The SPDC plans to hold new elections following a referendum, only it does not want a rerun of its defeat in 1990, so it has ensured that the proposed constitution assures it of victory. One third of the seats in the legislature will be reserved for the military. The president must be someone with at least 15 years’ experience in the military, and the regime’s civilian militia—the Union Solidarity and Development Association—is expected to be used by the SPDC to contest the seats that are not reserved for the military. The USDA, it should be remembered, are the thugs who attacked Aung San Suu Kyi in Depayin three years ago. During that attack, more than 100 of her supporters were beaten to death. Is this to be the new face of Burma?
Does the Minister agree with the UN special rapporteur, who described the national convention as “meaningless and undemocratic” and added:
“It will not work on the moon. It will not work on Mars”?
Does he also agree that the only way forward for real change and national reconciliation in Burma is tripartite dialogue involving the SPDC, the NLD and the ethnic nationalities? The NLD and the ethnic nationalities have repeatedly stressed their willingness to talk. What action is he taking to push for meaningful tripartite dialogue?
Just over a year ago, the former Czech President, Vaclav Havel, and the former Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, commissioned an international law firm to assess the case for bringing Burma to the UN Security Council agenda. Their report concluded that there was an overwhelmingly strong case for doing that because Burma met all the major criteria for Security Council action. It recommended a Security Council discussion and a binding resolution that would require the SPDC to release all political prisoners, to open the country to international human rights monitors and humanitarian aid organisations without restriction or interference, and to engage in meaningful tripartite dialogue and a transition to true democracy.
Last month, a year after the report was published, the UN Security Council formally discussed Burma for the first time. That followed two informal UN Security Council discussions on Burma in the past 12 months or so. I am aware that the United Kingdom, along with the United States and others, worked very hard to bring Burma to the formal agenda, and I wish to express my appreciation for the Government’s efforts and to welcome the successes that have been achieved so far. However, I also want to urge on the Minister the fact that the need for a binding resolution on Burma has never been greater. The recent discussion at the Security Council is a very significant step, but talk is not enough.
The UN special rapporteur recommended specifically that the UN General Assembly should call on the Security Council to
“respond to the situation of armed conflict in eastern Myanmar…where civilians are being targeted and where humanitarian assistance to civilians is being deliberately obstructed, and to call on the Government of Myanmar to authorise access to the affected areas by the Special Rapporteur, the United Nations and associated personnel, as well as personnel of humanitarian organisations and guarantee their safety, security and freedom of movement”.
Does the Minister support the special rapporteur’s recommendation? What action is the United Kingdom taking to bring about a binding resolution and to ensure the support of other Security Council members?
I shall conclude by considering other steps that the United Kingdom could take. I applaud the robust statements made in the past by the Minister for Trade, who has responsibility for human rights, and I reiterate my gratitude to the Government for the efforts made within the UN Security Council to seek a stronger international position. However, I want to suggest additional steps that should be considered.
First, and with great respect to the efforts of the Minister for Trade, I want greater engagement in the issue of Burma at a higher level in the Government, both by the Prime Minister and by the Foreign Secretary. I recognise that there are many challenges on the international scene, but given Britain’s history with Burma and given the severity and the duration of the suffering of its people, I hope that they will give the situation a higher priority than they have done so far.
My hon. Friend makes a very telling, forceful and well-researched speech. He mentioned the Minister with responsibility for human rights, who has spent a great deal of time this year encouraging the new UN Human Rights Council to further its work. Does my hon. Friend agree that that council should perhaps take Burma as one of the first tests of its veracity and effectiveness in pushing the UN to develop the binding resolution that he talked about?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and I agree with him wholeheartedly.
Secondly, the UK is the second-largest source of approved investment in Burma. Although most major British companies that previously invested in Burma have withdrawn, companies all over the world use Britain to invest in Burma via British dependent territories, such as the British Virgin Islands and Bermuda. The Government could introduce legislation to ban investment in Burma from Britain or British dependent territories.
Thirdly, the Minister should consider ways to strengthen the EU common position when it is reviewed this year. Will he tell the House why, despite the common position to freeze assets held in Europe by listed regime officials, less than £4,000 has been frozen across all 25 EU member states so far? What action are the Government taking to address that in the EU?
The strongest feature of the EU common position is a limited investment ban, introduced in 2004. European companies are banned from investing in a number of named state-owned enterprises. However, on that list of named state-owned enterprises are a pineapple juice factory and a tailor’s shop, but no enterprises in the key sectors of oil, gas, mining and timber. The military regime in Burma is propped up by oil, gas, timber and gems, but surely not by pineapple juice.
Fourthly, DFID provides no financial support for Burmese pro-democracy and human rights groups that are operating in exile but which carry out vital work in documenting and disseminating information—groups such as the Shan Women’s Action Network and the Karen Women’s Organisation, which have helped to bring the issue of rape to the attention of the world; media organisations such as the Democratic Voice of Burma radio and television stations, which broadcast news to Burma and provide an essential source of information; and democracy organisations such as the Government in exile, the National Council of the Union of Burma or the trade union movement. If developing democracy and civil society is to be a priority, why does DFID not fund such work for Burma?
Finally, it is becoming increasingly obvious that what is occurring in eastern Burma, particularly to the Karen, Karenni and Shan, amounts to more than just the counter-insurgency that the SPDC claims. The crimes of widespread rape, forced labour, mass displacement, torture, the use of human minesweepers, and the destruction of villages, livelihoods and lives surely amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. There is a strong case of genocide or attempted genocide to be considered. I note that one definition of genocide provided by the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, in article 2(c), is:
“Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”.
Genocide does not have to involve the destruction of a whole race; nor need it even entail mass killing.
Earlier this month, when the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) asked the Minister responsible for human rights, by way of a written parliamentary question, about whether genocide was being committed inside Burma, the answer expressed no view. At the end of June, the reply to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), was that
“there is currently insufficient evidence to establish that the intent to commit genocide exists.”—[Official Report, 26 June 2006; Vol. 448, c. 173W.]
I should like to ask again whether, in the view of Her Majesty’s Government, the Burmese regime is committing genocide. Does the Minister agree that there is a need thoroughly to investigate allegations of crimes against humanity and genocide or attempted genocide? If so, what action are he and his colleagues taking?
In describing the situation in Burma I have barely begun to scratch the surface of the regime’s legacy of fear and suffering. I have not, for example, described the use of forced labour. Nor have I detailed the lack of religious freedoms that blight the lives of Christians and Muslims alike in Burma. However, it is clear that across the full range of basic human rights the Burmese dictatorship systematically restricts, denies and undermines the freedoms that should be enjoyed by all peoples in Burma. In his book “The Case for Democracy”, Natan Sharansky describes the differences between freedom societies and the societies that he calls “fear societies”, which are ruled by regimes that deny freedoms to their peoples and suppress human rights. A community of free nations throughout the world will not, he says, emerge on its own:
“It will require both the clarity of the democratic world to see the profound moral difference between the world of freedom and the world of fear, and the courage to confront fear societies everywhere.”
We have a duty to confront, in the ways that I have described, the fear society that has been imposed on the people of Burma by the regime there. I close with the words of Zoya Phan, who spoke at the Conservative conference three weeks ago. She said:
“Promoting human rights and democracy is not imperialist. It is not a cultural issue. It is everyone’s business.”
We need to use our privileged position in the UK to make the situation in Burma the urgent business of the international community.
I am grateful, Mr. Olner, for the opportunity to participate in the debate, and I pay heartfelt tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), who offered the House the most passionate, insightful and spine chilling exposé of the reality of life for millions of people in that beautiful but benighted country called Burma. It is right that the House should have the opportunity, 11 years into the continued incarceration of Aung San Suu Kyi, to debate these matters with a view to the formulation and promotion of a still more active Government policy to try to improve the conditions of life in Burma.
Extra-judicial killings, rape as a weapon of war, brutal water torture, compulsory relocation, forced labour, the use of human mine clearers, the use of child soldiers on a scale proportionately greater than in any other country in the world, and the daily, systematic razing and destruction of villages in their thousands, throughout eastern Burma, all point to the institutionalised bestiality of one of the most appalling Governments on the planet.
I believe that all the people of Burma are dehumanised and continue to suffer on the most breathtaking scale as a consequence of the wholly illegitimate Government who tyrannise each and every one of them. I am mindful, however, of the very particular circumstances and plight of the ethnic nationals to whom my hon. Friend so movingly referred. I speak of course of the Karen, the Karenni, the Kachin, the Chin, the Mon, the Arakan and the Rohingya peoples, to name just a few of the groups that daily experience the most egregious abuse of their human rights.
In that context, I express my personal gratitude and that, I suspect, of a number of right hon. and hon. Members, to two organisations that make a distinctive contribution in reminding the world of the plight of the people of Burma. I refer, of course, to the Burma Campaign, with which I am well familiar and with which I have closely co-operated in recent years as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Burma. I know that the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) is well aware of that organisation, too. The Burma Campaign is fantastic. Whenever I think of it, I call to mind the three musketeers, united in vigorous and committed campaigning for a better future for that country. I refer, of course, to Yvette Mahon, Anna Roberts and Mark Farmaner. They are superb campaigners and deserve tribute to be paid to them in the House.
The other organisation that is very much to the fore in highlighting the abuse of human rights in Burma is Christian Solidarity Worldwide. I want to acknowledge the sterling contribution made by Ben Rogers, the advocacy officer for Burma and south-east Asia, who has made about a dozen visits in recent years to the Thai-Burmese border to meet, and to hear the harrowing personal testimonies of, those who have suffered under the wilful abuse of a destructive regime. Those organisations continue to fly the flag for a better future for people who are suffering grievously on a daily basis, with scant protection and precious little active help—something that cannot be right, and must change.
It is a pleasure to see the Minister for Europe here today. I recognise that he has, in former capacities, regularly had to listen to me speak on this subject. When he was Leader of the House, I often called for such debates. It may be a relatively trying experience for Ministers to endure the phenomenon of any Member regularly pontificating on a subject, but I make no apology for doing so, because I believe that the State Peace and Development Council is one of the worst and most tyrannical regimes in the world, and that, although now and again it receives adverse coverage, that happens on far too limited and sporadic a basis. We need a focus of critical attention and determination to secure change, if there is to be any prospect of delivering that in the foreseeable future.
I have three proposals—none of which is original, and to all of which my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire referred, but each of which is vital to the prospects of trying to get a better deal for the abused citizens of Burma. The first is to secure UN Security Council intervention in Burma. I point out to the Minister the fact that that cause commands substantial cross-party support. I tabled early-day motion 902 on the subject last year, with the support of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) and the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird)—not to mention my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). I think that subsequently we were joined by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). When last I looked, less than 24 hours ago, that early-day motion had commanded the support of 320 Members of the House. From all the major and some of the minor parties, support has been forthcoming.
Given that Ministers are not in a position to sign early-day motions, and that the same prohibition applies to members of the Government Whips Office and the whole payroll vote, including Parliamentary Private Secretaries, that puts in context the scale of support that we enjoy. There are probably only 500 right hon. and hon. Members at most who are in a position to sign early-day motions, and we all know that some colleagues prefer not to sign any such motions for fear of being asked to sign more than they would like. It is therefore telling testimony to the strength of opinion and deep sense of frustration that we feel, and our earnest conviction that something better can and should be done, that the support of 321 colleagues has been secured.
The adoption of Burma as an agenda item by the UN Security Council on 15 September was a welcome advance, and the subsequent discussion on this important subject on 29 September was a still more welcome advance. The Minister should know me well enough by now to know that I am not grudging in offering praise, so I am more than happy to put on record in explicit terms similar sentiments to those expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire: I have been struck by the sheer passion and conviction with which the Minister for Trade has advanced the case for human rights in Burma since he took over his new responsibilities.
This, however, is not just a matter for Britain. We need wider support, so there is relationship building to be done. A coalition has to be established and other people have to be brought on board, but we have to run fast to stand still. We simply cannot afford to rest for a moment; we have to keep going and seek the support of other countries at every turn. We should not be remotely afraid of the possibility that some of them might resist our approaches. Let us name and shame those people within the United Nations who represent their national interests or perverted priorities and somehow think that the behaviour of the Government of Burma is unexceptionable and does not warrant the attention of the Security Council.
The report commissioned by Desmond Tutu and Vaclav Havel, which was provided by the American law firm to which my hon. Friend referred, demonstrates beyond peradventure that the regime substantially meets all the relevant criteria for consideration for UN Security Council intervention. I would far prefer a binding Security Council resolution, but I confess that if we have to put up with a non-binding resolution in the short term, that is better than nothing, although we need to send an explicit, unmistakeable signal to the regime that it is, frankly, a leper at the moment.
Burma is a pariah state within the international community and its behaviour is unconscionable. If it entertains even the remotest future ambition, which it entertained unsuccessfully in the past, of being allowed the chairmanship or presidency of the Association of South East Asian Nations, it will have to bring about a massive step change in its behaviour. There can be no automaticity in its promotion to a position of jumped-up political importance that its conduct manifestly does not warrant. So, we need to keep going. I would like there to be an arms embargo and substantial UN sanctions against the regime. I do not say that that will be quick in coming, but we should press for it.
My hon. Friend was right to highlight the alarming phenomenon of the substantial investment in Burma through what I would describe as a circuitous and underhand route. Those resources—to the tune of approximately $1.4 billion since 1988, so far as British territories are concerned—are without question serving to prop up the sadistic, brutal, fascistic, military dictatorship. On 2 October, the Channel 4 “Dispatches” programme highlighted that important phenomenon using disturbing evidence to support its thesis.
I appeal to the Minister in the most strenuous terms to consider the Government imposition of a ban on the use of such territories for the provision of investment to the regime. Such investment is not helping the people of Burma and it is not assisting the ethnic nationals who are belaboured by the regime. It is simply putting a pot of gold into the vaults of the banks that are controlled by the Government of Burma, who have no legitimacy and should not be there in the first place.
As my hon. Friend persuasively argued, the Government of Burma are using 40 per cent. of their national budget to finance the military while subjecting the country’s people—their own citizens—to appalling indignities, while expenditure on health and education combined is less than $1 per person per year.
The notion that our territories, however inadvertently and with no malice aforethought, should be used to channel resources to a regime that behaves in that way is unimaginable. Although I understand why widespread attention is given to other important issues of public policy in the international sphere, I make a heartfelt plea for the shifting of Burma from the back of Ministers’ minds to the front. Let us put it on the agenda and keep it there. I reserve considerable contempt for the behaviour of Total and Unocal in propping up the regime.
I endorse my hon. Friend’s powerful plea for cross-border aid for the people of Burma. It saddens and angers me greatly that British annual funding to Burma in the form of humanitarian aid amounts to only £8 million a year. I understand, although I am ready for correction if the Minister wants to offer it, that that budget is to be frozen next year, even though the egregious abuses in Burma are piling up on virtually a daily basis. The plight is not diminishing; if anything, it is being exacerbated. The conditions of life in Burma are not radically dissimilar to those of large numbers of people in sub-Saharan Africa. A greater priority should be attached to funding.
My hon. Friend will be aware that the position of Thailand is important in the cross-border aid equation. It has tolerated camps for internally displaced people and refugees on its border, and it employs some of the people who are displaced from Burma, so there are many things for which we can praise and thank Thailand, but does my hon. Friend agree that it must address two issues? First, it must be more free in enabling aid to cross the border. Secondly, it must look carefully at certain Thai individuals who are senior in the Thai community both politically and economically, who are becoming involved in the acquisition of lands in Burma that belong to the ethnic races of Burma, not people in Thailand.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful case and I agree with him on both counts.
I want to draw to the Minister’s attention what I suspect must be an inadvertently misleading statement, not to the House, for that would not be in order, Mr. Olner, but in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office 2006 annual report on human rights, because it is relevant to the debate. At page 42—a page with which I am sure you are closely familiar—it states:
“Bilaterally and via the European Commission, it”—
that is the Department for International Development—
“helps fund the Thai-Burma Border Consortium, an NGO providing food and other support to Burmese refugees in Thailand and to internally displaced people in Burma.”
However, my distinct understanding is that the British contribution to that consortium is provided explicitly on the understanding that it will not be used to provide cross-border humanitarian aid. That statement’s wording is therefore manifestly misleading in offering a contrary impression. I hope that cross-border assistance will be provided as a result of the reconsideration of policy, because 1 million people are suffering in the jungle.
Too many people have suffered too much, for too long and with too little done to help them, and that must change. Of course we require pragmatism in the conduct of foreign policy, but there is a proper place for a healthy dose of idealism to boot. Narrow, selfish and destructive commercial considerations have held sway for too long, and it is time to proclaim with a degree of passion that respect for human rights and democratic values must take precedence over the reckless and destructive pursuit of filthy lucre. I hope that the Minister has something useful, interesting and forward looking to say on that point.
Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and the spokesmen for the two Opposition parties, I should say that this is an important subject, and hon. Members have raised some important questions. Therefore, they should give the Minister adequate time to respond and remember that the debate will conclude at 12.30 pm.
Thank you, Mr. Olner. You need have no fear about me. I shall be quite brief, given the great difficulty that I shall have following two such passionate and eloquent speakers on a subject such as this.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) on securing this important debate. Indeed, I myself had a debate on this very subject in 2003, so I do not come new to the issue. I am saddened that, despite lots of talk, there has still been no real action by the international community since then. I hope that this debate, and the Government action that should follow from it, will act as a catalyst to bring about the international action that is so necessary. The international community must take stronger action to stop the abuse of innocents and children.
I am sorry that the Minister with responsibility for human rights is not here, but I entirely understand that he is engaged elsewhere and that that was inescapable. Given that he is not here, however, we could hardly have a better Minister with us than the Minister for Europe. He is a good man, he listens carefully and he will take the message of this debate back to his Department. Indeed, he needs no message from us, because he is already aware of the terrible abuses committed by the evil regime in Burma. He is an excellent man and I am sure that he will do a good job today.
The continued detention and brutal treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners is an offence against any concept of civilisation, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire explained, the United Nations Security Council must take action to bring about change. Indeed, as our Front-Bench spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) explained, that will perhaps be a first test for those involved.
I have been in the Burmese jungle and met the people there. I have seen the horrendous, brutal and inhumane treatment that they have suffered and I honestly believe that they are suffering what is probably a successful attempt at genocide. I have sat with children in the jungle villages and seen girls sent out in the mornings to walk miles to carry back fresh water in old jerry cans and plastic containers. I have seen children with no access to education, health care or any of the normal things that we expect to be available, particularly to young girls passing through puberty. I have a photograph with me of myself sitting with children in the jungle in Burma and I was deeply moved to meet such people and to see their plight. What really offends me, however, is that after all this time, there has been no real action, even though lots of words have been said, and people are still pouring out their souls. Nobody is prepared to step in and take action to stop the abuse of innocents and children.
I have one simple question for the Government. Will they be more proactive? Will they stop talking about their good intentions and take action? Actions speak louder than words. For instance, there is still a strong—
I will. There is still a strong suspicion that the investment that supports this nasty regime is being channelled through British dependent territories such as Bermuda. The UK Government have the legal power and ability to act, but they have not yet done so. They claim that no new investment is in the pipeline and that action is therefore unnecessary, but I hope that we all agree that that position is insupportable. First, there is such a lack of transparency that the Government cannot know whether there is new investment. Secondly, even if there were no new investment, strong action by the Government now would send a clear message to the regime, to the world and to companies. Perhaps we should have a policy of naming and shaming companies such as the French oil giant Total and Orient Express, that tacitly support the evil Burma regime and its human rights abuses. The time for turning a blind eye has ended—we now need action.
Thank you for calling me for the first of the summations, Mr. Olner. In the light of what you said about the obvious need for the Minister to respond in some detail, I shall not detain hon. Members for longer than necessary.
I pay genuine tribute to the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) for his speech and for securing the debate. I share his observation that there are many forgettable moments at all party conferences, but something occasionally stays with us. It is often a speech that is made by a visitor to the conference, or perhaps by somebody from another part of the world, which shines a light on a part of the world that would otherwise not necessarily be illuminated. I was interested to hear of the hon. Gentleman’s experiences, and he does the House great credit by giving us the opportunity to debate the issue.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Members for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and for Buckingham (John Bercow), who is a masterful performer in the House. He was extremely eloquent and laid out in great detail the challenge facing the British Government and other Governments right around the world.
It is often observed that the House is not at its best when it is consensual because hon. Members rush to be part of the crowd, to go along with the herd and to ensure that they do not stand out for particular attention. In those circumstances, errors are sometimes made, and hon. Members need to speak out against the consensus and put the contrary point of view. That is often the case when legislation is being formed in the House. However, there are times when it is useful for us to speak with one voice right across the political parties, and the main occasion when that is of benefit is when we talk about our values.
If we leave aside for one moment the political parties’ differences over their policies, manifestos and platforms for the general election and boil the issue down to what brings us all here in the first place, we see that it is a shared belief in the virtues of liberty, freedom, democracy and tolerance. We want not only to see those values prosper and flower in the United Kingdom but to see what we in the House of Commons and the Government can do to ensure that they are spread more widely around the world and that the many people who do not enjoy the systems that we take for granted can benefit from them in the future.
I shall not go over ground that has already been covered at length, but Burma’s record is particularly shameful and grotesque. Statistics show that there are well over 1,000 political prisoners in the country, most, if not all, of whom routinely suffer torture. The hon. Member for Buckingham paid tribute to two organisations, the Burma Campaign and Christian Solidarity Worldwide. I would also mention Amnesty International, of which I am a member. At school, we were encouraged to support it once a week with a letter-writing campaign; it was voluntary, but lots of the pupils participated. We were given a prisoner of conscience on whom the school was focusing, and we all wrote handwritten letters to the Government of the country concerned. It taught me at quite an early age about values. We ought to believe that individual citizens, let alone parliamentarians, can do something and have some responsibility for the plight of people in countries far from the UK. Amnesty is an organisation that I continue to admire immensely.
Let us consider the rest of the Burmese record, which has been touched upon—systematic rape, 1 million people forced from their homes, and child soldiers. The human rights record is grotesque, but it is worth adding that the regime fails on any other criterion. The Government might say, “Well, our human rights record is not something we are proud of, but look at the quality of life and the material wealth that our citizens enjoy.” I would not accept that as an answer, but I could see that some might wish to make that case. However, the statistics for Burma show that it fails on every count. One in 10 children die before their fifth birthday, which is an extraordinarily high rate of infant mortality. As has been touched on, Burma is second to last—191st out of 192—in the world league table as ranked by the World Health Organisation. We have heard that less than $1 a year is spent on health. The figure that I have seen is that Burma spends less than 0.2 per cent of gross domestic product annually on health. The figures are shocking in terms of both the material, physical and other well-being of the people, and the human rights that remain absent from their lives.
What can we do about it? It is widely accepted that the situation requires attention. I want to give some credit to the Government. As I began by saying, I do not think that this is a point of conflict or that the Government seek to frustrate the ambitions of hon. Members in all parts of the House. We may wish that the Government had greater ambition, but we are in no way seeking to disagree with their general intentions or other ambitions. They have made some progress, and I echo the calls that others have made for the United Nations to play a large part in bringing it home to the Burmese regime that its standards do not accord with those of the international community as a whole.
Specifically, the Government have a duty to examine investment that goes from the United Kingdom or through United Kingdom organisations into Burma, because no regime can survive in the medium to long term without some sort of financial input. I join others in condemning the actions of Total and others who have invested with an absence of ethical consideration. If the Government are able to put pressure on France and other Governments who may be able to exert influence on such companies, they will have performed a useful role.
Although I, too, lament the absence of the Minister with specific responsibility for human rights, there is one upside of having the Minister for Europe in his place. If the European Union serves any purpose, it is surely that we can speak as one with 25, soon to be 27, voices and say that we have a shared set of values—liberty, democracy, freedom and tolerance, which I touched on earlier. That voice is heard all the more clearly for being echoed right across the continent and being not just a British voice. It is appropriate that the United Kingdom, given its history in Burma, is able to lead the European Union and other powerful nations on our continent, including France, in bringing pressure to bear on the Burmese and ensuring that they realise that it is not possible to split the civilised nations of the world into those that have more or less antipathy towards them. We share a common and deep hostility to everything that they are doing.
Given that Total, the French-owned oil business, is responsible for propping up the regime to the tune of somewhere between $250 million and $400 million a year through its unethical investment, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the rest of the European Union should, in concerted form, come together to name, shame, denounce and humiliate the French Government for their outrageous collusion in the regime’s unethical practices?
I will indeed, Mr. Olner. I was about to bring my comments to a conclusion, but I echo the comments that the hon. Member for Buckingham just made. Shame is a great feature of foreign policy in respect of human rights. I understand, as do all hon. Members, that there are limits to the practical impact that the British Government can have. I sometimes sympathise with Foreign Office Ministers, who are urged by Members to make good the wrongs of the world in every single nation. However, shaming the Burmese Government, the French Government and those associated with propping up the Burmese regime could be an important instrument for change.
I shall conclude with a brief observation. One of the strands of foreign policy on which the British Government can make a big difference is the pursuit of human rights. When the Government came to power nine and a half years ago, they talked about having an “ethical foreign policy”. Most people would accept that, in practice, foreign policy must balance a number of considerations—a fact touched on by the hon. Member for Buckingham. On occasions, it may not be practical to have an entirely unsullied ethical foreign policy, even if it is desirable. The ethical dimension to foreign policy in relation to countries such as Burma and North Korea, whose values so clearly violate those that we hold dear, is an extremely important strand of British foreign policy and one that would find great favour among all our citizens. I urge the Minister to pursue it with vigour.
Thank you for allowing me to catch your eye, Mr. Olner. Following your strictures, I shall of course curtail my remarks. My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) has brought a moving subject for debate before the Chamber and he introduced it in a statesmanlike manner, which is a great tribute to him. I had not heard him speak at any length before, but he is a new Member of the House who will clearly go a long way, and I congratulate him on his speech.
My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) made his customary speech—well crafted, statesmanlike, moving and extremely knowledgeable. I expected as much, given that he introduced such a debate in this Chamber on 15 June 2005. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) had to keep his remarks brief, but he is very knowledgeable on this subject. He has been to the area, as have I and other Members. I have been right up to the Thai-Burmese border, and have met and talked to people who crossed the border, seeing their desperate plight, so I was interested to hear of his personal experiences. The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne), speaking on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, also made his customary well-informed contribution.
On 19 June, the Nobel peace prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, celebrated her birthday. She has spent far more than half her past 17 birthdays in the prison of home detention for the unpardonable sin of winning a landslide victory in an election against Burma’s military junta in 1990. For five decades, the regime has sustained itself through brutalisation and human rights abuses, resulting in one of the most brutal regimes in the world. As my hon. Friends have said, if there ever was a case for UN action, this must surely be it.
The State Peace and Development Council—I believe that the renaming was done on the advice of an American public relations company—is clearly exactly the opposite of what it purports to be. Abuses have taken place in respect of opposition politicians, and I was particularly sad to hear of the recent death in prison of Thet Win Aung, the pro-democracy activist. I was also sad to hear of the death of Aung Hlaing Win, who was also a pro-democracy activist. The coroner’s autopsy report showed that he suffered 24 injuries, but when his family filed for a wrongful death case, the judge barred admission of the coroner’s autopsy report and instead upheld the police report on the cause of death. That is the sort of thing that happens under that vile regime.
As my hon. Friends said, the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Burma is spreading to neighbouring countries, especially along the drug-trafficking routes. Burma is one of the world’s largest producers of opium and, more recently, amphetamine-type stimulants.
I read some of the horrific reports on human rights abuses, and heard about the experience of some of the people I met in Burma. My hon. Friends mentioned many of those, but one of the most shocking is the rounding up of children to become child soldiers. We should pay specific attention to that.
My hon. Friends also mentioned horrendous abuses against ethnic minority groups. During 2005, many senior Shan leaders were arrested and last November eight were given prison sentences, some of which exceeded 100 years. In other words, they will never be let out of prison. Many of them were imprisoned merely for where they lived, not for having committed any offence.
Since last year, the regime has pursued what can justifiably be classified as ethnic cleansing against the people of northern Karen state. A Foreign and Commonwealth Office report describes the widespread destruction of villages, instances of killing, torture of civilians and the displacement of up to 16,000 villagers, with more than 2,000 refugees arriving at camps on the Thai border since January 2006.
The United States Department of State estimates that there are more than 500,000 internally displaced people in the country and more than 500,000 refugees living in India, China, and Thailand. The number of undocumented Burmese refugees living in Thailand alone is estimated to be in the millions, and growing. More than 100,000 additional refugees have crossed into Thailand since April or May because of the Burmese army’s offensive against the Karen and other minority people.
What can be done? Like my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire, I pay tribute to the Government where tribute is due. They have pushed hard in the European Union for stronger measures against the regime. However, Burma does not receive the priority it deserves, given the scale of abuse. If the Minister feels strongly about those abuses—he will tell us that he does—why have the Government not imposed unilateral investment sanctions against the regime? I shall come to investment in the regime, but it seems to me that propping up the regime through trade is a key area where it has benefited and one that we can do something about.
Following the 1990 election, the regime was vulnerable because the economy was in ruins. It was opened to foreign trade at that time and the resulting influx boosted revenue for the regime’s military spending, which now makes up almost half Government spending. It was only in the mid-1990s that Burma’s democracy movement started calling for economic sanctions after witnessing how trade and investment were helping the regime rather than the people and helping to entrench military rule. There is no legal barrier preventing European or Asian companies from investing in or trading with the Burmese dictatorship. The regime survives through foreign investment, and the National League for Democracy has asked the world to cut lifelines that keep that regime alive.
My hon. Friend referred to the Burma Campaign’s dirty list, which is a list on its website of companies that do business, or have subsidiaries that do business, with the Burmese regime. I looked at the list in detail yesterday, and there are some big and surprising household names on it. I do not want to name and shame them in this debate, but it is possible to contact every one of those 79 companies—I challenge the Government to do so—and explain to them what they are doing in propping up the regime. If they had a little explanation, many of those companies would stop trading with that vile regime.
Some companies are big offenders. Total Oil is probably the biggest and probably contributes about $400 million to the regime. It is possible to persuade big companies not to trade with the regime; the Government persuaded British American Tobacco to do just that. It probably trades in more countries than any other international company, yet it was persuaded not to trade with Burma because of its regime.
How can Britain help, unilaterally and with its partners in the EU? EU sanctions are slow in coming because European Governments have not yet reached agreement. EU members are committed to a common foreign policy on Burma, but if one country—for example, France—opposes such action, no progress can be made. The FCO report on human rights proudly boasts about the actions that the EU has taken to counter the Burmese regime, but those actions are in no way as strong as those taken by the American regime. Why?
President Bush signed into law the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act 2003, which restricts the financial resources of Burma’s ruling military junta and bans the importation to the US of any products that originated in Burma. More importantly, the American Government backed those actions with tough penalties. Anyone who violates the orders risks a fine of up to $50,000 or up to 10 years’ imprisonment, and companies risk a $500,000 fine. Why have the British Government not persuaded or tried to persuade the European Union to take such tough action?
As I said during an intervention on my hon. Friend, the new United Nations Human Rights Council must surely look at Burma as one of its first actions. There cannot be many regimes as vile in terms of human rights. It is invidious to make comparisons, but I can think of only a few: perhaps the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. There are not many other regimes with a Government as abusive of human rights as Burma’s. If there were a test for the new Human Rights Council to show that it is working properly, it should start by calling for a proper UN resolution, whether binding or not.
It is often argued that the Chinese would not support a UN resolution against Burma, but observers in Thailand say that the People’s Republic of China was dismayed by the arrest of Prime Minister Khin Nyunt and is now looking for ways to restrain the State Peace and Development Council. China is deeply affected by the flow of refugees, disease and drugs. Furthermore, Burma’s uncontrolled logging is damaging China’s reputation in the World Trade Organisation, which it is doing so much to enhance and protect.
In May, China closed the China-Burma border to all timber trade. It is extraordinary that when China can do that, the 79 companies on the dirty list include many British companies, which are importing Burmese teak to this country completely unfettered and unhindered. Members of the Burmese army are reportedly responding by attacking Chinese migrant workers—hardly behaviour likely to endear the Burmese regime to Beijing.
A Security Council resolution is the most achievable diplomatic tool to build a policy consensus among countries interested in resolving the Burmese problem. Among other things, the resolution should call for the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi, a programme for national reconciliation that includes the National League for Democracy, immediate and unhindered access to all parts of Burma for UN relief agencies and other international humanitarian organisations, a timeline for compliance, and punitive sanctions if the SPDC fails to comply.
The UK should be in the vanguard in pushing for those efforts and trying to build a consensus in the Security Council. After all, it was the Prime Minister who said that
“we do not believe that trade is appropriate when the regime continues to suppress the basic human rights of its people.”—[Official Report, 25 June 2003; Vol. 407, c. 1042.]
If his words are to mean anything, we must ask the Minister what actions he is pressing the EU, the UN and any other international organisation to take to put pressure on the Burmese regime. That regime is vulnerable to international pressure, but it is even more vulnerable to economic sanctions.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss the disturbing situation in Burma and the various issues that have been raised so well in today’s debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) on securing the debate, and the other hon. Members on making clear in their speeches and interventions the understandable depth of concern that is felt in the House and in this country about the grave situation in Burma. I and the Government share those concerns, and I assure hon. Members that the United Kingdom will remain at the forefront of efforts to secure a safe, democratic and prosperous future for the Burmese people. They have suffered for far too long.
I shall set out in detail the Government’s views on the situation in Burma and respond to as many points as I can. Hon. Members will have read the Foreign and Commonwealth Office “Human Rights Report 2006” that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs presented on 12 October. Burma is one of the 20 countries of major concern highlighted in the report, and one of only two addressed by my right hon. Friend in her foreword. Many of the issues raised today are considered in greater detail than I can cover, but hon. Members have described vividly and accurately the continuing abuses of human rights committed against the Karen people and the National League for Democracy. This year there has been yet greater pressure on those groups and further arrests of student leaders. The situation is made even more difficult by the denial of access to all Burmese prisons for independent monitoring organisations for almost a year.
It has been argued that the targeted abuse of ethnic groups could amount to genocide. It is clear that large-scale human rights abuses are taking place, so my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade, who has responsibility for investment and foreign affairs, discussed the human rights situation in Burma with Juan Méndez, the special adviser to the UN Secretary General on the prevention of genocide, on 27 June. We remain in regular contact with Juan Méndez, and we have offered him whatever political or practical assistance he needs to complete his work. My right hon. Friend has invited him to return to London in November to discuss those issues with interested Members of Parliament. Knowing the consistency of many Members, I am sure that they will take up the opportunity.
Many hon. Members asked what the United Kingdom was doing. We must recognise that the influence that any single country like the United Kingdom has is necessarily limited, making it even more important to work in partnership with others. There is nevertheless valuable work that we can do and are doing in Burma. We are one of only four European Union member states to have an embassy in Rangoon. Our embassy plays a vital role in communicating information to us. It also gets our messages across to the Burmese Government directly. Mark Canning, our ambassador in Rangoon, conveyed to the Burmese Home Minister only yesterday our concerns about recent abuses, as he has done with a range of senior interlocutors since his arrival.
The embassy is in regular contact with the National League for Democracy and other opposition groups inside Burma, including the ethnic groups, and it has come in for some sharp criticism from the regime for its activities. The embassy provides funding for grass-roots development and capacity-building projects throughout Burma, in addition to the Department for International Development larger programmes.
We do what we can to strengthen civil society within Burma, while recognising that those people and organisations who choose to associate with us are taking considerable risks. It is therefore a long-term and low-profile effort, and we try not to politicise what we are doing or to seek public acclaim, for obvious reasons that I hope hon. Members will understand.
In addition, the British Council is respected in Burma for its pivotal educational role. It is improving the skills of Burmese teachers of English. It offers access to a library of 30,000 uncensored books, newspapers and journals, the BBC World Service radio and the internet. It all helps to increase the knowledge and skills that will one day help democracy take root.
We have taken a lead in helping to relieve the suffering of the Burmese people. On 10 October, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development announced that the United Kingdom would contribute £20 million to the newly formed three diseases fund to help fight TB, malaria and HIV/AIDS in Burma. The UK was instrumental in setting up the fund together with five other donors.
Hon. Members have referred to internally displaced people in Burma. DFID provides assistance to conflict-affected people in that country through the International Committee of the Red Cross, providing some £500,000 a year. Our health, education and rural livelihood programmes include within their geographical remit conflict-affected regions to which internally displaced people have been relocated. We also support grass-roots civil society projects specifically aimed at internally displaced people in conflict-affected areas.
We are providing humanitarian assistance through the Thai-Burma border consortium to help Burmese refugees in Thailand, with funding of about £1.8 million over three years. The United Kingdom also provides support through its contribution to the European Commission’s ECHO fund for the Thai-Burma border consortium. It totalled €5.5 million, or £3.7 million, in 2006, representing the highest per capita amount that ECHO funds for any refugee programme in the world.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way on that point. I understand what he has just read to the Chamber, but does he accept the point that I made that the Government’s funding for the Thai-Burma border consortium is specifically for the purposes of helping on the border, but the British Government have stipulated that it should not be used for the provision of humanitarian aid in-country? Will he acknowledge that, and can he see why many of us feel that it is wrong?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman, whom I have praised in the past for his consistent and determined efforts on behalf of the people of Burma, does not recognise the valuable work that is being conducted on the border to help the very people about whom he is properly concerned. Recognising that the project is a European Commission scheme and that legal limits affect our ability to work with partners through the Commission, I hope that he will accept that the work is valuable, even though it does not go as far as he might like and cross that border to assist inside the country.
I hope also that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members accept that we judge it best to work in concert with other international organisations such as the European Union, because our influence is thereby strengthened. It is a much more effective way of working than unilateral action. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is reviewing a cross-border project, and I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman writes to him in the manner in which he has expressed his views so well today, his contribution to the review will be taken very seriously.
I have made it clear that the UK’s direct influence over the regime in Burma is inevitably limited. We have nevertheless vociferously expressed our outrage at major breaches of international human rights law. Hon. Members have rightly paid tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade. He summoned the Burmese ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 15 June to set out our concerns in detail. In case the message was insufficiently clear, my right hon. Friend subsequently sent a letter to the Burmese Foreign Minister. A copy of that letter is in the Library, and it includes a reference to child soldiers.
My right hon. Friend also released a statement about Ko Thet Win Aung, a 34-year-old Burmese student leader and political prisoner, who died in Mandalay prison on 16 October. The European Union, at our specific suggestion, will make representations about that terrible case.
Hon. Members also made considerable reference to UK policy on trade and investment, so it might assist them if I set out the precise position. The Government have a long-standing policy of discouraging British firms from trading with or investing in Burma. We offer no support whatever to companies wishing to trade with or invest in Burma. British companies that inquire about trade with Burma are informed of the grave political situation, the regime’s atrocious record on human rights and the country’s dire economic prospects. We hope that that clear indication represents what the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, asked for.
What the Minister has just said rather indicates that the British Government are reactive and passive on trade involving British and British-associated companies. I was hoping for a little more proactive policy and that the Minister might contact all 79 companies and point out the dangers and difficulties that they are causing for the Burmese people.
I had hoped not to contradict the hon. Gentleman too much, but he referred in his speech—I hope not casually—to the “many” British companies on the list. I cannot identify the many British companies and neither can the Burma Campaign. I would have a little difficulty trying to contact companies whose names I do not know.
I have made clear the Government’s position on the companies by which we are contacted. We clearly do not have the same obligations relating to non-UK companies as we have to UK-based companies. I assure the hon. Gentleman that when companies contact the British Government for advice and information, we give them a stern indication of our attitude towards trade and investment in Burma.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for saying that the same phenomenon applies in his constituency. May I make the Minister an offer? If I write to those companies in my constituency to advise them to cease that trade, will he replicate my effort and use all the authority and grandeur of his office to bolster it by also writing?
If the hon. Gentleman or any hon. Member provides information, it will be looked at and, if appropriate, action taken.
I emphasise that the figures that have been bandied around are largely those published by the Burmese Government. They appear to us to be seriously misleading, because they do not represent current investment. They seem to include all investment over a period of more than 10 years, and investment by UK companies is included even if they pulled out of operations in Burma long ago. Hon. Members referred to British American Tobacco, whose investment appears still to be included in the figures being supplied by the Burmese regime. The real figures are much lower. In 2003 the Department of Trade and Industry recorded the UK foreign investment flow into Burma as less than £500,000. As far as we are aware, the figures relate to only three companies.
I was about to deal with that point, as it has been raised on a number of occasions. We see no evidence that large-scale investments are reaching Burma via British overseas territories-registered companies. That has been specifically examined, as hon. Members have raised the matter, but I shall ask for it to be examined again. I certainly recognise the point.
The Government’s argument is that because successive regimes in Burma have isolated themselves and their country from the outside world, there should be concerted international action to persuade the Burmese military to relinquish power and improve the human rights situation on the ground. We are therefore determined to promote an international response, and there are three main channels through which we can encourage change—the UN and its various organs and agencies, the EU and the Asian region.
The United Nations rightly plays a vital role in Burma and we welcome the efforts of the Secretary-General Kofi Annan to promote political progress and secure the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. We look to the current and future UN Secretaries-General to keep up the pressure for change in Burma. There are indications that the Burmese regime still recognises the authority of the United Nations, and we therefore encourage the UN to deliver clear messages on the need to cease attacks on ethnic groups, release prisoners and implement a genuine process of national reconciliation. We agree that the UN Security Council has a key role to play in keeping up the pressure for change and, with UK support, the US succeeded in having Burma added to the Security Council agenda on 15 September. The first formal debate took place on 29 September, and the US has indicated that it wishes to table a resolution on Burma. It can certainly count on our continued full support. The forthcoming visit to Rangoon of UN Under-Secretary Gambari will be important in shaping the views of Council members. Burma is slated to be one of the first countries considered by the newly established Human Rights Council. We and other EU partners fully support early action on Burma by the council.
The special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, has worked hard since his appointment in 2000 to catalogue the regime’s dire record. Despite not having been permitted to enter the country since November 2003, he has provided the international community with a comprehensive and objective report on the situation inside Burma. His last report to the Human Rights Council on 27 September makes sobering reading. We encourage him and any successor to continue that important work and we hope that the newly formed Human Rights Council will take early action in response. The Government support strongly the special rapporteur’s reports and recommendations, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade, who has responsibility for human rights, called in his letter of 5 July to the Burmese Foreign Minister for processes to be made genuinely inclusive and democratic. A copy of that letter is in the House of Commons Library.
Within the European Union we have taken the lead in promoting a strong line. All member states acknowledge Burma’s dire human rights record, but I recognise that there is a range of views on whether increased pressure or engagement is the right policy to pursue. Nevertheless, we have supported the adoption and gradual strengthening of the common position, which now includes a range of targeted sanctions aimed at those who implement or benefit from the regime’s policies, while avoiding increasing the suffering of the Burmese people. The common position and the sanctions that it contains may not go as far as some want, but it is an effective compromise that unites the 25 member states around a policy that is broadly right, rather than allowing each member state to pursue its own approach. A divided EU without a common position would be good news for the regime and bad news for our objectives.
Other agencies have a similarly significant role to play. The Burmese regime continues to use forced labour in a number of areas and we therefore welcome the decision of the International Labour conference in June to demand
“tangible and verifiable action from Myanmar”
to address that problem. Faced with the threat of tougher sanctions, the Government of Burma have made small but perhaps significant concessions, and we hope that the International Labour Organisation will keep the spotlight on Burma until forced labour is eradicated.
While the military regime may appear impervious to foreign criticism, we acknowledge that it has taken some care to maintain its relationship with ASEAN and with its neighbours, China and India. Yet even within ASEAN there are signs of frustration at the slow pace of reform in Burma and an increasing focus on the standards of government expected of its members. We will continue to develop a dialogue with our ASEAN friends so that they, too, encourage Burma down the road to democratic reform and a proper respect for human rights.
As has been mentioned, two of Burma’s most important neighbours and trading partners are China and India. In the medium term, their policy of engaging with the regime is driven by strategic and economic interest, but we hope that we can persuade them that their long-term interests will be better served by fostering peaceful change than by perpetuating the present unsustainable position. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade has raised the matter of Burma’s human rights failings with representatives of the Chinese, Indian, South Korean and Japanese Governments. It will be difficult to convince all our partners in the region to modify their approach, but until the regime in Burma adheres to its human rights obligations, we shall continue to work patiently with those who have influence over it. Japan’s recent change of stance is evidence that attitudes are slowly shifting.
There are sadly no quick fixes to the appalling situation in Burma, much as we might like there to be. The Government are committed, by using all our international human rights instruments, to working closely with the UN and other partners in conveying clear messages to the regime, to continuing to work for improvement in the human rights situation in Burma and to help the Burmese people. I congratulate all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate on assisting in our work on doing that.
Flood Defence (South Derbyshire)
I make no apologies for returning to flood defences and environment-related issues in South Derbyshire, which is a subject on which I have had two previous Adjournment debates. That reflects the character of my constituency. Its geography is that it is a low-lying area around the path of three rivers—the Trent, the Dove and the Derwent—with numerous smaller water courses that also cause risk of flooding at certain times.
Faced with the significant flooding of 2000, which was initially thought to be close to a one-in-100-year event, many communities received a sharp wake-up call. Flooding occurred in a number of villages, as a response to which fluvial studies were commissioned on each of the three rivers both to establish the level of risk that might be experienced by communities that lie adjacent to them and to define what remedial measures could be taken to protect those communities in the future. Every congratulation needs to be given to the work of the Environment Agency in that respect.
The studies have varied somewhat in character over time. The Trent study was the first to be carried out and was completed with a full range of options of flood defence, including some that were alarming, involving the sacrifice of at least one village in my constituency to protect others. Fortunately those options were not proceeded with, but the study nevertheless comprehensively assessed both the risks that the affected villages faced and some of the options that could be taken to address them.
The Dove study has been delayed to some extent by spending cuts. I also understand that the full options analysis to test the various defence measures that could be taken will not be carried out to the same level of depth as those considered in the Trent study. However, a large portion of the work relating to the part that lies within my constituency has been completed, and I shall return to some of the issues that that has raised. The Derwent study is still to be completed, and affects a small part of my constituency.
The work, particularly on the Dove, has involved highly complex and advanced predictive modelling, married with local data collection, involving the assembling of photographic material and memories from villages that have been affected. The contractors Halcrow and the Environment Agency deserve every congratulation on the thoroughness with which they have addressed the problem and on the importance of the study that they have produced.
The places affected on the Derwent include the small community of Ambaston, which has some flood defences already, and the environs and smaller communities around the village of Shardlow. The Trent affects Shardlow too, which lies close to the point at which the Trent and the Derwent join, as well as Swarkestone, Barrow upon Trent and Willington, while the Dove affects Hatton, which is a large village, the smaller communities of Scropton and Egginton, and the edge of the large village of Hilton.
As a result of the experience of 2000, in which all those villages either were cut off from the outside world for a period or experienced large-scale flooding, which was particularly true in Hatton, there is a high level of interest in the subject in those villages, and understandably so. The memories are still clear and the consequences of failing to take appropriate measures to defend against floods are obvious to people in those communities. Many of them have established active flood defence committees.
The district council has taken a strong leadership role, bringing together affected villages to discuss flood defence issues collectively with the various agencies involved, for which it deserves congratulations. The council has also demonstrated a strong commitment to capital expenditure in the area and has been an active partner of a major project in Hatton.
The Trent study demonstrated significant risks to all the four villages that I listed and indicated that projects at Swarkestone and Shardlow, where the defences needed to be revised, were potentially viable. A cost-benefit analysis for the defences that were suggested was applied to all the communities. Swarkestone and Shardlow passed that process and went into a list of projects that the Environment Agency was prepared to consider funding.
Since then one small defence has been erected around a part of Willington, although only after persistent lobbying by me and some villagers. Further study has, controversially, reduced the area of risk supposed to affect the community. That raises the issue of the interaction between the Environment Agency and those seeking large-scale planning consents in my constituency. I have raised those concerns with the agency, as it is worrying that a large-scale development, backed up with the resources that can be brought to bear, has managed to change the Environment Agency’s mind about the level of risk that a community faces. I shall return to that briefly.
The Derwent study is still anxiously awaited in Ambaston, which narrowly missed being flooded in 2000. There is a flood bank around the community, but those who live there are pretty sure that it is inadequate. I should like the Minister to say whether the spending cuts that have been made in the Environment Agency this year have slowed down the progress of the Derwent study.
On the Dove study, since 2000 Hatton has received around £1.5 million of defence expenditure for a range of projects. A major flood bank has been erected in one part of the village and substantial work has been done on the brook that runs round the edge of the village. Severn Trent Water has also been persuaded to spend quite a lot of money improving the sewage system in the village, because people in the community there faced the double horror not only of having their houses flooded, but of a large amount of sewage flowing back into their homes. More minor works have been carried out in Scropton, which were thrown up as a result of detailed study of how the flood had behaved in 2000.
The 2000 event was seen as perhaps close to a one-in-100-year event at the time. However, since then studies have demonstrated that it was not nearly as infrequent an event as that. There is a complex system of brooks and rivers in my constituency, which means that the answer is not quite the same everywhere. However, it seems likely that, generally speaking, the frequency would be around one in 45 or 50 years—in other words, a frequency that insurers would find unacceptable, given their concerns that villages should be protected to a level of one in 75 years, and preferably one in 100 years.
Even after the new defences at Hatton, a significant proportion of the village would be vulnerable to a one-in-100-year flood event, while Scropton would be extensively flooded. Outlying properties in Hilton would flood, as they did in 2000, and the entirety of the small village of Egginton would flood, with its current old defences being wholly inadequate.
I want to raise some generic issues with the Minister, which he discussed with me once before. To what extent do the admirable studies that the Environment Agency commissions feed into bids for capital expenditure in the future? The point applies particularly vividly in my constituency, but the studies do not apply uniquely to South Derbyshire; I expect that they have demonstrated everywhere else substantially greater need than had been anticipated. That should put down markers for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affair’s bid for the Environment Agency’s resources for capital works projects into the future. I should like to know about the methodology: are people feeding the data from the studies into future capital expenditure predictions?
The Dove study shows continuing extremely high risk. It is fortunate that my constituency is not a major urban one, in which some of the likely solutions could not apply. In some cases, such solutions would involve improving existing defences and increasing the ability of water upstream to displace into surrounding fields. The area that I am discussing is primarily rural, and it should be possible to examine how to displace water in that way and improve the drainage systems in communities further upstream. The water flows down to my constituents from such communities and it should be possible to find ways of improving the performance of drainage systems to reduce that flow.
Significant revenue expenditure will be required to assess the risk around the Dove and work out which communities should be protected. In my view, all the ones that I have listed should be. Significant expenditure will also be required for the design of appropriate solutions, but such requirements come against a background of Environment Agency cuts and a bidding process for the next public spending round. My anxiety is that such projects, in revenue terms—DEFRA has rightly protected the Environment Agency’s capital budget—may be threatened or slowed down by the cuts that have already taken place. I understand from the Environment Agency that budget cuts already appear to have had some small delaying effect on the Dove study. Clearly, that will produce anxiety in the communities affected.
Let me summarise what I want addressed. Have the spending cuts that have been made had any impact on the progress of the Derwent study? I notice that my constituency neighbour, the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), is in the Chamber; he may have some interest in aspects of my speech. What impact have the cuts had on the Derwent study and its analysis of flood risk and defence needs, particularly in respect of the section of the Derwent that lies in my constituency? What progress has been made on projects—especially those related to the communities of Swarkestone and Shardlow—already favoured by the Environment Agency in the Trent study?
What methodology does the agency use in dealing with planning applicants who have a clear interest in suggesting that flood risk is rather lower than has been predicted heretofore? There has been considerable anxiety in Willington that a major developer interested in developing the former power station has persuaded the agency that its development will have a lesser impact than the agency itself predicted. The developer appears to have succeeded, and that has produced a certain cynicism about how the agency operates in respect of those seeking planning consent.
Given the Environment Agency’s financial position, how will the assessment and project design of schemes in the Dove study be proceeded with? Finally, how will an Environment Agency that is clearly under pressure of budget reductions into the future bring all the tasks together? Given how they have been imposed, the cuts are likely to produce a short-term focus on expenditure, particularly this year, and potentially into future years.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) on securing this debate. He takes a close interest in flood risk management issues, about which we have spoken on previous occasions. I know that what we are debating is important for his constituency and many places elsewhere. I thank my hon. Friend for his positive comments about the Environment Agency’s work to ensure the effective management of flood risk in South Derbyshire and the surrounding areas. I shall respond to all his points.
Flooding is a traumatic experience. It is costly in material terms, in its disruption to people’s lives, and—because of the stress and worry that it causes—psychologically. In recent years, we have made a great deal of progress in improving our management of flood risk and in understanding and taking account of the possible future impacts of climate change. We estimate that between 4 million and 5 million people live in areas at risk of flooding, and that they have assets totalling some £250 billion. The probability of flooding is likely to increase as a result of climate change and the rise in sea levels, and the cost of the damage that it will cause will increase along with national wealth and further development in the areas at risk. That represents a huge challenge for the Government, operating authorities such as the Environment Agency and those at risk.
It might be helpful if I explain some of the overall mechanisms that are in place and the division of responsibilities between the various agencies and organisations. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has overall policy responsibility for flood risk in England, and we work in partnership with the Environment Agency, which is the principal operating authority for managing those risks. The agency’s flood risk management activities are largely funded by DEFRA and operate within the framework of policy guidance that we provide to all operating authorities. Operational responsibility for the programme to manage risk rests with the operating authorities.
The measures to manage the risk include the building and maintenance of defences to reduce the probability of flooding, but go beyond that to embrace a range of approaches for reducing the consequences of flooding. They include flood awareness campaigns, flood warnings and emergency planning, and seeking to avoid increasing risk through inappropriate new development.
We cannot prohibit all development in areas at risk of flooding, but where new development is necessary we must ensure that it is appropriate and safe and does not increase the flood risk elsewhere. My hon. Friend made a number of comments about that. He might be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government intends shortly to publish strengthened planning policy guidance for planning authorities on development planning and flood risk.
Among other things, the Environment Agency has been made a statutory consultee for planning applications in flood risk areas. A new direction is to be issued. It will allow proposals for development that planning authorities intend to approve, against Environment Agency advice given on flood risk grounds, to be called in for consideration by my right hon. Friend.
That is extremely welcome, and follows advice that I gave the Deputy Prime Minister when he directed this area of policy some four or five years ago. Will the Minister apply that also to the workings of the inspectorate that determines applications refused by local authorities, very often on exactly those grounds? Slightly alarmingly, it does not always stick to that sort of guidance.
I shall certainly look into my hon. Friend’s comments. I welcome his acknowledgement that we have made a step forward, and I agree with him.
My hon. Friend will be aware of the Government’s strategy as a result of their consultation “Making Space for Water”, and how we are taking it forward. Among other things, we are currently consulting on extending the Environment Agency’s role in the strategic overview of coastal flood and erosion risk. It is not a subject for debate today, but it is an important area.
We have set up an innovation fund to encourage the development of novel solutions for managing flood risk, and it offers great opportunities. In addition, we have identified 15 sites for possible pilot projects to help develop improvements in integrated urban drainage. We also aim to encourage better resilience and resistance of buildings and emergency infrastructure, and are exploring whether it might be practicable to provide some form of financial assistance to make homes more flood resilient or resistant in areas where community defences cannot be justified. We are considering a range of options for helping communities adapt to the threat of increased erosion or flood risk, particularly in coastal areas but in other areas as well, where traditional forms of defence may not be cost-effective or sustainable.
My hon. Friend asked several questions about budgets and prioritisation. I shall deal with them before addressing the specific concerns that he had about some villages in his constituency. The first point is that total Government expenditure on the management of flood and coastal erosion risk this year will be some £580 million, up from £310 million in 1996-97. That is a 35 per cent. increase in real terms. Of course there are increasing demands, and the floods of 2000 raised awareness of flooding. Much work has been done by the Environment Agency on producing fluvial strategies and on developing shoreline management planning processes along the coast. That work has increased the demand for expenditure on flood defences, but it is important to recognise the 35 per cent. real-terms increase in budgets. The large programme that we are funding through the agency and other operating authorities continues to maintain and improve standards of protection for communities across the country.
My hon. Friend discussed the reduction this year of the Environment Agency’s flood defence budget. I can confirm that the budget reduction does not affect capital works. We were faced with a need to reprioritise our budgets as a result of unavoidable pressures. Like any Government Department, we must remain within our overall budget. The budget for flood risk has been reduced from £428 million to £413 million, but, as I said, capital works have not been affected. I regret that the reduction has led to some small delays in the Derwent study, but I assure my hon. Friend that work on it is continuing.
My hon. Friend asked about prioritisation of investment. He will be aware that the Environment Agency has a priority scoring system. There is always a need to prioritise when proposals are considered. The programme of improvement projects is driven by the operating authorities, and the projects that come from the strategies are built into an overall programme and then prioritised through an objective prioritisation system. If my hon. Friend would like some details of the methodology, I will ensure that the Environment Agency provides him with it, but I do not have time to go into it today.
For many years, we have encouraged operating authorities to adopt a strategic approach to flood risk and to ensure that solutions are co-ordinated. I am glad that my hon. Friend welcomes the fluvial studies that have taken place to date. We are taking them one step further by developing plans to assess flood risk at catchment level by funding a programme of catchment flood management plans that are being developed by the Environment Agency.
I turn now to some of the specific points that my hon. Friend raised in respect of his constituency and, more broadly, South Derbyshire. The Environment Agency has evaluated flood risk from the three major rivers in the area—the Trent, Derwent and Dove—in order to establish priorities. As my hon. Friend said, substantial modelling work was required in several instances, and some of those things take a considerable amount of time.
Following completion of the fluvial Trent strategy last year, construction work is under way at West Bridgford in Nottingham and at Burton-on-Trent. A further project to reduce the risk to more than 16,000 homes in Nottingham is expected to begin in the next three years. I understand that the agency is completing floodbank repairs and other improvements around Shardlow, and that further works are planned for later this year at Great Wilne.
My hon. Friend raised concerns about other villages in his constituency. I understand that the Environment Agency is doing further work to identify options for reducing flood risk in Hatton, Scropton and Egginton. Further investment will depend on the outcome of that work; if viable options are identified, they will then have to be prioritised against investment needs elsewhere. As he knows, there are many competing demands for investment of Government resources in flood and coastal risk management, and there must be some objective system of priorities.
I have no doubt that work will continue on the Dove study and will in the future lead to the completion of projects, but the priority that is accorded to them will depend on how they score when compared with other projects.
I also understand the point that my hon. Friend made about insurance and the fact that, as a result of some of the studies, it is thought that some areas are not protected to the level that they were before the work was done. That may be an important issue for some constituents. We cannot uninvent knowledge, but we must try to find ways of dealing with the situation if genuine problems have resulted.
I am aware that there is an issue around raising expectations. If we produce strategies, there is a natural assumption that they will be implemented. As I said, we must be careful not to raise expectations, given the overall budget situation. The budget is growing, and we hope that the importance of flood risk management will be recognised in the comprehensive spending review, but we simply cannot fund all the projects throughout the country. We will have to continue to make some tough decisions, and that is why it is important that we have an objective way of doing so.
The Environment Agency is trying to improve the management of public engagement. The engagement of the public in developing measures to reduce the risks that affect them is of key importance. People need to be aware of and understand the risk, how decisions might affect them, how the risk can best be managed with finite resources and how they might be able to prepare for and respond to flood risk and flood events. There are some important issues around public engagement. Through its building trust with communities and making space for water programmes, the Environment Agency will consider ways of increasing participation by the public in the overall decision-making process.
I thank my hon. Friend again for raising these important issues. As I said, the Government have finite resources, but I am well aware of the issues in his constituency and would like to assure him that we will continue to give them serious attention.
Backdale Quarry (Longstone Edge)
This is the second debate on the subject in which I have spoken. I was going to say it is the second in which I have had the honour of speaking, but I would much prefer not to have to speak on the subject again. The last time such a debate was held in the House was 3 December 1997, nearly nine years ago. In some respects, however, the issue was different then because it involved a quarry company, RMC, that wanted to engage in a huge extraction. RMC subsequently withdrew its application for the site, but the overall story is still much the same.
The 1997 debate was answered by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), who was then Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions. One frustrating thing is the way that the debate has moved from Department to Department over the nine years. We started off with the DETR, then it moved to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. The matter now seems to be split between two Departments, with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs taking responsibility for national parks and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government taking responsibility for the Planning Inspectorate. That might give the Minister more freedom, as the Planning Inspectorate is reporting not directly to him, but to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
When I asked the Library for a paper on the subject not so long ago, it came back with a lovely line, which read:
“This is a highly complex and contentious subject”.
It is. Today, I want to deal not with the history of the project, because that would take a long time, but with what worries me, my constituents and the wider front of those who are involved in the national park—that is, what is happening on the Longstone Edge site. I want to come to that in some detail.
I mentioned that the 1997 debate was answered by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich. I received a letter from the Department just prior to that debate, which said:
“As my letter indicated, the main responsibility for this type of development rests in the first instance with the Peak District National Park Authority, as the mineral planning authority. The Secretary of State is generally very reluctant to interfere with the jurisdiction of local planning authorities and will normally only intervene if the matters concerned are of more than local importance. While it is clear that the issues in this case are of considerable importance to local residents, they seem nevertheless to be essentially of local significance and the Secretary of State’s intervention in this instance would therefore seem to be unwarranted.”
That was an inappropriate response then, and it is even more inappropriate now. We are nine years on and the issue is still not resolved. It is still complicated and there is no end in sight.
Two public inquiries were planned for the past year. One was cancelled when the Planning Inspectorate, which had originally allowed three days for it, turned up and decided that it would take a lot longer to determine the issue. A second was stopped on legal grounds by the intervention of the Deputy Prime Minister. I accept that he was acting solely on legal grounds and best advice, but that has meant that there is still a great question mark over what is happening on the site.
The Peak District national park has more than 22 million visitors a year. A thought to bear in mind, perhaps, is that the dome was visited by 7.5 million people in one year, and we spent a lot of money on it. Those 22 million visitors enjoy the countryside and the facilities of the national park, which has been referred to as the lungs of Britain. It is within an hour’s drive of the populations of Manchester, Sheffield and the west midlands. That is why, more than most other national parks—it is the second most visited, after the Lake District—it gets a huge number of visitors.
Not only those in the local villages, but all those who have enjoyed the national park, are concerned about the massive scar that is appearing on the landscape. That is why I do not believe that the Government should say any longer that the matter is one merely of local importance and that the Secretary of State does not therefore have a role to play.
If the matter had been resolved, perhaps the explanation nine years ago would have been sufficient, but nine years on it has not been resolved. As things stand, I see no end in sight. That should be disturbing to the Minister, and it is most definitely disturbing to me, my constituents and, I would imagine, all the people who enjoy the beauty and tranquillity of the national park. I want to push the Minister on the question whether he still regards the matter as one of local significance.
There are nearly 70 mineral sites in the national park, of which 12 are active limestone quarries, 10 are active gritstone sites and eight are vein mineral sites. Fifteen are no longer active and 24 are in restoration or aftercare. The majority of the sites that operate in the national park are compliant with their planning permissions. Many of the quarries started before the national park came into existence and the quarries along Longstone Edge were given permission in the early 1950s under a Minister’s consent. The early national park governing body was not instrumental in that. In fact, that was a far different era with far fewer restrictions on planning permissions.
The Town and Country Planning Act 1990 allowed the revocation of old planning permissions, but stated that compensation would have to be paid. That was beyond the financial scope of most national park authorities. It is worth thinking how much the national park has spent over the past nine years, both in correspondence with various Departments and on legal bills. If we were to add all that money up, I assume that we would come to a tidy figure.
A review of the old planning permissions began following the passing of the Environment Act 1995, but active sites could continue to work while modern working conditions were determined. The problem is that there is a loophole in the legislation that came about as a result of case law, as modern working conditions cannot be determined without environmental information from the quarrying companies and the authority has no power to compel the operators to provide that information.
Most quarry operators have complied with the authority’s request for the information, but some have not, and they can carry on with their old conditions. Are the Government considering new legislation to compel those with old permissions to provide the necessary environmental information? I would be interested in the Minister’s answer to that.
The problem started off at Backdale quarry, and we have now moved on to Wagers Flat, where extraction is being moved on. There is no doubt that fluorspar is being used as an excuse to quarry out lots of limestone. The figures are there. Between 2003 and December 2005, some 11,500 tonnes of fluorspar were removed with a market value of approximately £5 a tonne, which means a total of some £57,000, while 573,963 tonnes of limestone were removed, with an approximate market value of some £4.5 million. The fluorspar, which is what the permission was granted for, is worth £57,000 and the waste product—the side product of the need to get down to the vein minerals—is worth some £4.5 million.
I have even seen reports that the fluorspar mined has never been moved off the site but is still stored there. If ever there was a question as to what is being taken away from the national parks, I have no doubt whatever that the answer is limestone. That should alert the Minister and the Government to the serious problems on those sites.
Wagers Flat is being operated with an intensity that is incredibly worrying; we can now see it on the skyline as we leave Bakewell. It is not a big hole at the moment, but the way the extraction is going it will become a huge scar on the Longstone Edge landscape. Part of the trouble is that although there are other vein extractions on Longstone Edge—it is a huge site—they are covered by restoration provisions, so they are being restored in a proper manner and under proper conditions.
Wagers Flat and Backdale are not covered by the restoration programme, and if the company can continue extracting without having to pick up any of the restoration costs, it will have a far bigger advantage over its competitors. Again, I say that this is not a local problem. I strongly suggest that it is of such importance that it needs to be considered more widely.
Another problem has been brought to my attention, which involves the aggregates tax. Many people have been trying to find information on it, and it has not been easy. One could argue about the rights and wrongs of such a tax, but if it exists it should be paid by everyone. I understand that no aggregates tax has been paid for Wagers Flat. It is ridiculous that the company not only does not have to meet the costs of restoration, but that it is not paying the aggregates tax. That is not fair. Put plain and simply, it is not right or proper. Action needs to be taken.
At the moment, an inquiry is scheduled for next February. I am a little worried about that, because of what happened with the previous two inquiries, but even if that inquiry goes ahead—the Planning Inspectorate has set aside 10 days, which seems right—how long will it take to report? During that time, extraction will still be taking place at Wagers Flat, which will result in a huge blot on the landscape of the national park.
Those in the villages nearby are rightly concerned—they include Calver, Curbar, Froggatt and Baslow—as are the people of Longstone. Indeed, the village of Longstone has a distinguished resident—a former deputy leader of the Labour party, Lord Hattersley, who would like to have a national parks Bill to stop quarrying in the national parks. I do not know whether there is much chance of that, and we are coming up to the Queen’s Speech, but I press the Minister on the fact that loopholes in existing legislation ought to be addressed. That is needed soon, and I hope he can say what will happen.
This is a huge problem, but I have only limited time and I want to allow the Minister enough time to give us the Department’s thinking. His predecessor, now the Minister for Schools, visited the Peak district, and the people whom he met were greatly impressed with what he had to say. He went a long way to helping the national park get finance for the first stop order, but he was in the job for only 18 months before being promoted to Minister of State. This Minister should take on his officials—look where he might land!
Not so long ago, at a public meeting at Cliff college, a former regional director of planning who lives in the national park was advising the Planning Inspectorate. He said:
“Curiously, we may be at a disadvantage in being a National Park. If we weren’t, local MPs and councillors would be far more actively engaged in giving guidance to their planners. It isn’t just a financial issue, it is a political issue. It’s the responsibility of NPA Members to be putting a lot more political clout behind this. I feel that the officials, as officials always are, are being too cautious and they need a bit of steel in their backbones put there by the politicians, even though they don’t have to ask for our votes.”
That former official is advising us on how officials should guide themselves on the subject.
I have not been able to go into all the complications; this is not the right kind of subject for that, although we could write a book on it. The matter is urgent, and we cannot afford to wait. For various reasons, the national park authority feels that its hands are tied. I urge the Minister to visit the area as soon as possible and to see the landscape for himself. He must decide whether such things are acceptable in a national park. I do not think they are.
I urge the Minister to think about the questions that I have asked, although I accept that he may not be able to give full answers today. Will there be another Adjournment debate on the subject in nine years? If so, we can talk about the 18 years during which no action has been taken. Is it right that those operators can spoil and scar the countryside without making any restoration when the other companies in the area are, in the main, fulfilling their planning conditions and restoring those vein minerals that they are now taking out?
The Minister knows that things are not right. He may not be able to say so today, but action is needed. We need action to stop this remaining a local issue; it is of national significance. We need to consider whether the aggregates tax should be paid—and if not, why not? If the Minister cannot help, we need to know whether any legislative changes in the near future might give more clout to the Peak District national park. It has legitimate worries, but feels that its hands are tied.
In fairness, the Minister appoints many of the members of the Peak District national park authority, and it is unlike any other elected planning authority, as the only elected element is the parish council nominees. I could say a lot more, but I am constrained by time. The matter is urgent. It is a national problem and it needs action.
We have been doubly treated today. It is rare for members of the Whips Office in either party to speak; but today a senior Opposition Whip has been able to speak not only with great authority but with great passion on an extremely important subject, one that pertains not only to his constituents—in that sense, it is local—but, as he made extremely clear, one that has wider ramifications, especially given the care that we need to take of all our national parks. I hope that that goes some way to answering the clear questions that he posed about local importance. Yes, of course, it is of local importance; the appeal on Backdale is about the extent of quarrying, and it is a local matter. However, the implications go much wider and that is what the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) articulately brought before hon. Members today. I congratulate him on doing so and on the manner in which he has presented a powerful case.
National parks with areas of outstanding natural beauty represent our finest landscapes. We all have a duty to ensure their conservation, although we must also take heed of the social and economic needs of surrounding communities and the wider community. I wish to make it clear that I understand that mineral extraction is an important industry in the UK. We need the material that it produces if our economy is to continue to prosper. However, as a result, there will sometimes be tension between the economy’s need for minerals and society's clear desire to conserve some of our finest landscapes. That tension is well understood in the national parks, and mineral working imposes significant environmental challenges. Our mineral planning policy for parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty is very restrictive. New major mineral development is allowed in those areas only in exceptional circumstances and where it has been demonstrated to be in the public interest. All such proposals are subject to a most rigorous examination, which takes into account the need for the quarry, including national considerations of mineral supply and the impact on the local economy.
There should also be an assessment of the costs and scope for making an alternative supply available from outside the designated area or meeting the need in some other way. Any detrimental effect on the environment or landscape or on recreational opportunities also has to be considered, as does the extent to which any impact can be moderated. As a result, new mineral permissions in our national parks and AONBs are strictly controlled. However, many of the concerns that people have, including those raised today, relate to old mineral permissions in our designated areas. Many mineral permissions were granted soon after the second world war, when the priority was to maximise mineral working for national reconstruction. Environmental awareness and knowledge was scant and as a result permissions were granted subject to very few conditions.
The right hon. Gentleman compared the value of fluorspar and limestone and said the permission was there to get fluorspar—an important point that I do understand. The problem is that some of the permissions, including this one, are not specific about what they are for. That has led to the case being such a contracted and protracted one.
What was accepted in the 1940s and 1950s as the unavoidable consequences of quarrying would not be accepted today, and rightly so. In the 1990s, legislation was introduced to review all old mineral permissions and to continue to review all mineral permissions at 15-year intervals. The aim is to ensure that mineral extraction meets, and continues to meet, the up-to-date environmental standards that we have rightly come to expect. A permission granted in 1949 with typically three or four conditions, after review, would perhaps be subject to 50 conditions today and would aim to mitigate the impact of extraction. It would cover matters such as noise, dust, traffic and restoration—the points covered by the right hon. Gentleman.
There is a legacy of old mineral permissions in the national parks and the Peak District national park has the greatest number of old permissions of all the English national parks. Backdale is one of those. The vast majority of initial reviews of old permissions are now complete and up-to-date working practices are in operation. However, a relatively small number of initial reviews of old permissions, including those relating to Backdale and several other sites in the Peak district, have stalled, for a variety of reasons.
Applications for review in the stalled cases in England were made before regulations came into effect in the year 2000. They required that, where mineral working caused a significant environmental impact, environmental statements should be provided to inform the review. Those regulations include a sanction for the suspension of operations where information is not provided. Some of the stalled initial reviews are still awaiting environmental information to inform the determination of new operating conditions. The mineral planning authorities cannot decide the applications without the information. Advice was issued that, under current legislation, mineral planning authorities cannot require the submission of that information either. Meanwhile, the operators of those sites can continue quarrying. That is the Catch-22 we are in.
The situation is clearly unsatisfactory, but the Department for Communities and Local Government, which is responsible for minerals legislation, fully appreciates that. It is preparing to consult on new regulations which, among other things, would provide a sanction—exactly what the right hon. Gentleman inquired about—to ensure that outstanding environmental information is provided and new conditions can finally be determined.
At the moment, colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government are trying to put a system in place by introducing regulations. I cannot speak for the outcome of those investigations, but that is what they are attempting to do.
We have heard today about other planning problems relating to Backdale quarry. The Peak District national park authority considers that the quarrying of the limestone taking place at Backdale is in excess of that allowed under the terms of the mineral planning permission. The matter is subject to action by the authority, which has served an enforcement notice in respect of the mineral operations. The owner and operator of the site have appealed against the notice and a public inquiry into those appeals has been arranged for February 2007, as the right hon. Gentleman said. I cannot comment on the merits of that issue, as to do so could prejudice the outcome of those appeals. I hope that he will not take that as an indication that I am resiling in any way from some of his comments.
While the inquiry is pending, the authority wished to serve a stop notice on the operator until the appeal was decided. However, it could not afford to do so in case the appeals were successful and the authority was faced with claims for compensation by the owner and operator. The authority approached my Department to see whether the Government would agree to refund any compensation it might face if the appeals were successful. We agreed, but stressed that it was a one-off and on an exceptional basis. We also stressed that the offer was solely to enable the authority to carry out the actions it thought necessary. It implied no view on the merits of the authority's case against the operator, as that would have been improper.
I recognise that some would consider that the continued mineral extraction at Backdale and indeed others at Longstone Edge, should be stopped. Mineral planning authorities have a wide range of powers to revoke or modify mineral planning permissions. The decision on whether to revoke or modify any existing mineral permissions on Longstone Edge rests with the national park authority. It must consider whether such action would be justified on a case-by-case basis, bearing in mind the resources that they have available. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs provides an annual grant to the national park authority, bearing in mind the constraints and competing priorities within DEFRA and the needs of the authorities themselves. It is then for each authority to determine where its priorities lie and to make decisions about how to spend its budget accordingly.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that the underwriting of the national park authority’s actions by my Department under my predecessor, now the Minister for Schools, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), symbolised and strongly signified that it was a matter that the Government recognised as having much wider ramifications than for Backdale.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the point that the aggregates levy sustainability fund should be used to support the national park authorities. The fund has enabled about £30 million of work through Natural England and predecessor bodies, to address impacts on landscape and biodiversity additional to any requirements under minerals planning legislation. That has not been restricted to protected areas or to the effects of old mineral permissions. My officials have been working with Treasury officials to determine whether the fund should continue after the current commitment until 2007, and if so, what form it should take. No decision on that has yet been made.
In addition, there may be a case for a differential rate for the levy and we are looking into that. The Chancellor, of course, keeps all taxes under regular review, with announcements made through the pre-Budget report and the Budget process.
There is also a question whether the exemptions under the aggregates levy should be reviewed. My colleagues in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are aware of the reported issues of aggregates extracted for commercial purposes under exemptions such as for vein minerals, and they are looking into that. I think that that addresses the right hon. Gentleman’s specific question about the aggregates levy and the different valuation rates for limestone and vein minerals. In the meantime, we are taking action to help to resolve the problems of—
I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise once again the situation of the Saharawi people and Western Sahara. I shall keep my remarks especially brief because I want my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) to say a few words if he catches your eye, Mr. Caton.
The debate comes at an important moment in the sad history of Western Sahara. The United Nations Security Council will meet in the next few days to discuss the way forward on the peace process after 15 years of Moroccan obstruction. My hon. Friend the Minister will need no reminding that, as a permanent member of the Security Council, the United Kingdom has a vital role to play in resolving the dispute, which has gone on far too long. It has a legal responsibility under the UN charter as a permanent member of the Security Council to protect the people of Western Sahara from continuing Moroccan oppression. Sadly, it is failing in its responsibilities.
The history of Britain’s approach has largely been one of indifference and inaction. I am talking not just about the current Government; the problem dates back a considerable time. While offering the bromide that it supports the UN process or UN efforts, the UK has built up its own relationships and trade with Morocco, and has done very little to compel Morocco to end the illegal occupation and to allow a referendum on the right of self-determination, or to exert pressure on Morocco to end the human rights abuses committed against the Saharawi people.
By recently signing up to an EU agreement with Morocco whereby the EU will pay Morocco to fish Western Sahara’s waters, the UK is rewarding Morocco for its occupation. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North had a lot to say on that in a debate with the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), but it remains a running sore.
I hope that the Minister’s comments will give us some hope for the future, because we have had enough bromides. I suspect that he will say that the UK will continue to support the UN Secretary-General’s personal envoy, but all the messages coming back are that the UN is losing respect in the territories, and the Polisario feels that time has run out. Sadly, the UN has achieved precisely nothing in the 15 years since the ceasefire. The reason why it is unable to do anything seems to be that countries such as the UK will not engage in the proper process of bringing self-determination to the territories. If that continues, we will end up with the current shameful situation, which is unacceptable.
Britain’s membership of the UN Security Council is premised on our responsibility to pursue and enforce the fair and lawful resolution of disputes before the council. The Government claim that they take that very seriously. In a pamphlet published last month, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wrote:
“Wherever people live in fear, with no prospect of advance, we should be on their side, in solidarity with them”.
Indeed we should, but the Saharawis live in fear under Moroccan oppression, and unless the UK and other powers do something, they have no prospect of advancing. It is tempting to say that the British Government have done absolutely nothing to show that they are on their side, but even that would be wrong, as the Government are doing something worse than nothing—they can be seen to be complicit in the continuing occupation.
When the fisheries deal, which is about plundering the fish in Western Sahara’s waters, was signed, objections were made, but that made little difference. Britain agreed with that deal, and for some hon. Members that was a very sad day. Was the Minister aware that the EU justified the deal by distorting a 2002 opinion from the UN legal adviser, Hans Corell, and that Mr. Corell himself said that the agreement was a violation of international law? Action could have been taken to forestall the deal. I am aware of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office legal opinion that the agreement does not “prejudice” any eventual settlement of the dispute, but can the Minister explain how paying Morocco to allow the EU to fish the waters of the occupied territory pressures Morocco into agreeing to any settlement involving self-determination in the territories?
The occupation in which Britain is, sadly, complicit remains an ugly thing. The Saharawi people are denied their political and human rights; they are oppressed. How do we know that? After organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International raised the profile of allegations of torture against prisoners of conscience in Western Sahara, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights sent a fact-finding team to the territory in May this year. Is the Minister aware of the existence and contents of that report and, if so, how does he intend to act on some of the shocking findings? In case he has not seen the report—it has not been published; behind that lies a tale that I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North may be able to speak about—we are happy to furnish him with a copy of it, because it contains a number of serious allegations that need to be followed up.
The hon. Gentleman makes his points with great sincerity. I am sure that before he concludes he will want to comment on the fact that the Saharawis are a tribal people and of the 32 tribes that make up that race, only two support the position that he puts before the Chamber. Therefore, there is undoubtedly a dispute over which side speaks for the people. I am sure that he would wish to comment on the fact that only two of the 32 tribes support the Polisario position and that therefore the position of Her Majesty’s Government and preceding Governments seems to be the fairest if one looks at the issue from an unbiased point of view.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The simple answer is, “Let’s put it to the test; let’s have a referendum.” That is the way to determine who has the right to speak for the territories. If Morocco had agreed to the terms of the Baker plan, there could have been a referendum.
It is interesting that Simon Conway of Landmine Action is in the territories, looking at the munitions situation. Incidentally, Landmine Action produced an interesting report on Lebanon last week. It is sad to say that exactly the same munitions—many improvised explosive devices and a great amount of cluster munitions—continue to lie on the territories of Western Sahara. I again plead with the Minister for something to be done to speed up the clearance of those areas, because the people cannot go back even if they want to.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on obtaining the debate. I feel a sense of depression, disappointment and anger that in 2006 we are debating whether the position of the Polisario in representing the people of Western Sahara and in demanding a referendum is the correct one. The reason I feel anger and depression is that I first raised this matter in the House more than 20 years ago at 4 o’clock in the morning during one of the many all-night Adjournment debates that we used to have in those days. The debate concerned the situation in Western Sahara. The then Foreign Office Minister told me, as subsequent Ministers have told me, “We accept the UN position. Of course there’ll be a referendum.” We have had those answers year after year after year. The former Member of Parliament for Gloucester, Tess Kingham, raised the issue many times, as have other hon. Members. I hope that the Minister can give us hope that we will be serious and determined about bringing about justice for the people of Western Sahara.
I had the fortune to visit the refugee camps in Algeria and to travel into the small bit of liberated zone of the Western Sahara itself to attend the Polisario congress two years ago. Those camps have been there for 31 years. They are home to 150,000 people, who rely on the UN and aid agencies for food, medicine, education, housing and life itself. Is it right that after all these years—31 years—the rest of the world should simply look away, throw a bit of money at the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara—Minurso—and say, “It’s going to be okay. They’ll survive there somehow”? It is wrong. It is an injustice that has to be dealt with.
The report referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the mission to the Western Sahara refugee camps in Tindouf is very interesting and I am astonished that it has not been published. We need to know why, and I look to the Government of the UK to demand, as a loyal and active member of the United Nations, the answer to that. The report outlines the systematic abuse of human rights, unfair trials, illegal imprisonment, and all the horrors that go with that, of the people, who have suffered because of the continued occupation of Western Sahara.
When the referendum was first mooted by MINURSO there were many arguments about how it would be organised and who would be on the electoral roll. Indeed, most of the debate has been about the electoral roll itself. The debates went on and negotiations proceeded. In some ways they were quite successful. There was hope. There was a way forward. However, a number of things have happened since then. One was that when the UN representative, Baker, was asked to go there and investigate on behalf of the Secretary-General, he undertook many negotiations and came up with what was known as the Baker plan. In essence it said that the western Saharwi people should accept the de facto administration of the territories and that at a later stage there should be a referendum on the future of the territory. That would probably include votes for the settlers who were moved there by Morocco in the first place.
I attended the Polisario congress that debated that report and the proposal. It was painful to see how the Polisario had been forced into that corner by the international community with the promise of a degree of peace and a right of return, but with no promise of the immediate independence for Western Sahara that it has long demanded and for which it has long campaigned. It was not even given a promise of its possibility in the near future. Having taken a historic, difficult and painful decision, it was then stabbed in the back by Morocco and the United Nations when progress on the process was simply not made. That is the tragedy and sadness of the situation.
I beg to differ. That is simply not the case. I was at the congress. I am well aware of the Polisario position and the difficulty it faced. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has close contacts with the Moroccan Administration, and he must know their position: they want to continue occupying Western Sahara illegally and to deny the Sahrawi people the right to vote independently on their future. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud pointed out, unfortunately Morocco can be said to have been rewarded by the agreement of the fisheries policy that was approved by the EU.
My plea to the Minister is to understand the injustice that has happened to the Sahrawi people; to understand the geopolitics of it—the wealth, in the form of fish in the sea and minerals under the ground; and to understand the plight of the people living in refugee camps for all those years. At the moment there is no fighting. There is the sand wall. There are landmines. There are tanks and tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Moroccan troops available to go into the area should fighting break out. There is also tension, I believe, among the Sahrawi people. Young people cannot understand why they should spend their lives in a refugee camp when their home is a few miles away, and they want to return in dignity and peace.
Surely this time it is up to us, as a member of the UN, the Security Council and the Human Rights Council, to ensure that the report is published and sees the light of day; to ensure that there is a permanent UN human rights monitoring mission in the area to observe what is going on; and, above all, to ensure that the Sahrawi people have a right, legally endorsed, under the UN decolonisation process, to vote on their future—on whether they live independently or not in that area. It is the last colony of Africa. Surely it is time to ensure that one more page of history is turned, and that those people have the right to decide on their future and their independence or otherwise.
It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr. Caton. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) for raising the subject. I know that he, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) have been committed to this issue for many years. Indeed, I remember discussing it at length with both my hon. Friends shortly after becoming a Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
I have discussed Western Sahara on several recent occasions with Ministers from Morocco and Algeria—for example, during my visit to both countries in June. Last week, I had a detailed discussion about Western Sahara with the Moroccan Deputy Foreign Minister, His Excellency Taib Fassi Fihri. I know, and we have just heard, that there are strong views on this subject. Members of Parliament regularly write to me about it, albeit that they include my two hon. Friends, and members of the public write too. The non-governmental organisation War on Want recently sent the Foreign Office more than 2,000 postcards about Western Sahara, expressing support for a referendum on independence. The subject stirs strong views and emotions. Firmly held principles are at stake.
I want to emphasise that the UK Government remain keen for the issue to be resolved. The status of Western Sahara has been undetermined for more than 30 years. Resolving that would have a positive benefit for the region and its people.
The United Kingdom supports the Security Council and the Secretary-General of the United Nations to assist the different parties to overcome the deadlock and to make progress towards achieving a lasting negotiated settlement to this frozen conflict. The United Kingdom is in close contact with the Kingdom of Morocco, which has committed itself officially to formulate a credible autonomy proposal before the end of March 2007. To finalise the autonomy proposal, as a compromise, large democratic consultations, at both grass-roots and national level, are under way.
The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not go into that in great depth. The EU-Morocco fisheries agreement is an EU bilateral partnership agreement and should have no effect on the question of the status of Western Sahara, which is being dealt with under the UN process. I hope that he accepts that answer: it is a firm answer from us, and that is why we supported the deal.
To that end, the UK continues to support the efforts of the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, and his personal envoy to Western Sahara, Peter Van Walsum, to assist the parties in achieving a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution that will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.
Hon. Members will know that the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara—MINURSO—plays an important stabilising role in the region. It has monitored the ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario front for the past 15 years, but has not been able to organise a referendum on the territory’s status. Currently there are no plans for a UN referendum. The Government supported UN Security Council resolution 1675, which was adopted unanimously on 28 April 2006, and which renewed MINURSO’s mandate for a further six months. The Security Council will discuss MINURSO tomorrow, and we will play an active role in those discussions. We support the extension of MINURSO’s mandate for a further six months.
Will the Minister assure us that in the Security Council’s discussions tomorrow the UK will call for a permanent human rights monitor for the whole area, so that we can at least be aware of the danger of human rights abuses there? What position will the UK Government take if the matter is raised at the UN Human Rights Council?
I will come to human rights in a moment; it is an important part of what I want to say.
The Government are in close contact with the Kingdom of Morocco about Western Sahara. As I said, I discussed that subject with the Moroccan Deputy Foreign Minister last week, and I have listened carefully to his Government’s concerns. The most important message that I have received, from which I draw a great deal of hope, is that the Kingdom of Morocco has undertaken to formulate a credible autonomy proposal before the end of March 2007. As I said, wide-ranging consultations at both grass-roots and national level are under way to finalise the autonomy proposal. The Government strongly encourage Morocco to publish its autonomy proposal and satisfy the deadline, which we will consider carefully. At the moment, there are widely held hopes that it has the potential to move matters forward in Western Sahara constructively and peacefully, but, of course, everything depends on the nature of the proposal.
Will the Minister clarify whether the Government have changed their position? His briefing may well have made him aware that on the basis of this little Adjournment debate, which, according to the press notice from the Algerian Government, was supposed to be answered by the Foreign Secretary in the main Chamber, they are saying that the British Government have changed their position. I understand that that is not the case, and unless I have misheard the Minister, it most definitely is not the case. This is a useful opportunity for him to make it absolutely clear that Her Majesty’s Government have not altered their position on this matter one iota.
The UK voted for the recent UN General Assembly fourth commission resolution on Western Sahara, which restated past UN resolutions, including support for the Baker plan. The text of the resolution for which we voted was essentially the same as the resolution adopted by consensus in 2005. The UK therefore voted in favour. I emphasise that that vote does not represent a change in the UK’s position on the status of Western Sahara. The UK supported resolution 1495, which described the Baker plan as
“an optimum political solution on the basis of agreement between the two parties”.
Therein lies the rub: we have to get that agreement between the two parties. That has to be our overall aim. Successive UN resolutions have called for a mutually acceptable political solution, and the Baker plan has not been accepted by all parties to the dispute.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North asked about the human rights situation. Morocco is party to all core UN human rights conventions and continues to make progress in improving its human rights record. I can assure him that that is the case. I have been involved in negotiating closely with the Moroccans on human rights issues, and we have here some people whom we would very much like to go back to Morocco. The Moroccans want them back and we do not particularly want them in this country, for various reasons, but we cannot send anyone back at the moment. The courts would never allow us to send anyone back unless there were guarantees that big improvements had been made to the human rights situation. I believe that large steps have been taken in that respect.
I have not seen the leaked document that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned, although I could probably get my hands on it if I tried. Since I have been in government, I have an aversion to leaked documents. I used to love them when I was in opposition, but I do not like them so much now. I shall certainly take advantage of his offer and take it away with me.
The resolution of humanitarian questions in Western Sahara should not await the conclusion of a political settlement. The UK, along with EU partners, regularly calls on Morocco and the Polisario to deal with outstanding human rights and humanitarian issues and implement confidence-building measures all round. We welcome the recent decision by the parties to resume the programme of family visits between the territory and the Tindouf camps as a positive step forward. I would like to see many other positive steps, as we have seen such steps act as building blocks towards the conclusion of frozen conflicts elsewhere in the world, and I very much hope that that will happen in this case. We have also encouraged all the parties to co-operate with the International Committee of the Red Cross to account for those who were reported missing in the conflict between 1976 and 1991.
The European Commission humanitarian aid department, ECHO, is the largest single donor of aid to the refugee camps near Tindouf. It recently provided €10 million, or £6.7 million, to which the UK contributed 18 per cent. That is £1.2 million at current exchange rates.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights visited Western Sahara and the camps near Tindouf in May and June 2006. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North asked whether I am aware of the date on which the report will be published. I am not aware of any such date, and I do not know why that report is not being published. If we can get an answer for him, we certainly will.
In his most recent report on Western Sahara, the UN Secretary-General did not comment on Morocco’s human rights record. In his April report, he expressed concern at reports of heavy-handed Moroccan responses to demonstrations in the territory in 2005, including the arrest and detention of several individuals. The Foreign Office referred to that in our recent human rights report, but I emphasise that Kofi Annan did not comment on allegations about Morocco in his most recent report.
The Government have not carried out their own assessment of the number of individuals who disappeared as a result of the conflict in Western Sahara, but that is extremely important. Their position is to encourage the parties to co-operate fully with the International Committee of the Red Cross to account for the people who are missing, and we continue to encourage them to take concrete measures within their areas of responsibility to resolve the outstanding humanitarian issues.
I want to reassure my hon. Friends that the Government are concerned that the status of Western Sahara should not remain unresolved. Of course it should be resolved, and the consequent problems for the people of the region should also be addressed. More than 30 years have passed since Spain left. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North is right to say that the situation needs immediate resolution. We will work towards that, but I ask my hon. Friends to remember that there have been many attempts to resolve the conflict. The fisheries agreement to which the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup referred was agreed unanimously by the EU. A great many countries and people want to find a solution to the situation, and we are certainly one of them. I take my hon. Friends’ points about us being members of the Security Council and that we have to take an active role in trying to find that solution, and I assure them that we will press as hard as we can to do just that.
It being Two o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.