Tuesday 28 November 2006
[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]
Speech and Language Difficulties (Education)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Liz Blackman.]
I welcome the opportunity to initiate this debate on the education of children with speech and language difficulties. I begin by declaring an interest as the father of Oliver, three years old next week, who earlier this year was diagnosed as suffering from severe verbal dyspraxia.
Last week, at its inaugural meeting, I had the privilege of being elected chairman of the all-party group on speech and language difficulties. It will be immeasurably boosted by the involvement as officers of the noble Lord Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of prisons, the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), the Chairman of the Health Committee, and the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho).
It is peculiarly fortuitous for me to have the chance this week to air the issues involved in seeking effectively to educate children with speech and language difficulties. It may benefit right hon. and hon. Members if I set the scene or establish the background of what we are, properly, to debate today.
What is the situation as far as children with speech, language and communication difficulties are concerned? Somewhere between 5 and 8 per cent. of pre-school children suffer from such difficulties; it is estimated that the figure is nearer 10 per cent. among children of primary school age. It is noteworthy that there is something of a continuum of people suffering from speech, language and communication disorders. At one end, there are those who suffer only from mild speech or language delay; at the other, there are children, best described as non-verbal, who depend on augmentative communication and the use of symbols to be able to communicate at all.
Something in the order of one in 500 children suffers from an impairment so severe that it is likely to be not transient but enduring, significant and potentially insuperable. It is the responsibility, among others, of the speech and language therapist to deal with all those different conditions. No one in this Chamber should underestimate the significance, extent or effectiveness of the potential role of the speech and language therapist. That person is responsible for screening children, for assessing children, for the planning of services for children, for the delivery of services for children and for the management of individual children’s cases. That person is responsible for consultation with external providers and other agencies, which requires him or her to develop a certain political sophistication in addition to his or her other qualities. At his or her best, that person should be responsible for communicating with parents—talking to them, listening to them, respecting their views and treating them genuinely, sincerely, meaningfully, practically and enduringly as partners.
The Minister and other right hon. and hon. Members with an interest in this debate will be acutely aware of the significance of early intervention in addressing the impairments from which children suffer. That can make a crucial difference to whether the child’s problems are overcome or minimised. If intervention takes place early in a child’s life, the impact of their impairment on their learning, attainment and subsequent employability can be minimised. In that desirable scenario, there is a great saving to the public purse of the spending that would have been made necessary by subsequent, delayed and inevitably much more expensive interventions.
The thrust of the research shows that if such intervention starts at an early age—certainly at pre-school level—it has a discernible impact on the child’s other skills. Put simply, if a child’s speech, language or communication impairments have been effectively addressed by the time they are five and a half, the chances are that they will be able to read and spell normally, communicate relatively effectively and avoid suffering some of the disadvantages that would otherwise flow. If, on the other hand, meaningful intervention takes place only when they are eight, or if it has not taken place by then, there is a real danger that the problems will become endemic, that the interventions required will be more numerous or intense and that the cost will be greater.
Unquestionably, learning intervention can be effective, but we have to be clear that it should be intensive. It is not possible—or even, in this debate, desirable—precisely to specify what constitutes “intensive”. Suffice it to say that it can mean specialist help in very small settings, or even a one-to-one environment, with a specialist providing help, nurture, encouragement and assistance. That might have to take place for hours a day, several days a week. There is a short-term cost; I do not in any sense seek to burke the reality that if one proposes intervention and wants to be effective, there is no point in half measures. One has to go the whole hog and make substantial investment at the outset on the basis that it will yield a benefit and avoid other costs later.
The corollary of the benefits of early intervention is that there are real dangers to late intervention. If intervention takes place only very late, the dangers are manifold and real. There is a danger of emotional and psychological difficulties, of behavioural problems, of lower educational attainment, of persistent communication handicap, of poorer employment prospects, of significant challenges to mental health and even of a regrettable descent into criminality. Those are the consequences with which we will have to reckon if, as a society, we make the judgment that we are not prepared to invest significantly up front because the issue does not have the political attractiveness to warrant it. We shall then have to bear consequences that people of good will in all parties will come to rue almost as much as the direct victims themselves.
There is another danger or downside to a failure to intervene early and a belated judgment—sometimes, even then, only half-heartedly—to intervene. There is a real economic cost to this country. As right hon. and hon. Members, we have to open our eyes to the reality that is staring us in the face. Research by the charity I CAN calculates that £26 billion is lost to this nation’s economy as a consequence of late intervention.
In Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire alone, an area that incorporates my Buckingham constituency, it is calculated that there are currently no fewer than 2,063 16 to 18-year-olds who are designated as NEETs—not in education, employment or training. It is postulated by those who have undertaken research that approximately 1,000 of those 16 to 18-year-olds are NEET predominantly or exclusively as a consequence of speech, language and communication impairments that society has failed to address. There is a cost as a result of each individual so affected of £97,000.
Yes, there is a short-term cost in getting involved, in making judgments, in plumping for specialist expertise, in making resources available, and in applying one’s set of values but also one’s intellect to the challenge, but there is a far greater cost to the individual, to families and to society as a whole if we make a judgment, whether by commission, omission, deliberate will or simply a sort of moral carelessness that we are not prepared to deal with such matters because they are insufficiently important or salient in electoral terminology.
I would like to discuss some of the issues with which people who are interested in this field across political parties and in the wider public are presently concerned. Let me give an illustration of some of the things that come on to my agenda as a parent grappling with such matters or by virtue of direct representation from my constituents in Buckingham.
I hope that the Minister will take this in the spirit in which I intend it—I mean it most sincerely. First, there is a lottery in the public provision of services for children with speech, language and communication impairments. Services very much depend on where one lives, with which local education authority they deal, whether a personal relationship is established, and whether the people in charge are genuinely interested in the views, anxieties, concerns and recommendations of parents, or whether they pay lip service, if that, to the concept.
To those who endlessly preach the mantra of localism—there are people in that category in all parties—I offer a rider, or valid caveat, that it is not good enough simply to offload responsibility to the local level. Still less is it good enough to say that if people do not like the services that are provided, if they feel that they are unsatisfactory and there has been a failure to perform, they can make a conscious judgment to remove the offending local education authority at the subsequent municipal election. With great respect, that is a politically convenient ruse, but it represents a triumph of theory over the evidence of demonstrable practice.
The truth is that, although such matters are immensely important, the political purchasing power of the speech, language and communication difficulty class of voters is very limited indeed. Most people are not aware of their day-to-day concerns because they are not affected. They would probably be sympathetic to the affected class if they knew more about it, but they do not. The idea that, in the main, such issues will influence the result of a local authority election across a whole borough or district—still less across a county—is, frankly, fanciful.
The lottery of provision is a serious problem. I invite the Minister, who is an immensely capable but also an enormously reasonable man, to reflect carefully on the verdict in the recent report of the Education and Skills Committee, which called for a national lead on a central strategy, and for a sense of purpose and direction.
Many hon. Members who took part in the debate on 26 October, which was ably contributed to by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), felt that the Government’s response was, to put it mildly, operating below the level of events. As I believe I said at the time, the document was poorly composed. Clearly, it was put together by one of those clever officials who knows everything and nothing, and who thought it slightly impolite and cheeky of mere amateur, uninformed, interfering politicians to second-guess the wise judgments at which he or she had arrived.
Please, Minister, think again. The document was badly written. It suffered from statisticitis. It was all about inputs and it was highly defensive. It said that there was not much of a problem, and that where there was one, it was being dealt with anyway. It simply did not reflect the preponderance of opinion across the piece among my constituents and those of other right hon. and hon. Members. Their experience is that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark. That does not mean that good work is not being done by professionals, but there are real problems. I appeal to this high-flying, widely popular Minister to take account of those representations and to seek effectively and constructively to respond to them.
A second relevant concern in respect of speech and language therapists is that we are discussing a shortage profession. At present, some 7,000 therapists are on the books. It is estimated that there is a shortfall of 2,283, which, on current work force planning assumptions, will be met only by 2013. Many commentators believe, in the light of current widespread and savage PCT cuts across the country, that that prognosis is likely to err on the side of optimism rather than of pessimism. The shortfall is serious indeed.
The evidence is reinforced and compounded by a recent survey by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, which found that 78 per cent. of managers questioned said that their budgets were being frozen. Fifty per cent. said that they would be obliged to provide an inferior service or to conclude that the service was altogether non-viable. Perhaps most damning of all, 80 per cent. of those who had come out of college and qualified as speech and language therapists could not get jobs. Out of 700, only 140 were able to get jobs. This nation must be mad—literally berserk—to contemplate with anything other than horror a situation in which there is a demonstrable, growing, intense and urgent demand for the provision of speech, language and communication services, yet people go through the colleges, get qualifications and demonstrate their commitment to serve, but are denied the opportunity to do so. Something is seriously wrong.
A related concern in respect of speech and language services is an example upon which I confess I have zealously focused over the past seven months. I make no apology for that, as it is a practical, identifiable and factual case. The Nuffield speech and language unit is a renowned centre of excellence for the treatment of children with severe verbal dyspraxia. There is nothing like it anywhere in the country. It happens to be based in Ealing, but, for historically anomalous reasons with which I will not trouble right hon. and hon. Members, it falls within the auspices of the Royal Free Hampstead NHS trust. “Every Child Matters” contains 32 references to the importance of specialist provision, and “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, which was published in 2004, contains 68 such references.
The Government are on the record as saying that special schools should not be closed nor the number of places in such institutions reduced unless and until high-quality, local alternative provision is available. I have to say to the Minister that that simply is not the case in respect of the children who will be turfed out of the Nuffield speech and language unit. I have been disgusted to the point of virtual sickness—I use strong language, but I do so advisedly—by the attitude of the Royal Free Hampstead NHS trust. The part-time chair and full-time chief executive of that trust have conducted the phoney consultation process in respect of that valued facility with an arrogance, incompetence and insensitivity of a kind to which I have seen no equal in the 20 years since I entered public life. It appals me that, simply in the name of fobbing it off on to someone else and getting on with the important business of cutting their deficit and seeking foundation status, they are prepared knowingly and probably irrevocably to damage the educational prospects and life chances of some of the most vulnerable children in our community.
I would welcome it if, in addition to the discussions that I have had with the Department of Health and the Secretary of State for Health on the subject, there was some indication from the Department for Education and Skills that it was prepared to engage with the issue. I have not yet seen it. That leads me to the related concern of joint commissioning of services, which was provided for in the Health Act 1999 and talked about in the Children Act 2004. It was supposed to happen, and it was very much the established orthodoxy and favoured buzz word on the lips of Ministers, but the commitment seems always to founder on the rock of financial shortfall.
I want simply to put a series of propositions to the Minister and to colleagues about the sorts of things that ought to happen and the types of problems that require to be addressed. First, there should be a speech and language therapist as a matter of course in every multidisciplinary team assessing the feeding and swallowing needs of disabled children. Secondly, there should be a speech and language therapist in interdisciplinary teams that are responsible for the provision of family services, notably those of Sure Start. Thirdly, there should be a speech and language therapist attached to every mainstream school that is committed to an inclusive environment and the best possible provision for children with speech, language and communication difficulties.
I believe that we need far more explicitly to tackle the problems that arise from the failure to deliver joint commissioning. We have an opportunity to confirm a commitment to that with the advent of the new children’s trusts. There is a great opportunity to say that it will happen, the obstacles will be removed, the financial rows will not continue and the services will be delivered. I find it extraordinary that a scoping study into desirable practice in speech and language provision, the responsibility of Canterbury Christ Church university, has still not appeared. In a written answer on 27 February, the then Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), told a parliamentary colleague that the findings should be available to the Department in August 2006. On 13 September, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope), told another parliamentary colleague that the report from that university study should be available in January. What is happening? If this were operational in the private sector, heads would roll, people would be dismissed, individuals would be called to account and there would be a significant public scandal, yet it simply is not happening.
I believe that these matters need to be dealt with urgently and firmly. I believe, too, that we need to attach the greatest possible importance and urgency to delivering more specialist provision within the field. I find it quite disappointing and not a little alarming that on pages 18 and 19 of the “National Audit of Support, Services and Provision for Children with Low Incidence Needs”, undertaken on behalf of the Department for Education and Skills, categories are listed for the project specification—multi-sensory impairments, severe visual impairments, severe/profound hearing impairment, profound and multiple learning difficulties, severe autistic spectrum disorders and severe behavioural, emotional and social difficulties—and nowhere in that list do we find reference to speech, language and communication difficulties or disorders. There is something wrong there, even if the authors—clever chaps and chappesses, without doubt—argue that it is in the ether and implicit in the work undertaken. It is not up front or explicit, and it is not acknowledged. There are people out there—I have met a good many of them over the past six months—who, as parents, providers or charitable representatives, are at the end of their tether.
We need, as Ofsted has said and the Audit Commission has periodically acknowledged, greater focus on the provision of specialists. We need data to be kept by local education authorities. It beggars belief that a lot of them do not even know how many people suffer, the extent of the suffering or the nature of the provision, its extent or its outcome. People are treated simply as features of a production process that is mechanistic and the quality output of which is a secondary consideration if it is a consideration at all.
We need major investment in this field, we have to be prepared to commit to it, and we need a different mindset. We have to relegate the old bureaucratic arrogance to the back seat of the room or, better still, to kick that attitude out of the room altogether. If I can put that graphically, we need to bring from the front of Ministers’ minds on to the table the best thoughts that they have about how to improve services.
I am incredibly grateful to the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, to I CAN and, perhaps above all, to my friend Linda Lascelles, who runs the charity AFASIC—the Association for All Speech Impaired Children—for the briefings that they have provided for this debate. There could hardly be a more important subject related to the needs of vulnerable children than this. As I say, I both like and respect the Minister and look forward to his response. I hope he will recognise that I have raised this matter conscientiously in a public-spirited fashion and not for the pursuit of party advantage. I want my party to get it right, and I have a hunch that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and my hon. Friends the Members for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) and for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) will do just that. Above all, what I am interested in is providing the best service to children, and I think that that is a characteristic that unites every hon. Member in this Chamber.
I am mindful of your injunction about the time, Miss Begg, and I shall try to let all my colleagues in.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who is also my constituency neighbour. He spoke with great passion and knowledge and, if he will forgive me, it was not least an oratorical tour de force to speak for that long without a single note.
I heard Lord Ramsbotham speak many years ago at a conference, and he made the point that if he had to sack every single member of staff in a prison at which he was governor, the last person that he would want to go through the prison gate would be the speech and language therapist. That remark struck me forcefully. As my hon. Friend has already mentioned, we must wonder how many people are languishing at Her Majesty’s pleasure for want of having speech and language difficulties addressed earlier.
In my constituency, I have been aware of the general difficulty in speech and language provision for some time. In particular, it seems that there is a gap between the provision made by the Department of Health and that made by the Department for Education and Skills and the local education authority. I am not a great fan of local area agreements as I think that they are just another quango imposition on local authorities. I have said to my own local authorities that I will set them a simple test. If they can show me that the local area agreement in Bedfordshire can actually close the gap and get health services and education services working together to meet children’s needs, the agreement will be worth while. However, we will have to wait and see what happens.
In my own county of Bedfordshire there are no specialist speech and language units. I understand that in the neighbouring county of Hertfordshire there are eight stand-alone speech and language units, whereas Essex county council recently closed all its speech and language units so all the provision is in mainstream schools. There is a patchwork of provision, differing according to local authority area. I am not saying that mainstream provision can never work, but it should be of concern that provision is so different in neighbouring local authorities. There is a patchwork lottery, no doubt for historic reasons, or reflecting the local taxpayer base and other issues. That is a matter of concern.
I want to focus my remarks on one child in my constituency. She is a six-year-old little girl by the name of Jade Chambers who until recently attended Heathwood lower school in my constituency. I have visited the school and met the head teacher and other teachers, and overall it is a good school providing a good education. Jade Chambers was placed in the school, and when her needs were assessed in October 2005, the school made it clear that it was concerned that Heathwood lower school was perhaps not the right place for Jade to be educated. The local education authority did not agree with that assessment and Jade was placed in an enhanced language provision in the school.
The aspect of that case that most concerns me and on which I want to focus the bulk of my remarks—I should be grateful if the Minister would provide some idea of his thoughts on it—is the issue of the physical restraint of all children. This is a debate on children with speech and language difficulties: Jade Chambers has speech and language difficulties. She is a six-year-old girl with the speech and language understanding of a three-year-old child, who has been placed in a mainstream setting. At home she is not a difficult child, but at school, because she does not understand what is going on around her, she often presents in a difficult manner to the extent that the police were called to the school on a number of occasions. Indeed, the police will be acting as witnesses at the special educational needs and disability tribunal for this case on 5 December. The issue that I find totally unacceptable is that a child can be repeatedly physically restrained in a school without the parents knowing that it is happening.
I hope that the Minister is aware of the circular from the Education Act 1996 known as 10/98, which only provides guidance on that issue and is not mandatory. There are, of course, many reasons why schools will need—absolutely rightly, properly and correctly, although regrettably—to restrain children. They may be behaving appallingly badly or putting other children or staff in danger. Sadly, physical restraint is, of course, needed in our schools. However, the relationship between the child and the school is triangular, not linear. The parents are absolutely key and want to be part of the solution and to be integrally involved in ensuring the success of their children’s education. At the very least, they need to know whether physical restraint is being applied even once, let alone repeatedly, to a child.
When we are talking about children with speech and language difficulties, a further issue is that these children cannot come home and tell their parents what is happening. The first that Jade Chambers’s mother knew about what was happening was when her daughter came home with ripped trousers, had a tremor on her lip and was barely able to describe what had happened. That is simply unacceptable.
The Government have said that the Minister’s colleague in another place, Lord Adonis, does not know how many children are being physically restrained in our schools and that is unacceptable. We should gather those data, and some local authorities have made it mandatory as far as circular 10/98 is concerned. I do not know a lot about St. Helens council—I am not even precisely sure where it is—but it has made the policy contained in the circular mandatory. It has decided to do so in its capacity as a local education authority.
The Minister will know that the Education and Inspections Act 2006 has actually given schools more powers in that area. Sadly, there is perhaps good reason and need for that—I understand that. But may we please have in tandem with that the requirement that parents are kept informed, and that there is training in the use of restraint? Account should be taken of a pupil’s age, gender and size, and the use of restraint should be properly recorded, with detailed notification being given in writing and orally to the parents when it has happened. In addition, Ofsted and a designated school governor should review the restraint registers.
My hon. Friend will be aware that under the Education and Inspections Act 2006 provision is made for a review of training for ordinary staff and potentially for special educational needs co-ordinators. Is he aware that, in the other place on 31 October, Baroness Sharp of Guildford asked Lord Adonis for a commitment that SENCO training should include some knowledge of and experience in speech, language and communication difficulties? Lord Adonis said that the Government would certainly look at that. Does he not need to do so now and reach an affirmative conclusion sooner rather than later?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right—Lord Adonis does, of course, need to do so.
In conclusion, will the Minister give me and this Chamber an assurance that the repeated physical restraint of children in our schools, whether or not they have speech or language difficulties, will be something that parents are immediately informed about so that they can be aware of what is happening and be part of the solution to help the school manage the issue?
I thank the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) for triggering the debate. I know that he takes a great interest in the subject and I am sure that his contribution will be appreciated by many outside this Chamber. He was eloquent, forthright and passionate, and I congratulate him on his speech. I am also aware that the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists is taking an interest in what is said today, and I am sure that many parents and children who have a direct or indirect interest in the issues already raised will be suitably impressed by his contribution.
I hope to make a relatively short speech as others have far greater experience of the subject. I look forward to learning more today and have already learned much from the opening speech and from the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who mentioned something that was discussed when I recently met speech and language therapists at their annual awards ceremony: the significant reduction of re-offending rates in prison of those who have received speech and language intervention. Qualified speech and language therapists are available, but they cannot find jobs. I am sure all hon. Members would agree that the cost involved in finding them jobs is a wise investment for the future.
I should declare an interest. It is not to be found in the Register of Members’ Interests, but it has a greater significance as it is an emotional interest. Like the hon. Member for Buckingham, I also have a family member who has speech and language problems. I was delighted when my daughter Sarah and son-in-law George became parents two years ago following the birth of a baby girl, Maria. Although at the time I felt much too young to become a grandfather, it was the best thing that has happened to me since becoming a Member of this House—even better than being elected with a 13,600 majority. Unfortunately, following a bleed in the brain at birth, Maria now suffers from cerebral palsy and like many children with that condition, she has already benefited from the skills of many people, including speech therapists. From 3 am on Friday last week, over the weekend and still today, she is in the sick children’s hospital in Edinburgh. Many other children on the ward are in a much worse condition, and my heart goes out to them and their families.
Two nights ago, one young boy with cerebral palsy lay there, screaming and trying to communicate with his family; he knew what was going on, but was unable to communicate. He reminded me of a son of good friends of mine who lived his life in that way until he died at the young age of 21. The boy in the next bed, the young man who died and my little granddaughter deserve the best help and support that we can provide. If we cannot deliver that, we will have let them down.
Little Maria will not only need the help and support of all those who love her, but will depend on those who can bring the best out of such children, who have a range of difficulties that will be present throughout their lives. As the hon. Gentleman said, early intervention can open up a new world of communication for children and reduce the frustration that builds up when communication is a problem. We all know how frustrating it can be to have a speech ready and not to be called—to have a message that we wish others to hear but which, for a variety of reasons, is not heard. Imagine that that was the case every single hour of every single day. For many children with speech and language difficulties, life can be a desperate challenge. That is why I hope that the debate will play a small part in keeping this important issue on the agenda.
In my own city of Edinburgh, we are fortunate to have an excellent range of facilities and many excellent dedicated staff who work with children who have such specialist needs, and their families. If I can pay tribute to just one such organisation, it is Capability Scotland, which has the slogan, “Turning disability into ability”. That sums Capability Scotland up. What it provides, and what is a key to success, is support and encouragement for parents to work with their child and to provide new and stimulating experiences through play and other enjoyable pastimes so that the learning is not all hard work. Children learn much more when it is fun. That organisation knows that it is important to include the parents in the education of children who have a range of difficulties, as parents are not only involved in their care from dawn to dusk, but are the best judges of what is working and what is not. The experts are important, but they must listen to the parents to develop the best way forward.
Many children with speech and language difficulties will face a number of other challenges throughout their lives: mobility, possible bullying, how they move on to independence and, later, earning a living, to name just a few. Delivering the education that those children require is vital and must be done in conjunction with other services provided at local authority level, by private companies and by voluntary organisations, as well as by central Government. For instance, disabled access on buses can make all the difference to a family if their child cannot walk. Speech and language provision may be available somewhere, but if they cannot get to it because of a physical barrier, that is a real problem. Facilities, help and support can be made available, but the users must be able to get there to make use of those facilities, the experts, the medical support and the support offered in many schools.
Many children and their families require support, advice and information about what is available: practical help, financial help, respite and much more. Despite the fact that such help is often available for parents of children with special needs, many are not aware that it exists, sometimes even when it is on their doorstep, although I appreciate that often it is not. When parents do find out information, it is normally limited and related only to the body that has provided them with the information. For example, a local health centre may suggest that a child is entitled to an occupational therapist, but it might not advise parents that they could also be entitled to respite care. Similarly, a parent may be informed by a council that they are entitled to a reduction in their council tax, yet they may still be unaware that they could receive disability living allowance. The problem is that different bodies—the NHS, local health authorities, education departments, social work departments and other Government offices—often do not liaise with one another. There is poor communication among departments, so although each may be perfectly capable of informing parents of what its field has to offer, there is no one source where parents can find out about everything to which they are entitled.
To help to fill that gap in my constituency, I have produced a special needs information pack. I would like to offer the hon. Gentleman a copy of it, and if it helps one or more of his constituents, I shall be delighted. The pack provides information on a wide variety of issues, including benefits, social work, child care and leisure facilities. It is specifically tailored to Edinburgh, West, but other things can help children who suffer from speech and language problems, because they often have many other problems in their lives, and the pack also deals with aids, adaptations, equipment, advocacy, advice and counselling, detailing what is available locally. It also includes useful contacts for other sources of information and a selection of information leaflets on other matters, such as
“what to expect when your child is in hospital”.
The pack has been praised by local parent carers groups and individual parents of children with these needs. It has helped some parents in my constituency and I hope to put it online to make it more widely available. I hope that, through a variety of means, we can contribute in a practical sense, as well as through debate, to helping a group of children who face real challenges throughout their lives and who are some of the most delightful individuals on the planet.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) on securing the debate and on speaking so powerfully about a subject on which he obviously has a very deep interest. He talked about a continuum applying to children who have deafness and hearing impairment, and that continuum necessitates a diversity of provision when it comes to education.
I am fortunate that there are a number of specialist schools in my constituency which deal with many learning difficulties, including speech and hearing impairment. I am referring to Maple Ridge school, Dove House school, the Loddon school and Limington House school. All are of immense value to our community in north Hampshire. The commitment of the staff and the leadership of the head teachers mean that the children in my community who have perhaps more severe needs are dealt with in a way that is a credit to both our community and our education authority.
In considering the delivery of education to the children on the continuum that my hon. Friend talked about, we should also consider the importance of provision for those who can attend mainstream schools. Hon. Members may well have seen a report issued by Ofsted in July this year which said that obviously there are sometimes difficulties in providing specialist units in mainstream schools, but when there is effective qualified specialist teaching, those units can be immensely valuable for children who have these needs, particularly speech and hearing impairment.
The National Deaf Children’s Society feels strongly that it is important that there are choices of mainstream provision for children who have to deal with such problems. Its chief executive, Susan Daniels, has said that choice is important, but she also draws out the problem that choice is rare and urges local authorities to do more by way of forward planning and to work with neighbouring authorities to ensure that such choice is available in local communities.
My hon. Friends talked about the lottery of provision. Perhaps I, in Basingstoke, am fortunate to have drawn the right numbers, or perhaps I just have an excellent local education authority that understands the importance of both specialist provision and provision of education in mainstream schools for children with hearing impairment and deafness. In my constituency, there is a local pyramid of schools with deaf and hearing impaired units. At secondary level that is provided at Aldworth science college, and at junior and infants level it is provided at Park View infant school and Park View junior school. We are very fortunate to have those facilities locally for children who have that particular need, providing the sort of choice that the National Deaf Children’s Society has advocated so strongly.
My concern is that each of those three valuable units faces the threat of closure. That threat exists for one simple reason: the local authority needs to consider their viability. Of course, when specialists in education talk about viability, they look at numbers, but I believe they also look at the money. Although Hampshire has an excellent local education authority, it receives one of the lowest dedicated school grants in the country, as I am sure the Minister is aware. The formula certainly does not work in the favour of the children in my constituency.
The loss of those three units would be a great loss to my community. It would mean a loss of expertise in teaching. When one visits those schools and talks to their head teachers, it is clear that that expertise has been built up not just over recent years, but over a lifetime of dedication to serving children who have those particular needs. It would also mean a loss of teaching in the community for children with those needs. They already face great difficulties, which many of us would find difficult to contemplate for ourselves. To remove the choice so that they have to be shipped out to schools that are not in their community—I know that constituents of many hon. Members are in that situation—is a very retrograde step.
It is perhaps worth drawing out one other line of thought, which has been brought to my attention locally by health visitors. As my hon. Friend said, health visitors have an important role because they see children very early in their lives and are often integral in identifying hearing problems at an early age. I was therefore most concerned to hear from mothers and health visitors about the loss of the eight-month check for young children in Basingstoke and the north Hampshire area. In the context of reviewing a child’s development, that check is important for many reasons, but one of its most important aspects is to check a child’s hearing, just as it is important to check language and speech development at the age of two. Both those checks are being put to one side in north Hampshire because of financial pressures. That is another retrograde step, and I would appreciate the Minister’s comments on it.
As my hon. Friend said, late intervention in speech and language matters can create enormous future problems for children. We should be concerned about the loss of the ability to identify those concerns early in a child’s life through health visitors, and we should seek a Government response. We should not be looking for the closure of the units in my constituency. If anything, we should be thinking about how to increase the support for those units in future.
My hon. Friend talked about effective education of deaf and hearing-impaired children, and that is indeed what we should be focusing on, through specialist schools as well as by supporting units in the mainstream sector. I want to hear what the Minister would like to do to support local authorities such as mine, which are, frankly, struggling to support specialist units in the community. We need to do all that we can to ensure that the group of children in question, who face immense problems as it is, are not dislocated from their community. They already face significant challenges and we should do all that we can to reduce the pressure on them and their families, rather than increasing it by closing units.
You will have no problem with me, Miss Begg.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), whom I entirely support in her desire to prevent the closure of special schools. I shall deal with that subject, but first I want to comment on the speech of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett). He spoke extremely well. I am intrigued by the information pack initiative, and I wonder whether he could make one available to me as well. I am sure that I shall not be the only hon. Member in the Chamber to ask for one. I see him nodding his assent, and I thank him.
My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) spoke with his usual eloquence and great passion. He and I are at the two ends of the spectrum where speech making is concerned. Perhaps I may tell hon. Members a story of a boy who did not, they tell me, say a word until he was six years old. Then he went to speech therapy, until he became a teenager. He stopped going there not because they cured him but because it was too embarrassing to sit there with all the tiny children. In fact, in Yorkshire they all said that they eventually wished that when they mended him they had put in a switch—they said, “He couldn’t speak till he was six and he hasn’t stopped since.” Those are the sort of comments that this child had to face. I am sure that we all accept that being unable to speak does not necessarily mean one is stupid. There are many people with complex needs who have learning difficulties as well, but there are those who just have speech difficulties.
I want to talk about the closure of special schools. There is pressure on such schools in Essex. In my constituency, a wonderful school for those with moderate learning difficulties, Cedar Hall, is under great pressure. The pressure is largely on MLD schools, not those dealing with severe learning difficulties. There is a feeling that it is more appropriate for children with moderate learning difficulties to be taught in an inclusive environment in the mainstream, and that is exactly right for some children. However, there are children for whom an MLD school is right. It is necessary to keep those schools open and support them fully, and not to refuse to refer children or tell parents about those options. We need to make sure that county councils support the MLD schools, as well as the important SLD schools. Closing MLD schools and moving the children into mainstream schools tends to exacerbate the difficulties in giving them speech and language support. That is my experience.
I have two points to make to the Minister, to which I hope he will respond, because, as he knows, I sincerely believe that he is a good chap. One is that children who require speech and language therapy—even those whose requirement is statemented—sometimes do not get that help from trained specialist speech and language professionals. They receive help from other people, who work with fantastic good will and enthusiasm, but who cannot provide what is needed to help those children as quickly as possible, which is very important. I hope that the Minister will deal with the issue that emerged this morning from the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham: the shortfall in numbers of professional therapists. We are looking for the Minister to give us comfort and to tell us this year, if not this morning, what he will do to ensure that the gap in the provision of trained professionals is closed before the end of the decade.
Does my hon. Friend agree that when it is agreed that speech and language therapy is to be provided by someone from the primary care trust, there must be a watertight legal right to enforce the provision on the PCT? The ducking and diving and reneging on commitments is wrong, damaging and regarded with contempt by parents.
My hon. Friend makes the point more forcefully and eloquently than I could have done, and I am grateful to him for doing so.
My second point for the Minister relates to the fact that when I was a business man with companies in the 1980s, I had sheltered employment schemes. We were a community, not just a business. In the constituency of the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), we had a unit with 10 people who did all sorts of wonderful work, with great value added. They brought the whole work force together as a community. They added more to my businesses than I added to their lives. We were able to do that because the Government provided encouragement and financial support for the schemes. I wonder if we can look again at how to make sure we can provide decent, dignified employment for such people. Many of the people whom I employed had never earned a wage before. I wonder whether there is a way to get that debate rolling again. If there is one thing we can do in this House, it is to provide dignity and quality of life for vulnerable people in our constituencies. We have a duty to do that.
Someone who cannot read or write or do sums will get by in life—many such people do—but when someone cannot speak or communicate people look the other way. Someone with those problems will have great difficulty; their human dignity will be offended and their quality of life will be much lower. That is the essential point that we must address when we consider education and caring for vulnerable people.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who was inspiring, as he usually is on this subject. I hope that my good neighbour, the Minister, will be duly inspired by the very good speeches that we have heard. I congratulate all who spoke, but particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), who brought his own special visual aid. I hope that we will all be able to share that information and that it can eventually be used to help our constituents.
This subject has been highlighted before. The important Rose review states:
“Speaking and listening, together with reading and writing, are…central to children's intellectual, social and emotional development.”
My party currently has a four Rs commission, in which the fourth R is articulation. As we have heard throughout the debate, poor skills in those areas go on to affect behaviour. It is not surprising that children who are not understood try to communicate in other ways that are less than satisfactory to most of us. Young children who do not have educational attainments are held back throughout their adult lives, and may become involved in criminal activity. I do not suggest that all people who have language problems and speech impairments will go on to become criminals, but a high proportion of prisoners have those inabilities. It is therefore important to take on board the impact of those problems on our society.
It is important to appreciate that speech and language therapy is complex and covers a spectrum, from children with transient language difficulties—their number is increasing simply because of our lifestyles and because people do not talk enough in the home—through to children with the persistent difficulties about which we have heard a lot today. Clearly, early intervention is key—indeed, there appears to be a critical age by which speech and language skills should be developed to prevent problems with subsequent development. A longitudinal study found that children whose language difficulties were resolved by the age of five and a half were more likely to go on to develop good reading and spelling skills. Many children’s communication difficulties are transient and can be resolved through early intervention. As we have heard over and over again, if children do not get that early intervention, the costs to society are large. As well as needing specialists, we need our mainstream teachers to have an understanding of communication, because many of the transient problems could be picked up in the classroom setting. For that to happen, we need all our early-years teachers to be suitably trained in this issue.
I do not want to go into the whole debate about mainstream schooling and inclusion, but I can go back 20 years and think of children and young people who were in special schools but who would not have been there if they had received speech and language therapy. That is critical. We have, to a large extent, moved on with the Government’s agenda, but we know that children who are included, particularly those with more complex needs, are not getting adequate support in mainstream schools. We should keep in mainstream education children who simply need a year’s course of speech therapy and will then be able to access all of the main curriculum, but it is crucial that children who are included should receive that full support.
Statistics show that one in 10 children in the UK have communication problems, but I suggest that as many as 50 per cent. of five-year-olds arrive at school without the speech and language skills that they need to participate fully and to achieve their potential. The majority of children with communication problems are educated in mainstream schools, and we know that communication problems can accompany other disabilities. We need to take on board the fact that a large number of children with statements of special educational needs have been identified as having speech, language and communication difficulties. As the hon. Member for Buckingham said, in our debate on the Select Committee on Education and Skills report, we discussed at great length the point that the money available must match up with the requirements set out on the statements.
Many MPs have supported the Make Chatter Matter campaign and have signed up to the early-day motion on it. The campaign is all about giving information to parents and having skilled staff, communication-friendly early-years settings and specialist provision. The debate is timely because I visited Carden nursery in Brighton just a week ago to see an interesting project initiated by I CAN. The nursery is on a school site and has children in mainstream sessions but pulls out 10 children in the morning and 10 in the afternoon for special sessions. Those sessions are intensive and involve three adults working with a maximum of 10 children. I was able to watch the sessions without the children seeing, and have learned about Makaton and cued articulation. I also learned that most of those three and four-year-olds had been identified as having language difficulties by their health visitors, so I make a plea: we must have a sufficient number of health visitors to pick up those problems at an early stage. All the children there have a relatively high level of cognitive development, and the intensive work will almost certainly result in all of them ultimately accessing mainstream education—it will allow many of them to go straight into mainstream schools at five. The project is obviously expensive, but it will save money in the long run.
How big is the problem? Do our local authorities know the extent of it, taking into account the whole range of communication and language difficulties? We know that the general shortage of speech and language therapists means that children in some areas are unable to access crucial services; there is a postcode lottery. The Education and Skills Committee report on special educational needs highlighted problems in partnerships with health authorities. There is a lack of joining up. In the past three months, I have had problems with children being allocated to a nursery school in the county council area that is not their parents’ first choice, which takes them out of their primary care trust area. It has been a huge battle to get therapeutic services aligned to individual children. That is outrageous, especially for the poor parents who are in the middle of it all and who had to accept placements for their children that they did not want in the first place. They should not have to battle or come to their MP to sort out such problems.
Evidence submitted to the Select Committee highlighted that issue, and the Committee responded by calling for a national strategy. The Government’s response to the report, particularly on page 8, made me see red. I will add another word to those used by the hon. Member for Buckingham to describe it. Complacent—that is how I would sum it up. It is good news that there is some research coming through from Canterbury Christ Church university, but even so, I am concerned. We have heard that the budgets of 78 per cent. of speech and language therapy services across the UK have been reduced or frozen, and we know that speech and language therapy graduates have been unable to find jobs. Furthermore, there is a boom and bust problem: my local university, Bournemouth university, and other universities are saying that PCTs are not commissioning places for the future. So not only do we have unemployed speech and language therapists now, but in four years we will not have enough therapists coming through. That is ridiculous.
I know that I CAN has proposed a programme to the Minister in respect of its Early Talk course. I do not want to promote a particular provider, but I hope that the Minister will give due consideration to I CAN’s proposals.
Today, we have heard about Oliver, Maria and Jade. I agree that we need to get a grip on the procedures for restraining children, as we discussed in the Committee that considered the Education and Inspections Bill. The point, however, is that there are hundreds of thousands of children with specific needs, and we are not doing our best for them.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) on securing the debate and, indeed, on the oratorical grasp and passionate embrace that he brought to it—it was a mix of Pericles and Mark Anthony. He has a growing reputation for championing good causes, and there is none better than the special needs of these special children. The issue warrants and needs our attention.
The care of children with special needs has been a particular concern of mine for 20 years, since my time as shadow chairman of education in Nottinghamshire. In that role, I took a robust view of the dangers of the agenda that emerged following the Warnock report and I defended the interests of children and parents who wanted out-of-county and, indeed, out-of-country special provision placements to meet their needs.
It was then that I first witnessed the superb work being done in special schools and the care and devotion that they invest in bringing greater opportunities to children who are too often forgotten by those in positions of influence and power. One such school—Dawn House in Nottinghamshire—teaches the full national curriculum to children between the ages of five and 16 with severe communication difficulties, and has twice been included in Ofsted’s list of excellent schools. As we debate the matters before us today, we should remember their important work and the success of similar schools.
We are rightly proud of a country that contains such schools, the whole ethos of which is rooted in excellence and care. It has been said by many wise men—not least, most recently, the Leader of the Opposition—that the mark of a civilised society is the way in which it treats its most vulnerable and defenceless members. Who, I wonder, could be described as more vulnerable than those children whose youthful fragility is intensified by their incapacity to communicate their hopes, fears and needs? They are indeed special and they deserve our special care and concern.
When the work of the House is done at the end of each week, I, like other Members, return to the innocent eyes and soft kisses of beautiful children. I marvel at their great energy as they push and pull me. I marvel at their small bodies, which are fragile and perfect. I enjoy the protective instincts that they invoke in me. I invite hon. Members to imagine how they would feel if their children were all the more vulnerable—physically or emotionally—because of disability. I ask every Member in considering my hon. Friend’s argument, to share that flight of imagination.
I do so knowing that Members from all parties care and knowing that the Minister cares too. I say it mindful of the comments that have been made by the other contributors to the debate: my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who talked about the importance of parents and of training teachers; the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), who spoke of the need for early intervention, reinforcing the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham; my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), who talked about the importance of special schools in her constituency, which, like those in my constituency—Gosberton House school, Garth school and Priory school—do such excellent work; my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), who focused on the need for adequate numbers of specialists; and the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who talked about the dynamic nature of special needs and the need for us to be sensitive to that dynamism and to adjust provision to meet those changing needs. Indeed, no needs change more than those of children with communication and language difficulties.
This is not a matter of party doctrine, but, sadly, it is sometimes a matter of dogma. The unlimited pursuit of integrationist policies that followed Warnock in 1978 and the Education Act 1981 closed many special schools. It closed minds and damaged lives. Of course, some of the Warnock legacy was fuelled by the best intentions, but the cost to schools and children has been profound because the people who drove this misguided agenda were as powerful as those whom they affected were powerless. The integrationist, broad-brush approach to an infinitely complex issue has damaged the educational prospects of countless children, not least those who suffer from speech and language difficulties.
Those without the capacity to communicate with their peers, parents and siblings often feel isolated, frustrated, misunderstood and desperate. They find themselves outside the social spheres that we take for granted: the family chat, the workplace gathering and even today’s debate.
For the fortunate, however, there is a place where they can feel included, understood and connected. That place is in the classroom in schools such as Dawn House and, since 1971, at the Nuffield speech and language unit, the work of which has been championed by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham and, altogether less fluently, by myself over the past year. There, talented staff, whose specialty is communication, can give children the one-on-one care and attention that they so desperately need. Such a focus is simply not possible without adequate specialist provision; with 30 children clamouring for the attention of one or two adults, it is inevitable that a child with speech and language needs is the last to be heard. Such problems have profound effects on the nation, as a recent report from the I CAN organisation suggests.
I also amplify my hon. Friend’s point about the proven link between communication disability and emotional behavioural problems, which often lead to social exclusion and eventually to not in employment, education or training status. It is a scandal for our society and for the Minister, who has been so generously described as high flying, capable and reasonable, that the number of NEETs has grown since the Government came to power.
The Minister will not be surprised to hear that I have five particular questions for him. Some have been raised already; others, are all my own. First, what measures have the Government put in place to ensure the early identification of such special needs? Secondly, what steps have been taken to promote inter-agency work to assist children and families who are dealing with the range of difficulties that ensue? Thirdly, what plans does the Minister have to ensure that local authorities maintain proper data on the speech and language difficulties of children in their area?
Fourthly, I turn to the issue of augmentative and alternative communications equipment, on which there was a written statement yesterday. We welcome that statement, which said that much of that equipment will be given free, following the campaign run by Scope, and, humbly assisted by myself, through communications with Ministers, but what provision will be made to ensure that equipment is updated? As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said, the special needs that we are discussing are dynamic; they change and so the equipment must change accordingly. On the same subject, how can the Government guarantee that those who use the equipment will be adequately trained? It is vital that training is in place for those who use equipment that is so valuable to people with communication difficulties.
Finally, how can the Government guarantee a smooth transition between early years, children’s and adult services?
No, question four had two parts—Roman one and Roman two. The Minister was not listening as carefully as he should have been.
The seamless approach that I have described will be essential as people with a communication impairment move through life, because it will enable them to grasp opportunities to learn, develop and work.
My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham has done the House a great service by bringing this matter up for debate. He has my assurance, as I think he knows, that those on the Conservative Front Bench will be unrelenting in their defence of the interests of special needs children. The Minister has an opportunity today to make his mark and to fly even higher than he has already in the estimation of my hon. Friend by being sensitive and responsive to the arguments that have been advanced here and elsewhere. Indeed, in making that appeal to the Minister, I pay tribute to Scope for its work on this subject and for the support and guidance that it has offered me as I have dealt with the matter and, alongside my hon. Friend, advanced the interests of children with speech and language difficulties. I invite the Minister to make his mark and I give him adequate time, I hope, to deal not only with my five questions, but with the altogether more incisive comments of those who have spoken before me.
So much to say, so little time to say it. This excellent debate was instigated by the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). Beyond offering him the customary congratulations on securing it, let me genuinely pay tribute to him for his impassioned, informed, highly articulate and fluent presentation of his argument, which, as everyone has said, is the standard to which we have grown accustomed from him. We are grateful to him for introducing a well informed debate.
I wish to respond mainly to the hon. Gentleman’s points, but I shall first run through some of those made by other hon. Members. The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) made a good speech, particularly on the problems of his constituent, Jade Chambers, and wanted me to address the matter of physical restraint. The Department’s guidance states that physical restraint should be used, where necessary, in a way that is reasonable and proportional to the threat or danger posed, and that parents should be informed. We are working on guidance on the use of physical force specified in the Education and Inspections Act 2006, and we need to address training on the matter for teachers and other staff in schools. I anticipate that the basis of the guidance will be much as it is at the moment, whereby parents must be informed. If I need to write to the hon. Gentleman with further details, I shall certainly do so.
We were all struck by the information pack mentioned by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett). Naturally, I would be delighted to see it.
The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) reiterated my view that local authorities should develop choice. I was married in Basingstoke and have a great affection for it. I used to live there and I hope to return in the new year to visit Queen Mary’s college and one or two other establishments.
The hon. Lady talked about the funding for Hampshire. In Dorset, we look jealously at the funding per pupil that Hampshire receives, because it qualifies for additional cost adjustment, which we in Dorset do not. In my constituency, we have excellent special educational needs provision despite the paucity of funding, with an outstanding school for pupils with moderate learning difficulties and a brand new special school for severe learning difficulties pupils that I look forward to opening in the next few months. It is possible to give priority to such things.
I shall examine with interest what is going on in the three pyramids about which the hon. Lady is concerned and the matter of the eight-month checks in north Hampshire, and I shall correspond with her.
I wish to discuss the points made by the hon. Members for Castle Point (Bob Spink), for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), in response to the main points made by the hon. Member for Buckingham in his excellent speech. First, as is customary, I should mention evidence of the real progress that has been made in helping children with special educational needs and disabilities to achieve their potential. Ofsted, as has been referred to, has reported improvements since we published “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, our long-term SEN strategy, in 2004. We can see those improvements, for example, in the declining percentage of children with SEN not achieving at least level 3 in maths at key stage 2. It decreased from 28 to 25 per cent. in just the two years from 2003 to 2005. In English, the percentage of children not achieving at least level 3 decreased from 31 to 27 per cent.
Those improvements undoubtedly reflect the hard work of dedicated staff and the support that they receive from parents with the passion and impatience that was so well articulated by the hon. Member for Buckingham. Also, they are there thanks to increasing investment by the Government in children with SEN.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned only the Government’s inputs, not our outputs, so I have started with the outputs, but the inputs are also great. He will be familiar with, for example, the rise of 43 per cent. from £1.3 billion in 2003-04 to £1.8 billion in 2006-07 in SEN funding for mainstream schools, and the 23 per cent. rise over the same period for special schools. I shall not dwell on that, because we must always do better.
The hon. Gentleman rightly put great emphasis on early intervention. When a child is experiencing difficulties, it is of course important that they are identified as soon as possible and that steps are taken to address them. Early identification and intervention are central to our approach to SEN. Children with two years of high-quality early education can boost their overall development by up to six months.
For children from disadvantaged backgrounds, pre-school education is particularly important in raising development above the expected minimum in literacy, language and numeracy at key stage 1—in other words, in preparing them for key stage 2. The Childcare Act 2006 places important new duties on local authorities to improve outcomes and reduce inequality for children, which I hope will have an important effect on early intervention. It requires them to secure sufficient child care provision to meet the needs of parents of disabled children who wish to resume or remain in work or undertake educational training. It also requires them to provide information, advice and training to those children’s child care providers.
Language plays a central role in supporting children’s attainment later in their lives. The Government are supporting a number of schemes in that respect—for example, the early support programme for very young children with disabilities has improved inter-agency working, planning and delivery across local services by providing information for parents, some of which I have in front of me. One set of information focuses on speech and language difficulties, and explains how children normally develop communication, language and speech; how adults can help; and when and how to seek help from professionals. We have commissioned the communication matters project, and through national strategies we are doing important work.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that great importance is attached to the use of speech and language therapists. All the measures that I have mentioned, and others that I wish to mention, help to ensure that the school work force are equipped to deal with speech, language and communication needs, but for some children direct input from a specialist will be needed.
Whenever possible, therapists should agree intervention strategies that can be implemented where children normally learn. They should discuss and agree an approach with teachers so that changes are made to a child’s whole learning experience. When such arrangements are made, children benefit from a rounded programme of support geared to their particular needs. Teachers benefit too: their contact with therapists helps them to have heightened awareness of some of the less obvious problems that children face and thus equips them to nip such problems in the bud.
The prime responsibility for the training, supply and deployment of therapists lies with the national health service, but where speech and language therapy is specified as an educational provision in a child’s statement of special educational needs, the local authority is ultimately responsible for securing that provision, even if the local primary care trust cannot or will not provide it. We are aware that some local authorities and schools are increasingly having difficulties in securing such provision from the NHS, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for focusing my mind on the matter. I shall continue to keep an eye on it.
Local authorities have to use their own funds to procure private therapy services if they cannot secure them from the NHS. I hope that that is a way to address the problem, which he spoke about so eloquently, of there being unemployed therapists and yet a shortage of therapists in the NHS. We hope also to address it through our joint study work, and I hear the comments about the joint study with the Department of Health. The delay was not down to the research team or the DFES; it arose because of problems in securing ethical approval from PCTs. That was frustrating.
I cannot, because I have so much to say.
I look forward to the report early in the new year, and I shall be pressing officials to ensure that it comes, and we can respond to it, as soon as possible, given the concerns raised today.
I agree with the hon. Member for Buckingham that we need to improve joint commissioning and use the children’s trusts to do so. We must use extended schools as a way to bring together a multi-agency approach—the infamous joined-up working that we all chase after and get frustrated about because we do not see it in our constituencies.
The Government are broadly in sympathy with the general thrust of where the hon. Gentleman wants us to go. I entirely accept his impatience and belief that we are not going fast or effectively enough in certain cases. There is something of a lottery, which is down to how certain local authorities choose to commission services. I shall reflect on that and consider the extent to which we should take a national lead in helping the new children’s trusts and the development of extended services to join things up properly.
Ultimately, special schools will definitely be part of future provision. They will be a focus of specialism that can feed out into mainstream schools and bring coherent provision in this important area to needy children across England.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to bring the issue of Darfur back to Westminster Hall, even though, in many respects, I am doing so for all the wrong reasons, because a great tragedy is still happening before our eyes. I am delighted that the Secretary of State for International Development has chosen, yet again, to respond to the debate. No one could have done more to try to bring some hope to the people of both Darfur and wider Sudan.
I am also pleased by the presence of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), as he can talk about his own recent visit, and my good friend the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who, like me, feels passionately about this situation. He has just talked about his other great passion—special educational needs.
I owe a debt to the all-party group on Sudan, which I have the good fortune to chair. I would like to pay due tribute to its co-ordinator, Senait Petros, who keeps us on the straight and narrow and gives us countless up-to-date pieces of information so that we are hopefully well versed, and to the many non-governmental organisations that support the group. I have just received a good piece of information from Jamie Balfour of Oxfam, but I could mention many others.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on his work on Darfur. He has mentioned that he has visited it. Does he understand the frustration of aid workers in the three camps out of the 173 displacement camps in Darfur that are located near el-Fasher? Those camps are well managed and their problems are well understood, and the aid workers there believe that the energies of the constant stream of international and national politicians who visit them would be better devoted to other parts of Darfur, where the problems are less well understood. At the moment, I am sure that such visits feel like displacement tourism to them.
It is important that the message gets out. I do not particularly want to get into the argument about whether we know enough about what is going on. It is obvious what is happening on the ground, and I shall say more about that.
The all-party group on Sudan was supposed to visit that country. My good friend the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) was to come with us, but sadly we did not get a visa on time and there were difficulties on the ground. We were not going to Darfur because we felt it would be more appropriate to spend our time in Khartoum. We hope to make that visit in February, but things are still changing on the ground.
I do not intend to talk for very long today, because it is more important that we hear from the Secretary of State and from the shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, about what we should be doing. It is not my intention to take the extreme positions that some want us to adopt. For example, we could call what is happening genocide and everything would be all right because we would know that we could condemn and take action according to the panoply of UN and other resolutions. The other extreme would be to say, “It is all so complex and it has all got so hopeless that there is nothing we can do.” We must look at sensible intervention, but we must do so using international law. Dare I say that we should condemn when appropriate and take some action to back up that condemnation?
We were cheered to hear what came out of Addis Ababa and what came out of Abuja some time ago. I hope that the mistakes that were made following Abuja are not repeated. It is obvious that we were dealing with only a minority of the rebel groups. We need to encompass all those who have been fighting on the ground, to explain fully what the Addis Ababa agreement has implied and to ensure that people have time to understand that. It seemed that there was an attempt to force the Abuja agreement on to the different groups, and that was counter-productive.
I shall not dwell on the history, which is one of great sadness. We know that about 200,000 people have died in the conflict and that 2.5 million people have been displaced. We hope that on the back of the Addis Ababa talks we can get some greater security, which is greatly needed. At the moment, the situation is deteriorating not only in Darfur but in Chad. Anyone who has read the wires on the conflict will know that many more people are threatened. Apparently, 90,000 Chadians have been displaced. It would be useful to hear what the Secretary of State has to say about what we are doing in Darfur and what we intend to do to deal with the growing problem in Chad.
Let us consider the security situation and the proposal of a hybrid solution, which many of us felt was the only way forward. We have seen the complete and adamant opposition of the President of Sudan, who was apparently willing to lay down his life to oppose the UN coming in formally. A hybrid seemed to be a reasonable way forward.
Has my hon. Friend seen the report in The Daily Telegraph today in which President al-Bashir is quoted as saying that “not even 9,000” people have been killed? That figure would appear to be a small one. The report stated that he said that there was
“‘no famine, no epidemics, no rearming’ of the…Janjaweed”
and that all the talk of violence
“was ‘false information’ and figures created by non-governmental organisations and Western governments to topple him.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that President al-Bashir is either lying through his teeth or is in complete denial, and that it is important that it is made clear to him that he will eventually be held to account by the international community for what has gone on in Darfur?
Without casting aspersions, I hear entirely what my hon. Friend says and I know how much interest he takes in this issue. One must be generous and believe that somebody at the top is living in denial, but it is difficult to believe that someone does not know what is happening on the ground, given that the entire world’s eyes, periodically at least, are looking at Darfur. Notwithstanding what my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) said earlier, one of the advantages is that people are able to go there to see things with their own eyes. It is important that all sides begin to recognise that we must obtain a ceasefire that will hold, given that there is currently no ceasefire.
It is perfectly understandable that President al-Bashir might think that a western imperialist invasion is imminent or intended. May I put it to the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) that although one should try to be generous in spirit, one must acknowledge the doctrine that a person must be assumed to intend the natural consequences of his actions? I have no responsibility for negotiation in these matters, but I believe that al-Bashir is a liar, a thug and a manipulator, and I make no apology for saying out loud what seems blindingly obvious from the evidence.
I think that our condemnation of the President of Sudan is getting stronger and stronger. That is easily done. I want to take us forward and to see how we might be able to make a solution stick. It would be sensible to point out that we might be talking only about a short-term solution in the immediate future, but such a solution might form the basis of a longer-term one.
I go back to the security situation and the hybrid solution. We have heard what has just been said about the questioning, at least, from the Government of Sudan. We know that they are a coalition; there is a coalition even within the National Islamic Front. They are a coalition involving Salva Kiir Mayardit, whom some of us were able to see several weeks ago when he came here to give his views. He was clearly in favour of a greater role for the UN.
Given all that, I must question the Secretary of State on some points. Where are we in relation to Security Council resolution 1706? With the best will in the world, the Addis Ababa agreement is a row-back from that, so is that resolution one that is just in spirit or is it to be delivered on the ground?
We all agree that it is necessary to up the number of troops—we never reached the magic number of 7,700, to our great shame—but where will they come from and, more particularly, how will they be funded? Sadly, many countries made promises on funding—for all sorts of reasons, personnel would never come from those countries—but they have not delivered on those promises.
What role is there for the Chinese in Addis? During the debate on the Royal Address, I said that the Chinese, after their grand conference, were now key players in Africa, but they have an added responsibility. It is important to know, first, what role they have in ensuring that the forces are invited in; secondly, that they have a clear mandate to operate; and thirdly, that we achieve a genuine ceasefire as well as a longer-lasting peace.
The African Union mandate ends in December 2006, so the pressure is on. We have fudged it once already. We must ensure that what happens before the end of 2006 has forward momentum and, if the hybrid solution is the way forward, that we know how we will go on from the end of the year. There is added piquancy because of the problems in Chad, with the possibility of an upsurge in violence and attacks on the Government there. Again, the French may have a role. That may not have been seen as clearly as one would have hoped, but perhaps the French Government could do something.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on everything he has achieved and I want to be associated with the comments of the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow).
Does the hon. Member for Stroud agree that in recent years the international response has been characterised by relative timidity when compared with the international response to the situation in Iraq, particularly the forthright way in which both America and the UK approached the matter and the resources that have been deployed to deal with the situation? Does he also agree that, as we come to the end of the AU mandate, it is important that henceforth we are considerably more forthright in our dealings with the situation in Sudan and Darfur?
I agree that we must be forthright, but we must also understand the complexities on the ground. The problem is that we sometimes pretend that the complexities can be diluted, but that is not possible. Without going over the history—we all know that there are many antecedents—the Sudan Government have the largest share of the blame, which they can escape, but other forces that we have met here and have talked to on the ground have no clear agenda. They need an agenda, starting with a ceasefire, because they have achieved many of the things that they apparently wanted to achieve.
On the ceasefire and the political settlement that will hopefully follow, the key question is: following Addis, where is the Darfur peace agreement on which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State worked with great effort, and what is its status? What are the UK Government in particular doing to put pressure on the different forces when we do not know who is fighting whom because of the tribal and ethnic divisions and the fact that new organisations—for example, the National Redemption Front—have arisen out of the anarchy on the ground? Where are we with the long-held desire for a no-fly zone? The hon. Member for Buckingham raised that at least a year, if not longer, ago. Yet apparently the Sudanese Government are acting with impunity, which is not acceptable. A no-fly zone should be in force.
Where are we with the rebel groups, whoever they may be? Can the UK Government talk directly to those groups on the ground, in other parts of Sudan or even in London—everyone, at some time, comes through London. Last but not least, where are we with the Darfur-to-Darfur dialogue? People on the ground—civil society—must work on that if there is to be a long-term settlement.
What else can we do? There must be a proper sanction on countries that continue to bring small arms and other ammunition into this terrible zone of conflict. The UN appointed a panel to see who was breaking the so-called sanctions and still arming the Arab militias. It would be interesting to know what action the UK Government are taking through the UN to put pressure on them. I asked a parliamentary question about a British firm, but I shall not discuss that here because the information is perhaps more complicated than I at first thought. However, Britain must ensure that its house is in order and I hope that my right hon. Friend will talk to the Department of Trade and Industry to ensure that arms exports are controlled and do not reach Sudan at second hand, which is often what happens.
The issue is not just what we can do directly about what is happening in Sudan. Some of us are worried about what is happening in the surrounding countries—Ethiopia, the Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia and so on. The last thing the region needs is a conflict in some other part of the horn of Africa, so we need arms control over the whole region. That may be difficult to achieve, but unless we are ambitious, Darfur will lose out.
My final point is a specific one that anyone who has been to the camps or has an interest in the area knows only too well. The worst aspect has been the gender issue: the sexual violence against women and girls, which has been a weapon of war in Darfur. Rape has been used with no thought for the lives of those affected, and that must be borne down on. The situation is probably the worst we have ever seen because sexual violence is a deliberate attempt to drive people from their homes. I believe—my right hon. Friend may care to comment—that not only are women attacked as they leave the camps to pick up firewood but they are increasingly attacked in the camps. What security is on offer and who is in charge of that security? I condemn the Sudan Government for being unwilling, sadly, to recognise sexual violence for what it is—a crime against humanity.
I said that I would not talk about genocide, but I will talk about crimes against humanity. Rape and worse are used against women, and that must stop. We must put in place the security to ensure that it stops. Again, I ask my right hon. Friend to comment particularly on what we can do to deal with gender violations when women are bearing the brunt of the attacks. The situation is dreadful, and we must move forward. I hope that this debate will give us the opportunity to do so, and I make no apology for bringing it back to this Chamber.
Probably everyone in the Chamber can bear witness to what has happened in the camps in Darfur, and to the attitude of the Khartoum Government. I well remember a sitting of the International Development Committee with the Sudanese Minister for Humanitarian Affairs, in which after a while, his insouciance and his uncaring attitude to what was going on prompted my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) to ask, “What is it like to be an international political leper?” The Minister did not bat an eyelid; he just went on with what he thought was his charm offensive. We have seen the horror of the camps and the attitude of the Government of Sudan, but it would be pointless to dwell on those aspects today.
The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) made an excellent speech, none of which needs repeating, but I want to respond to one point that he made. What is the point of a war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone bringing Charles Taylor to justice, demonstrating that even for Heads of State there is no immunity under international law—I am convinced that Gaddafi was brought back into line by the threat of being brought before the International Criminal Court in Freetown—if people in Sudan seem to be able to act with impunity? There has been much talk of the ICC indicting people, but so far very little seems to have happened.
I want to broaden the debate to encompass international policy on intervention, because it is important that we do not lose track of where we have already been. Way back in 1998, Kofi Annan, in a lecture at Ditchley on intervention, said:
“Our job is to intervene: to prevent conflict where we can, to put a stop to it when it has broken out, or—when neither of those things is possible—at least to contain it and prevent it from spreading”.
But the international community still seems confused about how it intervenes for humanitarian purposes, particularly when it requires a military element.
Darfur has demonstrated one reality of humanitarian intervention. In practice, there are probably only three countries—ourselves, the United States of America and France—with the military capability to mount offensive humanitarian, peacekeeping military operations, which involve recovering and re-establishing security. We did so in Sierra Leone, and the French helped to do so in Ivory Coast.
The problem with Sudan was that the United States and the United Kingdom were heavily committed in Iraq and elsewhere, and they certainly did not want to become involved militarily in another Muslim state—whether in north Africa or in the middle east. In an interesting book, “The New Killing Fields: Massacre and the Politics of Intervention”, Michael Ignatieff says:
“As long as the chief motive for intervention is conscience alone, we can only expect sporadic action from a few responsible actors. Once it is realised that we are looking at a crisis in the international order, a tear in the ozone layer of global governance, states that would otherwise remain uninvolved might understand that their long term interest in stability and order compel them to commit resources to the problem. Putting national interest criteria into the debate also helps with the problem of triage. There are many failed and failing states. The ones that will actually receive sustained international attention will be those that directly threaten the national interest and national security of powerful states.”
The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), in a “Panorama” interview when he was a Minister, said that
“the odds are that if any Western force did intervene”—
“it would become bogged down and that some new cause for all the Jihadists in the world would emerge and we would find ourselves very quickly being shot at by all sides”.
The Government and others clearly decided to support the African Union. Indeed, the Secretary of State made much of that when he appeared before the International Development Committee during the previous Parliament. He said:
“I think we do have to recognise that this is a very significant moment in the history of the AU. They sense it and we should sense it. Why? Because this is Africa saying ‘We have responsibility for dealing with conflict on our own continent and we intend to take the lead’”.
It is unfair to say that the African Union has failed, but it is fair to say that it has not succeeded. One reason is that it simply does not have the resources.
Brigadier-General Pal Martins, the director of Safer Africa, said:
“The AU’s Peace and Security Directorate is responsible for 53 member states in the continent. It has less than ten people, professionals who are technicians in the area of peace and security, and these people are supposed to prevent conflict, manage conflict and resolve conflicts in the whole of Africa.”
It just cannot be done. The African Union cannot do it with such poor resources.
The international community has confused theories about when we should intervene. The Prime Minister, in 1999, gave a speech in the United States entitled, “Doctrine of the International Community”, on how we decide when and whether to intervene in other countries.
It was an excellent speech. It took place at the Economic Club in Chicago. But nowhere in that speech did the Prime Minister mention the entire international community conducting humanitarian intervention. He asked:
“have we exhausted all diplomatic options? We should always give peace every chance, as we have in the case of Kosovo.”
The Canadian Government set up the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which came up with the concept of the responsibility to protect. The UN took up that concept in September 2003, with Kofi Annan’s high-level panel on threats, challenges and change, which produced a report in December 2004. The headlines about the report were dramatic:
“UN to back pre-emptive strikes in first major overhaul.”
In reality, the report was rather more sober. The panel endorsed what it called, following the Canadian example, an
“emerging norm of responsibility to protect civilians from large scale violence”.
The Secretary of State, when commenting on the panel’s report to the humanitarian policy group of the Overseas Development Institute, said:
“I attach very high priority to improving the international humanitarian effort to save lives and alleviate suffering…I think the Panel is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to seize the chance for reform and the international community needs to respond boldly. I strongly support the recommendations of the High Level Panel on the ‘responsibility to protect’.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that intervention must be not just humanitarian intervention, the purpose and effect of which is to slow down the death rate by reducing the incidence of disease? Given that the Secretary of State said on 18 May in this Chamber that he fully and reasonably expected a UN force to be deployed by now, but it has not been, does not my hon. Friend agree that the time has come for the international community to decide whether the responsibility to protect is to be a serious attempt to avert genocide or a futile exercise in vacuous moral posturing?
I entirely agree. The Government must provide a lead and we must ensure that if we undertake military intervention for humanitarian purposes, it is effective. The African Union has not been effective. It had only Land Rovers; it did not have any lift capacity. But we saw effective military intervention for humanitarian purposes in Sierra Leone. We have done it; we know that we can deliver it. However, the international community must define more clearly when it will intervene for humanitarian purposes, and intervention must be effective; otherwise, what is the point of international order?
Darfur also demonstrates that we need more peacekeepers, as the high-level panel said—if we are going to have peacekeeping, we need peacekeepers. The high-level panel bluntly stated:
“In the absence of a commensurate increase in available personnel, United Nations peacekeeping risks repeating some of its worst failures of the 1990s.”
This debate rightly focuses on Darfur, and it is clear to everyone that humanitarian intervention is required there. We tried with the African Union, but that intervention failed—it is unfair to accuse the African Union itself of failing, but it has not delivered—and we are now back to the United Nations, which has yet to intervene. What has happened to the emerging norm underlying all that? It does not yet seem to have emerged very far. Unless we are all clear that the international community will intervene speedily in cases of humanitarian disaster, regimes such as the Government of Sudan will continue to believe that they can treat their people with impunity for a long time to come.
Thank you for allowing me to catch your eye, Miss Begg. I had not originally intended to speak, but I should like to ask the Secretary of State one or two questions that have not yet been fully covered. I congratulate my neighbour, the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), on securing this debate, because it addresses an international scandal. The conflict broke out in 2003, and since then more than 450,000 people have been killed, more than 2 million people have displaced and every sort of humanitarian disaster and atrocity has taken place. However, the international community has largely not taken the action that it ought to have taken. I also want to return to some of the things that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said.
I should like to take us back to a week ago last Thursday, to the agreement in Addis Ababa, and ask the Secretary of State whether he can tell us a little about China’s role. The Chinese have a crucial role to play in the disaster, because they are one of the chief funders of the Sudanese Government, through their oil purchases, and China is also one of the members of the P5. We have heard reports that China played a role in that process, so it would be useful to have a first-hand report and hear what role it played.
What was agreed at Addis Ababa was the UN-AU hybrid force. The AU mandate runs out at the end of this year, so it would be useful to know from the Secretary of State what will happen if the hybrid force has not managed to get agreement from the Sudanese Government to go in before the end of the year. What arrangements will be made in the intervening period, between when the AU mandate runs out and when the hybrid force commences operations?
It would be interesting to know how the hybrid force is to be made up. The hon. Member for Stroud asked some questions about that. Who will supply it with military assets? It would be logical for this country to supply some, but we are already well overstretched elsewhere, so exactly who will supply the hybrid force with the necessary assets, equipment, soldiers and so on? Most importantly, who will command it? If it is to have any chance of success, it will presumably have to be commanded by an African commander, and preferably one of Muslim origin. It would be interesting to hear what the Secretary of State has to say about that.
Speaking to the Brookings Institution on 20 November, the US spokesman, Andrew Natsios, said that the Bush Administration would resort to “plan B”, which is
“a different approach to this”—
that is, to UN Security Council resolution 1706—and is “open-ended.” That might address part of my question of what will happen when the AU mandate runs out at the end of the year. Perhaps the US Administration have something different in mind, but perhaps the Secretary of State could fill us in on that. Andrew Natsios was responding to a Sudanese official at that meeting who said that Sudan had
“every single right to be suspicious about these things because of broken promises of the U.S. government and the international community over there.”
In other words, the Sudanese Government are preparing still to be obdurate about the use of the hybrid force. One can think of any number of excuses that they might deploy to prevent that force from acting. If it does not act, what further action can the international community take?
Mention has been made of the call that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) has made for a no-fly zone, which is one of the simpler things that we could implement. No-fly zones were implemented pretty successfully in Iraq between the first and second Iraq wars. We hear reports of the Sudanese Government or rebels—I know not which—bombing cities in Chad and causing destabilisation there, which is a serious aspect of the crisis. There is now a significant build-up of refugees crossing the borders between Sudan and Chad, and between Sudan and the Central African Republic, which I have asked the Secretary of State about. If there were further destabilisation in those other countries and across Africa, the conflict would be much more serious than it already is, so perhaps he could say something about that.
Mention has been made of what the international hybrid force is supposed to achieve and how it will operate if the Sudanese Government refuse to admit it. It is all very well saying that the UN has a duty to keep the peace, but how will it do that? I got my research assistant this morning to print off about six pages of chapter VII resolutions since 1950, which are the highest UN resolutions. Chapter VII allows the Security Council to
“determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression”
and to take military and non-military action to
“restore international peace and security.”
One would have thought that that would provide more than a sufficient mandate to go in and keep the peace, and allow humanitarian assistance to be given. The problem is that there are six pages of such resolutions, but most of them have never been implemented. It is one thing to secure a resolution, but another if it is not implemented. I am deeply concerned about how the international community will act if the force is not allowed into Darfur.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable contribution to this debate. On that point, to take further the thesis of the hon. Member for Banbury about the international community not being prepared to intervene on purely humanitarian grounds, if the international community fails to act decisively in the coming weeks, that will play into the hands of those cynics who believe that the international community will not see an issue as a priority unless there is oil or something else involved.
I entirely agree with that. If we are to have any international order and if the UN is to have any real purpose, it is in precisely situations such as Darfur. That is precisely the point to which my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury alluded. People who perpetrate such atrocities should be subject to an international arrest warrant, and should expect to be brought before an international court and to receive a very severe sentence indeed. It is only that sort of action and the threat of intervention by the international community that will stop people such as the Janjaweed militia from committing their atrocities.
If we allow the situation to continue in Sudan, where else will that sort of thing spread? Zimbabwe? Burma? One can think of all the worst human rights abuses in world. Allowing the situation to continue will give succour and encouragement to all the tyrants who are carrying out human rights abuses. This debate is therefore extremely important. It is important that the international community act, because if it does not, the problem will be much more difficult. The purpose of this debate, in view of the fact that we have the Secretary of State here, is to ask how on earth we get humanitarian assistance properly into Sudan and to those 4 million people whom Jan Egeland, the UN humanitarian officer, has said need help. How are we going to get help to those 4 million people if the NGOs and others fear for their lives?
It is always a pleasure to follow the excellent speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), but I would like in particular to pay a heartfelt tribute to the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). Specifically, his sincere and measured yet passionate advocacy is appreciated by hon. Members from all parties, as is his long-standing and painstaking commitment to the subject in both Westminster Hall and the Chamber.
Miss Begg, having subjected you to a lengthy disquisition earlier on a different subject, namely the education of children with speech and language difficulties, I shall confine my remarks to a couple of observations. I ask the Secretary of State in a genuine spirit of interested inquiry whether it is the position of the British Government—or, to his knowledge, of friendly Governments with whom we deal—that, in the final analysis, when all discussion has taken place, the Government of Sudan will have an effective veto on whether a force is deployed, how large it might be and what mandate it should be given. If that is the position, stripped bare of the rhetoric, you can bet your bottom dollar that the Government of Sudan will be aware of it. It seems a peculiarly poor position from which to negotiate, and as bad a position from which to develop policy, if the suspected genocidaire against whom one is considering taking action is aware that in the final analysis it will not be done if they do not agree to it. That is stark, I know, but the Secretary of State is perfectly capable of plain speaking. In all sincerity, as someone who is as concerned about the matter as he is, I ask him to come clean with colleagues about where the Government stand.
In view of what the hon. Gentleman says, will he reflect on the veto that Saddam Hussein did not have on international intervention in Iraq? What conclusions can we draw from the international community’s commitment to act in one case and not in another?
I am not a conspiracy theorist, and I do not subscribe to the view that the Iraq war was about oil, but I believe that Darfur occupies a much less central or forward position in the minds of decision makers than Iraq did. That is morally unjustifiable, it is strategically unwise and, in humanitarian terms, it has already proved an absolute disaster.
It is simply not acceptable for a state to invoke, implicitly or explicitly, the doctrine of state sovereignty and then to hide behind it while practising the most egregious human rights abuses imaginable. Kofi Annan has made it clear that that doctrine is not acceptable. If it were, we would not have an International Criminal Court, we would not have developed a responsibility to protect and we would not be talking about trying to bring genocidaires to book. It is simply not on for the Government of Sudan to dress up in the language of national self-protection a plethora of disreputable excuses for continuing to bomb, kill, rape and maim their own citizens.
If we are agreed that that is the case, the international community must act, not to keep the peace but to enforce it. If we are not prepared to do so, Darfur will be only the latest stop, following Srebrenica and Rwanda, in the journey towards a continuation of mass tyranny, mass murder and, I am sorry to say, mass impunity.
When the United Nations was established in 1945, one of its key roles was to ensure that genocide and ethnic cleansing would no longer be tolerated in any corner of the world. The atrocities of the second world war led to ready consensus that an international organisation was required with sufficient clout to prevent similar tragedies in future. Sixty years on, many believe that we are already witnessing the first genocide of the 21st century unfolding in Darfur.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on securing the debate and on the hard work he has done in the all-party parliamentary group on Sudan. I know that he sometimes feels that he is bringing the subject back to us again and again, but it is sad to say that things have not progressed. We are all more concerned now than we were six months, a year or two years ago.
The debate comes at a key time for the region. I pay tribute to all the aid workers on the ground who risk their lives daily. Some have paid the ultimate price, and the international community owes them a great debt. As a result of the ongoing problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, the media’s focus has at times drifted away from Darfur. We in the House cannot afford to let events elsewhere, however serious, push the crisis into the margins.
Kofi Annan has called the situation in Darfur the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster. If one has seen the situation on the ground—listened to the first-hand experiences of refugees in Kalma and other camps, seen the helicopter gunships and Antonov bombers side by side at the airport with UN-supplied equipment, and witnessed life in the refugee camps—it is difficult to disagree. For many, it is hell on earth.
As the hon. Member for Stroud mentioned, he and I were scheduled to visit Sudan again last month, but sadly, for a number of reasons, the trip was cancelled. If the cancellation was indicative of how serious the situation is on the ground, the figures tell their own story. The latest UN figures estimate that more than 200,000 people have died as a result of the unfolding conflict, with around 2 million internally displaced people. Those are the highest numbers since the conflict started in 2003, representing an increase of 125,000 since the last UN report in July. The situation is absolutely desperate, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss what must be done to help break the cycle of violence that is crippling the region.
The peace agreement signed in May was heralded as a breakthrough, and I put on record my tribute to the Secretary of State and his team for their hard work on that front. However, despite progress, it has failed to deliver peace in the region. Just yesterday, Darfur rebel turned presidential adviser, Minni Minnawi, accused the Sudanese Government of rearming and mobilising the Janjaweed militia, violating the Darfur peace agreement. As the ink is still drying on the latest agreement in Addis Ababa for an upgraded peacekeeping force, it is a timely reminder of the Sudanese Government’s disdain for international treaties and their ability to break agreements. I was there with the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) when the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) asked the Sudanese Government about it in his usual forthright way.
The Sudanese Government have expelled diplomats, reneged on promises and comprehensively failed to protect their own people. Khartoum has also failed repeatedly to disband or attempt to disband the Janjaweed militia. Despite daily death and suffering, the Government of Sudan continue to deny any responsibility and even attack the international community, accusing it of orchestrating a media campaign against Khartoum in order to install a new regime.
The Government of Sudan have abused their time at the negotiating table, buying time and disrupting progress. They have been able to do so in no small part because of the international community’s failure to present a fully united front. I am sure that all hon. Members were as disappointed as I was by the decision of Russia, China and others to abstain on UN resolution 1706. I call on our Government to stress strongly to Russia and China through diplomatic channels that they have a key responsibility in the region. Both have strong strategic interests and influence in the region, and there can be no doubt that their failure to stand alongside the rest of the international community is providing Khartoum with room to manoeuvre that they would not otherwise enjoy.
Russia and China’s reluctance to involve themselves in any move that might appear to undermine sovereignty could be seen by some as due to their unwillingness to draw attention to their own domestic conduct in Chechnya, Tibet and other regions. However, the Government of Sudan must not be allowed, for whatever reason, to hide behind scaremongering language about colonialism to block necessary moves by the international community to protect the people of Darfur.
Other hon. Members mentioned the peacekeeping forces. The African Union’s own assessment has concluded that the current African Union mission in Sudan force—the AMIS force—is under-resourced and unable to provide anything like an acceptable level of security. Security Council resolution 1706 demanded a UN force with a tough mandate that allowed for the protection of civilians by force. I am not alone in expressing deep concern that the Addis Ababa agreement makes no mention of “all necessary means”, the traditional euphemism for armed force to protect civilians. I look forward to hearing from the Secretary of State on that point; I hope that he can reassure me.
I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s insistence that resolution 1706 had not been watered down. I appreciate how difficult it must have been to reach any agreement, but he must understand the concerns of those who fear that we have given too much ground and that the latest agreement is yet another attempt by Khartoum to play for time.
I seek the Secretary of State’s assurances on other aspects of the agreement. Obviously, the size of any force will be crucial to its ability to achieve security on the ground. The original UN resolution called for 17,000 troops, but Sudan’s UN ambassador, Abdul Mahmoud Abdelhaleem, has made clear his view that an 11,000 to 12,000-strong force is more than sufficient.
We have not yet got to the crux of the issue: if the Sudanese Government do not agree to allow that hybrid force into the country, that force could find itself effectively confronting the Sudanese armed forces. That is the difficulty. How will we overcome it?
I agree entirely. A number of hon. Members mentioned that to give the Sudanese Government an effective veto on what progress is made is a recipe for disaster, and the situation in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan will continue to deteriorate.
I am also concerned about the timing of any deployment. Continual accusations from President Omar al-Bashir about plots to recolonise his country do little to inspire confidence that decisions on troop numbers and entry dates will be based on what is best for the security of the people of Darfur. In spite of the Secretary of State’s assurances, the Government in Khartoum might see the latest agreement as another diplomatic victory that will further embolden them.
The fundamental problem with pushing forward with a peacekeeping force in Darfur is that we are in the untenable position of trying to convince the party most responsible for the violence to be a partner in the peace process. The prosecution of genocide in Darfur, the lack of consent for a UN peace operation there and the failure of the political peace process are a result, in part or whole, of decisions made by the Government of Sudan. For three years, Khartoum has successfully manipulated the divisions in the international community that I referred to, blocking effective action in Darfur.
Despite its protestations to the contrary, Sudan has continually obstructed AMIS with curfews and other restrictions. Time and again we have watched Sudan’s leaders listen patiently to, then ignore, the statements of the international community because they are confident that no credible threat on the horizon could force them to pay attention.
I devote my remaining few minutes to the humanitarian situation and the urgent need properly to fund the relief programme. I would welcome any update from the Secretary of State on humanitarian relief, particularly the funding of the World Food Programme and safety in the refugee camps. The situation in those camps is even graver now than when I visited Darfur. Previously, women were in danger of being raped when they left the camps in search of firewood; now, armed militia stop between the huts in the very camps that are supposed to be a refuge from chaos. On the day that the latest agreement was signed in Addis Ababa, Human Rights Watch reported the latest wave of Janjaweed attacks on civilian villages in Darfur and Chad. There are now growing fears that those latest incursions into Chad will further destabilise the whole region.
Whether we adopt the language of genocide does not alter the horrors of what is unfolding on the ground. Rightly, the lessons of Rwanda will echo loudly in our ears as we try to find a workable and lasting solution to this conflict.
There is an African proverb much beloved of the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu, who knows a thing or two about living under tyranny—“When a person has a thorn in their foot, it takes the whole body to bend and pull it out.” It is an apt metaphor for this debate. The whole international community will need to engage in resolving the long-standing problem in Darfur.
As has been shown by the fine and eloquent speech made by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who secured this debate, and by comments from across the House, there are no easy answers. It is facile to suggest that there would be some easy way of resolving the situation if only politicians and the international community were willing to embrace it.
Some very good people are involved in Sudan; I think particularly of Vice-President Sylva Keer, whom the hon. Gentleman and I met when he was over here. My hon. Friends the Members for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and for Banbury (Tony Baldry) made the point that the fear among leaders in Khartoum of the International Criminal Court—of what might happen to them if the international community can hold them to account—is very real. That is the one thing that frightens the genocidists in Khartoum.
Who would have believed in the early days that Milosevic would be held to account by the international community in the Hague? The international community must hold such a threat in this situation. After all, Britain, through DFID, has done a great deal of work on trying to build up civic society around the world so that people can hold their own leaders to account. The logical conclusion of that process is that those people in Khartoum should fear being held to account by the international community.
I have visited Sudan twice this year—first, with the shadow Foreign Secretary and most recently last week, with the Leader of the Opposition. We visited Khartoum and had discussions with leading Sudanese politicians. Last week, we were able to visit two camps in Darfur, just outside el-Fasher. I want to place on record my gratitude to DFID, the Foreign Office and a number of non-governmental organisations, which, at inconvenience and cost to themselves, organised both visits. They have a large number of visits to organise. That is time-consuming and takes them away from their normal tasks, but it is important that people should see for themselves what is happening in Darfur.
I should report that a week ago the situation in Darfur was far worse than when I was there in March. Undoubtedly, the humanitarian situation is worse; circulating among the humanitarian relief agencies are maps of the areas of Darfur into which their representatives simply cannot go because it is too dangerous. Members of staff have been attacked—in some cases, killed. The military situation is far worse as well, for the reasons already set out today. The Secretary of State is right to say that at the heart of the issue must be a resolution of the political situation in Darfur; that political situation is also worse and involves the building up, refashioning or enshrining of the Darfur peace agreement.
There was not an agreement in Addis Ababa recently, but a framework was set up. I pay tribute to the work of the United Nations and the support given by the British Government to set up that framework and meeting and to ensure that we made progress. It is not clear whether any real progress has been made since then; soon I shall put questions to the Secretary of State about that. Last week, the Leader of the Opposition and I found the Sudanese authorities to be as slippery and disingenuous as ever. We had a completely unacceptable meeting with the Sudanese Foreign Minister, Lam Akol. The Sudanese Government’s track record of duplicity and obfuscation on Darfur does not lead anyone to believe that the Addis Ababa framework will lead to a satisfactory deal.
As the Secretary of State has said in the past, we need to take a carrot-and-stick approach to the Sudanese Government. If they accept the will of the international community, they will come back into the comity of nations and be able to spend their oil wealth—the irony of all of this is that, because of its oil wealth, Sudan is no longer a poor country—but if they are not willing to accept the Addis framework and to build on it with the international community, it is essential that the United Nations and the European Union provide all necessary assistance to the ICC to investigate and prosecute individuals at all levels for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur, and that the international community continues the UN’s work of identifying individuals other than the 51 who have already been identified as responsible for war crimes.
In that connection, perhaps the Secretary of State will explain what work is being done on the practicality of enforcing the no-fly zone that was set up in 2004 but which has never been enforced, and on enforcing travel bans. What discussions has he had on that, on sequestering and freezing the overseas assets of members of the regime, and on the threat of sanctions on Sudanese companies owned by the ruling party and its officials who do business abroad?
I want to ask the Government whether in hindsight they think that it was right to allow Salah Abdallah Ghosh a visa to visit the United Kingdom for urgent medical treatment twice this year. He is the head of Sudanese intelligence, and his name appears on the list of 51 individuals accused of war crimes in Darfur. He was denied an entry visa to the United States and is said to be on the list of the international commission of inquiry and on the list compiled by the panel of experts of people who are obstructing the peace process and who require targeted sanctions. Whichever Government Minister agreed to let him have a visa is, at best, guilty of a serious error of judgment. It is inconceivable that the Secretary of State would have done that. Will he give an undertaking that Her Majesty’s Government will not again entertain the head of Sudanese intelligence in the UK in the current circumstances? Allowing him a visa to visit Britain is an insult to the hundreds of thousands who have died in Darfur and to their families, and it sends an impression to Khartoum that we are not serious in what we say. I can do no better than quote the words of James Smith of the Aegis Trust, who stated:
“I have seen people lying wounded as a result of Ghosh’s genocidal policies. I am staggered that the British government, with full knowledge of his role, arranged for him to have medical treatment in British hospitals. Perhaps he is offering tit-bits of information on our war on terror but our policy should be to stop terror wherever it happens. Around 300,000 people have been deliberately killed as a result of his policies and two million displaced in ruthless attacks.”
I agree with those words.
We can all try to sum up in rhetoric and in the strongest possible terms our condemnation of what is happening in Darfur, but in my remaining time I shall ask the Secretary of State some specific questions, as I know that the House will want to hear in detail from him. First, on the military situation, can he update us on what Sudan has said about the Addis framework? What is the timetable for reinforcing the existing African Union force? What progress was made at the peace and security meeting, which I believe started on 24 November?
What do the Government believe should happen to the AU mandate, which will expire on 30 December? We need to know that everyone is clear that the mandate will be extended. What progress is being made towards securing a chapter 8 assignment for a hybrid force? A chapter 8 assignment means that the UN will pay for a force even if it does not control it in its entirety. I believe that this is the first time that such an assignment has been contemplated. Given the circumstances, I am sure that it would be the best way forward.
Whatever force is agreed, will helicopters be made available as soon as possible to transport troops, as the AU commander has repeatedly requested? What is the Secretary of State’s judgment on the number of troops that are required? The UN has suggested that there should be 17,000 troops and 3,000 police, but the AU commander made it clear that a much smaller force would enable him to dominate the ground. What is the Secretary of State’s judgment on that? Which countries have offered troops, and, as of today, have enough of them been offered for the hybrid force?
Can the Secretary of State give the House the latest information on soldiers’ pay? We have heard that there have been many months in which AU soldiers have not been paid. It is not a good idea not to pay soldiers who are engaged on active service. Will he say what the UK is doing to help with basics such as the command and control structures of the AU and what steps the Crown agents who are assisting with the payment problems have so far taken?
Will the Secretary of State tell us what steps Sudan is taking towards the disarmament of the Janjaweed, which has been repeatedly suggested and promised? As far as I am aware, nothing at all has happened in that respect.
Secondly, on the political situation, will the Secretary of State say a bit more about the role of the Arab League and the Chinese in the Addis framework and beyond? A senior UN official told me that the Chinese had been far more helpful than was anticipated at Addis, but not yet helpful enough. What is the Secretary of State’s judgment on that? What steps does he think should be taken now to re-energise the Darfur peace agreement? What steps are being taken in respect of revising the wealth and power-sharing provision, and does he believe that they are adequate?
What is being done to help establish the transitional Darfur regional authority? As far as I am aware, all parties have agreed to it, and it is an area where some thinking could be done and some action could be taken on the ground. What does the Secretary of State believe can be done to re-engage in the political process the many groups in Darfur such as the rebel groups, which have splintered and fractured as a result of their response to the DPA? What can Britain do, alone or with others, to help the political process along?
What is being done to stop the escalating crisis engulfing Chad and even the Central African Republic? My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold referred to that. What discussions has the Secretary of State or his Government colleagues had with his French opposite number about the use of French bases in Chad for humanitarian relief and, indeed, for potential military assistance to the AU-UN hybrid force?
Thirdly, on the humanitarian relief situation, I have four questions for the Secretary of State. What is his information on the parts of Darfur that are as of now closed to humanitarian relief? Will he confirm that there is no shortage of money or food available from the international community and that the difficulties are in getting resources into those areas? What protection is the AU giving for the movement of food and essential supplies? What steps are being taken to emphasise to Khartoum the critical necessity for humanitarian organisations to be allowed free and unfettered access to civilians in need throughout Darfur?
I end where I started, with the Archbishop of York’s proverb. After Rwanda, the international community said, “Never again.” We have heard today of between 300,000 and 400,000 deaths in Darfur. We have heard about the bombing, murder and rape of innocent civilians, the looting of villages, the spreading of the conflict across international borders and the 2 million who are living in camps. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) set out in his usual forceful way the key question: does the Government of Sudan have, in effect, a veto? Last year, the international community embraced with much back-slapping and self-congratulation the responsibility to protect. We will see over the coming weeks whether that is any more than the self-serving mumbo jumbo so accurately described by my hon. Friend.
I begin by expressing my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) for giving us all the opportunity to debate the terrible situation in Darfur once again. Trying to achieve a resolution is something that I care passionately about. I have probably spent more time on this issue than any other in my three and a bit years as Secretary of State; Sudan is certainly the country that I have visited more than any other and it is a high priority for the Government. The number of hon. Members who have attended the debate and who have spoken shows that the passion is shared across the House.
I am pleased that the Leader of the Opposition and the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) were able to visit Sudan last week. There is always a balance to be struck. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) made a point about the camps, but it is not camp tourism, because if one does not see it for oneself or hear from people directly, one does not quite understand what is going on. I know that the UN in particular has been concerned about the impact that foreign visitors have on the camps because of the trouble that sometimes ensues after we have gone. In one tragic case, when Jan Egeland was in Darfur in the summer, someone who was with him interpreting was subsequently murdered.
I also want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud for the role that he plays as chair of the all-party group on Sudan and to take this opportunity to tell the House that Christopher Prentice has been appointed as the new United Kingdom special representative to Sudan. He is the former ambassador to Amman, and prior to that he dealt with Sudan as head of the near east and north Africa department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He will contribute, alongside a lot of other people, to our attempts to make progress.
I do not need to repeat what has been said by many people about the appalling situation. I am increasingly concerned about the humanitarian situation. In Jan Egeland’s recent briefing to the UN Security Council, he said that the total number of people in need of humanitarian assistance and food aid could be as high as 4 million. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) asked directly about the World Food Programme. This year it has appealed for $909 million for the wonderful work that it does. That appeal is currently 89 per cent. funded, so we are doing okay.
The number of people who are inaccessible is rising. The last figure that I saw was 323,000. There is no doubt that when, as the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield did, we look at the maps and see the red bits that, as I recollect, show the areas that cannot be accessed, we see how the recent upsurge in fighting since May has made it more difficult for the UN and non-governmental organisation operations to get to people.
The Secretary of State cited Jan Egeland’s estimate of 4 million people, but I believe that Jan Egeland also said that access was only likely to be available to 3 million and that there would be a further 1 million to whom access would not be available at all. Anywhere else in the world, to have 1 million people in desperate need of humanitarian assistance without being able to get it to them would be totally unacceptable. What further measures can the British Government and the Secretary of State take to ensure that those people get some assistance?
I shall come directly on to the two things that I think we need to do, first in the form of a more effective peacekeeping operation and secondly as a political settlement. Those two things combined will overcome the crisis.
Like others, I want to pay tribute to the courage, bravery and selfless commitment of all the people—the UN staff, those who work for NGOs and the many Sudanese who support them in that effort—because this is the largest and most complex humanitarian operation in the world, and although it is not much comfort, the situation in the camps and for the people would be much worse without their work. The most recent mortality survey shows that for those who are in the camps, circumstances are better than was the case two years ago.
My hon. Friend made an important point about the endemic rape and sexual violence. The crisis has had an impact on the whole community, but particularly on women. One reason why we need more troops on the ground is so that that force is able more effectively to provide protection to people in the camps, including the women who go out in search of firewood to keep body and soul together.
The truth is that, since the summer, violence has increased; banditry remains an endemic problem; there have been inter-ethnic clashes, which have been particularly acute in west Darfur; and there has been fighting in north Darfur, and the Chadian rebels, who the Government of Chad accuse the Government of Sudan of backing, have clashed with the local population. Violence has been most intense in the north, and since August the Government of Sudan have been waging an on/off offensive there against the National Redemption Front, which is, as hon. Members will be aware, an alliance of rebel groups who oppose the Darfur peace agreement. I shall come back to that. It has received military backing from Chad, but the NRF bears a responsibility, alongside others, for the violence. It is important if we are condemning violence—and we should—that we tell the truth about all those who are responsible.
Particularly worrying since the end of last month has been the renewed co-operation between the Government of Sudan and the Janjaweed—the Arab militias. There are reports that they are being used to mount attacks against civilians and that there is aerial bombing in support of them. One of the consequences of the fighting, of course, is that it makes it more difficult to get humanitarian relief to those who need it. It is unacceptable that the rebels and the Government of Sudan have been involved in escalating the violence. It was particularly outrageous that they did so at the very moment when we were meeting in Addis Ababa the week before last to try to find a way forward.
The right hon. Gentleman pre-empts my point that Sudanese Government forces were in action at the same time as the international community, including him, were sitting down in Addis Ababa. I completely agree with his point that anyone who is guilty of violence in Darfur should be condemned, but we should be clear about where the main responsibility lies—it lies absolutely with the Government of Sudan and their proxies in the militias. He will have seen the authoritative study carried out by a respected organisation in Denmark that lays 97 per cent. of the blame for the deaths in Darfur with the Government and 3 per cent. with the other rebels.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s view. The Government and I have said throughout that the primary responsibility for what has gone on rests with the Government of Sudan. Indeed, the primary responsibility for protecting the people of Sudan rests—or should rest—with the Government of Sudan, because it is their job to ensure that their civilians are looked after; it is not their job to have played a part in those civilians being attacked. The truth is that we are never likely to know the total death toll, although many estimates have been made. There is no doubt that when the International Commission of Inquiry, which we worked hard to set up along with others in the UN, went, studied, came back and reported, it talked, rightly, about crimes against humanity and war crimes.
A number of hon. Members mentioned Chad. There were reports yesterday of columns marching on N’djamena, but I understand that those columns have halted overnight, for whatever reason. They are principally, we think, made up of forces from the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development—the UFDD. There is a UN team there now, trying to assess the situation. I have discussed it with the UN Secretary-General, and it is his intention to report back to the Security Council on what we can do, in addition to dealing with the problems in Darfur, to see whether some kind of UN presence along the borders with Chad and the Central African Republic would help to deal with the impact of violence across the border. The United Kingdom Government are providing £4 million in humanitarian aid to Chad this year.
I will come at the end of my speech to the point that the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) raised about the broader implications of all this. The African Union intervened, with our support—we were the first country in the world to provide financial backing—in 2004. I pay tribute to the work that it has done in exceptionally difficult circumstances, but Alpha Konare, the president of the African Union Commission in Addis, was blunt and direct in the negotiations. He said, “Look, the truth is that we cannot quite manage the operation that we have; there is no way that we could manage.” He was being honest about the difficulty and challenge for an institution that has only recently taken on the mantle of trying to contribute in practical ways to peace and security in Africa. I welcome that. We should support the African Union in its endeavours because it helps to address the question of capacity, which is, in part, behind the point that the hon. Gentleman made. However, the problem is that it cannot handle that role, which is why it came to the view some time ago that there needed to be a transfer to a UN mission.
As the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield will have heard, the truth is what General Aprezi, the new force commander, set out when he said to me, “Look at the map, look at the size. This is the number of troops we’ve got and we haven’t got enough to do the job in hand.” Everybody knows that that is the case. It is an issue of capacity, and that is why we supported UN resolution 1706 so strongly.
I accept that the situation is as complex and probably more complex than the Secretary of State has painted. Bearing in mind the chapter VII resolutions, on which the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) provided information, and given the complexity of the lack of resources that the Secretary of State has identified, does he believe, in terms of interpretation of the resolutions and sanctions that currently apply, that it can be said that there is a sufficient mandate for the international community to intervene? Clearly, there are issues of resources to be resolved as well, but is there not already sufficient mandate irrespective of Sudan’s perceived veto?
I will come directly to that question if the hon. Gentleman bears with me. The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) also put that point most sharply and bluntly in his characteristic fashion. It is a very, very important issue.
The fact is that resolution 1706 was passed because we needed to find an answer to the problem that the AU could not cope any more. That is what it was about. We tried hard to persuade the Government of Sudan to accept resolution 1706 in the form that it took. I spoke to President Bashir in October, as did many others. In the end, he said that he was not prepared to accept the resolution. In those circumstances, my view—I make no apology for it—was that it was most important to get a strong and effective peacekeeping force that can protect civilians. Therefore, we tried to find another way of achieving the same objective. That is what the meeting in Addis was about. There is no disgrace in that. The Addis meeting was important because we achieved a preliminary agreement on a different approach: a three-phase approach.
Phase one has been agreed and involves the UN providing additional support to the African Union mission. To be absolutely practical, that will include: 105 staff officers; 33 police advisers; 25 civilian staff to build some of that capacity; 36 global positioning systems; 360 night-vision goggles; 36 armoured personnel carriers; medical supplies; and expertise in procurement logistics, communications, IT, air ops, supply, planning, finance, budget and human resources. That is what phase one is about.
Phase two is what is known as the “UN-heavy package”. The precise details have still to be worked out, but it should involve about 1,000 UN personnel providing enabling capacity, camp construction, communications, and transport, including aircraft.
Phase three is the AU/UN hybrid force with a strong mandate. As agreed in paragraph 29, entitled “conclusions”, of the Addis communiqué, it should have as its mandate the restoration of security and the protection of civilians, as well as ensuring full humanitarian access. Questions have been asked about how that force would be made up and everyone has agreed it should have an African force commander.
The critical point is whether the Sudanese Government have accepted that. The Sudanese officials said that they would go away and consult. As far as I am aware—it is clear from the rest of the debate that everyone else is in the same position—the Sudanese Government have not specifically said that they will accept a AU/UN hybrid force. Does the Secretary of State have any further information on that?
I am about to come to that very point. I was trying to help hon. Members by outlining the nature of the agreement.
There will be an African force commander and the force will come from Africa in the first instance, but it was recognised in the meeting that if all the forces could not come from Africa, they would have to come from elsewhere. On the numbers, everyone in the room except the Government of Sudan accepted the assessment that the AU and the UN had jointly made, which the Secretary-General reported to the Security Council back in July, of there being a need for 17,000-plus troops and 3,000 police. What the Government of Sudan said at the meeting was that they recognise the need for more troops. They were not persuaded by the figure of 17,000, and went away to think about that and two other points. The first was the appointment of the force commander, because the Secretary-General has suggested that the force commander should be jointly appointed by the AU and the UN. The second was whether there should be a special representative to whom the force commander would report politically, also appointed by the AU and the UN. Those are the issues that President Lam Akol said he would go away and talk to the President of Sudan about. As we meet this morning, we are waiting for the response of the Government of Sudan. The AU Peace and Security Council meeting was delayed from last Friday, 24 November, and is due to take place tomorrow in Abuja. We are currently waiting to hear what the Government have to say.
The Government of Sudan cannot be granted an unlimited right to ponderous contemplation of whether they will allow the international community to protect people from slaughter. Although we do not know the precise level of fatalities, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that what we do know is that cumulatively the numbers of dead, dying and destitute are rising every day and that Bashir is substantially responsible?
I accept that the number of people who have been killed continues to rise because when I went to the Abu Shouk camp I met a group of people who had come from a place called Korma. Those people formed part of the 20,000 who had arrived in the Abu Shouk and the As-Salaam camp, which is the larger neighbouring camp, because of the renewed fighting.
Finally, it was agreed that if we could reach agreement on the package, the Secretary-General would go back to the UN to ask it to pay for it. That would be an innovation that has never happened before. To my mind, however, it is a practical proposal that tries to deal with the endemic problem of a lack of sufficient finance for the African Union mission.
I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the need to keep up the pressure and for the Government of Sudan not to have too long. There is no doubt in my mind that when they meet tomorrow—I understand President Bashir may attend the meeting himself—all of those present will say, “Come on, what are you going to do about this?”
The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud and others asked about China. The Chinese representative played a constructive role in the meeting at Addis. He urged the Government of Sudan to accept what was being proposed by us, and I welcome that enormously. What was striking about the end of the meeting at 11 o’clock at night is that, as I sat down and looked around the room, frankly everybody was ranged on one side and the Government of Sudan’s representative was saying that he would have to go away and think about the three points despite having agreed the rest. I hope hon. Members have seen the conclusions that were laid out in the document that we negotiated.
My answer to the very direct question of whether the Government of Sudan should have a veto is no, they should not, but do we, in practice, need their consent to make progress? Yes, we do, unless anybody in the Chamber is advocating that the international community should invade Sudan. I put that very starkly. That is the issue; let us tell the truth. That is why we are—it is not a parliamentary expression—busting a gut to try to make progress.
I want to refer to the political process. I asked someone in the camp what he thought of the Darfur peace agreement. He said, “Well, the violence is continuing and not everyone has signed up.” That was a very acute observation. He did not talk about the details; he was judging it on its ability to have delivered. I do not accept the gentle, chiding of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud that it was wrong to have tried in the way that we did in Abuja. We came very close to getting the other bit of the Sudan Liberation Movement on board and I remain of the view that the DPA provides the framework for an agreement. What the British Government and others have been doing since then is going around Darfur talking to all the rebel leaders. The other thing that we got out of Addis was an agreement that the AU and the UN will take responsibility for convening a meeting between the Government, Minni Minnawi and other rebel groups, because that is the only way in which we will make progress in the circumstances. To come back the point that the hon. Member for Buckingham made, the case for not rushing ahead to fill all the transitional posts is that space needs to be left for those whom I hope will sign to come on board.
We are struggling to find the will and to fashion the means to deal effectively with such crises. There will be many lessons to learn from what has gone on in Darfur.
Last year, Lesley Anne Steele, a constituent of mine, was enthusiastically learning to drive. She was progressing well and gaining confidence with every lesson. She was looking forward to the freedom that passing the driving test brings. After a lesson one day, her instructor, James McNair Bennett, asked whether it would be possible to use the convenience in her house. Being an obliging lady, Lesley Anne agreed, but Mr. Bennett had something else in mind. Lesley Anne was sexually assaulted in her own home by Mr. Bennett—her driving instructor.
Mr. Bennett was charged by police and apparently admitted the offence immediately. Eight months later, he was successfully prosecuted and he was placed on the sex offenders register immediately. However, after the assault, he continued to operate as an instructor, including for a considerable time after he was found guilty by the court. Lesley Anne was, not surprisingly, appalled and disgusted not only by the original assault, but by the fact that Mr. Bennett continued to operate as a driving instructor.
In a letter to me, Lesley Anne said:
“For 8 consecutive months Mr Bennett continued to teach pupils who were not aware that they were sitting next to a soon to be convicted sex offender. I find it irresponsible and sickening that he was legally allowed to continue to teach and act like nothing had ever taken place.
On the day of the trial Mr Bennett was found guilty of assaulting me and with immediate effect was placed on the sex offenders’ register. I was relieved that this was finally over and thought that Mr Bennett wouldn’t be allowed to continue to teach. The following day I received a call from a friend who had just seen Mr Bennett out teaching. Then my partner spotted Mr Bennett on the Monday, picking up a pupil close to our house.”
Lesley Anne subsequently waived her right to anonymity. She secured coverage in the national media to highlight her case so that she could campaign for changes in order that others would not have to go through what she did. She made numerous calls to the Driving Standards Agency, which were never returned. On one occasion, she did get through to the appropriate personnel at the agency, but was told that nothing could be done to help her. That is when she contacted me.
I took up the case and, as the Minister will know, there was a series of parliamentary questions and letters. In one letter, Bob Jarvis, the registrar of approved driving instructors, told me the following. There are no provisions for suspending driving instructors from the register of approved driving instructors. It can take months for driving instructors to be removed from the register even after conviction for a sex crime. The registrar must write to the instructor if he is planning to remove him from the register, giving him 28 days to make representations against the removal. The registrar then considers the representations and, if he remains satisfied that the person should be removed, issues a formal removal letter. The person then has a further 28 days to appeal to the independent Transport Tribunal. Tribunal hearings generally take place about seven weeks after the appeal is lodged. That suggests that it could take four months or longer to remove a registered sex criminal from the register of approved driving instructors.
That disgraceful and shocking loophole must be closed immediately. If not, there will be an immediate effect on confidence in the system for approving driving instructors. As I said, the DSA has no powers to suspend instructors from the register of approved driving instructors. I then discovered that the DSA did not check the sex offenders register when dealing with approved driving instructor applications. We do not know how many driving instructors out there are on the sex offenders register. That is quite appalling. I imagine that chains such as the British School of Motoring do have some kind of internal disciplinary procedure so that those accused or perhaps those convicted are immediately removed; otherwise, the reputation of those companies would be affected.
I was very grateful to the Minister and his officials when he agreed to meet Lesley Anne and me in September. I thank him, his officials and the DSA officials for the sensitive and caring way in which they dealt with that meeting; they did so in a very appropriate manner.
I strongly believe in the maxim “innocent until proven guilty”. It is right that everyone be given the opportunity to remain such, or the principle of our law will quickly come tumbling down. Malicious allegations can often ruin someone’s life and livelihood, and people have the right to defend themselves in a court of law. However, as there are stricter rules for those who care for or teach children under the protection of vulnerable adults scheme, known as POVA, and the Protection of Children Act 1999, and as many of those who take driving lessons are under 18—that is, they are children—is it not appropriate to extend those provisions to cover driving instructors?
People must also be allowed to rehabilitate themselves. I do not believe that those who commit crimes must be permanently excluded from employment. However, as driving instructors are in a privileged and trusted position, I would like to hear from the Minister how that can be managed safely. Driving instructors are put in a position of trust similar to that enjoyed by teachers and health care workers. However, the laws governing driving instructors are nowhere near as rigorous. No teacher or health care worker would be allowed to keep on working after being convicted of a sexual assault; they would be removed immediately.
I have a series of questions for the Minister. What changes have been made at the DSA following the case of Lesley Anne Steele? What will be done to ensure that those convicted of a sexual offence are immediately suspended or removed from the list of approved driving instructors? It is essential that those put on the sex offenders register are immediately removed from the register of approved driving instructors, but will that require primary legislation? If so, when will that be introduced? The Road Safety Bill, which is now the Road Safety Act 2006, would have been an obvious measure in which to include such legislation on driving instructors, but now that that opportunity has passed, perhaps the Minister can explain or outline which Bill it would be appropriate to include it in now. Perhaps the forthcoming criminal justice Bill is the answer.
What measures will the Minister consider to deal with those accused of sexual offences who are teaching people under the age of 18—that is, children? Is it possible to use the provisions under POVA or the Protection of Children Act 1999? Are approved driving instructor applications checked against the sex offenders register now?
I understand that there may be some movement on the inclusion of driving instructors in the Home Office’s notifiable occupations scheme. Can the Minister explain what, if any, movement has taken place? Also, can the Minister set a timetable for the changes that I am talking about? I believe that they are extremely important to our ability to move forward at a significant pace.
I have huge respect for Lesley Anne Steele. She is a modest, understated lady, but she has tremendous determination—a “steele” backbone, I would say. After what she went through, she had the right to remain anonymous, in the background, so that she could get on with her life after the conviction had been secured, but she chose to step out so that others would not have to go through what she went through. I can report that Lesley Anne has passed her driving test. She is now a competent driver, navigating the busy streets of Edinburgh every day on her way to work. As I said, I have the utmost respect for Lesley Anne. I hope that the Minister will respond to my questions—no, I think they are Lesley Anne’s questions—positively.
I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) on securing the debate and on championing the cause of his constituent so assiduously. I share his respect for Miss Lesley Anne Steele. It took a great deal of bravery for her to waive her anonymity, approach her MP and highlight the issue. It took a great deal of bravery for her to be prepared to come and meet me in London and tell me personally of the horrible experience that she had, and it has taken a great deal of bravery for her to pursue the matter. I want to say at the outset that I recognise, and have said to her, that the Driving Standards Agency let her down. I shall come to the legislative difficulties in dealing with the matter in a moment, but even within the existing law we did not do enough to respond to her when she first approached the Driving Standards Agency. The chief executive of the DSA has recognised that, and has moved to ensure that the same thing will not happen again if anyone else should approach us on a similar matter.
One of the things that the chief executive has done since the affair came to our attention is to see that anyone in a similar position to Lesley Anne’s who approaches the Driving Standards Agency will be given the support of its integrity team. That will provide help and support, will help with the preparation of a complaint to the police, if necessary, and will look after the complainant while the necessary process is under way. I hope that we would, in an administrative sense, be a lot more sympathetic and proactive in dealing with anyone who might follow Lesley Anne in reporting such a sad experience. That development is entirely the result of her bringing the failures to our attention.
There is a wider issue, which the hon. Gentleman and Lesley Anne are right to highlight. First, there is at the moment a very comprehensive way of testing whether someone is suitable to be an approved driving instructor. It includes those things that one would expect, such as the theoretical driving test, the test of instructional ability and a practical test of driving ability. However, in addition to passing those qualifying examinations, a person must prove that they are fit and proper to be an ADI. Unfortunately, Lesley Anne’s experience has shown that we have been relying on those people to tell us whether they are fit and proper persons. A person who is unfit and improper for the role does not necessarily admit to being so.
Therefore, as a direct result of what we have learned from this matter, we are going to carry out enhanced criminal record checks, not only on everyone who applies to be an ADI in the future, but on all existing ADIs. We have put the process in place and it starts very soon. We have also gone to the trouble of writing articles for various magazines that are read by ADIs, and making it known to their professional organisations that we shall carry out enhanced criminal record checks on all existing ADIs. As a consequence of that, we hope that anyone with some skeletons in their cupboard will already be taking steps to leave the profession. If we find that they are not suitable people, and in particular that they have committed sexual offences—or possibly other offences—in the past, we shall act to remove them from the register.
One of the failures that we identified as a result of Lesley Anne’s experience was that the Driving Standards Agency did not move to remove the gentleman in question from the register of ADIs immediately after the court case. That was because the agency did not know about it until the case was brought to its attention. We have asked the Home Office to include the profession of driving instructor as one of the notifiable professions, so that we shall be notified in future when someone has a conviction against them. The courts will tell us whether someone has been convicted, and we shall be able to take appropriate action. We have made an application in that respect to the Home Office, and we hope to hear in a few days whether it has been successful, but I am very hopeful that it will be.
I do not know whether there is a separate scheme for notification in Scotland, but I promise to find out, and if there is we shall make sure that the application is made there too. The hon. Gentleman is right; the scheme needs to be UK-wide. I hope that the application will be accepted and that the occupation of driving instructor will be included in the notifiable occupation scheme. We shall then have the power to take action against someone immediately it becomes clear that they have been convicted of an offence.
I now come to the slightly more negative part of my answer. Experience has taught us that there are some deficiencies in the law. They are exactly the ones that Lesley Anne identified. First, the principle of a person’s being innocent until proven guilty applies, so it is not at the moment possible to suspend a driving instructor who is awaiting trial. Were we to have the power to suspend someone, there would be a possibility of malicious allegations, and of our finding that we had removed the livelihood of a person who was subsequently proved innocent of the offence. That is a serious consideration, but even if we were absolutely sure that an individual would at some point be found guilty—perhaps someone awaiting trial having indicated that they would plead guilty to a serious offence—we still would not, it appears, have the power to initiate a suspension process in advance of the court case. Someone accused of a very serious offence may still be able to carry on working as a driving instructor. How do we deal with that situation? There is no way of dealing with it under current legislation.
The second negative aspect of the matter concerns what happens once someone is found guilty. This would apply to offences that are perhaps not the most serious; one would expect the most serious offences, particularly of a sexual nature, to be dealt with by a custodial sentence, so that once someone was found guilty we could suspend them as a driving instructor before they were released and able to resume their profession. However, in slightly less serious offences—which are serious enough and cause the victim great emotional and perhaps even physical stress, but which are not serious enough to result in a custodial sentence—the individual can immediately come away from the trial and carry on practising as a driving instructor. Such an individual will—and I say this with some feeling as the father of a young daughter who will no doubt want to learn to drive in the not-too-distant future—be able to carry on working in a position of trust with young women who are potentially vulnerable, in an environment that is quite claustrophobic, and perhaps in a rural environment where there are not many people.
At the moment the registrar needs to give 28 days’ notice that he intends to remove someone from the professional register. At the end of those 28 days the individual can appeal, and a further 14 days then elapses. Allowing for the time taken for people to write letters, someone might continue to practise for 45 days after being found guilty of a relevant offence. That is exactly the situation that Lesley Anne observed in relation to the individual concerned, in her home town. We have had the lawyers look at the existing position, and unfortunately, it is set out in primary legislation, so primary legislation is required to change it.
I am asking my officials to discuss with the lawyers whether we can shorten the process by giving advance notice to someone 28 days before their court case that if they are found guilty we will be minded to remove them from the list. If they were then found guilty, the period that they were out on the streets would at least be reduced to 14 days while they went to appeal. However, the initial advice is that there might be some difficulties in doing that.
Clearly, we need to change the legislation. The Road Safety Act 2006 would have been the appropriate place to make the necessary changes, but legislation is drafted a year before it finishes and the deficiencies that we are discussing had not come to light when the Bill was drafted. I regret that we missed that opportunity, but I assure the hon. Gentleman, and Lesley Anne Steele, that I am keen for us to find another legislative opportunity to put this right as soon as possible. I am aware of no forthcoming road safety legislation that we could use, so we may have to consider using a Home Office Bill, as the hon. Gentleman suggests. I assure him that I shall discuss with my Home Office colleagues whether we can include the necessary measures within the scope of forthcoming Home Office legislation, and whether they are prepared to do that for us. I can make no promises to the hon. Gentleman and Lesley Anne other than that.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the Protection of Children Act 1999 and the protection of vulnerable adults scheme. When he and Lesley Anne came to see me, I contacted the officials who administer the POCA and POVA schemes to ask whether we could use those schemes to crack down on this problem, but I was advised that it was out of their scope.
Current legislation is clearly deficient, and we need to change the law through primary legislation as soon as we can to ensure that we have the power to suspend people immediately on conviction for such offences. We need to consider carefully whether we should also have the power, in certain circumstances, to suspend people before they are convicted. However, there are issues of natural justice to deal with in that regard. While we wait for suitable legislative opportunities to arise, we must do as much as we can using our existing powers and advanced criminal record checks, and the integrity team at the DSA, to investigate all allegations as proactively as possible.
It is important to say on the record that the vast majority of ADIs are entirely professional and are of a high quality. They are tested thoroughly and are completely reliable, and people should not lack confidence in driving instructors as a group simply because one or two bad apples let the rest of them down. I promise that we will do our best, using the enhanced criminal record checks, to identify any bad apples in the profession and to get them out of it as quickly as possible.
We will work hard to drive up the standards of ADIs further, not only so that these horrible occurrences do not happen again but to ensure that people have better knowledge about their local ADIs. That way, when people need to learn to drive, they will be able to find out who will provide them with the best services and to have complete confidence in their local ADIs. In the Road Safety Act, we took the powers to do that, so we no longer have a one-size-fits-all approach to ADIs. We have a much more customised approach to their training and testing, and to the advertising of information about them.
There is not a great deal more that I can say, except to emphasise my respect for Lesley Anne. I repeat my apologies to her that we let her down when she first came to us with the allegations. I hope that she will accept that, now that we have identified that we let her down, we have done everything in our power to make it up to her. We are doing as much as we can to deal with the specific circumstances of her ordeal and to ensure, as far as possible under current legislation, that everyone else is protected. I reiterate that I will ensure that we will somehow bridge the legislative gap to fill this serious loophole as soon as we have an opportunity to do so.
Community Support Officers
I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Mr. Jones, and I am grateful for the opportunity to consider police community support officers and their impact on neighbourhood policing. I was a member of the Standing Committee that debated the Police Reform Bill in 2002, and therefore followed closely the development of the use of CSOs in the criminal justice system.
I observed the successful introduction of CSOs with some satisfaction. I well remember the dire warnings of Conservative and Liberal Democrat spokesmen in our Committee debates that there would be confusion about the roles of CSOs, that their powers were uncertain and that the public would be unhappy about their role in policing. Those warnings proved to be ill-founded, however. CSOs work successfully within the criminal justice system and are extremely popular with the general public.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the reason why CSOs are so popular is their visibility? They are on the beat for 90 per cent. of the time, thus giving a high visibility of a police uniform—well, nearly a police uniform. It is that reassurance that the public welcome.
That is true. I know from discussions with my constituents that they welcome a uniformed presence on the streets and the fact that CSOs work locally with police officers. They want to see police out on the streets and welcome the reassurance that that inevitably gives. However, it is important to note that police officer numbers are increasing in areas such as north Wales, where the number has increased from about 1,300 in 1997 to about 1,600 today.
It is vital that we recognise that there has been a revolution in policing since 1997. We now have neighbourhood policing teams made up of community beat officers, CSOs and, in many cases, neighbourhood wardens. A remarkable change has been brought about since I was elected in 2001, when—I well remember this—many people came to see me about criminal justice and antisocial behaviour matters. I had real difficulty in knowing who to contact on their behalf to raise issues directly.
The situation is now entirely transformed. I have a list in my office of community beat officers, each of whom represents a dedicated ward within my constituency. I can contact the relevant officer for an area with any concerns that I might have and I know that he or she will address it. That has made my job more straightforward and has led to a huge reduction in the number of complaints that I receive about antisocial behaviour and crime.
My hon. Friend has painted a good picture of the changes that have occurred since Labour took power in 1997, but does he agree that that change has been possible thanks only to the massive investment that we have made? That investment has delivered police, community support officers and neighbourhood wardens on the ground and provided front-line policing where people actually want it.
Indeed. That investment is very evident in north Wales, and my hon. Friend pre-empts me to some extent. I recently tabled a series of parliamentary questions, and the answers to them indicate that police funding in north Wales—I am talking specifically about Home Office funding and I shall leave aside the police precept for the time being—has increased from £78,861,341 in 2002-03 to £90,071,490 in 2006-07. There has therefore been a substantial increase in Home Office funding for policing in north Wales.
In addition, the North Wales police authority has made substantial investment in policing over the same period and has had the fourth highest policing precept in the country for the past three years. The precept for the current financial year—2006-07—is £166.89, and we have moved up the list somewhat since 2002-03, when it was £96.53. There has therefore been substantial investment in policing, and I welcome that because when I was first elected, I was very aware that policing was, if not the major priority, certainly one of the two major priorities for my constituents.
We have had good news about the effect that that investment has had on crime reduction, although hon. Members need not take my word for that. Only yesterday, I was given a copy of the Wrexham county borough newsletter, “Connect”, which I recommend to all and sundry. It talks about Wrexham faring
“well in crime reduction stakes”,
“Wrexham’s Community Safety Partnership has reported a 25 per cent. drop in reported crime figures in the county borough, exceeding the national target of 17.5 per cent.”
I can therefore speak of good news, and it is important that we recognise the progress that has been made.
On the issue of good news, the Government and the local taxpayer have put in the investment. Last year, the north-west basic command unit was first out of the 420 basic command units, the central unit was fifth and my hon. Friend’s own eastern unit was about 15th. Does my hon. Friend agree that progress is being made and that investment is being put in and is, to all intents and purposes, being spent quite wisely?
I recognise that progress has been made and I am pleased to see it. None the less, I am afraid that there is a large “but” coming. The neighbourhood policing that we have taken forward in Wrexham over the past few years has been built on the premise set down in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 that the local authority must work with the police in formulating a strategy to address crime and antisocial behaviour. Over the past few years, the local authority has taken that forward by beginning to employ neighbourhood wardens in Wrexham. They have worked in conjunction with community support officers and community beat officers in particular wards in my constituency, and they have been very effective.
It is with profound regret, therefore, that I must tell hon. Members that the same local authority that boasts such a crime reduction rate has scrapped one of the essential reasons for that success—the neighbourhood warden scheme, which has been so successful in Wrexham. In saying that, I realise that political opponents are, of course, sometimes sceptical, so let me pray in aid a letter that I received from a community leader in the Caia Park area of Wrexham, Mr. Les Stamp, who works extremely hard for the community there. He wrote to me when the local authority’s decision was mooted, saying:
“As you may be aware we are now without a Community Warden, which we believe to be an absolute disgrace. We were appalled at the decision to remove the Community Wardens. Our own Community Warden was very active on our behalf, and his absence is already being felt within our community.”
I met the community warden whom Mr. Stamp mentioned. He was a gentleman called Wayne and he worked very hard in his area of Wrexham, particularly with young people. I had an interesting conversation with him shortly before he left his post when the council decided to sack him. He said that it was important that he was distinct from the police in the job that he did and that he did not have a police uniform but was dressed differently, because he could build a relationship with people, particularly young people in the area. He did not want to become a community support officer because he did not want to work for the police, so I asked him what he was likely to do, and he said that he hoped to go into youth work because he had enjoyed working with young people. However, he saw his role as distinct from that of community support officers.
Wayne was part of a successful team in Caia Park, and it is unfortunate that it has been decided that that part of the team should not remain in place. It will be a loss to the people of Wrexham, which I deeply regret. However, I do not want anyone to suggest that I do not welcome the Government’s continued investment in community support officers. They have a distinct role to play in the town as part of the neighbourhood policing teams, and they have been extremely successful. I bumped into a community support officer in Wrexham the other day and he proudly showed me his new automated bike, which was designed to deal with the hills in the constituency. He was enthusiastic about his job and has become well known in the town, contributing hugely to the success of neighbourhood policing there.
I therefore welcome yesterday’s Home Office announcement of increased funding for community support officers in north Wales. I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I think that the funds that can be spent on community support officers have increased from £2.3 million to £3.1 million. That is very welcome indeed, and I want to see more community support officers working in areas such as north Wales and contributing to the safety of places such as Wrexham.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) on securing the debate and on his support for community support officers, which I share. I welcome the increased spending on community support officers, but may I, through him, raise concerns that have been expressed in Northamptonshire? Given the way in which the funding mechanism works, one knock-on effect of increased spending on community support officers could be the loss of 42 full-time police officer posts. Does he agree that if we are to have extra community support officers, that should not be at the expense of full-time police officers with full powers?
I agree entirely, but as I said, that has not been the experience of policing since 1997. That has certainly not been the case in north Wales, where we have high levels of police. Community support officers have also been introduced, and they work with neighbourhood wardens and the police in neighbourhood policing teams. All those involved perform distinct functions, complement the others and build relationships with the local community. They also work with councillors, which is a huge improvement on the situation that existed before neighbourhood policing teams were introduced. I met councillor Geoff Lowe in my constituency, and he worked hard with his local neighbourhood warden before that gentleman, too, was dismissed from his post. I know from discussions with constituents how successful the neighbourhood warden was in building community safety.
My hon. Friend makes a telling point. The difference between a community support officer and a neighbourhood warden, as I know from my experience of working with neighbourhood wardens in Buckley and many other areas of Alyn and Deeside, is the relationship that wardens are able to build, particularly with young people who perhaps do not see their uniform as a threat and are therefore much more able to work with them on particular youth projects. They break down the traditional hostility between youth and authority.
Absolutely. That is a powerful point and shows the complementary nature of the distinct roles of officers, community support officers and wardens. I am concerned that by no longer employing neighbourhood wardens in a town such as Wrexham, the local authority is in danger of losing the connection with younger people that has been so successful in reducing the crime rates to which I referred. I am also concerned that there will be less direct contact between the local authority and the criminal justice system. The profound breakthrough made in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 was the recognition that local authorities had a vital role to play in crime reduction. The reason for the success of neighbourhood policing has been the involvement of local authorities. I remember that, when I was elected, it was unusual for police officers to know who was the councillor for a particular ward in a town. That has changed completely. The danger of a local authority such as Wrexham withdrawing from the employment of neighbourhood wardens is that individual councillors will lose the direct contact with the criminal justice system that has been so successful.
The matter is not simply about sacking individuals—that is profoundly regrettable—but about the principle of police authorities working with local authorities to reduce crime. I hope that the commitment made by central Government to provide further moneys for community support officers, announced yesterday, will be followed today by an announcement of further investment in policing. That is the record of the Labour Government. I hope that that national investment will be coupled with local investment to ensure that crime is dealt with, because that is an important issue for my constituents.
I am concerned that the police authority in north Wales has been rash and reckless in its public announcements on investment for the future. It has been fortunate to be able to manage an increasing budget. That requires skills, but fewer skills than managing a decreasing budget. The police authority should recognise that it is necessary to manage the budget sustainably and take forward the success of neighbourhood policing that has been experienced, certainly in my community of Wrexham. It is important that the individuals employed by the North Wales police authority, some of whom are civilian employees, are treated with respect and considered an important part of the police force. They should not read on the front of local newspapers, as has regrettably happened in north Wales, that their jobs might be threatened.
The north Wales group of Labour MPs has done an enormous amount of work on policing. We were vociferous on the creation of a single police force for Wales, strongly supporting the police authority in its opposition to the proposal. We work hard to ensure that North Wales police authority gets its fair share of resources from the Home Office, and my hon. Friend the Minister can rest assured that if that does not happen, he will be getting a knock on the door from all of us to discuss it. We ask those in the police authority, if they wish to raise concerns about job losses, to do so privately with us so that we can raise them with the Home Office. We have a success story in north Wales: achievement in neighbourhood policing, attributable to wardens, community support officers and more police officers working together. We want to take that forward and we want more resources going into policing, which is important to our constituents, and to work with the police authority to achieve that.
I thank my hon. Friend for being so generous in giving way. I agree totally with everything that he has said about the police authority. Does he agree that job losses must be the last port of call if we want savings, not the first, and that the police authority needs to examine other areas of its spending that could be cut back, or not spent in the first place, rather than cut valuable people’s jobs?
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) on securing this debate. I know that he has been an assiduous campaigner for policing in his area, and he should be congratulated on that. I also congratulate him on bringing along his two able assistants, my hon. Friends the Members for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) and for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who have also championed neighbourhood policing in their areas. Between them they have put a good case for the continuation of neighbourhood policing.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his kind comments about my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) and his two sidekicks behind him. He should include you in those comments, Mr. Jones. You have played an integral role in policing issues in north Wales, and along with myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) you have been on the police parliamentary scheme in north Wales. We have each spent 25 days there learning the ins and outs of policing in north Wales.
I thank my hon. Friend. I will include you in my comments, Mr. Jones. You have worked hard to ensure the national roll-out of neighbourhood policing. This is an important debate and will no doubt be read keenly by our constituents in Wrexham and beyond.
I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham that I wish to speak specifically about the position of funding for neighbourhood policing and police community support officers. He will know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety made a written ministerial statement yesterday about those two specific grants. I do not propose to go through that statement, but I wish to set in context for my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham some of the figures to which he referred.
Overall, there will be an increase of 41.3 per cent. in funding for the vital area of policing in question in 2007-08. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham said, North Wales police will receive £3.1 million as its share of the funding next year, compared with £2.3 million this year. The force will have 157 PCSOs in 2007, up from 58 in 2006, contributing to the roll-out of neighbourhood policing across north Wales. I know that my hon. Friend will recognise that the Government have invested significantly in north Wales. I believe that additional figures will also be useful to set the debate in context. In England and Wales in 1997, there were 127,000 police officers; in 2006 there are more than 141,000. The figure for civilian support staff in England and Wales in 1997 was 53,000, and in 2006 it is 73,000.
In addition, my hon. Friend will want to know some of the local figures. He should be aware that police officer numbers have increased by more in north Wales than in England and Wales over the 10-year period between 1996-97 and 2005-06—the respective figures are 18 per cent. and 11 per cent. In 1997, there were 1,369 police officers in north Wales, which compares with 1,617 in 2006. Support staff numbers in north Wales rose from 476 in 1997 to 882 in 2006. Alongside all that, total Government funding for policing in north Wales increased by 44.5 per cent. between 1997-98 and 2006-07.
It is worth reporting that such things have had a dramatic impact on crime. The overall level of recorded crime in north Wales decreased by 6 per cent. between 2004-05 and 2005-06. Let us consider my hon. Friend’s constituency. I think that he made the point that the overall level of crime in Wrexham fell by 8 per cent. during the same period, which is again a big decrease. I go through those figures because, as he says, it is important to set out the context of increased investment in north Wales and Wrexham, and the consequent reduction in overall crime.
My hon. Friend spoke eloquently and passionately about the need for local authorities to be fully engaged with community policing. I could not agree with him more strongly. Neighbourhood policing is the bedrock of modern policing; a fundamental rewiring is being led enthusiastically by police officers, police community support officers and staff across England and Wales to make the police service more responsive, locally accountable and citizen-focused. The approach is transforming policing at a local level to meet the needs of communities. Neighbourhood policing is here to stay because we know that it works.
The evaluation findings of the national reassurance policing programme demonstrated that in the wards with neighbourhood policing activity the reduction in crime was twice as high as in wards without it, and the increase in public confidence in the police was five times greater. The public also thought that antisocial behaviour reduced. In one such ward, the number of people who thought that having teenagers hanging around was a problem fell from 70 to 54 per cent., while in the comparison ward without neighbourhood policing the number of people perceiving a problem with young people increased from 52 to 57 per cent.
In my hon. Friend’s constituency the same sort of statistic could doubtless be used to demonstrate that where neighbourhood policing is effectively used with everybody contributing—the police, PCSOs, the local authority and neighbourhood wardens—there is a reduction not only in crime but in the fear of crime. I know that he would agree with that.
We know that neighbourhood policing teams can make a difference, but we also know only too well that many of the problems facing our communities are not in the police’s gift to solve. We all know that local government controls many of the levers that can reduce crime, from street lighting to youth services. As my hon. Friend mentioned, local authorities are crucial to reducing crime. Wrexham council will be no different to any other in that regard. It needs to be seen, and it must act, in a way that demonstrates that it is playing its full part in the improvement of community safety and respect.
We are optimistic about local authority engagement in neighbourhood policing, although such involvement can be varied. The recent local government White Paper “Strong and Prosperous Communities” creates a stronger role for local authorities as local leaders. It will help that by ensuring that local authorities provide more visible leadership on community safety, with an expectation that the portfolio holder plays an important role on the crime and disorder reduction partnership.
It is certainly possible for that to happen. Although it is for local authorities to determine how they spend their money, it is possible for them to contribute towards PCSOs and to have neighbourhood wardens should they choose to do so. Indeed, my own local authority does just that: it has a neighbourhood warden service for reassurance purposes and it contributes money towards six PCSOs to enhance neighbourhood policing in Gedling in Nottinghamshire. I thank my hon. Friend for the opportunity to make that point.
Another key aim of the White Paper is ensuring that local authorities and the police have a coherent set of priorities and targets to work towards, rather than pulling in different directions, with a shared set of targets on community safety that partners will be held jointly accountable for meeting. Strengthening the commitment of other key partners to community safety is also crucial. There is a proposal for a new duty to have regard to the targets agreed in local area agreements.
I commend my local council, West Lancashire district council, on its commitment, on partnership working in tackling crime and on working with the police on more practical solutions than merely “hug a hoodie”. As a result of that joint working, we are getting another seven and a half PCSO posts in April next year, six of which will be in an area where antisocial behaviour is very bad. Without such partnership working, we would not be able to do that, and I commend that kind of activity.
I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning that example of neighbourhood policing. The involvement of the local authority in neighbourhood policing is crucial. That is the point that I am making to my hon. Friends today. Neighbourhood policing means neighbourhood management: the involvement of the local authority, the police and other partners. I know that such an approach is being taken in many areas. We want it to happen in all areas.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham has a particular interest in neighbourhood wardens. As he knows, the responsibility for them rests with the Department for Communities and Local Government generally, although in Wales it lies with the Welsh Assembly. I have also said to him that the responsibility for community safety is a shared one. We all know that different communities will have different needs. Having said that, it is up to a local authority to take decisions in its own area. It is clear that neighbourhood wardens can play an important part in neighbourhood policing—they do so in many areas—notwithstanding the increase in the role of the PCSOs and the increase in the number of police officers.
My hon. Friend might be interested to know that evaluation research commissioned in 2003 by the DCLG found that neighbourhood wardens had a number of key impacts, including reducing both the fear of crime and actual crime, and increasing communities’ satisfaction that low-level antisocial behaviour is being tackled. There is clearly a direct correlation between the work of a neighbourhood warden and that of a PCSO, although there are key differences between those two roles.
My hon. Friend made a point about the difference that had been seen in Wrexham as a result of the use of neighbourhood wardens alongside the police and PCSOs. Neighbourhood wardens can enjoy a close relationship with some members of their community for the simple reason that they are not always seen to be part of the police service itself and their role is different. That can make a huge difference.
Neighbourhood wardens have a role to play, and we are working with the DCLG to see how we can develop the links between them and neighbourhood policing teams without destroying the important independence of the wardens. The points that my hon. Friend raised are clearly a matter of concern and I hope that discussions will continue at a local level about how best they can be resolved. He made that point clear. We hope that there will be discussion between all the various partners to try to overcome the difficulties that he mentions.
I am delighted to be here today to talk about PCSOs, because my hon. Friends will remember that when we introduced them they were regarded as policing on the cheap and as something that would not be successful. In fact, they have made a radical contribution to the whole community safety agenda. I want to see them rolled out further. Neighbourhood policing is being rolled out, and all the various partners—wardens, PCSOs, neighbourhood police, local authorities and others—have a key role to play in introducing not only a model of neighbourhood policing but an entire model of neighbourhood management. Such a model will bring about not only a reduction in crime but a belief on the part of the ordinary people that the fear of crime can also be reduced.
International Arrest Warrants
During the past two years, two men from Cowes have been unjustly imprisoned abroad. Months have been taken out of their lives and a huge amount of time and expense have been devoted to securing their release. Both were eventually released without a stain on their character, but they and two others in my constituency are now prevented from plying their lawful trade of delivering boats to foreign countries or travelling abroad. In short, all four are prisoners in their own country. One of them told me recently how helpful the Foreign Office had been to him in 1979 when it funded his health care when he had been robbed and was ill and destitute in Togo. He said:
“I thought it was a fantastic service.”
He would not say that of this story.
In 1997, the former Royal Navy vessel, HMS Cygnet, was sold by Her Majesty’s Government. The buyer, who renamed her Duanas, wanted her delivered to Morocco and recruited a crew through a reputable international agency, Crewseekers Ltd. Its website describes it as
“the original and premier yacht crew agency…We offer a wide variety of exciting crewing opportunities worldwide…Many gap-year students and people seeking a life-style change join us for travel and adventure!”
“Crewseekers has members in over 50 countries around the globe, and since 1990 has introduced thousands of yacht owners and crew.”
Among them are John Packwood, Henry Stableford, Oliver Bennett and Colin Bocquillon from Cowes on the Isle of Wight. They were paid £40 a day to deliver the Duanas to its new owner in Morocco. In short, they did what thousands of Britons, some professional and some amateur, do every day.
On arrival in port at Agadir on 11 April 1997, the Duanas and her crew were thoroughly searched, and were given the all-clear by Moroccan customs officials. The job was done and the crew flew home to England on 13 April. However, unbeknown to my four constituents, the Duanas’s new owners were members of a Colombian drug cartel. Ten weeks after she was delivered and the Cowes crew had returned home, the Colombians used the boat to smuggle 6 tonnes of cocaine in Moroccan waters. They were caught on 25 June and having given full and detailed confessions they were convicted. The miscreants consistently stated that they had no connection with any of the Cowes crew and that the drugs were brought aboard the Duanas only on the day that she sailed. The Cowes crew’s association with the Duanas was thoroughly explored by Interpol after the event and was dismissed as being wholly innocent.
Seven years passed and in October 2004, John Packwood was holidaying in Spain. He was arrested under an international arrest warrant that had been issued in Morocco in 1997. Spain’s extradition treaty with Morocco, in the fashion of the European arrest warrant, does not require the applicant to demonstrate a prima facie case against the accused. I call this a no-fault treaty. Having languished in Spanish jails for 11 months, attempting unsuccessfully to challenge extradition, Mr. Packwood was finally deported to Morocco in September 2005. Once there, he spent another month on remand. Having presented a comprehensive dossier of evidence illustrating his innocence to the Moroccan authorities and with support from many public figures including Mariella Frostrup, Damien Hirst, Hugh Grant, George Clooney and, on a more mundane level, myself, he was graciously pardoned before trial by His Majesty the King of Morocco. Put thus, it sounds easy. I know that the Minister knows that it was not and I thank him for the consular support, with visits and advice, that he and his office gave at that time. However, for Mr. Packwood, as for his friends and his lawyers, uncertainty reigned. He was incarcerated for more than a year, his legal bill exceeded £80,000, and he cannot work outside the UK. Mr. Packwood’s lawyer, Jason McCue of H2O Law, feared that that needless and protracted detention might be repeated. We petitioned the Moroccan authorities, Interpol and the Minister’s Department for the outstanding international arrest warrants against all four crew to be rescinded, but our requests were unproductive.
In consequence, on 16 October this year another wholly innocent Cowes resident, Henry Stableford, was arrested. Mr. Stableford had been employed at a boatyard in Fano in Italy. Following Mr. Packwood’s release last year, he assumed that the warrant was no longer active. None the less, before travelling to Italy, he took the precaution of checking with the Italian authorities and was assured that there was no barrier to travel. However, when he arrived in Fano and applied for the Italian equivalent of a national insurance number, alarm bells rang, the Moroccan warrant was activated and he was arrested and kept in solitary confinement. Again, he was subject to no-fault extradition proceedings. Mr. McCue sought a diplomatic solution with Morocco and suggested that the deadline set for filing the extradition request might have passed, which would result in his client’s release on procedural grounds. Morocco’s reasons for taking this course are not known, but that is what happened.
On 15 November, Mr. Stableford was finally freed by the Italians, having spent more than 30 fraught days needlessly incarcerated. That was not and still is not the end of Mr. Stableford’s ordeal. First, despite wishing to return home as soon as possible, he knew that if his passport was properly processed on leaving Italy he could be arrested again. He chose to fly via the provincial Bologna Forli airport, which has less rigorous security procedures, but even there he could have been re-arrested. Members of his family, his friends, his lawyers and I were therefore enormously relieved when he touched down at Stansted airport on 16 November. Secondly, we all agreed that neither he nor any other member of the crew could with confidence travel overseas again until the matter of the arrest warrants was cleared up.
The issues on which I seek the Minister’s help are as follows. First, how does someone find out whether a warrant or an extradition treaty exists? Outstanding international arrest warrants prevent my four constituents from travelling abroad. How can any other ordinary visitor check before travelling whether such a warrant exists? How can they find out whether an extradition treaty exists between the country that they are bound for and a country that may have issued such a warrant? How can they find out whether it is a no-fault treaty?
These points are not academic. Eight Britons await trial in Morocco at the moment. My constituents left their boat 10 weeks before it was used for criminal activities, yet still a warrant was issued. Anyone who hires a car or rents a hotel room could find themselves arrested in a third country in circumstances similar to those of John Packwood and Henry Stableford. In a world in which huge numbers of people each year visit countries—10 years ago that would have been impossible—this is wholly unacceptable. Neither Interpol nor the Serious Organised Crime Agency is required even to confirm that such warrants exist and Interpol seems immune to representations from hon. Members. What course of action does the Foreign Office recommend for such people, other than to stay at home?
Secondly, how can a warrant be discharged? When warrants are in place, how can we prevent them from impeding people’s free movement? Neither Interpol nor Morocco responded to requests after Mr. Stableford’s arrest to find out whether it was merely administrative oversight that had left the warrants in place. What action could the Foreign Office take? They told Mr. McCue:
“We are unable to interfere in the judicial process of another country. Your request for us to raise the international arrest warrant with the Moroccan authorities would amount to interference. It is for Mr Stableford’s legal team to determine next steps.”
Mr. Stableford’s legal team, led by Mr. McCue, was assiduous, and on a previous occasion it was not paid for the work that it did. They were doing their best, but surely an intervention in that matter is not interference, when Foreign Office-recommended local lawyers stated that the issue of the arrest warrant was in no way solvable by judicial channels but was, instead, a “political matter”.
Each traveller’s dilemma is circular. If one does not know that a warrant exists, one cannot take steps to have it set aside. One is unlikely to know that a warrant exists until one is arrested under it, in which case one will almost certainly have been arrested in a third country and not enjoy easy access to British lawyers, let alone lawyers who have rights of audience in the extraditing country. To cap it all, Moroccan lawyers advised that a warrant could be rescinded only if the subject of the warrant were exonerated at full trial.
Thirdly, will the Foreign Office facilitate interviews with my constituents on British soil? Apart from brief contact with Interpol in 1997, neither it, the Moroccan authorities nor the Serious Organised Crime Agency has interviewed any of my constituents anywhere about the allegations on which the warrants are based.
Fourthly, will the Foreign Office defend a British citizen’s right to due process? Mr. Packwood’s rights were violated in Spain, where he was remanded despite a complete absence of prima facie evidence, but the Foreign Office failed to intervene. Failing to rescind a redundant international arrest warrant, despite repeated requests, is an equally serious abuse. The question is: when would the Foreign Office intervene? There must come a point when a judicial process is so fatally flawed that it is no longer entitled to that description and the Foreign Office has no option but to abandon its policy of non-interference.
Fifthly, will the Foreign Office intervene when extradition treaties appear to be contrary to European Union law? The treaties under which my constituents were apprehended permit the extradition of Britons, but not of Spaniards or, as the case may be, of Italians. That appears to break EU law, which requires equal treatment of all EU citizens before the legal processes of individual EU countries.
My friend Dan Hannan MEP, with Caroline Lucas MEP, is pursuing the matter through the European institutions to ensure that Britons are not discriminated against. Will the Minister support them and also raise those cases directly with Spain and Italy? It must be made clear to other EU countries that if it is unacceptable to extradite their citizens, it is unacceptable to extradite ours.
Finally, what can be done about the conflicting roles of the Foreign Office? It has consular and diplomatic roles to fulfil. Our country has global interests and the Foreign Office has to operate at a geopolitical level, but the impression is that its duty to the many overrides its duty to the individual. I understand the need to balance them, but it is of little solace to the friends and families of people in prison.
As Mariella Frostrup asked in a headline in The Observer on 19 November,
“Who would you trust to get you out of jail?”
The article began:
“Something is badly wrong with the Foreign Office when George Clooney is more likely than Margaret Beckett to have innocent Britons abroad freed.”
“If the FCO is diplomatically prevented from helping us when we are in trouble, then our Government needs to think of an alternative.”
She suggested either attaching a non-governmental organisation to an embassy, or that European Union countries work together to attach any incarcerated citizen
“to whichever EU embassy has the best local relations.”
“An independent body could serve us better, offer independent advice and, perhaps as often as is needed, roll up its sleeves and get its hands dirty, all of which could be done in a way that is distanced from the embassies’ diplomatic role and thus not damage foreign policy.”
I hope Ministers will explore both suggestions, because until the Foreign Office either extends its consular ambitions—its services are welcome, but its support would be more welcome—or finds someone who will do so for it, innocent citizens will face potentially serious problems if they travel overseas, and my four constituents will remain prisoners in their own country.
It is a pleasure to be a part of a debate administered by your good self, Mr. Jones. I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on securing it, with particular reference to the experiences of his constituents. I welcome the opportunity to set out the Government’s position on those cases and to explain the action that we have taken.
The hon. Gentleman ended with a rather cheap shot from a friend of his. He referred to an article that asked whom one would trust to get one’s citizens out of jail: George Clooney or my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. Lord Triesman, the Minister with responsibility for consular affairs, clearly answered that question in a recent letter. He said:
“Much of what we do to help British nationals in difficult situations abroad is best done behind the scenes; but that doesn't make it any less important. FCO staff support 6,000 British nationals detained abroad every year, as well as 4,000 families whose loved ones die abroad and thousands of victims of theft, assault or more serious crime. We do so to standards that are set out clearly—they include a statement that we can’t get you out of jail just because you’re British, just as we wouldn’t allow any foreign state to make the same argument for its nationals imprisoned here. We work with many of just the kind of NGOs Ms Frostrup suggests to deliver that support—some of which we help to fund so that, as she says, they can carry out work it’d be difficult to do ourselves, such as providing refuges to victims of forced marriages overseas.”
I wanted to quote from Lord Triesman’s letter, because, importantly, the kind of article that Ms Frostrup wrote, and the contribution from the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, do a great deal to demean the tremendous efforts that Foreign Office staff throughout the world deploy to help British citizens in difficult circumstances. Ms Frostrup, in her article, contrasted the heroics of Mr. George Clooney with Foreign Office staff, who spend their time mixing
“a decent gin and tonic”,
as she put it. That is not just a travesty, but a slur on the name of people who work very hard for this country in very difficult conditions. We know some of them and we have seen some of the huge tragedies of recent years. Staff go to very dangerous places. I saw some of them myself just last week in Basra, Iraq, and such ignorance as was expressed in that article cannot go unanswered. The hon. Gentleman knows about the Foreign Office’s good work, and I hope that he distances himself from that parody of what is done by Foreign Office officials abroad.
The hon. Gentleman described the background to his constituents’ cases. As he told us, Mr. John Packwood was arrested at Malaga airport on 16 October 2004 on the basis of an international arrest warrant issued by the Moroccan authorities. He was extradited to Morocco on 27 September 2005 and released from prison on 17 November 2005 after receiving a royal pardon from the King of Morocco.
Henry Stableford, another of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, was arrested in Pesaro, Italy, on 12 October 2006. He was also subject to an international arrest warrant and an extradition request issued by the Moroccan authorities. He was released on 15 November 2006 when the Moroccan authorities failed to file the extradition papers within the prescribed 30-day time limit.
I want to make it clear that consular staff visited Mr. Stableford and passed to his lawyers the contact details of the lawyers who had represented Mr. Packwood. Consular staff in London and Italy kept in regular contact with Mr. Stableford’s family and with his lawyers in Italy and in the United Kingdom. During Mr. Packwood’s detention, our consular staff in Madrid, London and Rabat kept in regular contact with his lawyer and with his family in the UK. Because the case involved both the Spanish and Moroccan courts, Mr. Packwood had two legal teams representing him. We ensured that both teams had all the information they considered necessary for assisting him. We also had regular contact with Fair Trials Abroad, which took an active interest in Mr. Packwood’s case.
In February 2005, consular officials in Rabat sent a diplomatic note to the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs requesting consular access to Mr. Packwood, should extradition go ahead, and asking for information about intended legal proceedings in Morocco. We also raised concerns that Mr. Packwood’s Spanish lawyer had not yet received any specific information connecting Mr. Packwood to an alleged transportation of cocaine from Morocco to Spain in 1997. A copy of that note was sent to Mr. Packwood’s sister on 25 February 2005.
While Mr. Packwood was detained in Rabat, our ambassador took a close interest in the case and met Mr. Packwood’s lawyer. Our ambassador, through regular contact with senior Moroccan Ministry of Justice officials, was able to secure Mr. Packwood’s transfer to a more suitable prison. Mr. Packwood had a Moroccan lawyer, who enjoyed full access rights to his client. Our embassy was influential in gaining access rights for Mr. Packwood’s British lawyer, despite the fact that such a right is not given automatically to lawyers who are not registered to practise in Morocco.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that there are other British citizens who are currently being held in Morocco, as there are throughout the world. He said that the number was nine, but my latest figure is six, although these things can change dramatically and he might be right. We know that about 6,000 British nationals will be held throughout the world at some time in any year, and we think that about 2,500 are being held at the moment. The figures can fluctuate, but there are a large number.
The Foreign Office also advised Mr. Packwood and his lawyers on the procedures for requesting a royal pardon and, as is customary for all such pleas, sent the request to the Moroccan authorities under cover of a letter from our ambassador.
My noble Friend Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean wrote to the hon. Gentleman in December 2004, enclosing a copy of the bilateral extradition convention between Spain and Morocco. My noble Friend confirmed that it is not within our consular remit to provide a legal opinion on the convention, but we consulted Mr. Packwood’s lawyer to provide him with information about the procedure of extradition. We explained that our role was one of welfare and that we were unable to interfere in Spain’s judicial process. We advised that the other three crew members might wish to consider contacting Interpol in order to establish whether international arrest warrants had been issued for them. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that it is a serious matter if there have been contacts with Interpol to which it has not responded. Interpol should respond to such contacts, and I shall certainly try to find out what has happened to those requests for information.
The hon. Gentleman also wrote to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in January 2005 to request assurances on the Moroccan judicial system and ask what steps the Foreign and Commonwealth Office could take to ensure Mr. Packwood’s fair treatment in Spain and Morocco. My noble Friend Baroness Symons replied that we had no evidence of systematic or widespread miscarriages of justice in the Moroccan judicial system, and gave assurances that we would raise any justified and serious complaints about ill treatment with the relevant authorities. Baroness Symons wrote again in March 2005 in response to the hon. Gentleman’s question about international arrest warrants, repeating that they were matters for Interpol.
At this point, it may be helpful to clarify what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office can and cannot do for British nationals imprisoned abroad. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the consular guide that was published in March 2006 entitled “Support for British Nationals Abroad”, a copy of which I have with me, which I should be delighted to give him after this debate. During the past 12 months, we have provided support to nearly 6,000 British nationals detained abroad. Our role is primarily a welfare one, and I must make it categorically clear that we do not interfere in the judicial systems of other countries, nor do we take up individuals’ claims on their behalf. We cannot get a British national out of jail because he is British, nor is the level of our assistance ever based on an assumption of guilt or innocence.
However, there are actions that we can and do take regularly in support of British nationals who are detained abroad. Complaints of mistreatment are always taken seriously by consular staff and we regularly make representations to the relevant authorities. Consular staff regularly raise a variety of issues with prison authorities—for example, accommodation, diet and family visits. Although we cannot interfere in legal proceedings, we can take certain actions to ensure that the rights of British nationals who face criminal proceedings abroad are protected. Consular officials cannot offer legal advice, but we can provide basic information about the local justice system, including whether legal aid is available. We can also provide a list of local lawyers and interpreters. If a trial is unreasonably delayed or does not appear to be following internationally recognised standards for a fair trial, we will consider approaching the local authorities.
As I have made clear, we cannot intervene in the judicial processes of other states, nor would we expect them to interfere in ours. However, we will sometimes seek assurances from the state that is requesting the extradition regarding welfare, trial or sentencing issues. I know that the hon. Gentleman has carefully followed the case of Mirza Tahir Hussain in Pakistan, in which we felt strongly about the use of the death penalty. That case offers an interesting comparison, although we are considering the cases of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents today.
Before we seek assurances, we take into account a number of factors. We look at the sending state’s extradition procedures, to assess whether they appear independent and thorough, and conform to human rights standards. We also take into account the situation in the country that is requesting extradition, including the likelihood of the prisoner receiving a fair trial, the potential punishment to be applied and any other welfare issues. We will always intervene in the extradition of a British national for an offence that might attract the death penalty in the receiving state. We will also consider intervening where there is concern that a British national may not receive a fair trial or where there is concern that he or she may be tortured.
Mr. Packwood was pardoned before his case was ever brought to trial. My legal advice tells me that there can be no automatic assumption that clemency means innocence from the Moroccan point of view. That is exactly what the hon. Gentleman complained about. Unless those people know that they are innocent, they have the threat hanging over them. I wrote to the hon. Gentleman recently, explaining that we do not hold any details surrounding the circumstances of the pardon. I assume that Mr. Packwood’s legal team would be in the best position to ascertain the details of the pardon, and of the terms and conditions therein.
It has previously been suggested by the men’s lawyer and the hon. Gentleman that the pardon was issued because Mr. Packwood had no case to answer. It follows, they argue, that Mr. Packwood’s crew mates have no case to answer, and that the failure to rescind the arrest warrant amounts to no more than an administrative error. I reiterate that the warrant itself is a judicial process of the Moroccan criminal justice system; therefore, it is something for the hon. Gentleman’s constituent’s legal team to address, rather than the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. That may irritate the hon. Gentleman, but it is a fact. The same applies to the Moroccan authorities’ failure to present the necessary papers for Mr. Stableford’s extradition. Again, no automatic assumption can be made that that implies that the Moroccans consider Mr. Stableford to be innocent. He should continue to instruct his lawyers to pursue his case in the Moroccan courts.
The arrest warrant is subject to a judicial process of the Moroccan criminal justice system. As I have already made clear, the Foreign Office cannot interfere in the judicial systems of other countries.
It being Two o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.