House of Commons
Wednesday 25 October 2006
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Our budget for assistance to Vietnam this year is £50 million, which includes support for improvements in basic education, preventing the spread of AIDS, supporting economic development and strengthening governance. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently signed a 10-year development partnership agreement with the Government of Vietnam, and committed some £250 million in aid to Vietnam over the next five years.
That is a very significant sum, which acknowledges Vietnam’s achievements in addressing key issues and lifting 30 million people out of poverty. It also addresses the challenges of dealing with corruption, of accountability and of governance. But what measures are being taken to minimise the overheads involved in that large sum, not least in the DFID administration and in the Vietnamese Government, so that the amount of assistance going to ordinary people is maximised and the costs are minimised?
My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to the achievements of Vietnam. Economic growth has averaged about 7 per cent. in recent years, and since 1993 the Vietnamese Government have reduced the number of people living in extreme poverty from nearly 60 per cent. to just under 20 per cent. Those are considerable achievements, and I hope that the aid we have committed—to which my hon. Friend rightly referred—will help to lower the figure even further.
I can reassure my hon. Friend about administration costs. Ours amount to less than 3 per cent. of our programmed funds, and we expect them to fall further over the next 12 months as we make a number of staffing changes and review the way in which various back-office functions are provided.
The Minister will be aware that the Vietnamese Government have been responsible for a campaign of censorship that has seen the internet filtered and two newspapers closed down. He will also be aware that the Vietnamese Government are conducting a campaign against the Montagnard people of the central highlands, and that they are responsible for a campaign of harassment and detention of pro-democracy activists. What are this Government doing to ensure that the Hanoi regime respects the human rights of its people?
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that we still have key human rights concerns in the context of our discussions with the Government of Vietnam. I shall deal with the specific concerns that he has raised in a second, but I hope he will acknowledge that there have been significant improvements in human rights in recent years. Freedom of religion is an example: more churches are being built. There is also more reporting on corruption and on political affairs more generally, and there is more transparency in the way in which the Government operate, which includes more democracy at local level and more non-party candidates standing for election.
I accept that the Vietnamese Government have more to do in terms of human rights. The ever-present security apparatus keeps too effective a lid on dissent. As part of the development partnership agreement signed by my right hon. Friend, we intend to continue to raise our continuing and legitimate concerns about human rights with the Government of Vietnam.
Information on the impact of poppy eradication is limited, but we know that it works best if it is properly targeted at those with a real alternative livelihood. A survey by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime—with a relatively small sample size—showed that in 2006, 81 per cent. of farmers re-planted legal crops following eradication. Only 2 per cent. re-planted poppies, and 56 per cent. of farmers who had their poppy crop eradicated said they would not plant it again next year. The success of the 2006 poppy eradication campaign will become clear only at the end of the planting season.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the south of the country at least, the poppy eradication programme is not working? The larger farmers are paying bribes to avoid the destruction of their poppy crops, while the smaller farmers, who cannot avoid the bribes, are losing their livelihoods and as a result facing hunger and destitution, which is pushing them into the hands of the Taliban. Has not the time come to contemplate some of the alternatives, such as the one suggested by that very reputable organisation the Senlis council?
I acknowledge what my hon. Friend says about the difficulty of poppy eradication. We can see what has happened in countries elsewhere in the world that have been successful in that regard. In Thailand, it took 30 years. It is clear that what is required is what the Government of Afghanistan are trying to do: the targeting of eradication where there are alternative livelihoods, pursuit of the drug barons, seizure of the drugs, improvement of governance, enforcement of the law and the provision of greater security and improvements in infrastructure.
I am of course aware of the Senlis council’s proposal, but the Afghanistan Government’s view of it is clear. They do not agree with it and do not consider it to be the right approach for Afghanistan, and I think that we should respect their judgment.
The elimination of poppy growing in Afghanistan will require development. Can the Secretary of State tell me how much of the UK’s development aid budget is being spent on security for aid projects rather than on reconstruction and development? Is there not a risk that funds for development will be dissipated on security, just as they have been in Iraq?
It is the case that some of our funds will be spent on providing protection for Department staff and others who are working in Afghanistan, but the vast bulk of the money that we give in development assistance goes to the Government of Afghanistan. They have requested that we and other donors give our support in that way because it is the best way to build their capacity to deliver services to their people. That is why we are the largest contributor to the Afghan reconstruction trust fund, which helps to pay the salaries of teachers, nurses, doctors and others.
The hon. Lady makes an important point about security, which is a precondition for development. In Helmand, where British troops are now deployed, the security situation is more difficult than we anticipated, but we need an improvement in security to be able to work with Afghan partners—because that is where the bulk of the work will be done—to try to help the people of Afghanistan to improve their own lives.
The sustainability of farmers in Afghanistan is crucial, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the sustainability and quality of life for many in our communities in this country is of equal importance and is threatened by the drugs imported from Afghanistan? Will he join me in congratulating our troops who have seized 115 tonnes of opium in the past year from Afghanistan and saved communities here?
I certainly will join my hon. Friend in offering my congratulations to our troops and all the other staff from the UK who are doing an extraordinary job in very challenging circumstances in Afghanistan. He is right about the demand for poppy which fuels the industry about which we have been speaking. Afghanistan is a very poor country: one in four children do not live to see their fifth birthday, and a third of those children die before they reach 12 months. That is the reality. The country has been impoverished by conflict and many other problems over decades and it will take time for the Afghan people to change their circumstances. However, there are some signs of hope, with 4.5 million refugees returning, the economy growing, and 6 million children in school—a third of them girls—and it is right that we and many others in the international community should provide support to the people of Afghanistan as they try to change their lives for the better.
One of the criticisms of our activity in southern Afghanistan has been the lack of co-ordination between projects. For example, the short-term nature of the recent USAID project for drip irrigation for farmers has only helped them to grow poppy. We have taken some action by trying to promote provisional development plans, but that project appears to have stalled, with no plans coming forward from southern Afghanistan. What action is the Secretary of State taking to try to push forward the provisional development plans?
First, may I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the interest that he takes in Afghanistan and the excellent speech he made in the Westminster Hall debate last week. I respect his views greatly. He draws attention to an important issue. I cannot claim responsibility for USAID programmes—I will resist the temptation—but a balance must be struck between building capacity for the long term and demonstrating progress in the short term. The governor of Helmand has expressed some frustration about the latter and that is why we have redirected some of our efforts—as the hon. Gentleman knows—towards quick impact projects, so that people can see change beginning to take place. I know that the hon. Gentleman understands that point completely. One of the reasons why the Government of Afghanistan have asked donors to provide more of their support through Afghan mechanisms—in particular, through the Afghan reconstruction trust fund—is so that the Government can provide that co-ordination. If we get our act together—and I urge other donors to follow the lead that we have given—we have a better chance of addressing the problem that the hon. Gentleman identifies.
G8 (Gleneagles Summit)
Since Gleneagles, we have seen progress on debt, humanitarian funding and increased aid, and the UK has been leading efforts to monitor progress. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has launched the Africa Progress Panel to be chaired by Kofi Annan, and we are supporting the Africa Partnership Forum and the civil society African Monitor. The Department’s White Paper set out in detail what the UK will do with the international community to deliver on our 2005 commitments.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, and for the work that he and his colleagues are doing to ensure that the aspirations of all those who supported the Make Poverty History movement are realised. What role and scope does he think that co-operatives and mutuals will have in taking that work forward? Will he draw on the experience of the co-operative and mutual movement in this country to make sure that that happens?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her kind words. She draws attention to the really important contribution that the co-operative movement can make, and we have entered into a strategic grant agreement with it precisely so that we can draw on its experience. Our programmes around the world support co-operatives because they are one of the ways in which people can take more control over what happens to them. Co-operatives mean that ordinary people’s resources, energy and innovation can be used to change their lives.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the report from the International Development Committee on conflict and development was published this morning. It stresses that one conflict’s impact on increasing poverty can wipe out the entire world aid budget, and focuses on the role of conflict resources and how they can prolong and exacerbate a conflict. Will he co-ordinate with other donors in conflict countries and regions to try and ensure that we find a way to identify those resources and choke off the supply of funds that can sustain wars, prolong conflicts and prevent the eradication of poverty?
I accept the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes. I have not had a chance to read the report yet, but I very much look forward to doing so. Dealing with conflict is fundamental to developing countries making progress. We are already taking various initiatives, and he will be aware of the Kimberley process and the extractive industries transparency initiative, both of which we have supported. He makes a good point that we must make sure that donors work together effectively as, ultimately, the problem is one of governance. If countries had good governance and were able to regulate the extraction of their natural resources and raw materials—such as diamonds, wood or, in the case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, coltan—they would be in a much better position to provide the security on which any development must be based.
My right hon. Friend will know that more than 7,500 people around the world die from AIDS every day. Will he reassure those of my constituents who have written to me to express their concern about the progress that the G8 has made following the Gleneagles summit to ensure that AIDS treatment is available for all developing countries by 2010?
The fight against AIDS is one of the most important fights that developing countries are engaged in, as for some it represents an economic catastrophe as well as a human tragedy. The great achievement at Gleneagles was that the world signed up to trying to get as close as possible to securing AIDS treatment for all people in the developing world by 2010. Since then, plans have been drawn up to try and make that happen.
In sub-Saharan Africa, three times as many people are now on antiretrovirals compared with 12 months ago. We have not dealt with the problem yet, but we have made some progress. That shows what we can do when we put our minds to it.
Will the Secretary of State concede that we are a good way short of fulfilling the G8 pledge of increasing aid by $50 billion by 2010? Will he use his good offices to encourage Governments to stop double counting debt relief in their aid packages, and to set clear targets so that the $50 billion is put in place?
I accept that we need to work very hard to ensure that all countries honour their commitments, and the UK Government will certainly honour our pledges. The sort of civil society campaign evident in the run-up to Gleneagles must continue in all the countries that have made pledges to ensure that they are honoured, but I do not accept that debt relief is double counting. The Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is the body that counts aid. The measure that it uses enables people to see both the aid element and the debt cancellation element in the aid that is given.
The fact is that, in the 15 months since Gleneagles, 20 of the poorest countries in the world have had written off all the debt that they owed to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the African Development Bank. That money is now available for the things that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) and I know are important—getting children into school and improving health care. Debt cancellation really makes a difference.
Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that Africa will remain top of the agenda in next year’s discussions in Germany, notwithstanding that country’s change of Government?
I can, indeed, assure the House because the German G8 presidency has confirmed that Africa’s development will be one of its priorities, particularly in respect of the fight against HIV and AIDS, which we discussed a few moments ago. I welcome that enormously, because Germany has a huge opportunity during its presidency to provide leadership to the G8 and the wider world to ensure that we continue to make progress on honouring the commitments that were so hard fought for at Gleneagles.
The G8 summit agreed immediately to implement a plan of action on climate change that will promote access by developing countries to low-carbon energy and improve their resilience to the impact of global warming. Climate change could undermine developmental assistance by reducing available water, decreasing agricultural outputs, exacerbating disputes over resources and extending regions in which diseases thrive. What progress has the Secretary of State made since Gleneagles to incentivise environmentally sustainable technology transfers, and does he agree that there needs to be an expansion of tradeable greenhouse gas permits, creating an international market to cut emissions and promote spending by developing nations on cleaner fuels and energy?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that climate change presents probably the greatest threat to the developing world—the part of the world that did least to cause the problem and that will have to cope with most of the consequences. That is the first point. The second point is that the energy investment framework, which we have been working hard with the World Bank to develop, is all about trying to provide financial support to developing countries that quite legitimately want to increase their supplies of energy. What is most striking is how developing countries are recognising their need for more energy supply, which is crucial to the economic development on which tackling poverty will depend. We have to help and incentivise them, including through tradeable permits. The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point because the market has an important role to play in helping the world to adjust to the changes that we all have to face up to.
In addition to £55 million for the immediate relief effort, we have committed £70 million to help with reconstruction and rehabilitation; and £5 million has already been spent, for example, on reconstructing bridges, training teachers and mental health services. Two weeks ago, I confirmed that we were releasing a further £44 million of that money.
Order. Before the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin) asks his question, I urge those who are not listening to these questions to be quiet. We are dealing with an important matter and the noise is unfair to hon. Members who are participating.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I pay tribute to the Department’s efforts to support the victims of the earthquake in Pakistan, but there are bound to be future disasters on the same scale, so will my hon. Friend tell the House how the Department is galvanising international support in case of future disasters so that action can be immediate and responsive?
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the need to ensure that the international community is well placed to respond to the needs of every disaster and emergency situation. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has led a campaign over the past 15 months to ensure that there is an international humanitarian fund that is well resourced so that the Secretary-General can deploy the money when he needs to. So far, $270 million is in the fund and there will be a replenishment conference in December when we hope to get closer to the ultimate target of $500 million.
Will the Minister join me in congratulating British Kashmiris in my constituency who, following the earthquake, operated under the banner of “Burnley for Kashmir” and raised enough cash to build 10 permanent shelters around Khoria Channa and a van to help the relief effort in Muzaffarabad? What estimates has his Department made of the total value of private donations to help earthquake victims in Kashmir?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s constituents for their fund-raising efforts to help the victims of the earthquake. I know that constituents in other areas, including some from my own constituency, have also put considerable effort into fundraising. I also pay tribute to those constituents’ continuing advocacy for the victims of the earthquake—doing more for them and not walking away. We need to recognise that the reconstruction effort will take a long time—not just the 12 months to date, but perhaps as long as three to five years. We are determined to stay the course and we are continuing to monitor plans for the winter period to ensure that people—those still living in tents as well as those in transitional shelters—have the support that they need.
The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the work of Oxfam in highlighting the need to accelerate the reconstruction effort. As I indicated in my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin), a proper plan, initiated by the Government of Pakistan, is in place and is being co-ordinated with UN organisations and non-governmental organisations to make sure that the 30,000 to 35,000 people still living in tents over the winter period have the support they need. Some of the money that we released as recently as two weeks ago will help to accelerate the reconstruction effort. We need to do more, and quickly, to get more permanent houses built, to accelerate the road reconstruction process and to get more schools and hospitals built. Our money will help to do just that.
Following the earthquake in which 73,000 people died, many millions of pounds were raised by Pakistani communities throughout the country. What information can DFID make available to those communities to maximise the impact of their funds and to co-ordinate their efforts?
The hon. Gentleman rightly highlights the contribution of Pakistani communities, and I am sure that he will acknowledge that many others also contributed to fund-raising efforts. In the wake of the tsunami, the Department published a booklet setting out how people who want to contribute following a disaster or some other humanitarian emergency can best do so. I am happy to make copies of the publication available to the hon. Gentleman if his constituents want access to that information.
I thank my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State for all the investment that has gone to the earthquake relief fund. A considerable amount has been done by the UK Government, but will my hon. Friend join me in putting further pressure on the Government and the organising committees in Kashmir—especially ERRA, the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority, and SERRA, the State Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority—to make sure that people exposed to the forthcoming harsh winter are looked after quickly? They need protection now, while the overall construction is taking place.
I assure my hon. Friend that we will do just that. We are working extremely closely with the earthquake reconstruction authority and are closely monitoring the winter plan, which is in place, as I indicated, and is being co-ordinated with the United Nations and non-governmental organisations. We will seek to make sure that our staff based in Islamabad following the earthquake continue to monitor the winter plan extremely carefully. Some of the money that we have released will help to make sure that the winter plans that are in place are delivered to the vulnerable people who are still living in tents and to others, too.
We are all concerned about the humanitarian situation in Darfur. As I saw during my visit to Sudan last week, the UN and non-governmental organisations are doing an excellent job, but they are stretched by the sheer scale of needs, and some people cannot be reached because of the banditry and insecurity. That is why I urged President Bashir to stop the fighting, implement the Darfur peace agreement and accept a UN peacekeeping force.
Because of the security situation, vital humanitarian aid is not reaching the victims of genocidal attacks by the janjaweed and by Sudanese Government forces. As an interim step, before the UN peacekeeping force stage that the Secretary of State mentioned, can the British Government strengthen the African Union mission in that country?
That is precisely what we have been doing. We were the first country to provide financial support to the African Union mission. We have given £52 million—spent and pledged—and provided vehicles and support for their fuel contract, but I agree that there is a substantial need to ensure that the mission is further strengthened as we continue to put the case for a UN mission.
Is not it clear that the Sudanese Government will not accept a UN force in Darfur and that the best approach would be to beef up significantly the African Union force, which for all its difficulties is there on the ground? What further steps is the Secretary of State taking with his international colleagues to ensure that the deployment of and the funding for the additional 4,000 AU troops already agreed at the recent AU peace and security council meeting takes place as quickly as possible?
The first thing is to make sure that we pay the money that we have promised, and I urge others in the international community who made pledges to do the same. The indication at the moment, is that there is enough funding for the AU mission to see it through to the end of the year, but the hon. Gentleman is right that the priority is to ensure that the African Union mission in Sudan is able to do its job more effectively, while we continue to make the case for the ultimate solution, which is a UN mission.
As this humanitarian emergency has spread across international borders, with 2 million people having been made homeless and receiving inadequate protection, should we not press the case for the no-fly zone that was set up by the UN in 2004, but which has not, so far, been implemented? As for those involved in perpetrating the genocide, 49 of whom have been indicted to face charges in the International Criminal Court in The Hague, if they step outside Sudan, should they not face charges of crimes against humanity?
I agree completely that those who have committed crimes against humanity and war crimes should be brought to account, and that is why the British Government fought very hard to ensure that what happened in Darfur was referred to the International Criminal Court. On the second point, we will have to consider all the options, and what we do will depend on the security situation. I should tell the House and the hon. Gentleman that the single most significant step that could be taken to bring the conflict to an end would be for those who did not sign the Darfur peace agreement in Abuja in May to meet around the negotiating table—the Government of Sudan should be there, as well as Minni Mannawi, who did sign—because, as we have seen in the past two weeks, an agreement signed with the eastern front will, I hope, bring the conflict in that part of Sudan to an end. The same must happen in Darfur, if all the people in those camps are to be able to go home.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our deepest sympathy and condolences to the family and friends of Marine Gary Wright of the Royal Marines, who was killed in Afghanistan last Thursday. He was a fine soldier who was doing an extraordinary job, and this country should be very proud of him.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, in addition to my duties in the House. I will have further such meeting later today.
Yesterday marked the passing of 11 years since the leader of Burma’s democracy movement, Aung San Suu Kyi, was incarcerated, and during that time the widespread use of torture, rape and execution by the regime has continued. I congratulate the Government on the tangible efforts that they have made on Burma, particularly at the UN, but will the Prime Minister today make a commitment to close the loophole that allows companies to use British dependent territories to invest in Burma and help to prop up that wicked, evil regime?
I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has done in campaigning on the issue. He is right in saying that the British Government continue to raise the subject in the United Nations and in all the international forums that we possibly can. As for the particular point that he raises, I am perfectly happy to have a look at the issue, and to correspond with him. There may be many different ramifications of taking any such action, and we have to be careful about what consequences there are for British companies, but in general terms, it has been the Government’s policy to try to make sure that we isolate, as much as possible, the Burmese regime, and we support fully those campaigning for human rights and democracy in that country.
I can certainly assure my hon. Friend of that. It is extremely important to make sure that we continue with policies that have helped millions of families throughout the country to get off benefits and into work, because that is important. Certainly, as far as Labour Members are concerned, we will not make uncosted and uncostable commitments to making billions of pounds-worth of tax cuts that could only be afforded by depriving some of the poorest in our society of the help that they are currently getting.
May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the soldier killed in Afghanistan? Our thoughts should be with Gary Wright’s family.
Three years ago, the Government said that the youth justice system had been totally transformed. Yesterday, the chief inspector of prisons said that the system was approaching breaking point. Who is right?
Over the past few years, according to the National Audit Office—[Interruption.] I am trying to answer. According to the National Audit Office, in 1997 the system was a shambles; in 2004 it had made substantial improvement. The fact is, we have managed to reduce dramatically the time that it takes to get young offenders fast-tracked through the justice system. We have expanded the amount of secure accommodation. We are making sure now that those who breach antisocial behaviour orders are given a custodial sentence, although it is true that that is causing pressures in the system. We believe that that policy is right. That is why we shall continue investing in our youth justice system and continue to make improvements.
I think that the Prime Minister lives on another planet. After nine years there are no custodial places left for young people, secure units are completely overcrowded, and the Youth Justice Board warns of meltdown. Any halfway-competent Government would have seen this coming.
Now let us look at adult prisons. Will the Prime Minister confirm that we have run out of prison places; that last year the Government scrapped prison ships and now they are bringing them back; and that police officers are being taken off the streets to become jailers? Who is responsible for this complete failure of planning?
Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the youth justice system, the best way of testing it is the National Audit Office reports that are consistently produced on it. I just point out to him again that the latest National Audit Office report says that the system has been substantially transformed since this Government came to power.
As for places in adult prisons, we have expanded those dramatically. We have of course toughened up the sentences, but, of course, the right hon. Gentleman voted against the measures to toughen up sentences. And it is true that we are going to have to expand the number of prison places even more, which is why we are about to invest in another 8,000 prison places. Of course, he is unable to commit to that because of his tax cut policy.
If the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about cuts, why do we not talk about the 21,000 jobs he is cutting in the NHS? I am happy to come here and talk about his NHS cuts any day of the week.
Now, Prime Minister, back to prison—actually, that has a certain ring to it. In May, the Prime Minister did something unprecedented: he put the Chancellor in charge of protecting the public. I quote: the Chancellor will co-ordinate Government policy to
“ensure families and communities have the protection and security they need.”
What on earth has the Chancellor been doing?
Let me explain what has been happening. As a result of the Chancellor running the strongest economy that this country has ever seen, we are able to make the investment in the national health service, in education and, yes, in prisons. But the right hon. Gentleman’s policy, which is to share the proceeds of growth between investment and tax cuts—that is his policy, is it not?—would mean cuts in the health service, and in prisons and in education. If he wants to debate the national health service, there are not 20,000 jobs being cut from the national health service [Interruption.]—no, there are not—there are 300,000 extra people working in the NHS today. The Labour party is committed to increasing investment in the national health service and he is not.
The Prime Minister talks about the Chancellor’s record. The Chancellor told us that he was going to freeze the assets of terrorists, but he could not even stop Abu Hamza buying a house while he was in prison. The youth justice system is in meltdown; the prison system cannot cope; dangerous prisoners are being released early; and there are no proper border controls. Is not this the truth: it does not matter who is in charge—Blair/Brown, Brown/Blair—this country is not safe under Labour?
The right hon. Gentleman spent rather a long time preparing that this morning, I suspect. But let me just point out to him that we do remember that under the last Tory Government, crime doubled. Under this Government crime has fallen. We have introduced tougher measures, that is true, and have put more people into prison, but every one of those tough measures he opposed, so there is no point in his coming to the Dispatch Box now and asking, why we are not taking tougher action on crime. Every time that we try to take tougher action he is opposed to it. The truth is, he talks tough but he votes soft.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that at this precise moment I have 100 rather attractive naked men outside my front door. That internationally renowned exhibition by Antony Gormley has attracted 600,000 visitors to the Sefton coastline, and much-needed money. We do not want to lose that exhibition but unfortunately local Tory councillors last week threw out the planning application for it. Will my right hon. Friend reassert his commitment to supporting the arts, recognising that it is a serious driver for economic renewal, and do everything that he can to enable Merseyside to enjoy that exhibition during our capital of culture year?
I congratulate those responsible —Antony Gormley and others—on the 100 naked men outside my hon. Friend’s door. That is a lot better than what is outside my door, which is the media every morning—my apologies for that—but I suppose we should be grateful: at least they are clothed.
My hon. Friend’s point is absolutely right. One of the reasons why it is important that we continue to invest in arts and culture is that this is not a peripheral issue for us. It is an absolutely central part of creating a more vibrant and decent society and we will continue to invest in it.
May I begin by associating myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends with the expressions of condolence and sympathy that we have just heard from the Prime Minister?
When may we expect the Attorney-General to make an application for the extradition and trial in Britain of those American soldiers against whom there is a prima facie case for the unlawful killing in Iraq of the ITN journalist Terry Lloyd?
Not much comfort there, I think. As recently as last night, the Government assured us that the extradition treaty with the United States would facilitate justice. Is not what we have a fast-track process, but a fast-track process that goes only one way?
I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is stretching reality a bit there, because the fact of the matter is that we were asked to make sure that the US Senate and Congress ratified the treaty and we have done our best to ensure that that happens. I have repeated again my sympathy to Mr. Lloyd’s family, but let me just point out to him that I think that it is important when we talk about American soldiers, or indeed our own soldiers that I make it clear that not just British soldiers, but American soldiers and the soldiers of many other countries who we are fighting alongside, are doing a superb job in very difficult circumstances. None of that will, of course, excuse anything wrong that has happened, but I do not think that it is right to have a debate about the armed forces, particularly when they are losing significant numbers of troops, as the American forces are, without paying tribute to their heroism, courage and bravery in defence of democracy in Iraq.
I totally understand the point that my hon. Friend is making. He illustrates exactly why the planning gain supplement is an important part of Government policy. It is also true that, with the section 106 applications, we are looking to see how we can strengthen that. There may be announcements on that in the weeks to come. The point that he is making about the investment in infrastructure is absolutely right. Where we are building more homes—and we need to build more homes—it is important that we are matching that with infrastructure investment in schools, hospitals, roads and so forth. That is why, again, it is important that we increase the investment in areas such as his, rather than cut it.
For almost a year, we have been pushing repeatedly for a climate change Bill. [Interruption.] That is right: if you want to get something to happen in this country, get the Leader of the Opposition to suggest it. In January, the Prime Minister rejected the idea. He even said that it was “a trifle dodgy.” Can he confirm today that the Government will have a climate change Bill in the Queen’s Speech?
Obviously, I cannot say what will be in the Queen’s speech before it is published, but I can give the reason why I described the right hon. Gentleman’s proposals as I did—I am surprised that I used the word “trifle” because “dodgy” would have been the accurate description. First, he is against the climate change levy, but we would never have been able to make the progress that we have without it. Secondly, he is asking for statutory, binding, year-on-year targets, which are very difficult to deliver because the changes that might happen in any one year could render them extremely difficult to achieve.
Why can we not just have a straight answer? Are we getting a Bill: yes or no? Can the Prime Minister confirm that he is not going to water it down? Will it include the two things that really matter: annual targets and an independent body that can measure and adjust them in the light of circumstances? Can we have a proper climate change Bill, not some watered-down version?
The reason why I cannot give commitments on that is that we have not yet published the Queen’s Speech. I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would be aware that it would be in the Queen’s Speech that that would be announced.
Let me go back to the point that he is making. The action that we are taking—huge investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and the climate change levy, which has reduced dramatically what would otherwise have been the carbon dioxide and greenhouse emissions—is absolutely vital, but it must also be practical and workable. That is why we will make sure that any proposals that we bring forward will mean that we will be able to ensure that we get the reduction in CO2 emissions that we need—remember, this country will meet and exceed its Kyoto targets and will be one of the very few countries in the world to do so. Such proposals must also be entirely compatible with the interests of business and consumers.
As for the tax proposals that the right hon. Gentleman introduced last week, if I may very quickly—[Interruption.] I am citing this because it is an interesting example of how a Government should not make policy. In the morning, he was saying that green taxes on pollution will rise to pay for reductions. By the afternoon, he was saying, or his shadow Chancellor was—[Hon. Members: “Ah.”] Well, I assume that they are on the same side, roughly. By the afternoon, the shadow Chancellor was saying:
“some green taxes … are regressive, they fall primarily on the poor in society.”
By the time that the last edition of the Evening Standard was published, it was saying:
“The Tories hurriedly backed away from slapping higher tax on cheap flights today”.
If that is an example of the right hon. Gentleman’s policy making, we certainly will not follow it.
My special envoy for human rights in Iraq recently met the Iraqi Minister for civil society and reiterated our full support for the right to form free and fair unions. She also made the same point when she met a group of Iraqi women trade unionists on international women’s day. As my hon. Friend knows—I think that he was present at the launch—there is a TUC pamphlet celebrating the life of Hadi Saleh, the international secretary of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, who was murdered in Iraq, almost certainly by former Saddamists, in January 2005. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend and those in the TUC on campaigning for free and fair trade unions in Iraq. I also congratulate all those who continue to strive for free and trade unions in difficult circumstances today.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s words, but is he aware of Iraqi Government decree 8750, which was issued last year and said that the Government of Iraq will
“take control of all monies belonging to the trade unions and prevent them from dispensing any such monies”?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is anti-democratic, and will he do everything in his power to convince the Iraqi Government to rescind that pernicious legislation?
We are indeed making those points to the Iraqi Government. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the fact that it is important that there are no inhibitions on free Iraqi trade unions. I know that he will join me in celebrating the publication of the pamphlet, which shows that despite all the problems in Iraq today, the position of trade unions in Iraq has been absolutely transformed compared with the conditions under Saddam Hussein. That is one of the most powerful things about the pamphlet, which I urge hon. Members to read, and it is a great antidote to all those who say that nothing has improved since the fall of Saddam. The pamphlet makes quite clear the appalling brutality to which people—especially trade unionists and others—were subjected under Saddam and shows how, despite the difficulties, that is changing in Iraq today.
Yesterday I was lobbied by my constituent Janine Mcdonald who had paid for her own Herceptin treatment for early stage breast cancer until our primary care trust agreed to pay. Is my right hon. Friend aware that despite the very great improvements that we have made in breast cancer treatment, there is still a postcode lottery in respect of the repayment of those funds paid by patients for Herceptin, as indeed there is for wigs and prostheses and, even more importantly, for genetic screening? Will my right hon. Friend look into the matter and endeavour to ensure that all breast cancer patients receive equal access to all treatment?
I certainly will look into the point that my hon. Friend makes. She is right to say that it is our intention to get rid of the postcode lottery in the prescription of drugs. Enormous changes have been made over the past few years in the treatment of breast cancer, which is why so many more people are able to survive it. It is important, too, that there is huge investment going into drugs and treatment throughout the national health service, but the point that my hon. Friend raises is a valid one. I am happy to look into it and contact her.
The Leader of the House said the other day what time would be available for debating Iraq, but I am happy to debate Iraq at any time. We do so regularly in the exchanges in the House and elsewhere, and the Queen’s Speech will give us an opportunity to do so again. Let me make one thing absolutely and abundantly clear. There will be no change in the strategy of withdrawal from Iraq happening only when the Iraqi forces are confident that they can handle security. To do anything else would be a betrayal not just of the Iraqi people, but of all the sacrifices that have been made by our armed forces over the years. I know that the subject arouses huge controversy still, but it is important just occasionally to remember the utter barbarity of the regime that we got rid of, and the fact that, for once, today in Iraq people at least have the chance to have a proper functioning democratic society, and we should stand by them—stick by them—in achieving it.
I do. For all its difficulties, some of which we saw in the discussions about Bulgaria and Romania yesterday, European enlargement has been a chief British foreign policy priority. It is right for Britain and right for Europe. Those countries are making enormous strides forward—incredible strides in their economy, their democracy and their politics—which would have been impossible unless they had been allowed into the European Union. So we championed enlargement then, we champion it now and we will continue to champion it in the future.
It is precisely because of the difficulties in the CSA that we have taken steps to set up the Henshaw inquiry. That report has been received and we are considering it and will act upon it. I am happy to look into the individual case of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, but the CSA is subject to all the difficulties to which it has been subject right from its outset, which is why a proper and fundamental reconsideration is sensible.
Last week, the Companies Bill received its Third Reading in this House. Thanks largely to the efforts of the corporate responsibility coalition and its millions of supporters, a good Bill was made a bit better. However, I read in Tuesday’s Financial Times that the CBI and the Institute of Directors are going to nobble the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to drop the provisions that they do not like. Will the Prime Minister assure me—I am sure that he will—that when push comes to shove on that important Bill, the primacy of this elected Parliament will not be undermined by the lobbying of unelected business leaders?
I have absolutely no intention of debating those issues with the hon. Gentleman. It is, however, significant that in advance of the Scottish elections next year, he does not dare ask a question about Scotland or the result of that election. That is because he knows that his policy of ripping Scotland out of the UK would be a disaster for Scotland and the UK.
Hundreds of miners and their families in constituencies such as mine and my right hon. Friend’s have benefited from the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease scheme, which was introduced by this Labour Government. Unfortunately, unscrupulous solicitors, including Watson Burton in Newcastle, in collusion with claims handling firms, are deducting thousands of pounds from victims’ compensation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the guiding principle should be that victims and their families should receive 100 per cent. of their compensation and not have it plundered by unscrupulous solicitors or middlemen?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, it is important that people get the full benefit of the compensation. I know that any issues—there have been issues in different parts of the country—are being raised with the Law Society. The main point is that hundreds of millions of pounds have been paid out to former miners.
I thank my hon. Friend for that prompt—a helpful intervention is always welcome. That £4 billion is the difference between a decent life for people who worked down in the pits and who suffered injury and often debilitating illness as a result. That indicates the priority that this Government attach to social justice.
I am very happy to do so. As I understand it, there have been problems with the scheme in the past few months. The scheme will cost in the region of £170 million or £180 million, and I know that it will be worth while for the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. However, there have been issues about the financing of the scheme, which I know that people are trying to sort out. I am happy to look at the scheme again to see what can be done to expedite it. Since the last time that the hon. Gentleman asked me about it, a new dimension has arisen, and it needs to be sorted out.
I ask my right hon. Friend to celebrate with me the fact that a team from Stockton has designed earthquake-proof houses, which are being built today in Panyatta, Kashmir. The team—Dr. Riaz, Dr. Bloom and Dr. Kitchen from Teesside university—are concerned that while significant moneys and investment appear to be available, it is nearly impossible to access them through the chain of bureaucratic restraints.
Again, I do not know the particular circumstances, but I congratulate the team on the work that they have done. I am happy to look into whether bureaucratic constraints are preventing the money from going forward or whether there is some other reason. Of course, it is worth pointing out that this Government, through the Department for International Development, have done an immense amount for the relief of the victims of the Pakistani earthquake, and it is extremely important that we do everything we can to make progress. I am happy to look into the point that my hon. Friend raises.
I thought there was a late leadership bid there.
The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) raises an extremely serious point. I had an opportunity to discuss this with a very senior official in the Chinese Government yesterday. We are working very closely with all the permanent members of the Security Council to ensure that we get this back in front of the Security Council and get a proper, binding resolution. I should like to take the opportunity to say that when Iran says that the purpose of this is to prevent it from getting access to civil nuclear power, that is simply not the case. We have made it clear that we will not merely allow that, but help Iran with a civil nuclear power programme. However, we will not allow it to acquire material that goes to the development of nuclear weapons capability—that would be in breach of all its international obligations. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—it is important that we take whatever action is necessary to stop that happening.
Radioactive Waste Management Report
With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the report of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management—CoRWM—which was published on 31 July. Similar statements are being made in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. On behalf of the whole House, I thank the chair of the committee, Gordon MacKerron, and its members, for the outstanding effort that they put in to arrive at their unanimous report.
The issue of nuclear waste disposal has dogged successive Governments. CoRWM was asked to recommend the best option, or combination of options, for the long-term management of the United Kingdom’s higher-activity radioactive wastes, which provides protection for people and the environment. The Government believe that the CoRWM report provides a very strong basis for moving forward with clarity and consensus. We accept CoRWM’s recommendations that the UK’s higher-activity waste should be managed in the long term through geological disposal, as well as the continuing need for safe and secure interim storage until geological disposal is available. We also agree with CoRWM that we must continue to build on the momentum that it has helped to establish.
As CoRWM’s report observes, geological disposal is the approach that is being adopted in many countries, including Belgium, France, Finland, Germany, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States. Nevertheless, securing geological disposal represents a major challenge that will require a commitment over many decades. We accept CoRWM’s recommendation that the process for developing a geological disposal option should be undertaken on a staged basis, with clear decision points. That will allow Government to review progress and to assess costs, value for money and environmental impact before decisions are taken to move to the next stage.
Planning and development of the geological disposal option must be based on four key pillars: a strong and effective implementing organisation, with clear responsibilities and accountabilities; strong independent regulation by the statutory regulators—the Health and Safety Executive, the environment agencies and the Office for Civil Nuclear Security; independent scrutiny and advice to Government on implementation; and a partnership with the host community.
The CoRWM report observes that the safe and secure storage of civil legacy radioactive wastes already falls within the remit of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which was established under the Energy Act 2004. The NDA also has responsibility in its current remit for low-level radioactive waste. We have decided that responsibility for securing geological disposal of higher-activity waste should also fall to the NDA, so as to create one organisation that is able to take a strategic view through all stages of the waste management chain, and that is clearly and transparently accountable to independent regulators and Government.
The NDA is already subject to statutory safety and environmental protection and security obligations under the Energy Act 2004, and its contractors are subject to regulation by the environment agencies, the HSE and the Office for Civil Nuclear Security. Its strategy and annual plans are subject to approval by Government. We will ensure that, in future, the longer-term radioactive waste management interests of Government are appropriately represented in the NDA’s strategy and that it has governance arrangements to reflect its increased responsibilities.
Nirex has played an important role in maintaining and developing the UK's knowledge of geological disposal, including the provision of advice to industry on waste conditioning and packaging, since the demise of its geological disposal development programme in 1997. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and I, as joint shareholders in Nirex, are grateful to the successive chairs and the board for their hard work, and, of course, to the expert staff involved. None the less, the Government believe that having two organisations on the same playing field with potentially overlapping responsibilities would confuse and blur accountability. Instead, we are determined to harness the skill and commitment of the staff involved within the NDA.
Following today’s statement, we shall allow Nirex a short period to comment on the proposed ownership transfer and how it could best be brought about. The independent environment and nuclear safety regulators believe that the proposal will provide a framework that they can regulate strongly and effectively. They are content that the NDA will be responsible for implementing the geological disposal programme, within the constitutional arrangements that I described earlier. The regulators’ support is critical, as strong independent regulation is key to ensuring the safety of people and the environment and securing confidence and trust in the delivery arrangements.
On the third key pillar of our approach, we remain committed to the independent advice that CoRWM has pioneered so well. Accordingly, a successor to the independent committee will be appointed to give continuing advice on the plans for long-term management of radioactive waste.
CoRWM has set the standards for open and transparent advice that takes into account not only the best available scientific and other expert input, but the views of the public and stakeholders. It has also built up support and—perhaps surprisingly, given a name that does not exactly trip off the tongue—brand recognition. The new committee will therefore maintain the current name, but its membership will be reconstituted to reflect its role in the next stage of the “Managing Radioactive Waste Safely” programme. The committee will be sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the DTI and the devolved Administrations.
The committee’s primary functions will be to advise on the implementation of a geological disposal programme, including considering the strategy and delivery plans and the site selection process. It will make its advice available to the UK Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, as has been done by CoRWM.
The circumstances surrounding the long-term disposal of higher activity radioactive waste are unique. We have made it clear that we are not seeking to impose radioactive waste on any community. In that context, we strongly support exploring the concept of voluntarism and partnership, as described by CoRWM, with the local authorities serving communities that might be affected. As CoRWM recognises, there is a need to consider further how such arrangements will work in practice. Accordingly, we will look to develop further an approach that includes: the stages and decision points; how communities would be involved; the role of democratically elected bodies locally; and the potential for involvement and community packages as suggested by CoRWM.
Disposal facilities will be built only in a geologically suitable area, and we will also consider how geological and scientific considerations will be meshed with other societal considerations as, for a successful programme, all the criteria will need to be met. I invite any local authority—or group of local authorities—that wishes to be involved in those discussions to contact me, the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, or my officials directly. Similar invitations are being extended by my colleagues in the devolved Administrations.
It must be stressed that any future facility-siting process will be a wholly new process, divorced from the historical Nirex process. Lessons have been learned from that. We are also determined that the new approach will be carried out from the beginning in an open and transparent way, with appropriate opportunity for public and stakeholder, as well as expert, involvement. In light of that further work, the Government will produce an implementation framework and publish it for consultation as soon as possible next year.
This announcement and the more detailed response that I am publishing today—copies of which have been placed in the Library—complete stage 2 of the “Managing Radioactive Waste Safely” programme. We are now entering stage 3: planning for implementation. We aim to be able to move to stage 4—the final implementation stage—in 2008, and we are confident that the sharing of information and viewpoints, and the transparency of the CoRWM process, will have been maintained.
The CoRWM report states:
“For over three decades, efforts to find solutions to the problem of long-term radioactive waste management in the UK have failed.”
Governments of all parties have struggled to develop a long-term approach to the problem that is founded on science and then driven by openness and transparency. I believe that the content of my statement today combines scientific rigour with clear accountability, and I commend it to the House.
I begin by thanking the Secretary of State for his statement, and for letting me have prior notice of its content. I also echo his comments on Gordon MacKerron and the members of his committee—the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management. They have undertaken a difficult, complex and sensitive task with skill and refreshing transparency. I therefore broadly welcome the fact that the Government have decided to proceed in accordance with the committee’s recommendations.
There are sharply differing views in the House on whether it is desirable or necessary to build new nuclear capacity. However, I trust that we can all agree that there is now an urgent need to find a long-term, secure solution to the problems posed by historic nuclear waste. Whether we like it or not, it is there and it has to be dealt with. Successive Governments have put off confronting that issue for far too long.
The Government have accepted CoRWM’s recommendation that geological disposal is the best available approach to the long-term management of all the material categorised as waste. They have also accepted that a robust programme of interim storage must play an integral part in the long-term management strategy. They are right to have done so.
What is likely to cause more controversy is the decision to give the responsibility for planning, implementing and managing that process to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority rather than to a new independent body. Is there not a danger that conflicts of interest will arise from the fact that the NDA, which owns the waste and existing sites, will also, under the Government’s plans, be responsible for implementing the geological disposal? How will the Secretary of State ensure that, in selecting the sites for storage, the NDA will not only act, but be seen to act, with complete impartiality?
The Secretary of State has rightly emphasised the need for openness and transparency throughout the next stages of the process. Is there not a risk that not only the transparency but the integrity of the whole process will be compromised by the decision to place it, effectively, in the hands of the industry? I strongly urge the Government to look again at this part of their plans; the Secretary of State will understand that it is absolutely essential that the procedures that they adopt are beyond reproach and, as far as possible, beyond controversy.
This aspect of the Government’s plans has already called into question the Secretary of State’s green credentials—and I know that he is very sensitive about them. There is a case for the implementation of the plans to bury nuclear waste to be overseen by a body that is clearly independent of the nuclear industry. I know that he will refer in his reply to the statutory regulators, but there will undoubtedly be concerns that that is not enough.
In respect of locating the disposal sites, the Secretary of State has indicated that he is keen to explore the concept of voluntarism. He is right to do that, but what indication has he received so far from local authorities that they would be willing to enter into negotiations on becoming host communities for nuclear waste? Also, what thought has he given to the scale and nature of any inducements that might be offered to local communities that agree to take such waste?
I am pleased that the Government have set out a timetable, although I note that it is described as “indicative”. Given the length of time that we have all already waited for this announcement, it would have been better if they had set out a firm timetable today. Although safety must be paramount, and there is no case whatever for a rushed job, there is an urgent need to make progress, and CoRWM has mapped out how to do that.
Finally, I have looked in vain for any indication of the likely cost of the Government’s proposal. Surely the Secretary of State would not have made today’s statement without having any notion of what the proposal will cost to implement in the short, medium and long term. I should be grateful if he shared that information with us and with the taxpayer. Out of which budget will the costs be met? It is hard to believe that the costs will fall to beleaguered DEFRA, which is cutting its budget to make up for the cost of incompetent management.
Overall, we welcome the announcement, which takes forward an important and serious issue that, shamefully, has remained unaddressed for far too long.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the serious tenor of his remarks and the engaged way in which he has tried to address the subject. One major issue, to which I shall return later, is the misapprehension on his part that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is anything other than a creature of this House. In fact, it was created under the Energy Act 2004, so it is not a creature of the industry.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we must applaud and build on the work of CoRWM, and he is absolutely right to say that this issue should not divide people according to whether they are for or against any further nuclear build. He is also right to say—he could hardly be wrong—that we must both proceed with due speed and not rush he job. He was taking no risks in setting that out. I have yet to be approached by any local authorities, but I know that Members have signalled in debates in this Chamber and elsewhere that their communities are interested in those discussions.
I made it clear that we would give further details on the site selection process next year, which somewhat gives the lie to the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that we do not have a forward timetable. Financing obviously needs to be considered by the Government, rather than just one Department—and certainly not just mine. That is what we propose to do, in close consultation with the Department of Trade and Industry and other interested parties, not least the Department for Communities and Local Government.
As I said, the NDA was set up only two years ago by this House, so the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that we should have yet another new body, which would further complicate an already very difficult set of issues, does not seem—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman recommended setting up another new body, but our and the regulator’s argument is that it needs a singular focus to achieve the accountability that is being delivered. The NDA works not for the industry but for this House and this Parliament, which gave it a very clear mandate to serve the public interest. So the hon. Gentleman should look again at the 2004 Act—I am not sure whether his party voted for or against it, but my memory is that it enjoyed wide cross-party support. It is certainly quite wrong to suggest anything other than that the NDA is driven by the Act under which it was set up.
We on the Liberal Democrat Benches welcome the commitment to deep geological disposal as the least bad solution to the legacy of nuclear waste. However, we were slightly surprised by the statement, in that the Secretary of State congratulated—rightly—CoRWM and its chairman, Gordon MacKerron, on the work done, but then said that it is to be reconstituted. So on the one hand, CoRWM has done a good job, and on the other, it is being sacked. That is perhaps as bizarre a decision as the Prime Minister’s decision, following the incompetent implementation of the single farm payment, to promote the Secretary of State’s predecessor and put her in charge of Britain’s foreign policy.
May we please have a clear commitment from the Secretary of State that the distinction that CoRWM draws in its report—it was not picked up on in today’s statement—between dealing with the legacy of our waste and any new decision should be very clear? There should be no assumption that the decision taken today to set in process the means of dealing with that legacy will set a precedent for dealing with new waste. There should be no licence to create new waste from new power stations.
I am also concerned that the statement is rather mealy-mouthed about a key recommendation of CoRWM that there should be a commitment to voluntarism, and no imposition of radioactive waste on any community. The Secretary of State said in his statement:
“We have made it clear that we are not seeking to impose radioactive waste on any community. In this context, we are strongly supportive of exploring the concept of voluntarism and partnership”.
Many communities would be much happier if the Secretary of State could tell us clearly that no community will have radioactive waste imposed on it against its will.
Finally, I agree very much with the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) about the merger of Nirex with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. Clearly, the build-up of skills in Nirex, to which the Secretary of State referred in his statement, is at risk of being lost in an organisation that has a financial incentive to deliver decommissioning at the lowest possible cost, rather than on the basis of safety or environmental concerns. That seems bad for safety and the environment, and it represents a considerable setback for the Secretary of State in dealing with the interests of the nuclear industry and the Treasury with regard to environmental protection.
In contrast to the official Opposition’s spokesman, the Liberal Democrat spokesman has distinguished himself by his failure, first, to read the CoRWM report and, secondly, to remember that my statement today is made jointly with the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. In the Scottish Parliament, the relevant Minister, who is a Liberal Democrat, has taken a responsible attitude. That tells me, first, that the Liberal Democrats say different things to different people and, secondly, that the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) will never miss an opportunity to be a complete opportunist. Let me run through his wholly tendentious points.
The hon. Gentleman suggested that we were sacking CoRWM. CoRWM itself recommended that a successor body should be appointed. That is what we are doing. We are also keeping in place the current membership of CoRWM until the new body is established. That seems a completely common-sense decision, and the total opposite of his insinuation.
On new waste, the hon. Gentleman again seems to have failed to read the CoRWM report, which says clearly that the technical arguments applied to dealing with existing waste apply just as well to future waste. Deliberately, CoRWM does not take a position on the desirability or otherwise of any future nuclear capacity. It does, however, address the technical arguments. I can say clearly that the principles underpinning the CoRWM report and my statement—those in respect of geological disposal and governance—not only could but should be the basis of future decision making about new waste.
On voluntarism, given that I made it clear that the former Nirex list is truly dead and buried, and that there is every commitment to make voluntarism—or partnership, as it is sometimes called—work in practice, I cannot understand how the hon. Gentleman thought that my statement was mealy-mouthed.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman complained that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is subject to independent regulation but, within that, should seek to maximise value for money for the taxpayer. That seems to me to be a completely reasonable position for any authority. The opposite is to say that, within the safety constraints, which are paramount, it should not seek to maximise value for money. That seems a completely ridiculous position. It has been made absolutely clear that the regulators will be able to regulate that model in a strong, effective manner. Anyone who wants to suggest an alternative will have to show me that the regulators will be as happy with such a model as they are with this one.
I admire my right hon. Friend’s courage in finally getting to grips with the legacy of our radioactive waste. The question dates back to the Flowers report of 1976, in which Professor Flowers said that an independent body tasked with storing Britain’s nuclear waste was needed. Many environmentalists are concerned that the body responsible for the ownership of our legacy waste is institutionally linked to the body responsible for storing that waste. That was clearly the view of my right hon. Friend’s predecessor when she made Nirex independent. Does he share my concern that the public might feel that in merging Nirex with the NDA there might be on occasion an attempt to store waste on the cheap? Does he agree that it is vital to retain public confidence as we go forward in disposing of Britain’s radioactive waste?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend that we must retain public confidence. The conflict of interest to which he refers could arise only were there no independent regulation by the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive, and no independent ongoing scrutiny by a body such as CoRWM, which is being reconstituted on the basis announced today. On that basis, we can proceed with confidence, because the regulators, working in a totally independent way, will ensure that the public interest is met. Similarly, a new independent committee will provide confidence to Parliament and others that the process has integrity, above all, for the protection of our environment, not just for this generation but for future ones.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement because it addresses not only the issue of legacy waste but some of the underpinning matters affecting the future of our nuclear industry. In his statement, he mentioned the phrase, “geologically suitable area”. He acknowledged that the Nirex list of locations may be dead, but can he say more about the process to be undertaken to determine which areas will be “geologically suitable” for disposal, bearing in mind Nirex’s work and that the answer to that question will be profound for those who wish to volunteer?
Obviously, it is in no one’s interest that a community with completely unsuitable geological foundations should go through a long and laborious process without being informed of the scientific basis. In my statement, I talked about the need to mesh the voluntarist principle with the best scientific advice about where is appropriate. The sort of discussions that I have described, which I want to start with potential communities, can bring together the best scientific advice with expressions of interest in a way that ensures that we have not a sequence of impositions, but a dialogue and conversation that uses the science instead of imposing it.
As the Member of Parliament whose constituency currently houses all the nation’s low-level waste, 70 per cent. of its intermediate-level waste and all its high-level waste, I comprehensively welcome today’s recommendations and the work done by the Secretary of State. For the best part of 10 years, one of the principal obstacles to the effective implementation of radioactive waste policy in this country has been the existence of Nirex, which, as an organisation, is without credibility or trustworthiness—[Interruption.] I say that as a former employee, and I know what I am talking about. How long will it be before the incomparable intellectual property and skills of the Nirex work force are transferred to the NDA?
As I hope I made clear in my statement, the jewel in the Nirex crown is its staff and their skill, commitment and intellect. After the short consultation period on the legal transfer that needs to be undertaken, I want to ensure that the NDA and Nirex work closely together so that Nirex staff are brought into the NDA fold in the most appropriate manner. My hon. Friend may raise this question later, but there is no reason, in our view, for any discussion of compulsory redundancies or anything like that. There is a full commitment to a full transfer of Nirex staff on a TUPE basis.
I hope that not just Members on both sides of the House but all players in the arena, whether they represent regulators, Nirex or any other body, will send Nirex staff the message that we want to do right by them, because they are critical to the future success on which this process depends.
I join my colleagues in thanking the Secretary of State for his statement. May I return him to the comment of the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) about the independence of those charged with overseeing the burial and refer him to what has been going on in Caithness, at Dounreay, where a geological burial site exploded in the mid-1990s, sending huge amounts of radioactive material into the bay? The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority then spent all its time lying and denying that any such thing had happened. Since then the problem has worsened—there has been contamination on the beach.
The public need to be confident that what happens will happen with transparency, openness and full accountability. Will the Secretary of State now say that any mistakes that occurred in the past will be cleared up by future Governments and that there will be independence in the oversight?
I want to respond positively to that question. Of course, any Government must make up for errors, dreadful or otherwise, that have been perpetrated in the past. It is precisely because of experiences such as those in the mid-1990s that we need the reforms that we are announcing today. It is precisely because of that lack of transparency that we want to ensure not just independent regulation, but independent oversight. Although there have not been many questions about the independent oversight body, I think that our experience of CoRWM is of a body that, without fear or favour, has asked tough questions of all parts of the industry and all parts of Government. I welcome that, and I think that it must continue.
I am somewhat surprised that there has been no mention of the controversy in CoRWM itself. An all-party group of Members met two of the scientists who walked out of CoRWM because they felt that the scientific evidence was not being taken seriously. They could not understand how a view could be taken on risk management without geological, hydrological and climate-change expertise. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that whatever reconstituted body replaces CoRWM, the areas of scientific expertise that are essential to the risk assessment process will be incorporated before we reach the risk management stage?
I think that I am right in saying that one of the two resignations from the committee occurred not because there was too little discussion of the science, but because there was too much and it was taking too long. However, I shall be happy to write to my hon. Friend if that would be helpful. As for his second question about the future composition of CoRWM, I want it to have as broad a base and as deep a knowledge base as possible. I think it essential for all views and expertise to be represented there, and that is what we shall try to achieve.
The Secretary of State has said that the new process will be completely divorced from the old Nirex process, but given the type of disposal that is being discussed, is it not inevitable that the new body will opt for the same or similar sites as Nirex? Can the Secretary of State tell me whether Scotland has been ruled out as a site for a long-term repository?
The ball is not in the scientists’ court; it is in the community’s court, and the first move must come from communities that are interested in participating in the programme. That seems to me to be the right order. As for the devolved Administrations, they are, as I have said, publishing similar statements today—in fact, exactly the same statement—and they will be proceeding with the process.
As the Secretary of State knows, his statement was made against the background of the sale of British Nuclear Group, announced yesterday by the Department of Trade and Industry. Will he confirm that two key principles will always be foremost in his mind and those of his colleagues? First, the national interest should be of paramount importance; secondly, there should be a key role for the public sector rather than for a series of privatised organisations, particularly those whose ownership is abroad.
I consider it essential for the process to be driven by the national interest and by a public body. That is precisely why the NDA will play the role that I have described. As I have said, it was created by Parliament with express purposes. When it comes to the appointment of contractors, its best-practice model is the running of open competitions. I think that I am right in saying that that procedure is now proceeding satisfactorily and appropriately in respect of lower-level waste at Drigg.
Following the excellent CoRWM report and his welcome statement, will the Secretary of State be sure to take on board the experience of Finland and France in particular? They made it very clear that consultation and the building of public confidence do not come free but are expensive educational options, and that public funds provided for the purpose are not a bribe when there is accountability and transparency. That should apply both to this long-overdue disposal of nuclear waste and to the position when we proceed, as we undoubtedly will, to the next generation of nuclear power production.
The hon. Gentleman has made an important point, and he is absolutely right. Anyone who reads the CoRWM report will see how much time and effort CoRWM devoted to engaging not just with scientific experts, but with members of the public with no expertise, and will recognise that time and money were well spent.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned France and Finland in one breath. While I would like to learn from the experience of both countries, I would not wish to give the impression that they are the same. The Finns are adopting what might be described as a consensual or voluntarist approach, while the French have a Napoleonic tradition that is rather more dictatorial, or at least centralist.
Does my right hon. Friend intend the reconstituted CoRWM to undertake a separate assessment of the disposal of nuclear waste from new nuclear build? If so, does he also intend to develop a paradigm of what that separate assessment might consist of? I am thinking not just of the technical aspects, but of the costs that will be involved, including the opportunity costs of new nuclear waste riding on the back, as it were, of the disposal of existing nuclear waste in new sites.
The CoRWM report deals with that question. It says that on technical grounds there is no requirement for another assessment. However, if there were a decision in favour of new nuclear build, the inventory of waste would depend on the type of build. That inventory would be critical to the method of waste disposal, but according to the report no new technical assessment is needed. What we must ensure is that discussions with potential partner communities are open and transparent about what they would receive.
The Secretary of State mentioned societal considerations. Does that include recognition that the purposes for which national parks such as Northumberland national park were created are inconsistent with their use for nuclear disposal? What options and procedures would be open to any section of the community that believed that a site was being imposed on it?
Surely Nirex’s work in identifying suitable geological areas is still valid today, unless my right hon. Friend is saying that the commissioners of the original report placed political constraints on it. If the geological analysis remains valid, can we not today identify the geography that would encompass potential sites? Would they not be predominantly in areas identified by Nirex in the first place?
I shall not cast aspersions on work that has been done by Nirex, because that would not be right. Over the past 10 years, the board and staff have made serious efforts, on which we want to build. Indeed, we want to build on all relevant information. The Nirex list turned out to be quite long and we want to learn from that. The scientific evidence is there for anyone to work from, but the important founding principle that I have tried to enunciate today is that the starting point is the interests of the host community, rather than the science.
Governments of all kinds have moved with geological speed on this issue over many decades, so I welcome the statement insofar as it goes. Given the need to restart the nuclear programme, which the Government have signalled elsewhere, will the Secretary of State widen his invitation to local authorities to include not only long-term storage, but other aspects of the programme such as decommissioning, short-term storage and even the search for new sites? Is he aware that Sedgemoor district council in Somerset has already had informal discussions with the NDA with a view to bringing tangible benefits for local people from other aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle?
I am not aware of Sedgemoor district council’s approach to the NDA, but it is welcome in the context that I have set out today. It is important to emphasise that the statement is about high-level waste, which raises particular issues of interim and long-term storage. In respect of other procedures, the process that the right hon. Gentleman describes is welcome, but I would like to believe that we are ensuring that the first principle at every stage is public safety, enforced by independent regulators. That is key to the whole process.
Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that, despite claims by one environmental non-governmental organisation, there are no plans to dispose of high-level nuclear waste in Nottinghamshire’s collieries or former collieries? Given the notion of voluntarism that he has espoused and the real geological difficulties in the area, the issue should be as dead as a dodo.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s emphasis on both safety and security in his statement, but I was a little surprised not to hear any mention of the civil nuclear constabulary, of which I am a great admirer. The geological disposal scheme will add considerably to the headaches that that organisation will have to face. What plans does the Secretary of State have either to expand it or reform it, and where will the money come from?
For obvious reasons, we do not have widespread discussion of the counter-terrorism measures that we take in respect of those sites. The work that is done by the constabulary is very important, but it would not be judicious to venture further into that area. However, many people believe that long-term geological disposal is by far the safest security option, compared with the interim storage we have at present.
I heard what my right hon. Friend had to say about the CoRWM report in relation to new waste from a new generation of stations, but when the Trade and Industry Committee took evidence we were told that the radioactive waste would not be of as great a volume, but would be much more radioactive than that from the existing stations. That has implications for geological disposal. Will my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy continue to try to reach some understanding that no new build should take place unless the appropriate geological depository is in place?
I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s long-term interest in the issue. It has certainly been the case that the failure to come to terms with a waste-disposal option has blighted the discussion of nuclear power in this country and I hope that today’s statement will allow us to debate the pros and cons of nuclear power with the waste issue in a different context. The discussions that he mentions should continue, and he is right about the difference between volume and activity, but CoRWM made it clear that in technical terms the principles that it set out would continue to apply. It is important to emphasise, however, that it did not take a view on the desirability or otherwise of new nuclear build.
To say that Nirex is based in my constituency might be a better way to put it. I hope that the Secretary of State will move as quickly as possible to reassure my constituents who work for Nirex about their future. I simply cannot understand why the Secretary of State has made this decision. On the one hand, he says that it is because of the potentially overlapping responsibilities with the NDA, and on the other he tells the Liberal Democrat spokesman that it is a cost-cutting measure. The Secretary of State also claims that he wants to retain the expertise and the jewel in the crown status of Nirex. He should save much time and effort and keep Nirex as an independent body that gives independent advice on one of the most important issues in the country—the safe disposal of high-level nuclear waste.
I wish to correct the hon. Gentleman on one point. The fundamental issue that has weighed with me and my colleagues from the DTI and elsewhere when we discuss this issue is that it is far more effective to regulate one organisation that is responsible across the whole cycle than it is to regulate two organisations with overlapping responsibilities. The discussion that I had with the Liberal Democrat spokesman about costs was in a different context and it is wrong for the hon. Gentleman to suggest otherwise. I hope that he will join me in sending the important message to his constituents that the work they do is invaluable, and the skills they have need to be preserved and delivered in the most effective way in the new organisation.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the design of any repository will ensure that the waste is indefinitely retrievable and that any design that proposed sealing the waste would be rejected? Is he inclined to build on the recommendation from the royal commission on environmental pollution that the nation’s plutonium stockpile should be defined as waste?
On the first question, the CoRWM report addressed the issue of retrievability in some depth. I do not know whether my hon. Friend considers 100 years to be a short or long time, but CoRWM said that retrievability would be preserved for up to 100 years. In the context of nuclear waste that would last for 10,000 years, it proposed that after about 100 years—I do not suppose that it intends to be kept to the month—there should be a ceiling on the waste emplacement. That is the best scientific advice, although I do not know whether that will reassure my hon. Friend.
In respect of the royal commission on environmental pollution, we have responded to that at length and I am happy to go into details with my hon. Friend on another occasion. The report made 36 recommendations and we should perhaps consider them in a different context.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on facing up to this vexed issue, and not before time. In terms of the way in which cost is apportioned, does he think that a distinction should be made between the legacy waste from, for example, the nuclear weapons development programme and the waste directly generated by power generation?
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is referring to new build, because we have made it clear that waste costs should be incorporated into any new plans. The costing exercises are difficult and complex, and as they emerge I hope that they will show in the round how the nation can face up to the long-term financial as well as scientific challenge.
May I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement today? I wish to register an interest as I am chairman of the all-party nuclear energy group. From that, the House may gather that I am pro-nuclear.
Although I share some of the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) about putting everything into the NDA, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) assures me that that is the right way to go, and I look forward to examining the arguments as time goes on. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) that it is important to have retrievable waste that one day, when we are more technologically aware and expert, we might be able to use as an energy source. In addition, I hope that my right hon. Friend will ignore the chirpings from Liberal Democrat Front-Bench Members, who make the sort of noises in this House that the Scottish National party makes in Scotland.
Will my right hon. Friend allay my fears about the openness and transparency that the entire industry—as well as both Opposition and Labour Members—says are so necessary? Does he agree that it is important that we know what is going on at every stage?
My hon. Friend speaks on this issue with considerable expertise, and I completely agree with him—I want that openness and transparency as much as he and the Opposition do. What is going on should be transparent to me, as Secretary of State, but also to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, to the House and to the wider public. If anything has been made clear by the 30-plus years of what CoRWM calls failure, it is that a secretive approach—sometimes described as “decide, announce, defend”, although it often became “decide, announce, defend, abandon”—does not work. We must have full openness at every stage, and public confidence is critical.
I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) wants to look at the details, and I said in my statement that a detailed response to all of CoRWM’s recommendations has been made available to the House. It contains more detail than I was able to supply in my statement. If my hon. Friend reads that, he will see that the Government are committed to transparency and to independent and rigorous scrutiny and intervention by the statutory regulators, which are the only bodies with statutory responsibility in these matters at the moment. Although Nirex has played an important role in advising the industry, it does not have any statutory powers. The independent regulators are the only bodies with statutory powers, either under the current system or in the future. I believe that that is the right approach, and the existence of an additional oversight committee made up of scientists and lay people means that we have an important double lock on these matters.
I share the admiration expressed already for the courage shown by my right hon. Friend, but despite his assurances about the independence of the oversight, what is the rationale behind designing an infrastructure that contains an obvious and inherent financial conflict of interest and then saying that everything will be all right because it will be regulated? He had an opportunity to set up an organisation that was clearly and obviously independent.
The hon. Gentleman calls that nonsense, but if he thinks that regulating two organisations with overlapping responsibilities would help the regulatory process, enhance transparency and tackle confusion, I am afraid that he will have to return to the land of the living.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) made an important point. The NDA structure contains clear checks and balances, as set out in debates held in this House and in the legislation that we have passed. That is the best safeguard for the sort of independent, effective and properly regulated waste management system that we need.
Local Planning Authorities (Energy Generation and Efficiency) Bill
Colin Challen presented a Bill to enable local authorities to make requirements for energy saving in local development plans and in the determination of planning applications; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 November, and to be printed [Bill 232].
Mini Motos (Regulation)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the regulation of mini motos; and for connected purposes.
I aim to show that legislation on miniature motorbikes, which exist in a legal grey area, is necessary, popular and overdue. A new law is necessary because the situation that exists for my constituents, and for those of many hon. Members, is intolerable. I am introducing this Bill on behalf of the people whom the problem affects and on behalf of the legitimate motorcyclists to whom it is giving a bad name.
Today, people will be tearing around roads and paths in South Swindon on mini motos, terrifying residents. In my first year as an MP, that has been one of the main antisocial behaviour problems that my constituents have come to me with, and they have every reason to expect action.
I can tell those who have never seen a mini moto that they are replica motorbikes, only a quarter of the size of a regular bike but with a two-stroke engine that can take them to over 50 miles per hour. In theory, they are to be used only on private land, but in practice they are driven over public land, paths and, most terrifyingly, on roads. In Swindon in just one small period of this year—between 1 May and 19 June—there were 128 complaints about antisocial behaviour and dangerous driving involving mini motos. That amounts to about five complaints every two days.
I have raised the issue of minibike misuse on the paths between Eldene and Liden with PC Phil Young, and various similar problems in the Parks and Toothill areas with Inspector Steve Bridge. The police in Swindon are doing fantastic work, often involving crushing illegally ridden mini motos, but they are fighting against the tide. According to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, there has been a twentyfold increase in recent years in the number of mini motos imported into the UK from China, and representatives of the motorcycle industry believe that there could be 300,000 machines in circulation.
However, the police in Swindon are not required by the Home Office to collate the number of accidents, serious or otherwise, that mini motos cause. That is a problem that I want rectified. I want the Home Office to supply updated guidance to chief constables to require police to report mini moto accidents separately. We need access to statistics to see if the number of injuries caused by mini motos is exploding at the same rate as that at which the bikes are flooding in.
I can quote much anecdotal evidence on this matter from my constituency and from across the country. For example, one of Swindon’s Labour councillors, Barrie Thompson, recently received a complaint from an elderly disabled woman who said that she was harassed and nearly knocked over on the path that goes up to her house by a person riding a mini moto. In a separate incident in Peterborough, a 71-year-old woman was run into by a gang of young people on minibikes and received a broken foot and fractured knee. In addition, the brain injury association Headway is backing the crackdown on the riding of mini motos, on the ground that it could cause brain injury. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) has his own mini moto story to tell. His leg was gashed as a result of what happened, and I am sure that he will tell the House about it at some point in the future. The Government believe that existing legislation provides adequate powers to combat mini moto misuse. However, that argument offers no consolation for my constituents who are putting up with the nuisance. Clearly, more could be done.
Mini motos have hurt children and can wreck lives, and it is entirely unreasonable that they should be treated by the law as toys. There has been confusion among enforcers—that is, magistrates and the police—about whether they are considered to be motor vehicles. Apparently, magistrates have tended to give the defendant the benefit of the doubt in these cases, and the police have been uncertain about which part of the legislation should be used in prosecutions.
I am glad that the Department for Transport acknowledges this problem and that it has issued guidance making it clear that it regards mini motos as motor vehicles. However, in the absence of legislation the Department has left clarification to be determined by the results of further court cases. The High Court has ruled on motorised scooters but not yet on mini motos. Treating mini motos as motor scooters, which are allowed on the roads, would not be an adequate solution.
Mini motos are not roadworthy. Unless they are modified, they do not come up to European construction requirements. By banning mini motos from the road we would send a clear message to enforcers and consumers, and the vehicles could still be enjoyed on tracks created for the purpose.
This measure would be a popular move with hon. Members, with the motorcycle industry and with my constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) introduced a ten-minute rule Bill two weeks ago to deal with scrambler bikes and my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) is introducing a similar Bill next week. Early-day motion 2040, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) was signed by 79 MPs and calls on the Government to ensure that minibikes are clearly defined as motor vehicles. That shows that the House wants to see action on tightening the regulation of off-road bikes.
The industry does, too. Honda, based in my constituency, is supporting motorcycle industry initiatives to tackle poor-quality, far eastern minibikes, which are flooding the UK market. My constituents also support action—78 per cent. of people in Swindon say that they want a ban, as shown in a poll in my local paper, the Swindon Advertiser, which has been hugely supportive of my campaign.
My constituents, including the police who wish to reach offenders, and youngsters and their parents who are actively involved in the fast-growing sport, have engaged extremely positively with me about the Bill. The commercial manager of Swindon speedway stadium is keen to work constructively with Swindon youth services and the police to tackle the disruptive use of mini motos. I have received a further positive offer of support from a track owner, Andrew Watts, and my constituent, James Carter, a parent involved in the sport. Mr. Carter is actively involved, together with his young sons, and he travels to a safe track to supervise their sport. He is confident that those who are involved with mini motos would welcome the Bill and he is encouraged by the local alternatives suggested as a result of the debate.
Support for my Bill has come from parents, police, youth services and members of the public. They want to see children having fun, but not endangering people’s lives—or their own—and blighting neighbourhoods. Instead of a complete ban, the best approach combines both enforcement and managed provision. The law needs to be changed so that mini motos are seen as vehicles, not toys, and are driven off our streets completely. We should legislate clearly in a way that the police, the courts and my constituents can understand and have trust in. I hope that I have convinced the House that this small Bill is what we need to defeat a massive menace.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Anne Snelgrove, Ms Diana R. Johnson, Dr. Nick Palmer, Helen Jones, Chris Bryant, Barbara Keeley, Charlotte Atkins, Mr. Ken Purchase and Mr. David Drew.
Mini Motos (Regulation)
Anne Snelgrove accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for the regulation of mini motos, and for connected purposes; And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 November, and to be printed [Bill 233].
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Earlier today, the Leader of the Opposition claimed that the Government were cutting 21,000 NHS jobs, yet when his own health spokesman, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), was asked by Andrew Neil a few days ago whether he and the Opposition claimed that these were job cuts and that 20,000 people currently in jobs would lose them, he replied that he did not claim that. Should not the Leader of the Opposition come back before the House to apologise for misleading us, however inadvertently, by using figures that his own spokesman admits are wrong?
Orders of the Day
Charities Bill [Lords]
As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.
New Clause 1
Amendments reflecting changes in company law audit provisions
‘(1) The Minister may by order make such amendments of the 1993 Act or this Act as he considers appropriate—
(a) in consequence of, or in connection with, any changes made or to be made by any enactment to the provisions of company law relating to the accounts of charitable companies or to the auditing of, or preparation of reports in respect of, such accounts;
(b) for the purposes of, or in connection with, applying provisions of Schedule 5A to the 1993 Act (group accounts) to charitable companies that are not required to produce group accounts under company law.
(2) In this section—
“accounts” includes group accounts;
“amendments” includes repeals and modifications;
“charitable companies” means companies which are charities;
“company law” means the enactments relating to companies.’.—[Edward Miliband.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
As well as moving new clause 1, proposed by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, I shall speak to Government amendments Nos. 28 to 30, 61, 65 and 69.
The new clause deals with the accounts scrutiny regime for charitable companies—that is, charities established in the legal form of a company. One consequence is that smaller charitable companies are subject to a regime whose requirements are designed for small businesses, not small charities. In the debate on the Companies Bill in the other place, Lord Hodgson tabled Opposition amendments to take small charitable companies out of the company law regime for accounts scrutiny, placing them instead within the charity law regime. The Government accepted the merit of that idea, took representations from a number of umbrella bodies for charities and professional accountancy bodies and received a favourable response, so we agreed to proceed with the idea.
At its heart is the sensible proposition that we should treat charitable companies primarily as charities, albeit ones that happen to be set up in company form, rather than primarily as companies that happen to have charitable status. To give effect to that, changes are needed to the Companies Bill and the Charities Bill. The necessary Companies Bill amendments were made on Report last week and the principal amendment to the Charities Bill is set out in new clause 1.
The new clause contains a new order-making power, allowing Ministers to amend the Charities Act 1993 and the Bill to reflect changes in company law—the changes that will be made by the Companies Bill when it comes into force. The result will be that we can apply the same accounts scrutiny requirements—professional audit for those with an income above £500,000, independent examination for those between £10,000 and £500,000 and no compulsory scrutiny for those below £10,000—to all charities, regardless of their legal form. The order-making power will also allow the group accounting requirements to be changed so that, in preparation of group accounts, a group of charities headed by a charitable company is put in the same position as a group headed by any other form of charity.
I believe that I am right in saying that about 15 per cent. of the UK’s 190,000 charities are in that category, so it amounts to a significant number.
I was about to say that because the order-making power will allow Ministers to amend primary legislation, the order will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, and amendment No. 61 achieves that.
Amendment No. 65 is designed to ensure that the power to make consequential amendments under clause 75 can be used to amend the Companies Bill, when it is enacted, in line with amendments that the Bill makes to the Companies Act 1985.
Amendment No. 30 is the other substantive amendment in the group. It amends new section 73E, inserted by clause 38 into the Charities Act 1993, and arises from the diligence of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner)—and not for the first time, either. It is designed to give the court the power to grant relief to the trustees of a charitable incorporated organisation. Section 61 of the Trustee Act 1925 gives the court a power to grant relief to trustees, but the charity trustees of a CIO are not trustees within section 61 of that Act, mainly because the CIO is a new institution. Section 727 of the Companies Act 1985 gives the court the power to grant relief to the officers of a company, but that, too, does not at present apply in the case of a CIO. The amendment therefore provides for section 727 of the Companies Act to have effect in relation to the charity trustees of a CIO.
In Committee I promised the hon. Member for Isle of Wight that I would propose an amendment in response to his previous amendment that identified the gap I have just described. I am grateful to him for identifying it.
Amendments Nos. 28, 29 and 69 are minor consequential amendments to new clause 1 and amendment No. 30.
It is a pleasure to follow the Minister and to thank him for his generous words about the contribution that my noble Friend Lord Hodgson and I made to the development of the new clause and one of the Government amendments.
The Minister has confirmed that the procedure under new clause 1 is subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, which is appropriate and we welcome it. We support the extension of the new provision covered by amendment No. 28 to charities that are companies, and I welcome the movement to afford protection to the trustees of new charitable incorporated organisations.
I shall not detain the House further on this group.
I, too, thank the Minister for his opening remarks. One of the best aspects of the Bill is that it has somewhat alleviated the onerous nature of company law, especially for smaller charities but also for others who might want to pursue a different path. The amendments are designed to further the spirit of reconciliation between new organisational statuses, such as that of charitable incorporated organisations, and existing company and charity law.
In that spirit, I, too, am happy to support the new clause.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 3
Property from trusts in residuary legacies
‘After section 36(3) of the Charities Act 1993 (c. 10) insert—
“(3A) Subsection (3) above shall not apply to any such land that is left in a will to a charity.
(3B) Subsection (3A) above shall not preclude charity trustees commissioning a report in accordance with subsection (3) if they so wish.”.’.—[Martin Horwood.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
New clause 3 addresses a problem that has, I think, arisen by accident. Before the Charities Acts of 1992 and 1993, section 29 of the Charities Act 1960 provided that no land held by or in trust for a charity that—this is an important phrase—had been occupied for the purposes of the charity could be sold, leased for more than 22 years, mortgaged or charged to security without the consent of the court or the Charity Commission.
Section 32 of the 1992 Act superseded the 1960 Act and imposed an overall prohibition of disposal of any land held by, or in trust, for a charity without an order from the court or the Charity Commission. That section was repealed and re-enacted without alteration as section 36 of the 1993 Act, which is the crucial provision that we are addressing.
The effect of the rather rushed 1993 legislation was inadvertently to catch a category of land held in trust for charities, left in wills as a charitable bequest, which had not been included before 1992, because the original Act covered only land held in trust that had been occupied for the purposes of the charity. The section 36 requirements were perfectly reasonable for the normal disposal of land by charities, which had to acquire a proper valuation and go through various procedures set out in the section. However, by applying such procedures to land left in legacies, the 1993 Act inadvertently gave charities a new and serious burden.
I shall give the Minister a few examples. Macmillan Cancer Support derives about 33 per cent. of its total income from legacies. It says:
“We spend, as best we can calculate it, some £14,500 a year on section 36 reports. This includes not only the surveyor’s fee (and VAT which we cannot reclaim) but also the costs of staff in considering, processing the information, passing it to Trustees for approval, all communication with estate solicitors and co-beneficiaries and ancillary costs such as postage and photocopying…There is without doubt an adverse effect on the charity overall. The majority of the reports simply confirm what the estate Executor has already informed us about the property’s broad state and value, which will usually include, for instance, an offer higher than probate value, or the possibility of development. In a small number of estates, the s36 valuation does show a higher value than the estate administrator has believed appropriate; however, it is not always the case that the market then offers the higher price.”
It calculates that
“the time spent in considering, processing and forwarding the reports represents nearly four weeks of a person’s time each year, for almost no benefit”.
Macmillan makes the important point that the fiduciary duty on executors would protect assets held in trust for the charity by the executor. It states:
“We feel that little additional protection is given to the Charity’s trustees beyond that which already exists by virtue of the Executor’s duty to maximise assets.”
Macmillan is quite a large charity, but the provision affects smaller charities, too, for which it might be even more onerous. A letter from Battersea Dogs Home, which is at the lower end of the larger charity scale, states:
“Section 36 has proved to be incredibly confusing and costly to the charity…Unfortunately, I do not have exact figures of how many s36 reports we request per year but approximately 20… £10,000 of charity money on reports is a lot of money, which could easily be applied elsewhere to help our cause.”
At the upper end of the scale, the largest charity of all—Cancer Research UK—estimates that it has spent more than £80,000 on section 36 reports in the past year and tells me:
“Release of capital from estates can be prolonged due to irregular meetings of trustees and administrative hold-ups.”
One of the procedures that are particularly onerous for larger charities is that the section 36 reports have to be presented to the charity’s trustees and approved by them. That is all very well for an occasional disposal of land, but larger charities frequently have to deal with land left to them in legacies, or held in trust in legacies. Large charities such as Cancer Research UK depend greatly on legacies, so the provisions are a burden on the trustees as well as on the charity’s staff.
All in all, that adds up to a serious problem, about which we have previously advised the Minister, so I shall be interested to hear his comments. If he can provide a suitably robust form of words I shall be reassured, but this is a matter of law and unless the Bill is amended it is difficult to imagine how the problem can be tackled.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) for raising this important issue. The letters from various charities that he read out were quite compelling and I hope that I can help to offer a way forward. I shall also address our amendment No. 35.
As the hon. Gentleman said, the purpose of new clause 3 is to change the regime under which trustees may sell land belonging to a charity, where the land has been given to it through a bequest made under a will. One normal feature of that regime is that the charity trustees must obtain a surveyor’s report about the proposed sale. I have seen a letter from the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners—STEP. I suspect the organisation has also written to other Front Benchers. The letter raises a number of concerns, which I have discussed with the Charity Commission. It seems pretty clear that the question is not, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, one of law but more of perception or administration—either the perception of the charities or the administration of the commission, as I shall explain when I have set out the legal position.
The concern seems to be that, at present, separate reports have to be obtained in some cases where land is given to a charity in a will. One report has to be obtained by the personal representatives of the donor—that is, of the estate—and another by the trustees of the beneficiary charity or charities, resulting in unnecessary expense for the charity. I have talked to the Charity Commission about that concern at some length. In its view, the legal position is that there is never any need for double compliance with the regime.
If the estate’s personal representatives sell the land in the course of their administration of the donor’s estate, the charity land disposal regime does not apply. If the administration of the estate has been completed and the land belongs to the charity, the personal representatives can sell it only as agents of the charity, or as its trustees. The charity trustees must comply with the charity land disposal regime, but their personal representatives need not. I hope that that makes clear the legal position on double compliance.
STEP says in its letter—the point was repeated by the hon. Gentleman—that the situation is particularly difficult for legacy-receiving charities with non-executive trustees, because a surveyor’s report and a certification of compliance with the procedures must be obtained by the charity trustee personally. I checked with the Charity Commission on that point, and found that a whole range of powers given to trustees can be delegated to members of staff; the section 36 power is one of them. There is no need for the trustees personally to give approval—that was one of the concerns raised by STEP. I have made the position on double compliance clear, but to enhance understanding on all sides I have agreed with the Charity Commission that it will listen to representations about the practical implementation of the law on the subject, so that we can clear up any misperceptions or administrative problems.
If the intention behind the amendment was the removal of the need for anyone to follow the normal requirements of the charity land disposal regime when selling land left to a charity as a legacy, there would be no justification for it. In other words, charity trustees should not be exempt simply because land has been given to them in a will. The regime is sensible, and it clearly encourages the trustees to carry out their duties properly and effectively; in addition, it ensures that, if charity land is sold, a proper price is obtained, so it is a necessary protection for charities and their beneficiaries. Having said that, the necessary content of the surveyor’s report is set out in regulations that are nearly 15 years old, so there is a question of administration, too. I said in Committee that the Government have undertaken to review those regulations, with a view to simplifying them, thereby reducing the costs of surveyors’ reports.
Finally, although we note the intentions behind the hon. Gentleman’s amendment, as he set them out, I am advised that its wording will have quite a different effect. If charity trustees have followed the requirements set out in section 36(3) of the Charities Act 1993, they need not seek the authority of the commission for the sale. I know that this is not his intention, but if we removed the possibility of complying with those requirements, trustees selling land that they received in a will would always have to seek the authority of the commission. In practice, that would involve complying once again with a bureaucratic requirement.
I am a little unclear about what the Parliamentary Secretary is saying. He seems to say that the charity’s trustees would not have to obtain a valuation when they inherit property that they sell straight away. However, clearly, there must be a cut-off point between inherited property that is sold straight away, and inherited property that is sold at a later stage, and I am not sure what that cut-off point is.
I am saying two things. First, as I understand it, the concern raised by charities, and in STEP’s letter, is that there is a double compliance problem. Their concern is that, after the representatives of an estate have completed the whole process of obtaining an evaluation and so on, the charity must go through the same process. That is duplication. I am assured by the Charity Commission that there was never any need for double compliance—that is a matter of law.
Secondly, to respond directly to the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, it is right that there should be the necessary protections ensuring that, when a charity gets a bequest, it seeks a valuation of the land, so that it can act in the best interests of its beneficiaries. However, one of the concerns raised is that the sale of the land will require the personal approval of charity trustees. That is a particular problem if they are non-executives who are abroad. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that, as with many other functions of a charity, that function can be delegated to members of the charity’s staff.
I am grateful for the Minister’s comments, but they are surprising, given the overwhelming body of legal advice that all the major charities that I mentioned have been receiving for more than a decade. The misunderstanding—if it is that—about the involvement of the trustees is understandable, given what is said in part V of the Charities Act 1993:
“Except where the proposed disposition is the granting of such a lease as is mentioned in subsection (5) below, the charity trustees must, before entering into an agreement for the sale…obtain and consider a written report”.
I can understand why charities believe that it is the trustees who must approve the reports.
On the first point about the legal position, clearly I have infinite capacity to surprise the hon. Gentleman. I am assured that the position is as I said. On the point about trustees, my understanding—I am told this reliably—is that the authorisation can be delegated to members of staff. If I find that that is not the case, for some reason, I will obviously correct it, but that is my strong understanding.
The overall point is that we are discussing a complex area of law. The Charity Commission is clear that double compliance, which is the primary problem that has been raised, is not necessary. The letters read out by the hon. Gentleman, and the letter from STEP, convince me that a lot more work needs to be done on sorting out the perception of the law, and quite possibly its administration by the commission. I have proposed that the commission should undertake such a process, and it has agreed to do so. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.
I am grateful to the Minister for his comments, but, as I said, I find them surprising. The people who are concerned about the point of law that we are discussing are not amateur organisations, or junior legacy officers in charities; as he said, they include STEP, which is the professional organisation of trust accountants and lawyers. There is a widespread body of legal opinion that has been shared with most of the top 500 charities, and it suggests that the issue remains a problem in law, hence all the representations that we received. Clarification on the double compliance issue might assist charities, and it will certainly provide them with a defence in law if they are challenged on the lack of a report on a particular occasion, but the overwhelming body of advice from charity lawyers states that there is indeed a problem in law with the personal involvement of trustees and the commissioning of reports.
To expand on my earlier point, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that it is absolutely clear that duties are given to trustees throughout the law, but there are general powers allowing the delegation of many of those duties, including the duty that we are discussing. I hope that that satisfies him, and that he will withdraw his amendment. I give him a promise that there will be proper dialogue on the issue with the commission.
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s comment; indeed, I was about to make it, myself. As a charity trustee, I have some interest in the subject, and perhaps I should declare that interest. Although we have good liability arrangements in place, in general trustees have personal liability in that regard. It is routine to delegate administrative functions, including—as the representations from the various charities have made clear—securing section 36 reports. No one is suggesting that trustees are personally talking to surveyors and estate agents and obtaining the reports; such duties are clearly delegated to the proper officers. However, as part of the approval process that must be followed, I guess that it would be a derogation of trustees’ responsibilities if, at a meeting of trustees or of the governing body, there was not, at the very least, a personal vote on whether to approve the report.
I welcome the Minister’s promises to take the matter up with the Charity Commission and to look at perceptions, as well as the simplification of any regulations. However, that does not remove a problem that, according to the advice of the overwhelming majority of charity lawyers, has persisted for a decade or more. It requires the change of law proposed by the new clause, which I wish to press to a Division.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:
The House divided: Ayes 191, Noes 284.
Meaning of “charitable purpose”
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 124, in page 2, line 16, after ‘religious or racial harmony or equality and diversity’ and insert
‘harmony or equality between races, religions and beliefs’.
Government amendment No. 2.
Amendment No. 125, in page 2, line 27, at end insert—
‘(aa) in paragraph (c) “belief”, and in paragraph (h) “beliefs”, are to be construed in accordance with article 9 in Schedule 1 of the Human Rights Act 1998 (c. 42)’.
Government amendment No. 3.
Amendment No. 122, in page 2, line 35, after ‘exertion’ insert
‘or which, on the day this section comes into force, are sports or disciplines open to competition in games organised by:
(i) the International Olympic Committee;
(ii) the International Paralympic Committee; or
(iii) the Commonwealth Games Federation.’.
Government amendment No. 4.
I shall speak in support of the amendments tabled in my name and the names of other hon. Members from more than one party. I shall talk about Government amendment No. 2 and amendments Nos. 123, 124 and 125. I shall cover in passing amendment No. 122, and I shall say a word about the other Government amendments in the group for another reason.
I accept that I come late to the Bill and I know that a huge amount of excellent work has been done by Ministers and Opposition Front Benchers, not just on this Bill but on a draft Charities Bill and a previous Bill in a previous Parliament. I have followed this particular aspect with interest but I do not claim to be an expert on charity law like other hon. Members who have worked so hard on this impressive piece of legislation.
The issue that I want to speak to is relatively narrow, and the Minister knows that it has been the subject of correspondence with, in particular, the British Humanist Association. I am an honorary associate of the National Secular Society, and I wish to record that. I am also a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has reported on this matter at least three times, backing in general terms the amendments that I am proposing.
The purpose of the amendments is, as the Minister and other hon. Members know, to widen one of the descriptions of charitable purpose—“the advancement of religion”, in clause 2(2)(c)—by adding the words “or belief”, using a definition of belief that is consistent with previous legislation. That should be the default position. The default position in law generally is that when we talk about religion now, we talk about religion and belief. The Government’s own admirable Equality Act 2006 did just that; the Communications Act 2003 did just that; and of course the parts of the Human Rights Act that deal with these issues, notably articles 9 and 14, are predicated on that basis.
The default position should be that the Bill says “religion or belief”, so that non-religious belief systems analogous to religion but not religious, and not simply non-theistic religious views but non-religious belief systems, are covered. So the Government need to provide an explanation, which I may or may not agree with, of why they have departed from what is the default position in modern legislation. I hope that they will realise that there is not a good enough explanation, and will accept the amendments.
Secondly, not to do that creates an issue of principle, which is that in our legislation, non-religious belief systems are being dealt with differently. There is an argument to be had about whether that has a practical impact; I believe that it has, although the Minister may claim that it has not. But regardless of whether there is as yet a visible practical impact, or has been in the past, there is a principled position, which must be explained.
I have certainly received representations, and I have seen a letter dated 18 September to the Minister from the British Humanist Association, which I shall refer to, setting out the practical impact of the fact that until now charities law has dealt with non-theistic belief systems in a different way, meaning that they have to jump through extra hoops and offer extra justifications to get the treatment under charity law that religious charities get almost by default. I intend to discuss that.
Finally, I shall draw attention to the Joint Committee on Human Rights report on this issue, because that Committee’s recommendation is to draw to the attention of both Houses the ongoing concerns.
I strongly support the hon. Gentleman’s amendments, which I have signed myself. I wondered whether he would give some idea of the proportion of the population who might be excluded in a sense from the coverage of the Bill if the word “belief” were not included.
It is hard to say, because the number of people signed up to humanism per se, through the British Humanist Association and other organisations, is not as extensive as for other religions. But as the hon. Gentleman knows, this is not a question of numbers because the Bill makes provision, as it should do, for small religions—even religions whose adherents are fewer than those who have actually consciously subscribed to a humanist belief system—to be recognised. I am sure that the Minister will be aware that there are significant numbers of people who say—for good reasons, I happen to think, although I am not a member of the British Humanist Association—that they have a non-religious view of life. At a time like this, given what is going on in the world, that is something that should at least not be discriminated against, and some may argue that it is a very laudable thing.
What I do not understand is, what belief system would not be covered by the definition of the advancement of education, health, citizenship or community development, arts, culture, heritage or science, or any of the other purposes listed elsewhere in the clause?
I was going to come on to the point that the Government have made about that. It is not that humanist or rationalist new organisations, for example, may not be able to get charitable status under another part of the clause. Indeed, the Government said in their response to reports from the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the catch-all, which used to be clause 2(2)(l) and is now clause 2(2)(m), and refers to subsection (4), would do. That is not the issue. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is not that those are not charitable activities; it is just that they should be dealt with in a straightforward way, in the same way as religious belief systems. It is easier, because of the specific mention of religion, for that to happen with religious belief systems.
For reasons of non-discrimination, the default ought to be “religion or belief”, as defined under the Human Rights Act 1998, introduced by this Government. That definition has stood the test of all the other recent Government Bills that have mentioned religion. This Bill is a curious departure. To argue that the situation is okay because those organisations will be able to do things some other way, which might or might not take them longer, is not an argument of principle, and it is an argument of principle that I want to hear from the Minister.
In the 18 September letter to the Minister, the chief executive of the British Humanist Association, Hanne Stinson, says that the BHA has never been given any reason why the separation of non-religious beliefs from religion is necessary or desirable. That is the key point, and if that is not addressed it will be hard for us to avoid pressing the amendment to a Division. We need some sort of explanation. The BHA says—and I agree—that the situation is objectionable on formal grounds as an obvious discrimination between religion and non-religious beliefs, even if no actual detriment is caused. It says that it would be likely to lead to detriment for non-religious beliefs as different bodies of case law or Charity Commission practice built up, because cases dealing with non-religious beliefs may well not be dealt with by the same staff or in the same context as those dealt with under another sub-heading. That is at least possible—some would say probable.
The BHA claims—I have seen the background to this—that Government assurances that there is no problem and that things will not be any more difficult are undermined by past Charity Commission practice and by Government assurances of special treatment for religion. I will give a brief example. It cites the Minister saying on Second Reading:
“it is right that public benefit must be shown, but…at least for religion, the obligation will not be onerous.”—[Official Report, 26 June 2006; Vol. 448, c. 96.]
As the reference is not to “religion or belief”, that can be taken, and is taken, to show that for religion the obligation may not be onerous, but it may be for things covered by the catch-all, or the items relating to education that were mentioned by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). We know from other debates that education is a difficult ground for which to show public benefit.
The Government need to be aware that in practical terms, there has been an impact. The BHA goes on to explain that past practice shows that it can be onerous to get charitable status for a rationalist or humanist belief. The Rationalist Association sought registration as a charity in February 2001 and put in an amended application in November 2001. The process took another 15 months after the amended application was made, and there was endless correspondence with a variety of Charity Commission staff, each pursuing different lines of unnecessary inquiry, before at last the application was approved in exactly the amended terms proposed in November 2001. That cost a lot of money and delay.
The commission made the following assertion in the course of that correspondence:
“the promotion of Rationalism and Humanism in themselves … is not a charitable activity”.
Would the commission ever write to a Christian charity to say that the promotion of Christianity in itself is not a charitable activity? I believe that debates will show that if anything, assurances have been given that the straight promotion of, for example, Christianity is to be considered a charitable activity in itself, before the other test about public benefit, which we might debate later, is passed. I share the BHA’s view that that is
“the clearest demonstration of blatant discrimination against non-religious beliefs by the Commission and of the need for the Bill to bring religious and non-religious beliefs together under the same head so as to deter to some extent at least such detrimental treatment of humanist charities in the future.”
It has been argued that because there is a wide variety of non-religious beliefs, they demand special scrutiny. However, the same applies to religion. There are a multitude of religions. The Government have been reluctant—I do not argue with this—to define religion in statute, but have recognised that there will be a number of religions. The non-religious beliefs that qualify under the Human Rights Act as being governed by article 9 are already delimited by case law, and non-religious beliefs are no different from religious ones in being required to show public benefit. One can always argue about Scientology and so forth, but the same arguments that might apply to non-religious belief systems apply to some—some might say all—religious belief systems. I am talking about the questions that need to be addressed.
Just as the Government do not get drawn into giving lists of examples—rightly so—I am not going to be. The understanding of the definition of belief in the Human Rights Act, which is the definition that I have proposed and that the Government use in all other legislation, clearly does not cover political belief systems. There is not a shred of jurisprudence to suggest that it ever would. The definition is meant to refer, does refer, and is understood to refer, to rationalist and humanist belief systems, for example. I am not an expert in these matters. We all have other things to be getting on with rather than worrying about the meaning of life, even at a time like this. However, the people who are affected have written to express their views. There will be humanists and rationalists in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I know that he will think about these things deeply before deciding whether to opt for a discriminatory, or apparently discriminatory, approach, and he will have their interests and feelings in his mind as he decides his position.
I want to cover what the Joint Committee on Human Rights has said and then I will draw my remarks to a close. The Committee was clear in its scrutiny of the draft Charities Bill. In paragraph 5.23 of its report of 1 November 2004—its 20th report of that Session—it stated, after setting out the Government’s response that they were satisfied that organisations advancing non-religious beliefs would not be disadvantaged under the Bill as currently drafted:
“We remain of the view that Convention compliance could best be supported by including the advancement of non-religious beliefs as a charitable purpose under clause 2(2)(c)”—
I believe that that is still clause 2(2)(c) several versions later—
“and we draw this matter to the attention of both Houses.”
The Committee went on to comment on that in its report on the Charities Bill in the last Session. It set out its detailed argument in paragraphs 3.11 to 3.15. I will not repeat that, but the Committee did want to reiterate the following point, in paragraph 3.15:
“Whilst we appreciate that clause 2(2)(l)”—
—now clause 2(2)(m), which refers to the subsection (4) catch-all—
“is capable of application in the way suggested by the government, we remain of the view that protection of Article 9 rights on an equal basis could most effectively and clearly be ensured by provision on the face of the Bill, expressly extending clause 2(2)(c) to cover all religious and non-religious organisations which promote systems of belief. As we stated in our report on the draft Bill, at a minimum, guidelines under the Bill must clarify that organisations advancing all forms of both religious and non-religious beliefs protected by Article 9 would be accorded recognition under either clause 2(2)(c) or clause 2(2)(l) on an equal basis.”
If guidelines are going to say, “Use clause 2(2)(c) to cover non-religious belief systems,” why not just include “religion or belief” and make the statute look like what the guidance needs to be?
Finally, the Joint Committee on Human Rights returned to the matter in its latest report on the subject, the first report of the 2005-06 Session. It recognised that there had been some improvement, because a definition of religion had been included. I want to record on behalf of the Committee, informally, our recognition that that was done. In paragraph 1.8, the Committee states:
“We welcome the broad definition of religion in clause 2(3)(a), as supporting the Article 9 and Article 14 rights of those promoting non-theistic or multi-theistic religions. However we support the conclusion of the previous committee that, whilst compatibility with Article 9 and Article 14 could be achieved in practice”—
I believe that that is arguable—by application of the catch-all
“as proposed by the government, such compliance would best be assured by a definition which extended to non-religious belief systems falling within the protection of Article 9 ECHR. We draw this to the attention of both Houses.”
We thus have not only arguments of principle, but the fact that the default is to use a definition such as that proposed. We also have three recommendations of the Joint Committee, which was set up by Parliament to advise it on human rights and discrimination, and a practical impact—and we have heard in return no convincing arguments of principle from the Government about why they are not doing what I propose.
The problem is that there will be attempts—amendment No. 126, which was tabled by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), is an example—to treat religion as not requiring a public benefit test. If that were ever to come to pass it would clearly breach article 14, which addresses the duty of non-discrimination in respect of rights enjoyed under article 9, and exacerbate the existing system. The Government could solve such problems by accepting my amendments today.
May I speak briefly to Government amendment No. 3? I have a close association with the British Chess Federation, which has lobbied the Minister hard on the need not to have a provision in the Bill that would exclude the federation a priori from justifying its pursuit, which is enjoyed by many disabled and elderly people, as a sport of the mind. The federation would wish me to put on record its thanks to the Government and the Minister, who will have free entry to any chess club in the land—and they are pretty wild places—and to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) for raising the matter in Committee. The Government have done a good thing by tabling that amendment, so I hope that they will also do a good thing for the humanists, not all of whom play chess.
The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) will not be surprised to hear that I wish to speak about the issue that he just raised. I welcome Government amendment No. 3 because it is clearly intended to include activities such as chess in the scope of the clause on the advancement of amateur sport. I applaud that, because the promotion of chess will bring a huge public benefit for not only people who are disabled or elderly, but young people, especially. When we talk about chess, it is often not recognised that it does not require mental agility and concentration alone. At higher levels, a lot of physical effort is required to engage in a match lasting perhaps several hours.
Cheddleton and Leek chess club, which is one of the most successful chess clubs in the country, is in my constituency, and plays at national level in the four nations chess league. It has produced five British junior champions and one visually impaired international player, so I can tell the Conservative Members who are smiling that it is not a joke club.
Charitable status would enable the club to attract even more people into the sport, and would mean that it could put on more events such as its successful annual congress, which draws many people, including international masters and grand masters, to Leek. The club could then also provide much more coaching for young people. It always holds a session on Friday nights for the adult and junior clubs, and also goes into schools to promote chess.
The Cheddleton and Leek club grew out of the passion of many young chess players. Back in 1973, chess was on the junior school curriculum, but there was nowhere for the youngsters to play after they got into high school. They thus pleaded with a teacher, Robert Milner, to set up a club so that they could continue to play. It is absolutely remarkable that the same Robert Milner is leading the club today; he should be congratulated on that.
Chess remains on the curriculum at St. Edward’s middle school, because it is recognised that chess hugely improves pupils’ concentration and benefits their learning potential overall. When I was a school governor in London, a team of young black students took on many private schools in south London and did remarkably well. Many of those students played chess in their playgrounds on the benches provided. Chess gave them huge motivation and massively improved their concentration and learning potential.
The Cheddleton and Leek club now boasts a junior section with 70 members, and its overall membership is more than 100. It has nine teams in the junior league. Many of the youngsters take on older players—frequently beating them—and there is a great rapport between the students, who can be as young as eight, and club members in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and even 80s. The club does a tremendous job locally and should receive recognition for it. I am extremely grateful for Government amendment No. 3, because it will ensure that the club can get on the road to charitable status, which will allow it to get the support that it deserves and continue its valuable work in the community. I hope that other chess clubs throughout the country will follow its good example.
I speak in support of amendment No. 122, which I tabled. It is essentially a probing amendment, so I do not think that I will press it to a Division, unless I am greatly encouraged to do so by my hon. Friends. In any event, I pay tribute straight away to the Minister for his kindness in talking to me about the matter earlier, which was much appreciated. I hope that he will be able to respond constructively to what I say. In the simplest of terms, the amendment would widen the definition of sport in the Bill so that it included sports or disciplines open to competition in games organised by the International Olympic Committee, the International Paralympic Committee, or the Commonwealth Games Federation.