Wednesday 25 October 2006
[Mrs. Janet Dean in the Chair]
Troop Withdrawal (Iraq)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Roy.]
In the next hour and a half we will debate whether it is time to bring our troops home from Iraq. I am grateful for this opportunity to raise such an important matter that is of grave concern to my constituents and their families, and I am grateful that the Minister will be responding.
This is surely a debate that we should be having not in this ante-Chamber, but on the Floor of the House on a Government motion that sets out their strategy. We have had a vote on the commencement of military action and after three and a half years surely we should have a vote on whether it is time to end it. In the next few weeks or months, Prime Minister al-Maliki will put the question of an extension to the coalition’s mandate, which runs out on 31 December this year, to a vote in the Iraqi National Assembly. Some Iraqi politicians argue for a two-year extension and some for a year with an option for renewal. The UN Security Council will be invited to support an extension to the mandate. The Iraqi politicians will vote, diplomats will vote and it seems only right and proper that the elected representatives of the people whose fate is being decided should also be allowed to vote.
On that important point, does the hon. Gentleman know that when challenged to provide such a debate, the Leader of the House said that there was no time before Prorogation and that he hoped the Opposition would choose foreign affairs as the subject for a debate on the Queen’s Speech? That would mean we would not have a vote on a motion and the subject would range widely. Surely, between now and Prorogation it would be easy to schedule some Lords amendments for after the moment of interruption on a Wednesday and free up a Tuesday to have this debate on the Floor of the House in Government time and with a proper motion.
Absolutely. That is a strong point. It is surely not incumbent on the Opposition to provide the opportunity for us to have this vital debate—it should be on the initiative of the Government. The House has not had a full debate with a vote on Government policy on Iraq since the war began. Congress had a debate as recently as June, which led to the creation of the Iraq Survey Group under the chairmanship of James Baker, about which we have read so much recently. Here, we are simply told by the Prime Minister that there is no shift in the policy or change in the strategy. What policy? What strategy? If the Government have a timetable with concrete objectives, it is time they presented it to Parliament so that we can debate it.
The sad state of affairs is that our political leaders are hostages to American policy and are too frightened to say anything that might pre-empt what President Bush might say or do.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s arguments with great interest. Does he not think that it is revealing that on 10 July last year, The Mail on Sunday published what was essentially the operational order for the withdrawal by last Christmas of British troops almost in their entirety? One can only assume that American pressure did not allow that to happen.
Indeed. Unfortunately we learn more through leaks to the papers and odd, unscripted, off-the-cuff remarks from certain senior military figures than we ever do from the Government speaking on the Floor of the House. That is the sad reality. The hon. Gentleman also makes a wider point that unfortunately we have ceded our autonomy on policy on the Iraq war to the US almost entirely. Surely that has to change.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman carefully. He is a little political in his speech so far. I am sure that he will want to address carefully the thing that has actually changed: how a withdrawal of troops can help minimise the loss of military and civilian lives in Iraq, secure a longer-term, more secure democracy in Iraq, and help to return trust and faith in this Parliament.
On the charge of bringing politics into this Chamber, I plead guilty, but let us turn to the core issue. My principal view is that the invasion was illegal and the fact that we “kicked in the door”, to use General Dannatt’s phrase, robbed us of the moral legitimacy and the practical capacity to rebuild the country we had destroyed. In those circumstances, the only sensible option is to withdraw our troops and find other more constructive ways of meeting our obligations to the Iraqi people.
There are those, including people who opposed the war, who have argued that we have a responsibility to stay in Iraq to clear up the mess we have created. Although I disagree with that analysis, I accept that it is an entirely honourable position.
My hon. Friend will recall that some 14 months ago I went out to Iraq and came back believing that a withdrawal should be events-led. Since then, we have seen no events to give a firm indication that things are improving. Therefore, I agree with his arguments and have changed my view.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s candour. There has been a debate in our party and a range of views was expressed. As I said, it is an entirely honourable position to argue that we should stay to clear up the mess we created, as long as the occupation has any realistic or conceivable chance of success, but that opportunity is long gone.
John Humphrys on the radio this morning said that if British troops were to leave, there would almost certainly be civil war and the country would split up into several different parts. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the integrity of Iraq is an important principle, or would he be happy to see the country segregated?
As the Foreign Secretary has said: it is ultimately a matter for the people of Iraq, and they must have self-determination in that. I will return to the issue of civil war, but I think that it has already arrived. Sadly, that is the daily reality on the ground in Iraq. On partition, it is in no one’s interests to see a bloody partition in Iraq. That is clear. In the constitution, a three-state model is in effect already emerging. Unfortunately, the Shi’a political leadership has alienated the Sunni minority by unilaterally announcing the creation of a super Shi’ite region in the south-east, so partition is already happening.
Does my hon. Friend also accept that the Iraq Study Group seems to be moving towards discussing the break-up of Iraq and the involvement of Turkey, Iran and Syria in its affairs? That is in some ways very dangerous, especially for the Kurdish region with its history between the Kurds and the Turks. Does he agree that for political reasons the Americans are already moving towards that?
There is a case for a regional security conference involving the major powers in the region, but that would clearly also be fraught with geo-political difficulty, not least for the US because it would be forced to speak to the former members of the axis of evil. Certainly, anything that can address border security along the western and eastern borders is welcome. The southern and northern borders are secure. The Saudis have built a 550-mile electric fence along the border to the south. Sadly, that is not the case to the west and east.
My view is that whether we stay or go, it is clear, unfortunately, that Iraq will remain at war with itself for some time to come. The question is whether extricating ourselves now would lead to further escalation of the violence. None of us can say for sure what would happen, but if we are no longer sure whether British servicemen and women putting their lives at risk day in, day out, does more harm than good, we have to ask ourselves seriously whether we should be there at all.
One thing is certain in my mind: the war is no longer winnable in any meaningful sense of the word. Of course, that is difficult for Bush and the Prime Minister, because it means admitting that their policy has failed. That is why, to use Bob Woodward’s phrase, they have been in a “state of denial”. Staying the course has been a policy based on self-deception. The policy prescription has been based on paralysis and an inability to face uncomfortable facts. The first thing that we need in this discussion, therefore, is some honesty and humility from the Government—an admission that the policy to date has failed and the strategy has been disastrous.
The Government said that we were in Iraq to prevent civil war, but if what is happening now is not civil war, I do not know what is. The number of bodies processed in the central Baghdad morgue in May 2006 was double that for May 2005, and the May figure has been surpassed by the figures for July, August and September. The figure for October will probably be even worse again. The number of daily strikes against Americans doubled in the first six months of this year and has increased even further in the months since. The latest information, for this month, is that the average number of reported Iraqi deaths is 41 a day. However, the United Nations says that, because of under-reporting, the actual number is probably closer to 100 a day.
There are more bombs, and the bombs are bigger and more sophisticated, killing more people than ever. It is not just me saying that. According to a senior US Department of Defence official quoted in The New York Times:
“The insurgency has more public support and is demonstrably more capable in numbers of people active and in its ability to direct violence than at any point in time.”
It is no wonder that many Iraqis now say that life is worse for them than it was under Saddam. We will listen carefully to the Minister’s words for an acknowledgement that the situation in Iraq is nothing less than terrible.
Does the hon. Gentleman recall that the reason for going to Iraq was not to remove a dictator, but because weapons of mass destruction were going to be sent within 45 minutes and potentially would hit British interests in Cyprus or wherever? Will he also reflect on the fact that the General Officer Commanding suggested recently that the presence of British troops was a factor causing the violence that is now taking place? That being the case, does it not strengthen the argument for withdrawal?
Absolutely. That is the critical point. I accept that statement. The original delusion or deception, depending on one’s interpretation, that was at the heart of the Government’s war policy has followed through into self-delusion and deception in their description of how the occupation has proceeded. What we need now is clarity and honesty from the Government about how terrible the situation is.
There have been so many turning points. We have been given promises about the occupation. We were told that the violent opposition would end as soon as Saddam was captured. We were told that the situation would improve once there were elections, then once there was a constitution, then once there was a Government and then once Zarqawi was killed. All those things have happened, yet the situation has only deteriorated. The longer we stay, the worse it gets. The lesson is clear. As the hon. Gentleman said, we cannot become the cure if we are the source of the problem, and every day we stay we make a bad situation worse. General Dannatt is not alone in those views.
In January 2004, when I first went to Iraq, to a relatively peaceful part of Maysan province, the Shi’a people there said to me, “Things are fine and they will improve as long as you, the allies, can guarantee security. If you can’t, we will face what amounts to a civil war.” In a very good piece on the radio this morning, which has been mentioned, John Humphrys said exactly that. Security has not been guaranteed and the situation is deteriorating. Without troops, how do people have security?
The hon. Gentleman is right. However, it is in the nature of military occupation that there is a time-limited window of opportunity, beyond which, even if people were welcomed at first, the relationship between occupier and occupied begins to sour. My reading of General Dannatt’s thesis is that we have gone beyond that point, and at some point the situation becomes irredeemable.
As I said, General Dannatt is not alone in his view. The Los Angeles Times reported in October last year that some US generals believed that
“US troops are increasingly part of the problem…the presence of US forces was fuelling the insurgency, fostering an undesirable dependency on American troops among the nascent Iraqi armed forces and energizing terrorists across the Middle East.”
The most recent demonstration of that has been the massive two-month sweep in Baghdad, Operation Together Forward, which even US General William Caldwell acknowledges to have been a failure, with a 43 per cent. increase in attacks against the US since midsummer. Where we retreat—in Amarah or, for the Americans, in Balad—violence erupts, but where we return to the streets, even worse violence erupts, because our presence provides the insurgents with a target and a reason for increasing their attacks.
Polls from the US State Department show decisively that a majority of Iraqis, whether Sunni or Shi’a, want US and coalition troops to leave Iraq immediately; that they feel less safe as a result of the occupation; and that they think the occupation is spurring, not suppressing, sectarian strife. In short, if the decision were up to ordinary Iraqis, the occupation would end. As we saw from the opinion polls yesterday, if it were up to ordinary people in this country, the occupation would end. For a war allegedly fought in the name of democracy, the willingness of the Government to frustrate the will of the people, whether in Iraq or in this country, is breathtaking.
We are part of the problem. We are not the whole problem, because the Iraqi security forces meant to replace us are, unfortunately, part of the problem, too.
In recognising the bravery and distinction of the troops who have been sent to Iraq in our name, an ever-growing number of them, many of whom I represent, feel that they have been put in an invidious situation and wish for proper political leadership, rather than the donkeys who sent them into an illegal conflict in the first place.
I have to agree, having spoken to servicemen and women and their families in my constituency. I am not a military man, but it is not sustainable at a human level, when we talk about people on their third deployment, to think about the occupation continuing for years.
On the Iraqi security forces, new reports from about 2004 onwards have suggested that the US trained and supported Iraqi commando brigades—the Wolf Brigade and the special police commandos being the pre-eminent examples—and that elements of those brigades operated as death squads by abducting and assassinating thousands of Iraqis in extra-judicial killings.
Earlier this month, we read that the 8th Iraqi police unit was responsible for the kidnapping on 1 October of 26 Sunni food factory workers in the Amil quarter of south-west Baghdad, of whom seven were shot dead. Ministry of Interior vehicles were used in that kidnapping, and most of the men wore Iraqi police uniforms. Minister Al-Bolani has suspended the police unit from official duties and confined its members to base for the time being, but instead of facing punishment, according to Adnan Thabit, the director-general of the Iraqi police, they are
“going to be rehabilitated and brought back to service”.
It was UK policy to train and recruit the militia into the security forces. There was no infiltration: we invited them in. The evidence of the Ministry of Defence to the Select Committee on Defence in 2004 was:
“The Coalition’s policy is to encourage individual members, from the Badr Corps in particular, to join the New Iraqi Army or another official organisation.”
We know that the United States trained the special forces within the Ministry of Interior under the Salvador option, which was so called because they were trained up by Colonel James Steele, commander of the US military advisory group when the CIA trained the death squads in central America. In the light of that, how did the Minister come to tell the Defence Committee last year:
“There is no indication that private armies are developing under the control of one powerful minister to be used in the way in which Saddam Hussein would have used his security forces.”?
How much of an indication of that does he need? People have been found tortured in secret Ministry of Interior jails, and half of the police in Sadr city have pictures of Moqtada al-Sadr on their patrol cars. Almost every time a Sunni gets abducted it is by people in uniform. Far from acting as a brake on sectarian violence, the policies that we have pursued have helped to ferment it. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response on that.
The national reconciliation conference has been cancelled four times, incredibly, by the Iraqi Government. They have refused to ban militia in the security forces and refused to deal fairly with the Sunnis when sharing out the oil wealth. Why have they taken that stance? Because we have given them the blank cheque of unconditional support. If the UK Government are not prepared to consider the option of immediate withdrawal, then a firm and finite timetable for withdrawal would at least provide some leverage through which political progress on the ground could at last begin to flow, but it may already be too late for that.
Prime Minister al-Maliki’s grip on power is far from secure. As we read at the weekend, there is widespread discussion in political and intelligence circles in Baghdad about the creation of a five-man military commission—a junta, effectively—to replace the Government. There is talk about imposing martial law in Baghdad and dissolving Parliament. In the interests of British servicemen and women and their families, will the Minister give a categorical assurance that any move to military rule in Iraq would result in the immediate and unilateral evacuation of British troops, and that we will provide no support—tacit, express, direct or indirect—for such a move? Whatever happens in the next few months, there are no perfect or peaceful solutions for the people of Iraq in the short term. Iraq’s future can be decided only by Iraqis.
It is argued that withdrawal from Iraq would be a propaganda victory for the terrorists, but our intelligence and US intelligence suggests that the opposite is true, and that our continued presence in Iraq is the biggest recruiting sergeant for al-Qaeda throughout the entire world. It is important to place on record that those of us who are calling for troop withdrawal certainly are not saying that we should abandon the Iraqi people. The war has had terrible consequences for them and we have responsibilities as a result. We should make a commitment to make reparations for the suffering that we have caused—not just the invasion and the occupation, but the 12 years of sanctions that devastated millions but did nothing to harm the political elite, and all those years that we in the UK and the US supported and armed Saddam while he committed his worst atrocities. What we now need for Iraq is a Marshall plan, over decades, to which we can contribute, along with some of the oil-rich countries of the Gulf. We have an obligation to the Iraqi people, but we cannot meet that obligation through a military strategy that cannot succeed.
I think that it is fair to say that some kind of watershed has been reached in discussions when the head of the armed forces and the leader writer of The Daily Telegraph both call for the withdrawal of British troops. The Government must now realise that their policy of the last three and a half years is no longer sustainable. Stubbornly sticking to a flawed strategy will simply cost more lives without bringing us any closer to achieving our goals. It is time for us to leave.
Of course, we have been here before—literally. I have a letter from a certain Colonel T. E. Lawrence to The Times in July 1920. In his letter he says of the Iraqis:
“They waited and welcomed the news of our mandate, because they thought it meant…self-government for themselves. They are now losing hope in our good intentions. A remedy? I can see a cure only in immediate change of policy. The whole logic of the present thing looks wrong. Why should Englishmen…have to be killed to make the Arab Government in Mesopotamia, which is the considered intention of his Majesty’s Government?”
He went on to argue for complete withdrawal from Iraq in 12 months. They did not listen to him then and we stayed for another 12 bloody years. Let us not make the same mistake again.
In February 2003, I was happy to march against the imminent war, because I thought that the case had not been made and that Hans Blix had been stopped prematurely. I was also convinced that the timetable had more to do with the presidential elections than the situation on the ground. But, like a lot of people, I refuse to be frozen in time.
Back then, I was the president of Unison and a member of the TUC general council. We took the strategic decision to help to build a trade union movement in Iraq, and we invested members’ money in doing that. We organised training sessions for shop stewards from Iraq in the UK, then in Jordan, and ultimately in Kurdistan. We gave solidarity and financial support, helped to build their organisations and brought trade union representatives to the United Kingdom. Indeed, representatives have visited the Durham miners gala and spoken at schools in my constituency to explain what is really happening.
Before Saddam, there was a good, strong union base in Iraq. When Saddam came to power, he did his best to wipe out trade unions. Now that he has gone, there are 250,000 active trade unionists in Iraq. I am not happy that we went to war, but I am happy that a trade union movement exists in Iraq, and that would not have happened without our intervention. Whether we like it or not, our intervention is seen as a positive by many working people in Iraq, but they are concerned about some of the things that are going on there, particularly with decree 8750, which the Government brought in last year. The decree says that the relevant Government committee
“must take control of all monies belonging to the trade unions and prevent them from dispensing…such monies.”
In addition, a new paper is being proposed
“on how trade unions should function, operate and organise.”
That is absolutely out of order, and the decree has been condemned by the International Labour Organisation, the British Government and the TUC. If we can prevent the Iraqi Government from insisting that it is implemented, that might give people faith in our Government and bring some honour to Ministers.
The people I have been dealing with are not the political elites, but real people—the people who were hurt most by the war and by Saddam Hussein, who spent 20 years trying to wipe them off the face off the earth. Some 180,000 people were killed in Kurdistan, and 4,500 villages were wiped off the face of the earth. The people I spoke to asked not whether it was right or wrong for us to go to war in 2003, but where we were in 1985 when we could have stopped such things happening. Historians will certainly reflect on that question.
This year, I led a delegation to Kurdistan on behalf of Labour Friends of Iraq. The people there were clear that our intervention was positive and that we were giving them a chance to rebuild their country and their infrastructure and to develop an industrial base from which to grow. Although they ultimately want us out of their country, we were told by a group of 22 trade unionists from Baghdad and Basra that it was not safe for us to leave yet, and that was the view of most of the people we met, who included trade unionists, workers and representatives of local and regional government in Kurdistan. Yesterday, I checked with the international representative of some of those people in this country, and they still have that view.
I am aware of that situation, but I am also aware that the TUC and most trade unions in this country have recognised the Iraqi Federation of Workers Trade Unions, which is clear that it would not be helpful for us to withdraw unilaterally.
We should not be listening to armchair theorists, political opportunists or enemies of democracy, who would tell us to get out, because that would leave the Iraqi people and Iraqi workers in a vulnerable situation. We should listen to real people, such as Hangar Khan, the regional secretary of the Kurdistan Workers Union. Disgracefully, he was again refused admission into this country because of the visa situation. He was coming to speak at the TUC, but he was not allowed to. However, he sent us a message telling us that people in Iraq still need our support and the support of working people so that they can feel secure in their daily lives.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about Kurdistan, and the issue bothers me greatly in terms of the situation in Iraq. However, the Iraq study group appears to be suggesting that the Americans move towards a balkanisation of Iraq, with the possible involvement of Turkey. In those circumstances, does the hon. Gentleman worry about the state of Kurdistan? Will the continuing situation with the Americans help the Kurds?
I am very worried about the state that Kurdistan finds itself in. Although we met representatives from the whole country, the people I dealt with were mainly Kurds, and they would like their own country. As they said to me, however, they live in a tough neighbourhood and they realise the reality of the situation that they face. They are quite prepared to go along with the idea of developing a genuinely federal Iraq in which everyone’s voice is heard.
It is clear that the Iraqi military is not up to the job. It is under-skilled, under-equipped, badly motivated and severely infiltrated by the militia. If we pull out, things will only get worse in the short term. I am not saying that we should stop in Iraq for ever, and we should listen to the study groups, but we should listen much more to the real people on the ground.
I welcome this debate and congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) on securing it.
I shall be brief because others want to speak, but we should just consider the Lancet report, which came out last week or the week before and which indicated that 650,000 people have died in Iraq since the invasion in 2003. The death rate is accelerating as a result of insurgencies and all the problems associated with the disruption of normal civilian life. There is no prospect of it falling while British and American forces remain there and, in the words of General Dannatt, become part of the problem, not part of the solution.
This morning, Radio 4’s “Today” programme came from Basra, but the most interesting thing was that those working on the programme had to fly in by helicopter at night because it was not safe to fly during the day. Similarly, the British diplomats who have been assigned to work there have never been out of the security zone in the months that they have been there. Government officials in Baghdad have never been outside the green zone in the months, if not years, that they have been there, and the situation is getting worse.
The Prime Minister tells us that we will stay until the job is done, but how does he define “job done”? How long will that be? I believe that the military would like to pull out, and General Dannatt is probably saying what a lot of military people are thinking. Having hitched ourselves to a US bandwagon in 2003, however, the problem is that we are stuck with the policies that the US chooses to follow in Iraq.
Some people say that we are stuck in the time warp of 2003, but it is worth recalling what happened that year and before. Britain and the US substantially supported Saddam Hussein during the 1970s and 1980s. He bought large numbers of arms from British, American and other companies and made himself very powerful on the basis of that. The war between Iran and Iraq was devastating for both countries, and it probably suited political leaders in both countries to have a war with each other at that time. We then had Saddam Hussein’s bizarre invasion of Kuwait, the 1991 Gulf war and the years of sanctions, with all the problems that they created. As the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr said, those sanctions did little to damage the elite, but a great deal to damage the lives of ordinary people.
Bizarrely, George Bush then announced that the axis of evil included Iraq and that the country was the centre of terrorist activity, but there was no evidence whatever for that. Yes, Saddam Hussein was a brutal leader and a bad person, and it is absolutely true that Iraq was not a nice place, but it was not the centre of terrorist activity that George Bush claimed it was.
Then, there were the totally erroneous claims about weapons of mass destruction, on the basis of which troops were committed and a war took place. Iraq has now become a magnet for every kind of terrorist in the region and it will continue to be one as long as British and American forces remain there.
Weapons of mass destruction did not exist in Iraq. When the history books are written, they will show that January 2003 was one of the key turning points. They will ask what on earth Britain and the USA were doing in January 2003 preventing the weapons inspectors from returning to Iraq to prove finally whether there were weapons of mass destruction there. The die was cast with George Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq, which I believe was taken in April 2002. We are apparently incapable of saying no to the United States on anything, so we had to go into that war.
Where do we go from here? Politically, there have been elections in Iraq, and Saddam Hussein is no longer president. As someone who never supported him or apologised in any way for his actions, I am glad that he is no longer the president and that there has been some change in that respect—nobody who opposed the war supported dictatorship. However, we have to ask what British and American forces are doing now, other than making the situation worse, costing us a great deal and politically damaging not only George Bush—I am not particularly bothered about that—but the Labour party and the political process in this country.
The 1 million-plus people who marched against the war in February 2003 probably represent about 10 per cent. of all those who voted Labour in the previous general election. That is a very large figure. Opinion polls then were against the war, and now they are stronger than ever against it. Every Member of the House knows that the war is unpopular with all sections of our community. The occupying forces also know full well that the presence of British and American troops in Iraq is unpopular.
We must, therefore, take some hard decisions. Are we going to stay there, spending more money and losing more lives, with more civilians dying, more insurgents coming in and more destruction going on, with the country probably being broken up into warring zones, or are we going to take the political decision that the policy has not been successful and that it is necessary to leave Iraq as soon as practicable? I think that the results of the US elections in a few weeks will force the American political and military establishment to that conclusion. I would have thought that we were capable of thinking this through ourselves, and deciding that it is indeed time to get out of Iraq.
The public do not support the present situation; the military in this country are unhappy about it. The war was illegal in the first place and our continued presence in Iraq will not bring about peace or justice. It will just bring about an ever-worsening situation. I honestly believe that it is time to leave Iraq.
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) on obtaining the debate, and I apologise for not being here for the beginning of his remarks.
The title of the debate of course forces us to look forward rather than back. We could all discuss how we got into this position. I voted for the invasion in 2003, along with the majority of my colleagues, but I am at least on the record as saying in May 2004 that we had become part of the problem in Iraq, not part of the solution, and as having asked the Secretary of State for Defence in 2003 what on earth we thought we were doing disbanding the Iraqi army, which now looks to have been an utterly disastrous decision.
However, the objective of everyone taking part in the debate is the same: to achieve a satisfactory withdrawal of British forces as soon as practicable. That is the question that we have to address. My only concern is that much of the Government’s rhetoric of “until the job is done” implies that we shall be in Iraq for a very long time. Regrettably, in our current position we face a series of ugly choices, and we shall not be able to achieve the withdrawal in circumstances that we control.
The “until the job is done” approach is the wrong one now, and the nearest historical parallel would appear to be pre-partition India. The Labour Government faced a difficult decision, given the escalating violence between the various communities in India, and indeed they brought forward the date of partition to try to deal with it as quickly as possible, recognising that the situation over which they were presiding was rapidly going out of the control of the British authorities in India. That is a rather similar position to the one in which we find ourselves today.
I listened to the Secretary of State for Defence describing the operations that British troops are carrying out in Basra, and it sounded like a repeat of the record I heard in 2004. We were sweeping through Basra to try to create new security arrangements, block by block. We were attending to the training of the police. We were doing great work on the infrastructure and key services such as water and schools.
I went to Basra with the Select Committee on Defence in May 2004 and we were shown all those things happening. We were shown the Iraqi police undergoing riot training and the rest, but one had simply to scratch beneath the surface and talk not to the Iraqi police commander, who knew the rhetoric to use in addressing visiting foreign politicians, but to some of his subordinates in the more junior ranks to get a different perspective on what they thought they were about.
The request from those people was simply, “Give us the weapons that you have all got here and push off, then we will be able to deal with it. We need heavy machine guns and armour, then we will be able to do our job properly.” We have taught the senior policemen the rhetoric, but two and a half years later we have seen that the police, as we heard from the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr, are utterly infiltrated by the various warring factions.
We face an extremely ugly dilemma about how we get out. The fact is that the effect we are having in trying to train the police and build up the security infrastructure, which are thoroughly laudable, is being set against the other factors entailing the collapse of the security situation in front of us. I fear that throughout the past two and a half years at least, we have been losing the battle.
The factors that we have been trying to reinforce have been losing out, as is evidenced by the appalling number of casualties resulting from the collapse of security. Of course, it looks, therefore, as if a situation resembling that in Algeria or Lebanon will come about. The difficulty for our Government and the United States Government is the responsibility that we shall bear, and the attempt to set down the time lines and conditions for mitigating those circumstances as far as possible. We must find a way forward in which the firestorm of hate that is building up between the communities in Iraq burns itself out as rapidly as possible—not, I hope, with casualties at the appalling level of the conflict in Algeria or, in relative terms, the Lebanese civil war.
These are the rather ugly dilemmas that we face, and I hope that the Government can encourage the Government of the United States, in the debate that is now taking place there, to grasp the nettle of those decisions sooner rather than later. Delay in the past two and a half years has meant a worsening of the situation; the dilemmas have been made more difficult.
I am delighted by the unanimity of the feeling being expressed about the chaos in Iraq. I have tried to think of a comparable conflict, but I cannot think of any in which the threats have come from so many quarters, police have been fighting police and soldiers have fought other security forces, and there have been similar tribal and religious divisions, as well as the division between the three main communities.
The chaos is enormously complex, but it is chaos created by us—not just as an international force, but as a Parliament. If we look through the terrible decisions taken by Parliament over the years, this is the worst. Some such decisions were taken by Governments—for example, over Suez and the Boer war—but the decision on Iraq was taken by us, in this House, uniquely.
It was a decision within which 139 Labour MPs courageously voted against the three-line Whip, to their great credit. Fifty other Labour MPs who opposed the war, and had also signed early-day motions and various other proposals, were persuaded—bullied, I am afraid—bamboozled or deluded into believing that to vote with the Government would be a good thing. Many of them bitterly regret the fact that the Labour Whips persuaded them, and if those 50 had joined the 139 we should not have joined Bush’s war in Iraq. The issue was clear at the time; there was no question about it. The 16 Conservatives who voted against their party’s wishes also deserve credit, as do other hon. Members who voted against the war.
I think that the only difference between me and the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) on this matter is that I prefer to believe that the way the Prime Minister presented the issue to us was a delusion, rather than a deception. Delusion it was, however, and a terrible mistake. We should in no way be complacent about attitudes to such things. I recall fondly an answer that I received from Mr. William Waldegrave to a parliamentary question that I tabled five months before the first Iraq war, asking the Conservative Government to beef up the International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear programme. It was a dismissive reply that put me in my place. I was told that I should realise that Saddam Hussein had signed the international non-proliferation treaty, so the Government had full confidence that Iraq would abide by its international obligations and not work on the development of nuclear weapons. We had a shared deception at the time.
I make this brief contribution because I share the view of other hon. Members that, having created the mess, we have an obligation to sort it out. I have seen the recent developments, the most telling of which was perhaps an incident where a convoy containing military personnel took a wrong turning down a side road. No one had any idea that there was someone coming or that anything was planned. The convoy reached a dead end and turned round, and was then spontaneously attacked on the short return journey up the street. The attack resulted in deaths.
That incident shows that the main purpose in life of the troops in their stockades is to defend themselves. If they go out on patrol, they become targets. As has been rightly said by military people and others, their presence exacerbates the dangers. What do we do in that situation? There is no clear answer or simple decision that we can take. We need to debate the matter, and the most useful thing we can do is set a timetable.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the other reasons why we must move to the next stage is the reconstruction of Iraq? One subject that has not been touched on today is its water and electricity supply, and health and education services. They cannot be reconstructed until this phase ends.
That is true. Whichever way one looks at the situation in Iraq—as far as the provision of electricity and water is concerned, and the way that all the misery there is going—in so many ways things are worse than they were under Saddam Hussein. We all wanted him to go, but let us consider even the rate of deaths. The Lancet report suggests 600,000 deaths, and we know about the 119 British deaths. Did those people die in vain? We do not want to ask that question, but what on earth can we say that their courage and the sacrifice of their lives were about? The same applies in respect of 2,500 Americans.
Every other indication—for example, the way that the middle classes moved out to Syria and Jordan—shows the same thing: the country is in a dreadful state and we must take responsibility for it. What a shame that we cannot do so as a Parliament. We do not have the confidence to have our own inquiry into our reasons for going to war. We will be told that we have had four inquiries, two of which were done by Committees that were cheerleaders for the war anyway. The other two examined very small aspects of the conflict, so we have not had a full inquiry.
Can we really trust world leaders who were complicit in the war, and who originated it, to take decisions that need to be taken, free of any pressure to justify their actions? We need changes before those decisions can be taken. As has been said, once again our brave soldier lions are suffering because of the decisions of the ministerial donkeys.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) on securing the debate and on the way in which he advanced his cause. Unfortunately, he is always a very eloquent speaker—I wish that were not the case.
I agree in substantial measure with many of the things that have been said today. I want all British troops to be home as soon as possible. The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) asked when is “possible” and whether we should use the language of when the “job is done”. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) asked, what does such language mean? We must judge when the tipping point is at which it is possible for us to withdraw without creating further problems for the people of Iraq and for our own troops in the process of withdrawal.
That is a difficult point to judge. It is difficult to judge in the Balkans, where we have been trying to ensure that before we withdraw all our remaining troops, many of whom are feeling desultory doing their current work in Bosnia, the security services in that country will be able to deliver security in a non-partisan way for everyone. We face this process every time we are involved in activity beyond our borders.
The first key to the tipping point is a sense of profound responsibility for the people of Iraq. We went to Iraq, but at what point do we feel that our withdrawal aids their greater security and their opportunity of enhanced public services—health, education, water supply, electricity and the rest? I merely point out to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), who mentioned water and electricity supplies, that if British and American troops were not protecting them, people would not have any access to water or electricity.
We can also judge the tipping point by assessing at what point the indigenous security forces can cope. It seems to me, for all the reasons that the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr advanced, that now is not that time. They do not have the ability to deal either with corruption within their own forces or, in a non-partisan way, with all the peoples of that country. Consequently, it would be difficult for anyone with a logical mind to argue that the time has yet come.
I would give way to the hon. Gentleman, but there are very few minutes left and it is important that we hear from the Front-Bench spokespeople at decent length.
A material point was raised by several hon. Members: at what point does our continuing stay either exacerbate violence or prevent local security forces from taking full responsibility? This is still the question that we face in the Balkans: does our continuing presence in Bosnia mean that local security forces never fully take responsibility for the work in which they need to engage? That is the most difficult point to judge.
Other things that are important to remember have not been mentioned today. We are in Iraq under a new United Nations mandate. It is important that in any further considerations of what British troops should do and what our British responsibilities should be, we must co-operate with our allies. That does not just mean the Americans; it means others in the United Nations who have provided a substantial mandate for us to remain in Iraq.
Iraq now has a democratic Government, who, for all their problems and difficulties, have been in existence for just 156 days and have made it clear that they want us to remain. The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr said that the shortest period of time that Iraqi politicians are arguing for our continued stay is one year beyond this December, so it seems difficult to argue for an immediate withdrawal on the basis of democracy in Iraq. Indeed, few Iraqi politicians are calling for any form of immediate withdrawal. That is why we must seriously consider whether that is a proper course of action for us.
The question of the integrity of Iraq is far more difficult than the hon. Gentleman would suggest. He seemed quite relaxed about whether partition took place in Iraq. The interference of other countries if there were partition would not lead to greater security in the region, greater benefits for any of the individual countries—
I must apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I have only two more minutes so I shall not give way.
The hon. Member for Reigate referred to the partition of India as the relevant analogy. In a sense, he gave away the game on this. Many would argue that partition was not the right process at that point, and bringing it forward in the way that we did was inappropriate. Sir Stafford Cripps made many mistakes.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr also referred to the question of the process in Parliament. I agree that we should have a substantive debate in Parliament. I am critical of the fact that the vast majority of our debates on every issue under the sun happen on the Adjournment of the House, without any proper resolution. However, there is an Opposition day next Tuesday. If the Opposition believe that this is the single most important substantive issue that we should be debating, they could bring it forward then, and there would be a vote.
Mistakes have been made—that may seem to be the understatement of the year—one of the most profound of which was our enforcing the collapse of the Ba’athist security forces in Iraq. I understand that it was an area where we lost the argument with our other international allies, which is profoundly to be regretted. I also believe that, as I said at the time, George Bush’s axis-of-evil speech and the way in which he linked the three countries together was a profound mistake—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) was not here for the whole of this debate, but I am glad that he has now joined us.
Immediate withdrawal, regardless of the views of the United Nations, regardless of the views of the democratic Government of Iraq, regardless of the almost certain civil war and partition that would ensue, and regardless of the harm to the reputation of our armed forces, would be the height of irresponsibility. Of course, we must ensure that our British judgment is followed through, but a responsible decision must involve all our allies. We want our troops home as soon as possible, but that must be when the job is done.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) who made an eloquent and knowledgeable speech, as has been recognised. There have been other excellent contributions and I am pleased to respond to this excellent debate on behalf of the Liberal Democrats.
It is a sad day when the mighty forces of Welsh nationalism instigate a debate on a subject as important as Iraq before the Government do so. It has been two and a half years since we had a debate in the House and it is important that the Minister, following this debate, tells the Prime Minister that we need a substantive debate in the House. During those two and a half years, tens of thousands of people have died and the country is on the edge of civil war, yet the Government have not come forward with a debate.
I shall set out the Liberal Democrats’ belief that the UK needs a new strategy and its own Baker-style inquiry. If the US can have an inquiry, why cannot we have one? One would have thought from listening to the Leader of the Opposition at last week’s Prime Minister’s questions that the Conservatives had opposed the war all along and questioned the Government closely every step of the way. They did not, and it was good to have an admission from the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) that he is now questioning the Government on their thinking on Iraq.
The Liberal Democrats opposed the war in Iraq. We believed that it was illegal, in defiance of the United Nations, and based on a flawed prospectus and a fabricated threat. It should never have happened. Forty thousand civilians—some say hundreds of thousands—and almost 3,000 coalition troops are dead. There has been increasing violence and hardship with an increased terrorist threat and huge resentment throughout the middle east and the rest of the world about the west and its involvement in Iraq.
We adopted a constructive approach. Now that we have invaded Iraq, we have a moral and strategic obligation to stabilise and reconstruct it. That may not be Plaid Cymru’s position, but it is important to accept that moral obligation now that we have invaded the country. We support the troops in their actions and as we approach Remembrance Sunday it is important to remember the sacrifices that they and their families have made in Iraq. The commitment is huge.
Why do we need a new strategy? The country is on the edge of civil war and sectarian violence has intensified. If it is allowed to become a failed state, the effects could be devastating. Iran, whose nuclear issue is next door, Palestine, Lebanon and Islamic extremism are all problems that are interconnected with Iraq and we should not ignore them. A new strategy is imperative and this may be the last chance. What should that strategy include? It should deal with the concerns of ordinary people on the ground, personal safety, security, jobs and essential services. If it fails or is rejected, it will be impossible to justify the continuing presence of troops in Iraq.
There seems to be confusion among Government ranks. The Foreign Secretary said that we could be out within a year, but the Secretary of State for Defence said no. The Foreign Secretary said that Iraq could be partitioned into three, but then changed her mind and said that the war might be judged to have been a disaster. The Prime Minister said that we should hold our nerve. The Minister should clear up that confusion this morning. Imagine what that confusion among Ministers must be doing to the troops on the ground.
I mentioned the James Baker inquiry by the former US Secretary of State. The US is reviewing its policy in Iraq. Why is this country not to have a review? Are we again waiting for the United States to take the lead? We should take charge of our own policy.
General Sir Richard Dannatt gave us a clear wake-up call with evidence from the Army. He said that we should get out soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems. Apparently, the Prime Minister agrees. He said that he agrees, but is he following that advice? I have not heard whether that is the case.
On the new strategy, Sir Richard presented a last and fleeting chance for a change, but the US and the UK still seem to be in denial. To continue without change is not an option. A Baker-style inquiry is required in this country, but we must internationalise the situation with the United Nations taking a central role and we must accept that the military are only one part of the solution. There must be a much broader strategy.
What is the solution? We must engage more constructively with Iraq’s neighbours who can be usefully used to talk to insurgent groups, to maintain security of the border and to provide economic stability. We must professionalise the security forces, which is a huge challenge. The United Nations must be involved in a UN-led disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration strategy. We must have an end to systematic and indefinite detentions by the US and Iraq because they are having a huge effect on Iraqi opinion on the ground. The reconstruction must be legitimised. In various opinion polls, the Iraqis say that the UN must take the lead role. We need a phased transfer and withdrawal of our troops.
This is the last chance for a change in strategy. If it is rejected or fails, it will be impossible to justify our continued presence. We need a UK-style Baker inquiry in this country and we must internationalise the effort. The military are only part of the strategy; we must seize the opportunity for change for the benefit of our troops and Iraq.
Before turning to my main remarks, it is worth saying, given that this debate is about troop withdrawal from Iraq, that we should think about the sacrifice and courage of our troops in Iraq and other theatres around the world. They are the people on the front line and I know that everyone in the House wishes them and their families well.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) on securing this debate. He was absolutely right to say at the beginning that it is not acceptable that we are having the debate in this Chamber. The Government should find time for a debate in the House, particularly because of the debate in the United States where there is a lot of movement and discussion, especially with the Iraq study group. One key date on the timetable will be 7 November when the US has its mid-term elections. If we do not have a substantive debate in Parliament prior to Prorogation, the danger is that by the time we return, the US mid-term elections will have taken place and we may have already seen a change in US policy without the House having had the opportunity to debate the matter or question Ministers properly.
Whether that is true or not, the hon. Gentleman has put his finger on something. Beyond doubt, the perception of many people in this country is that the Prime Minister just waits to be told what to do. It is a damaging perception, and it is important that the work taking place in Washington is mirrored by a careful reassessment in Whitehall, which we should then be able to debate fully in the House. Ministers should explain what work they are doing, and give Members the opportunity to question them, so that we can fully debate it.
My commitment is that even if the Government do not find time to debate the matter in the next two weeks, the Conservative party as the official Opposition will ensure that during the Queen’s Speech debate, we debate international affairs, giving us the opportunity to debate this matter among others. It is important that Parliament has a chance to debate it. The Government should make time in their time for the House to do so.
The Minister will want to have as much time as possible to answer the questions that he has been asked. First, however, several Members have alluded to our job in Iraq. There has been some confusion about it, even this week. General Sir Richard Dannatt said that the Government’s aim of creating a liberal democracy was “naïve” and would not be achieved. He said:
“I don’t think we are going to do that. I think we should aim for a lower ambition.”
The Prime Minister immediately said that he agreed with everything that Sir Richard had said.
However, just this week, the argument put to the Prime Minister’s official spokesman was that the job in 2004 included leaving Iraq as a peaceful, prosperous, unitary state, and a “beacon of democracy” to the whole middle east. He confirmed that that was still the aim of British Government policy. It would be helpful if the Minister could confirm which of those two interpretations is correct. They do not seem the same.
At the same time as the Prime Minister’s official spokesman was saying that, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs was acknowledging the difficulties that we have faced in Iraq, and, as several Members have already said, that Iraq could break up into three parts. She said that it was up to the Iraqis themselves to decide, adding:
“They have had enough of people from outside handing down arbitrary boundaries and arbitrary decisions.”
It would be helpful if the Minister explained whether the Government were neutral about the question of Iraq continuing as a unitary state or breaking up. A break-up into three states would have the most profound effect on Turkey and that country’s problems with its Kurdish minority. A NATO ally might be plunged into a difficult conflict, and that would be dangerous. As the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, the Government cannot be entirely neutral about the matter. A break-up would affect the stability of the middle east.
The second area worth touching on is whether the Government think Iraqi police and security forces will be able to take responsibility for security. The Minister for the Middle East seems confident that in about a year’s time, Iraqi forces will be able to take over. He told the BBC:
“I would have thought that certainly in a year or so there will be adequately trained Iraqi soldiers and security forces—police men and women and so on—in order to do the job.”
Press reports from United States forces suggest that in their assessment, the forces on the ground are not in as good a shape as that. It would be helpful to have an update from the Minister about our assessment of the progress that the Iraqi security forces have made.
In the Government’s response to the report on UK operations by the Select Committee on Defence, they said:
“The nature of some explosive devices being used, against British troops and elsewhere in Iraq, suggest the involvement of Iranian elements, including through Lebanese Hezbollah.”
We have heard only leaks from the Iraq study group, and we do not know what it will conclude, but it has put forward the idea that one US option is to ask Iraq’s neighbours, Iran and Syria, to become involved in the country. Given that the British Government accept that elements in Iran have supplied explosives that have killed British troops, it would be helpful to know whether the Minister felt that involving Iran and Syria in stabilising Iraq would work.
Many people think that Iran is already far too involved in Iraq, and that it fuels Shi’a violence. I am not sure that getting Iran and Syria more involved in Iraq is necessarily helpful. It would be interesting to know the Government’s view, because decisions may come from the US in fairly short order.
Given the unnecessary comments from the Liberal Democrats, it is worth noting that their leader, when he was their foreign affairs spokesman, supported the action taken against Saddam Hussein and, indeed, acknowledged in the House the likelihood that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. The Liberal Democrats need to be careful when putting forward their points. Their comments were unnecessary. Looking to the future is more helpful than looking to the past, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I welcome the debate, and I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) about the sacrifices made by all serving personnel in Iraq and elsewhere, and about the grief felt by their families. I am sure that the whole House would agree with his comments.
The debate gives me another opportunity to outline the Government’s position on Iraq in the wake of a considerable amount of unbalanced comment in the media. It is easy to attack the media, but there has been much unbalanced comment in the debate this morning, too.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) asked for honesty and integrity from Ministers. I ask him to do one thing: stop impugning the motives or intent of Ministers. People have very strong views, and I have been consistent in my view about the justification for what we did and are doing in Iraq. Over time, when we see a peaceful, stable and democratic Iraq in the years ahead, our actions will be justified. I cannot prove that that will happen; nor, however, can those who argue against it prove conclusively that it will not.
I shall come to those points. If the hon. Gentleman wants a debate, he must listen. I have listened studiously to all that has been said, and I ask for the same from him.
The reality is that the Secretary of State for Defence outlined the facts in a statement to the House earlier this month. Our position has not changed since then, so I can assume only that hon. Members have read and understood our position. It provides the answers to their questions.
The hon. Member for Forest of Dean asked about Iran and Syria. We do not have much time to get into the geopolitics of that issue, other than to say that those people who are part of the problem must be part of the solution, otherwise they remain part of the problem. Given my experience of the whole peace process in Northern Ireland, I can tell him that John Major’s Government and Governments further back in history engaged with the republican movement while it was still slaughtering its own citizens and members of the British security forces. We must reach out and find a way to deal with the problem. Everything must be tentative in the early stages, but I repeat that those who are part of the problem must be part of the solution, or they will remain part of the problem. We must deal with the problem in terms of the geopolitics of that troubled region.
I ask the hon. Gentleman to hear what I say. I used the word “tentative.” I am not a Foreign Office Minister. [Laughter.] That is not a matter for humour, is it? It is a statement of fact. We shall have a serious debate and the comedians can have theirs.
At all times, discussions must take place, and other ways and avenues will open for us to participate in and develop. If that does not happen, we will not have a functioning foreign policy. It happens at all times. Even in the case of countries with which we have totally broken off relations, we must find points of contact and a way to bring them back into the community of nations. If we do not, we are failing the people of this country. I know that the hon. Gentleman understands that.
Chief of the General Staff, General Dannatt, does not advocate change. I shall give a quote, because he has been quoted out of context. He said:
“Currently Operation Sinbad is trying to make Basra better and a lot of British soldiers are doing a really good job. In that regard, their presence is helping but there are other parts where our mere presence does exacerbate and violence results.”
That is a statement of fact. He also said:
“But that is not a reason for us to leave. I am on record publicly saying we’re standing shoulder to shoulder with the Americans. I am on the record from a speech three weeks ago saying that I’m planning force packages in Iraq through 2007 in to 2008. I’m a soldier—we don’t do surrender, we don’t pull down white flags. We will remain in southern Iraq until the job is done—we’re going to see this through.”
Let us put that in context, beginning with our strategy for success in Iraq.
We are building the capability of the Iraqi security forces and progressively transferring responsibility to the Iraqi civilian authorities. That is a fact that cannot be denied. More than 312,000 members of the Iraqi security forces have been trained and equipped. I shall give a personal experience. In the United Kingdom, at our battle school in Brecon, we have delivered for our own people a high level of training and leadership. We have done that for Iraqi officers as well. I addressed a graduation parade there earlier this year and heard that Iraqi students have exceeded our initial expectations. Those officers return to Iraq as instructors of the highest calibre, able to train thousands more of a new generation of Iraqi soldiers. It is easy to say that, but I must always put it to the test: is what we are doing having an effect? One of the instructor sergeants said to me, “Those officers, with a bit more training, would be as good as the officers coming out of Sandhurst.” That was a soldier judging a soldier. Those who have experience know the quality of our instructor sergeants: they are hard taskmasters and hard judges of the quality of officers who will lead men into conflict.
The strategy of handing over responsibility for security to the Iraqis as and when their capability and capacity allow it is working. In the UK’s area of responsibility, the provinces of Al Muthanna and Dhi Qar have already satisfied the necessary conditions to allow their handover to Iraqi civilian control. Over the weekend, in the town of Al Amarah in the Maysan province, it was the Iraqi authorities that responded to unrest and Iraqi security forces that restored calm. Multinational forces were ready to provide assistance if required, but in the event they were not needed. I ask the critics of what is happening on the ground to consider why I argue that that is success and why they believe it is a measure of failure.
We can take encouragement from the conduct of the Iraqi security forces. Their reaction to and control of the situation that I have mentioned and others is a testament to their training and dedication and clearly demonstrates their increasing capabilities. However, we cannot achieve success by military means alone. The political and economic process must deliver results, and that is where the Iraqi Government have a central role. Prime Minister Maliki has undertaken to secure Baghdad, eliminate illegal armed groups, and promote national reconciliation and the rule of law. Does any hon. Member doubt his intent to do that? Is he not the democratically elected Prime Minister? Is it not right that we should seek to help him achieve those objectives? Stemming the violence in Baghdad is proving to be tremendously difficult, which underlines the importance of making political progress on matters such as reconciliation to draw Iraqi communities away from violence and into the political process. It is in everyone’s interest for the Iraqi Government to succeed, and it is crucial that we continue to support them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said, if I heard him correctly, that Iraqis are worse off now than they were under Saddam. What utter nonsense. He talked about Ministerial donkeys; “political pygmies” is the phrase that comes to mind when I hear such comments. Access to water is now better than pre-conflict, with 4 million more people having access to it. Sewage and waste water treatment plants are operating again, whereas prior to the conflict none of them were. Health care spending is up to more than 30 times its pre-war level, and through extensive disease control programmes there has been a decline in the prevalence of polio, measles, mumps, rubella and malaria. The UK has pledged more than £544 million for reconstruction in the period 2003 to 2006, and more than £536 million has been disbursed to date.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr mentioned the Marshall plan. To put in place such a plan and to be able to spend money on reconstruction requires security. He said, “Give us a Marshall plan,” but did not say how it should be delivered. Should it be delivered on the back of a stable, secure Iraq or on the back of the troubles caused by the militias and ethnic tensions? Phrases do not deliver success in troubled countries; hard action and hard decisions do.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for his good contribution and for telling us his views. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) made a thoughtful and considered speech. I have heard him express his opinion before, but not in so much detail.
All hon. Members and their constituents who have a view on the subject would benefit from taking some Iraqis to their constituency to hear what they say about the conflict. I remember public meetings in the run-up to the conflict in Iraq, and they were hostile as we tried to justified what we were trying to do. I was alongside Iraqis who had lost family members to Saddam and his brutal regime. One particularly stands out in my memory. He was an old Jew in his 90s who had lived under three dictators, one of whom was Saddam Hussein. He tried to explain why dictatorships had to be removed but was howled down by those who would call themselves the anti-war coalition, which some would call the pro-dictator coalition. [Interruption.] I said that some would say that, having lived under the yoke of the evil of Saddam Hussein.
You are right, Mrs. Dean. Those who wish to make strong criticisms have to take them as well. [Interruption.] Unfortunately, we do not have time for a debate on the Floor of the House, but there is an Opposition day debate next Tuesday, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda pointed out. [Hon. Members: “Apologise.”] I have listened to a much worse rabble than this.
On a point of order, Mrs. Dean. Is it in order for the Minister to claim that the Stop the War coalition is pro-Saddam Hussein, when he knows full well that the opposite is the case? He knows people in the coalition consistently opposed the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
International rail services (Ashford)
I am grateful for the chance to air this important issue, which I suspect will lower the temperature of the Chamber slightly. The issue affects people not only in my constituency, but throughout Kent and beyond. I shall not take up my full allocation of time, because my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) also wishes to put his points to the Minister.
The background to this debate is Eurostar’s decision to cut services from Ashford International station when the new Ebbsfleet station opens in autumn 2007. Eurostar is proposing to reduce the services from Ashford to Paris to peak-hour services and, more importantly, to end all services to Brussels. I want to concentrate on the Brussels services. The new service proposals for Paris and other destinations in France will be adequate to maintain proper links. However, ending the Brussels services will be a blow to the development of Ashford, which is an important part of the Government’s sustainable communities programme, and to plans for development and regeneration throughout Kent and other parts of the wider south-east of England.
Before I put my substantive arguments to the Minister, I should like to emphasise the widespread damage that Eurostar’s decision would cause. Since the campaign to reverse the decision was started by hon. Members, Kent county council, Ashford borough council and others who want to preserve the services to Ashford, we have been particularly grateful for the support of the South East England Development Agency. SEEDA is clearly as anxious to see development and regeneration at Ebbsfleet, as part of the Thames gateway project, as it is at Ashford. The agency has made the point that we need a balance of services from the two Kent stations on the international link if we are to achieve properly balanced regeneration throughout Kent. Indeed, starting services at one Kent station but then stopping them a few years later—that is Eurostar’s current proposal for Ashford—casts doubt on the desirability of the entire area as a destination for new international companies to set up their businesses. That would be hugely damaging.
I am struck by the size of the area from which I have received complaints and support for my complaints on the issue, which have come not only from Ashford and the Folkestone area, as one would expect. Big howls of protest have come from Hastings, the regeneration of which is predicated partly on the improvement of rail links to and from Ashford. I have also received strong letters of support from as far afield as Eastbourne. That shows how wide the catchment area that will be affected is if the proposals go through.
Ministers might reasonably ask why they should care. Why should the issue be a matter for them? Is the proposal not a straightforward commercial decision by a private company? I urge the Minister to become involved in persuading Eurostar to reverse its decision, because the proposal will explicitly damage the implementation of a number of Government policies, covering regeneration, the environment and transport. I am, for once on these Benches, seeking to help the Government to ensure the success of some of their policies. That is the spirit in which I hope the Minister will take my remarks.
It is also important for Ministers and others to remember who provided the track on which Eurostar runs its trains. The total cost of the channel tunnel rail link was £5.2 billion, of which £1.8 billion was provided by the taxpayer through the Department for Transport. Eurostar’s business depends on that massive subsidy, so it does have wider responsibilities than simply its commercial responsibilities.
My first point is about regeneration. Eurostar’s decision to end services from Ashford to Brussels is damaging to Ashford’s ability to attract new jobs. Under the sustainable communities programme, the Government propose that 31,000 new houses be built in Ashford and, vitally, that 28,000 new houses should be provided there. Without those jobs Ashford is likely to become a dormitory town, which would fly in the face of the Government’s ambitions to create a sustainable community. Domestic high-speed services will ensure Ashford’s continuing attraction as a place to live and commute from, but the Government’s ambitions are higher. They want Ashford to be attractive to inward investors as well. Indeed, Ashford borough council and the Ashford futures board have been working hard at that. The direct link to Brussels is important for that and will become more so in the future.
There is also an important issue of propriety. I am sure that the Minister will be fully aware of the 38th report by the Select Committee on Public Accounts, which was published on 27 March and dealt with the channel tunnel rail link. One of the Committee’s conclusions was that the economic case for the link remained marginal:
“On passenger traffic alone the Link is not justified, so regeneration benefits are required to make the project value for money.”
That is an important consideration for Ministers to bear in mind.
Apart from the money that is spent directly on the link, tens of millions of pounds of national taxpayers’ money have been spent on the wider development of Ashford, including the road links and various infrastructure projects, such as the new leisure centre that is being built. There are also plans for a £46 million learning campus. The Minister might be aware that the entire town centre is being regenerated as a new shopping area, while other new shopping areas have been built just outside the town centre. Much of that regeneration has used public money, making it a matter of genuinely national interest and the responsibility of the Government, who can therefore legitimately ask Eurostar to think again.
Secondly, the decision is an attack on the Government’s environmental agenda, because it flies in the face of any policy of getting people off the road and into public transport. Ebbsfleet is Britain’s biggest park and ride project, with a 7,000-plus space car park. All the people from Kent and Sussex who use Ashford to go to Brussels will be asked to drive to Ebbsfleet to get there. That is environmental madness, as well as appearing mad to those coming from areas such as Folkestone and Dover, who will be required to drive much further away from the continent to catch a train back there.
The policy is also particularly damaging, given the exact time at which Eurostar is planning to encourage thousands of new cars to clog up the roads around Ebbsfleet. We all know that cars are particularly polluting when they are stationary or driving slowly. Let me share with the Minister the road works schedule around Ebbsfleet for autumn 2007, just when all those new passengers are meant to arrive to start using the new station. Construction on the A2 and A282 Dartford improvement started in September 2006, with completion expected in spring 2008, covering the period. Construction of phase two of the A2 Bean to Cobham project also started in September 2006, with completion expected in spring 2008. The biggest project of all is between junctions 1B and 3 of the M25, which is scheduled to start in spring 2007 and be completed in autumn 2008.
So at the exact time when Eurostar plans to switch all that traffic to the roads around Ebbsfleet, those roads will be full of roadworks. Clearly, that is madness. Eurostar has based its decision purely on a survey that it carried out, which said that two thirds of passengers would prefer to use Ebbsfleet. That ignores the real world, in which people will be stuck in traffic jams. That in itself is reason to ask the company to think again.
The third way in which the decision is damaging to the Government’s plans relates directly to transport policy. Ashford is much better served by domestic rail links than Ebbsfleet and has clearer roads. If the Minister wants—I am sure that he does—a properly integrated domestic and international rail network and to encourage the use of trains, he will not want services to be withdrawn from Ashford. Complaints from Hastings have been strong. It is a town that has desperately needed regeneration and desperately needs better transport links. People there have seen transport links through Ashford—a hub not only for east Kent, but for further around—as essential for regeneration. I hope that the Minister listens to the representations that I am sure he gets from the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster), a member of his own party.
My final point on transport is that if the services are withdrawn, they are much less likely to be reinstated and people will question the long-term future of international services from Ashford. Again, that will cast doubt over the use of rail services as a proper driver for regeneration throughout east Kent. The decision will have serious transport implications.
I hope that the Minister will be able to give a positive message to people all over the south-east and say that he will join the coalition of those urging Eurostar to reconsider its short-sighted decision—short-sighted because Ashford’s population is projected to grow to 141,000 by 2021. In commercial terms, it seems absurd for Eurostar to turn its back on that growing market.
Eurostar benefits from the billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money poured into the channel tunnel rail link, and it should act as an enlightened partner with the bodies that are trying to develop Ashford in a sustainable way. The closure of services from Ashford to Brussels will damage the environment in Kent and hit Government plans to develop Ashford. Eurostar has a licensed monopoly of international services and should play a proper role in helping sustainable regeneration throughout east Kent. I hope that the Minister will join me and others in urging it to reconsider its decision.
I am most grateful to my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), for allowing me to add a few words from the perspective of my constituency of Folkestone and Hythe to the excellent case that he has made. My hon. Friend spoke of regeneration plans for Ashford; regeneration plans for Folkestone are more ambitious now than at any time in the 23 years during which I have had the privilege of representing my constituency.
That is primarily due to the immensely public-spirited efforts of a local entrepreneur, Mr. Roger de Haan, who is masterminding the most inspiring schemes for the development of Folkestone. We want the Government to play their part. We see a tremendous future for the area, but the subject of our debate—the existence of good transport links to the continent—is very important for Folkestone, as for Ashford.
Indeed, my constituents would have to travel significantly further to get to Ebbsfleet than would the constituents of my hon. Friend. On the face of it, it looks as if Eurostar’s decision is a big problem for Ashford because the international railway station is there. In fact, the decision would affect my constituents to an even greater extent, so the points that my hon. Friend made from his perspective apply to at least as great an extent to those, such as my constituents, who live even further away from Ebbsfleet.
I shall make just one more point before I sit down, to allow the Minister his full time to answer this short debate. Eurostar seeks to base its case for its proposed changes on a survey that it has carried out. My hon. Friend, the local authorities for the area and I have consistently asked for the relevant information so that Kent county council can conduct its own analysis to test whether the premise on which Eurostar based its proposals is sound. My most recent understanding is that we have had some, but not all of the information that we need. I hope that in replying to the debate, the Minister will deal with that point. He should use his good offices to persuade Eurostar to let us have as soon as possible the information that we need to test and assess its case.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) on securing this debate and welcome the contribution made by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). This opportunity for the House to discuss international rail services to Ashford is important, given that the second section of the channel tunnel rail link opens next autumn.
I knew before this debate how much importance Ashford attaches to its international links, so I am pleased to have the opportunity to explain the development of the channel tunnel rail link, the operation of Eurostar International services and how the Department for Transport is working to ensure that the transport infrastructure is in place for Ashford to fulfil its potential as a growth area.
I should begin by making it clear that despite our arm’s length relationship with Eurostar—which is, after all, a private company—the Government have kept a watching brief on consultations during the timetable changes. We have noted with interest the statement from the leader of Ashford borough council and chair of Ashford’s future delivery board, Councillor Paul Clokie. He said:
“We are of course disappointed at the decision to reduce the number of international train services from Ashford by Eurostar.”
However, he went on to add:
“Ashford remains one of the few places in England from where Paris and Brussels can be reached via a high-speed rail link within just two hours. The new proposed timetable includes early morning and evening trains which will meet the demands of many existing and new business and leisure passengers.”
I do not want to dwell for too long on the borough council’s views, but—
In the rest of that quote, Councillor Clokie said that the Paris services, as I have just said, were disappointing but satisfactory. He then explicitly went on to say that it was not acceptable for the Brussels services to be removed. If the Minister is trying to pray what Councillor Clokie said in aid and say that it is reasonable for the Brussels services to be removed, he will be misrepresenting Councillor Clokie.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention because I do not want to imply that Councillor Clokie supports the timetable changes. I simply want to make the point that there is a view in Ashford—and Kent as a wider area—that the timetable changes will not deal the fatal blow to the local economy that campaigners probably suggest.
It is worth highlighting another point made by the council. It sees the provision of the new high-speed domestic service as just as important to Ashford’s economic growth as the international links; that is an incredibly important point. The council anticipates that the high-speed link will provide additional demand for Eurostar services from Ashford in the future.
I absolutely accept that neither the hon. Member for Ashford nor the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe would ever try to talk down their own constituencies. I preface my comments with that, because I know that they do not want to do that. However, there is always a danger that, when Members talk in the House about the economic damage that could be done by one policy or another, they might be seen to be talking down the potential for economic growth in their areas.
The hon. Member for Ashford said—I am not quoting him directly, but paraphrasing—that the reduction in services from Ashford would cast doubt on the whole area as a location for inward investment. However, the future for Ashford as a developing community and a town whose centre has, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, a lot of regeneration potential will be undiminished. It would be risky for us to suggest that Ashford’s economic prospects were anything other than rosy, even with the change in the Eurostar timetable.
I want to move on to Eurostar and its operations. It is important to be clear that the Government have no formal powers over Eurostar’s operational decisions and that the company is at liberty to set its own timetables. It does not operate in the same way as a conventional UK train operating company running on the national rail network. However, it does have an obligation to operate a sound commercial business.
I would like to go through the process that Eurostar has undertaken in deciding to reduce the number of international trains stopping at Ashford. I will cover it in three parts: the consultations that the company has undertaken, the proposed service changes for Ashford and Ebbsfleet, and my understanding of the business rationale for reducing Ashford services. I hope that that will address the points raised by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe about the passenger survey.
Richard Brown, the chief executive of Eurostar, told my Department that he has personally met with representatives from local authorities including Ashford borough council and Kent county council, and local MPs including the hon. Member for Ashford, to explain the business rationale behind the changes at Ashford. Eurostar also advised London TravelWatch and Passenger Focus of the proposed changes. It spoke to the Government office for the south-east, which is part of the Department of Communities and Local Government, and Locate in Kent, the inward investment agency. I do not think it can be said that Eurostar failed to consult.
Nor can Eurostar be accused of ignoring the views that were put to it. Following consultation with Kent county council, it agreed to introduce an additional stop at Lille on the daily service to Disneyland to provide Ashford with a connection to Brussels, and following consultation with Ashford borough council, it also agreed to revise the timing of the first departure to Paris, to suit local people better.
Eurostar is continuing its dialogue with Kent county council, which is the statutory transport authority, and sharing and explaining the research and analysis undertaken to develop future stopping patterns. It is perhaps worth mentioning that Eurostar remains committed to Ashford in another respect: it will retain its contact centre in the town, which provides employment for some 300 people. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that.
From the date of the opening of Ebbsfleet station next autumn, Eurostar will have 16 or 17 trains each day from London to Paris, and 10 to Brussels. Seven of the Paris trains and five of the Brussels trains will stop at Ebbsfleet. The opening of Ebbsfleet has led Eurostar to revise its overall stopping pattern to reflect the expected future demand at the two stations in Kent. As a consequence, Ashford will retain three of the current six trains a day to Paris, as well as a weekly service to Avignon in the summer and to the French Alps in the winter. With those destinations, 83 per cent. of the current demand at Ashford will continue to be served by direct services.
As I mentioned earlier, the daily Disney train—I do not know whether that is its formal title—will in future also stop at Lille to provide a TGV connection to Brussels. I accept that there may be a residual demand for a direct service between Ashford and Brussels that will not be met by those alternative arrangements. However, the truth is that Eurostar has assessed the demand as being too small to be commercially viable. It has said that trains to Paris will be timed to suit both business and leisure travellers, and it has adjusted the departure times following consultation with Ashford borough council.
Before I go any further, let me say for the record that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise these matters on behalf of his constituents. He is doing exactly what a good constituency MP should do, and I hope that in the rest of my contribution I will be able to offer him some reassurance that the Government take the matter seriously.
Timetables are valid for one-year periods, so there is an annual opportunity to review stopping patterns and to alter them in the light of changing demand. Eurostar is committed to working with the local authorities, with the objective of helping to grow demand and, in turn, the number of services at Ashford in the longer term.
This point is worth emphasising. Current plans for Ashford reflect the current position, but Eurostar has the flexibility to revise the timetable to suit future changes in demand. Therefore, the comments made by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe about timetables being set in stone and the difficulty in changing a service pattern once it is established are not valid. There will be an opportunity to review passenger numbers and the success of the new service over the next few years. It is not in Eurostar’s commercial interests to ignore genuine demand where it exists, and it is clear that additional stops at Ashford could be reintroduced in the future if passenger demand warranted them.
I offer some further advice to the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Because of the apparent reluctance of Eurostar to provide the methodology and the full details of its customer service survey, there is a suggestion that perhaps it is hiding something, but I emphasise that Eurostar has no vested interest in reducing passenger numbers. It is a commercial company, as I said, and it is important for it to maximise its market. If it genuinely believed that maintaining the current service pattern would increase its profits and passenger numbers, it would do so. It is not credible to suggest that the company is moving to Ebbsfleet in order to reduce passenger numbers.
Of course no one is suggesting that Eurostar is malevolent in any way in what it proposes, but it may be mistaken. It may have made a mistake, or it may be making assumptions in good faith but on the basis of inadequate or inaccurate analysis of the evidence. We have sought an opportunity to test the analysis and evidence, and it is important that we and Kent county council have made available to us the information that we need to carry out that assessment.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a valid point, and I am glad that he clarified the position. However, as I said, there will be an opportunity to review timetables and service patterns after the new service begins next year.
Since its opening in 1996, Ashford International station has provided a valuable alternative to passengers who want to use Eurostar but want to avoid travelling into central London to join the train. The reason for reducing the number of trains stopping at Ashford is, of course, the opening of a second station in Kent at Ebbsfleet, which is strategically located close to the A2 and M25—perhaps too close, as the hon. Member for Ashford would claim.
Eurostar carried out detailed research over 18 months which shows that Ebbsfleet serves a much larger catchment area than Ashford. Indeed, Ebbsfleet’s catchment area is enormous, with 10 million potential travellers. It extends around the M25 and will open up new markets for Eurostar. By contrast, the catchment area for Ashford is geographically large, but the level of patronage on Eurostar is quite low. Eurostar’s research has shown that up to two thirds of the passengers who currently travel to Ashford will find Ebbsfleet equally or more convenient, and Ebbsfleet will be served by international trains to Paris, Brussels and Lille.
Eurostar believes that, following the opening of Ebbsfleet, the residual number of passengers wishing to travel from Ashford to Brussels will be fewer than 20 per train, which is too few commercially to justify a direct service. Indeed, there is a serious threat that stopping Eurostar services at Ashford as well as Ebbsfleet would extend journey times to the extent that more passengers would be lost than gained. The current journey time between London and Paris will be cut by 20 minutes when the new channel tunnel rail link opens. To have two stops, one at Ebbsfleet and one at Ashford, would almost take away that advantage.
The Minister has been very generous in giving way. I heard what he is saying almost word for word from the mouth of Eurostar’s chief executive at the meeting that we had with the company. The point that was made then is that trains do not need to stop at both places. They can alternate, with some stopping at Ashford and some at Ebbsfleet. That would address the time issue.
That is a valid point, and, as I said before, there will be an opportunity to address such issues once the timetable is up and running. However, based on passenger numbers and the information that is available to the Department and to the hon. Gentleman, it is difficult to justify the existing timetable if Eurostar’s commercial obligations are taken into account.
It is also worth noting that more than 500,000 people a week visit Bluewater shopping centre, which is close to Ebbsfleet. By contrast, Ebbsfleet itself will be used by fewer than 25,000 passengers per week. Locally, major improvements to the strategic road network have been and, as the hon. Gentleman said, are being carried out to reduce the impact of new traffic flows, and we hope that congestion will be minimal.
Let me conclude by emphasising that I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. I know that there is genuine concern in his and other constituencies in east Kent that Eurostar’s proposals may mean that the area will be left with substandard services. I hope that I have been able to reassure him that most of the demand from Ashford will continue to be met, and that there is scope to review services to Ashford in the light of future changes in demand.
Sitting suspended until half past Two o’clock.
UK Car Component Manufacturing
I thank you for facilitating this debate, Mrs. Dean, and I thank the Minister for attending to respond to it. The subject is important. Manufacturing is still one of the mainstays of the UK economy, and we ought not to lose sight of that. No matter how many people want to talk manufacturing down, we are in the Chamber to talk it up. I am sure that we will have a good response from my right hon. Friend.
UK manufacturing has faced turbulent periods, which is why the debate is extremely timely. We have had bad news, we have had good news and we have had indifferent news. It is the good, the bad and the ugly of the UK car and component manufacturing industry that we want to discuss. We need to ensure that the debate is a serious one. It is about the future of car component manufacturing in this country. It is not a forum for scoring political points, but a means of raising the genuine concerns of Members of Parliament. Amicus, the Transport and General Workers Union and other unions have been involved and they have the same worries about the future of manufacturing in the UK. We need to get the message across, and that is what we will try to do.
There is no doubt that the UK manufacturing sector is changing fast, with many worrying signals as well as reasons to be optimistic, which I shall come to. If we look back to 1996, the Ford Motor Company was producing cars in the UK, as were Rover Group and General Motors. The Vauxhall brand was dominant. Those were the major players. Rover Group, which was once the fourth largest car manufacturer, is now gone. Ford no longer builds a Ford-badged car here. Of course, GM also lost one of its assembly plants. We have seen a real difference since 1996.
Is my hon. Friend aware that when tourists, particularly from France and Germany, visit this country they are amazed that fire, police and ambulance vehicles are not manufactured in the UK but in their countries? Is not that an absolute disgrace?
It is a total disgrace. It is unacceptable. In Italy, France or Germany, such vehicles would be produced only in that country. We need a bit of that spirit in this country. People will say to me, “It’s European law. It’s this, that and the other,” but we all know that companies will alter the design features to fit the spec of the vehicle that is built there. We want to copy a little of that, and procurement ought to be a major part of that. I totally agree with my hon. Friend.
On the matter of Ford-badged cars not being built here any more, I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to take the opportunity to recognise that Ford is building great British-badged cars in this country, such as Jaguar, which employs 3,000 people in my constituency. Ford is the leading investor in research and development in the motor industry in the country, and probably accounts for some 70 or 80 per cent. of motor industry research and development. We should encourage the company—especially as the leaked review into the future of Jaguar and the rest of Ford Europe is under way, and as Ford management will meet the Chancellor tomorrow—to redouble its commitment to and investment in the British car industry and Jaguar in Erdington in particular.
Of course we should. I cannot disagree, and one ought not to shy away from doing that. I certainly would not have liked to have opened Ford’s bank statement this week. It has struggled, and the debate is about the premier brands of the automotive industry. We hope that Ford will stick with Jaguar and we can see signs of it coming good. It is a tragedy that Aston Martin was put up for sale, because the research and development and shared knowledge should have continued within those premier brands. I hope that Ford will reconsider because Jaguar has a future. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby) said, it is a shame that the police are not using Jaguars. Why do they have to use other vehicles? The police in Stafford were the last force to use Jaguars, and surely the time has come for the police to invest in the Estate, the S-type, the XJ—
Ministers can set the best example. All ministerial cars should be British built, and that is part of what we will say today.
The recent news has not been good—far from it—with 900 job losses at Ellesmere Port and the decision to close Peugeot at Ryton, with the loss of 2,300 jobs. It is not just about the jobs that have been lost—far from it—but about the back-up effect on the component sector and the loss of hidden jobs. We can see the direct impact of a car plant closing, but we cannot see the impact on the supply chain, which could be as much as four or five times worse. We cannot really measure it.
Every time there is bad news we have to look not only to the headline figure but to the hidden figure and the component sector, because it is just as important as car production. We must remember that the likes of Rover and Jaguar get a lot of their components from the UK. We know that other manufacturers are basically an assembly plant, and we need to persuade them to invest more in components from the UK. That is part of the problem that we must address.
It is not good news for the people of Coventry. The first bad news came from Jaguar, although I know that it only moved up the road. Then they found out that Peugeot had misled everyone. It had been offered a Government loan in the form of a £15 million grant, but it turned its back on Coventry at the last minute. That is the kind of tragedy that I despise the most. I admire the French for putting France and French industry first, and we are seeing a shake out, but I hope that we will do the same.
Let us not buy Peugeot and Citroen products. Maybe they will then consider how important the UK market is. They have a large share of the UK market—we are third and fourth for Citroen and Peugeot respectively. Why are they not producing vehicles here? Why do they sneak off to the former eastern bloc? It is absolutely appalling. Peugeot should stand by the loyal workers that made Ryton one of its profitable sites. It was not losing money, but just needed more investment and a new model to come down the line. Peugeot has misled the people of Coventry, the regional development agency and the Government. Such car producers are the unacceptable face of manufacturing.
I hope that we will start to learn a little more from the French and start to back the British car industry. As has been pointed out, the Government must set the example. We must ensure that we do not lose any more car plants and we must see continuing growth. Unfortunately, this week we heard similar news about TVR in the north-west, not far from my constituency. TVR produces its famous cars in Blackpool, but a Russian entrepreneur came over and demonstrated the danger of foreign investors buying out British companies. They do not have the same affinity. He might say that he was slightly misled when he bought the company, but TVR has always produced in Blackpool. Now it seems easier to move production to Europe. It is a worry.
The 260 jobs that Blackpool could lose are quality skilled jobs in the north-west and that is a tragedy. It is also a tragedy for the components sector, because it has a knock-on effect. It is a great worry. As Kevin Morley, the BBC automotive industry analyst, stated:
“If you cannot make cars, then you do not do manufacturing, and yet we have the finest automotive engineers in the world here in Britain.”
We build some of the best racing cars, the best technology comes out of the UK and we have the best research and development. We must see that transferred into production. Production must be the backbone of the industry, and we must get manufacturing back and up to where it ought to be—leading the rest of Europe. We want to see the investment of the 1980s and 1990s continue in this new millennium. We must look at that and ensure that we are the best place to do business.
I know that global forces can dictate the actions of multinational companies, but the Government can still take action to support and promote UK manufacturing. As I said, they should lead by example, show their patriotism to the country’s hard-working people by backing British manufacturing and ensure that all Government cars are built in the UK.
That principle should be extended to chief constables. We should remind them where the money that pays for our police force comes from. Do they think it comes from Japan, or even Germany or Korea? No, they get it from the British public. The least that chief constables could do is to start buying British. They buy Astras, but not the bigger cars. When did we last see them use a Jaguar, to name just one model? When did we last see a Transit? Most of the larger vehicles are Mercedes. Much more can be done, not only with cars but with the light commercial vehicle sector as well. It is time for chief constables to start leading by example. It is not good to see so many BMWs and Mercedes.
The Highways Agency buys a few Discoverys—we see them travelling up and down the motorways—but what other vehicles does it use? Mitsubishi has no plant here, and Nissan four-wheel drive vehicles are not built here. Why is the Highways Agency not buying the best four-wheel drive vehicles that are built in the midlands? It is absurd that it runs four different types of vehicle. It makes no sense. Bearing in mind the scale on which it buys vehicles, it would be better to buy from one supplier, and it should be British. We need to take that message back to organisations such as the Highways Agency and the police.
What about the ambulance service, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby) mentioned? Why are ambulances made by Renault or Mercedes? The home of the Transit is at Southampton. We should be using Transits or LDV vans from Birmingham. It is the same with the fire brigade. Why should brigades buy Scania and Volvo? What is wrong with them buying DAF trucks built at Leyland?
A lot of good vehicles are made in Britain, but we have to persuade Departments and agencies to start backing British manufacturing. Let us show our mettle. Let us copy the French, the Italians and the Germans. Let us use the same playing field instead of the unfair playing field that causes such unfair competition. People wonder why it is not happening and why Ministers do not use British-built cars. It is a shame, and I am sure that it is something that the Minister will put right. As I say, we must reverse that trend.
It is an easy option for multinational companies, including car producers, to turn their backs on the UK when the economy is not running well. Whenever General Motors or Peugeot want a better financial result, what do they do? They turn their backs on the UK and close their plants here. Why? Because it is easier to do that. It is so much cheaper to make someone redundant in the UK than it is in France, Italy or Germany. We should not have to pay that price.
We need an equal playing field, so that British workers have the same rights as those in other EU countries. It is appalling that it is cheaper, easier and quicker to sack someone here. People say, “Is the plant profitable? Yes, but it’s cheaper to get rid of the workers. We don’t have to wait 12 months”— or however long it takes in Germany. People can be made redundant virtually overnight in this country, and that is unacceptable. It needs to be changed. We must ensure that people are not made redundant simply because it is easier. Companies must be made to realise that our workers have the same rights. I hope that the Minister will do something about that. It is important that we take up the challenge.
Ensuring that we have a safer manufacturing industry and component sector and strengthening employment rights is the first challenge. The second is dealing with what happens when car companies begin to look at the books. The Select Committee on Trade and Industry found that people in the UK feel disadvantaged when it comes to energy costs. The problem is that our energy companies are failing us because energy is more expensive here than it is for our competitors abroad.
That disadvantage is the result of the failure of energy companies to invest in storage facilities. If only we had had the storage facilities the other week, when it was not possible to give gas away, we could have back-filled them with gas, which would have guaranteed cheaper energy. We could have energy at a set price all year round instead of the price spikes. That is becoming a difficulty for car companies, which recognise that energy is a problem.
We need the Government to play a part. If companies fail to invest, I hope that the Government will either force them to invest or invest for them and then charge them. That is how we can get a better and more stable economy for our manufacturing industry. It is about a level playing field. However we might look at it, we have to prevent people from taking the easy option. Those are the key factors. The cost difference in heavy energy use of between 20 and 30 per cent. is another key factor. I hope the Minister takes that on board. Addressing that problem would help to reduce prices and ensure that we are more competitive. The Government need to take the lead on those challenges. We have to support UK industry and ensure that all workers have the same rights.
The Warwick agreement is a lot of fine words, with which we all agree, but we know that it has failed. Although it has been successful in some areas, in others it has let us down. The fact is that Government procurement was meant to support UK industry. We have seen examples of when that procurement should have happened but did not, as with textiles, which moved to China. We would not have broken any laws had we done that—far from it. Those goods should have been manufactured here. Instead, the Government contracts ended up in Chinese factories. It is not acceptable.
Procurement can make a real difference. We must ensure that the Warwick agreement is held up as a good example of best practice in supporting UK industry and manufacturing. We have to get behind it, because it could make a difference, especially to the midlands and the north, which have been struggling. The agreement can help, because Government procurement leads by example, and there is a lot of money to be spent. We need to ensure that it is spent here, in support of UK jobs. I hope that we start to get that right.
As I said, there are many troubles in UK manufacturing, but there are also many positives. It is interesting to note that Honda is adding another shift, with further expansion—that is good news—as are Toyota and Nissan, and the Mini is bringing engine production back to the UK. There are many success stories, and we have to build on that success, but it does not always support the UK component industry. We have to persuade companies not only that the UK is good for manufacturing but that it is good for supplying components. That is what needs to be pushed. We have to make the car industry realise how important the component industry is to the UK and that it is a quality product that can be delivered on time.
We have some of the most skilled, able and dedicated workers in the world. We should not lose sight of that. It is said that people can retrain, but why should they? Why should we lose a shift at Ellesmere Port? They are skilled people. We should ensure that GM understands that future Government procurement will be based on who builds here. That is what we have to get across.
Our facilities are the among the best in the world. We have the best technology, some of the best research and development, and some of the best plant and machinery. We must build on that. Last year, we made 1.6 million cars. That was not far short of the record. Only the 1970s were better, so it is a good story. We have had the good, and we have the bad. It must be recognised that the UK is good for car companies and can help them to be profitable.
The Government have initiated changes to create a more favourable framework for car companies. People realise that working with the trade unions has done much to improve the industry. It is not the old days of strikes; the unions are now working with management. It is about them working together to ensure that there is a future. That was noted by the chief executive of Rolls-Royce, Ian Robertson, who recently said:
“There is now common purpose; to secure the future of the British motor industry.”
However, we must recognise the role that the trade unions have played. It is not about us and them. Both sides, management and trade unions alike, must work together.
My hon. Friend talks about good practice and working together. In the north-east, Nissan is a classic example of that and a testimony to how workers and managers can make a success of working together. It has invested £2 billion and employs 5,000 people on the plant. I have seen how people work together and it is a great success story in the north-east. That is in the spirit to which my hon. Friend referred and it should be highlighted.
I recognise that and had the privilege of going to the Nissan plant soon after it opened. I saw how it had changed and how many more thousands of people are now employed there. Nissan recognises the importance of the component sector as well and we rightly should salute it and other good companies that recognise trade unions and work with them. I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising that point.
I talked about the downside of the situation with TVR, but perhaps we should talk about the upside, which is Land Rover Freelander 2, produced in my region of the north-west. It is an important model for Halewood and it is unique that a Land Rover and a Jaguar are produced on the same line. As we speak, the first vehicles should be rolling off the assembly line. We should highlight that good news. I am very pleased that it will help to secure the future of Halewood. Those are two great vehicles and we need to ensure that Government agencies start using them. I hope that that will be taken on board.
In my constituency, Lex Multipart deal with a lot of parts for cars in the commercial sector. It has just spent £20 million on a 268,000 sq ft site in Chorley to ensure that it has a state-of-the-art back-up spares facility. That is good news as it shows that investment is going in. I am pleased with Lex Multipart, and it is good news for customers, the business and the employers who work in Chorley. That is why we will see parts from there going across the UK and to Europe as well.
Now is an ideal time for the Government to come out with a new vision for our future in the car manufacturing industry and component sector: a vision that puts the UK and component manufacturing at the forefront of Government policies and that can influence and shape employment rights. That is what we must do. We know how important it is to ensure that, by working together, the future of manufacturing continues and does not dip any further. We must have growth as it is important to this country, to the future and to the skills of the work force—and apprenticeships must not be forgotten.
I ask the Minister to take my comments on board so we can look to the future with a new vision and not forget how important manufacturing is to the UK.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on securing the debate. He was right to stress the enormous importance of automotive and component production to Britain’s manufacturing industry and to the economy as a whole. He also referred to the industry having had bad, indifferent and good news.
I want to concentrate on a bit of good news and congratulate the whole Cowley work force on the outstanding achievements of the BMW Group in producing the Mini. Like other long-standing centres of vehicle production, Cowley has had its ups and downs. Some of the downs were nearly fatal. The plant teetered on the brink of closure in the 1980s and had a succession of different owners—not an unfamiliar story in the car industry—from the British Motor Corporation to British Leyland, and from Austin Rover to British Aerospace, Rover and the BMW Group. While there were some real achievements during that time, there were also a lot of false dawns and a lot of managerial industrial relations failures. It was not a particularly happy or secure period for the work force or the local community.
Today, six years after the BMW Group took full control of the plant in its own right, it is a very different story—indeed, it is a success story. The key ingredients of that are long-term investment; partnership with the trade unions and the work force; a brilliant product that is very carefully researched, designed and marketed; and production to the highest quality standards, which can be achieved only with investment in plant and equipment, and in the skills and commitment of the work force.
The key statistics include more than £380 million invested in upgrading and expanding the Cowley production facilities. The work force, down to 1,500 in 2000, stand at 4,500, with another 200 recently taken on for the new generation of the Mini—launched by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. The work force skills mix has been enriched as part of BMW’s commitment to long-term skills planning and the Cowley plant has an apprenticeship scheme with more than 115 apprentices between the ages of 16 and 21. They are undertaking a three to four-year apprenticeship with the opportunity to gain a degree while working.
The plant is completing more than 200,000 models a year, which is up from 48,000 in its first year of production, and production is scheduled to rise further to 240,000 units in the medium term. Every model has a customer’s name on it and the plant can sell all the cars it can produce. There is a wonderful advertising hoarding that anyone who drives down the eastern bypass in Oxford will see. It says,
“Mini—built in Oxford, sold in”
and then it shows the flags of more than 70 countries.
The plant’s productivity has been rising year on year since production began in 2001. There are no subsidies or regional support from the Government and basic wages, not including bonuses, for grade 2 workers are £20,516—many earn significantly more.
All that has resulted from the BMW Group’s skill in bringing to fruition what would be a tough challenge in any industry: the reinvention and complete reconstruction of an iconic brand, through the commitment of the Cowley work force to making a success of it. Going back to the roots of that, there were some far-sighted and brave decisions by shop stewards to make a success of partnership. They fought for their members’ interests while recognising that there had to be a successful plant for their members to have an interest in.
There are other important lessons and hopeful signs for other areas of the automotive industry. Indeed, certain developments confound some of the conventional wisdom on global manufacturing. My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley mentioned the importance of components, and rightly so. When Mini production started at Cowley, the proportion of components that were UK produced was 40 per cent. It is now up to 60 per cent.
BMW Group has established a manufacturing triangle with Cowley as the production centre, body pressings in Swindon and engine manufacture at Hams Hall. Those engines were previously manufactured at Curitiba in Brazil. It is interesting to note that the BMW Group explained that it repatriated engine manufacture for the flexibility of just-in-time production, and because it is more efficient and cost-effective to have the engines made 70 miles up the road in a state-of-the-art engine plant than for them to be made several thousand miles away.
That is a positive story, and I am confident there are a lot more chapters to go. It is an example of how Britain can compete successfully with the best in global manufacturing. The key is to have a business committed in the long-term to working in a framework of economic stability and that designs its models carefully for what customers want and are prepared to pay. It should invest in the long-term and have a skilled and flexible work force equally committed to quality. BMW Group in the UK is an outstanding example of British-German partnership, but most importantly everyone at Cowley is proud to be part of a British manufacturing success story. That should be celebrated.
The last time my right hon. Friend the Minister visited my constituency, she went to a disabled workshop and bought a very good garden bench. The next time she visits, she must come to the Cowley car plant and buy a Mini.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on securing this important debate and on the manner in which he introduced it. As the Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, I am privileged to have him as a member of my Committee—[Interruption.] I will not say that it is a dubious privilege.
The Select Committee is coming to the end of an inquiry on the reasons for success and failure in the automotive sector, although we had hoped to have produced the report by now. In that respect, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) for the excellent evidence that he gave us, which came out of concern about the Rover group. However, the inquiry is being held up because we are waiting for further evidence from Advantage West Midlands, although I hope that we will finalise the report when it arrives.
We are also considering the broader issues facing manufacturing industry, and we have touched on many of those outlined by the hon. Member for Chorley. In particular, we are looking at public procurement, which has big ramifications not only for the car industry, but for many other parts of British manufacturing.
I want to echo the hon. Gentleman’s comment that energy costs have recently emerged as a major issue for UK manufacturers. The Committee has received evidence on that issue, and he is right to highlight it. We cannot afford to be complacent. However, I also want to challenge him a little on his definition of Britishness. I had the privilege of being a special adviser in the Department in the mid-1980s.
The hon. Gentleman says that it is my fault, but he should wait to hear what I am going to say. The Secretary of State at the time—now Lord Young of Graffham—had a clear industrial strategy and sought to attract to the UK all the internationally mobile major car investment going. He played a big part in getting Toyota, Nissan and Honda here, and they have had precisely the effect that we hoped for.
In that respect, I was powerfully struck by something that I was told anecdotally by a constituent who made car components before the Japanese companies arrived. He said that the big motor manufacturers procured their components from companies on the basis of who bought them the best lunch. It was not the quality of the component, but what was on their plate that dictated who got the contract. The Japanese had no truck with that, and I am sure that they have played a major part in driving up standards in the UK component industry, much of which, I am glad to say, is located in my constituency.
I am afraid that I also disagree with the hon. Gentleman—I suspect that we will have a debate on this in the Select Committee—about his point that people in this country are easy to sack. People here might be easy to sack, but it is also easy to establish a business here, which is one reason for Nissan, Toyota and Honda coming here in the first place. There are two sides to the equation, and both need to be considered.
In conclusion, what does it mean to buy British? I suspect that the hon. Gentleman—perhaps I should call him my hon. Friend, for these purposes—and I will disagree slightly about this, but I would say that buying British means buying from any company that is committed to the UK. For someone who does not want a Mini, buying a BMW 1, 2 or 3 series might be a good way of, in effect, buying British. The Minister can carry on driving her Toyota Prius for exactly the same reason.
I echo other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on securing the debate. Much of what he said struck a chord with me, and that was particularly true of his comments on the responsibility of public authorities to have some regard to the effect of their decisions on British manufacturing.
As my hon. Friend said—the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) also referred to this, and I thank him for his comments—I had the privilege of representing Longbridge when MG Rover was in operation there. The causes of MG Rover’s ultimate demise are complex, and today is not the time to go into them, but I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that we hope it will not be too much longer before the official investigation into MG Rover reports, because people in the area want to see the results. I know that the matter is not entirely in her control, but I hope that she will pass the message on.
There was constant concern among workers and members of the community about the fact that vehicles manufactured at Longbridge, such as the MG ZT and the Rover 75, were not being used by police forces, although I do not say that that was the cause of the company’s demise. My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley is right, however, that the same point can also be made about Jaguars and some other vehicles.
Given the situation facing Peugeot, memories of the 6,000 people who lost their jobs at MG Rover last year have come back to all of us in the west midlands. Again, it would be wrong to go into the issue in detail, and there is not enough time to do so today, but I urge all hon. Members and the Minister, who was present for some of our earlier debates, to look again at the important words of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) and other Coventry Members, who have spoken in recent Adjournment debates about the disgraceful way that Peugeot has behaved over the Ryton plant.
I am pleased to say that the vast majority of former Longbridge employees have now got other jobs. That is good news, but it is important that we set it in perspective: a substantial minority still do not have jobs, and those who do are often on much lower pay rates. It is therefore important that we do not abandon those people.
The taskforce that the Government set up has achieved a great deal, and I pay credit to it and its successor body. However, it is important that that work goes on. Not all the money that the Government allocated to the issue has been spent. If the needs are still there, it is important that the money is still there. Indeed, I shall be speaking to my right hon. Friend the Minister in just a couple of hours about some of the issues involved. However, I make this appeal to her: we should not be over-concerned about whether money is allocated in one financial year rather than another. The really important thing is what the money is needed for and what use it should be put to.
As regards the future for Longbridge, the Chinese firm Nanjing Automobile Corporation has guaranteed that it will be producing MG sports cars at the plant from next year. That is good news, and I wish the company the best of luck. However, although the announcement that Nanjing will locate its European headquarters at Longbridge is welcome, we need to think about what else needs to happen, because the future of Longbridge and, in many ways, the British car industry can be about much more. Part of that future should involve looking at where our strengths have been, still are and will be in future.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley referred to performance engineering, and motor sports technology is also relevant in many ways. Just two weeks ago, the final round of the British touring car championship took place at Silverstone. The car that won was a Honda, and the firm running it was a performance wheel manufacturer called Rimstock, which is based in West Bromwich. Interestingly, two teams in that performance series were running on bioethanol and one was running MGs. There is huge potential for synergies in the performance engineering and environmental technology fields. I hope that Longbridge can be part of that and that the Government can take an active role in promoting such ventures.
Such things can also happen in other parts of the motor industry. Just down the road in the west midlands, at Fen End in Warwickshire, the performance engineering firm Prodrive has just secured final confirmation that it has received planning permission, so a Formula 1 car produced in Warwickshire will be on the grid from 2008.
Tata and Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation—erstwhile partners of MG Rover—also have committed to new design centres. Nanjing’s supplier Stadco is moving to the Longbridge plant to build bodies. JCB in Staffordshire is collaborating with Ricardo Consulting Engineers to produce state-of-the-art diesel engines. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) rightly paid tribute to the work of BMW at Cowley and, significantly, to the production of the new generation of engines at Hams Hall.
There are therefore several different examples of where we are succeeding in new areas and with traditional, iconic brands. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) referred to Ford, Land Rover and Jaguar. Equally, London Taxi International has just teamed up with a Chinese partner, which will, I hope, see their production increase tenfold in the midlands.
We might have fewer and smaller manufacturing plants, and we cannot duck the challenges of globalisation, but if we stay ahead of the game and play to our strengths, there can be a bright future not only for manufacturing, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East rightly said, for the components industry. I pay tribute to programmes such as Accelerate, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. It has been encouraging components suppliers to improve processes and to get ahead of the game, and they have been very successful in so doing. Such programmes were important in ensuring that the loss of MG Rover last year was not half as serious as it would have been had it happened in 2000.
There are one or two things that the Government need to think about, and I want to describe a couple for the Minister. First, if I am right about the kind of future that I am sketching out for the motor industry, we need to think about the supportive mechanisms and attitudes that are needed to back that up. The planning system has a role. It is right that we involve local people in planning decisions and that we look to protect the environment, but there should be a framework of trying to make things happen, rather than always getting in the way of things happening. That is very much the view of people living in and around Longbridge.
These days, we all celebrate motor sport and performance engineering, which I have mentioned today. However, we need to think about whether all Departments of State, parts of local government and different agencies are working together to make those as effective as possible, and whether we are using the expertise of our performance engineers as effectively as we can to meet the environmental challenge. As I say, the synergies are there. The Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, for example, has done some great work, but are we really doing all we can to be world beaters in the business of alternative fuels? Could we do more on biofuels or, for the long-term future, on hydrogen power?
We need to consider those issues, as well as planning policies. We need to examine whether our industrial policies link with our environmental policies. Equally, we should consider whether they both link with our transport policies and whether we are using the transport innovation fund, for example, as creatively as we can to obtain the spin-off industrial and technological benefits, as well as the transport benefits.
We have a proud manufacturing history. In Longbridge, we know that the tenacity and skills of the work force and the vision of people such as Herbert Austin built the 20th century for Austin in Longbridge. The tenacity and skills of the work force there, and those of the motor industry, can now also build a future. It will be a different future, but I think it can be a bright one.
South Derbyshire is arguably the heart of UK manufacturing. Nearly a third of the work force there are employed in manufacturing, which is more than double the average for a UK constituency, and it is home to a wide variety of companies. I shall concentrate on one of those. However, we make engines for JCB—the main plant is of course in your constituency, Mrs. Dean, but the engines are now made in South Derbyshire—and many Rolls-Royce employees live in my constituency.
We also have Futaba, which makes car parts for Toyota and other car manufacturers. We make steel frames and aircraft parts, and innovative electric power systems for high-performance vehicles. The area is a centre of expertise, hard work and innovation, with committed workers who know what they are doing and owners who are committed to the future of their businesses.
I want to focus on Toyota, which is also based in my constituency. It is, I think, the most successful car company in the world, and 4,200 people are employed at Burnaston, out of the 4,800 in the UK. That is based on an investment over the past 14 years of nearly £2 billion. The plant makes two lines: the Avensis, which I drive—I do not suppose that I could get away with driving much else, as I live a mile and a half from the plant that makes them—and the Corolla. They are vehicles that I commend in public purchasing terms, and certainly commend to other Members of Parliament. Sometimes when one wanders into the Members’ car park, the number of British-made cars sitting down there is noticeable.
Annual production of vehicles at the plant is coming up for 285,000, because a major investment has facilitated further expansion of annual production for this year, and it is used as a source of advice on manufacturing and process quality. The Toyota production system is taught to many people, including those from the public sector who come to learn about how processes can be organised and how teams can work together to produce high-quality output.
Eighty-five per cent. of the Burnaston production is exported, including a proportion that goes to Japan. In 2005, Burnaston produced its 2 millionth vehicle, and it makes a net contribution of £400 million a year to our balance of payments—which is not to be sneezed at. A point that has not yet been picked up in the debate is the fact that such major manufacturing investments make an important contribution to UK plc’s trading status as a nation.
Burnaston is now also a training facility for Toyota employees across Europe. I am pleased that my constituency has been chosen as the base for people learning how to produce in the Toyota way. It also has an enviable reputation as a general car manufacturer: we have already heard about the Toyota Prius, which is a vehicle with a dual power system that is often used in the ministerial fleet. My right hon. Friend the Minister may go around in one—I do not know.
The plant, which I commend as a place to visit, if the Minister has the pleasure of visiting South Derbyshire—I am sure that Toyota would welcome that too—also has a strong focus on the reuse of materials. Anything that can be reused is put aside for recycling or repurposing. It is a model employer and manufacturer, and, when we consider the global statistics, a manufacturer that is winning the race worldwide, not just in Britain.
All that is very positive, and it is my core message: we can succeed in making cars in the UK. Toyota proves that. However, what do such companies need? My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) rightly mentioned the importance of a stable economy. Toyota always makes that point: it wants a clear environment in which it can invest in the future, knowing that something desperate will not happen in six months that dramatically changes the mechanism of its business. That includes relative stability of exchange rates. It is a major trading force, as I have emphasised, and it is important that the Government have made admirable progress there. While we have not joined the euro, in the past two years we have, nevertheless, had relative stability in exchange rates with the euro, which has helped companies such as Toyota to predict costs in the relevant area.
Energy costs have been touched on and I shall not discuss them again, but a critical area is logistics. South Derbyshire is right in the middle of the UK. Toyota would love to be able to use our railway system, as that would allow it to ship its high-quality product to UK ports for export. I know that discussions on some relevant issues have been going on with my right hon. Friend’s Department for some time. I would welcome her comments on what progress might be made, because Toyota is an enthusiastic supporter of the opportunity.
My last point is that we need a regulatory framework that is sympathetic to manufacturing activity and takes account of the competitive environment in which it operates. It is no use applying regulatory burdens in the UK that are not applied to major manufacturers in mainland Europe—particularly some of the new-entrant countries. That is hard for a major company such as Toyota to bear.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on securing the debate. He has talked passionately about manufacturing and said that he wanted to talk manufacturing up. I agree wholeheartedly that that is what we should do, because we both, like other right hon. and hon. Members who are present, care passionately about manufacturing.
I agree with what my hon. Friend said about the Government leading by example and considering their purchasing policy. That is something that the Government could do to set an example, and I urge the Minister to take the idea seriously; it has my support.
I want to focus on the positive aspect of manufacturing and particularly motor manufacturing in the north-east and on a great success story, Nissan, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry. The Nissan plant in the north-east was set up in 1986 and has been one of the most productive car plants in Europe. I put it on the record for my right hon. Friend the Minister that it has enjoyed tremendous support from the Government office for the north-east and from the regional development agency—One NorthEast. The local council has also given tremendous support over the years to help to make the plant work. Everyone has worked together to recognise the sector and played their part.
The Nissan plant produces nearly a third of a million Micra, Almera and Primera models each year. It now accounts for one in five of all cars produced in the UK. Nissan works closely with the university of Sunderland and with local colleges. A two-year foundation degree—the first—in lean manufacturing has just been launched in the north-east, with more than 40 students enrolling. Sunderland has also been selected to take forward production of a new sport utility vehicle range, with £500 million of investment and the creation of a further 400 jobs.
The plant is highly technically advanced. A total of 435 functioning robots provide for nearly 80 per cent. automation of the assembly process at the plant. About 75 per cent. of production is exported, with markets in 45 countries, including Nissan’s home nation of Japan. Nissan contributes about £500 million to the local economy each year, with 240 suppliers in the region. Nissan’s total investment exceeds £2 billion, with about 5,000 people employed at the plant.
Nissan has also been the agency for creating a large supply base in the region with significant suppliers, including Hashimoto, Magna Kansei, Calsonic Kansei, TRW Automotive and Johnson Controls. Much of that work is concentrated around Sunderland, and the city continues to build on its worldwide reputation as a centre for car manufacturing. The sector employs about 12,000 people in that city alone.
As I said, the Nissan plant is a great success story and has enjoyed tremendous support, certainly from the Government. I ask the Government to continue to provide support in future so that the plant can continue to flourish and we will have a great success story to tell for years to come.
My experience of the motor manufacturing industry goes back more than 30 years. In those days, I regularly used to visit the Standard Triumph factory in Speke, which has long since closed for what are now obvious reasons. It was a depressing, noisy place, with bad human resources practices, and the products were not of the highest quality. There was no vision for the future and no ambition at the time. Sadly, that reflected the period in which we were living.
The Government have changed the emphasis quite considerably, but we need more vision now. I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) on that. We need a vision that encompasses a strategic future that engages the hydrogen fuel cell industry. Otherwise, it will end up in Germany. We need a vision that engages bioethanol products. I saw the same race on television. Knowing my hon. Friend’s love of the sport, I am sure that he was there. We need to engage the performance industry as well.
I agree with the comments about public procurement. The strategy on public procurement is important because it sends a powerful message. The fact that many police forces drive Vauxhall Astras is a huge plus in the bid that we have just made for the new vehicle for Ellesmere Port. If none of our police forces drove the vehicle and there was not significant public procurement of the vehicle, the company would perhaps focus elsewhere. I shall return to that issue.
We have to recognise that we are now dealing with global vehicles, which are designed by giant corporations seeking to meet market needs across the world. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) is fantastically lucky that his area is hitting the world market from the very good factory there. We need to recognise, though, that many vehicles are manufactured in a large number of countries and we have to ensure that, if we are in this for the long term, the strategic changes that we engage in make sense in relation to the needs of those big corporations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) mentioned energy, which is a huge issue. In relation to the Vauxhall bid, we are working closely with the company not only on engaging with our friends in the Treasury about energy prices in this country, but on finding innovative solutions, working with energy suppliers in the area that might be able to make provision directly into the grid. Such innovation is highly desirable.
We have also been working on estate management and ensuring that the estate is fit for purpose, because it was designed in a different era of vehicle manufacturing, when it was quite common to have long rambling production lines that did not make a great deal of sense in terms of integration, because that was not the way in which production worked. A huge amount of work is taking place on that. My right hon. Friend the Minister may have seen, in a paper that I sent to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer last week, that we have achieved a deal on the rates for the building, putting them in line with the rates that apply to Gliwice in Poland and thus removing one of the obstacles that would mean that we lost out on the bid.
A huge amount of work is taking place on training with the Northwest Development Agency. This is enormously important. If we are going to take the Astra platform forward for the next model and over the projected 15 years, we must have the most highly trained work force to be able to compete with sister plants elsewhere in Europe.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) touched on the transport infrastructure. It is utterly absurd that a railway siding goes through the Vauxhall factory, yet not one single component travels on railways. I shall not make a party political point, but the reason for that goes back to the failure of Railtrack, which simply was not interested in the business. Therefore, Vauxhall has invested in fleets of lorries, and its actions, together with those of all the other manufacturers in my area, cause the clogging of the M6. If anyone wants to find a quick solution to traffic-flow problems on the M6, they should invest in rail freight, which would help Vauxhall, Shell and all the other big players in my area.
That type of cross-cutting Government thinking is needed and we need to send out a powerful message. I hope that the Minister, in her reply, will do just that. We need to send to potential investors and, in my case, particularly to General Motors a powerful message that says that we are serious about ensuring that we continue to be a great place to do business and that part of that will involve working with them to try to address some of the energy and transport infrastructure issues, to ensure that we invest in training and to address the issues of estate management and so on.
If we get those things right, we can continue to produce the Vauxhall Astra in my constituency. Those messages reflect across the broader industry. I hope that the Minister will speak with enthusiasm about the industry, which is hugely important to the country and needs to be so in the future.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on securing today’s important debate. I come from Solihull, the home of Ford and Land Rover. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman is delighted that the Freelander rolled off the production line at Halewood today, but that has been to the cost of Solihull and 1,200 jobs there. Having said that, because its hugely successful products contribute enormously to British exports, I think that Land Rover should be congratulated, as should the other excellent car production companies that have been mentioned today, such as Honda, Toyota, Nissan and BMW Mini.
The west midlands has more jobs in car manufacturing than any other region in Britain: 78,000 jobs. Unfortunately, when Labour came to power it had 95,000. The figure for the drop in car manufacturing from last year to this, which was released yesterday, is 15 per cent., but I am sure that the sad tales of Rover and Peugeot have contributed to that. I am hopeful that there might be something of an upturn next year. If there is not, it will not be for want of effort on behalf of the excellent companies that I have mentioned.
I want to discuss car component manufacturers, on whom there are enormous pressures. It is important that they are located close to car manufacturers wherever possible because of the pressures of just-in-time technology, which is hugely valuable, but there are problems with the transport infrastructure, and it becomes increasingly problematic when components do not get to their destination within the required time.
We are moving away, particularly in the west midlands, from low added-value components and the metal-bashing era to using much more technically challenging, high-spec systems that involve computer-aided design and electronics. That is a good move because it brings a great deal more added value in the cars that we manage to export, which is good for our balance of payments. However, we are a net importer of vehicles to the tune of 1 million vehicles a year at a cost of almost £6 billion to the UK economy. Clearly, the more vehicles we manufacture here for export, the better it will be for prosperity in the country generally.
As we are being technically challenged all the time, particularly with car components, it is important to keep research and development ahead of that in China, India and the rest of Europe. We therefore need skills and investment to create an environment that overseas car manufacturers will welcome.
There seems to be a global problem in car manufacturing with surplus capacity. Strong unions that are, obviously, against cuts in the volume of manufacturing cause profit pressures, and the tight margins to which manufacturers have to work will filter down the supply chain through price-downs, where suppliers on each tier demand price cuts from the suppliers below. That phenomenon, and the investment that is required in research and development and new technology, mean that many car component companies are highly geared. There is a constant need to upgrade manufacturing plant and tooling, and they are less able to withstand the shocks of lack of demand or changes to do with economic pressures and interest rates, so Government help to a create stable environment is important.
However, it is not all gloom and doom. The British success stories that we have discussed are hugely welcome. Foreign manufacturers come to this country because of flexible jobs. While jobs are very important, the route to more success is more partnership working between unions and manufacturers rather than there being a protectionist approach to British jobs.
The hon. Member for Chorley talked about buying British, which is hugely important. I wish that the British public would buy British as well—
Indeed. Renault does not make a single vehicle in this country, yet there are many Renault vehicles on the road. I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should encourage a better awareness of where vehicles are made and the link between buying vehicles that have been made in Britain and the prosperity of Britain. We do not laud that enough. The game is definitely worth the candle, but we need skilled people and R and D support. The transport infrastructure is also important.
I echo the comments of the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) about regulation, particularly with regard to car components, and the need for sensitivity to the enormously changing environment. I encourage the Minister to consider regulation in relation to component manufacturers, and I am sure that she and her Department would be pleased to hear from those manufacturers how regulation is hampering them.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), who has long had an interest in this matter. He spoke with real passion on the subject, and I suspect that not only we in the Chamber but many of his constituents will have heard what he has to say.
The debate has been useful and is timely. I was particularly struck by two contributions—I hope that other right hon. and hon. Members will not be disheartened. The remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) showed his wisdom, not least as the Chairman of the Trade and Industry Committee, and were particularly helpful, so I am grateful for those. I commend also the remarks of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). Like him, I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us when the MG report will be published.
The manufacture of cars and their components in this country is an industry of long significance, and will continue to be of great economic and technological importance. As we have heard, the industry accounts for 10 per cent. of manufacturing in the UK— £45 billion if we put that into real money—and supports roughly 800,000 jobs. I understand that our exports are worth about £20 billion.
Despite some well-reported problems, car production has remained remarkably steadfast in recent years, and is, roughly speaking, about 1.6 million vehicles. Several hon. Members alluded to the fact that those figures do not show the change in the industry’s structure over that decade. During the period, there has, on the one hand, been the demise of familiar British names, such as TVR, and, on the other hand, their replacement by leading overseas players in the industry. It has gone from being a British car-making industry to being a car-making business in Britain.
On the debit side, MG Rover recently went into administration and Peugeot made the announcement about its facilities at Ryton, and Vauxhall has sought to cut production of its Astra model with the loss of 900 jobs. No one in the Chamber, or among our constituents, welcomes the demise of those enterprises, nor does anyone underestimate the distress that it causes to hundreds, if not thousands, of workers. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield highlighted that extremely well. We should also not forget the many small and medium-sized enterprises in the supply chain, the component chain, who often do not hit the headlines. They are often ignored by the national media when this kind of event takes place.
On the credit side, we should not ignore the good news, which the hon. Member for Chorley mentioned. In Sunderland, Nissan has invested another £125 million to enable it to build its fifth model in the UK. In Swindon, Honda has invested up to £1.3 billion so far and is just about to open the new logistics operation. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows, and is pleased about, the fact that Leyland Trucks has turned its plant in Lancashire into the most productive commercial vehicle plant in Europe. I believe that it turns out about 15,000 units a year. All of those stories are to be welcomed. They show that the UK is still able to attract international investment, but it can do so only if we are able to offer the right combination of skills and markets.
The Select Committee is considering the fact the UK still faces considerable competitive challenges. In the short time available, I want to focus on three areas: skills, investment, and—several hon. Members have mentioned this—regulation. Car and component manufacture needs both basic and specialist engineering skills to compete. Sadly, this country is not keeping up with our competitors on both counts. A recent survey by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders Ltd highlighted that 83 per cent. of its members found that low employee skills are holding their businesses back.
The independent Leitch review of skills confirms the problem. It was commissioned by the Treasury, and its interim report found that one third of working adults do not have a basic school-leaving qualification. Worse still, it shows that the result of the Government’s current plans for skills would leave 4 million adults without the basic literary skills expected of 11-year-olds and 12 million adults without their numeric skills. Why are the Government planning for such low attainment? How does the Minister expect the industry to cope with staff who have such inadequate skills?
On graduate engineering skills, a CBI report has shown that since the mid-1990s the number of students obtaining a first degree in engineering and technology has fallen by 11 per cent. That has serious implications for motor engineering and car making. Given that, why does the Minister believe there has been such sharp decline? As a former Minister with responsibility for higher education, which of the Government’s policies in particular does she think are failing?
On business investment, the Government have set themselves a target to increase the UK investment in research and development to 2.5 per cent. It is a laudable ambition, given that it is fair to say that we have had a historic habit of lagging behind France, Germany and America. Therefore, it is disappointing to report that the most recent figures show that research and development investment has remained static as a proportion of gross domestic product; it has gone nowhere in nine years. The Chancellor is proud of his research and development tax credits, yet the Government’s own evidence shows that they have failed to help the Government to reach that target. We are exactly where we were nine years ago. Why do they think that the investment has not increased? What does the Minister think is wrong with the research and development tax credits? Can she say today that she is still absolutely confident that the Government will meet their target?
Several hon. Members have alluded to the fact that the burden of regulations is one thing that has increased. A recent survey by the Engineering Employers Federation showed that 62 per cent. of its members cite regulation as having a negative effect on the ability of this country to be a place to which people want to come to invest and do business. They are right. The annual level of regulations has risen since 1997 by more than 50 per cent. It is now the equivalent of having 15 new regulations every working day. Does the Minister recognise how the burden impacts on car manufacturers? Does she accept the figure from the Federation of Small Businesses that the average small business spends 28 hours a month simply complying with Government paperwork? If she does accept that those figures are correct, what steps does she intend to take, as the Minister with responsibility for small businesses?
Equally, conflicting regulatory objectives can create serious confusion. Let us consider recent EU initiatives about health and safety, and environmental protection. On the one hand, the EU has initiated regulations to reduce tailpipe fumes, which affect our health. However, these Euro V regulations involve installing particulate filters, which increase the weight of the car. The result is an increase in carbon emissions, which directly contradicts another EU policy that seeks to tackle climate change. For car makers, that conflict between policies is immensely frustrating and confusing. Which policy comes first for them? As the Minister responsible for industry, is she aware of the regulatory confusion? If she is, what does she propose to do about it?
The car and component-manufacturing industry remains vital, not just to today’s economy, but to our future prospects. Improving skills, increasing investment and reducing regulations will all require an energetic and positive approach from the Government. Given that, I hope that the Minister will explain her plans for supporting the industry. In particular, I hope that she will respond not just to my questions, but to those raised throughout the debate.
In 13 minutes I shall try to do justice to this well informed and high-powered debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on securing it. I also congratulate Amicus, the union with which he is so closely associated, on the work that it has done to raise the profile of British manufacturing, and the car industry on its day-to-day work and in the important partnerships that it creates.
I should be up front in admitting that I have a Vauxhall Vectra; it is my Government car. Those cars used to be produced in Ellesmere Port, but I am unsure whether they still are. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) could help me on that.
I was going to ask my permanent secretary whether he could get me an upgrade to one of the Deputy Prime Minister’s Jaguars.
I will try to do justice to what everybody has said. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) talked about the Select Committee report. I look forward to the outcome of that. I want to deal with one or two of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). As he knows, it is the inspectors who are reporting and not the Government, so we must wait for that to happen. He is going to talk to me later about the particular issues in relation to the taskforce, and I hope that I will have good news for him. I should say some general things about the planning system, but I know that the planning application on his particular site has not been called in. That should not hold up that particular development, although I accept that planning is an issue of concern in Ellesmere Port and elsewhere.
The Chancellor set up the Barker review to try to tackle some of the conflicts that exist, so that we can ensure that our desire to achieve growth in the economy, particularly in the manufacturing sector, is not impeded by slowness in the planning system. We all look forward to the outcome of the Barker review, which should be around the time of the pre-Budget report.
I shall respond to the other contributions more generally. Manufacturing always provokes bad news in the press and its image is an issue that I must tackle. Manufacturing is vital and a key part of our infrastructure. It provides 14 per cent. of our gross domestic product, one seventh of our national wealth and 50 per cent. of our exports. It is interesting that many of the contributions about the car industry this afternoon were positive. British car manufacturing has a good story to tell and, without being too party political and partisan, it was a Labour Government who brought British car manufacturing back from its all-time low in the 1980s of about 900,000 cars a year to 1.6 million a year now—[Interruption.] I will take a sedentary frown from the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) told a warm story about what is happening at the Cowley plant where there has been not only a massive increase in the work force from 1,500 to 4,500, but a welcome increase in apprenticeships—many hon. Members talked about training. It is interesting that cars are built in Oxford, but sold with a flag. Car manufacturing is an important export industry and whether that is in south Derbyshire, where Toyota’s vehicle manufacturing is based, or Oxford, East, we should not lose sight of the fact that we export cars. That is hugely important.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire talked about Toyota, which I recently had the pleasure of visiting in Japan. I am incredibly impressed by it and particularly by its investment in new fuels and its consideration of safety. It is much more grounded in what I think will be the future that customers want from their cars than are some other car manufacturers with an American base who are in trouble.
There was a positive story to tell about all car manufacturers in this country, including Nissan and Toyota. My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) talked about Nissan, which is a fantastically good-news story. Nissan has the wonderful feature of being Europe’s most productive car plant today and we are proud of that, although Toyota at Burnaston and Honda at Swindon are also in Europe’s top 10.
I cannot let time pass without mentioning Ford. Jaguar’s Halewood plant has become Ford’s most productive plant and I am proud that in Dagenham, the constituency next to mine, we are producing so many engines, many of which are also exported.
The supply chain is strong with 2,600 companies employing 130,000 people. The just-in-time location for supply chain products to feed into the manufacturing process is extremely important and one of the messages that I received from Toyota when I was in Japan was that we need to work together to improve the performance of supply-chain companies so that they can produce within cost, to quality and on time to meet demand. It is important to put some effort into that as we move forward. The supply chain is crucial and it is good to see that BMW is increasing—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I hope that I can do my hon. Friends justice.
I shall say one more thing about United Kingdom car manufacturing: its productivity went up by 44 per cent. between 2000 and 2004, the years for which I have figures. That is why in Oxford, East, South Derbyshire, and Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland there is such successful manufacturing capacity.
I want to deal quickly with the issues that have been raised, and then with the vision that my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) described. Procurement is a difficult issue, as he knows, but a lot of purchasing takes place: the Post Office purchases Transits and Vivaros, Royal Mail purchases from LDV, and Toyota provides a lot of cars for the Post Office. The Government car fleet could do better—I accept that—but we must ensure value for money. Britain does well because we have an open market, and we are producing so many cars because we are competitive. That is good for the British car industry in the long term because it makes it sustainable and helps us to export.
The importance of a stable economic environment was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East, my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland and the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt). The matter is key, and I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley that there are many myths about employment rights in the UK. A Department of Trade and Industry survey found that five of 15 EU countries have collective redundancies that are implemented more quickly than those in the UK. In Denmark and Greece there are shorter periods of notice and lower severance payments for blue-collar than for white-collar workers, and in France, with which we are often compared, there is an insider-outsider problem. Those who are in work have their jobs protected, but it is much more difficult to take people on. That has led to a 25 per cent. unemployment rate.
Hon. Members mentioned the shrinking number of jobs in the car industry, but that is not peculiar to the UK. Volkswagen, for example, is to cut 20,000 jobs at six West German plants. Energy costs are a consideration, and until 2005 ours were comparable with those in continental Europe or, in many cases, slightly lower. Things went wrong in the winter of 2005, when there was an increase in demand and in energy prices internationally because of the decline of North sea gas production. By about mid-2006 we were competitive again, and new infrastructure, such as the new gas pipeline from Norway that the Prime Minister recently opened, will help us to equalise the situation.
We must do what we can in the energy sector. Hence the Carbon Trust, which we set up to provide direct advice to industrial companies; hence the enhanced capital allowances scheme, which means that companies can claim 100 per cent. first-year allowances; and hence the climate change programme, which a number of hon. Members mentioned.
Transport infrastructure and logistics are key. We are discussing them with Toyota and a feasibility study is being undertaken with the regional development agencies. We are conscious of the issues affecting Vauxhall, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston on having done an enormous amount of work on them. We must try to unlock the problems faced. It is crazy that we cannot use the railway lines to support our car industry and that we have to rely on road transport. I think we would all accept that.
I end by mentioning what we are doing for the car industry, a subject that the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) raised. I shall not reply to him in detail, but he said that there are 4 million adults with no skills. When we came into government there were 7 million. We have nearly halved the figure. There was no research and development tax credits system, and R and D investment was on the down. I shall talk to him in another arena about small businesses, but some regulation is good. For example, we all support opening up the right of older workers to have a place in work.
The car industry is central to the manufacturing base of the UK, and we are strong in it. We all need to talk it up, not down, and ensure that we put the right investment in the right places. The automotive innovation and growth team report was published under my predecessors, and we are going ahead with that work. A huge amount of work is going into building skills. We have the automotive academy, which I visited on a recent visit to the west midlands and which is doing good work, and we are building centres of excellence and investing in the examination of new fuel technologies. We have a technology programme of almost £400 million, and one of the innovations coming from it is the low-carbon vehicle partnership. There is InnovITS, which brings people together on telematics. We must focus on the supply chain, and we have put money into that. Companies must work with their peers to improve productivity and their management of the supply chain. All those elements make for a good, healthy car industry. That is what we want—an industry that produces for UK residents but also for export. That is how to build a prosperous UK with a growth in jobs.
Wednesbury to Brierley Hill Midland Metro
I am delighted to be able to discuss this important issue and pleased that the Minister is here to respond. Although the title of the debate refers directly to Midland Metro and its possible future routing through the black country, hon. Members should recognise that the context of that extension is not solely one of transport. It is set within a wider sub-regional framework now known as “Black Country Study”.
I shall take a little time to set the scene, Mrs. Dean—a rhyme there. Very nice. I must outline the importance of “Black Country Study”, which sets the context for the crucial Midland Metro extension and how it will support the key aims identified. The study began three years ago when the region’s political and business leaders recognised the need to consider radical change in the sub-region to counter the decline of the past 30 years.
The process got under way when a 30-year future vision was agreed with partners, which provides the driving force for change. There is now a sub-regional study for the black country to outline the priorities for the regeneration of its physical, environmental, social and economic fabric. The West Midlands regional assembly, as the regional planning body, has accepted the study as a supporting document for the draft regional spatial strategy phase 1 revision, submitted to the Government on 31 May. Hon. Members will know that regional spatial strategies guide major transport, land use and regeneration decisions, in this case until 2021.
Across the black country there are important challenges, some of which have been ignored by successive Governments. An example of the fundamental challenges in Stourbridge and in most of our part of the west midlands is provided by the large number of people who leave the region’s villages, towns, cities and boroughs, including Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton. There is a high number of low-skilled workers, which means an over-reliance on basic, manually-based jobs.
The black country’s ability to retain people with higher skills and attract new highly skilled workers is severely restricted, and only limited measures are in place to protect and enhance the environment to create a safe, attractive and healthy place to live and work. I am delighted to say that “Black Country Study” seeks to address those matters.
I came into politics to help to improve the quality of life of local people, and as a Labour Member I am proud to serve my community while a proposal such as the study is being considered. There must be an urban renaissance in our region, and a key constituent part of that can be delivered through major investment projects such as the proposed extension of Midland Metro. I was recently astounded to learn that of the 2 million trips, not including walking and cycling, that are made every day in the black country, 83 per cent. are by car and only 17 per cent. by public transport.
Although the population is forecast to decline in the next 30 years, transport models show that there will still be a rise in the number of trips made daily. Of the new trips, the trend is for more to be made by car and fewer by public transport. Clearly, that is unsustainable, particularly considering the planned expansion in employment, population and housing.
Public transport overall is declining in the black country, but rail use is increasing in line with national trends outside London. Bus operators in the west midlands have reported more than 30 locations where delays on the road network are unacceptable and seriously affect reliability. For instance, many bridges in the black country still have limited head room or cannot carry the largest heavy goods vehicles. That restricts our freight operations and hampers the development of some areas.
The majority of public transport trips are made by bus. The quality, performance and perception of those services mean that they often fail to provide a truly acceptable alternative to car use. Those who cannot afford a car or who cannot drive may suffer from social exclusion, because employment and leisure opportunities are no longer contained within traditional town centres. Car ownership in the black country is lower than the national average, with between 25 and 37 per cent. of households still not having access to a car.
Each local transport plan area has been required by the Government to assess the accessibility of key services in that area, including access to work, education, health care and fresh food. Although accessibility to such services in the black country is good, there are a number of gaps in the commercial network. For instance, there is a particular problem with evening services that enable residents to reach educational and recreational opportunities and, as I have stated, with new areas of employment that are no longer always located in town or city centres.
There is a solution to those problems—Midland Metro. The first line of the proposed network of light rail routes opened in 1999. It is a light rail tram system that runs from Birmingham to Wolverhampton, via West Bromwich and Wednesbury. The service provides a reliable and convenient transport link between two cities, over a distance of 21 km. The system is owned and promoted by the public transport body Centro—the passenger transport executive for the west midlands—and operated through a concession by Travel Midlands Metro.
In the first year of operation, 17 per cent. of users gave up their car journeys in favour of using the metro, and that figure has steadily increased to 37 per cent. Light rail has consistently achieved a 20 per cent. modal shift from car to tram. We in the region would like the Government to demonstrate a commitment to the metro as the most appropriate mode of transport along main routes where demand is high, and to help us to address road congestion, which is estimated to cost about £2.2 billion a year.
The proposed phase 1 extensions to Midland Metro that we are discussing form part of a two-pronged proposal. The first prong is the extension from the existing terminus of line 1 through the heart of Birmingham city centre to Edgbaston, while the other runs from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill. Both routes, which are being procured together as one project, fall into the high-value-for-money category in the Department for Transport guidelines and are in a state of readiness for the tendering process in 2007, which would lead to a start on site in 2008-09. However, this requires Government commitment to funding.
Although the metro is a top priority in the region, by political agreement regionally it was not prioritised for the regional funding allocations. It was recognised that the metro’s funding would be sourced through the transport innovation fund, with the expectation that funding through the TIF would be available to ensure that the project could be delivered at the earliest opportunity. I understand that discussions on that are taking place with officials in the Department.
It would cost £384 million to build the route. Contributions of more than 25 per cent. have already been secured from local sources, including private sector developers. Of that 25 per cent., Westfield, the owners of the Merry Hill shopping centre, has committed £36.5 million, which is one of the largest private sector contributions of its kind for a light rail scheme.
That is good news, not only for my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but for my constituents and the wider black country. Delivery of that key piece of infrastructure will mean that wealth creation can be stimulated and that the black country economy can start to thrive and address years of decline. The clear evidence from the existing Midland Metro routes suggests that further investment to expand the network would yield a similar positive impact, which I am sure the Government are keen to promote. Midland Metro is a key part of the overall strategy and a vital part of the public transport strategy.
I would like to examine the impact on the strategic centres of extending Midland Metro from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, as proposed in “Black Country Study”, which will be crucial when the Government make their decision on funding streams linked to whether the proposal proceeds. The centre access packages proposed for Brierley Hill, Walsall, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton have common elements, including a focus on measures to change people’s opportunities to access strategic centres, while interventions to help them to make sustainable travel choices underline the strategy.
As well as that element, there is a focus on public transport, with priority being placed on the development of Midland Metro and linking together each of the four strategic centres, providing access to those centres for households in the proposed housing corridors.
The route of the Midland Metro extension connects some of the most deprived wards in the area, in terms of economic and social conditions and access to quality facilities and modern job opportunities. Those wards lie in the south black country and west Birmingham regeneration zone, which was set up as one of the delivery vehicles for the west midlands economic strategy.
The fundamental uplift in public transport resulting from the Midland Metro extension would not only greatly enhance the indigenous attractions of those areas for new economic investment, but would transform accessibility and the lives of residents in those wards by giving access to expanding modern job opportunities, as well as the retail, leisure and community facilities at Brierley Hill and Merry Hill, via Dudley town centre.
Similarly, the extension would facilitate transport to other major centres and their economic opportunities, in particular Wolverhampton and Birmingham, via the existing line 1.
About 2,000 of my constituents rely on employment opportunities around the Merry Hill site, and it is estimated that an additional 4,000 jobs would be generated by the metro extensions. Imagine what that could do for the life chances of the wider black country. A further benefit for my constituents and the area of Brierley Hill, in which the Merry Hill shopping centre is located, is the planned metro stops that will assist the well-developed plans to integrate Brierley Hill high street, the Waterfront and Merry Hill.
The Midland Metro extension will underpin the regeneration process in other key locations along the route, including Golds Hill and Dudley town centre. In the latter case, important town centre schemes are coming forward—notably the regeneration proposals for the area of Dudley zoo and castle—that have an important role in the strategy for Dudley, focusing on enhancing its tourism and leisure facilities. The realisation of the Midland Metro extension would therefore be immensely supportive of those local initiatives.
The proposed metro route meets Government guidance on major transport schemes by fitting in with the region’s objectives for local transport schemes and offers value-for-money investment for the whole region, not just the black country. Centro has developed a strategy for implementation of the route that will ensure that projects stay within budget and can be delivered within the agreed timetable. Private sector funding demonstrates that commercial confidence in the scheme exists.
Midland Metro, as outlined to the Chamber, is an integral component for improving the black country and is a critical element of “Black Country Study”, for which hon. and right hon. Members have demonstrated their support via early-day motion 2249. As mentioned previously, “Black Country Study” is the urban renaissance strategy for the black country. It sets out why the black country needs to change, what needs to be done, where that change is going to take place and how it will be brought about. The delivery of the Midland Metro extension underpins the emphasis of the whole study and is vital to its success.
I ask the Minister to work with us in the black country and the west midlands to help to deliver the scheme for our region. To fail at this point could condemn the region to terminal decline.
It is a pleasure to be back in this Chamber and serving under your chairmanship after an extended break of four and a half hours, Mrs. Dean.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) on securing this debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to hear first hand her views on the proposed extension of the Midland Metro from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, an issue on which she has been an energetic and effective campaigner on behalf of her constituents. This debate is an appropriate opportunity to reaffirm the Government’s position on tramways and light rail schemes in general. I shall then respond specifically to my hon. Friend’s comments.
Light rail can bring considerable benefits. It can deliver quicker, more reliable journeys, taking passengers directly into the heart of a city, avoiding traffic congestion and greatly improving accessibility. We have always recognised that trams can be very effective in attracting people away from their cars and we will continue to support light rail schemes when they are the best solution for local circumstances—usually corridors with high traffic and passenger flows.
Our support for light rail schemes in the right circumstances was demonstrated by the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport in July that the Department was conditionally approving a scheme to extend the Manchester Metrolink system. Just this morning, my right hon. Friend gave initial approval to extend the Nottingham express transit system.
However, we will not support light rail schemes regardless of cost. On most corridors, a well designed and promoted bus-based system is likely to provide a more cost-effective solution. When light rail schemes, including extensions to existing systems, are promoted, they will need to be developed as part of an integrated approach to tackling an area’s problems. The Government will expect proposals for light rail schemes to be fully integrated with other forms of transport—for example, through integrated ticketing, bus quality partnerships or quality contracts, the provision of park and ride facilities, and complimentary parking policies. Proposals will also need to be supported by commitments to complementary measures to deliver the benefits of increased public transport usage and reduced congestion. The Government will continue to work closely with individual promoters and the light rail industry to seek to ensure that such benefits can be realised and that the costs of tram systems are minimised and properly controlled.
That brings me—seamlessly, I hope—to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge. I would like to congratulate the regional assembly and the Black Country Consortium on delivering “Black Country Study”, which my hon. Friend mentioned. As my hon. Friend said, transforming the black country is crucial to the success of the regional spatial strategy and to the west midlands as a whole, and the work will help to ensure delivery. I also place on record our recognition of the massive personal contribution made by a small number of individuals to the study and to the future of the black country.
The draft revision of the spatial strategy specifically highlights the need for urban regeneration of the black country and recognises the need for an integrated public transport network to serve Brierley Hill, as well as Merry Hill in Dudley, a new strategic centre. Such a network would link them to the other strategic and local centres within the sub-region.
Although the metro is viewed as valuable for achieving those aims, the region recognised that quality alternatives also will need to be considered in parallel. Public consultation on the draft revision to the spatial strategy has ended, and it will now be examined by an independent panel, to be appointed by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in January next year. We also need to remember the work jointly carried out by all the authorities in the west midlands to examine congestion and how they might tackle it. As my hon. Friend correctly pointed out, the authorities are considering making a bid to the transport innovation fund, to which I shall return later.
At this point, it is worth recapping a little of the metro’s history. Midland Metro line 1, between Birmingham Snow Hill and Wolverhampton, opened in 1999 and has provided much-needed transport links to deprived communities and helped to regenerate those areas. Line 1 also helps to reduce congestion; 14 per cent. of metro passengers previously made the journey by car, so the line has removed 600,000 car trips per year from local roads.
However, line 1 suffered some initial teething troubles. It attracted criticism from the National Audit Office for its initially poor service and failure to meet its frequency and reliability targets. Although those have since improved and the line now regularly delivers a high quality of service and reliability, we need to ensure that lessons are learned and taken account of in respect of the proposed extensions.
In December 2000, the Government granted initial approval for two proposed extensions to Midland Metro. In addition to the Wednesbury to Brierley Hill extension, a second extension would provide a city centre link between Birmingham Snow Hill and Five Ways, terminating at Edgbaston shopping centre.
When approval was granted in 2000, it was estimated that the scheme would cost £165.5 million in 1999 prices; estimates for the Wednesbury to Brierley Hill extension and the city centre line were £114.1 million and £51.4 million respectively. Our approval letter said that full approval of the project would depend on whether an updated economic appraisal confirmed that the scheme represented good value for money, and on satisfactory funding arrangements being agreed.
Since approval was given, we have improved our approval process. Full approval is now given only after a promoter has obtained final prices from bidders. The actual costs of a scheme are therefore known before we give the promoters the go-ahead to start construction. We hope that that will help us avoid a repeat of recent experiences of light rail schemes when full approval had to be revoked due to significant cost increases.
At the point at which full approval was given in the past, we have introduced a new approval stage: conditional approval. That is applied for once the necessary legal powers—under Transport and Works Act 1992 orders or other planning permissions—are in place. When granted, that will be the Department’s commitment to provide funding, subject to the costs not increasing after procurement and the scope of the scheme remaining the same.
That is the stage that the Midland Metro extensions are now at. The promoters require conditional approval before they start their procurement process. However, since our initial approval was granted, the source of potential funding for the scheme has changed, as my hon. Friend mentioned. In January this year, the west midlands regional bodies provided advice to the Government on the regional funding allocation for the west midlands. They said:
“Expansion of the Midland Metro is a top priority for the Region. However, the cost of the Phase 1 extensions would utilise virtually all the Transport RFA for a period of years and this is not realistic. This project is therefore assumed to be funded through the Transport Innovation Fund (TIF) with no funding from RFA.”
In February this year, my officials had a number of meetings with the promoters to discuss their proposals for the Midland Metro extensions and the implication of funding the extensions through the transport innovation fund.
TIF funding for schemes intended to help address congestion will be awarded on a competitive basis, as set out in our guidance published in January 2006. In considering bids for TIF funding, we will look at how the full package stacks up. That means that we would need to consider the proposed Midland Metro extensions in the context of the full TIF package to be developed by the west midlands authorities.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) that there is a need for some of the regional areas to be connected up, and perhaps the metro is the answer. The Minister is right to point out the real urban issues in connecting urban lines. Such issues have not been thought out in my constituency, and a huge escalation in price has meant that the projects will never take off. It would be very wise for the local authorities and transport authorities to establish how they can provide an effective bus service to ensure that my constituents are able to use services into the city centre and to areas that connect those communities together.
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I am not led down the road of commenting on the likelihood or otherwise of that particular TIF funding application. However, I accept that he has strong views on the issue, on which he has campaigned vociferously for a number of years.
In the light of the fact that we will consider the Midland Metro extension in the context of the full TIF package, my officials wrote to the promoters in March to explain that we could not give the scheme any form of financial approval separately from, and in advance of, receiving and considering the TIF bid in 2007. The promoters told us that they nevertheless still wished to send the Department their outline business case for the extensions as soon as it was ready, and they did that in July this year.
We agreed that, as far as we were able, we would undertake an appraisal of the scheme. However, although we can explore the assumptions and calculations underlying the bid, we are not able to provide a definitive assessment of the value for money of the scheme on its own. It will ultimately need to be considered alongside the other measures that form part of the west midlands TIF bid.
The outline business case estimates that the extensions will cost some £383 million, as my hon. Friend said. However, the promoters made that estimate based on receiving conditional approval in 2006, which of course will now not happen. The earliest that conditional approval could be granted in accordance with the anticipated TIF timeline is late next year or early 2008. Based on an approval date of January 2008, the promoters estimate that the total cost would be some £409 million.
My officials have been working closely with the promoters since receiving their outline business case and will continue to assess the case as far as possible. However, as I said before, given the source of funding available, it can be approved only if the west midlands authorities’ TIF bid is also approved.
It might be helpful if I said a bit more about the transport innovation fund itself. It represents a new approach to achieving the key objectives of tackling congestion and improving productivity. We have announced that up to £200 million a year, and possibly more in subsequent years, will be made available to tackle congestion. We are inviting authorities to bid for resources and to develop packages of measures that will tackle congestion effectively though a combination of demand management and encouraging modal shift.
The TIF starts in 2008, but £18 million has been made available in advance for local authorities to develop demand management proposals, and the west midlands has been awarded £2.6 million of that sum. We welcomed the recent publication of the first phase of the work, and my Department is following it up with the authorities. Subject to ongoing work, we expect a full business case in July next year. We look forward to receiving it and to working with the west midlands in carrying out a full assessment of the bid.
Mirza Tahir Hussain
I am very pleased to have an opportunity to raise this important issue in the House. The subject matter could hardly be of greater import or significance, and my purpose is to put the facts of the case on record. This remarkable tale of injustice continues, despite the fact that it has been more than 18 years since Mirza Tahir Hussain first visited Pakistan and the nightmare began.
I learned of the case when my constituent Amjad Hussain contacted me earlier this year. Of course, as his MP, I offered to do what I could to assist, but it was only when I was told the facts of the case that I realised that I was dealing with an extraordinary miscarriage of justice, one that all of us involved in the campaign have pledged to resolve.
Let me share with hon. Members the background of the case. Mirza Tahir Hussain was just 18 years old when he visited Pakistan for the first time in December 1988 to establish links with his family. On the very day of his arrival, while proceeding to meet his family, he was involved in an incident in the Punjab province. He accepted a ride in a taxi and was driven to a remote area, and in that place there was an incident that resulted in the death of the taxi driver from a gunshot wound.
It is not disputed that the gun involved belonged to the taxi driver, nor that Mr. Hussain drove immediately to the nearest police station to report the incident. In his account of the incident, he states that the taxi driver physically assaulted him and attempted to sexually assault him. In the scuffle that followed, he acted to defend himself, and the taxi driver’s gun was discharged.
Mirza Tahir Hussain was tried and convicted of murder in 1989 and sentenced to death, but he has been acquitted twice by the Lahore High Court, which identified discrepancies in the case. The first acquittal was shortly after his original conviction, and the second was in 1996 following his reconviction and re-sentencing in 1994.
However, the prosecution and the deceased’s family challenged the 1996 acquittal, arguing that some of the offences that Mirza Tahir allegedly committed were crimes that came within the jurisdiction of Islamic law. Specifically, it was claimed that Mirza Tahir was guilty of the crime of highway robbery, or hararbah—highway robbery after dusk—because he was found to be in possession of the taxi.
As a result, the entire case was referred to the Federal Sharia Court in 1998, where it was reheard. There, although Mirza Tahir was found innocent of the crime of hararbah, he was again sentenced to death. That verdict was reached despite the fact that one of the three judges dissented strongly and robustly, suggesting that Mirza Tahir should be acquitted and allowed to return to his family. Indeed, the judge submitted a substantive verdict. It was almost 59 pages in length, and it outlined numerous and far-reaching legal flaws in the case, which I shall discuss in a few moments.
Let me make it clear that my intention is not in any way to criticise or attack the Pakistani Government or judicial system. It is for the Government and the citizens of Pakistan to come up with their own laws and systems of justice. The point in this case is simply that due process according to the tenets of Pakistani law and the Pakistani constitution was not followed. Several fundamental legal issues at the centre of the case have never been addressed or resolved.
First, when Mirza Tahir Hussain was first convicted, the principle of the presumption of innocence was not followed. There was no eye-witness testimony, no credible motive was established and the only evidence presented was weak and obtained through intense interrogation. Furthermore, Mirza Tahir and the deceased were not known to each other in any way, there were no prior incidences of malice or dispute and Mirza Tahir had no previous convictions. He was also at considerable disadvantage in bringing forth independent corroborative evidence in support of his version of events. He was a young man, alone at the hands of police who dealt with him in a way that we would not wish our suspects to be treated, and at times he had limited or no access to legal representation.
Indeed, attempts were made by the police and the prosecution to fabricate evidence against Mirza Tahir, to portray him as a habitual offender and even fictitiously to implicate him in a case of which he was subsequently acquitted. That case took place before he had even arrived in the country.
However, the fundamental flaws in the legal process are far from limited to the initial conviction. They have persisted throughout the entire process. The fundamental principle of double jeopardy was also not followed. As I said, Mirza Tahir was found innocent of the crime of hararbah but guilty of the death of the taxi driver, which is why he was again sentenced to death, despite the fact that the international principle of double jeopardy states that a defendant should not be tried twice for the same crime. That principle is enshrined in the constitution of Pakistan.
The judgment presented by the dissenting sharia judge, Mr. Justice Abdul Waheed Siddique, also revealed that the Federal Sharia Court had no power, as a result of the terms of the original conviction, to enhance the sentence from life to death. Furthermore, the tenets of Islamic law clearly state that the death penalty should be imposed only if a minimum of two credible eye-witness accounts or a confession are submitted to the court. Neither was submitted in this case.
In his statement, Justice Siddique refers explicitly to the falsification of evidence by the police as “shameless”. He also states that the investigating agency was guilty of introducing false witnesses. He pointed out that the medical evidence presented at the trial was in direct contradiction of the account given by prosecutors. At the trial, the prosecution claimed that the deceased was shot, and that his body was dragged from the driver’s seat and thrown 15 feet away from the road. However, there was no trail of blood, or any evidence of dragging on the body of the deceased.
In the words of Justice Siddique, the entire judgment was based on surmise and conjecture. According to him, any one of the points outlined above were enough to have Mirza Tahir’s entire sentence quashed, let alone uphold an irreversible death penalty. The points that he raised and the fact that the High Court in Lahore has twice acquitted Mirza Tahir have never been resoundingly addressed by the Supreme Court in Pakistan, yet Mirza Tahir Hussain remains in prison under penalty of death.
We recognise that there are miscarriages of justice in every legal system in the world, and the United Kingdom is no exception. We are all aware of the cases of the Guildford Four, who were released in 1989 after spending 15 years in prison. Their convictions were crushed by the court of appeal after serious flaws were found in the original police investigation. The Birmingham Six were release in 1991 after 16 years in prison. Of course, we are all aware of the infamous case of Derek Bentley, the last man hanged in Britain. He was hanged on 28 January 1953 for allegedly murdering a policeman, and it took 46 years for his conviction to be overturned by the court of appeal. We hope and pray that in this case Mirza Tahir’s conviction will be overturned before it is too late.
It is of course for the Pakistani authorities to come up with a solution to the case. One solution that has been mooted is that under the provisions of Islamic law, if a blood money settlement can be found between the two families, the accused can be pardoned and released. However, the negotiations broke down some time ago and the family of the deceased have categorically stated that they will not accept any form of reparations and have been vocal in calling for Mirza Tahir’s execution to go ahead.
In my opinion, blood money is not a solution that will bring justice in this case. As the conviction is so clearly unsafe, there is no criminal. If there is no crime, there is no victim and if there is no victim, there cannot be reasonable negotiations with a so-called victim’s family. There are many of us who believe that Mirza Tahir was the victim of crime, not the perpetrator, all those years ago in 1988. There is strong circumstantial evidence that he was attacked in a most terrifying way, so for his to be facing the death penalty at all is appalling.
One thing is certain. He has certainly been a victim, the victim of an unsafe conviction that has caused him to be in prison for his entire adult life—half the time he has spent on this earth. I remember how struck I was when Amjad told me how old his beloved brother is. He is 36 years old; I was struck because I am the same age. I think back to when I was 18. I had just left school, I had a place at university, and I remember celebrating my 18th birthday with my family in Ireland. Now, 18 years on, I been elected to Parliament, I have married and had a daughter. I now have family of my own.
Mirza Tahir Hussain has been denied all those things—the chance to go to university, to get a job, to find a career and to marry and have a family. That is a huge price to pay for even a guilty man, but a nightmare beyond comprehension for someone who has never been satisfactorily convicted and who many people do not believe actually committed the crime.
It is for Pakistan to come up with solutions, but they should not involve blood money negotiations when the whole point is that the conviction is unsafe and that Mirza Tahir Hussain was never proven in a court of law to have committed any crime. Nor should he and his family be put through the anguish of yet another stay of execution. There have now been four and it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the rollercoaster of emotion and despair that the family go through in what has become a cycle of new dates of execution and stays of execution. That simply amounts to mental torture for Mirza Tahir Hussain and his family. Alas, Mirza Tahir’s father died when the distressing case was ongoing. Amjad has expressed his mother’s pain, as she wonders whether she will ever see her son again.
President Musharraf has a critical role to play and I believe that it is quite clear, despite the ambiguity which has arisen over recent weeks, that he has the power and authority to prevent the execution. Article 45 of the Pakistani constitution clearly states:
“The President shall have power to grant pardon, reprieve and respite, and to remit, suspend or commute any sentence passed by any court, tribunal or other authority”.
That is any sentence in any court. In the words of the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Mr. Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, in an interview in March of this year:
“the powers of the President under Article 45 of the Constitution to pardon a convict are absolute”.
Mr. Kasuri is far from alone in expressing that view. Law Ministers, senior counsels and eminent jurists from across Pakistan have confirmed that the President has the power to commute Mirza Tahir’s sentence. Figures as widespread and diverse as Dr. Khalid Ranjha, the chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Law, Justice and Human Rights and Parliamentary Affairs and former High Court justice; Senator S. M. Zafar, former law Minister and advocate of the Supreme Court in Pakistan; Senator Mohammed Khosa, member of the senate committee and Supreme Court advocate; Ms Afshan Ghanzafer, assistant advocate-general; Dr. Ilyas Zafar, Supreme Court advocate; and Nasir Aslam Zahid, former Supreme Court justice, have all confirmed that President Musharraf has both the power and authority to commute Mirza’s death sentence.
In 1988, there was also the case of Parminder Singh Saini, an Indian citizen who was pardoned by the then president, Mohammed Rafiq Tarar, who used his powers under article 45 first to commute the penalty to life imprisonment and then to issue a full pardon. The list goes on.
We all know how important it is to have a strong relationship between the UK and Pakistan, not least for the sizeable Pakistani communities in the UK and for our shared history and strong cultural ties. I and my neighbouring MPs are proud to represent a notable Pakistani Kashmiri community in Leeds, a community that I know is interested in the case and is following its progress. When the terrible news of the earthquake in Pakistan, Kashmir and India reached Leeds, the way in which the city responded was notable. I was pleased to take part in several fundraising events as local people pulled together, including people who had lost members of their families and their homes on that terrible day. I was also delighted at the way in which the many other communities of our diverse city responded.
So it is with this case. People of all backgrounds, cultures and races have contacted me and the family to express their support. Every time I chat to people on the train or in a taxi, Leeds people are well aware of the case and are fully behind the man’s release. In the same way as the people of Leeds demonstrated so powerfully their compassion and solidarity for the people in the affected region in Pakistan, I hope the Pakistani authorities will gave the same due regard for life and justice for this man, our man, from our proud city of Leeds.
The case is now known all over the world. There has been a long and hard-fought campaign for justice involving Amnesty International, the Islamic Human Rights Commission, Fair Trials Abroad, Reprieve, Human Rights Watch, the Bar Human Rights Committee, the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain. It is supported by my parliamentary neighbours in Leeds, the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) and the Secretary of State for International Development, MEPs, EU leaders and all the civic and religious leaders of the great city of Leeds that is Mirza Tahir Hussain’s home.
I want to pay tribute to the way in which Mirza Tahir’s brother Amjad has led the campaign for his brother’s reprieve. Even when the outlook has looked at its bleakest, Amjad has conducted himself impeccably and the dignity and strength that he has shown throughout the extremely long and gruelling process has been nothing short of awe inspiring. He has been and continues to be an inspiration to us all in the campaign.
I know that the British Government and our representatives in Pakistan are taking Mirza Tahir Hussain’s plight extremely seriously and that they will continue to act in an appropriate manner to attempt to secure his reprieve and release. How and when he will be spared and when he will be returned to Leeds is for the Pakistani Government to decide. I am aware that that will not be an easy process and it is important to give some time and space to the Pakistani authorities to consider it. The campaign led by Amjad and the family will of course go on until those authorities finally act to spare Mirza Tahir’s life, free him and let him at last return home to his family in Leeds, where he belongs.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) has secured a debate on the case of Mirza Tahir Hussain, who languishes on death row in Pakistan. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman; he has worked long and hard on behalf of his constituent. Today, we heard an eloquent and poignant case made for the commutation of Mr. Hussain’s death sentence.
The Government continue to be extremely concerned about Mr. Hussain’s plight, and I welcome the opportunity to set out the Government’s position and to explain some of the actions that we have taken in our efforts to prevent Mr. Hussain’s execution.
Before concentrating on the specifics of the case, I want to emphasise the United Kingdom’s principled opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances. The Minister for Trade, my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), who has responsibility for human rights, stated on world day against the death penalty on 10 October that the United Kingdom calls upon all states to abolish the death penalty for all crimes—and forever.
We welcome the fact that two further countries, Mexico and the Philippines, have joined the growing list of abolitionist states; and we recognise the progress that has been made in several other countries towards abolishing the death penalty. However, we regret that several countries continue to use it. As the hon. Gentleman said, the UK has ratified protocol 13 of the European convention on human rights, which prevents the use of the death penalty in any and all circumstances, including in times of war. Together with our EU partners, we continue to work towards universal opposition. The UK has established a reputation as an advocate for that cause, and the Government of Pakistan are well aware of our stance.
Our prime concern is to avoid the execution of British nationals. Our policy extends to all categories of British nationals, including dual nationals in the country of their second nationality—people to whom we do not automatically provide consular assistance. We now express our opposition to the death penalty and its use on a British national at whatever stage and level is judged appropriate, from the moment when the imposition of a death sentence on a British national becomes a possibility. That change in policy was announced by Foreign and Commonwealth Minister Brian Wilson to the House on 27 February 2001. Our previous policy was to make such representations only when the judicial process had been exhausted.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about the background of Mr. Hussain’s case. Mirza Tahir Hussain was born in Pakistan but grew up in Leeds. He was arrested in December 1988, at the age of 18; and we have heard the details of the dreadful incident that resulted in calamity for him and his family. Mr. Hussain has been on death row for half of his life. The death sentence was at one stage lifted by a civil appeals court, then reinstated by the religious sharia court. Those factors—Mr. Hussain’s young age when the offence was committed, the length of time he has served on death row, and the agony for both Mr. Hussain and his family of the death penalty being lifted and then reinstated—provide a strong humanitarian argument for the commutation of Mr. Hussain’s sentence.
All appeals have now been dismissed, and the formal legal process is exhausted. The reconciliation process with the victim’s family, available under sharia law, in which senior Pakistani figures were engaged, seems to have failed. We welcome the fact that President Musharraf has granted three stays of execution to Mr. Hussain; the latest, granted on 19 October, will expire on 31 December. An execution date has yet to be set.
Numerous representations have been made by Her Majesty’s Government on behalf of Mr. Hussain at the highest level. The Prime Minister raised the case with President Musharraf during their meeting on 28 September, having previously written to him on 9 August, requesting that he look favourably on Mr. Hussain’s case. The Foreign Secretary discussed the matter with the Pakistani Foreign Minister at the United Nations general assembly in New York on 19 September, having previously written to President Musharraf on 18 May asking him to commute Mr. Hussain’s sentence to an appropriate term of imprisonment.
Other Ministerial representations have been made on Mr. Hussain’s behalf. I have been engaged on the case for some time, and raised it with Shaukat Aziz, the Pakistani Prime Minister during my visit to Pakistan in September; with Kamal Shah, the Secretary of the Ministry of the Interior; with Makhdum Khusro Bakhtyar, the Minister of State at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and with Lieutenant-General Aurakzai, the governor of the north-west frontier province, who described to me in some detail his attempts to get the family to agree to some form of financial settlement.
In the same month, the Home Secretary raised Mr. Hussain’s case with the Pakistani Interior Minister during a meeting in London. I also raised the case with the Pakistani High Commissioner, Dr. Maleeha Lodhi, on 25 July. The Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), in his role as a Leeds constituency MP for some of Mr. Hussain’s family, has been personally involved in the case; he, too, wrote to President Musharraf in May. The Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms), raised the case with the Pakistani Prime Minister earlier this month. Those are just some of the most recent ministerial level representations. There have been many more.
Numerous representations on Mr. Hussain’s behalf have also been made at senior official level. Mr. Hussain’s case is a priority for FCO officials in Pakistan and in London, and I thank them for their sustained efforts. I thank especially our High Commissioner to Islamabad, Mark Lyall Grant, who has been closely involved in Mr. Hussain’s case. He and his team have made frequent representations at senior official level, some made while I was there, and they have had intensive contacts with the President’s office and others. They will continue their efforts with the Pakistani authorities, as we all will, in order to achieve our goal of securing Mr. Hussain’s reprieve.
Mr. Hussain’s welfare is of paramount concern to us, and consular staff continue to visit him weekly at the prison. On that note, it is worth spending a moment focusing on Mr. Hussain’s family. No one can imagine how difficult and distressing the past 17 years must have been for them. Tahir's brother, Amjad, has been campaigning tirelessly on his brother's behalf, and I join the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West in admiring his courage and determination. Our staff, both in London and at the British High Commission in Pakistan, have maintained frequent contact with Mr. Hussain’s family, and will continue to liaise closely with them and to offer them all the support that we can.
As I said, our strong wish is to see Mr. Hussain’s sentence commuted. However, I stress, as did the hon. Gentleman, that the British Government cannot interfere in the judicial systems of other countries, just as we would not expect others to interfere in the British judicial system. The decision whether or not to commute Mr. Hussain’s sentence is therefore a sovereign decision for Pakistan. We know that the Pakistani authorities are considering the many representations that they have received about the case. We are grateful for the extensions that have been granted, and we sincerely hope that Pakistan will consider a merciful commutation—not because Tahir Hussain has British nationality, but because it would be a just and merciful decision. We all sincerely hope for a decision that is favourable to Tahir. However, I stress that we have not and will not seek to threaten the Government of Pakistan over the issue in any way. As I have said, it is a decision that must be made by the sovereign state of Pakistan, following the rules of its judicial system. We would not expect the British Government to be the subject of threats from abroad for a decision taken in accordance with our judicial system, and we will not begin the practice of threatening other Governments, no matter how passionately we may wish for an outcome that will spare the life of a British national or a dual national.
Although it has to be a sovereign decision for Pakistan, I hope that I have been able to reassure the hon. Gentleman and Tahir’s family that we have been doing all that we properly can for Mr. Hussain and his family. We will continue to do so and I hope fervently that Mr. Hussain will not be executed.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Five o'clock.