Wednesday 10 January 2007
[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]
Pleasure Craft (Thames)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Huw Irranca-Davies.]
I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise this extremely important matter. It arises from significant changes that have been made to the level of competence and the experience required to obtain a boatmaster’s licence in order to operate on British waters. Those changes, effective from 1 January, will mean an inevitable lowering of safety standards. That will have a particular impact on the tidal Thames, where conditions and the potential for accidents are almost unique.
The purpose of the debate is to make the strongest possible case for special status for the tidal Thames requiring a licence that maintains our traditional high standards. However, those standards were swept away—I hope that the House will forgive the nautical term—on 1 January at the behest of the European Council.
I shall describe the changes that have been imposed on us. To comply with European Council directive 96/50/EC, the boatmasters directive, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has introduced a new licence for passenger and non-passenger craft of more than 24 m on all inland waterways, and it allows European boatmasters to operate in British waters.
Until 1 January, a licence granted by the Worshipful Company of Watermen and Lightermen and the Port of London Authority demanded five years’ experience on the Thames and four exams—practical, oral and written. To qualify, applicants had to be certified by five separate masters as being able to manage their craft. The old licence therefore created a maritime elite, reflecting the ability to handle craft of different types, speeds and sizes over a wide range of tidal, visibility and weather conditions—and with detailed local knowledge.
That licence is now defunct. However, the new licence has not yet been issued. All that a waterman can produce at the moment is proof of posting of his application for the new boatmaster’s licence—a Post Office receipt. Therefore, the Post Office is currently—I hope that hon. Members will forgive me another pun—in charge of administering Thames licences.
The new licence demands only two years’ experience and one practical examination. That demonstrates the ability to manage one craft on one occasion under one set of river conditions. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and Transport and General Workers Union are right to be concerned that those requirements are not sufficient to qualify a master to navigate safely on the tidal Thames.
Is the hon. Lady aware that relatives of those who died in the Marchioness disaster live in my constituency, and that they are distraught that it took 10 years to get the public inquiry that led to the safety improvements on the Thames that they now see being seized with this opportunity to roll back that safety and protection? After such a loss of life, would she not say that the Minister should understand the high risk of using the Thames waterway?
I was not aware of the hon. Lady’s personal connection to those involved in the accident between the Marchioness and the Bowbelle. I shall refer to it later, but she is right in what she says.
The river carries a wide variety of craft in dense traffic conditions, with a huge tonnage of goods. Large and small passenger craft, dredgers, Thames barges, tugs, small private motor boats, small hired boats, passenger ferries, fireboats, sailing dinghies, rowing boats and canoes, speed boats and water skiers, river buses and houseboats—I apologise for any omission—all share the same busy water from Teddington down to the estuary, and all those involved must know and understand its bridges, moorings, currents and tides.
I understand that the pride and joy of the Royal Navy, the newly refitted aircraft carrier Ark Royal, will be visiting London this spring. That will be an auspicious occasion. Under the old licence standards, we could be confident of the qualifications and experience of other vessels sharing the river with her. We need that assurance still.
I have some limited personal experience in bringing small motor yachts of 30 ft and 40 ft down from the upper Thames to St. Katharine’s dock. It taught me great respect for the river, especially the importance of local knowledge—for example, how to negotiate the half-tide lock at Richmond, or how to follow the line of the river bed at low water at places such as Syon reach, where it would be easy to go aground with a draft of more than 3 ft—and most importantly the rules of precedence on the water.
It is common in summer to see small hired boats in the hands of people who are probably competent car drivers but who have found to their dismay after some brief, rudimentary instruction that boats do not have brakes and that stopping them requires some forward planning. Even when her engines are stopped, a boat does not stand still; she moves with the tide and current unless she is tied up. Sailing and rowing boats have precedence over boats with engines, but their crew often have unrealistic expectations of their ability to stop and of the manoeuvrability of vessels under power. The conflict of uses between the different types of craft frequently compromises safety.
The high standards that prevailed until 1 January were set in the wake of the accident in 1989 between the Marchioness and the Bowbelle, which claimed 51 young lives. It is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that every precaution possible is taken to prevent another accident of that magnitude—or, indeed, any accident.
My hon. Friend refers to the Marchioness. I pay tribute to my constituent Margaret Lockwood Croft, director of the Marchioness action group. She has been fighting a fantastic, sterling battle over the past 17 years, and is hugely concerned that all that has been achieved during those years is being frittered away by the Government.
I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to some figures given to me by the Minister, which show the number of incidents involving non-qualified and qualified personnel. During the past three years, unqualified personnel were 50 per cent. more likely to have been involved in an incident than qualified watermen and lightermen. Does that not speak for itself? Given that unqualified lightermen are involved in many more incidents than qualified lightermen, there is evidence that, if the Government go down that route, the prospects are for a much unsafer Thames.
Does the hon. Lady accept that, although the focus of this debate is on the Marchioness accident and accidents that involve other pleasure craft, many more accidents happen on the Thames? For instance, a barge driver recently collided with Battersea bridge, causing it to be closed for three or four months. Although those accidents do not have such tragic results, they cause huge disruption to river traffic and to road traffic crossing the Thames. Although that accident is sub judice, it is one of a string of accidents, with barge drivers causing huge disruption to London by driving into Thames bridges.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. We seem to be quite consensual thus far in our common desire for the highest possible safety standards on the Thames and the highest degree of professionalism that can be achieved.
Traffic on the river has increased significantly since 1989, and it is likely to increase even more with construction traffic in the preparations for the 2012 Olympics and the tourist traffic during the games, when large numbers of visitors will be in the capital. Local knowledge is essential to ensure the safe use of the entire length of the tidal Thames from Teddington to Lower Hope point, and not only the Woolwich to Putney part of the most dangerous stretch, to which the new examination applies.
The Port of London Authority’s application for local knowledge area for the entire length of the Thames was made as recently as October 2005, but it now supports the shorter section. What has brought about that change of mind? The area above Putney is characterised by restricted tidal navigation where the river is shallower and narrower. That area is often congested by vulnerable leisure users with no professional training, and it is also used by passenger boats at least as far as Hampton Court—some even go as far as Henley and Oxford on the upper Thames. The area below Woolwich is where approximately 90 per cent. of the 50 million tonnes of the port of London’s annual cargo is handled. Add to that the sailing clubs and private motor yachts that use the estuary to cross the channel and, considering the estuary’s sandbanks and the sunken wreck of the Montgomery, the potential for an accident is enormous.
The new boatmaster’s licence will enable captains to qualify for an even more limited zone in the local knowledge area. Passenger-carrying vessels may, for example, be restricted to the stretch between Westminster and Tower piers, but if another accident or emergency that required evacuation similar to that of 7 July 2005 occurred outside that restricted zone, such vessels would not be able to respond. On 7 July 2005, approximately 100,000 people were evacuated from central London and Canary Wharf by river in a well organised operation that involved several passenger-vessel operators.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Port of London Authority are apparently confident that safety standards will not be undermined by the new boatmaster’s licence on the grounds that the shorter qualifying times will be more intensive. I am at a loss to understand how the daily activities of each candidate could be monitored in such detail. The suggestion that much of the former five-year qualification period was spent sweeping the decks simply cannot be substantiated.
Shore-based training has been reduced from a mandatory 10 weeks, plus other optional courses and two examinations for underpinning knowledge, to one week of safety training and only one examination for underpinning knowledge—a reduction of 90 per cent. Qualifying service has been reduced from five years to 30 months, which is a reduction of 50 per cent., while the number of days that candidates are required to work has been reduced from 750 to 360—a reduction of 55 per cent.
The number of days per year required for the revalidation service has been reduced from 50 to 24, which is a reduction of 52 per cent., and the number of examinations to be taken is down from four to one or two—a 50 or 75 per cent. reduction. The minimum level of local experience is down from two years to six months—a reduction of 75 per cent.—and examiners will not, in future, necessarily be locally experienced watermen. What consistency in the standard of examiners can be demonstrated to ensure consistency of qualifying performance in applicants? Can all examiners match the knowledge of a waterman?
Practitioner testimonies are down from six to one, which is an 83 per cent. reduction. In September 2002, the Baxter-Eadie study of the competencies and skills required by operators on the River Thames identified that about 500 skills are required. It would be impractical, if not impossible, to test all those skills in one practical test. Competence could only be guaranteed in the conditions prevailing on that day. A test taken on a nice sunny day in June under calm conditions would not qualify someone to work at night, in a storm, in fog or any other of the multitude of conditions that prevail on skippers who regularly use the river.
Practical examination has been a welcome addition for a large passenger vessel endorsement to the waterman’s licence. It was introduced without a reduction in the length of qualifying service and is currently held by approximately 50 per cent. of watermen. Continuous assessment is a reliable and proven means of assuring extensive practical competence. The testimonial system is one form of continuous assessment, but signatories should be made more accountable to achieve transparency, and the addition of practical testing should not come at the expense of reductions in other elements of the qualifying process. The candidate logbook does not offer true assessment, as it testifies only to a candidate having assisted in tasks. The fact that the merchant navy model has discounted the use of practical testing stresses that that form of assessment can prove unworkable.
An additional requirement has been introduced for all licence holders to hold valid certificates in firefighting, first aid, personal survival and, in the case of passenger vessels, passenger management. That is very welcome, and I am rather surprised that it was not put in place after the 1989 accident.
The generic licence, plus the passenger operations endorsement, is very similar to the provisional waterman’s licence followed by the full waterman’s licence. There is no difference in the application of the qualification, as both licence holders will need to be qualified to command a passenger carrying vessel. However, the new modular route to qualifying can now be completed in half the time that was previously required.
Currently, other freight and towing operations are covered by the PLA craft registration policy and management guidelines on competencies—byelaw 12 of January 2002. The recommended qualifying service defined in those guidelines for towing vessels is nine years, now reduced to 30 months, and the guideline levels of experience for motor barge skippers is five years, now also reduced to 30 months.
The new legislation covers all passenger operations including ferries, but its application to other freight vessels is limited to those over 24 m. That will leave many vessels, including craft-towing tugs and workboats, unregulated within the boatmaster’s licence regulations. That issue exposes grey areas that require urgent clarification. The use of a tier 2 boatmaster’s licence on the tidal Thames in London for passenger operations has not been ruled out by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, yet only the tier 1 boatmaster’s licence offers the standard outlined in the quantitative summary comparison.
The boatmaster’s licence established in 1993 ensured that local knowledge assessment was guaranteed for all category A, B, C and D inland waters. That requirement has been removed and therefore standards have been lowered, except for those with local knowledge assessment.
It is madness to lower our standards in this way to accommodate visiting European craft. They are very welcome to visit—indeed, they are encouraged to do so—but they must use standards born of the experience of professional users of the Thames. How could an employer ensure that an applicant is fully competent on a different vessel from the one used for the one single practical examination? Under the old waterman’s licence an employer was guaranteed that the applicant had appropriate experience in vessels of a variety of characteristics and propulsion systems, gained during five years of training.
The new licence has been designed as a national system. The density of traffic and variety of craft on the tidal Thames, with its tides, currents and bridges, are incomparable with other waterways and make it deserving of special status. There may well be other UK waters for which the new generic licence is not appropriate.
Old London bridge supported bustling houses and businesses and had so many columns, or starlings—14 from memory—that the flow of water was slowed down to such an extent that the Thames would freeze in sustained periods of cold weather. Hence, there were frost fairs when oxen were roasted on the ice. Watermen in those days, who were also the taxi drivers of their time, had no option but to raise their oars and pray as they went through the narrow arches under the bridge. It was so dangerous that, in the 16th century when King Henry VIII was rowed down from Hampton Court, he would not risk going through by boat. He was set down at the steps before the bridge and rejoined the boat after it had safely emerged downwater. Those currents still prevail, as was demonstrated to me yesterday, when I was on the river and saw tugs towing heavily laden barges. The boatmasters knew exactly which course to steer to navigate the bridges safely and each bridge has its own characteristics.
I am unclear whether the MCA and the PLA is the final authority on the tidal Thames and whether it is possible under the law to obtain an opt-out from the new boatmaster’s licence and reinstate the former qualifying standards.
This is fairly complicated legislation, regulation, directive and the rest of it, but does the hon. Lady agree—I hope that the Minister will deal with this later—that it appears, from reading the documents, as though it is possible to comply with the European requirement but to have a two-tier system in the UK, which allows a general provision across general coastal and tidal waters and inland waterways, and a separate specific arrangement for specific waterways?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I hope that what he describes is possible and that the opportunity will be taken to ensure that the appropriate standards on the tidal Thames are imposed, so that there is safety for all.
Fifty million tonnes of goods and 5 million passengers are carried annually on the Thames, and it is our responsibility to set the standards that have been shown through experience to be necessary to maintain safety on the water for all users. The watermen and lightermen and many regular users of the tidal Thames believe that the new licence lowers safety standards and increases the potential for accidents. The Minister must not put his head in the sand and dismiss the watermen as a cosy club or a closed shop. That simply does not hold water—there is another pun.
Currently, there are two 16-year-old trainees who are the sons of taxi drivers. They have no previous connection with watermen’s families. The onerous rules were not intended to keep people out of employment, but to ensure the highest possible standards of professionalism. The Government must listen and act now before it is too late.
Thank you, Mr. O’Hara, for giving me the opportunity to take part in this very important debate. I represent a constituency that borders the River Thames and is notable for its very high tidal set. The tide can rise and fall by up to 8 m in a single day, so it is a significant tidal area. I am an amateur boatman; I am a keen sailor. I was brought up on the River Thames, but on the non-tidal section, and one thing that someone notices when they move to the tidal section is that there are significant difficult waters and treacherous currents in the tidal section that simply do not apply to the non-tidal section of the Thames.
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to go aboard the boat Mercia and I had a very interesting briefing from Alex Hickman about the tidal section of the Thames. We spent some time going up and down the Thames, looking at other craft and seeing how they handled. What was brought to our attention was the size and make-up of some of the barges and tugs that navigate the tidal section of the Thames. A single tug can tow three barges. Those barges can each carry up to 600 tonnes of freight, so the total towing capacity is up to 2,000 tonnes. A 2,000-tonne vessel trying to negotiate a 5-knot tide in difficult waters under serial bridges involves quite a feat of boatmanship. Anything that is done to reduce the skill of those boatmen would be very detrimental to safety on the river.
The historical methods of becoming a lighterman or boatman have not been arrived at lightly. Let me give some background. Watermen have enjoyed the exclusive right to carry passengers on the tidal Thames since 1510. They provided the first form of licensed public transport on the Thames. Acts of Parliament dating from 1514 and 1555 were passed to ensure that the profession was regularised and standardised fares were introduced to protect the public from unscrupulous dealing and to introduce safety measures. The 1555 Act also established the Company of Watermen, one of the City of London’s ancient trade guilds, to ensure that the profession was regulated.
The world’s oldest continuously run sporting event—the rowing race for Doggett’s coat and badge—is conducted each year over 4 miles and 5 furlongs from Swan pier at London bridge to Cadogan pier in Chelsea to test the skill of Thames watermen. That race is run even now, and the winner receives the traditional waterman’s coat and a silver badge representing liberty. Many years ago, one Thomas Doggett fell into the river and was rescued from a watery grave by watermen. To mark his thanks to them, he set up the race, so it goes back a long way and represents an important mark in ensuring continuing standards and safety on the River Thames.
The watermen’s business has gradually reduced over many years because of changing freight methods on the Thames and changing passenger numbers, but now there seems to be a revitalisation of Thames traffic. Far more freight is being carried. There has been a significant tonnage increase in freight moved on the Thames and a significant extra number of passengers carried on the Thames over the past few years, which makes it even more important that we maintain standards and ensure that all those involved in navigating and mastering those vessels are of the highest possible standard.
We have heard a great deal from the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) about the changes in regulations, so I need not rehearse those issues, but they are of great concern to hon. Members on both sides of the House. I want to touch on some issues that particularly affect me. As I have said, the tidal Thames is one of the more difficult areas to navigate in the country. It has many treacherous water channels, cross-currents and hidden underwater obstacles. As I have also pointed out, 8 m, which is about the height of this Chamber, is the tidal change in one day on the Thames. That can cause significant changes in the channels, the markings and the height of bridges above water level, all of which will have a significant impact on people using the Thames.
We have heard about the Bowbelle disaster and the difficulties that that has caused. Some of the rules that we are discussing were introduced following that terrible tragedy, but it is not the only collision that has taken place on the Thames over the years. The collision between the pleasure steamer the Princess Alice and the Bywell Castle off Woolwich resulted in the loss of 700 lives. That was one of the worst disasters ever to take place in British river or coastal waters. It took place on a stretch of the Thames that, if the legislation that we are discussing proceeds, will be outside the local boat knowledge area for boatmasters. In other words, that type of event could happen again with a master who is not as qualified as current boatmasters. In more recent times, the tugboat Hawkstone was thrown into the wash of a ship on the River Blythe, which resulted in the loss of six lightermen and the tug crew. At Tilburyness, the Rora Head ran down the tugboat General 7, with the loss of four lightermen and the tug crew.
As well as being one of the most treacherous rivers in the UK, the Thames constitutes one of the busiest commercial ports in the country. In fact, the number of watermen and lightermen operating on the Thames is greater than the total number of skippers on the rest of the UK’s inland waterways put together. We are talking currently about 600 people. In the past few years, there has been significant growth in the level of traffic and the number of passengers carried on the Thames. Each year now, 2.3 million passengers use the Thames, which represents an increase of 44 per cent. since 1999.
The increase in the number of commuters has been even more marked, with a leap of 80 per cent. in the past year alone. The amount of freight transported is also growing. It has risen from 50 million tonnes in 2000 to 56 million tonnes in 2005—an 11 per cent. increase. More importantly, 95 per cent. of that freight is handled on the stretch of Thames below Woolwich—the part that will in future no longer be covered by the local knowledge certificate. That is of great concern to me, and many of my constituents who work on the river have brought it to my attention and wish to make their views known. Much more investment is being put into updating and improving passenger piers and craft on the Thames. Companies are purchasing new boats every year because of anticipated growth in traffic.
All that makes it even more important that we do nothing to water down—to use another pun—the qualifying requirements for Thames skippers. We must ensure that we do not open up the river to people with skills and training that do not meet the difficult and demanding requirements of the river.
I do not wish to speak for too long, because many other hon. Members want to speak, but I have received a briefing from the European Transport Workers Federation on whether we are able to have a change of regulation compared with the rest of Europe. It states that
“the requirements of directive 96/50/EC state…‘national navigable waterways not linked to the navigable network of another Member State are not subject to international competition and it is therefore not necessary to make compulsory on those waterways the common provisions for the granting of boatmasters’ certificates laid down in this Directive’.”
That organisation has interpreted the rules as saying that it is perfectly acceptable for Britain to have a separate local knowledge certificate not covered by the rest of Europe.
That is what has happened on the Rhine. The ETF goes on to say that the Rhine boatmaster’s licence is significantly more difficult to obtain than the licence that currently obtains in this country. To paraphrase the document again, in order to get a patent to navigate the Rhine, a person has to be at least 21, with four years as a crew member, at least two of which were as a boatman, and acquisition of local knowledge must be significant. Overall, it means that, to obtain a boatmaster’s certificate on the Rhine, a person has to have a minimum of six years’ training and work experience. The ETF believes that that would also be an appropriate level at which to operate on the Thames. All we are saying is that having the same level of safety and qualifications in Britain as on the Rhine would meet most of the unions’ objections and make perfect sense in terms of safety and public confidence. It should be well within the scope of the regulations to allow that to happen.
I ask the Minister to revisit the issue to see whether there is any way in which we could follow the example of the Rhine boatman’s certificate and apply the same regulations to the tidal part of the Thames. We must ensure that what we understand by the tidal part of the Thames still goes as far as it currently does and does not stop at the Thames barrier, as under the current proposals.
I am glad to be able to make some brief comments, because I appreciate that other hon. Members want to contribute to this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on her excellent speech, which brought all the issues out into the open.
I obviously represent a central London seat, which is at the heart of the Thames and the City. Tragically, it was in my constituency that the horrendous events involving the Bowbelle and Marchioness took place 18 years ago. All London Members on both sides of the House have a great passion for our city, and the Thames is at the heart of the city. That is particularly true of hon. Members in the centre, although the same applies, of course, to the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer), whose constituency is not quite in the centre, but which is, none the less, a Thameside constituency.
We recognise the importance of the Thames, which has been at the heart of London’s economic and recreational growth. As the hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) rightly said, however, it has also become increasingly busy in recent years. Five million passengers and 50 million tonnes of goods are carried on the Thames every year. The hon. Gentleman also referred to the Rhine, and I hope that the Minister will give clear consideration to that issue. The same point also applies to the Danube, which is an important part of Romania, one of the new EU nations. Special rules apply on those two rivers, so it would seem sensible that such rules should also apply on the Thames.
There has been a long struggle over this issue. In considering the 10-year struggle of those who lost loved ones and near ones on the Marchioness, we recognise our impotence and powerlessness as Members of Parliament. At times, those people must have thought that they were having to break down the walls of bureaucracy—to some extent, that is one thing that I hope all of us, as Members of Parliament, can do on behalf of our constituents—to bring in new rules and regulations.
All Opposition Members look with a certain scepticism at any new regulations, and there is always a sense in which business should not be over-regulated. Above all, however, there is an issue of public safety. Of course, we do not want such stringent rules on any of our rivers—or, indeed, on any form of transport—that it is impossible for people to go about their everyday business. Inevitably, any form of transport will always involve an element of risk, and the idea that we can entirely eliminate risk is unrealistic. Equally, however, we need to ensure that, as far as possible, we strike the right balance between ensuring that the Thames is a great place for pleasure and commerce and a safe place.
I therefore entirely endorse the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster. She was right to say that we need to consider the Thames alongside the Rhine and the Danube, and I hope that the Government will make strong representations on the issue in Europe. We do not expect special treatment, and it is quite sensible to apply the proposed rules to many of our other rivers, but the Thames will be increasingly important.
Another important issue will be some of the river’s tributaries, most importantly those around the Lea valley. I spent last Sunday walking around the Olympic site, although, rather depressingly, little work seems to have been done in the 17 or so months since we won the Olympic bid. However, significant work has been done on the towpaths in the upper Lea valley to make them safe and to ensure that the site is attractive for the many millions of people who will visit the Olympics, as well as for those who will live and work in the area in the years ahead, when the site ceases to be an amalgam of former industrial sites. That shows the important role that water will play for London’s economic growth in the future, and we need to have an eye to the safety aspects.
I have just one other comment at this juncture. It has been suggested that the watermen and lightermen’s company is some sort of trade union that is looking after its own interests. It is probably fair to say that that was its underlying raison d’être when it started up in the 16th century. However, it now plays an important part not only in London’s history, but in ensuring that the Thames is safe and that those working on it can go about their business. I praise the watermen and lightermen’s livery company for playing an important social role, as do many of our livery companies in London. Indeed, if one walks down Penge high street, one will see almshouses going back to the 17th century, which were run by the watermen and lightermen’s company. The company is now working with the London borough of Bromley to ensure that many dozens of people can live happy lives in one of our London suburbs.
When it began its life, the watermen and lightermen’s company, like many livery companies, may have focused on acting as a guild for its members, but it now plays a much more important social role. Part and parcel of that role are the representations that the company has made to Members of Parliament in London and beyond, and I hope that the Government will give clear consideration to what it has to say. It is the expert in this field, and I sincerely hope that the recommendations of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster will see the light of day in the Minister’s comments and, more importantly, in what is done in the months and years ahead.
I speak as chair of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers parliamentary group, and I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests in that regard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on securing the debate. She set out our views in a detailed way. As interventions have shown, there is consensus across the Chamber, and I think that that will remain the case.
It is important for the RMT that we place on record its concerns expressed over the past 18 months as part of the consultation. When a Government intervene on safety regulations, the most important thing is that people have confidence in that intervention and that the Government take everybody with them. My concern about the process so far is that despite the long consultation period, the Government do not seem to have listened to the representations made by various parties on a number of issues, and it is important that the Minister listens this morning.
I share the anxieties expressed about statements made to the Evening Standard yesterday, and I would welcome the Minister clarifying the position and amending some of them. The primary objective of everybody who has been engaged in the consultation process and other discussions has been to improve and maintain safety on the Thames. There have been no attempts to protect individual interests, and the issue for those involved has been the interests of the people who work and sail on the river, as well as those of passengers. It is unacceptable to describe those who take that attitude as being part of a cosy club, and I hope that the Minister will resile from that view.
The debate is not simply about European standards either. During the consultation process, we accepted, as I think the Government did, that EU standards could apply but that we should have the right to apply higher standards in this country if specific issues have to be addressed. One thing that has come out of all the debates and consultations is that we are dealing with a river that has complications in its navigational system. That requires higher standards, and that is what we should aim for. Indeed, all the inquiries into the various disasters on the Thames have increased standards at each stage, and the one thing that we do not want to do is to step back from those.
On that basis, I urge the Government, even at this late stage, to start listening to those on the front line who deliver the service—the professionals who have operated the service over the years on such a difficult stretch of the river. The RMT’s concerns replicate those set out by the hon. Lady. The union is anxious about the significant cut in mandatory college-based training. That training was one of the key elements that the professionals whom we brought to discuss the issue with the Minister said should be maintained. As the hon. Lady said, apart from the weak safety training, it looks as though there will be a cut of up to 90 per cent. The replacement of four examinations with one is not acceptable to the union as it does not encompass the full range of testing that is required. Many professionals view the 75 per cent. reduction as a retrograde step.
The reduction of time in which to gain local knowledge is baffling to most people who operate on the Thames. The change is based on a limited risk assessment undertaken by the PLA which was contested by many parties involved in subsequent discussions. The Minister should re-examine that urgent matter. Having only six months instead of two years in which to gain local knowledge represents a 75 per cent. reduction, and people do not understand why we are stepping back from the very issue that has been highlighted in report after report: the need for detailed local knowledge of the Thames. This is not an attempt to exclude Europeans who want to sail or undertake work on the Thames, but a recognition of the difficulties with this piece of water. The change from five years to two regarding qualifying services does not replicate what is happening elsewhere in Europe, and significantly reduces the potential for people to become used to the river and to become professionals.
Will the Minister clarify the situation as regards to being in command of a vessel on the Thames? The current PLA Watermen and Lightermen Byelaws 1992, as amended, provide that a passenger vessel on the Thames must not only be under the command of a licensed waterman but be navigated by a fully qualified licensed waterman. Under the new proposals, inland waterways vessels carrying cargo or passengers will be under the command of a licensed boat master, but any person whom the boat master believes is competent to do so will be allowed to navigate the vessel. If that is the case, it is a significant worry for many who work on the Thames because it means that a passenger vessel may be navigated by someone who is not fully qualified or who does not fulfil the age or medical conditions, such as those on eyesight and colour blindness.
People were explicit in the consultation. Following a detailed consultation with its members who work on the river, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers concluded that the new system will have potentially disastrous consequences for tidal river safety. The RMT and others have discussed the matter with people who tragically experienced what happened with the Marchioness and the Bowbelle.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case. Does he accept that it simply is not good enough for the Government and the PLA to keep saying that there was a long and extensive consultation process—which there was—given that at every stage the consultees were ignored?
It behoves the Government, particularly in matters such as this in which safety is the issue, not only to consult but to listen. When there is a difference of views, they should be explicit about why they have failed to take them into account, especially those expressed by front-line practitioners. I remember bringing experts—people who are responsible for vessels on the Thames—to our meetings with Ministers. To a person, they opposed the Government’s regulations, and they did so politely and with professional explanations. It behoves the Government to respond to those concerns in detail if they are to vary their judgment.
I wish to place on record the RMT’s opposition to the proposals. It consulted Margaret Lockwood Croft, to whom we have all paid tribute. She told us:
“There is absolutely no logic, rhyme or reason for a Labour government to renege on the improvements in safety on the Thames…The minimum standards in the EU directive would be welcome on other waterways where there are currently no or lower standards, but not on the Thames and those other tidal rivers where the standards are already considerably higher. With river traffic increasing we need higher standards, not lower…It took our campaign 17 years to get a multi-agency emergency exercise to take place on the Thames, but if these changes are not stopped we could be seeing the real thing all too soon.”
The RMT, many colleagues on both sides of the House and I fully concur with that view. We urge the Government to step back, consult again and re-examine how we can maintain the high standards that are so needed on the Thames.
First, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson). She excellently set out the practical reasons why, at this last stage of the proceedings, this debate has commanded so much support from parliamentarians across the House who know about these issues because they have been involved with the Thames and the people who work on it. We represent those people and are therefore telling the Minister that we want him not only to hear what we are saying, but to implement the request that comes both from this debate and the prayer in the Order Paper that the regulations dated 4 December and laid before the House on 7 December, for which the statutory period in which the House can make a decision has not yet ended, should be annulled.
We are in the ridiculous legal position, which you will know well, Mr. O’Hara, that the Government can lay a statutory instrument that can come into force before the end of the time in which the Houses of Parliament can decide whether they agree with it. Although the new regulations technically came into force on 1 January, at this moment the House can say no to them. We ask the Minister to tell the business managers that we want a debate on the regulations in Government time at the earliest opportunity. At that stage, we would like the Government to say that they will take back the proposal and listen to the advice that they have heard from hon. Members on both sides of the House. If he is not persuaded by the advice and views that he has heard today, I assure him that there is plenty of supporting evidence and advice available elsewhere.
My constituency name reflects that it is a riverside constituency. The Southwark borough has sent MPs here since the 13th century to represent the riverside community. Bermondsey has sent MPs here for over 100 years to represent an archetypal riverside community—the docks community—and it was hugely populated by people with a docks and Transport and General Workers Union background. When I was first selected, I came to this House from my constituency by boat to represent that importance.
This is not about self-interest and protection but a matter of public interest and the safety of the people who use the Thames. I was the MP for North Southwark and Bermondsey on 20 August 1989 when the Marchioness sank at 2 am. I received a call about three quarters of an hour later and I was on the riverside that night. I worked with colleagues such as the former Member for Newham, South, and Lord Brooke, who was then the Member for Cities of London and Westminster and with families and survivors, including the Dallaglio and Perks families, for 10 years. Eventually, the Deputy Prime Minister, to his great credit, agreed that there should be a public inquiry. That is one thing for which I shall always be grateful to him because it was his decision and the public inquiry was held.
At the inquiry, which I attended, Lord Justice Clarke was very clear. He made 74 recommendations in his two reports. There were two follow-up reports in November 2001 and February 2003. The reports made absolutely clear the danger of the Thames. I have been on the Thames often enough in good weather and bad. I have been on the tidal and non-tidal Thames and I have even fallen in it once—actually, I was thrown in, but that is another story—so I know from my good and bad experiences that it is a dangerous river.
We are trying to bring tourism to this capital city. If we think that it is in Britain’s interest in the run-up to the Olympic games to risk a reduction in safety in the Thames, we are sadly misguided. My friend, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), and I are trustees of the Mayor of London’s Thames Festival Trust—I am the chair. Over 10 years, the festival has brought hundreds of thousands of people to celebrate the river. It is partly a celebration of the fact that the river is now a much safer place for people to use for travel. What do we want of the river? We want it to be an even safer place. We want it to have more business, not less. We want more freight on it, not less. We want it to be more busy, not less busy.
So, what should we do? We should listen to the expertise of people who know what they are talking about. The problem in this debate is that the Company of Watermen and Lightermen is a name that sounds medieval, so people think that its views must be medieval. That medieval background comes from the fact that it has hundreds of years of experience. I shall cite one example of that from a letter that I received on this subject from a licensed waterman and lighterman, who lives in Deptford but was born in Rotherhithe, in my constituency. It stated:
“I have had the pleasure of conveying you on the vessel I was captain of at the time, the Mayflower Garden. Like all watermen we have all had a legal apprenticeship…I am from a Rotherhithe family and have worked the River for 61 years…My grandfather was drowned at work and I have lost three of my personal friends through drowning at work. I am therefore not unfamiliar with the danger”
of the Thames. This is the sort of experience that we are talking about.
This is not a closed shop, because there are about 600 licensed watermen and lightermen, and about 60 new people join every year. That is the rate of application from young people and there is no barrier to people coming—people who were born in Orkney, Shetland, Scilly or abroad can join. I was at a local fire station the other day, and I know that firefighters who were born in America work in the London fire service. There is no barrier or discrimination on this matter, but there is one requirement—that people are well prepared and are willing to come to do the particular apprenticeship that is required to ensure that they do the job properly.
The directive was published in 2006. I have read the good briefing notes and the explanatory memorandum on the regulations being proposed and the directive. They make it clear that the UK can derogate, as the Minister knows. The explanatory memorandum states:
“The Department has taken advantage of the derogation in article 3(2) of the Directive, which permits Member States to exempt boatmasters from the requirement to hold an EU-model boatmaster’s certificate where they operate exclusively on waterways not linked to a waterway of another Member State.”
That situation applies, and therefore the Government have said, “Yes, we will do our own thing.” Having decided that we will do our own thing, it is clear to me that we are allowed to decide in law that we can have a particular regime for a particular place. In a way, this is not the same as the situation in respect of the Rhine, because that river crosses different countries, whereas the Thames runs through just one country. Therefore, we are allowed to have a requirement.
All the notes make it clear that the Government can impose higher standards than the minimum standards required under the EU legislation. I understand the case for EU legislation, and I do not oppose such legislation, but there is a particular situation involved. People can apply from anywhere in the world to get the standard, but they must have the required training and qualification.
In July, some of us took a petition to Downing street with watermen and lightermen. We talked to both them and the unions before, during and after that event, up to today. Thus we are clear that this matter is about ensuring that, if it is humanly possible, there is never another terrible tragedy like the sinking of the Marchioness. They want there to be jobs for people of this great city on the river, as that is a valid concern, but their first concern is that the experience of centuries should not be lost.
I ask the Minister respectfully and sincerely to say that it would be the greatest foolishness to go down the road that the Government propose. They might have all the professional advice from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency that they need, but if they do not listen to the experience of the people who work the river and their representatives, they are taking incomplete and insufficient advice.
There is a chance to change this proposal. I hope that in the next few days we shall have the opportunity to debate it and that the Government will announce that they will re-examine it. I hope that they will come up with the requirement to sustain the higher level of qualification for work on the Thames than is required elsewhere. It needs to be higher because this is the most dangerous river in this country and there is a requirement to ensure that people who travel on it are safe.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on securing the debate. I think that all hon. Members agree with every word she said. I have no disagreement with any comments made, so I shall not go over any of the ground already covered.
I represent a riverside constituency, as does the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), and I live by the river. In my many years as a Member of Parliament, I have seen the increased use of the River Thames. If the Government get away with what they are trying to do, it will leave the people who use and work on the river at risk. It will also bring this great city into disrepute.
From the beginning of the process, and in our meetings with the Minister, I always thought that common sense would prevail. Anyone who knows anything about the River Thames, particularly the non-central part of it, knows just what a dangerous river it is. Given that the Government seem to have gold-plated every other European Union directive, it is amazing that they want to downgrade this one and that they do not want to use the power that we have to maintain those extra, higher standards on the Thames. I do not understand it. I do not know whether the Minister will be able to explain why we are even thinking of taking this course of action. So far he has not been able to do so; he has merely referred, in that rather glib way, to a cosy club.
I am not an expert on the Thames, but if I had to choose between the advice and guidance of the Minister, his civil servants and even people from the Port of London Authority, and the advice and practical experience of those members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers who work on the river and the members of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, who have worked on the river for many years, I know which side I would come down on. The public would also come down on that side.
Along with many of my colleagues, I have prayed against the proposal. The Minister has had an opportunity to listen to the united views expressed today and to all the views expressed during the consultation. If he does not do so, we will have to find a way of voting on the issue somewhere in the Palace. As a riverside MP, I am not prepared to allow my Government to put through something that without doubt will put people’s lives at risk without having had a chance to show that I totally oppose it.
I ask the Minister to re-examine the issue and come back to us with some common-sense proposals. We must ask why we are adopting this proposal, because it does not make sense given that we have a standard that has been fought for and achieved. I hope that he has listened to the strong views expressed by hon. Members from all parties.
I almost feel like an interloper because I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Member who represents a Thames-side constituency. However, I do represent an island constituency that has a number of treacherous stretches of tidal water. My constituents’ experiences, and their views about respecting the potential danger of tidal waters and the need for and importance of local knowledge, would find a ready resonance with the debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on the way in which she opened the debate. The reasoned and measured way in which she put her powerful and cogent case is to be commended. The debate has been exceptionally good. I hope that the Minister will take on board the fact that we have heard views from a wide range of people, many of whom are not what would be referred to as the usual suspects. The contribution by the hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) was particularly powerful and useful, because I would normally regard him as being something of a Government loyalist. His position was well reasoned and powerful, and I have no doubt that opposing his Government was not easy. I commend him for that and hope that it will be recognised by the Minister.
The debate’s tone stands in marked contrast with the tenor of the Minister’s remarks yesterday as reported in the Evening Standard. I shall read a couple of them for the record. It reported that the Minister said:
“What the boatmen and some of their supporters seem to be saying is that it takes as long to train a boatman as it does to train a hospital doctor. Is that reasonable?”
There is more than the merest whiff of academic snobbery in that comment and I hope that the Minister will dissociate himself from it. He was asked if he referred to a cosy club and said:
“Oh yes—I don’t think there’s any doubt about it.”
I find the tone of those remarks completely reprehensible. From my contact with watermen and lightermen on this issue it seems that they are a body of very well-qualified men who take an exceptional pride in the experience and standard of service that they can offer to the community.
Hon. Members referred to the Marchioness disaster. Let us not forget the role that the watermen played in the weeks following the disaster when many of them were finding bodies after the official authorities had given up the search. That is the sort of experience that they have endured and it makes them understand and value the nature of their profession. For such reasons, they are determined to defend the practice that they have enjoyed to date. That should not be denigrated in the way that the Minister chose to do.
Hon. Members referred to the reinvigoration of the Thames, and that should be welcomed for many reasons. The Minister is on the record as having said on several occasions that he is a fan of short sea shipping as an effective and environmentally friendly way of moving goods around. With the advent of the construction of the Olympic site for 2012, that will increase. For that reason alone, surely we should maintain the highest possible standards on a difficult stretch of water. To replace a five-year apprenticeship relating specifically to the Thames with a two-year apprenticeship applying to all inland waterways is asking for trouble. Why is it that every time the Government seek to level standards there is always a levelling down from the gold standard? The practice and history of the watermen and lightermen should be celebrated and protected rather than denigrated and downgraded, as the Government seek to do.
The great frustration of Westminster Hall debates is that the Minister is left with just 10 minutes at the end during which he can do little other than read a speech that has been prepared for him. We have had an excellent debate, but we have not heard much from him and there is no opportunity for cross-questioning, so I shall conclude my remarks and hope that during his response he will allow a wide range of interventions from hon. Members who feel strongly about the issue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on securing this debate and on her remarkable speech when introducing it. I also congratulate all the other hon. Members who have spoken. There really is a consensus that the proposal is simply not good enough.
The Minister has the power, in theory through Parliament, to set the standards of training and safety on the Thames. Those who travel and work on the Thames expect him to put safety first. He has chosen to dismantle the system that was put in place on the river as a result of the tragic sinking of the Marchioness in 1989. I, too, pay tribute to Margaret Lockwood Croft and her campaigners who have done so much to highlight the implications of the tragedy—the things that needed doing—in their campaign for a public inquiry. I pay tribute to her for her role in fighting the changes and the regulations.
I shall give one example of what is wrong. The new regulations allow a boatmaster from the continent, who may never have operated in tidal waters, to come to London for six months, take one test—perhaps in ideal conditions—and then skipper a boat with 500 passengers on one of the world’s busiest waterways. Incredibly, the same regulations will require someone who has worked the Thames all his life to be retested every five years.
No doubt the Minister will tell us about the European directive. The Select Committee on Transport, whose distinguished Chairman is with us here today, described the Government’s handling of the directive as an example of gold-plating at its worst. The problem is compounded, as several hon. Members said, by the way in which the licence is being implemented. The statutory instrument was laid before the House on 7 December, leaving barely a week and a half for hon. Members to object before the new regulations came into force. They have already come into force and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster told the House, the computer has crashed and people are operating boats technically illegally, and their licences are effectively proof of posting their applications.
We have seen the depth of concern among hon. Members on both sides of the House. The matter should be subjected to a proper, full debate upstairs with Government proposals that are acceptable to the House as a whole and the community that works on the Thames.
The hon. Gentleman said that he wanted a full debate upstairs. Given the breadth of concern, will he reconsider and suggest that the debate should be, as is permissible, on the Floor of the House so that we can expose the issues more broadly? That is what some of us would like.
I am so sorry. I had a slip of the tongue. What I meant from down here in Westminster Hall was on the Floor of the House. I thank the hon. Gentleman for correcting me.
The River Thames is unique in Europe with 50 million tonnes of goods and 5 million passengers carried each year. It has waters that rise and fall by as much as 25 ft twice a day. Boatmen must navigate 27 bridges and negotiate the waters with as many as 12,000 vessel movements a month. It is little wonder that from time to time things go wrong. The consequences can be massive, final and tragic.
A great deal has rightly been said about the tragedy of the Marchioness. When 52 innocent people were killed in the London underground the year before last, the Government promised measures to help to prevent a repeat of the tragedy. We have had new legislation, and billions of pounds have been committed to try to prevent another such outrage. Yet in 1989, 51 people—only one fewer—died needlessly and nastily in the waters of the Thames. The inquiry called it a
“catastrophe which should never have happened”.
There were many causes of that terrible waste of life and Lord Justice Clarke’s investigation was detailed. He made 44 recommendations, which were formally accepted by the Deputy Prime Minister in 2000. In his report, Lord Justice Clarke praised the watermen and lightermen licence for requiring
“a two-year apprenticeship followed by three years as a professional waterman”
before anyone can captain a passenger vessel on the Thames. Evidently, he did not regard that as a cosy closed shop.
I shall summarise a few of the differences between the old watermen and lightermen licence and the new boatmaster's licence. To master a boat requires only 30 months’ qualifying service, not the five years formerly demanded. When one considers that the minimum age demanded has fallen from 21 to 18, there will be boatmasters with much less experience of both the river and life trying to negotiate one of the world's busiest rivers. It is a lethal cocktail of goods, passengers, youth and inexperience. It is a recipe for carnage, especially in the run-up to the Olympics, as another hon. Member pointed out. One week of safety training will replace the mandatory 10 weeks; one shore-based examination will replace the two of old; 750 days on the river will be scaled down to 360; four exams will be cut to one or two; and the number of current practitioners vouching for the applicant will be reduced from six to one. The most dangerous aspect of the new regime is the amount of local knowledge demanded. A captain will need only six months’ experience of the river, where before a minimum of two years’ local knowledge was expected.
I, too, was on the Thames yesterday, and I endorse everything that colleagues who were there have said. The most striking factor was the emptiness of the water compared with the water in the height of summer, when I was also privileged to be there. It suddenly struck me: if somebody had been taking a test yesterday, would that really have shown whether they were ready to take it during peak conditions in July, when there are perhaps three or four times as many vessels on the water in the busiest areas? The section of the Thames to which the provisions apply simply stops at the Thames barrier; there is no local knowledge requirement beyond that. Is it right that somebody who has never worked in tidal waters should be able to take charge of a vessel after just six months and one test? Surely, it is not, and like others, I urge the Minister to reconsider the legislation.
I welcome aspects of the new scheme, some of which have already been mentioned. The need for certificates in fire control, passenger management, first aid and personal survival is a good advance, although all new applicants must pass those four tests anyway. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster, I welcome the fact that for the first time, tugmasters and captains of freight vessels will have statutory licences, although, as she pointed out, the proposals are incomplete.
I urge the Minister to reconsider the workings of the scheme. A unique alliance has been formed against the new licence. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and other unions have united, as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) pointed out, with one of the City’s oldest livery companies, the Worshipful Company of Watermen and Lightermen, which is a great institution that proved its worth yet again through its reaction to the bombings on 7 July 2005.
I must also congratulate one of the company’s members, Alex Hickman, who has done a wonderful job leading the campaign with Margaret Lockwood Croft to bring to Parliament and to the public an understanding of just what is being proposed. Together, the group collected thousands of signatures in a petition against the measures, which we presented to the Prime Minister in September together with a cross-party delegation of MPs.
I shall quote two other sources. First, from the unions, Nick Bramley, the president of the European Transport Workers Federation, which is based in Switzerland, said that
“the ETF has a very real concern that the levels being proposed in Britain are below these standards”,
and he questioned the usefulness of the proposals. He continued:
“The ETF would sooner welcome UK National licensing provisions based on former arrangements through the provisions for certificating Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames or a system based on the current Rhine Patent.”
Secondly, Scott Newton, captain of the Woolwich ferry, on which I have travelled many times, wrote to a number of hon. Members, wanting to
“highlight concerns arising from the imminent reduction of safety standards on the River Thames”.
The Rhine and Danube rivers present us with a good model. I have been privileged on a couple of occasions to travel down the Rhine on a yacht; it was a very frightening experience. As I am sure the Minister will tell us, the sheer volume of commercial traffic on the Rhine is much higher than on the Thames, but the difference between the Rhine and the Thames is that vast numbers of pleasure boats do not mix with commercial traffic on the Rhine. We hardly saw another boat that was not a barge as we travelled down the river.
The Rhine patent was negotiated by the practitioners on the rivers and the relevant countries. It allows only those people who have six years’ experience and who have been thoroughly examined to become master of a boat on either the Rhine or the Danube, and the Rhine has far fewer pleasure boats on it and far fewer passengers exposed to risk. The German and Austrian Governments in particular fought hard for that exemption, and they have successfully and rigorously maintained safety standards on the two rivers. That is all the more reason why the Thames should be granted similar exemption. We should by all means accept the continental standards, but we should add some local extras to maintain our standards.
Many hon. Members from all parties have made it clear that they want nothing to do with the new licences. I urge the Minister at this last moment to think again. I have the highest respect for the Minister—my constituency neighbour—as an MP and as a human being. He is just as anxious as every other Member who has spoken to ensure that there is no ghastly tragedy on the Thames. He must reconsider the provision. I urge him to return with better proposals that are designed to meet the challenges of safe navigation on the Thames.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on securing this debate, and on her interest in this important matter. I congratulate, too, all Members who have contributed to or attended the debate on their interest.
Let me begin by making something crystal clear: if I thought for one second that the proposals would reduce safety standards on the Thames, I would not introduce them. I have the greatest respect for the qualifications and professionalism of those people—not only in the House today, but outside the House—who have raised concerns about the matter. I accept entirely that the Thames watermen are motivated by an interest in maintaining the standards of safety on the river. I shall address the comments about the cosy club, because I have been specifically asked to clarify them, and I shall do so in a moment.
I want to put on record that I have the highest respect for the people who have campaigned on the issue. Mrs. Lockwood Croft has been mentioned on several occasions, and I have the highest respect for her and for the other people whose relatives suffered in the Marchioness catastrophe. They have been campaigning for safety on the Thames over the years, and I have had the pleasure of working with them during the 18 months that I have done my job. I have the highest respect for them. I simply believe, however, that they are wrong on the issue before us.
Members ask me whether we can have another debate and why the statutory instrument was not laid until December, and one reason why was my delaying it to add further gold-plating to the recommendations that I had been given by the experts who advise me. I wanted to be absolutely sure that I was erring on the side of caution, not expediency.
I accept that the simplest thing for me politically would be to say, “Let’s stick with the current arrangement,” because nobody would argue with it. I simply happen to believe that the new arrangements will be better. They improve on the old arrangements in several areas. We have mentioned the Marchioness catastrophe. The hon. Lady and most hon. Members who have contributed to the debate mentioned it. However, I thought it a bit rich of my parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), to raise the matter as he did, given that his Government refused to undertake a Thames safety inquiry or a public inquiry into the Marchioness disaster.
It was actually the Deputy Prime Minister who ordered the inquiry under this Government, and we have implemented all its recommendations; and Lord Justice Clarke said that, in so far as training standards on the Thames were concerned, he was content with them. But equally, he said that there were two anomalies: first, that we did not have a national licence or an equivalent waterways regime outside the Thames, which we needed to do something about; and secondly, that certain categories of user, such as operators of commercial vessels that do not go to sea, do not need licensing on the Thames. He required us to look at the way in which we license boatmasters in order to produce a national scheme. So we are fulfilling one of his recommendations.
The recommendations include those. I shall provide some details because Members seem to have formed the view that I have plucked the recommendations out of the air, when they resulted from consultations held over a long period. The initial proposals were formed as a result of two working parties set up in February 2003—the freight standards steering group and the boatmaster’s licence working group. We conducted a non-statutory consultation on the first proposals between December 2003 and February 2004, and a second one in 2005. We conducted a statutory consultation between April 2006 and July 2006, and in 2006, we held ministerial meetings that involved myself and other Members of Parliament, the RMT and other representatives of boatmen.
As a consequence, we improved significantly the original proposals. We have said that a person will not gain their local knowledge of the Thames during the two years in which they obtain their generic licence, but during six months of training afterwards. So we have already gold-plated the original recommendations precisely as a result of listening to representations from people who complained to me about the original proposals.
I accept that the RMT and some practising watermen do not think that we have gone far enough, but nevertheless, the consultation took a great deal of time. I have been advised by experts, such as port authorities, Associated British Ports, the British Ports Association, the Port of London Authority and the United Kingdom Major Ports Group, and they all support the recommendations.
Let me make some progress, please.
Navigation authorities, including the Association of Inland Navigation Authorities, and unions and operators were involved in the consultations as well. Afterwards, the resulting reports were subject to a very thorough consultation, which resulted in significant strengthening of the rules. In recent months, we have done that by making the acquisition of local knowledge consecutive with the generic licence and by introducing the principle of revalidating local knowledge every five years.
Let me make some progress. I have very little time and some key points to make. After that, I shall give way happily.
From the comments made by some Members, I think that there is some misunderstanding about the way in which the new regime will work. It is true that, under the old regime, people worked for five years to obtain licences, but having got them, they were qualified to work in a whole raft of areas on the Thames and to fulfil a range of different functions. Under the new arrangements, that will not apply. We now have a modular licensing system in which a person first gets a generic licence that will require two years of experience, to include 240 days of service. If that person wants to operate on the Thames, they will have to do their six months’ local endorsement.
In addition, a person will require a range of other endorsements. For example, a general passenger endorsement will require another 120 days of service, with another endorsement of 60 days’ service for larger numbers of passengers. Sixty days of extra service will be required for general cargo; 60 days for carrying oil; 60 days for towing and pushing; 120 days for dredging; and 120 days for going to sea. In other words, if a person is going to get a licence qualifying them to do what the existing licence allows them to do, 720 days of service will be required. The existing regime requires 750 days of service, so the systems are almost equivalent. If a person is going to get a licence equivalent to the current regime, they will need to do almost exactly the same service.
The Port of London Authority, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and other experts told me that such a requirement is not necessary. Beyond the barrier, the issues to be addressed are the same as anywhere else.
The regime is strengthened by the fact that, when a person acquires their local knowledge, having trained for six months, they will be qualified for a restricted route on the Thames. If they want to change their route in the local knowledge area—perhaps because they change operator or employer—they will need to repeat their local knowledge training. From that point of view, the system is being strengthened considerably. Furthermore, they will need to revalidate their local knowledge every five years—a further strengthening of the current regime.
Nobody is arguing that there cannot be changes or improvements—the Minister has set out many of them—but the European norm will be four years of training. Does the Minister not understand that the central objection to the proposal is that the minimum training barrier in one of the most difficult rivers in Europe will be half of what it is across Europe? If he is willing to change that and one or two of the other matters raised, we could agree on a package that is an all-round improvement, not one that improves some areas, but leaves a great hole in the middle.
The European norm will not be four years. The directive makes it clear that, if a person’s training is entirely practical, it will be four years, but that period can be reduced to one year by taking exams. We have gold-plated that requirement significantly, as we have done in a number of areas. For example, we have introduced far more stringent medical testing requirements and retesting of those who will operate under the new regime. We might well be challenged on that and will have to defend it to some of our colleagues in Europe, because it will look to them as though we are gold-plating the proposals to restrict them. The five year revalidation is a gold-plating of the directive and we will have to work very hard to convince our European colleagues otherwise—and the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) says that we have reduced the requirements. My officials and experts have conducted a stringent analysis of standards across the rest of Europe and they assure me that standards will not be higher anywhere else in Europe.
This debate concerns the sorry story of Ford open prison. It is located in my constituency, two miles south-west of Arundel, and was established on the site of a former fleet air arms station in 1960. Ford is a category D open establishment, with an emphasis on resettlement, and has an operational capacity of about 500 or more offenders.
The chronology of recent events at Ford has been well listed and categorised in the local press and the national media. For me, they started on Friday 19 May 2006, in the midst of the foreign national prisoners scandal, which saw the Government admit that more than 1,000 foreign national prisoners had been released without being considered for deportation. When I visited the prison, I asked the governor, in terms, whether abscondments among foreign national prisoners were a problem and I was told, in terms, that there was no problem. I then raised the issue of foreign national prisoners being at the prison at all, bearing in mind that they would have little incentive to stay in an open prison if they were due for deportation. I was told, incredibly I felt, that many such prisoners actually wanted to be deported.
The following Wednesday, I was informed by a source at the prison and by the local press that a significant number of prisoners had absconded from the prison over the previous few days. I rang the governor to ask the same question again: was there a problem with prisoners absconding from Ford? Again I was told, in terms, that there was no problem; but we now know, from figures that I eventually dragged out of the Home Office, that 34 prisoners escaped between March and May, two of whom were murderers who were sentenced to life. Just one week before my visit, four prisoners absconded in one day alone. My contention is that the governor must have known about that when she answered my direct question about whether there had been people escaping from Ford in recent days. If she did not know, that was a disgrace.
Immediately afterwards, I tabled some parliamentary questions, and the following day—not, I suggest, coincidentally—the Prison Service mounted a dramatic early morning raid to remove 141 foreign national prisoners from Ford prison and transfer them to closed institutions. That raid made the local and national news. Only after a point of order that I raised on the Floor of the House about the Home Office’s failure to provide answers did the Home Office reluctantly admit, in a written answer on 8 June 2006, that 61 prisoners had absconded from Ford since the beginning of the year, that 33 of those were foreign nationals and that 19 had been considered for enforcement proceedings by the immigration and nationality directorate, with one due to be deported.
The situation raises a number of serious issues. The first is the rate at which prisoners are walking out of Ford. Figures subsequently released by the Government at the end of July reveal that, since 2001, 496 prisoners—nearly 100 a year—have escaped from Ford prison. So far as I am aware from the latest figures that the Home Office has provided, that figure is being broadly maintained. There had been 70 escapes up to October last year, although perhaps the Minister can give me more up-to-date figures than that.
Local people and I understand the role of an open prison, but two prisoners walking out every week is too high a rate to be tolerated by the authorities or the Government. It is a rate that indicates that the security regime at the prison is lax. There are stories in the local media and among the local population of prisoners regularly failing to sign out of the prison properly. In November, one resident who lives close to the prison told the West Sussex Gazette:
“I have watched prisoners walk out of the prison through a gap in the security fence, stroll across the field for an after Sunday lunch drink at the pub and then stroll back.
I have also seen, in broad daylight, cars pull up and goods in plastic bags be passed to prisoners and then taken into the prison. Local taxi drivers say that prisoners order taxis for prisoners to go to Littlehampton to collect up to 30 fish suppers at a time for inmates.
I have informed a retired prison officer of this and he told me that the prison is aware of it but does not have the ability to secure the perimeter fences. The gap in the security fence has been a permanent fixture for years. I have seen prison officers use it so the prison is well aware of its existence”.
It is no wonder that Ford has been dubbed HMP Butlins. Indeed, with the existence of a cricket pitch there, one might question whether prisoners should have any incentive to walk out at all. I understand that the swimming pool has now been filled in, but that is only because prisoners can walk out and sun themselves on Climping beach whenever they feel like it.
A fortnight ago another prisoner escaped. This time it was a murderer who wanted to spend Christmas with his family. Prison officers did not realise that he was missing until 3 am on Christmas eve, after the police had picked him up and returned him to the prison. The Home Office has since confirmed that the prison does not have details of when he went missing. In a response to an inquiry by The Sun, a source at the prison admitted that the escape
“makes us a laughing stock”.
So it does. Only five days earlier, the Minister told me:
“Considerable progress in developing and improving security arrangements at the establishment has taken place at Ford prison over the last few years.”—[Official Report, 19 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 1973W.]
We must question what progress has really taken place when, as the Minister made his statement, a murderer walked out of the prison.
My second concern is that it is clear that unsuitable prisoners are being transferred to open conditions. That is driven by prison overcrowding, which is a consequence of the Government’s failure to plan properly for prison places. Back in 2003, the annual report of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons warned:
“Population pressure has meant that open prisons are receiving prisoners who would not formerly have been sent to open conditions at that point in sentence.”
We now know that, in the summer of 2002, the Home Office sanctioned a change in policy to allow the early transfer of criminals, including foreign nationals, to open prisons. We know that because of the letter that was sent to the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) by the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), then Minister with responsibility for prisons, although signed in her absence by the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety. That letter admitted that as a result of
“population pressures on the estate as a whole”,
open prisons were being
“asked to take prisoners who would perhaps have not previously been allocated there”.
Just this month, Harry Fletcher, the assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, has said that
“probation staff are stating clearly now that prisoners who are not suitable are being routinely reclassified”.
Only yesterday, the Prison Officers Association criticised the current prisoner categorisation policy:
“The allocation procedure now allows for some minor drug and violent offences to be categorised into open conditions.
Staff at establishments are very concerned that Category B prisoners of 4 years ago are now Category C prisoners or even worse Category D prisoners”—
such as those in Ford. The association continued:
“This has and continues to put the public at risk.”
My hon. Friend is raising the issue of Ford open prison, but does he accept that the same point is now greatly feared by a number of other open prisons? I have one in my constituency from which three people have absconded. One of those three was convicted of murder and the other two were convicted of manslaughter. Two of them have been on the run for almost 70 days, while one of them escaped at the weekend. We only saw photographs last weekend. There is a growing concern that the people who are sent to open prisons are being easily categorised in a way that they were not in the past.
I agree with my right hon. Friend’s concern, and shall refer to the prison that he mentioned in one moment.
We know from a document that was written by the governor of Ford and leaked to the press on 3 August that instructions have come down from the director of operations at the Prison Service, stating that
“local prisons must review prisoners serving short sentences for non-sexual or violent offences who are relatively low risk and likely to be suitable for transfer to open conditions…we are likely to get more very short termers, some who should really be in Cat C conditions”.
“Ministers have been briefed to this effect and are taking this risk.”
In other words, she knew that Ministers were taking the risk and that they knew that unsuitable prisoners were being transferred to category D prisons, including Ford. Plainly, if unsuitable prisoners are placed in open prisons in the first place, and if they then go on the run, there are serious implications for public safety. When, on 20 November, the Home Office eventually admitted that there had been 70 escapes since the beginning of the year—three made by prisoners serving life sentences for murder—it said that 28 of the 70 were still at large. Have those prisoners been returned? What penalties have they faced? We do not know; perhaps the Minister can tell us.
We do know that last weekend, Phil Wheatley, the director general of the Prison Service, said that he was embarrassed to admit that he did not know how many inmates were on the run from open prisons. When such prisoners abscond, there is simply no central database or record of them having done so.
My next concern is specific. The leaked staff briefing, written by the Ford prison governor, also suggested that a category C prison should be built at Ford. That is of particular concern locally. There is a formal statement of intent and agreement between the governor and the local community as represented by Arun district council. It states that there should be no more than 200 prisoners serving life sentences for violence or serving sex or arson sentences at the prison.
I find it extraordinary that the governor should have gone to a meeting with the council about the renewal of that agreement without mentioning her proposal that a category C prison should be sited at Ford. That proposal breached the spirit of that agreement, which has now expired. Confidence has broken down to the extent of there no longer being a formal agreement between the local community and the governor.
Such matters are serious, and a number of issues must be dealt with. First, I urge the Minister to undertake a proper security review of the prison. The fact that a prison is an open prison cannot mean that it has no security. Security at Ford is plainly inadequate, and I am not convinced that there is proper monitoring of offenders going in and out of it. As recently as December, the Minister told me that there were no plans to bring forward the Ford prison security audit, which will begin on 5 March. In view of everything that has happened, it would make sense for the Minister to bring forward that review and rebuild confidence in the community.
Secondly, there is a serious issue about risk assessment review procedures. We are constantly being told by the governor, and no doubt by the Minister, that all the prisoners have been risk-assessed. However, that assessment must include the risk of absconding. Prisoners are absconding, which undermines the assessment itself. In any case, the whole thing is undermined when it is revealed that procedures are secretly being relaxed. We know about that only because of leaked documents; it was never admitted to the public or to hon. Members.
My third point is that there should be a proper system for tracking offenders. It is absurd that we do not know how many offenders are still on the run from Ford and other prisons. Fourthly, the Government must address the questions of prison overcrowding and of unsuitable prisoners being transferred to open conditions. As all the experts now agree, that is unacceptable and places the public at risk. If there is to be a category C prison at Ford as part of the solution to those problems, that must be properly and openly discussed with local Members and with the council. So far, that has not happened.
That leads me to the issue of transparency. The governor must be straightforward with public and elected representatives, including me and the council. She has not been; there is a culture of secrecy at the prison and among the Government generally. Getting information from the Government has been very difficult, and that must change if confidence is to be rebuilt.
The Minister will be only too aware of the catalogue of blunders at the Home Office, including yesterday’s revelation that the serious convictions of 500 criminals have not been recorded on the police national computer. No doubt we shall hear about them later. However, my overall contention is that it is wholly unacceptable that two offenders should walk out every week from the prison. That severely undermines confidence, and I worry about the complacency that says that it does not matter and is all perfectly routine.
The greatest concern must be about an absconding prisoner going on to commit or having already committed serious offences. That happened following an escape from Sudbury prison in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin). Jason Hope escaped on 4 May; 21 days later, he sexually assaulted a 13-year-old boy. If such a thing happened at Ford after all the concerns raised about escapes, there will be most serious consequences for the governor and the Minister. I am sure that the Minister knows that. I urge him to recognise that the local community and I have genuine concerns about security at Ford prison. I urge him to address them.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing the debate. It reflects his continued interest, both as a constituency MP and Opposition Home Office spokesperson, in the work of the Prison Service and the Home Office in general.
As it is in his constituency, the hon. Gentleman clearly has an interest in Ford open prison. Ford is a category D training establishment which places great emphasis on resettlement programmes to prepare prisoners for release, a function of any open prison. Work opportunities at Ford include employment on farms and in gardens and vocational work in workshops. There are facilities for long-term prisoners to work in the community. That work concentrates on the principles of rehabilitation and reparation and is intended to benefit the local community. For instance, it includes involvement with a homeless shelter, an old people’s transportation scheme, the YMCA in Hove and the local villages. Ford also provides employment and business opportunities for the local area, and a large number of its staff come from the hon. Gentleman’s and surrounding constituencies.
I was aware of the hon. Gentleman’s May meeting with the governor at Ford. Clearly, she has not set aside his concerns. I am genuinely interested in what he said. I take some of the issues that he mentioned to be political, and I shall come to them, but I listened to his specific concerns and will address them. I will also be happy to meet him and perhaps to visit Ford.
The hon. Gentleman has expressed his concerns and those of the wider public about open establishments, and I am grateful that he decided to bring the debate to the House. He has had to respond to the media as a result of his position and I am aware that his local newspaper is running a campaign about the situation at Ford.
The debate gives me the opportunity to offer more reassurance to the hon. Gentleman, his constituents and the wider public, and to get beyond the headlines that proclaim only that the prison population is at new heights and try to raise unfounded fears. Sadly, such fears do much to erode the trust that has been carefully built up between local communities and prison establishments. Such relationships are vital, as those establishments cannot function without the support of the local community. As I said, the staff form part of that same community.
I am aware that in the area local to Ford prison, there has recently been a good deal of concern and rumour about the possibility that part of the existing site could be used to build a closed prison. I also understand that a link has been made between those rumours and the forthcoming security audit at Ford, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Indeed, he has tabled parliamentary questions about that.
Let me be clear about both those issues in a way that I hope will reassure the hon. Gentleman and his constituents. The rumours about the building of category C accommodation stemmed, as he said, from a leaked internal memorandum and staff briefing from the governor. Although it is not normally Government policy to comment about such leaks, it is clearly appropriate to set the matter straight to reassure the general community at Ford.
The suggestions set out in the governor’s memorandum were her personal views of the potential options for the provision of category C places at Ford if the National Offender Management Service wished to examine them. She put them forward as options to consider, in the context of the Government’s announcement of the creation of a larger number of prison places in England and Wales. As such, I believe that her motives were constructive and helpful. However, there are no current plans to build any closed places at Ford. I hope that that assurance will be sufficient for the hon. Gentleman to cut any link between the rumours of closed places at Ford and the security audit.
Let me be clear about the purpose of the security audit, which is to be undertaken shortly. Such audits take place as a matter of routine at all establishments to ensure that systems are operating correctly, and to identify any areas that might need improvement. They take place every year at high-security prisons and approximately every two years elsewhere. The audit will scrutinise the establishment against standards laid down by the Prison Service, and it will be carried out by a specialist audit team. Any processes that are specific to the establishment but that are not up to the standards will be examined further, and a decision will be made centrally as to whether they deliver the same outcome. The audit at Ford will take place in February, not March.
I referred to trust and confidence. Confidence is particularly needed in the communities near open prisons, since such prisons by their very nature are of the lowest category. They are used at the final stages of prisoners’ sentences for reintegrating them into the community prior to their release. By their very nature, open prisons do not have secure perimeters, and there are no barriers to contain the prisoners. Prisoners are required to remain within the boundaries of the prison unless they are released temporarily on licence for a specific reason, such as attendance at a work placement that is part of a tailored programme to ease them gradually back into society.
It is important that we provide reassurance when someone absconds from an open prison, particularly when high-profile cases such as those that the hon. Gentleman mentioned raise any doubts about our commitment to public safety. Public safety is paramount, and, despite the current pressures, I can provide assurances that it will not be compromised. Only those prisoners who have been through a robust and rigorous risk assessment to determine their eligibility for open conditions will be transferred from a secure establishment.
Has the Minister seen yesterday’s statement by the Prison Officers Association? It says:
“The POA have serious concerns that they have raised with the Director General of the prison service who appeared to be unaware of the changes in the allocation procedure”
for open prisons. Have any such changes taken place? If the director general is unaware of them, is the Home Secretary unaware of them as well?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention, as I was about to deal with the statement. Clearly, I am concerned about remarks of the National Association of Probation Officers and the Prison Officers Association. The chief executive of NOMS and I have written to NAPO and the POA asking them to tell us where they received the information from and when, because we are receiving unsubstantiated remarks about changes of categorisation. Categorisation allocation rules have not changed and public protection remains a key consideration, but we would be interested in any evidence that NAPO and the POA have that governors or other people have changed the rules. I put it on the record that we will be seeking responses from those organisations about their comments, and we will act on any information that they provide.
As secretary of the justice unions group, I was in communication with the POA yesterday. It is keen, and has been since the appointment of the Home Secretary last year, to meet him, but it has yet to do so. It has asked for a meeting specifically to discuss these matters. Will my hon. Friend communicate that to the Home Secretary so that a date for a meeting can be established as soon as possible?
The Home Secretary has met the POA informally on several occasions, and a telephone conversation has taken place. Clearly, as the Minister with responsibility for prisons, I have direct responsibility for the relationship with prison officers. I have met them on a regular basis and will continue to do so, and I shall speak to the Home Secretary about future meetings.
We want the POA to respond positively to the letters that we have sent to it. The association is making substantial allegations and, if they are correct, we want to know about them and ensure that we act on them. I hope that Mr. Fletcher of NAPO and Colin Moses, president of the POA, will respond to the letters that we have sent to them.
It will help if I explain how the categorisation and allocation process works. Prisoners receive their initial categorisation soon after they are convicted and sentenced. They are categorised objectively according to the likelihood that they will seek to escape or abscond, and the risk that they would pose should they do so. In the majority of cases, consideration of those two factors alone are sufficient to determine the prisoner’s security category.
The risk assessment includes a consideration of current and previous offences; details of the charges, pleas, findings and sentences relating to the current offences, particularly whether they are of a violent or sexual nature; whether the offences involve drugs; and any other information on the prisoner that is available to the prison and probation services, such as a previous history of escape or absconding, medical and psychological reports and security information that might be relevant. Prisoners are placed in the lowest security category that is consistent with the assessment, although there may be instances where there is clear evidence that a prisoner needs higher levels of supervision than are available in a prison of the lower security category.
Will the Minister directly answer this question: is it acceptable that two prisoners a week abscond from Ford? He referred to the prison governor’s memo. How will he deal with the fact that she said that unsuitable prisoners are being transferred to Ford, and that Ministers know that and are taking the risk? How does that square with his claim that the categorisation policy has not changed?
I want to be clear about this: the briefing that the governor sent to her staff gave her view of the situation. I am saying that the categorisation has not changed. We have also said that people must be appropriately assessed for risk. As I said to the hon. Gentleman, I shall take up with the governor at Ford the issues that he has raised, but the categorisation has not changed. What has changed—he and others would have attacked the Government if we had not made this change—is that we are maximising use of the estate.
Certainly not, and that is why the risk assessment, which I shall discuss, is important in ensuring that people are in the most suitable places. However, as we are also criticised for not providing prison places, we are ensuring that we maximise the use of prison places, providing the proper risk assessments have taken place. I want that to be clearly understood.
Of course no absconds are acceptable, but they happen in open prisons because of the very nature of such prisons. The figures that I have for absconds from Ford go from a high of 142 in 2003-04 to 47 to the end of November 2006, so the hon. Gentleman’s figures are not correct. However, any abscond is inappropriate. People who are coming to the end of their sentences are risk-assessed. The vast majority go on to be reintegrated into society, but some abscond. Is the hon. Gentleman arguing that we should not have open prisons? Is he saying that we should not try to reintegrate people into society as they come to the end of their sentences? Murderers are given life sentences, but they do come to the end of them. In fact, it was this Government, through the Criminal Justice Act 2003, who ensured that we could have indeterminate sentences.
People come to the end of their sentence and have the opportunity to go back into society. Surely that should be done in a managed way.
In the two minutes that remain, we can get into a debate about sentencing. In 2003, the Government introduced indeterminate sentences so that people who are a danger to society could be kept in prison, unlike what was happening before. We are trying to rebalance the criminal justice system, and that is why we announced in July that we want people to have confidence in what goes on and to understand sentencing policies, and we have given undertakings in respect of that. I hope that the Opposition will be helpful in the discussions that need to take place on that.
As an Adjournment debate is too short for dealing with such issues, I am prepared to meet the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs and to visit Ford. We will consider in detail the issues that he raised. I hope that we can set up that meeting as soon as possible.
On foreign national prisoners, I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman in writing, in addition to the letter that I sent to him on 26 May. I hope that the assurances about the closed conditions that he thought would be the case at Ford—
Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.
Last October, as vice-chair, I led a delegation from Friends of Cyprus to the island. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Member’s Interests in relation to the costs of the visit.
The debate on Cyprus seems to have become an annual event—recently under your chairmanship, too, Mr. O’Hara. I know that you take a particular interest in the matter. Regrettably, over the past year, there has not been a great deal of progress. When we were in Cyprus, it was clear that the Greek Cypriot view is that the world has forgotten the basic cause of the problem: the injustices of invasion, occupation, Turkish troops and settlers and development of their property. The Greek Cypriots feel disappointed by the lack of progress since Mr. Mehmet Ali Talat became President of the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Many Turkish Cypriots would privately agree about that, which is shown by the slipping of electoral support for the Republican Turkish party—the CTP—and apparent growing division within the CTP.
The focus in the north and for Turkey is on upgrading their status, consequent to the EU process. The Republic of Cyprus will not agree to delegations seeing TRNC leaders in their offices, as that is seen as supporting that upgrade, but Mr. Talat and others will now only see visitors in their offices. That reduces the prospect for visitors to get both sides’ views and to debate and test those views with the other side’s leaders.
After the failure of the Annan plan, rather than reaching out to the Greek Cypriots to reassure and engage with referendum “no” voters, who will have to be won round to support any future settlement plan, the Turkish Cypriot leadership only harks back to its community’s “yes” vote and the injustice that it perceives of its continued isolation, which is seen as a breach of faith by the international community. That has the effect of alleviating pressure on Turkey, which supported a referendum “yes” vote, and of turning Turkish Cypriot and international disapproval on to the Republic’s leadership and especially President Papadopoulos.
The demonising of the President is counter-productive and drives the communities further apart. Attacks should be directed at policies, rather than personalities, and Mr. Talat should not be encouraged to see such attacks as acceptable by the attitudes of some in the EU. Having the CTP in government in the north has relieved Turkish Cypriot political pressure on Turkey, as there was no one left to organise it. As one of the prime movers of the former common vision movement said to me, “We’re back to square one.”
Questions have to be raised about whether the CTP Administration is slipping back into the old ways and failing to reflect Turkish Cypriot opinion to Turkey, as they were elected to do. The Administration in the north believes that they have international support and can achieve much of what they want through that. We were told that that was now debated as “Eurotaksim”, or partition through Europe. In the south, the Turkish EU accession process is seen as leverage. Both sides are regrettably playing it long.
Time is objectively not on the side of settlement. Facts are being created on the ground in the north, with building on Greek Cypriot land—a negative by-product of the failure of the Annan plan—and the increase in the population from Turkey. Although the green line has been opened, resulting in 15 million crossings and the removal of the physical barriers to trade and movement, so—inexorably, given the present climate—a green line of the mind is being erected to replace it, with reducing meaningful bi-communal contact at every level. Although personal friendships across the divide can be maintained, that does not read through politically.
We heard that recent polls—one has to be sceptical, sometimes, about polls in Cyprus—showed that a majority on both sides wanted division. That runs a risk of coming not with a bang but a whimper, and there is a growing risk that such an outcome will become inevitable through default and neglect.
The UN initiative is led on the island by the self-styled “optimist on duty”, Michael Moller, who has made clear that there is no UN plan B. Since the leaders of the two communities were brought together by UN Under-Secretary-General Gambari in July 2006, the agreements that were then reached have dissolved in the face of disputes about how to take the process forward, and talks about talks have assumed an identity of their own. On 15 November, Mr. Gambari wrote to both leaders to set out proposals that were formally accepted by both sides on 18 November.
Kofi Annan, in his 1 December Security Council report on Cyprus, said:
“The stage is therefore now set for positive forward movement”.
He urged both parties to show good will and determination to overcome deep mental distrust and suspicions, and he hoped that the blame game would be stopped. Whether the new Secretary-General will embark on a good offices initiative will depend on progress. In response, there was a welcome announcement on 28 December by Turkish Cypriot leader Mr. Talat that the bridge will be immediately removed, so that the Ledra street crossing point can be opened. I believe that demolition started yesterday, despite objections from the military.
Although there are protestations of no linkage on both sides of the green line, in practice that is unavoidable when one considers the position on the Cyprus issue and on Turkish accession to Europe. Turkey certainly sees a link, as was seen at the review of its accession process at the December European Council and its failure to open its ports, airports and airspace to the Republic of Cyprus, even though it previously undertook to open them.
The embargo is far wider than most appreciate and affects not just Cyprus, but the whole EU, as it applies to any ship or aircraft with the remotest connection with the south. A recent absurdity concerned the wish of the Italian chief of staff, who had arrived in Cyprus after inspecting troops in the Lebanon, to fly direct in an Italian plane to Afghanistan from Larnaca across Turkey. The Turks refused permission, so he had to return to Rome before he could fly across Turkey to Afghanistan.
Turkish general elections are due by 4 November, and the presidential election, in which Mr. Erdogan may be a candidate, is due before May this year, so the profile of EU accession and the stand-off over Cyprus assumes an added importance. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has toughened his position. His public pronouncements that Turkey’s ports will not be opened match his private discussions—megaphone diplomacy, if I may say so, without the diplomacy.
Equally, the Republic’s single-minded concentration on Turkey fulfilling the legal obligations of the customs union overlooks the fact that Turkey simply will not recognise the Republic of Cyprus, as administered by Greek Cypriots since 1964. The embargo on the Republic has implications across Europe. As Cyprus has the second biggest fleet in Europe—the 10th biggest in the world—and given that Limassol is a key shipping centre alongside London and Athens, the ban must inevitably affect the cost of shipping rates, reducing available supply.
One commentator suggested in the Financial Times on 19 December that the biggest losers are Turkish importers, as freight rates to Turkey would be significantly lower if Cyprus-flagged ships had access to Turkish ports. That issue will become even more important with the recent opening of the BP-operated Caspian oil pipeline from Baku through Turkey to the Mediterranean if tankers from Cyprus continue to be banned from calling.
Turkish Cypriots feel hard done by because of the EU’s failure to honour its pledge, as they see it, to permit direct trade. As is often repeated, including by our own Government, to quote that commitment selectively is a misinterpretation of the EU Council of Ministers’ 2004 decision. Yes, that decision was to end the isolation of the Turkish Cypriots, but it was qualified by emphasising that that was to be considered in the context of moving towards the economic integration of the island, as well as in those of improving contacts between the two communities and with the EU and helping to reunify the island.
Everybody accepts that direct trade is meaningless in economic development terms—it is worth at best 10 million Cypriot pounds—but it has assumed great political importance as a status issue. The Turkish Cypriots believe trade with the EU would upgrade their status, which they see as an important bargaining tool in the wider issue. For the same reasons, that symbolism had led to greater efforts to avoid status recognition of the TRNC by the Republic of Cyprus and thus to its opposition to meetings with Mr. Talat in his office.
There is also a serious question about whether the policy is being advanced by the TRNC with clean hands. We heard of a documented example—we saw the documents—of how the TRNC frustrated a deal worth 1 million Cypriot pounds to export potatoes from the north through Limassol, stating that no Turkish Cypriot goods should go through that port, in clear opposition to the EU green line regulations that were designed to facilitate trade across the line.
There are suggestions, too, that the green line is being illicitly abused to export Turkish—as opposed to Turkish Cypriot—produce into the south, including agricultural produce containing DDT insecticide, which is permitted in Turkey but banned in the EU. In the first half of November, 370,000 kg of onions were brought from the north into the south over the green line—a quantity that could not possibly have all been grown in the north.
Against that background, the Finnish presidency of the EU bravely attempted a compromise proposal that involved the opening of two ports in Turkey. Famagusta port would jointly be administered by Greek and Turkish Cypriots to permit EU trade and Varosha would be returned to UN administration without the right of return. Both sides squared up to reject the proposal straight away. Turkey and the TRNC did so because it did not include Ercan—Tymbou—airport and direct flights to the north, and they condemned it as a rehash of earlier proposals from President Papadopoulos. The Republic of Cyprus did so because it did not provide for the return of refugees to Varosha, nor that Turkey would open all its ports, as it had already agreed to do.
The net result of the EU summit was that the opening and closing of eight chapters were blocked by the European Council; and Cyprus continues to block the closing of seven other chapters. Although the EU is about to propose the opening of new chapters, at least one will be blocked by Cyprus until Turkey properly implements the customs protocol.
On a more positive note, I am pleased to say that the €259 million aid package to the north is being released, and a programme team office established in the north to administer it. However, enthusiasm in Turkey for EU accession appears to be waning. Another problem is that Cyprus failed to persuade the EU to set a fresh deadline for Turkey to meet its obligations, and the Republic will soon come under renewed pressure over direct trade.
All those issues should be taken into consideration before the EC recommends, or the Foreign Ministers meeting in January decides, a further opening of direct links with northern Cyprus, which I believe will inevitably drive prospects for settlement further away. There is no direct link arrangement for ports or airports that will not increase the pressure to develop more Greek Cypriot property. That must await comprehensive settlement.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important for the EU to put more pressure on Turkey in relation to its customs union obligations, and that that will be particularly important following the Turkish presidential elections in May?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The feeling, certainly among people in the south of the island, is that the pressure is on them and not on Turkey, despite Turkey’s agreement to the customs union. Indeed, Turkey will have to accept the customs union at some stage, and it might as well do so earlier rather than later. That would provide a key to unlocking many of the problems that we presently see between the communities.
Although cross-green line trade is increasing as a percentage—from north to south up it is up by 53 per cent., and from south to north it is up by 164 per cent.—it does not amount to much in volume, remaining almost negligible. In the autumn, the World Bank published a devastating report on the TRNC economy, predicting economic collapse in the near future. Tourism in the north is failing, due to the sale of holiday homes—former hotel customers who buy property, and their friends who stay with them, do not need hotels—and environmental standards are undermined by development.
The university sector, an important part of the economy of the north, will lose out, as its degrees will not be accredited under the Bologna process. Students will not have access to the EU Erasmus programme, and there is increased competition from Turkey and from southern Europe. The unreformed public services are overstaffed and do not deliver the services, and the huge budget deficit is financed by Turkey.
The cross-green line banking system is badly in need of reform. When the power supply failed in north Nicosia in the summer, the TRNC had to buy electricity from the Republic of Cyprus. The electricity bill was paid, literally, with a truck-load of cash—folding money. Test transfers, via the French bank Société Générale, routed through London, took three days to get from south to north Nicosia, and a further three days to get back.
Reputable banks also have serious concerns over the risk of money laundering, given the outlaw nature of the north’s legal system. I am pleased that the United States is funding experts to work with the banks in the north to try to overcome some of those problems. The better news is that south’s economy remains strong and is on course for euro entry on 1 January 2008, with a fixed exchange rate between the Cyprus pound and the euro in autumn 2007.
I turn to bi-communal activity. When we were there, the political parties across the green line had fallen out in a big way. Not only had sister parties AKEL and CTP effectively suspended political meetings, but CTP had blocked bi-communal party activities, such as the annual joint youth camp, which in 2005 attracted 8,000 people, including 2,000 Turkish Cypriots. CTP young people did not attend this year, although a smaller number of Turkish Cypriots went under their own steam.
CTP and DISY, too, have poorer relations: Mr. Anastasiades, DISY President, used to see Mr. Talat regularly, but they had not met for a year when we saw him last October. Some events have proceeded at a local level, with CTP people defying the leadership. Recently, the Famagusta CTP invited Mr. Christofias, president of the House of Representatives, and other AKEL members to a successful and well-attended dinner, at which Mr. Ferdi Soyer was present. The Ozker Ozgur peace and democracy foundation was launched at a bi-communal memorial event in north Nicosia on 22 November, which was attended by many Greek Cypriots.
There have been problems at the green line checkpoints. Turkish Cypriots have had their papers searched and copied, which they regard as an intrusion. The Greek Cypriots may be looking for architectural plans and estate agent paraphernalia, presumably to stop the marketing of occupied Greek Cypriot land to tourists in the south. That, too, is understandable, but it needs to be better communicated.
In his report to the United Nations Security Council, the Secretary-General referred to a serious incident on 22 November, when a group of Turkish Cypriot students at an English language college in Nicosia were attacked by masked Greek Cypriot students from outside the school. Three were arrested, and the attacks were strongly condemned by President Papadopoulos. Greek Cypriots, particularly activists, also suffer delay, harassment and meaningless searches when they go north, as I witnessed myself when crossing the line with one of them. I also saw the new development in Morphou, the neglect of older buildings and, most serious, the desecration of cemeteries and church buildings in the occupied town.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. Does he believe that the Foreign Office should strengthen its advice to British holiday makers not to buy property in northern Cyprus because much of it has been seized from its rightful owners?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. The Foreign Office strengthens its advice from time to time, but in the light of the Orams case to which I hope to refer shortly it could be made stronger still.
There generally seems to be far less formal bi-communal activity. That is the product both of the breakdown of trust and of attacks within each community on those who work bi-communally. Although good relationships continue at a personal level—as evidenced by a Greek Cypriot crossing back south, who gave us a lift after meeting a Turkish-Cypriot chess-playing friend to plan a joint birthday party for their wives—it does not translate into a political benefit, but indicates the desire for a settlement on an individual basis.
That is not to say that there are no bi-communal activities. We found a most interesting history project that is trying to bring to schools an understanding of shared experience. It is planning to renovate a building in the buffer zone for seminars, a library, exhibitions, meetings and receptions, as well as working on its primary project, which is historical research and dialogue. It needs financial support; perhaps the Government would consider helping it.
The bi-communal choir has more support than ever, and it has recovered well from difficulties after the April 2004 referendums. However, there appears to have been a general overall chilling effect, putting a settlement into the deep freeze, as one leading Turkish Cypriot told us.
As for politics in the north, the governing coalition of CTP and the Democratic party ended, and a new coalition formed between CTP and three deserters from the DP and the National Unity party—the UBP. The irony is that the right-wing UBP and DP parties, which had in the past expelled left wingers from their parliament, were now boycotting parliament themselves and protesting outside on the pavement.
There appears to be increasing dissatisfaction with Mr. Talat’s regime. It has not delivered the progress CTP promised, and its popularity is waning. The risk is of a return to right-wing rule, with a majority of settlers in the north, over the Turkish Cypriots. That could lead to a realignment, a settler party, and even the possibility of a referendum for taksim, or partition. Turkish influence is clear. The north is already more Turkish than Turkish Cypriot, but if that scenario turns out to be correct, it will foil completely Turkey’s bid for EU membership and will encourage Turkish Cypriots to claim their land in the south by moving back to the Republic.
As always, a plethora of legal actions impinge on the political process in Cyprus. The most famous recently is the Orams case, in which a Greek Cypriot is trying to enforce through the UK courts a Cypriot judgment against a British couple who bought a property on the Greek Cypriot’s land in the north. The British judge upheld the basic principles of the judgment, but would not enforce it. The case will ultimately go to the European Court of Justice. The Loizidou case is before the European Court of Human Rights for enforcement of earlier debts. The Arestis case concerns Greek Cypriot property in Varosha. The ECHR seems to have ruled on the effectiveness of the local remedy that Turkey put in place to comply with earlier rulings, awarding €800,000 compensation. However, the issue remains one of restitution. The total cost, if only Varosha people were to claim, has been estimated at £5 billion.
The question is whether Turkey has a budget for that, or whether an extra lever might be provided to persuade Turkey to hand back Varosha. The local remedy is the property commission under the TRNC. We were told in the north that 55 Greek Cypriots had applied, and that four of five cases had been decided, including one restitution. Further progress depends on how the Arestis case ruling is interpreted and whether similar sums are awarded. In the meantime, apart from a few dozen urgent cases, 1,500 outstanding European Court of Human Rights cases have been stayed.
The Arif case in the Republic concerned a Turkish Cypriot who moved back south and was resident there. The Republic court ordered restitution, the Greek Cypriot family living in his property were removed and the property was handed back. More Turkish Cypriots who were either resident in the Republic or living overseas before 1974 are now claiming restitution of their property. Turkish Cypriot newspaper editor Sener Levent is bringing a European Court of Human Rights case in relation to his desire to be a candidate in Republic elections. He claims he was discriminated against as he had to fill in a form, which he refused to do as it was not required of Greek Cypriots. On a more positive note, the various prosecutions against him by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and the Turkish military have been dropped.
Again, on a more positive note, the UN committee on missing persons is working effectively on a bi-communal basis. Some 184 sites have been identified: 160 in the north containing about 1,000 bodies and 24 in the south containing about 300 to 350 bodies. Bi-communal teams of archaeologists and anthropologists are recording the sites and recovering the bones. The laboratory in the UN buffer zone is on UK land, using a UK building and is functioning bi-communally with Argentinean experts. The job is extremely skilled and involves matching up jumbled piles of bones. I visited the lab and saw the amazing and complicated work that takes place. However, funding is a problem; they need €3 million a year to keep going and uncertainty of the funding means the Argentinean team is only on a two-month rolling contract—we could perhaps do more to help with that.
Demining is proceeding well as a UN project, funded by the EU through the work of a UK-based company. Demining has been completed in the Republic, and buffer zone demining of 13 Turkish mine fields has been completed. The UN now wants to move further afield and the United Nations Peace-Keeping Force in Cyprus is negotiating with the Turkish army to include the remaining mine fields in the buffer zone.
I visited the enclaved Greek Cypriots in the Karpas. The conditions in which they live, the petty restrictions to which they are subjected, and the general intimidation and lack of protection from the law they experience amount to an appalling abuse of human rights. In Rizokarpaso only about 230 people remain and there are not many more in the remainder of the Karpas. Of the 12,000 people who stayed on in 1974 the rest died or gave up in the face of oppression. Those still there are terrified of drawing attention to their condition for fear of victimisation. Indeed, two of the people with whom we spoke were questioned by the police almost immediately after we left.
I have raised the issue of the enclaved people with the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe and I believe we should be doing more to raise this firmly with Turkey as part of its accession process. Near the end of last year, David Hencke, a Guardian reporter, visited the enclaved people and wrote an accurate article for The Guardian fully describing that oppression. Regrettably, that was shelved by the editors because it was seen as too “pro-Greek”. I find it appalling that The Guardian, which should have a good record on human rights, has fallen into the same trap as far too many others. It has overlooked that appalling abuse because it does not fit its political agenda and because the victims are Greek Cypriots and the story does not promote Turkish accession.
My hon. Friend may recall that we had an Adjournment debate in this Hall in the July immediately after the Annan plan failure, when we examined the plan in detail and the reasons for its failure. While Annan III may have secured a majority, Annan V was a step too far for the Greek Cypriots. It is important to look forward rather than look back at why things failed. We need to establish what we need to do to make the plan a success, if possible by building on those foundations.
Does the hon. Gentleman feel that it would be appropriate at some stage, and if so when, for Ban Ki-moon to come forward with a further plan following the failure of Annan V, or does he think there will not be a further plan in the foreseeable future?
If the new Secretary-General is to embark on a good offices process, we need some meat on the bones of the structures set up through the committees, which were established as a consequence of the Gambari process that started in July and was reaffirmed by an exchange of correspondence in November. Whether that process develops remains to be seen, but there has been far too much focus on process and far too little on substance. I hope that we will now see some substance as that could create the climate for a new good offices process.
Prospects as they stand for progress towards a settlement look remote because of the concentration on process rather than substance. The status quo is not fixed and developments work against settlement all the time. There is a breakdown of meaningful bi-communal contact; indeed, it is apparently deliberately frustrated in some quarters, especially in the north. There is a failure to develop green line trade, which is deliberately discouraged in official Turkish Cypriot circles. Official statements by spokesmen have also contributed to a sense of drifting apart. People are policed by their own propaganda rather than by empathy for suffering or shared concerns.
The Turkish Cypriots are living in an unreal economy that is unsustainable. Demography and political failure in the north create a high risk of return to the old nationalist politics of the Denktash era, with the former opposition failing to make progress in government. It is clear that the TRNC has little room for independent movement and its actions and decisions are, as ever, dominated by Turkey, particularly the Turkish military, and support from Turkey is essential for the economy. Building on Greek Cypriot land and the immigration of Turks from Turkey continues.
Turkey's EU accession process, which is the key to making progress in Cyprus, is in trouble despite the brave face put on the outcome in December. Partition seems more likely than a settlement, and would be based on the bi-communal, bi-zonal federation principle theoretically accepted by both sides. I hope that the Gambari initiative will produce substantive progress, but that may be the triumph of hope over experience.
Confidence-building measures on missing persons and demining are progressing well, but need longer-term funding. However, the problem of respect for human rights remains, especially for the Karpas enclaved in the north. Even journalism has taken sides rather than informing and judging according to the standards expected of Turkey and Cyprus, and by anyone committed to human rights and the rule of law.
My hon. Friend mentioned the positive role that the Finnish presidency had played in moving things forward. That has been replaced by the German presidency and there has been some concern about the attitude of the Germans in relation not just to Cyprus, but to Turkey’s accession negotiations. Does my hon. Friend think that the Germans can play a positive role in carrying on the good work of the Finnish presidency?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. As I mentioned earlier, although technically the processes of EU accession and the resolution of the Cyprus issue are not linked, in practice they inextricably are. I hope that the German presidency will try to play a positive role although, as I think was mentioned in a previous intervention, the prospects of any real progress are probably slim, particularly as there are elections in Turkey over the next year. As I have maintained throughout my contribution, time is running out and is not in favour of a settlement.
Unless the process moves on to substance rather than silencing or marginalising those attempting to make things work, the majority of Cypriots who want a settlement will find the chances of that slipping away. The future does not look very positive for a reunited island unless Cypriots can find a way to talk about the common ground they clearly possess, which is demonstrated whenever they have a chance to co-operate. The international community must accept its responsibility for encouraging the belief, wittingly or unwittingly, both on the island and in Turkey, that they can continue as they are without it resulting in permanent division. The international community must help to bring the parties together, including Turkey, to find that substantive common ground necessary for reunification of the island.
I place on record an interest that is in the Register of Members’ Interests.
One issue that my hon. Friend has not mentioned is that of public opinion in the Republic about the bases that the UK has in the Republic of Cyprus. Have his visits to Cyprus and his discussions on the subject enabled him to form any view of that public opinion and whether it has changed over the years?
In relation to bases, public opinion in Cyprus seems to vary depending on people’s view of the British Government. Whenever we are not particularly popular in the south of the island the issue of British bases comes to the fore and when things are going well it is less of an issue. It was important that even though the Annan process was unsuccessful it included an offer from the British Government to give back a significant proportion of the land that we do not need and that forms part of those bases. That should help to facilitate the land transfers and arrangements within the Annan plan.
I certainly think that if Turkey is to join the EU, it must inevitably recognise all member states. Equally, however, we must recognise that there is no prospect whatever of Turkey recognising Cyprus given the political situation on the island as presently constituted. That is why the solution to the Cyprus issue is fundamental for Cyprus, Turkey and the EU as a whole.
I have been going on for a while, and other people will want to speak, so I finish by saying that the international community has a key role to play in creating the common ground necessary for the reunification of the island.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing the debate so early in the new year and so soon after the appointment of Georgios Iacovou as the new high commissioner to London. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House would wish to welcome Mr. Iacovou to his post, and I had the opportunity to do so formally in Margate at the blessing of the seas on Sunday. We should place on record our appreciation for the work that he has done and for the work that we hope he will do.
The hon. Gentleman’s grasp of Cypriot politics is arguably second to none in either House of Parliament, and he also has a grasp of the legal issues, so I do not propose to go over the same ground. Instead, I want to put a human face on the issue, and I can almost hear the groans coming from one quarter as I mention the name of George Geroletiou. He is well known to colleagues who take an interest in Cyprus affairs. Indeed, that is literally true, because he is a personal friend in many cases. He also happens to be one of my constituents, although the Minister probably does not know him.
George is British. He was born in January 1913, so he is 94 this month. He was born in Komi Kebir, which was quite a thriving town close to the Karpas, but which is now almost a ghost village. He was born in a house in which his father and his grandfather had lived before him. He emigrated to the United Kingdom in 1935 to work and seek his fortune, and he did well. He joined the Royal Air Force at the start of the second world war and served in it for four and a half years. For part of that time, he served with Glafcos Clerides, the former and distinguished President of the Republic of Cyprus. He served in India, Burma and Ceylon—he was not sitting on his backside in pretty places. As a citizen of the United Kingdom, he served this country and put his life on the line, as so many people, including former President Clerides, did at that time.
In 1970, long after the war, and having concluded a successful business career, George Geroletiou and his British wife, Ivy, decided to live back in Cyprus, the land of George’s birth. They built a villa outside Famagusta, in a hamlet called Tricomo, right on the coast. It was a beautiful place in a beautiful location, with a view over the sea. The villa was completed in 1970, and George and Ivy spent two winters in their home before moving there for what they thought would be the whole of their retirement. They hoped to see their family—their children and their grandchildren—enjoy the property.
By 1974, Tricomo was on the Turkish side of the green line, and George Geroletiou’s property had been appropriated by the Turks. He did not go back until relatively recently. He came to see me in the Central Lobby in 1983, shortly after I was elected to the House. He asked me to use my good offices as his Member of Parliament to get him back his home, or what he and Ivy had come to regard as their home. For 23 years, I have been trying to do just that, with a signal lack of success, I have to say. I do not want to point too many fingers, however, because there have been failures on the part of successive Governments. I am as deeply ashamed of the lack of progress made by the Conservative Governments of the 1980s and 1990s as I am of that made by the current Government.
George is 94. He was hospitalised last summer, although, happily, he has made a recovery. I told him that he has to go on for two reasons. First, I want him to get his telegram from the Queen. Secondly, he has damn well got to stay alive until he gets his property back, however long that takes—and he could become the oldest citizen in the country if we have to wait too much longer. What he cannot understand, however, is why his country—the country for which he fought and in which he worked and paid taxes—is prepared to do so little to help him get back his stolen home.
A couple of years ago, after the green line was opened, George and I went up to Komi Kebir and saw the place of his birth. It was a pretty little cottage, which is now occupied by a Turkish Cypriot lady of advancing years. She actually remembered George just before he left Cyprus in 1935. She invited us in, and we sat down and had coffee with her. I did not understand a word that they were saying, but they jabbered away for yonks in a Cypriot dialect that was part Greek and part Turkish. Of course, that is the kind of relationship that exists between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots when they are allowed to get on with their own lives, although, in the main, they are not allowed to do so now, at least in Cyprus.
From Komi Kebir, George and I went down to Tricomo and saw his villa, although we were not allowed into it. It was “owned” by a Turk, and there was a Turkish name by the little post-box slotted into the gates. A bulldozer was digging a swimming pool in George Geroletiou’s garden for the illegal Turkish occupant’s use. Imagine how that old man felt. Imagine how he and others living and working in this country feel about our Government.
I have to tell the Minister, however, that it gets even worse than that. Following the referendum, in which the Cypriots dared to say no, as was their complete democratic right, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom went to Ankara and condemned the Republic of Cyprus in terms for daring to vote no. That referendum was largely constructed by the now Lord Hannay, who, as far as I can see, has been ennobled for his failure. It was impossible for Cypriots who understood the future of Cyprus to vote yes, because the referendum, which was held under Annan V, the plan to which hon. Members referred, did not deal with the three key issues.
The plan did not deal with the settlers, illegal immigrants and Anatolian Turks whom Turkey dumped in the north of Cyprus. That has now resulted in the literal exclusion of Turkish Cypriots, who have left their island in droves. There is a myth that such movements are just a Greek Cypriot problem, but they are also a Turkish Cypriot problem. Those of us who have been to the island understand only too well that a generation of settler children have grown up on the island and regard themselves as Cypriot. As Cyprus is the only home that they have ever known, they have to be regarded as Cypriot, but that has compounded the problem.
Nor did the referendum deal with the issues of armed forces of occupation in the north. It said that there would be a phased scaling down of Turkish troops in the northern part of the island and that a token presence would be ultimately left. Would the United Kingdom, having fought the war in the Falklands, seriously have tolerated a token Argentine force on the islands, on British territory? Of course it would not. If soldiers from another country wish to come to the United Kingdom at our invitation and train and work here and mix with our own servicemen and women, that is their business—at our invitation, but not imposed.
The second key issue was not dealt with in Annan V. The third issue—the one that I have spent rather too much time dwelling on—is property, and that was not dealt with either. There was no solution to what Cypriots—Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots—regard as one of the key problems.
When George Geroletiou and I went through the green line up to see his home, we passed scores—hundreds—of little boxes. They were white concrete “Stop me and buy one” villas, most of which had the names of British businesses outside them as marketing agencies and very many of which have been acquired by citizens of the United Kingdom—many living in this country—as holiday homes. The hon. Member for Hendon pointed out that that has done no good at all for the tourism industry in the north of Cyprus, because all the people who were going and staying in hotels are now going and living in their villas, and they expect to be able to go on doing so for a very long time.
That has compounded the settlement problem, because now those people have to be dealt with as well. They may have been warned by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in small print on a website that it was a bad idea and that they might lose their properties, but no Minister yet has been prepared—although perhaps this Minister will be this afternoon—to stand up and say, “You will lose those properties, so your £10,000, £15,000 or £20,000 is money down the drain—lost, gone—if you buy stolen property. That is what is happening.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that the building boom in the northern part of Cyprus is not only cementing the injustice for those whose properties were seized in the invasion, but could have very significant environmentally damaging consequences for the island?
That is absolutely the case. My hon. Friend talks about cementing the injustice; it is actually concreting it. One of the sadnesses about the southern part of the island is that far too much concrete has been laid. Many small coves, beaches and villages that some of us knew a long time ago have disappeared under development, and precisely the same thing is happening in the north, which is very sad indeed and very bad for the environment.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one issue that has been reported in a confused way in this country is the outcome in the High Court of the Orams case? In so far as it was reported, many of the reports suggested that the High Court judge had found in favour of the Orams, when in fact, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said, he substantiated their case, but the ruling was that courts in this country had no jurisdiction over enforcement of the Orams case.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting and valid point. The media reports at the time exacerbated the situation, because they were almost designed to lead people to believe that they could in effect flout the law—they could go and buy property in the northern part of the island of Cyprus with impunity and they were likely to be able to hang on to that property either for a very long time or, probably, in perpetuity. As he says, that is not the case. I raised the issue at the time publicly and I was quite interested to receive not a huge mailbag, but certainly several letters from British expatriates or potential expatriates who had bought property in the north and were outraged that a British Member of Parliament was daring to criticise what they had done. Frankly, what they had done was just as illegal as walking into Boots the Chemist and shoplifting. They are dealing in stolen property. That is what it is.
The Government, after the referendum, sent a terrible message through the mouth of the Prime Minister. The relationship between the Republic of Cyprus and the United Kingdom, which had been very good, has been dramatically soured. That is the fault not of the Republic of Cyprus, but of the United Kingdom and its attitude to the result of the referendum. Bridges now have to be built. Since the referendum, there is an impression abroad, which is not ill founded, that somehow the Government of the United Kingdom have been trying to punish the Republic of Cyprus for daring to do what Britain believed that it should not have done, because this country has been in thrall to the American policy over Turkey and once again we are following the United States.
The Americans can do what they like. They have their own interests and agenda for the middle east. We all understand that. It is their business, but with respect, they are not a guarantor power or a member of the Commonwealth. The United Kingdom is, and citizens of the United Kingdom, people who have fought for this country, such as George Geroletiou and many others—some of them, dare I say it, living in highly marginal seats—look to this Government to play square by them and to defend their interests, not the interests of others who are breaking the law.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) for securing the debate. As he said, it is almost an annual event. We have heard a great amount of detail and—I say this with respect—some very emotive detail, but let us not forget that the problem with Cyprus has been on the UN agenda for four decades, and four decades is far too long.
Reference has been made to the Annan V plan, and a number of us felt and hoped that that provided for a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus issue. We felt and hoped that it would provide an historic opportunity to establish a unified state on the island, in compliance with the long-established parameters of the UN. In the simultaneous referendums in 2004, Turkish Cypriots voted in favour of the plan and accepted a new partnership state. Sadly, however, Greek Cypriots rejected the plan with an overwhelming majority. Despite their rejecting the plan and thereby maintaining the divided status of the island, the Greek Cypriots were as a result, one could claim, awarded EU membership.
Is it not the case that had things gone otherwise, we would not need to discuss many of the issues that we are discussing today, because they would have been in the process of resolution? Is not the conundrum that we face that those people who voted positively were punished with isolation and the Greek Cypriots, who voted negatively, were rewarded with EU membership? The situation has reached upside down proportions. Is it not important that we resume, for example, direct links and end the isolation of the Turkish Cypriots? Is that not a fundamental right for the Turkish northern Cypriots?
I could not agree more. Had the result in the referendum been different, we would certainly be in a different position and hopefully we would have been moving forward.
Following the referendums in 2004, EU Foreign Ministers took a decision to ease the restrictions on the Turkish Cypriots. According to that decision, the EU agreed on regulation on financial assistance and on direct trade. In May 2004, the UN Secretary-General published a report of his mission of good offices in Cyprus and clearly stated that the restrictions on the northern part of the island should be lifted.
However, as the Greek Cypriot Administration became a member of the EU, implementation of the EU regulations that I have referred to was blocked by the Greek Cypriots. Two and a half years after the referendums, the Turkish Cypriots, who supported the unification and settlement and thereby gained, one could claim, the moral high ground are still suffering from restrictions due to the Greek Cypriot obstruction in the EU.
The fundamental aim of the Greek Cypriot side is to change the established parameters of the Cyprus issue. They want to stall the UN’s efforts to find a comprehensive settlement and involve the EU in the problem. That is a platform on which Turkey and Turkish Cypriots are not members, and Greece and the Greek Cypriot Administration have a right to veto and chances to manipulate the process in their favour. The Greek Cypriots also appear to be trying to remove the vested rights of Turkish Cypriots and downgrade them to the level of “minority.” Furthermore, Greek Cypriots are trying hard to open a direct negotiation channel with Turkey and push aside the Turkish Cypriot leadership, whom they disregard as a counterpart, yet the Greek Cypriot leadership’s method of finding a comprehensive settlement has always been through the Turkish Cypriot authorities. Turkey and Greece—the motherlands—together with the UK are the guarantor powers who must overlook and participate in the efforts to find a solution.
I welcome my hon. Friend to the debate. He seems to be characterising the Turkish and Turkish Cypriots as good and Greeks and Greek Cypriots as bad. Everyone in the Chamber who takes an interest in Cyprus and the wider issues in the eastern Mediterranean would consider that to be far too superficial an approach. It is of critical importance to have balance if we are to move forward and suggest to Ministers a way to gain the support of both the communities on the island. I suggest that a little more balance would be helpful.
I thank my hon. Friend because I entirely share his view, but I have heard little balance up to now. People on both sides of the argument, and anyone who participates in the debate, should try to take a balanced view. Surely, the ultimate desire of everyone should be to bring about a settlement in Cyprus.
Unless the Greek Cypriot side genuinely wants to find a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus problem, I am not sure how we will progress. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon mentioned the Turkish Cypriot students who were attacked at the British school in the southern part of the island. That was rightly denigrated by politicians in the south of the island, but the intransigence of the Greek Cypriot Administration breeds and ferments the ultra-nationalistic attitude on the Cypriot issue that exists on both sides to a degree, which does not assist progress.
On 29 December, I was on my way back from a short visit to Israel and Palestine and was at a stopover at Istanbul airport when I was approached by some constituents—something that happens in this job. They said, “Simon, it is very nice to see you. Are you coming to our event on 9 January?” “What event is that?” I asked. They told me that it was the annual new year event of the Cypriot elders centre in Southwark, where Greek and Cypriot people have for years met and enjoyed an extremely good community facility. My constituents had been in Turkey for a meeting about the future of Cyprus.
Yesterday, I went to that evening event and found that both Turkish and Greek Cypriots—like many hon. Members in the Chamber, I represent both—overwhelmingly want peace, settlement and justice in Cyprus. They want the politicians to get their act together, so that they can go back to normal life north or south of what is now the border in the place where they come from. I have never held a brief for one or other side of the argument, but I hold one for the rule of law—as I do in relation to Palestine and Israel.
To me, the rule of law says simply that there was an invasion in 1974. However difficult the times before that were or however much injustice there was, in the end, there was an invasion of one country by another, which caused the division. The northern part of Cyprus has been occupied since then. That is against international law. There cannot be peace when any country holds territory to which it is not entitled in another country. That does not mean that I am against the Turkish Cypriots having their say or that I am against Turkey. We have to reach a balanced, fair resolution in which the troops withdraw and the Cypriots decide their own future.
I add my criticisms to those of my colleagues around the table and say to the Minister that the Government have been very feeble and weak on this issue since the invasion. We were the colonial, empire power and are now the guarantor power—Cyprus is a Commonwealth country—yet we have barely ever sought to drive the process. That is a terrible frustration and indictment. We are also the power with sovereign bases there, so we have a direct interest. Some of my family have lived there, and I have visited them there. We have a huge interest in trying to drive the process towards peace.
There was a referendum after lots of UN work, but I share the view of the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) on that. If a question is put to the people in a referendum and both halves of the island are required to reach a common view, they cannot be criticised if one side says no, but the Government did that completely unjustifiably. Both sides were required to say yes before the proposition could go ahead, but they did not both say yes, so it was not an acceptable proposition—end of story. The Government should then have gone back to work and tried to find an acceptable proposition.
I am conscious that lots of opportunities have come and gone, one of which was Cypriot membership of the EU. The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) said that the Greek Cypriots got membership of the EU as a reward for voting no in the referendum, but that is a complete distortion of the facts. Cyprus joined because it passed the criteria for membership of the EU, and it was rightfully allowed to come in, as Bulgaria and Romania have been this year.
There is another opportunity, which is where the backstop is found. I agree with the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), whom I compliment on his knowledge and congratulate on securing the debate, that the longer this problem goes on, the more difficult it is to heal and the more likely partition is. That is against the interests of the people, who want to go back to the generally happy co-existence and lives that they had before. The one backstop issue is the Turkish application to join the EU. I support the application, but they have to understand that they must abide by the rules and comply with the requirements put on them by the EU. Therefore, they will have to open their ports to the lawfully recognised Cypriot Government and open up trade.
I am a realist and I appreciate that such matters are unlikely to be easy in an election year, but by the end of the year, there will have been both parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey. I request that the ground is laid now with the UN and led by the EU and our Government, so that immediately the Turkish elections are over, there is a serious and determined effort to ensure that the position is resolved. That is not impossible. There are issues to do with housing, land and disappearances, but the will is there among the people if only international pressure and leadership can be given to the politicians. I hope that the UK Government will be slightly more effective in their leadership than they sadly have been in respect of a country of whom we are the guarantor but whose guarantee we have not upheld for the past 33 years.
Thank you for calling me to give the first of the winding-up speeches at the conclusion of this debate, Mr. O’Hara. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing it and on bringing to bear his considerable knowledge on this issue. I am sure that I speak on behalf of all hon. Members when I say that it was interesting to hear his views, insights and expertise on Cyprus.
Those of us who regularly attend foreign affairs debates in this Chamber, some of whom are present, will know that certain issues provoke strong views and opinions, and—dare I say it?—a high attendance. They tend to relate to the parts of the world with the most intractable problems, such as Kashmir, Israel and Palestine, and Cyprus, which is the subject of this debate. Many people bring to bear their own opinion and do not seek to give a rounded or particularly balanced view—rightly, because there is no reason why they should do so.
Such people seek to make the case on behalf of the side of the debate to which they feel more sympathetic. The British Government need to avoid that position, and it is one that I intend to avoid this afternoon, regardless of my personal sympathies. Our country and our Government need to act as an honest broker and to be regarded by both sides—if I may put it in those terms—as being capable of making dispassionate judgments, rather than as being involved in the process to advance the interests of one side at the expense of the other.
I shall break down my comments into three sections. I shall discuss the role that the United Kingdom Government can play, the role that the European Union can play, and the role that the United Nations has played and can continue to play. As has been said by other hon. Members, Britain clearly has a bigger interest and role in Cyprus than any other country, with the exception of Greece and Turkey. We have an historical interest in Cyprus—it was directly under our control until 1960—a diplomatic interest and the strategic interest of British bases, which have been mentioned. Given the unrest that is an ongoing problem in the middle east, the bases take on an even greater significance.
Other hon. Members have made the legitimate criticism that the British Government have, to some extent, allowed this issue in Cyprus to fester and that they have not been sufficiently energetic or proactive—I use a slightly dreaded and made-up word—in their response to the ongoing, perennial problems there. Such a criticism was made by the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), who said that the Government need to show greater urgency in their approach.
I disagree with the comment made by the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) that the European Union ought not to take a particularly active role because Greece and the Greek bit of Cyprus are members of the EU and Turkey and the Turkish part of Cyprus are not. The EU has a significant role to play.
Cyprus is evidently a European issue—it operates within that context—so the onus is on the EU to demonstrate that it can be used as a diplomatic tool to bring pressure to bear to solve problems within it. On many occasions, it singularly failed to do that in respect of the Balkans. We should not have to ask bigger powers in other parts of the world to intervene to solve problems on our own doorstep that we should be able to take a lead in resolving.
I was listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman was saying about the European Union, and I wonder whether he would respond to the following point. I was attracted to an idea proposed many times by the distinguished former Member of Parliament for Foyle, John Hume, who suggested that the EU should perhaps consider setting up a commission for peace and reconciliation. Given the experience of different European countries and the EU in this field, it could harness all its forces and concentrate them within one commission to address the particular issue in Cyprus.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, as the option is well worth exploring. People will have views on who should comprise such a commission. It is often the case with such commissions that the outcome is predictable once the membership of the commission has been determined, and, no doubt, plenty of wrangling would be involved. The United Kingdom has expertise to bring to bear in resolving disputes where two peoples with different persuasions regard a territory as being more rightfully theirs, if I may put it in those terms. I might come back to that briefly.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) rightly said that one lever that the EU had in this respect went when the Greek part of Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, although that does mean that it is around the table, engaged in the process at the meetings and aspires to have membership of the eurozone. I can understand why that might be regarded as a cause for concern by some, including the hon. Member for Derby, North, who have suspicions—if I may put words in his mouth—about the imbalance, as they would see it. However, it is also a potential opportunity for Greece and the Greek Cypriots to be involved in a forum in which the United Kingdom is also actively involved.
May I gently suggest something to my hon. Friend? I might be wrong, but I think that he needs to be a bit careful about this point. I understand that Cyprus as a whole joined the EU, but that the EU rules cannot apply to the north part of it, because that is not under the control of the Cypriot Government. So all of Cyprus, not just part of it, is a member of the EU. That is an important legal point, as he will understand.
Throughout my brief parliamentary career I have always learned things when I have taken interventions from my hon. Friend. That was a valuable and useful clarification, for which I thank him.
The other lever, which exists to this day, is produced by the Turkish aspirations to membership of the EU—a theme that has been touched on in this debate—and the financial assistance that the EU provides to the part of Cyprus in which Turkish Cypriots live. We know that Turkey is an important strategic ally of the United Kingdom, particularly because it is a member of NATO. I have always found that the ability to make concessions or to enter into diplomatic negotiations is compromised by the immediate prospect of an election, but perhaps after the elections in Turkey this year an opportunity will exist, and I urge the Government to grasp it fully.
I am also keen to speak about the United Nations, as it clearly has a role to play. I hope that the Government will push for a revival of the Annan plan or a successor to it. We clearly need to seek a solution that has a process of checks and balances, so that no side feels that it is being unfairly treated. There need to be balances, and security needs to be given to people on an ongoing basis. The hard bit is always that such processes will require give and take, and that comes back to the intervention made by the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis).
It is legitimate to ask why the Greek Cypriots so overwhelmingly rejected the option that was put before them. Rather than condemning them or understanding them, as different people would seek to do, it is right to ask what were the reasons for their decision, which of them were legitimate and how they can be accommodated. Any successor to the Annan plan will need to accommodate and take on board the points made about troops. Any peaceful solution requires a degree of flexibility. That is the lesson that many would draw from Northern Ireland, and I think that people need to draw it more widely in this case.
The point has been made that people in most parts of the world have fairly simple and not particularly political aspirations: they want to get on, get a job and provide for their family. Everyone in this debate understands that there are keenly felt views on all sides, but the political process owes the residents and inhabitants of Cyprus an obligation to ensure that they can improve their quality of living in a peaceful and stable environment. Britain, the EU and the UN all have a leading role to play.
It is a pleasure to take part in such a good debate. I join other Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing it and on the knowledgeable way in which he opened it. There have been some excellent contributions, not least from my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), who gave a moving personal insight into some of the tragedies that occur when an island such as Cyprus is divided as it has been. It is also a pleasure once again to follow the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne). True to his diplomatic lineage, he teasingly alluded to the fact that he has personal sympathies, but left us hanging, wondering what they might be.
The debate is timely, because the important and difficult issue of Cyprus is in danger of slipping down the order of priorities. The hon. Gentleman’s securing of the debate gives us a chance to reinforce its importance and to remind the Minister and the Government, gently, of the importance that hon. Members attach to seeking a resolution. There is an apparent state of deadlock that is really quite frustrating. There was palpable frustration in the opening speech, similar to that which many people in Cyprus feel about the lack of movement and about the difficulty that can sometimes now exist in seeing a possibility of movement.
The opportunity for discussion about Cyprus is particularly welcome when so many other pressing international issues could easily divert our attention. It is also well timed in view of the arrival of a new Secretary-General at the United Nations, which the hon. Member for Taunton mentioned. Kofi Annan clearly had very great experience in dealing with Cyprus, and he invested a huge amount of personal energy into seeking a settlement. I hope that the Minister will assure us that the Government will do everything possible to ensure that his successor picks up that baton with the same degree of determination for progress.
As my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said, Cyprus is a particular problem for the United Kingdom, both as a guarantor power and as a Commonwealth partner of Cyprus within the European Union. That is a special status that applies only to Cyprus, Malta and the United Kingdom, and it should give us cause and opportunity to exercise influence.
The Opposition are in broad agreement with the Government’s objectives and efforts for progress. We share their desire to see a settlement that enjoys the consent of both communities, which is the only kind of settlement that can work. We want Cyrpus reunited, and as a step on the way to that elusive goal we want warm and positive relationships in trade and free movement to be established and improved for the Cypriot people.
From time to time the Opposition have differed from the Government in style and emphasis. We took the view, as mentioned by my hon. Friend, that it was counter-productive for the British Government to criticise the electorate of the Republic of Cyprus for voting against the Annan plan. We also questioned whether more progress might have been possible before the opening of the Turkish accession negotiations during the British presidency. To the extent that there has been a loss of trust in the relationship between the British and Cypriot Governments, we think that that will make progress harder. However, we share a common purpose, and we wish the Government well in their efforts.
As has been said, a resolution to the problems of Cyprus is increasingly tied up with the whole question of Turkish membership of the EU and the debate on that. However, it is essential that such a resolution should not become contingent on Turkish accession, and it must not wait for eventual Turkish accession. There must be no linkage in the timetable. Nevertheless, there is no question that the process of movement towards accession provides a crucial opportunity for applying pressure and encouragement for settlement. Before Christmas, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister were clear in their view that the suspension of eight chapters of the accession negotiations for Turkey was too severe a penalty, and we wholeheartedly endorse that view. I particularly look forward to the Minister’s comments—I want to leave time for him to make them—on how that process can be brought back on track in the context of the Cyprus question.
I am sure that the Minister will also agree that it would be particularly unwelcome if those EU member states that are antagonistic to Turkey were allowed to exploit the Cyprus question as a means of blocking accession talks. In that context I hope that the Minister’s winding-up speech will include an assessment of what can be done to work towards lifting the suspension of the negotiations on certain chapters, and of the timetable for that. Given that Germany, in particular, is less than enthusiastic—I think that that is a fair view of its position—about Turkish membership, will he also say whether there are any prospects for priority to be accorded to such related matters by the Germany EU presidency?
Along with the hardening of attitudes in Cyprus, one of the least helpful things that could happen would be for Turkey’s experiences in relation to Cyprus and to accession to cause it to turn away from accession. The 19 December issue of the Financial Times reported, I believe, that Turkish support for EU membership had already fallen by that point from 75 to 50 per cent., largely because of the experiences of the last year. I hope that the Minister will be able to give hope in that regard.
Many of the problems are difficult and complex diplomatic issues. Some, however, can be addressed at a more local and human level. I hope that the Minister will focus not only on the big and apparently intractable diplomatic issues, but on the smaller ways in which we might be able to help to build relationships between communities across the green line.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss Cyprus and the points raised, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing the debate. The Government have always supported efforts to achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting settlement in Cyprus, and I am sure that the Chamber will agree that the search for a settlement must remain a priority for the Government. Cyprus matters to the United Kingdom. That is why we worked so hard to achieve EU membership for Cyprus—a point too often overlooked—and why we want to work closely with Cyprus to develop a new relationship with it as an EU partner.
After more than three decades of efforts to find a solution, it is a matter of great regret that the island remains divided. The communities on the island, and indeed the stability of the region and the international community as a whole, continue to suffer as a result. We firmly believe that every effort must be made to achieve a comprehensive settlement. As my hon. Friend said, however, time is not on our side, and that has been illustrated by many of the points made. The longer the current division continues, the more intractable the problems become.
My hon. Friend raised in particular the concerns of Greek Cypriots about the continuing situation in the north of the island. Property, the presence of Turkish troops and the number of Turkish nationals living in the north are a matter of great concern for all who take an interest in Cyprus. Unfortunately, those are at the heart of the Cyprus problem and they underline the urgent need to achieve a settlement.
The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) raised the extent to which the Foreign Office has sought to discourage British citizens from buying property in the north. Through our travel advice, our website and in responses to specific queries, the Government have explained fully that property issues are closely linked with the political situation on the island, and that there is a clear risk of purchasers facing legal proceedings in the courts of the Republic of Cyprus. The Foreign Office updated its advice in December to reflect the more rigorous implementation of existing legislation by the Greek Cypriot authorities. We have set out clearly the potential consequences for those contemplating purchases.
It has been more than two years since the failed referendums on the island. Enough time has passed to take stock of the lessons learned and it is time to look forward again. I expect both communities to engage with the relaunched UN process and to agree on both the technical and the substantive issues in order to find a solution. The messages from the international community are clear: we all want early substantive progress. In the past year there have been encouraging developments on the path towards a resumption of settlement negotiations and some causes for concern, which hon. Members raised.
The Government welcomed the EU’s historic decision on 3 October 2005 to open accession negotiations with Turkey. The strategic case for Turkish accession is well recognised throughout the House, and the decision to open negotiations was of great significance for the United Kingdom, the EU, including Cyprus, and Turkey.
The past year—2006—was more difficult for Turkey’s accession negotiations, but I am pleased that all EU member states agreed last month that negotiations should continue. At the same time, the Council’s decision not to open negotiations on eight chapters makes it clear that Turkey must abide by its obligations on opening its ports to vessels from all EU countries, including those from the Republic of Cyprus.
Despite perceptions to the contrary, the UK’s support for Turkish accession to the EU does not come at the cost of sidelining excellent relations with the Republic of Cyprus. Steady progress in Turkey’s accession process will encourage normalisation of relations between Turkey and Cyprus, which should, in turn, help to increase trust and interaction between the parties and to provide a better context for a resumption of negotiations.
A significant achievement in 2006 was the approval of the financial aid regulation for northern Cyprus by EU member states. That €259 million package represents one of the highest levels of EU aid per capita anywhere. The money will be used to fund practical projects, developed in partnership with the Turkish Cypriot community, which should improve the quality of life for ordinary Turkish Cypriots. However, we recognise that aid alone will not be enough to lift the isolation of the Turkish Cypriot community and fulfil the commitments made by EU Foreign Ministers in April 2004. For that reason, we shall continue to support the efforts of the Commission and the German presidency to agree a direct trade regulation, and we hope that progress will be achieved in 2007. We also expect all political and practical obstacles to trade across the green line to be removed to allow full use of the existing regulation governing trade. Our aim should be to increase economic integration on the island and the convergence of the north of Cyprus towards full involvement in the European Union.
The more that Turkish Cypriots are left isolated by the international community, the more the elements in the north of Cyprus that oppose a just and lasting Cyprus settlement will flourish. We must not allow that to happen.
It certainly would end the isolation, at least in part, but there are clear international rules and law governing direct flights. It is important that the United Kingdom Government consider the legal position carefully. So far, we have concluded that it would not be possible to authorise direct flights in the absence of agreement by the Government of the Republic of Cyprus. That remains our legal opinion and legal view. It is clearly important that the United Kingdom Government do not transgress international law in any way.
The UK-Cyprus relationship is a priority for the Government. It has been argued, rightly in my opinion, that it was the absolute determination of the former Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, who worked tirelessly to overcome the concerns of other member states, that secured Cyprus membership of the European Union. Many senior figures in the Government continue to take a close interest in developments on the island, most prominently my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. We are, therefore, making every effort to work with the Republic of Cyprus to build a broader base of bilateral co-operation across a range of issues of common interest, as well as on the question of a Cyprus settlement.
The structured dialogue between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Cyprus, which is now in its second year, has resulted in co-operation and exchange of information on a variety of issues ranging from football hooliganism to counter-terrorism, and has included a number of high-level visits. Most recently, Cypriot and British officials met to discuss best practice in urban planning, and we expect future exchanges on civil service reform. The broad range of issues encompassed by the structured dialogue illustrates the depth, breadth and fundamental importance of our bilateral relationship with Cyprus. I am also encouraged by the engagement of both communities in the work of the UN Committee on Missing Persons. That bi-communal project is expected to present its first findings to the families of the missing early this year. Unfortunately, the committee is an exception in a worrying decline in bi-communal civic relations. That trend must be reversed because, without strong contributions from civil society, the two sides are unlikely to reach a comprehensive and lasting settlement.
There is much work to be done to foster trust and good relations to bring the two communities closer together. We will continue to encourage interaction at all levels of society through the UK Government, the EU, non-governmental organisations and UN-funded projects, but above all, as hon. Members have indicated, the impetus must come from the leaders of both communities. They must demonstrate their readiness to engage with the United Nations and with each other in the search for a solution.
Since taking over his job, has the Minister given any thought to our Government seeking to convene a meeting with the Turkish Government and the Greek Government—the three guarantor powers—to see whether they can find a proposal that they believe would be acceptable to the communities in Cyprus?
It is no secret that I have spent a considerable amount of time during the past few months talking with political leaders in Greece and Turkey and on the island. Those efforts are continuing and form part of a wider context, which I am outlining. There is no lack of effort by the British Government in trying to secure a just and lasting settlement.
An important development was the meeting between UN Under-Secretary-General Ibrahim Gambari and the two leaders on 8 July, when they agreed a set of principles and decisions. That, along with the leaders’ subsequent agreement to the proposals set out in Mr. Gambari’s letter of 15 November, provides a new opportunity for the resumption of fully fledged settlement negotiations. Whether the path to that settlement is long or short—obviously, we hope that it will be the latter—the settlement will be determined by the willingness of the parties to engage purposefully with the UN and each other. We will support that process in whatever way we can to achieve the ultimate goal of a reunified Cyprus within the EU and of peace and stability in the eastern Mediterranean region.
We talked about confidence-building measures, and the Minister referred to them. Although there was some negative reaction, the measures suggested by the Finnish presidency at the end of last year were generally welcomed by the international community. What discussions has the Minister had with the new German presidency to carry on the good work that the Finnish presidency was doing in trying to build confidence on the island?
Again, as a member of the European Union with a significant interest in Cyprus, we were closely involved with our Finnish colleagues in trying to find a way through the various issues without linking a settlement in Cyprus directly to the requirements of European law. The Council’s decision was practical and sensible, and it indicated the European Union’s concern about the failure of Turkey to implement European law while allowing the negotiations to continue in all but eight chapters. That is a practical solution to the problem and means that we have the opportunity to move forward. It will continue to be discussed but, as hon. Members said, a breathing space was required and the decision in December allowed for that. I hope that that breathing space can be used to maximum advantage in Ankara and the UN process. As the outgoing UN Secretary- General said, it is important to recognise that both sides must show the political will and flexibility to bridge the gap between words and deeds, and to implement the 8 July agreement without delay. Whether a comprehensive settlement can ultimately be reached rests with the leaders of both communities. I recognise the absolute determination of the people of the island to achieve a settlement, but it is important that both sides are prepared to recognise that they must both move to allow that settlement to occur.
Ashington, Blyth and Tyne Railway
I thank the House for allowing me the debate.
I first raised the issue on an Adjournment debate in the House in April 1999, at a time when Wansbeck was still suffering from the after-effects of the premature closure of the mining industry. Unemployment in some wards was running at more than 30 per cent. According to the university of Warwick, Wansbeck was in the top 6 per cent. of local authorities in Britain for concentrated poverty, and in the top 5 per cent. for concentrated unemployment. Although some jobs were created in Wansbeck, it was necessary for the majority of people to travel outside the constituency to obtain work. It was therefore vital to strengthen the transport network and to restore passenger rail services on a fully functioning railway line.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Freight was always the dominant feature on the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line, delivering coal to the staithes at Blyth and the Tyne for export. Passenger services were introduced between Blyth and Newcastle in 1847 and extended to Ashington and Newbiggin in 1872. Passenger services between Bedlington and Morpeth ended in 1950 and the remaining service ended shortly after the 1963 Beeching report. The final train ran in November 1964. I remember that date very well because I travelled on the very last train from Blyth to Ashington.
The Government recognise the level of deprivation and since 1997 have invested in the regeneration of Wansbeck. Wansbeck general hospital, situated close to the line, was extended to provide a much wider range of quality services such as accident and emergency, oncology, orthopaedics and maternity. Investment in a new bypass for the village of Pegswood will enable a faster link to the A1 north of Morpeth to be established. Investment in neighbourhood renewal is upgrading many districts in Wansbeck. A lot of time, effort and finance has been invested in the village of Newbiggin by the sea, which used to be the last station on the line. The public and private sectors have worked in partnership to regenerate the village.
Newbiggin Life was set up to obtain the views of residents and businesses to ensure that local people’s ideas were the driving force behind change. The first investment was the restoration of the war memorial garden to its original glory and it was opened recently by the Duke of Kent. A number of the older, run-down houses were demolished and the first phase of new private housing built alongside well designed social housing. The good work continues. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has just agreed a £10 million coast protection scheme for Newbiggin, which will include an offshore breakwater and a new beach. Newbiggin has the oldest working lifeboat station in the world, which will be of much interest to tourists.
The railway line also runs adjacent to Woodhorn colliery museum, which was reopened recently by Princess Anne after a £16 million facelift. The line runs through the centre of Ashington, which has benefited from major investment in leisure, sporting facilities and business parks, and is about to undergo a major town centre redevelopment. Proposals for a new learning park are well advanced. It would be situated five-minutes’ walk from the proposed Ashington station and will involve the relocation of Northumberland college, bringing many more people into Ashington.
A new station at Choppington with a park and ride and bus interchange will help to improve access to and from that former mining village. Bedlington still has its station platform and has seen a huge increase in the development of private sector housing. Access to a train service would make Bedlington an even more desirable place to live. The marketplace area and Front street are undergoing major refurbishment in an attempt to restore Bedlington as one of the premiere market towns in Northumberland. The provision of a train service would assist that process enormously.
The market town of Morpeth is also undergoing major redevelopment. A £15 million project that is about to commence will transform the riverside, improve visitor facilities and provide an excellent range of shops in what is already an excellent shopping centre. A major part of that redevelopment will provide hotel and conference facilities to attract people from all over the country. Improved rail services through Morpeth will of course assist that development.
Since my last debate on the railway line, Morpeth has changed a lot. A lot has also changed in the national rail structure. In 1999, the biggest stumbling block to the return of passenger services was the involvement of Railtrack, which at the time was operating at the height of its incompetence and reluctant to become involved in the scheme. In fact, it did its best to ensure that it never went ahead. There was a further problem with the investment required to upgrade the west coast main line, which in effect ensured that many smaller schemes were starved of the funding that they required to progress.
I congratulate all those involved in the South East Northumberland Rail User Group, which has worked to encourage certain train operators—Great North Eastern Railway, Virgin and Northern Rail—to increase services into and through Morpeth. Those participating have achieved a notable success in their discussions with Virgin, with a further two trains servicing Morpeth. They have also come forward with a proposal from Northern Rail to extend the current service from Newcastle through Cramlington into Morpeth, as the first stage of the full reopening of the line. As a result of those discussions, a feasibility study is about to commence, to be led by the North East assembly and funded by Nexus, Northumberland county council and Wansbeck district council. In addition, Northern Rail, the train operating company, and Network Rail, the rail infrastructure provider, will be participating in the study and will sit on the steering group, along with a member of SENRUG.
The Blyth and Tyne network comprises two connected routes, one running from Bedlington station to Washington, via South Newsham. The line continues further, running past Woodhorn museum and ending at the Alcan aluminium smelter at Lynemouth. The second route runs from Bedlington station to Morpeth, via Choppington. An opportunity has been identified to provide a limited rail service to the Wansbeck district, through the use of existing rolling stock, by the extension of the hourly Northern Rail service from MetroCentre in Newcastle, which currently terminates at Morpeth. At present, in order to clear the east coast main line upon arrival at Morpeth, trains run on to the Blyth and Tyne route, and lay over at Coopies lane, near the Hepscott junction, before commencing their southbound journey.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He has fought for the reopening of the line since he was elected. On the point about capacity, he mentioned the east coast main line and there was a report two weeks ago about the west coast line hitting capacity in 2015. Does he agree that now is the time for the investment in the railways, because of concerns about climate change, economic growth and the 30 per cent. increase in use over the past decade, with 2.3 billion journeys now being made? Now is the time to consider such lines, not least the one in his constituency and Leamside line in my constituency.
I agree with my hon. Friend that that is of course vital. Indeed, the timing of this debate, for both schemes, is probably the best that we could have picked. I will touch on some of the issues that he raised later in my contribution, but I certainly agree with his intervention.
As I was explaining, the train lays over at Hepscott before commencing its journey. It should be possible to extend the service to Bedlington station and to use the existing disused platform, taking advantage of the excellent bus and rail interchange at Bedlington. A new station platform would be required where the A1068 crosses the line at the Swan public house, which was the site of former Choppington station. There is space at the site to develop park-and-ride and bus interchange facilities. Preliminary discussions with Northern Rail suggest that an extension as far as Bedlington station would be feasible within the current timetable. I also point out to my hon. Friend the Minister that that would cost a fraction of Railtrack’s original costings, and provide a much needed rail link from Wansbeck to Tyneside.
Although not covered by the current study, SENRUG has planned further phases that could be introduced with an adjustment to Northern’s regional timetable, without the need for extra rolling stock at this stage. Phase 2 would be to extend trains from Bedlington into Ashington. It has been calculated that the journey time from Ashington to Newcastle on that route would be only 36 minutes. Phase 2a would be to extend beyond Ashington on the existing track to a new station at Woodhorn museum.
As I mentioned, the museum has been given a £16 million facelift, and charts the growth of coal mining in south-east Northumberland, along with the unique culture and heritage that developed from mining. The museum houses, in an extensive new gallery, the internationally renowned collection of paintings by the Ashington miners group, with images depicting everyday life, work underground and scenes in and around the Ashington area. The museum now also houses the Northumberland records office, with access to all the facilities online. The museum is adjacent to hundreds of acres of woodland, with walks, wildlife and a lake with a narrow gauge railway running through it. Entry to the museum is free of charge. The journey from Woodhorn to Newcastle would take approximately 40 minutes. If a long platform were built at Woodhorn, the station would be likely to attract incoming weekend charter trains from the rest of the country, bringing people into Northumberland.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. A platform would also provide an opportunity for an extensive park-and-ride interchange for Wansbeck general hospital.
Phase 3 would be the full reopening of the line from Benton junction to Bedlington, via Newsham. That would permit the potential for two full connecting services, the first being from Newcastle to Ashington, via Morpeth and Bedlington, and the second being from Newcastle to Ashington and Woodhorn, via Benton, running through Blyth valley and offering full metro interchange. There are also further possibilities to extend beyond Woodhorn to a reopened station at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea. It would be possible also to run trains north of Ashington, to Widdrington and Alnmouth.
More than 200,000 people in south-east Northumberland live close enough to the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line to use it regularly. Since my debate in 1999, more than 1,500 new houses have been built. Well over half the population commute to jobs outside Wansbeck, with 65 per cent. of them travelling south to Cramlington and Tyne and Wear. The proportion travelling by car is growing, increasing from 60 per cent. in 1999 to 74 per cent. today. At the same time, the number of bus users has decreased from 20 to 9 per cent. That does not surprise me, however, for the Wansbeck and Blyth valley fleet must be the worst in the country. Arriva, the bus operating company, invests the bare minimum in its buses to ensure that the company complies with the law. The buses are certainly not attractive and are generally noisy and dirty. The only saving grace is that the drivers are usually pleasant and helpful.
Anyone travelling into Ashington, Bedlington or Blyth early in the morning will generally have a clear run, with few traffic hold-ups, as all the traffic is travelling out of those towns and heading to work in Tyneside. Every one of those several thousand cars crosses the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line at some point in its journey, either heading for the Tyne tunnel south or for the western bypass. The Newcastle A1 western bypass is one of the most congested roads in the country. It desperately needs widening, and a second crossing over the Tyne is urgently required near the current tunnel.
The majority of cars that currently block the western bypass from the north come from south-east Northumberland. Congestion would therefore be significantly reduced with a new passenger rail service. The new rail service would have the effect of delivering Government policy on the ground. Environmentally, it could substantially reduce our carbon footprint, while economically it would further enhance the significant investment already made by the Government, by giving access to a wider jobs market for those who are unable to find work locally. A new rail service would enable people to travel into Wansbeck and Blyth valley to enjoy many of the facilities that I have listed.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this debate forward, because the line runs straight through my constituency as well. It has been said that charging will be introduced on the roads, but as he has pointed out, the only thing that we have in south-east Northumberland is bad bus routes. We do not have a rail link. Therefore, we in south-east Northumberland are going to be penalised twice, as a lot of people use their cars because the public transport is not there. Would my hon. Friend not agree with me on that one?
I agree with my hon. Friend and neighbour 100 per cent. That is the major problem: we have no access to rail services. Indeed, less than 0.5 per cent. of people who travel to work outside Wansbeck use the current rail service.
The project has the support of all major organisations in the north-east. It does not make sense—for the economy, the environment or local people—for a working railway line, maintained at taxpayers’ expense through Network Rail, to run through the county without passenger trains.
The Government’s main responsibility is to make the best use of existing resources. The line is a classic case of an underused resource that could be developed cost effectively for both freight and passenger needs. It could also play a major role in contributing to the diversionary route capability of the east coast main line. The synergy of those key issues will ensure that there is a sound business case for the line. When reopened, it will contribute towards many Government objectives, including reduced carbon emissions, through a modal shift from road transport. It will promote social inclusion, assist in continued regional regeneration and improve regional prosperity.
In conclusion, I thank all the dedicated people in SENRUG, whose efforts are to be rewarded by a feasibility study to examine phase 1. If successful, that will result in passenger rail services being introduced to Bedlington as early as 2008. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will support the principle of the reintroduction of passenger rail services on the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line, and I ask him to meet a small delegation from the region to discuss that exciting project further.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) on securing this debate on passenger services on the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line. I am well aware of his long-standing interest in the issue, which, I appreciate, remains a strategic priority for the region. As he said, it is seen as key to the regeneration of that part of the north-east. I hope that we can advance the debate today and that I can satisfy him, at least to some extent.
The Government, and the Department for Transport in particular, recognise the importance of good transport links for economic and social regeneration and for improving access to jobs and key services. Better access—whether by bus, rail or car—is crucial to achieving that. We have been working to address a legacy of underinvestment in transport that goes back decades. The growth in our economy, although clearly beneficial, has put further pressures on all transport modes. That is why the Government are committed to sustained long-term investment in transport.
Investment in transport in the north-east is at record levels. Over the lifetime of the first local transport plan, more than £450 million has been invested, delivering real improvements on the ground. More than £200 million has been spent on major capital projects in Tyne and Wear alone, with an emphasis on public transport improvements, delivering the extension of the metro to Sunderland and key interchange upgrades at Metrocentre, Gateshead and Four Lane Ends.
We have made significant investments and seen significant improvements in rail in the past few years. Performance has exceeded targets and passenger numbers have increased. We have also seen the number of passenger journeys increase by more than a third since 1996-97; they exceeded 1 billion in 2003-04 and have continued to increase in subsequent years. The amount of freight transported by rail has also increased by almost 50 per cent. in that time. The Government are also seeking to encourage greater use of local and rural railways through the community rail development strategy.
Our strategy for transport is focused on reducing social exclusion, tackling congestion and pollution and enhancing quality of life by improving all types of transport—rail and road, public and private—in ways that increase choice and as an investment in the future. However, there is a need for realism. We cannot satisfy every demand for transport infrastructure enhancements on any mode.
Major infrastructure improvements are expensive and take time to deliver. We have to prioritise and be realistic. We must be confident that each scheme that we take forward offers value for money in terms of social, economic or environmental benefits. Regional and local bodies now have a much clearer picture of the resources likely to be available to their regions in the next 10 years. Through the regional funding allocation process, we have given them the opportunity to advise the Government on how they think those resources should be allocated to best serve their regions’ needs and objectives.
Although it was not possible to include rail funding in the previous round of regional funding allocations, regions were able to prioritise rail projects that they felt were important to them. The Government and the rail industry also engage with the region via consultation exercises, information gathering and so on—for example, in creating the north-east regional planning assessment.
Each transport mode has its own strengths and weaknesses. A particular mode may not be the best solution in some cases. For example, rail is generally best suited to longer-distance journeys between centres of population, while a bus service’s flexibility can make it more suitable for dispersed populations and shorter distances. The most appropriate transport solution may also change over time.
It is important to maintain an open mind when considering options and to make an informed judgment about the most effective solution; otherwise, there is a danger that the solution will be determined before pen is put to paper on any investigation and that thereafter all work will become an exercise in proving the case for the favoured solution. If, early in the process, it becomes clear that the solution will not stand up to scrutiny, time and money is wasted and nothing is done to address the issue.
The Eddington transport study, published last month, recommended that the transport decision-making process should incorporate four key principles: first, the starting point should be a clear articulation of the objectives and outcomes required, using a whole journey approach; secondly, the full range of options should be considered, including different modes and more efficient use of capacity; thirdly, the most cost-effective policies that deliver the objectives should be prioritised; and finally, the process should be underpinned by a strong evidence base.
Given the publication of the Eddington and Stern reports and recent changes in how the rail industry is structured and undertakes strategic planning, a great many changes can impact on rail scheme proposals, so it is important to take an objective view of proposals and assess whether they are the best solution now and for the future.
The Government have not closed their minds to the expansion of rail. Indeed, the railways are growing faster than ever before. However, our priorities for investment must be driven by an objective assessment of where the greatest benefit—economic, social and environmental—is to be delivered. Generally, that follows strong patterns of established demand.
Before I address the issue of the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line, it is worth mentioning a forthcoming study, to which my hon. Friend alluded, that the north-east assembly is initiating.
In my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy), there are good examples of joined-up thinking in which the Association of North East Councils, Network Rail and the transport authorities have got together to consider feasibility and business cases for the reopening of lines in Wansbeck and Leamside, which is in my constituency. Will the Minister give a commitment that the Department for Transport will co-operate with the studies without taking any pre-determined view, and offer any assistance and guidance that it can?
My hon. Friend has already raised that matter with me, and I am more than happy to reiterate the commitment that I have already given: the Department will do everything that it can to help progress such initiatives, particularly when local partnerships are working positively together.
The assembly will shortly invite tenders for a study to establish the feasibility of introducing passenger rail services between Morpeth and Bedlington stations. The service may provide an alternative to the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line and improve accessibility in south-east Northumberland. The study is expected to be completed by the end of March 2007.
I turn to the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line. I shall, of course, be more than happy to meet a delegation led by my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck to discuss the project and how it can be progressed. I appreciate that there is considerable support in the region for the reopening of the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line as a means of regenerating deprived areas of Northumberland and providing greater accessibility. Although there has been a great deal of background work and examination, as far as I am aware, no business case has been created recently. The creation of a business case, with Network Rail and the rail industry, is the essential first step in taking forward any rail proposal.
My hon. Friend the Minister is, of course, right that no business case has been put forward. That is because of the reasons that I gave during my speech. Between 1999 and 2001, it was the No. 1 priority for every organisation in the region, but it was deliberately scuppered by Railtrack, which put forward a breathtaking, eye-watering figure—in excess of £45 million—for bringing the line up to scratch. Every expert in the rail industry has said that that figure was wildly over the top and was put forward deliberately to scupper the scheme.
I accept my hon. Friend’s point, and I hope that, if I agree to join him in criticism of Railtrack, he will agree that a business case is essential for progressing the project. In developing a business case, several potential obstacles would need to be addressed.
The cost of the scheme appears to have risen significantly. My hon. Friend addressed that issue, but we must get to the true figure. I understand that recent detailed estimates indicate that costs may now be more than £45 million, but I accept that that figure might not be as up to date as perhaps it should be. He suggested that it originally came from the 1999 Railtrack review. Nevertheless, it has the potential to weaken any future value-for-money assessment and would require proportionally larger benefits.
The proposed service would operate on the east coast main line for five miles north of Newcastle Central station. There is a question about whether there is sufficient capacity on that section of line and at Newcastle Central station. A new service using the line would clearly reduce capacity and flexibility and, potentially, the reliability of operation of the existing services on the line. Therefore, Network Rail would need to consider whether capacity could be found for the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne service, and of course it would be necessary to show that sufficient passengers would use the services to make it a viable, value-for-money option.
A formal business case would consider each of those issues as a matter of course. It would also provide an objective means of comparison with other schemes across the country. So while the various issues in reopening the line to passengers are by no means insurmountable, they do suggest that the option could be for the longer term, rather than the medium term. The 2004 regional rail study that informed the regional spatial strategy reached that conclusion.
The output from the study prioritised regeneration links as third, behind inter-regional and intra-regional links. Although the report said that the scheme would be worth while in assisting regeneration, it said that it is
“an expensive scheme with a relatively marginal value for money performance and making a case for national funding appears problematic”.
I am glad that that is a quote. My hon. Friend is looking at me in a not particularly complementary way, but I am quoting someone else.
On that basis, the report recommended a phased approach. A Newcastle to Ashington and Blyth express bus could be implemented in phase 1, followed by the reopening of the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line to passenger services in phase 2. The north-east regional planning assessment also suggested that bus-based solutions might be more appropriate. It said that reopening lines such as the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne as passenger routes would become viable only if development were targeted at the proposed stations. Again, that suggests a longer-term option, dependent on regional and local planning policy. As such, the reopening of the line was not considered a priority in the regional planning assessment.
I recognise that the proposals have been, and continue to be, a long-term strategic priority for the region. Reopening the line has been a constant in Northumberland county council’s local transport plans. I note that the most recent local transport plan acknowledged that the scheme is a medium-term proposition. Nevertheless, it remains the case that formal analysis of the scheme by the relevant local authorities may lead to the development of a scheme that has good value for money and could therefore be taken forward by them.
It is always open to local transport authorities to bring forward proposals on the basis of their own committed funding, but such proposals must also be subject to rigorous scrutiny, starting with a consideration of whether they would be the most effective transport option. The production of a business case represents a considerable investment in time and resources, and any authority would want to consider carefully its priorities in the context of local, regional and national plans, just as central Government would.
In closing the debate, I confirm that we are working to improve transport connectivity in the north-east as a whole to ensure that people are better able to access jobs and essential services. I recognise the value of the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne scheme, and I suggest that Northumberland county council considers how a viable business case might be constructed.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. In addition, I express my disappointment and that of my colleagues in the House of Commons band MP4 that we will not secure a single penny from our greatest hits recordings in 50 years’ time if the Gowers review suggestions are followed.
I congratulate Andrew Gowers on producing a thorough and complete report on intellectual property, and in meeting the terms of reference set by the Treasury. He went about his business with the professionalism and diligence that one would expect of someone with his experience and background. It was always going to be a tough task comprehensively to review IP in the United Kingdom and how it applies to the UK economy, and then to set out recommendations about how things could be improved. It was always a task that would be mired in controversy, at the very least.
The report was eagerly anticipated. I do not think that there has been such a scale of submissions during the consultation period of any Government review, and a similar thing can be said about the report’s publication at the beginning of December. Again, the number of responses from all the different stakeholders was almost unprecedented. The Andrew Gowers report will be considered and debated not just for the next few weeks and months but for the next few years.
This is my first and probably only appeal to the Minister: do not close down the debate now. Let us consider the Gowers review as part of the process of the Government’s coming to their own decisions and conclusions about the future of IP and copyright. The review should go out for proper consultation so that all stakeholders have an opportunity to respond. I hope that the Government put a brake on the Gowers process and ensure that all stakeholders are consulted and have an opportunity to respond fully and comprehensively to the recommendations.
The Government must do that. The knowledge economy is fundamentally important to the UK, and I am sure that I do not need to tell the Minister that. It represents some 8 per cent. of our total gross domestic product, and the latest assessments are that up to £50 billion of gross output is dependent on it. We must get this fundamentally right.
More important that anything else, we must get the balance right so that creators are rewarded for their talent and initiative and so that we have the proper business environment, framework and culture to allow the development and growth of our IP.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) on securing the debate. As chairman of the all-party group on music, I ask him whether he agrees that the law must be strengthened to cover those people who facilitate piracy. As a musician, he knows that the basis of copyright is to give the musician and other creators of music the chance to make a living. Does he think that it is important for the Minister to take up that matter?
I totally agree, and I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s sterling chairmanship of the all-party group, which we all very much appreciate. He raises crucial points about things that have not been properly considered in the review. We must ensure that musicians and people who create music are properly rewarded for their initiative. It is totally unfair that the current situation will allow illegal downloads to continue. We must ensure that we have a viable music industry that can counter all of that.
The review is a rare opportunity to consider whether our IP rules strike the right balance for rewarding creativity and allowing businesses the opportunity to develop and grow the knowledge economy. The Gowers report will stand or fall on whether the balance has been effectively struck. On the face of it, I do not believe that it has. The report fails to recognise the rights and interests of so many of our creators and artists.
At first look, the review seems to be a modest document. It makes a little tweak here, does a bit of sorting out to facilitate enforcement, and removes some of the more general inconsistencies that Gowers identified. However, it is not what the report says that is important but the impression that it gives to so many stakeholders in our creative economy. The Gowers review may have undermined the confidence of a whole sector of our creative economy, particularly musicians and artists who now feel undervalued, unsupported and misunderstood in respect of what they are trying to achieve through copyright protection.
It seems at times that Gowers decided unilaterally that copyright no longer belongs to the creator but to the user, the consumer and the general public. It is given back to the creator only as some sort of pat on the head or grudging concession. That view has infuriated the creative community in the UK, and the unprecedented collection of signatures of 5,000 UK musicians, from the humble to the high and mighty, who have come together to demand fair play for musicians, demonstrates the great concern of our artistic community, which feels unsupported and undervalued. The campaign is supported by the general public. A British Phonographic Industry opinion poll found that more than 60 per cent. of the public support these musicians and think that they should be treated equally when it comes to term extension.
The review was a missed opportunity to support UK performers and the music industry, and it shows a lack of understanding of some of the key copyright issues and how they apply to artists and musicians. Copyright term extension has become the totem of the review and the hottest issue. It was probably the most controversial element that Gowers touched on. It is the one thing that has highlighted the feelings of being undervalued among our vital creators.
All the open right groups and digital right groups that have emerged in the past few years have been able cleverly to suggest that this has all been about the big bad music industry and its multimillion pound musician chums. I think that Gowers bought into the perception that that was what term extension is all about, but this is not about the Elton Johns, the Robin Gibbs and the Cliff Richards; it is about the guys who played bass on Robin Gibb’s records, and the percussionists and drummers in Cliff Richard’s bands. They are guys who had the once in a lifetime opportunity to perform on a hit record and they should be rewarded throughout their lifetime for the recordings that they created.
It is certain that Andrew Gowers looked closely at extension. He even put together a select group of Cambridge economists to consider it further. However, looking at their report it is clear from the outset—from the first few words—that they were predisposed to reject term extension. Not a creator, an artist or a musician was consulted. He never solicited or sought their views on that critical point.
Andrew Gowers does not even attempt to consider why composers, novelists and the rest of those people should enjoy longer terms than sound recording artists and investors. Dismissively he focuses only on the wealthy musicians. Of course they will attract the media attention; that is inevitable in our culture. However, millions of people throughout the UK participate in music, and for every Robin Gibb there are thousands on thousands of musicians who will earn less than £10,000 a year. It is for those people that we say that the copyright term extension should be considered.
We must remember that the British music industry is perhaps the most successful and innovative music industry anywhere in the world. It has had decades of unparalleled success in finding new talent and nurturing it and in ensuring that music has become one of our key export industries, which contributes so much to the Exchequer. The British music industry is fragile and it exists on the front line of technological and digital innovation. It battles week in and week out to try to stay abreast of all the new developments and technology in the digital revolution. We undermine that and do not give it our support at our peril. I hope that the Minister will listen to the clear representations, views and anxieties that the British music industry in all its forms and guises has about what has been suggested in the Gowers review.
Everywhere in the Gowers report there are further erosions of the rights of musicians. I want to mention a couple of the recommendations as I see them. Recommendation 11, for example, proposes that copyright-protected music can now be transformed into new works without the permission of the original creator. The Minister will know that better as “sampling”, and I am sure that he will find it in his vast collection of hip hop albums. I am the first to recognise that hip hop has been a fantastic development in the genre of popular music, and it has contributed much worldwide to the ongoing success of British music. Gowers recognises that, too. He has looked to the US example and decided to copy that. However, the US transformative use exception is described in legal journals as the most problematic exception in US copyright. Just as the US has discovered difficulties with that, Andrew Gowers has proposed that we copy that model. The European model, where authorisation is required from the artist before any of their work can be used in transformative recordings, works well. Surely it is right that UK creators should have the opportunity to say no to people who want to use their work in samples, especially if it will be used in a derogatory or offensive manner. Surely they should be rewarded for their music when it is used in the course of someone else’s performance.
Recommendation 8 is a brave stab at clarifying how copyright material could be copied for personal use, for example by taking a CD and putting it on to an iPod. Gowers proposes a new exception that will give consumers a right to make limited copies for their own private use. I think that is right. The law has to be clarified, and no one has ever been prosecuted for copying their CD on to their MP3 player, but along with that there must be a sustained and robust education campaign. Just as the British music industry is coming to terms with digital downloading and growing that market, it might be seen as a green light for anyone to be involved in illegal downloading. It very much misses the point, to come back to what the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) said; it is not about copying for personal use, but about the mass of peer-to-peer sites that have emerged on the internet. Many people have uploaded their whole massive libraries and encouraged people to download illegally from them. British Music Rights has found that 80 per cent. of the music on the average MP3 player has been acquired illegally. That is the sort of thing that Gowers should be looking to tackle.
Gowers has considered how creators can be compensated for the loss of revenue through CD copying and suggests that that should be added to the cost of a new CD when it comes out. That is a great wheeze given the perception that in the UK CDs are already overpriced. It will obviously have an impact on the competitiveness of the UK industry once again. That requires further assessment.
There are good things in the Gowers report, and I come to them last as I recognise and acknowledge them as being useful and productive. I completely support the idea of further rights enforcements coupled with better copyright education for consumers and beefing up trading standards so that illegal copiers can be pursued. He makes good suggestions about stiffer penalties for people who have been prosecuted under the new legislation. He says good things about education, too, and it is right that he recognises the pioneering work that British Music Rights has done in that regard. I am glad that he recognised that in his report.
As I have said, there is an awful lot in all of this. I have not even had time to touch on matters such as orphan works or the new patent office, which are all crucial to the debate. It is clear and certain that it needs further review, scrutiny and consultation. We need to allow all stakeholders—all those who have an interest in developing a knowledge economy—to come back and say what their views of the Gowers report are. It is almost certain that the balance is not right. Artists and creators are unfairly discriminated against, and right now they are feeling particularly undervalued. The British music industry is a success for the UK economy and we have to do all we can to support it. I hope that the Minister will listen carefully and clearly to the pleas and anxieties of the UK music industry, and that he will indulge the music industry by perhaps meeting its representatives to discuss some of its issues.
It is important that we get this right. It is crucial for our whole economy. The knowledge-based economy is fundamental to the UK, and so much now depends on it. We have the review, which we could use as a base for the UK response. I hope that the Minister will listen to the many voices that have expressed concern about what has been suggested and that he will respond favourably and robustly to their views and concerns.
It is a pleasure, Mr. O’Hara, to serve under your chairmanship. I enjoyed and found stimulating the way in which the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) introduced this important debate. He has already declared his registered interests. Rather more modestly, I can only declare that I do not think that I have any hip hop recordings; I doubt whether Lonnie Donegan counts. However, I have a fine collection of Runrig CDs, the originals and not bootleg recordings—probably the finest library of Runrig in Croydon. I am a serious fan.
I note the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson). My hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) and for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) might have wanted to catch your eye, Mr. O’Hara, despite it being a half-hour debate, but because they are Whips they are not able to speak. They are here because of their interest, and because of their artistic input to our culture. Those, I think, are the right phrases for this occasion.
More seriously, the Gowers review considered intellectual property and policy. I hope, Mr. O’Hara, that you will not be offended if, for brevity, I refer to intellectual property as IP. The number of responses to the call for evidence—more than 500—and the wide variety of those who responded were unprecedented for what has in the past been regarded as a rather specialised and dry area of law. That illustrates the important role that intellectual property now plays throughout society. Indeed, it will grow in importance.
Why is IP so important? The answer is simple. The hon. Gentleman has given his analysis. In a changing world the United Kingdom’s current and future success in the global knowledge economy depends on the ability of our creative and high-tech industries to compete. That is certainly true for music, something in which Great Britain excels. For example, the creative industries accounted for 7.3 per cent. of gross value added in 2004.
IP is critical to those key businesses, as it allows them to protect their investment. They therefore need an effective and balanced IP regime. That is why an independent review of our IP framework was commissioned. I am pleased to say that the Gowers review found, generally speaking, that the current system does not require any big fixes. However, it recognised that the IP regime faces challenges from globalisation and increasing digitisation.
In an increasingly global world, many aspects of IP rights are territorial. Despite improvements to the European patent system, it remains more costly for businesses to protect their ideas here than in comparable markets such as the United States and Japan. Digitisation brings with it great opportunities for new markets but also increased opportunities for piracy and counterfeiting. For example, in 2005 the UK music industry estimates that it lost more than £500 million through pirated CDs and online file sharing.
The review makes practical recommendations on how we can respond to those challenges and opportunities, and I am pleased that the Government welcome the report and will be taking forward those recommendations for which we are responsible. I would like to consider three key areas: strong and effective enforcement, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West; reducing costs and complexity for businesses; and improving access to content.
The Government are committed to a strong and effective enforcement regime for rights holders. IP crime not only damages rights holders and our industries, but impacts on consumers, small businesses, our creative industries and on people’s lives and their health. For instance, the World Health Organisation estimates that up to a tenth of the world’s medicines are fake, which reminds us that it is a wide issue. Music is one important area, but there are others.
The review recognises that the national lP crime strategy has played an important role in providing a co-ordinated approach. It makes important recommendations for improving the framework in order to maximise the effectiveness of our work. I am delighted that the Home Office recognises IP crime as an area for police action, as a component of organised crime, within the updated national community safety plan.
We will increase penalties for online infringement of copyright, which is currently a maximum of two years’ imprisonment, to bring them into line with the penalty for physical infringement of copyright, which is currently a maximum of 10 years’ imprisonment. Trading standards officers will be given new powers and duties to enforce copyright infringement, with an additional £5 million in 2007-08, to assist with the early implementation of that new role. My colleagues at the Department for Constitutional Affairs will be considering a number of issues, including ways to promote mediation as a cheaper and more effective way to resolve disputes.
The review identified that the costs and complexity of the IP system can sometimes be prohibitive for businesses. To address that, we are already exploring opportunities for work-sharing agreements for patent processing with Japan and the US. We will continue to work with our European partners to seek improvements in the current patent system in Europe—for example, by reducing translation costs, through the London agreement, and ultimately by working towards a community patent.
We will also be working with industry to improve the support and advice on IP that we give to businesses both here and abroad. In addition, we will build on the success of the Lambert model agreements, already recognised in a pan-European context, by working on consortia agreements. Those measures have simplified the transaction costs for university to business licensing, and we will work with industry to draw up business to business model IP licences.
Consumers will benefit from an improved access to content. Gowers recommends changing the law to clarify when consumers may format-shift content that they have purchased—for example, setting out when music fans will be able to transfer their CDs on to their MP3 players. Naturally, a balance between consumers and rights holders has to be maintained. That will not provide carte blanche for unlimited copying; it will be for personal use only. Improving access to content also means ensuring that consumers know what they are buying and what they can do with it. We will therefore need to consider clearer labelling of digitally protected works. If appropriate access is hindered, there should be a simple mechanism for reporting it, so that something can be done.
The academic, educational and heritage sectors are important to our future success and our cultural identity. They will benefit from exceptions that respond to the needs of the digital era, such as enabling distance learning via secure sites and permitting the easier preservation of works for posterity.
Another recognised area of difficulty concerns orphan works—those works for which the copyright owner cannot be found. Gowers recommended a voluntary database, on which copyright holders can register their ownership. More contentiously, it recommended developing an orphan works provision. That is not something that the UK can do. It is a matter for the European Union, and we will be informing the EU of that recommendation.
The terms of protection for sound recordings were very much the focus of the hon. Gentleman’s introduction. The Gowers review looked closely at the terms of protection for sound recordings and performers’ rights in sound recordings, including commissioning an economic study to assist them. It is important to emphasise that that issue is a matter of EU competency. That is why the recommendation of the Gowers review was made to the European Commission. The Commission will be looking at the issue as part of its work programme in 2007. It will be up to the Commission to evaluate both the Gowers analysis and any further work in that area when it considers the question. The hon. Gentleman calls for continued debate and an opportunity for representation. With the Commission considering the issue this year, it seems to me that there are adequate means for his industry in the UK and across Europe to make representations.
I understand and accept that term extension will be a matter for the European Union, but what is the Government’s view? The Gowers review recommends that term extension should not be exceeded. What will the Government say to European Union officials in the light of that recommendation? Will they respond to it?
We have noted the position of the Gowers review. The Government are still considering it; we have not yet formulated a definitive view. I repeat that it is largely a matter for the European Commission. Given the time scale, the industry will still have the opportunity to make proper representations.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman again on enabling us to have this debate, and for the good way in which he presented the issues. I thank my colleagues for their attendance; they are here as a sort of silent backing group.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Five o’clock.