House of Commons
Wednesday 2 May 2007
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues, including the Secretary of State for Defence. There is a strong defence presence in Wales, which will be strengthened by the St. Athan defence training project.
RAF Valley is an integral part of the Anglesey community, has been so for over 60 years, and is a major contributor to the region. The recent positive announcement by the Ministry of Defence on locating the search and rescue headquarters and the new Hawk integrated operational support contract at Valley is creditable and gives confidence to both the civilian and military work force. Does he agree, however, that the academy at St. Athan offers further potential for RAF Valley to benefit and to broaden its skills base, and that a party with the aim of independence would jeopardise that?
I agree very much with my hon. Friend that RAF Valley has enormous potential, does good work and has potential linkages across Wales, including with the defence training project. That project, which is the biggest such public investment project in living memory—if not ever—will bring unparalleled investment in Wales, with over 5,000 jobs, an additional 1,500 jobs in construction and about £16 billion of investment, all of which is a result of the strong partnership between Westminster and a Welsh Assembly Government—a partnership that would be put at risk by a nationalist-Tory alliance in the Welsh Assembly Government if they won power.
Obviously, the Secretary of State has changed the order: it is now nationalist-Tory, not Tory-nationalist; in any event, it is nonsense, as it was last week. May I set the record straight? Plaid Cymru was fully supportive of the Defence Aviation Repair Agency bid from day one, we still are, and I fully appreciate what the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) says: the development is important to Wales and we could be world leaders in that kind of technology. At no stage have I expressed a contrary view, except to say that I would have preferred the jobs to have stayed in the public sector.
As the hon. Gentleman mentions the point, I do not mind whether the alliance is nationalist-Tory or Tory-nationalist; it would still put the Tories in power in Wales, and they have not been in power at a serious level of government anywhere in the United Kingdom for a long time. In respect of the policy of defence investment, why did his party president, Dafydd Iwan, call for the disbanding—
Given the Government’s massive investment in defence training, do not the armed services provide an excellent career for youngsters throughout Wales and across the United Kingdom? In that case, how does the Secretary of State answer those in Wales who call for Army recruitment to be banned in schools?
I did notice that one Plaid Cymru Assembly Member was calling for the Army to be banned from recruiting in schools, which is a crazy policy, like all Plaid Cymru’s other crazy policies that are designed to separate Wales from the rest of the United Kingdom, which would be a disastrous policy if it formed part of a Welsh Assembly Government’s future objectives.
Further to the question of the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), the Secretary of State will be aware that the air service to be launched next week linking Cardiff airport with RAF Valley is to be subsidised by the Welsh Assembly Government to the tune of £800,000 per annum, which equates to a subsidy of more than £170 per passenger, per return flight, if those flights are fully occupied. Does he consider that such a level of subsidy is good value for taxpayers’ money? When does he anticipate that the service will be able to stand on its own feet financially?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) says from a sedentary position, the project is an investment in improved north-south transport links, which I would have thought the hon. Gentleman, as a north Wales MP, would welcome. I would have thought that he would say that businesses and individuals in north Wales who need to travel to and from Cardiff, which can take as long as five hours by car and a similar amount of time by train, should have the advantage of that service, which will bring extra investment to north Wales and Anglesey. He should be backing it, not attacking it.
The Government are wholeheartedly committed to cutting the regulatory burden on all businesses and are currently undertaking one of the most radical reform agendas in the world.
I am pleased to hear that, but is the Minister aware that recent surveys of Welsh business reveal overwhelming opposition to the Budget proposals to increase the rate of the small firms corporation tax? Will he pledge to do all that he can to resist those anti-business Euro-directives, particularly the working time directive, from which the UK had an opt-out, and the agency workers directive, both of which would do untold damage to Welsh tourism?
The Government have reduced the regulatory burden on business arising, for example, from Department of Trade and Industry regulations, by more than £1 billion. Some 900,000 companies are now exempt from audit requirements on their accounts. The hon. Gentleman refers to various surveys, and the CBI survey shows that manufacturers in Wales have received the highest surge in orders for more than a decade, and that Welsh firms are experiencing much stronger order and output growth than the UK as a whole. The latest figures show that new VAT registrations for businesses in Wales are up significantly. Moreover, 130,000 jobs have been created since 1997.
All those facts demonstrate that the Government are extremely successful in dealing with these matters. Small businesses are growing substantially in Wales, and are being created on a regular basis. That shows that we have the right policies, which could only be put at risk if we ended up with some sort of rag-bag coalition.
Will my hon. Friend remind Conservative Members that it was a Conservative Government who devastated business and industry in Wales, although siren voices suggested that measures such as the minimum wage would devastate business and industry rather than introducing fairness? Will he restate this Government’s policy of introducing measures from European directives properly, not gold-plating them but ensuring that there is fairness in industry for all, including business?
I agree with everything that my right hon. Friend has said. I know from the hard work that he did in ensuring the passage of legislation to reduce the regulatory burden on businesses that he is an expert in the field. The facts are clear: businesses in Wales are growing and are being created faster than ever before, and all the surveys indicate that the Government’s regime is working.
Of course, we will resist any attempts to gold-plate European regulation. We will continue with the formula—the partnership between the Welsh Assembly Government and the Labour Government here in Westminster—which has proved so successful, putting 138,000 more people in work than was the case 10 years ago.
Is not the misery-mongering from Norfolk mocked by the reality of thriving private industry in Wales? In Newport alone we have benefited from a huge amount of investment, resulting in thousands of new jobs in EADS, Yellow Pages, International Rectifier and the Quinn Group. Is that not largely due to the strength of the partnership between the Labour-controlled Welsh Assembly and the Labour-controlled Government, which would be put at risk if it fell into the instability of an Assembly controlled—
Surprisingly, I agree, yet again, with my hon. Friend. What he says is true, although that success is happening not just in Newport, but in my constituency: we now have record levels of employment where we used to have record levels of unemployment. Indeed, it is true throughout Wales. Ibsen Biopharm has announced an investment of more than £39 million in a pharmaceutical plant in Wrexham, and the Amazon investment was announced only last month.
Industry recognises that Wales is a good place in which to invest. We are seeing existing industries growing and new industries being created, because—as my hon. Friend says—of the wonderful partnership between Westminster and Cardiff.
Public Sector Employment
Employment in Wales is at historically high levels, with 138,000 more people in employment in Wales since 1997. The increase in private sector employment in Wales has been three and a half times the increase in public sector employment.
The Secretary of State will know that Wales has a much higher proportion of public sector workers than the rest of the United Kingdom, and that unemployment there is rising. How does he account for that, and what will he tell voters in Wales tomorrow? Is it not the case that Labour is not working for those who are unemployed in Wales?
Unemployment is pretty stable, and employment continues to rise. Significantly, economic inactivity levels—which have been a curse of the Welsh economy—have been falling, especially in valley areas that have received the objective 1 funding delivered not by the last Tory Government, but by a Labour Government.
The hon. Gentleman should look at the latest CBI report, which shows that manufacturers in Wales have received the highest surge in order levels for more than a decade. Entrepreneurship in Wales is at an all-time high, states a report in The Sunday Times. Many businesses are doing well, and many people are starting up businesses in all areas of the economy in Wales. It is a great place to do business. All of that would be put at risk if there were an unholy alliance between the nationalists and the Tories in a Welsh Assembly coalition Government.
The fastest growing part of the UK economy is in the Deeside hub—the axis between north-east Wales, Chester and Ellesmere Port. As my right hon. Friend knows, that has occurred only because of the partnerships that have been created across the border. The recent fantastic announcement about Vauxhall Motors has protected the jobs of hundreds of people living in north-east Wales.
My hon. Friend is right: the integration of the north-east Wales economy with nearby areas again underlines how absurd is the nationalist policy of separatism in Scotland or Wales or any part of the United Kingdom. It is a crazy policy for jobs and it would put at risk all the success—
The official figures show that 48,000 manufacturing jobs in Wales have been lost in 10 years. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he will work with the Government in Cardiff, of whatever political complexion, to reverse this disastrous decline?
Obviously, as Secretary of State it is my duty to work with any Government in Wales of whatever political complexion, but it is important that I and my Labour predecessors have been able to work with a Labour Welsh Assembly Government that has provided unparalleled success in the economy, including in manufacturing—new manufacturers continue to be attracted to come to Wales and, as I have said, the CBI reports the best prospects for manufacturing for a long time. All of that would be put at risk if we were to have an unstable rag-bag coalition of the alternative parties, especially the nationalists joining with the Tories in an unholy alliance, which would put Wales’ success at risk.
If the Secretary of State has been so successful in working with the Labour Welsh Assembly Government, will he explain what Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs workers in Pembrokeshire will do when their jobs are axed, in a cynically timed decision, after these elections? Will he also explain why half the population in Wales cannot find an NHS dentist, and what NHS nurses and doctors will do when Labour closes hospitals, such as Withybush, Llandudno and Bronglais?
No hospital closures are planned of that kind. This is yet again Tory scaremongering—the Tories are joining with their friends the nationalists in doing that. What about the 8,000 more nurses that there are in Wales since the last election? What about the 500 more consultants in hospitals? What about the 1,700 extra teachers and the 5,700 extra school support staff and the 1,000 extra police officers? [Interruption.] The hon. Lady says, “What about waiting times?” Waiting times have plummeted since 1997, when we came to power and found the terrible Tory inheritance. The public sector in Wales is doing well and it will continue to improve. The Tory alternative is massive public spending cuts: £21 billion in total, £1 billion of which will fall on the Welsh budget.
I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on issues affecting Wales. We have introduced tougher antisocial behaviour measures than any previous Administration, which are designed to stamp out this blight on our communities.
The Penllwyn community partnership in my constituency has worked well with councillors and the police to combat the menace of antisocial behaviour. Far from being short term, costly and counter-productive, as suggested by the Leader of the Opposition, using legislation passed by this Government we have ensured that communities are empowered to tackle this nuisance. What measures are planned to ensure that people living in communities such as the Penllwyn will continue to be given help and support in order to improve the quality of life in their neighbourhoods?
I applaud what has been taking place in my right hon. Friend’s constituency and I know that he has taken a close interest in that. I assure him that if Labour is returned to power at Cardiff bay in the Assembly elections, we will introduce antisocial behaviour units in every local authority area, increase investment in the safer and stronger communities fund and increase fines for littering, graffiti and fly-tipping, because all of those activities are a blight on a our local neighbourhoods. As my right hon. Friend has pointed out, such measures are often opposed by the Conservatives, the nationalists and the Liberal Democrats. Therefore, they should, perhaps, join together and form a Government if they get the chance, as they have been continuously working together in opposition to undercut and undermine our Welsh Labour Government’s achievements.
When the Secretary of State has discussed with the Home Secretary the difficult issue of antisocial behaviour, has he raised a problem in Wales that is equally a problem in England? Families that suffer antisocial behaviour from neighbours feel that the time scale for resolving the problem and the note-keeping and incident recording that they have to do is so extensive that it makes their lives unacceptably awful for too long. Can something be done to speed up the process, while maintaining a sense of justice in the system?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very serious point, and we must make sure that we monitor this issue and chase up on it. He is right: a neighbour from hell is a hellish experience. I saw that for myself at Llandudno Junction, for example, a few months ago, where a particular household literally terrorised the local community to the point where people did not want to live in their own homes. Through tough antisocial behaviour legislation and the local council working with the police, action was taken, the family was moved and the neighbourhood has returned to stability.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the behaviour of the chief constable of north Wales in displaying pictures of a motorcyclist killed on a north Wales road, without the permission of the relatives of that person, could be considered extremely antisocial? Will my right hon. Friend join me in calling for the resignation of the chief constable?
I agree with my hon. Friend that this episode has caused enormous distress to the relatives of the victim, who were not even consulted in advance about this behaviour by the North Wales police chief constable. It is completely unacceptable, and I know that the Independent Police Complaints Commission is looking into it very seriously.
Grant Gronow, Jonathan Smith, Nathan John, Jessica Littleford, Stacey Hughes and Hannah Jones—the “Bryntirion six”—are young people who helped a woman who was being assaulted and robbed. They went to her aid while adults stood by, and they have been given a respect award. Will the Secretary of State join me in commending these young people, who demonstrate that not all young people are thugs? Many are decent law-abiding examples to adults of good behaviour.
I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating these young people from her constituency; they are an example to everybody and a model to others. This allows us to state, as she has, that only a tiny minority of youngsters behave in the yobbish fashion that gives rise to the need for antisocial behaviour legislation. The vast majority of young people are a good example to their community—as, indeed, are her constituents.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I regularly meet Welsh Assembly Government colleagues to discuss issues affecting Wales, including environmental issues negotiated in Europe.
The EU, the United Kingdom and, indeed, the Welsh Administration all share a concern about the collapse of some species in Wales. There was a target—[Hon. Members: “Tories!”] I am sure that some are also concerned about the resurgence of the Tories in Wales. I am particularly concerned about the 81 per cent. decline in the number of curlew, for instance, since 1993, and the water vole has also declined by some four fifths in the past 20 years or so. I do not blame the Government for this, but what can the Minister and the Welsh Administration do to reverse this decline in biodiversity in Wales and to establish better wildlife conditions for the benefit of all the people in Wales?
The hon. Gentleman asks an interesting question. It is true that certain species have been recorded as being in decline, whereas others are improving. Species such as the otter are now returning to many Welsh rivers in which they have not been seen for decades, so the picture is mixed. However, it is important that factors such as climate change be addressed as well, because they may well have an effect on biodiversity not just in Wales, but throughout the world. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman read the Climate Change Bill, which will put in legislation clear targets to try to address the threat that we all face from climate change.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the National Assembly for Wales has a central role to play in protecting our environment and combating climate change? Will he support proposals for new law-making powers for the Assembly to tackle environmental pollution in all its forms?
Yes, indeed, my hon. Friend raises an important point. Issues relating to climate change and how we tackle it are now the responsibility of the Welsh Assembly Government. For example, I know their commitment to trying to achieve, by 2011, the target of all new buildings in Wales being carbon neutral. That is the sort of policy needed to tackle climate change, and we will also address it through technology and encouraging people and institutions to act more responsibly.
Is the Minister aware that ground-level ozone and summer smog caused mainly by traffic emissions has killed an estimated 1,500 people in Wales since 1997? I am probably the first Member of Parliament to ride a Vectrix electric bike, launched yesterday, a zero carbon vehicle with a range of 68 miles for a 20p charge. Does the Minister agree that such technology will reduce health risks and will he join me and the Welsh Liberal Democrats in promoting the use and manufacture of such vehicles in Wales?
The hon. Gentleman is right that emissions are not only about climate change, but about health and the quality of the atmosphere. My official cars in London and Cardiff are electric hybrids. The Government have produced a list of top tips for smarter drivers which, if all motorists followed them, would reduce emissions by 5.5 million tonnes of CO2 a year and save more than £2 billion in fuel costs. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton), it is important that individuals take the decision to address climate change in their habits, including the way in which they drive and the type of vehicles they use. That is part of the way in which we will tackle climate change.
When the Secretary of State has not been repeating election slogans like a parrot, he has forcibly and repeatedly supported the proposed 200 turbine wind farm at Gwynt y Môr, to the extent that he has even attacked my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) for raising his constituents’ concerns about the massive impact of that environmental project. In the past 48 hours, the First Minister has surprisingly and cynically taken the Conservative line and joined us in calling for a public inquiry. Will the Minister now condemn the First Minister for dumping official Labour policy on that wind farm for the sake of a few votes?
That policy has certainly not been dumped. The fact is that last year the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) came to north Wales, shortly before announcing that he was going to put a wind turbine on his house, and described the Gwynt y Môr development as a massive bird blender. He may have changed his view, but I can assure the hon. Lady that the First Minister has not changed his view on his support for renewable energy. Yet again, the Conservatives claim to have a grand policy in favour of renewable energy, but when it comes to hard decisions, they fluff them.
The recycling and waste disposal schemes being pursued by the Welsh Assembly Government are on track and we have discussed these matters. Wales has a big and ambitious recycling and waste disposal programme at all levels, and encourages households to do the same.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Before I list my engagements for today, I again have the sad duty of asking the House to join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of Rifleman Paul Donnachie of the 2nd Battalion the Rifles, who was killed in Iraq at the weekend. We pay tribute to him for his dedication and sacrifice. This has been a difficult month for our forces in Iraq, and more so for their families. We send them our thoughts, prayers and sympathy at this time.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.
The whole House will wish to join the Prime Minister in his expression of condolence.
If the Prime Minister had a quote for an extension on his house 18 months ago, which was resubmitted today for more than two and half times the original amount, I suspect that he might get a few more quotes. Could I ask him to do exactly the same on behalf of my constituents, all of whom will benefit from the A5-M1 link, and very kindly meet me and Highways Agency officials to find out why costs have escalated so astronomically, and to see what can be done about it?
Although the costs of the particular scheme to which the hon. Gentleman refers have escalated, it is only because the Government are making money available for investment that it can go ahead at all. I am perfectly happy to meet him to discuss the scheme, but the business case for the link has to be made good on the basis of the funding available from the Department for Transport.
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the 10th anniversary of his premiership, and on the tremendous vision and leadership that he has shown in this country? What is the balance that must be achieved between understanding the hurt and concern of those bereaved or injured on 7 July 2005, and the need for maintaining absolute focus on the work of the Security Service and the police? We owe them congratulations and a debt of gratitude for the work done in Operation Crevice which, in early 2004, saved us from the most devastating terrorist attack that would have involved the most enormous loss of life.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the magnificent work that our security services and police do in protecting this country from terrorism. It is worth reminding ourselves that Operation Crevice was an enormous success for those services, focusing as it did on one of the many different plots against which they protect our country, day in and day out. I entirely understand the concerns of the families of the 7/7 victims, but I believe that the Intelligence and Security Committee report is the right one, and that at this stage it would be wrong, as my right hon. Friend indicated, to divert resources, attention and energy into anything other than fighting terrorism on all fronts.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Paul Donnachie and the soldier from the Royal Signals Regiment who were killed in Basra in the past week. As the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) said, the conviction of five British-born men for planning terrorist attacks on a massive scale reminds us of the risks that we face. However, the links between them and those responsible for the 7/7 bombings that killed 52 people in London raise a number of important questions. Given the need to enhance public confidence in the fight against terrorism and to answer those questions, will the Prime Minister clarify whether he has ruled out, once and for all, holding a proper independent inquiry?
I have ruled out having another “proper independent” inquiry. The fact is that the Intelligence and Security Committee went into all the issues in immense detail. It had to be somewhat cryptic in its report, because the case in Operation Crevice was sub judice at that point, but it received the vast bulk of the information and is now perfectly entitled to call for anything else it needs. The Committee went into immense detail, so I believe that it would be a mistake for us to have another inquiry as if their inquiry were somehow either not proper or not independent—it was both those things.
The Prime Minister says that the ISC report will be equivalent—as it were—to a full independent inquiry, but I have to say that I really do not think that is right. For all the good work the ISC does, it has limitations; it has no investigative powers, it has no investigator and it did not hear evidence from the West Yorkshire special branch. Are not those good reasons for an independent inquiry—not a public inquiry, but a full independent inquiry?
Let me make one thing clear. The ISC was perfectly entitled to ask for any information it wanted. As far as I am aware, everyone gave the maximum co-operation throughout so it would be wrong to say that in some way or other the Committee did not have the information it wanted. Any information the Committee wants it can have. The ISC is headed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), who is a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and its members have experience in the intelligence and security field—many of them as former Ministers. We have to be clear about the reason why people want another inquiry. I totally understand both the grief of the victims of 7/7 and their anxiety to have another inquiry, but the reason why people want another inquiry is for it to reach a different conclusion. That is understandable, but in circumstances where the ISC has had access to everything it needed, and could have access to anything else it needs, it would not be responsible for us to have a further full independent inquiry that would simply divert the Security Service, the police and others from their task of fighting terrorism.
I have to disagree with the Prime Minister. The reason why people want an independent inquiry is the scale of what happened in London on 7 July, when 52 people were murdered and 700 were injured. The reason why people want a full inquiry is to get to the truth—[Interruption.] It is important. In the case of the intelligence failures before the Iraq war, yes, there was an ISC inquiry but the Prime Minister ordered the Butler inquiry as well. Is it not equally important to get to the truth in this case, too?
I am afraid that what I object to is the idea that somehow there has been an attempt not to provide the truth up to now. I do not believe for a single instant that the ISC did not get to the truth; indeed, it had the information revealed in Operation Crevice before it and looked into it in immense detail. Some of what has appeared in the media is, frankly, misleading and wrong; what the shadow Home Secretary has been saying is also wrong—I think that he said in a newspaper article the other day that MI5 and the security services had been starved of resources after 9/11. That is simply not correct. The budget has been doubled and we have dramatically increased the number of people working for our security services.
The whole point is that those people do an immensely difficult task. They went along to the ISC; the then head of MI5 gave evidence three times and special branch gave evidence—again contrary to what the shadow Home Secretary has said. The Committee was able to call for whatever information it wanted. If we now say, effectively, that the ISC inquiry was not adequate and if we hold another inquiry, I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that we shall simply cause great anxiety and difficulty in the service and we shall not get any more truth—because the truth is there in the ISC; what we shall do is undermine support for our security services and I am not prepared to do that.
The Prime Minister will be aware that Labour has delivered on its commitment to build a new cancer unit in Leeds and that Leeds people know that only a Labour Government will deliver on a children’s hospital. A powerful campaign is being developed by parents and the Yorkshire Evening Post, so will my right hon. Friend use his energy and commitment to urge the NHS trust in Leeds to get its act together and submit a realistic plan to build a children’s hospital?
I shall certainly do exactly as my hon. Friend says. He is completely right: a huge multi-million pound investment has been set aside for Leeds. We want to see the best of services there and he will know, from experience in his constituency, that waiting lists have come down significantly and that there are extra doctors, extra nurses and, of course, a massive capital investment in the NHS.
Once again, I join the Prime Minister in his expressions of sympathy and condolence at the end of what he rightly describes as a most difficult month. Now that the former Secretary of State for Defence has admitted that there were serious errors in the planning for post-war Iraq, who takes responsibility for those errors?
The responsibility for everything to do with the conduct of the Iraq war is, of course, taken by the Government. The points that my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) made about deba’athification and the disbandment of the army are points that I have made before. However, let me just say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the reason why things are so challenging and difficult in Iraq is that we have al-Qaeda on the one hand—an outside terrorist organisation committing appalling acts of carnage in Iraq—and Iranian-backed Shi’a extremists on the other. Our job, in my view, is to stand up to both of those elements, as they are precisely the elements that we face in Iraq and Afghanistan and the world over.
But is it not clear where responsibility for Iraq lies? The President made the decisions, the Prime Minister argued the case, the Chancellor signed the cheques and the Tories voted it through. That is where the responsibility for Iraq is to be found.
If the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s policy had been implemented, Saddam Hussein and his two sons would still be running Iraq. [Interruption.] Yes they would. Hundreds of thousands of people died in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. We removed Saddam. We are fighting terrorism now in Iraq. Our troops are there with the United Nations mandate and the full support of the Iraqi Government. It is not British soldiers or indeed American soldiers that are committing acts of terrorism in Iraq; it is people who are going there specifically to stop that country’s democracy working. I believe that our job is to stand up for Iraq and its democracy against terrorism.
If my right hon. Friend is not having an inquiry into the matters affecting 7 July, will he have another inquiry into Black Wednesday, on 16 September 1992? It is now apparent that new information has emerged. It appears that the Leader of the Opposition is in a photograph and he was not trailed at the time. I believe that that demands a new inquiry. It would suit this side of the House and it might even drive another man to drugs.
I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says at all. The fact is that if Saddam Hussein had been able to acquire fissile material, it would have allowed him to develop nuclear weapons. That is correct. The one thing that we know is that he was somebody who used, not nuclear, but chemical and biological weapons against his own people. So, let me just say to the hon. Gentleman, some people may take the view that Saddam was not a threat; that is not my view. He was a threat and we dealt with him.
On 20 May, a constituent of mine, Sir Richard Knowles, will celebrate his 90th birthday. Dick Knowles became the leader of Birmingham city council in 1984. Despite a Tory Government who did not believe in investing in our cities, he changed the face of that city. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Dick Knowles on his birthday, and will he share my hope that the weak and indecisive leadership that we are currently experiencing in Birmingham will soon come to an end?
I agree with my hon. Friend entirely. Let me join her in wishing Dick Knowles all the best on his 90th birthday. He did an immense amount for Birmingham. The work that he did is one of the reasons why Birmingham is such a thriving and successful European city today.
If the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about leadership and candidates, I certainly will not be following his example regarding the Mayor of London. I can assure him that the person I will be backing for the leadership of the Labour party will at least be a member of the Labour party.
Why is the Prime Minister so coy? Why will he not tell us a bit about the man who will be our Prime Minister and how that man managed to get the better of him? Given that the Prime Minister said that he would serve a full third term, does that mean that when he walks out of No. 10 Downing street, this Parliament is at an end, or was that the last of his broken promises?
As the right hon. Gentleman asks me to tell him something about my right hon. Friend, I will tell him about what we have achieved together over these past 10 years: economic stability through the independence of the Bank of England; record investment in public services; better maternity leave and maternity pay; more support for pensioners; the repeal of section 28; a ban on tobacco advertising; the climate change levy; and, of course, the minimum wage. What do they all have in common? The right hon. Gentleman’s party voted against them.
I seem to have upset some Members again, Mr. Speaker.
One part of the Government’s modernisation programme that is proving very popular with older people is bus passes for the over-60s. Is the Prime Minister aware that Lib Dem authorities such as Teignbridge are meeting that command, while the Tory mayor of Torbay and the Tory council of East Devon are denying older people the freedom to travel across Devon? Will the Prime Minister tell us which is right, and will he ask his successor to ensure that funding is available so that the scheme can continue—
First, I should thank the hon. Gentleman for paying tribute to what we are doing for pensioners. I have some other things to add that the Liberal Democrats have posted on their website about the Government’s record over the past 10 years. They have given the
“Blair/Brown years…4 out of 10”—
[Interruption.] The six I kind of accepted, but what are the four things that we have got right, according to the Liberal Democrats? They are:
“stability for the economy. A Foreign Policy with an ethical dimension”—
[Interruption.] Wait for it. There is also the
“historic modernisation of our political system”
“with the creation of a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly”.
“After initially sticking to Tory spending limits, investment in Britain’s dilapidated public services started. The fruits of that investment can now be seen. In the NHS”—
this is from the Lib Dems—
“more staff, reduced waiting lists, better care in…areas such as cancer. In Education a schools building programme, better paid teachers, more books, and better equipment.”
[Hon. Members: “Hooray”.] People should not be voting Tory or Lib Dem; they should be voting Labour.
I know that my right hon. Friend is an enthusiast of both education and football, so may I draw his attention to the Aces scheme in my constituency, which is a partnership between West Bromwich Albion football club, local schools and the local authority that has raised academic standards by an estimated 9 per cent. over the past two years and is funded by the neighbourhood renewal fund? Will he make an undertaking to monitor that scheme and see what potential it has to be rolled out in other historically deprived educational areas?
I echo the congratulations that my hon. Friend gave to the scheme, and I thank West Bromwich Albion and all those other partners for the work that they are doing. It is important to recognise—and I have seen this for myself, for example, in the new facilities that are very close to West Bromwich Albion itself—that there has been a massive increase in regeneration in our inner-city areas, which is why it is important that we keep that funding going. Good use has been made of it, and it is producing better facilities and it has reduced levels of deprivation. I entirely support his congratulations to those involved in that scheme.
And in 2007, consultants said that
“the present state of children’s services in Leeds is not fit for purpose and we are anxious about the continuing safety of children in hospital.”
May I ask the Prime Minister in the dying days of his premiership whether that is his NHS legacy in Leeds, or will he, before he goes, promise the people of Leeds that they will at last get the much needed children’s hospital that was approved in 2004 and shelved in 2007?
I wonder whether that was a planted question, because the NHS legacy is more staff. In the hon. Gentleman’s area, there have been 31,000 more NHS staff, including 7,000 more nurses, and there are reduced waiting lists—the number of people waiting over six months has fallen dramatically. In relation to the children’s hospital, yes, we are committed to that extra investment in the health service, but he should know that, for example, in “Making it Better”, there was a request for Leeds MPs to come along to a meeting, but he did not attend, which does not say a great deal for him.
The Prime Minister will be aware that yesterday, we had a visit in Northern Ireland from the President of the European Commission. At that meeting, the President made an announcement that he was instituting a taskforce to look into Northern Ireland’s position regarding the money that comes from Europe, and also to help new industry. Will the Prime Minister join me and the people of Northern Ireland in welcoming that announcement, and will he give us a promise today, before he leaves office, that he will back it all the way?
I understand the importance of the visit by the President of the European Commission, which was made partly in direct response to a request from the right hon. Gentleman. I can assure him that I will fully back whatever the Commission does to support investment and industry in Northern Ireland.
A company called Whipp and Bourne, which is one of the country’s largest manufacturers and exporters of switchgear, announced this week that it is to close, with the loss of 200 exceptionally well skilled jobs. The rumour is that the company may be intending to move to China or India. How can the Government encourage companies like Whipp and Bourne, first, to remain in my constituency, and, secondly to remain in the UK? I am meeting the trade unions on Friday, and I would like to give them some hope.
First, we should extend our sympathy to those who have lost their jobs and been made redundant as a result of the decision that the company has taken. It is difficult for us to prevent companies from deciding to relocate. The best thing that we can do for business and industry is to keep our economy strong, improve the levels of investment in skills, and make sure, as we now do, that where major redundancies are announced, we provide proper structured help for those who are made redundant. Where we can, of course, we also encourage companies to keep their location here in this country. I am sure that my hon. Friend will have an opportunity to discuss those possibilities with the Department of Trade and Industry. It is an unfortunate fact here and round the world that companies are highly mobile. The most important thing, however, is to keep the economy sufficiently strong so that we are always generating new jobs.
I am sorry that Alan Johnston and, in a different context, Corporal Shalit are still kept as hostages. I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman that their release would make a big difference in the middle east. In respect of Alan Johnston, there is no conceivable reason for him to be kept. He was a journalist doing his job out there. There have also been many calls from Palestinian leaders and Palestinian journalists for his release, and we continue to do everything we can to facilitate that. The hon. Gentleman is also right to say, in respect of Corporal Shalit, that his release would allow a whole series of things to happen, not least releases of Palestinian prisoners, and other things that would allow us to move the situation forward. There continues to be nothing more urgent than the middle east.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the efforts being made by the Welsh Assembly under Labour to promote social enterprise and co-operative initiatives? Does he agree that economic and social development in Wales depends on a continuation of the strong partnership between the House of Commons and the Assembly, both under Labour? Will he encourage people to fear the dangers of a negative nexus of nationalists and Conservatives?
When we look at the large investment in Wales and the tremendous strength of the Welsh economy—the action that has been taken by the Welsh Executive under the leadership of Rhodri Morgan has been essential in that— I should have thought that that is infinitely preferable to the ragbag strange coalition between the Conservative party and nationalists.
Of course I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating Mrs. Ogg on her service and the work that she has done over the years. I point out that it is a result of this Government that we have managed to invest about £2 billion in the post office network. We know that for all the reasons that are understandable it is still subject to intense pressure, but I hope very much that the successor in that post office is able to continue and make sure that the post office has a viable future, but it must be viable within the subsidy that we are able to give.
I thank my right hon. Friend for visiting my constituency a few weeks ago—[Interruption.] Opposition Members might consider this to be important. My right hon. Friend visited my constituency to review projects for local people who are suffering major change following the collapse of MG Rover a couple of years ago. Will he assure me that that support, particularly for community infrastructure, will continue? Does he agree that ongoing support from Government year in, year out for local communities facing change is vital, rather unlike what we experienced in the 1980s and early 1990s?
There has been a big change in the way in which we deal with situations in which there are large numbers of redundancies. I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done in respect of the collapse of Rover, as that was an important part of our bringing together all the different partners. We made a big investment from Government and, as I saw for myself when I visited his constituency, a large proportion of those people have now found alternative work and employment. An immense amount of effort has gone in, and I think that that is what a modern welfare state is about—not trying to pretend that we can stop companies closing if they are not profitable or a decision is made to relocate them, but getting underneath the work force and supporting them in their desire to achieve new work and be able to cope with the process of that redundancy. That has been immensely successful in relation to MG Rover, and I pay tribute to everyone engaged in it.
Because it is not the problem. The problem is the European convention on human rights. The reason why there is a problem is the court case, I think in 1996, in relation to—I think I am right in saying this—those who were alleged to be engaged in terrorism in respect of India at the time. As a result of that case—I think it is called the Chahal case—this difficulty has been created. We are trying to get that decision overturned in respect of the European Court of Human Rights, and it is essential that we do so, because where I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman is that we cannot have a situation in which people come to this country and engage in acts of terrorism, inciting terrorism or encouraging terrorism, and then we are told that we cannot deport them back to their own country, even with a memorandum of understanding with that country, when they simply say, “We may be mistreated when we go back there”, despite what they are doing here. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asks what we are doing about it. What we are doing is trying to get that decision overturned. It is not correct, however, that it comes about as a result of domestic legislation. It comes about as a result of that case, decided under the last Government and under the European convention on human rights.
Points of Order
Order. The hon. Gentleman is a new Member and he must be given some—[Interruption.] Order. Some hon. Members have been here more than two years and do not know too much either. I am trying to say to him, in order to give him a chance to put his case, that “inadvertently misleading” is the best way to put it, after which we can move on.
This is not the first time that inadvertently misleading comments have been made from the Dispatch Box. The simple reality is that I did not receive an invitation to the ministerial meeting, and, as with the announcement on the children’s hospital, the first that I heard of the matter was in the newspaper, which is how the NHS is being run in Leeds. I seek your advice, Mr. Speaker, on how to change the parliamentary record, and I hope that the Prime Minister will see fit to issue an apology, although we know that he is not very good at that.
I say to the hon. Gentleman and the rest of the House that I am not responsible for what Ministers—Prime Ministers or any other Ministers—say from the Dispatch Box. However, the hon. Gentleman has managed to put the record straight. He has put the matter on the record, and if he says that he was not invited, that is good enough for me.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. When the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) was Secretary of State for Defence, on 3 November 2003, he told me in the House, speaking on the Iraqi army:
“It was not a mistake to disband the army”.—[Official Report, 3 November 2003; Vol. 412, c. 526.]
In an interview featured in today’s edition of The Guardian, he is reported to have said, “We certainly argued against”. His assessment was that it had been catastrophic, allowing Saddam—
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask for your ruling on the matter of sub judice? Both yesterday and today there have been references to the appalling judgment whereby two Libyan terror suspects are not being deported. Is it possible to ask on the Floor of the House why France, Germany and Holland are able to deport their terror suspects, but our courts do not allow us to do so?
My understanding is that perhaps a Minister did say that it was sub judice, but my ruling is that it is not sub judice, and the hon. Gentleman is therefore free to ask parliamentary questions, either written or oral, or to raise the matter on an Adjournment.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask your advice about a matter of which I have given you notice? Exactly a year ago today, I tabled a written parliamentary question about foreign nationals released from UK prisons who should have been considered for deportation. I received two holding replies and my office has chased the matter several times. I let the Immigration Minister know that I was going to raise this point of order and received some form of reply saying that it was not really a matter for the Minister but for the permanent secretary. A year on, what advice can you give me about ensuring that the Home Office responds more quickly? Specifically, can I bring the permanent secretary to this House to answer, or is it still the tradition of this House that Ministers should reply?
Ministers are responsible for giving answers to this House. I know it is hard, but the hon. Gentleman must be persistent and get to the Table Office. I also put it on the record that, as I have said before, I understand that the Home Office, in particular, has been inundated with hundreds of questions. It is my view that these questions are being put down by researchers who have nothing better to do with their day. If people in Members’ offices inundate Departments with questions—I am not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman does that—that puts the hon. Gentleman’s questions on to the back burner. I ask hon. Members to be careful about inundating the Home Office with questions. The hon. Gentleman must be persistent and keep putting these matters forward on behalf of his constituents. I hope that that is helpful.
Town and Country Planning Acts (Amendment) Bill
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to broaden the remit of the Local Government Ombudsman to include certain disputes arising from planning permission granted by local government authorities to cover below-ground utilities; and to require development plans submitted to relevant local authorities to include provision for below-ground utilities.
Unadopted roads are highways that are not maintained at the public expense—responsibility for their upkeep rests on those whose properties face on to them—and they include many older streets.
The welcome growth of new house building since 1997 has significantly increased the number of unadopted roads. As in my constituency, developers often cut costs when building roads, forcing future residents, who may end up liable, to pick up the bill years after they have purchased their property. Although councils can provide moneys to assist residents with maintenance assistance, there is no statutory obligation on them to do so. Many of my constituents live on roads that the council refuses to maintain and for which they cannot afford to pay the upkeep costs.
Under the Highways Act 1980, most roads are maintained at public expense. Usually, roads are adopted by local councils when the building standard meets the required level of quality; roads are usually unadopted when that standard is not met. Although it is obvious that the developer is at fault in many cases, no legislation deals with causation. The Sale of Goods Act 1979 exempts the sale of land from its provisions, so if residents want to prove that responsibility lies with the developer, they must pursue that course through private litigation. My constituents cannot afford to do that.
Unadopted roads therefore remain the responsibility of those who cannot afford them. The highways authority can, under the Highways Act, force residents to make repairs that are needed to “obviate danger to traffic” and, if they will not, carry out repairs itself and claw back money from residents at a later date.
In addition, water companies are responsible for all water leakages above and under the ground, but only on adopted land. That is a further expense that residents must bear if they find that their road is not adopted by the council.
The fact that the position is allowed to exist means that developers can cut costs and leave new home owners to foot the bill. The previous official Government estimate, which is now significantly out of date, shows 4,000 miles of unadopted roads in this country.
The Bill requires greater scrutiny by local authorities at the planning permission stage to ensure that proposed roads through developments are constructed to a standard that allows councils to adopt them. It requires developers to provide for below-ground utilities such as water and drainage. It also extends the remit of the local government ombudsman to cover disputes over the adoption of roads, allowing residents a tribunal for their complaints, without having to fall back on expensive private litigation.
The problem in my area is highlighted by the new Gateford estate, which has more than 2,000 houses. It is difficult to work out against whom to litigate even if one has the resources. There is a triangulation involving the water authorities, the developer and the highways authority, and identifying against whom to litigate is impossible. Unless the local authority chooses to take pre-emptive action or the developer chooses to ensure that the roads and utilities are up to standard, there is a loop.
In many modern developments, a plethora of developers works on the same site. Six separate developers are working on the Gateford estate in Worksop. Until I intervened in January, the electricity was not up to the national standard. It required the Member of Parliament to put together a protest to negotiate and get a national electricity standard. Again, that is not covered by statute.
The problems that we experience in my area—flooding, street lights that do not work and dangerous footpaths—apply to every part of the country. We found it especially astonishing that there was no requirement to have a plan for what is underground in the Gateford estate. There is an above-ground plan, but, for a huge new estate built by a plethora of developers, there was no intention—until many hundreds of hours of painstaking work by me, residents associations and the county council had passed—to create such a plan for what is underground.
There are unseen problems—for example, where purchasers were unaware that utilities such as water and sewerage pipes were running under their corner properties but are resistant to remedial action and have a right to block it. My Bill would begin to deal with such problems.
Those problems affect not only the quality of life but house prices. In my area, the price difference between a house that is 15 or 20 years old on an unadopted road and one that is on an adopted road can be £20,000 to £25,000 because of the liability of the householders.
I am delighted that all the pressure from Councillor Fielding, the Gateford residents association and me, ably assisted by my staff, means that Nottinghamshire county council agreed this week to adopt the 50-odd roads on the Gateford estate at its own risk this year. It will adopt the vast majority in the next few weeks and within the next three months to ensure that residents on the estate live as council tax payers with the same rights as everyone else. That local authority is a well managed and well run leading council, which is clearly also forward thinking, but residents should not have to rely on the council taking the risk. That is why we need a statutory change.
Although I commend Nottinghamshire county council and the residents for their work, I call on the Government to consider the Bill, which would improve the position for residents throughout the country. The existing law has almost enticed developers to cut costs and forced future residents, who are largely ignorant of the position until problems occur, to foot the bill. In an era of high house prices, that is often a hidden cost that is not budgeted for on purchase and could lead to severe financial problems for those who try to remedy the situation on their own.
It is unacceptable, in my view, that a council, having approved a sub-standard development, can turn a blind eye to the problem and force residents to pay for its lack of scrutiny. By introducing new measures that require councils to scrutinise plans more carefully and ensure that roads and drainage are to the correct standard, my Bill will give some protection to residents before they buy. After they buy, it will help them by extending the powers of the local government ombudsman to deal with disputes of this nature. I commend my Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by John Mann, Jessica Morden, Natascha Engel, Helen Southworth, Stephen Pound, Clive Efford, Ms Diana R. Johnson, Mr. Kevan Jones, Christine Russell and Bob Spink.
Town and Country Planning Acts (Amendment)
John Mann accordingly presented a Bill to broaden the remit of the Local Government Ombudsman to include certain disputes arising from planning permission granted by local government authorities to cover below-ground utilities; and to require development plans submitted to relevant local authorities to include provision for below-ground utilities: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 99].
Protection of Critical Infrastructure
[Relevant documents: The Tenth Report, HC 41-x (paragraph 8), and the Fifteenth Report, HC 41-xv (paragraph 2), of the European Scrutiny Committee, Session 2006-07.]
I beg to move,
That this House takes note of European Union Documents No. 16932/06, Commission Communication on a European Programme for Critical Infrastructure Protection, and No. 16933/06 and ADDs 1-2, Draft Council Directive on the identification and designation of European Critical Infrastructure and the assessment of the need to improve their protection; and supports the Government’s intention to secure adoption of these documents in Council, subject to a satisfactory resolution of outstanding concerns.
It is right and proper, I think, that there is a European dimension to these matters, but only some of them. I shall dwell in a moment on what the concerns are. Our critical national infrastructure consists clearly of the key components and assets without which essential services cannot be delivered to the UK. It includes energy, food, water, health, emergency services, finance, transport, government and public services and telecommunications.
The Government rightly place great importance on ensuring that our critical national infrastructure is highly protected. The formation in February this year of the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure, which resulted from a merger of the National Security Advice Centre and the National Infrastructure Security Co-ordination Centre, demonstrated our commitment. Being more than simply the sum of its parts, the CPNI provides professional protection advice on all forms of threat to our critical national infrastructure owners and operators.
It is becoming increasingly clear that there exists an extensive network of interdependencies among not just the UK’s critical national infrastructure, but that of our international partners. The loss of critical infrastructure in one country has the potential to have severe effects in another. The loss of power supply can hinder emergency services or transport, for example, and these knock-on effects are able to continue across borders. Following human error, an overload of the electricity transmission system in Germany in November 2006 resulted in some 50 million EU citizens losing power in Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Portugal.
The Commission’s European programme for critical infrastructure protection, known as EPCIP, partly responds to a political call to improve the protection of critical infrastructure across Europe, following the terrorist attacks in Madrid and London. It was agreed at the June 2004 European Council that measures needed to be taken to protect critical infrastructure in the EU.
Does my hon. Friend accept that there is a significant difference between national matters such as water and sewerage and those that have international significance, such as the transport of energy across borders? The latter might involve nuclear power stations, on which events in neighbouring states could have an impact. Should not we focus on matters that are genuinely international, rather than on those that have merely national significance?
If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I will come to that point in a moment. First, however, it is important to explain the contextual background that brings us to where we are today.
The EPCIP communication sets out a voluntary framework, including an EU action plan, support for the national protection programmes, and extensive research funded from the €137 million financial perspective. The draft directive provides the one binding aspect of the programme, establishing a uniform approach to identifying and designating European critical infrastructure and assessing the need to improve protection standards. For this process, the directive considers critical infrastructures to be essential service providers and certain hazardous sites with the potential for cross-border impact. The programme as a whole offers EU-wide benefits, and will therefore also benefit the UK. I will come to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) in a moment.
Events such as the power failure in Germany demonstrate that any country could be significantly affected by incidents in other member states. We need to understand that, with more than 1.6 million UK citizens living in other EU countries and relying on the critical infrastructures of those member states, we have a vested interest in ensuring that there are high standards of protection in those countries as well as our own. We must also bear in mind the broader point about the activities of British business interests in the European Union.
As the motion implies, however, while the Government note the documents, our support for their adoption is subject to the satisfactory resolution of outstanding concerns with certain elements of the directive, which we are trying to resolve through negotiations in the civil protection working group in Brussels. Our concerns include the criteria for defining European critical infrastructure, the absence of the consent clause that appeared in earlier drafts, the security of information provided as part of the protection of national infrastructure, and the imposition of legal requirements for owners and operators to produce operator security plans and appoint security liaison officers.
Our concern about the designation of European critical infrastructure is to ensure, as my hon. Friend has suggested, that only infrastructures that are truly European and critical are designated. Given that this is all about European critical infrastructure, it is entirely reasonable that the infrastructures should be critical and European, but we are having some difficulties with where the documents are at in that regard at the moment. In order to achieve a satisfactory outcome, the Government would like to tighten the criteria for defining European critical infrastructure. For example, we are seeking a definition based on a significant level of impact to Europe that would result from the destruction or disruption of the infrastructure.
Early drafts of the proposed directive included references to member states providing their consent to infrastructures on their territory being designated as European critical infrastructure, but the consent clause does not appear in the present draft. The Government would prefer to see the inclusion of such a clause, to prevent the identification of European critical infrastructure in the United Kingdom that we do not believe is appropriate. This relates to the point raised by my hon. Friend. Such a move could allay some of our concerns arising from the proposed definition of European critical infrastructure and ensure that only truly critical infrastructure is covered, and that it would be truly European in the sense that its disruption would impact on three or more countries, which we think is the appropriate number.
The Minister highlights the area of greatest concern. Could the Government give us a list of the bilateral or multilateral arrangements relating to these matters—for example, a French-UK energy interconnector, or certain Irish-UK links? Obviously, where existing national agreements between European Union countries are sufficient, we will not need a new European structure to cover them. Do Ministers have some sort of base list of these arrangements?
I suspect that we do not. Such bilateral or multilateral arrangements might exist across government in a range of Departments, but I have not seen any, save for those that are of concern to the Home Office regarding national security and critical infrastructure protection. I am not going to pass on those lists, because I would argue strongly that they do not belong in this domain. I will certainly pursue the hon. Gentleman’s inquiry, however. There might be lists of such arrangements relating to the gas, electricity and other energy sectors, which might be dealt with by the Department of Trade and Industry, of which I am unaware. If there are, and if I can have them produced for the House, I will do so.
In seeking to ensure that only projects that are critical and that can genuinely be classified as transnational in character are subject to this provision, is the Minister relying on the subsidiarity and proportionality provisions in existing European treaties the better to aid and abet his case? I hope that he will correct me if I am wrong , but is the corollary that, if he is unsuccessful, the danger exists that a new item will be lumped into the acquis communautaire against our wishes and in violation of our interests?
As with most of these matters, this goes in part towards the whole debate about subsidiarity. I am sure that this will be part of our deliberations this afternoon. The root of the binding elements of these documents is article 308—which is of itself a matter for debate—which requires unanimity. So this is not just about subsidiarity and all that that entails; it is about the fact that this provision has to be agreed unanimously, given its legal root in the compulsory and binding element.
The Minister mentioned article 308, and I am sure that other people will do so. Under paragraph 2 of article 3, the Commission wishes to identify the sectors to which the provision will apply. The Government want the matter to go through commitology, which would then pass it through the Council under qualified majority voting. If there was a dispute, the European Court of Justice, rather than the democratic or political process, would then decide on the matter. So we would be passing the decision on the sectors in which the provision will apply out of our hands and to the European Court of Justice.
Yes, but only at the point at which there was a dispute about what sectors and specific sites should be included. That naturally follows from securing in the early stages the definition we want about the binding and non-binding elements of the directive. I do not think that I am mistaken in saying that going down the route that leads ultimately to the European Court would be a natural follow-through from the binding elements, if they are secured. We say clearly in the motion that we will not support those elements unless our outstanding concerns are addressed. That sounds terribly complicated, but I am sure that my hon. Friend fully understands, given his expertise in these matters.
The Minister mentioned article 308, which, as he will know, is used to introduce exceptional measures when no other treaty provision is available. He will also know that it contains a requirement that the measures be undertaken
“in the course of the operation of the common market”.
What possible connection can there be between national security measures and the common market? Is not this another example of the Commission trying to expand its powers and of the Government yet again giving way and going along with them? As the Minister has already conceded, the Government have a veto.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, save for his rather churlish points at the end, which I entirely expect from him but do not accept. As I said to the European Scrutiny Committee, and as will emerge from our deliberations, we are perfectly comfortable with the use of article 308. In the first instance, the matter is not one of national security, although it has national security dimensions, but the functioning and protection of critical elements of the infrastructure throughout the European Union to sustain markets must be a valid part of the pursuance of the integrity and cohesion of the common market, which is why the article 308 route is appropriate. I take his point, which is not just made by those who detract from all that is great and glorious in the European Union, that article 308 is used constantly as the thin end of a rather fat wedge to get more and more into either competence generally or the acquis communautaire, as the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) suggested. The argument is perfectly valid, but not one that we accept in these circumstances.
In relation to the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North about the definition, and the hope that a directive and binding agreement on European critical infrastructure was concerned mostly with, first, infrastructure, secondly, infrastructure that was critical and, thirdly, infrastructure that was European—however that is defined, and we defined it as impacting on three or more countries—the consent clause that was in the earlier draft is not in the current one. With regard to the crucial point about the meeting of national security and wider infrastructure concerns and the security of information passed on in that regard, while article 296 of the treaty enables us to withhold information that could be detrimental to national security, the security of information that we do provide must be guaranteed. Various methods are already used for the provision of operator security plans and the appointment of security liaison officers, and the Government believe that the directive should reflect the existing situation, to minimise the burden of the measures on industry, regulators and government.
As the motion states, we support the principle of raising protection standards of critical infrastructure in Europe. It is in our interests to see such protection increased and, through the EPCIP framework, to support member states in establishing and improving their critical national infrastructure protection programmes. None the less, it is recognised by all that the provision of protective security for critical infrastructure is a national responsibility and must remain so. That is our starting point. As my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North said, that is why the definition is so important, as are the other concerns that I have outlined.
In so far as it is possible, it would greatly assist our deliberations to move from the realm of metaphysical abstraction to that of concrete example. That is not entirely straightforward, but if the Minister, in pursuance of his argument, gave the House examples of what the Commission might envisage as falling within its remit, with which the Government disagree, our deliberations would be invested with a much greater sense of realism and practicality. In short, will he give some examples of what the Commission wants and we do not?
In relation to matters European, I have learned that woe betide the Minister who seeks to mind-read the Commission. If we believe the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), anything that could remotely be described as infrastructure would be included. In some circumstances, the interconnectivity of the energy network on continental Europe is by definition much more pronounced than that of ours. The oft-quoted example of the accident that led to the German power system failing, and the implications for a huge element of the European power network, is a good one. But whether that should lead to an enthusiasm for telling each member state to get its act together in order better to protect its national infrastructure, or to elements being defined as critical and European, is exactly the point that the debate has reached. I will not even begin to pretend that I have a list of examples that I think that the Commission is considering. That is why the definition is so important.
The Minister mentioned national responsibilities. Does the directive extend to international negotiations? He will know that once a directive is implemented domestically, it gives the Commission and the EU sole—or, in Euro-speak, exclusive—competence in negotiations between member states and countries outside the European Union. Can he specifically assure us that, after the directive is implemented, our ability to negotiate and conclude agreements about security and infrastructure assets with third parties will not be inhibited?
As I understand the matter, the hon. Gentleman’s description of a directive is valid in relation to the binding elements. Much of the directive and the documents behind it, however, are entirely voluntary. That is why—I was going to say “unusually”, but I will not say that—the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) made a clear point in relation to what my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North said about the definition. Where the protection of such infrastructure can be achieved bilaterally, multilaterally or on a sectoral basis, in areas that are not, as we would define them, either European, critical or infrastructure, that is where the competence is and should remain. That is why the definition is so important. I think that the right hon. Member for Wells made a good point about the binding elements—people will tell me if it is otherwise—and that is why we have concerns, which remain concerns and which we hope will be resolved. In relation to the timetable, there was enthusiasm to deal with the matter at the June Council. Given all the to-ing and fro-ing of negotiations, however, that is unlikely to be the case. I also take the right hon. Gentleman’s wider point that there are ways in which a nation state can make multilateral and bilateral agreements, below the European level, to protect its national infrastructure.
To follow up my earlier intervention and that of the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), given that the documents that we have seen include a section that, it says, sets out the EU justification for the programme, including the growing number of member states preparing their own approaches to critical infrastructure, the need to eliminate weak links, and the additional costs implied, I hope that the Minister will go back to the Commission and say, “You think this is justified. Now give us the examples that show that we need this now.” Without examples, the argument is theoretical, and the case is not strongly made.
In part, I make no apology for being theoretical, as, with the best will in the world, I cannot and will not debate or show entirely the UK’s negotiating hand on the Floor of the House. I have tried to articulate as much as possible our concerns, which remain. That is why, although we welcome the document, we do not want it adopted unless or until those concerns are recognised. I take the hon. Gentleman’s general point, however.
May I be helpful in following what the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) said about examples? Can we have something between the hard examples, in our practical, pragmatic British way, and the Euro-speak metaphysics at the other extreme, and consider a hierarchy of risks? Nuclear power stations pose a serious risk to life, and disruption of energy supply might pose a serious risk to an economy, at least for a period. When the toilets do not work in a locality, however, that is not a serious risk. Even in Euro-speak, there is what might be recognised as a hierarchy of risks.
I hope that I can safely assure the House that toilets—or lavatories, as we are supposed to call them, if we do not want to be at the wrong end of a class war, or inverse class war—will not figure in critical European structure. The lavatories would have to be quite important to be critical, European—as we would define it—and, more widely, infrastructure.
While we are in the land of the abstract and the metaphysical, that is not just because of the binding elements, but at least partly because, while I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) that all this is about national security rather than markets—I think my point about infrastructure was well made—the supporting documents, partly covered by what was said by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey, contain exhortations about what nation states need to do to develop their own infrastructure, on their own terms, to the level of public protection that we would all desire.
I was just deprecating my hon. Friend’s extrapolation from article 308 in connection with national security. There are elements of national security relating to our infrastructure—although I hasten to add that they would not necessarily cover toilets—that are a matter for the United Kingdom, and have a heavy red line around them.
As I think will be clear to anyone who has read the original Commission proposal, the Green Paper and indeed the directive, although the Commission’s list of elements on which it wants a common European position includes postal services—which are not obviously critical to security—it also includes armed forces. I know that the proposal by the Commission was rebuffed by the Government, and I hope that it will not appear again, because it was over-ambitious; but what about the channel tunnel? It is a critical piece of infrastructure linking two countries, and only two countries. Would the Government draw a red line around that, and say that they would not allow it to be ruled on by the Commission or the European Court of Justice?
As I have said, our starting definition of the European element of European critical infrastructure is a critical piece of infrastructure that would have an immediate impact on three or more European countries. Let me return to what was said by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey. There is plenty that the United Kingdom and France can do, should do and are doing bilaterally to protect the channel tunnel that, in my view at least, falls outside a directive of this kind and the definition of European critical infrastructure within it.
With that, I commend the motion to the House.
The Minister has commended the motion to the House, but with a degree of scepticism and lack of enthusiasm that I find refreshing. I hope that he will be as sceptical and as questioning when he comes to negotiate with his European counterparts over the further deliberations on this set of instruments.
I am grateful to the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), for initiating the debate. Although not many of his Committee colleagues are here, I think it important for the Government to experience head-on the feeling of the House as a whole about this issue.
Something that has already emerged in the debate—partly from the remarks of the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) and those of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), but also from those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) and my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow)—is the cultural difference between the Westminster and the European systems for creating legislation. What we see in this great volume before us is a set of fairly vague proposals which, although no doubt benignly motivated, lack the detail that we commonly expect in a piece of British parliamentary legislation. It is important for the Government to remember that when they negotiate with the Commission.
The timing of today’s debate may be fortuitous or it may be deliberate, but it coincides with the conclusion of what has become known as the Crevice trial at the Old Bailey, at which a number of dangerous conspirators were convicted of involvement in acts relating to and preparatory for terrorism. It is possible that had those men succeeded in their endeavours, hundreds or even more people would have been killed and the institutions and infrastructures of our country placed under huge strain. Let us hope, although I fear it will be a forlorn hope, that the long sentences given to the defendants will deter others of similar mind and intention, and that the measures we are discussing will—in one form or another, but not necessarily as set out in the documents—be implemented and placed in a state of readiness, but never activated in response to a threat to the critical infrastructure of a number of European Union member states.
The Crevice trial provides us with some useful lessons about threats to our national security and our national infrastructure. The definition of critical infrastructure in the documents before us is:
“Those facilities and networks, services and property the destruction of which would have a serious impact on the health, safety, security or economic well-being of citizens or the effective functioning of government in the member states. Such infrastructure includes systems for electricity and gas production and distribution, telephone exchanges and other communications systems, sewage plants, food distribution and key government services.”
It is surely the duty of the Government in every member state to identify all facilities and services which come within that wide definition, and I trust that our Government—irrespective of the events made public through the recent trial, and regardless of the outrages of 7 July 2005 and what might have happened on 21 July—have done exactly that.
It is clear that the House does not need a list comprising the infrastructure. However, given what we now know about the information relating to the Crevice defendants which was known in advance of 7 July 2005 by our security services and the police, we need to be assured that the Home Office and its Ministers—especially the Home Secretary—will ensure that the fullest possible inquiry is undertaken by an independent figure of some standing into the events, failures and mishaps that have now been revealed.
We know, for example, that there were six good-quality photos of Sidique Khan, although the Intelligence and Security Committee was told that there was just one poor-quality photograph. First we were told by the ISC that identities were unknown—
Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman is really pushing the boat out now. We know that the trial related to infrastructure, but his speech must relate to what we are discussing, which is more specific than that. According to the case that he has made, we could discuss practically anything, but we cannot do that today.
Well, there we are. I am sure that you are entirely right, Mr. Speaker. I shall endeavour to resist the urge to talk about parts of the infrastructure of this country, although we are a European member state and are affected by what is in the documents.
The European Scrutiny Committee found the Minister’s written official response to the documents “less than wholly reassuring”. It stated:
“In this connection, we recall that the European Council on 17 and 18 June 2004 called on the Council to prepare an overall strategy to enhance the protection of critical infrastructures ‘on the basis of a coordinated approach by the SG/HR5 and the Commission’. In circumstances where the role of the Council’s Counter-Terrorism Coordinator is not even mentioned in the Commission’s proposals, we find it open to question how far there has been any ‘coordinated’ approach of the kind referred to by the European Council…. As such, the measure is concerned essentially with national security and any internal market effects are, in our view, merely incidental. In our view, these incidental economic effects cannot be relied on to justify Community involvement in the maintenance of national security.”
It seems to all of us, I suspect, that attacks on our infrastructure do not simply constitute natural disasters such as floods and storms, or the pollution of main freshwater or sea water channels. We are talking about attacks on infrastructure in its widest sense—the definition given in the documents. I will not pursue my discussion of the lessons that the House could learn from the 2005 terrorist attacks, because that would fall outside your ruling, Mr. Speaker, but I ask Members—and particularly the Minister when he goes to Europe to have further discussions—to keep in the back of their minds when addressing this matter what I would have said.
I had intended to say that the matters that I may not discuss are of relevance to the matters before us today, as no discussion of critical infrastructure in the European context can avoid the real and present threat to our own infrastructure and the imperative for this Government to take all necessary steps to maintain it, to protect it, to repair it and, in so far as its degradation will affect our EU neighbours, to ensure that we liaise and co-operate effectively with them to plan for that contingency.
Not all EU states have been attacked by terrorists, but several have. Not all EU states have a growing number of immigrants from countries, societies and traditions that find our institutions, societal norms and national characteristics strange and even inimical, but several do. Not all EU states play a world, extra-European or extra-regional role in trading, diplomatic and military terms to the extent that our country does, but all of them, no matter how large or small, are potentially vulnerable to attacks on their infrastructures, and both individually and collectively we must pay heed to the attacks that we have endured over the past 40 years, in order to prepare for yet further attacks and be in a position to deal with them. In respect of such attacks, it is not a question of if, but of when. We would be foolish not to have contingency plans in place.
However, the documents imply a yet further increase in EU competence over the affairs of member states. The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk and his Committee have done us a signal service by introducing this debate. In an intervention on the Minister, the hon. Gentleman referred pointedly—and with relevance and accuracy, which the Government should acknowledge—to crucial issues relating to qualified majority voting and absolute majorities in respect of the subject we are discussing. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wells, who was one of the two negotiators on behalf of this Parliament on the future of the EU, is only too well aware of such issues.
European critical infrastructure—ECI—degradation is covered by the proposals; the EU should govern matters if at least two members are affected, it is said. It is suggested that a European plan for critical infrastructure protection—EPCIP—should be drawn up which will identify, among other things, critical infrastructure and produce a common approach to its protection and information sharing.
My hon. and learned Friend has referred to a voluntary approach. He will know—this follows from his earlier remarks—that there are security assets and facilities both in this country and in other countries that we would prefer not to declare, for security reasons. Is he aware that under the draft directive we would have to declare not only those assets, but draw up and operate a security plan and appoint a security liaison officer, all of which would presumably be public? Would it not be a grave threat to our internal security if all of that were known as provided for under a directive, and if the final arbiter of that were the European Court of Justice?
My right hon. Friend points to a matter that I hope will be thoroughly negotiated out of these documents by the Minister. [Interruption.] The Minister says from a sedentary position that my right hon. Friend is wrong. Well, my right hon. Friend has referred directly to the document in question. [Interruption.] He is now holding it up for the Minister’s edification. I shall allow my right hon. Friend and the Minister to have private discussions behind the Speaker’s Chair, but the point that my right hon. Friend makes is entirely valid. There are assets and infrastructures that we own nationally and there are assets and infrastructures that we jointly own or in respect of which we are tenants in common through, for example, NATO and certain aspects of the EU, and which should not become the subject of open-air discussion. It alarms me to think that our foreign policy and our counter-terrorism policy might be subjected to debate or decision of the ECJ, and I trust that that also alarms the Minister.
As I have said, it is suggested in the documents that a European plan for critical infrastructure protection should be drawn up and that it should identify, among other things, critical infrastructure and produce a common approach to its protection and information sharing. That is of relevance to the point my right hon. Friend made a moment ago. I might have misunderstood the nature of EU critical infrastructure while at the same time having a clear understanding of the delicate nature of our own national infrastructure, but it seems to me—I do not mean to sound complacent, as no one could be so given the attacks on our country over the past 40 years—that as we are an island we might have some geographical protection from attacks on other EU states’ water systems, electricity grids, telephone and communications systems and key Government services.
That point is not a case of relying on the sentiment behind the pre-war London newspaper headline, “Fog over channel: Europe cut off”, but I understand that in continental Europe other factors might apply. The Benelux countries, France and Germany, France and Italy, France and Spain and the Baltic countries—to give just a few obvious examples—will have integrated infrastructures that far outstretch the examples that apply to the United Kingdom, such as the channel tunnel, the shipping traffic between the UK and Europe, and the services shared by Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk mentioned the channel tunnel. It is a subject that will cause some debate. From one point of view the channel tunnel looks like a bilateral infrastructure between France and the UK, but the manufacturers of, for example, Belgium, Italy or Spain who wish to export goods from their country to ours via road or rail might say that it affects more than two countries within the EU, and that therefore it is an EU infrastructure asset which ought to come under the control of the directives. I foresee endless discussion in dark committee rooms in Europe of such matters.
Of course, we know that attacks on food supplies, or attacks on, or interference with, the internet and electronic communication systems or the banking and financial sectors at a strategic level can have a cross-border effect, regardless of whether they are the result of terrorist activity or natural causes such as storms and floods. To destroy the London stock exchange is to damage the global trade in financial instruments; to poison the Rhine is to damage the natural environment—river, sea and land based—in many countries; and to corrupt the immigration authorities of one member state will have a knock-on effect on other EU states. However, I question whether we need to raise the need for sensible, thoughtful, well planned international co-operation at a multilateral or bilateral level to the level of having an EU institution with all the expenditure, directives, regulations and bureaucracy—and infrastructure—that these documents urge upon us.
How, for example, do we define whether a particular piece of infrastructure is critical to the EU as a whole, or to at least two states, or only to one? We cannot do that without creating endless directives following endless committee meetings in several locations, at which the representatives of member state Governments and the Commission argue about whether country A’s sewerage system is of European significance whereas country B’s telephone system is only of national significance.
The documents tell us that EPCIP
“will be an ongoing process”.
We need have no doubt of that. We are also told that its action plan will have three work streams, that there will be a critical infrastructure warning information network or CIWIN, and that there will be expert groups. There will be a CIP—critical infrastructure protection—information-sharing process and an identification of interdependencies. There will be national critical infrastructures, contingency planning and an external dimension, and there will be an “all hazard” approach—which would be a fitting description of the present jostling for the leadership and deputy leadership of the Labour party.
There is no doubt that those matters, when stripped of the jargon, are sensible things to think about and deal with, but I am concerned that we should not as a country or a Government allow ourselves to be distracted with yet further EU navel gazing when we have plenty to do at home to provide better national security of all types and when there is so much that we can do bilaterally and multilaterally in discrete areas to protect our vital infrastructures.
Terrorism, even outside the confines of the Crevice trial, is universally to be condemned and all of us, in and out of the EU, must take steps to prevent it and to create conditions that do not allow it to thrive or to take hold. However, we should not allow these documents and the policies that lie behind them to dilute our resources and efforts, no matter that we are acutely aware that an approach that goes beyond terrorism is in other jurisdictions appropriate, and more immediately so.
Our primary, if not our total, focus must be on counter-terrorism and on protecting our constitutional framework, national institutions and liberties, as citizens of this parliamentary democracy. We must have the confidence to realise and understand that, despite the attacks we have seen from the IRA, al-Qaeda and so-called animal rights activists, the systems of Government, Parliament and local authorities and our emergency and public services are resilient and robust and, more importantly, democratically accountable. I do not denigrate the motives behind the policies outlined in these documents, but I do question their utility.
I urge the Government to be strong in their EU discussions, and to ensure that we arrive at a scheme that is relevant, proportionate and cost-effective. The concerns outlined by the Minister, which we share, should be taken on board by his counterparts when he travels to Europe to meet them.
I have to tell the Minister that my one disappointment with the motion is that, at a time when there is so much to be negotiated and so much is left unanswered in our correspondence—and will remain unanswered even after today’s debate—it does not simply say that we “take note” of the documents and of the Government’s position. Rather, it says that this House
“supports the Government’s intention to secure adoption of these documents in Council, subject to a satisfactory resolution of outstanding concerns.”
Despite the work of my European Scrutiny Committee, which took this issue very seriously, and the Minister’s original, very detailed explanatory memorandum of 12 February, there remain many unknowns regarding what the Government will cede. They have certainly moved from their original position when we first looked at the directive, having, of course, considered the Green Paper for almost two years. In the explanatory memorandum of 19 February, they seemed to be adopting a firm position. However, a letter of 9 March to the Committee in response to our further inquiries appeared to indicate what I define as Government slide—a phenomenon that I have noticed repeatedly through my work on the Committee. That is in contrast to the original directive, which was an example of Commission creep. The Commission wants to creep into power; meanwhile, between 19 February and 9 March the Government appear to have shifted position, and to now be willing in their negotiations to slide out of power.
I come to the reasons why the Committee wanted this issue to be debated on the Floor of the House. Our main concern was that what is proposed is the adoption of a legally binding European Council directive in what we consider a sensitive field. We felt that this was legally doubtful and questionable in principle. Our second concern was the extensive role that the Commission has allocated to itself. As has been said, neither the so-called counter-terrorism co-ordinator’s name nor his position was included in the Commission’s proposal. It intends that it shall put together a committee of the Commission to oversee this process. That concerned us greatly.
The third problem is that there is not just a possibility but a probability of the extension of Community competence into the field of national security. There is no doubt that if that proposal goes ahead, it will affect bilateral agreements and infrastructures; in fact, it is Commission creep into the field of national security. We felt that that proposal should not be agreed to before being debated in the House.
In the February explanatory memorandum, the Minister discussed the European Programme for Critical Infrastructure Protection, which will probably be referred to for ever by Eurocrats as EPCIP; as a result, no one will know what it means. The memorandum recognised that bilateral co-operation between states was to be encouraged, but we shared the Government’s concern, which they expressed strongly, that EPCIP should not cover bilateral arrangements. In that regard, the Government referred to the channel tunnel and to cross-border co-operation between the UK and Ireland, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said.
Our Committee felt that there was no reason for the Commission to be involved in these matters. However, its starting point was that bilateral agreements were not outwith EPCIP. The Government are resisting that view, but they are asking us today to approve their signing up to the document, subject to negotiations. However, the Minister has said nothing today that would satisfy my Committee that lines in the sand have been drawn that we will not allow the Commission to cross. That is very worrying, given that we have been asked not just to note that the Government are negotiating, but to support them.
We have debated this issue and we have given the House its best chance to influence the Government. The Government will then be left to negotiate whatever they wish to negotiate at the final stage in the European Council.
Does the hon. Gentleman find this situation perhaps a little disappointing? Assuming that his Committee had reached a completely different conclusion from the content of the documents and had advised the House to vote against the “take note” motion, it would have made little difference. The Government are independently able to carry on doing what they think best, irrespective of the advice of his Committee.
I hope that we do not get to the point of voting. I hope that the Government will take on board the fact that when we say we support them, we support them. Hopefully, the House will support them too, on the basis that the motion includes the phrase
“subject to a satisfactory resolution of outstanding concerns.”
Those concerns are those expressed in February’s explanatory memorandum, and not the weaker position that, sadly, seemed to be indicated by the Government’s strong support for proceeding with the directive, as expressed in the letter of 9 March. As I said, we sensed Government slide, of which the explanatory memorandum gave no indication. I hope that the Government will vigorously defend their position as outlined in the February explanatory memorandum, and that they will not perform an about-turn on any of these issues when they enter into negotiations.
The Committee also asked whether the adoption of the directive is necessary or justified. The arguments for a legally binding directive under the terms of article 308 of the European Community treaty are unconvincing. We studied that article extensively and we will publish a report on it shortly. We are clear that in our view, there is no need for legally binding rules in the sensitive area of designating infrastructure; however, and as I pointed out, that is what will happen. The Government said that they want the proposal to be dealt with through commitology, and in such a way that it is passed by qualified majority voting in the Council. If there was a dispute, the matter would then be ruled on by the European Court of Justice. Our Government would be unable to go against that ruling, and they could be forced into positions that they did not originally wish to adopt, and to which they did not originally think that they had ceded.
We believe that it is wrong for the Commission to be allowed to use infraction procedures in respect of any European country, and particularly this one, which has a highly developed national security policy. However, the Commission would go to the European Court of Justice if there were any dispute. Why could the objective of creating a common procedure for designating critical infrastructure not have been achieved by voluntary co-operation between member states? That is how we have advanced in the past. It is a good idea to have guidelines, benchmarks and some form of sanctions or penalties. It is also a good idea to have incentives throughout the EU. We may have reservations about some of the countries in the EU and their ability to meet the standards, but we should be aiding and abetting them, not giving power to the Commission to rule over our standards in the future.
We will always dispute with the Government, the Commission and the Council the legal basis of article 308, because on many issues it has nothing to do with the common market. Our Committee was certainly concerned by the throw-away lines about competitiveness and cost at the end of certain sections, so that it could be argued that it was a competition question: it is not. It is a justification for using an original clause that was entirely about the common market to force through several items so that the Commission gets its way.
We questioned the consequences of adopting a legally binding European directive on this issue in our report on 21 March. We were worried that it would lead to unpredictable legal obligations being imposed on the UK. The Minister questioned the definition of European critical infrastructure, the disclosure of information, and the legal obligations imposed to produce operator security plans and appoint security liaison officers. In the explanatory memorandum, the Government appeared to take a firm stand against all of those issues, but each would fall to be determined and interpreted by the European Court of Justice. In other words, every objection that the Government have put up could be overruled by the ECJ. That could happen if the Commission took infraction proceedings against a Government who are resisting the imposition of the Commission’s will, which could lead to very unpredictable results. We question whether the Government should make any concessions that would take risks in that area. In security terms, we need to be firm, to be sure of our ground, to know where our authority lies, to know that we can call on that authority at any time and that it has not been given to another party. That is another reason why we wanted the debate.
The Minister confirmed that the adoption of the European directive would affect the UK’s ability to conclude agreements with third-party countries—the question asked in this debate today—for example, with the United States. It is clear that giving competence to the Commission means ceding competence from one’s own Government to make agreements without the permission of the Commission. We have always thought that that was an unnecessary downside to any agreement to give power on issues on which we should retain it. Unless the Minister is telling us that that is a clear red line and he will not sign up to the directive unless there is clear agreement that the UK can conclude agreements with non-EU countries on a bilateral basis, we would be taking a grave risk.
The Minister has told the Committee that “it is not considered” that the directive would affect the UK’s ability to make agreements with third-party countries on the exchange of information and techniques for protecting infrastructure, but he did not provide the authority for that conclusion in any correspondence. A matter that would fall to be determined by the ECJ is one of the imponderables. We do not know whether the ECJ would rule that we still had that power or did not have that power. The question for my Committee was: why put the present freedom and power of the UK to make agreements with third parties at risk by adopting the directive?
After eight years as a member of the Committee, and five years as a member of a Standing Committee before that, I know that entering into such legal obligations may have unpredictable results in the future. Why should Britain risk our present freedom to make bilateral security arrangements and decide what sensitive information we choose to share? I have not heard any argument as to why we should give up either of those two vital powers. I cannot see what the UK can possibly gain by accepting the directive, and that was the unanimous view of the Committee across all parties.
I am a member of the Committee and I endorse everything that the hon. Gentleman says. However, does he accept that sometimes the Government have a tendency, when they know that something has a European character to it, to be too relaxed about allowing things that they would do better to resist?
On this occasion, I fundamentally agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Government do not need to do this. It would strengthen the European Union as a body if it resisted it and renegotiated a different arrangement under which countries that had problems with their infrastructure, and questionable security and capacity, entered into agreements guided, aided and controlled by the Commission. Those countries that have the competence, as the UK and many others already have, to look after their own security, could agree a set of guidelines, standards and aspirations that they could try to match, but it would not need to be binding. That would be a much stronger EU agreement. It would focus on where assistance is required and stop the Commission interfering where it is not needed. I can assure the Minister that the Commission will use its power whenever it can, just to show that it is in charge. It wants to be in charge of, not assisting on, many issues on which it would be better not to be involved.
Why do we need legally binding rules designating what infrastructure is critical to a member state? It was an expressed concern of the Minister in the explanatory memorandum, but I have heard no indication that their imposition will be resisted to the point at which we will not sign the directive. The Minister asks us to support him signing the directive, but we are not sure what negotiating points could stall that signature. I hope that he will tell us that much more clearly and leave the House, and those who read the report of this debate, with some security. Why could the objective of creating a common procedure for designating critical infrastructure not have been achieved by voluntary co-operation between the member states? I have heard no answer to that question.
My conclusion is that the legislation might lead to an extension of European community competence into the field of national security. That should not be agreed until the House has had a chance to debate it and is convinced that vital safeguards for the UK’s sovereign national security would not be ceded to the Commission. I would like the Minister to assure us that when he goes to the negotiations, he will not sign up to the directive until he can convince the House that he did not cede too much on the issue of our national security.
The House certainly has highs and lows. We have had the high drama, intensity and complete transparency of Prime Minister’s questions, and then we come to this debate, which is—unless one has engaged with the subject matter—probably miles from the immediate thoughts of most people. I came to the subject fresh, because it would normally fall to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) to participate in this debate, but he cannot be here today. I looked at the issue from first principles and have ended up with a huge amount of reading over the last week. Thanks to my keen and enthusiastic assistant, I understand the issues at least to some degree.
I am glad that we are having this debate. I agree with the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) that it is right that we should have a European Scrutiny Committee and that it is able to say, as it did on this issue, when something is legally and politically important and should be debated on the Floor of the House. The numbers present may be small, but that is related more to other factors in the British political firmament than to the importance of the issue.
This is an important issue because we are talking about what used to be called emergency planning. Everyone realises now that local government needs to undertake emergency planning, for all the sad but familiar reasons. When the Greater London authority was set up, there was a long debate about the arrangements in London. Similar debates about how to keep the capital and the country safe took place after 9/11, and such questions are back on the agenda after the events of July a couple of years ago.
Emergency planning is the Government’s rightful responsibility, and the Home Office has traditionally taken the lead in its work with other Departments. I understand the Minister when he says that he is not at liberty to share some information to do with planning in respect of terrorist threats to our infrastructure.
Some threats have been evident for years. For example, the IRA attacked Canary Wharf as it was being built, and we have heard about the plans to attack the Ministry of Sound night club in my constituency. However, I am talking about something different—that is, threats to the sewerage system, or to the water or gas supply. Those are important matters, and I am glad that the House has an opportunity to express its views.
In our report, we state:
“We have considerable misgivings over the adoption of an EC directive in this area”.
Our function is to judge whether something is of legal or political importance. We go on to say that we believe the directive to be
“of doubtful legality and questionable in principle. We note that the proposal is made under Article 308 EC, but it does not appear to us that a measure which is concerned essentially with the national security of Member States is a matter falling within the EC treaty at all, and still less under article 308”.
I hope to make a few remarks later on about article 308. However, even though he has come to the job rather late in the day, does the hon. Gentleman accept that the matter is very serious? There is no need for hysteria, but does he agree that it has implications for national security?
I do agree about that, and I want to deal next with article 308. It states:
“If action by the Community should prove necessary to attain, in the course of the operation of the common market, one of the objectives of the Community, and this Treaty has not provided the necessary powers, the Council shall, acting unanimously on a proposal from the Commission and after consulting the European Parliament, take the appropriate measures.”
In June 2004, the Council of Ministers asked the Commission to come up with a proposal in respect of EU infrastructure. In other words, the bureaucrats did not initiate this, the politicians did. The Council of Ministers is free to say that it is not going to agree the Commission proposal, with the result that the whole thing has come round full circle and the matter is up for negotiation. The Government will “take note” of this debate, in the way that our procedures allow, but they also have the right under article 8 to veto the outcome. If the UK decides that the proposal should be taken no further, it can act alone to prevent that from happening.
Does article 308 justify the motion before us? The House of Lords Committee that looked at this matter said that we should not get fixated by article 308 and that we should look at the substance of the motion. The advice that I have been given is that Parliament has accepted similar measures proposed under article 308, and I look forward to the forthcoming report from the European Scrutiny Committee.
These are serious matters. Article 308 is the EU’s instrument to cover “anything else extra”, and we must be careful to ensure that what it is used to introduce is justified. I am not going to argue that the proposals before us cannot work under article 308, although I notice that the European Scrutiny Committee believes that the Government have not made their case about that.
I come now to the substance of the motion. The Minister was helpful in his responses to interventions, and I want to pick up on a couple of matters that he mentioned. He made it clear that the proposal is justified only if we are talking about matters that are European, critical and to do with infrastructure. That may be a tautology, but it is true. However, I want to put it on record that I share what I believe is the common view of the House about last December’s draft directive definition of EU “critical infrastructures”. It states:
“‘European Critical Infrastructure’ means critical infrastructures the disruption or destruction of which would significantly affect two or more Member States, or a single Member State if the critical infrastructure is located in another Member State.”
We believe that that provision is too generous, as it is not sufficient that only two member states are affected. Earlier, I gave the example of the UK and Ireland. We have a common interest in some matters, especially in respect of Northern Ireland, and other bilateral agreements cover energy, transport and so on.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk mentioned the much more interesting debate to be had about whether the Eurotunnel involves two member states or more than two. I believe that disruption to the Eurotunnel would significantly affect more than two member states. For instance, the tunnel goes to Belgium as well as to France, but disruption would have onward consequences for the transport of goods throughout the EU. That would mean that more than three countries would have an interest, and that is why we need a higher threshold than just two member states.
I also agree that the UK occupies a position that is entirely different from the one occupied by many other countries. For instance, the Benelux countries share many aspects of infrastructure, and a new member state such as Poland may well get some power from the Czech Republic, or vice versa. Countries that are adjacent territorially, with no water between them, are much more likely to share elements of infrastructure, transport and so on. Indeed, that is likely to be common, and the situation between the UK and Ireland, or Cyprus and Malta, is likely to be much less common. I therefore hope that Ministers will negotiate a higher threshold.
The motion asks us to support
“the Government’s intention to secure adoption of these documents in Council, subject to a satisfactory resolution of outstanding concerns.”
That is rather a catch-all wording—and I am being generous to the Minister by saying so. It more or less says that the Government have made a request, the Commission has made a proposal, and this is how far we have got. The motion then asks the House to give the nod to further negotiations to secure a satisfactory outcome. To be blunt, a lot of work remains to be done, and the Minister is right to suggest that it is unlikely to be completed in June, especially as we are already in May.
I want to make a couple of final points. Earlier, we had an interesting discussion about the fact that the motion deals with something theoretical, but it was clear that the House was also interested in the specifics. It is important to realise that much work has been done in some sectors, as listed in the supporting papers provided by the European Commission. For instance, work has been done in the IT sector on public electronic communications networks, and in the health sector on epidemiological surveillance and control of communicable diseases.
Work has also been done in the financial sector on euro retail payment systems. Such matters can be seen as part of the infrastructure, as the sudden collapse of the ability to perform bank transactions across Europe would have implications for the financial sector, in which London has a huge interest. Work has been done in the transport sector on ship and port facility security, maritime security and civil aviation security. It is not as though nothing has been done.
There are many bilateral aspects already, and clearly the Government have thought about them. The Home Office is in the lead, but the issues are cross-governmental; the critical infrastructure sectors listed in the annexe show how broad they are—energy, nuclear industry, ICT, water, food, health, financial matters, transport, chemical industry, space and research facilities. That substantive list shows that the matter is at a slightly higher macro-level than the provision of public toilets across the EU—although I realise that the Minister was joking. Like him, I have been involved in London politics for many years. We have not yet got the provision of public facilities in London sorted, so we can hardly teach anybody else how to do it. There is work to be done much nearer home.
The proposal is that if there were a directive it would include non-binding and binding measures. That mix is probably right if we can reach agreement about the binding measures—by definition, it would then be up to us to opt into the others rather than being committed to them. Colleagues in the Lords who have studied the proposal from their perspective as Members of the European Parliament warn us that we must not get into an over-bureaucratic system. The current proposal seems far too extensive, complex and bureaucratic. To take one example, there may be a need for participation in
“critical information protection expert groups at EU level”—
but that simply means that it would be good to have somebody from each country who knows what they are talking about and can work out what we need to do. That is sensible and civil servants should be working on that aspect. Information-sharing is good, but we must do it in the least bureaucratic and most practical way possible.
I end with the conclusion we have already reached. Most of the specific proposals appear perfectly feasible through co-operation, information exchange and best practice. That seems to cover most of the needs and expectations. Subsidiarity and proportionality mean that we should not try to give the EU more functions and responsibility than it needs. We must do what we can in this country. The UK, as a group of islands, is more likely to resolve these matters nationally than on a cross-EU basis, but if there is a need for legislation—after all, a directive is EU legislation, with which we have to comply—people have to make a case for it.
If the measure is on the agenda, it is because Governments have asked for it to be there because they were worried about terrorism or the risk to European energy supplies. As the Minister said in his intervention, this is not only about our people in this country; Britons are working, living and studying all over the EU, as are people from all the other EU countries. We have a collective responsibility to look after the European Union countries properly, but only inasmuch as it needs to be done on a more than national or more than bilateral level should it be a matter for the EU. I hope that Ministers will proceed accordingly and negotiate only a measure that is simple, straightforward and the minimum required to deliver the perfectly reasonable objectives that they asked the Commission to consider a few years ago.
First, I make a small apology. I have only recently been appointed to the European Scrutiny Committee and was not party to its discussions. However, I have read the paper prepared for the debate and I have listened carefully to the speeches of other Members. They very much reflect my own feelings; there seems to be consensus that we must take a much firmer line with the Commission and the Council of Ministers, so I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, in his typically robust way, will do so. I hope that he will take particular note of what my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) said, because he went to the nub of the issue.
The Minister’s first response to the communication was robust. He stated that
“responsibility for national critical infrastructure is a national responsibility and, secondly, that protection of European Critical Infrastructure is the responsibility of the Member State within which the infrastructure is located”.
That strong statement seemed to have the Committee’s support, but when a series of questions was put to the Minister in writing, his response was less robust. I thought that perhaps someone had toned down his replies, because they did not want them to be too non-communautaire.
I have had some experience of European committees in Brussels—although not at the elevated level of the Council of Ministers—so I know about the style; one does not raise issues strongly. One listens to the reports and then goes away—possibly for a splendid Brussels lunch. However, in my time I was one of the awkward squad, who always asked the difficult questions in what seemed to be regarded as the British way; we say, “Excuse me, Mr. Chairman, but isn’t there a problem?” and other people look round in surprise that anybody should have raised an issue.
I am confident that my hon. Friend the Minister will be one of the awkward squad and that he will raise the issues that have been set out in the debate and speak robustly not just for Britain’s interests but for common sense, which suggests that many of the areas covered by the phrase “critical infrastructure” are not that critical—at least to Europe as a whole, although they might be critical for the interests of a particular nation state. Some things are critical and of serious interest; for example, nuclear power generation poses appalling risks to life if things go wrong, so there is clearly an international interest in it. We are heavily dependent on the supply of gas from Russia via a pipeline going through Germany, so we should take a great interest in that. With other Members, I recently attended a meeting in the House at which a German academic read a paper that suggested that Germany was working closely with Russia to make sure that gas went through Germany, because the Germans wanted to maintain a strong interest in the control of the gas supply. As we saw, Russia made life uncomfortable for Ukraine over gas supplies, so those aspects of critical infrastructure give rise to serious issues in which we and our European colleagues have an interest.
The key is to make sure that there is a hierarchy of risk and interests, but we should not get into deep water over—shall we say?—water, which is much more of a national provision. By and large, water is not transported between nation states, certainly not to Britain. Although the Welsh might complain that they are supplying water to us in England, we are still—I think—the same nation state. Some aspects can be put to one side, because they should not be covered. I have mentioned the areas of interest.
The proposals make a powerful case for nation states such as Britain to generate as much of their own energy as possible and to become less dependent on supplies from other parts of the world that are sometimes unstable and may not be friendly towards us in future. There is a powerful case for generating electricity safely and securely through tidal barrages, especially across the Severn and Thames estuaries, offshore wind farms, microgeneration and combined heat and power. Locally supplied generation and microgeneration is much less vulnerable to the risks we have been debating. Europe-wide structures for energy are much more vulnerable than local, domestic and microgeneration. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) speaks on the subject frequently and he is absolutely right to emphasise the importance of looking to renewable sources, and I urge Ministers especially to consider those that are local, micro, national and less vulnerable. Perhaps that goes rather wider of the debate than you might wish, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but it is an important issue.
I look forward to my hon. Friend the Minister coming back from Europe having secured a common-sense agreement, having got positive answers to all the issues raised here and by the European Scrutiny Committee, and having spoken for the British national interest and for common sense.
As I indicated in an intervention on the Chairman of the Committee earlier, to a certain extent my concern turns on the manner in which these decisions tend to get taken by Government. I am not going to engage in a hostile confrontation with the Minister over this matter. As much as anything, it is a matter of attitude. The problem is as follows. Albeit that in 2004 the Council of Ministers asked for these questions to be considered, the reality is that in terms of the critical mass of the institutional changes, the attitude of mind—which is that everything should be Europeanised because that is the nature of the underlying concept of the European constitution, which has by no means been given up—means that all matters and questions of legal capacity have to be decided against the background of an assumption. That assumption is that if a choice has to be made, it would be better made at a European level than otherwise.
There is also the issue of terrorism, which the Committee has stressed in this context, noting the fact that it had not been dealt with properly in relation to the role of the European Union counter-terrorism co-ordinator, Mr. de Vries, who was brought into the issue somewhat late in the day. The fact is that there are often decisions—particularly in relation to matters of national security—where the question of why something is being done is in lower case. It is something that emerges only in the course of a debate of this kind. Of course, it is precisely because the European Scrutiny Committee is so diligent and accurate in its analysis—given our expert advisers and legal advisers—that we are in a position to be able to challenge the assumptions on which things otherwise would simply roll forward. For example, in some other countries—the Minister might take note of this—[Interruption.] The Minister is wandering around the House like a caged lion. I do not know whether he is a lion or a mouse.
No. The Minister might find it quite useful to listen to some of the arguments of those of us who have a little more experience than he does of some of these matters and the way in which the European Union has functioned. The plain fact is that the question of creeping competence, of which this matter is a good example, is the reason why not I by myself as the Member for Stone on his own, but the whole of the European Scrutiny Committee—the majority whose members come from the Minister’s own party—has come to the conclusion that it is important that this matter should be debated on the Floor of the House. The Committee has come to that conclusion responsibly and on the basis of considered advice.
I understand the restlessness of the Minister, but it would not do him much harm to listen to what is being said. Wandering around in that way clearly indicated that he was not interested in a word that was being uttered. He might just bear in mind that we are talking about national security and about the failure of the Government to be completely transparent about the connection between the proposals and terrorism. The bottom line is that the use of article 308—in relation to which the Minister says that protecting critical infrastructure
“will further a number of Community objectives”—
is an example of the very point that I am making. A gap is being filled in order to enhance the Europeanisation of this issue, which is of direct importance, as the Committee says in its report, to the fundamental question of national security. If we do not control our own national security, the Government are betraying this country in the context of what the Committee recommended. We on the Committee said:
“We consider that these issues are of such importance to the fundamental duty of any government to ensure national security that they ought to be debated on the Floor of the House and we so recommend.”
We are debating the issues. The Minister knows in advance that there will not be a Division on this question, so, as I said before, he might just as well have given us a better explanation of the basis on which a satisfactory resolution of the outstanding concerns will be delivered. Time is running out, so I want to get on the record—[Interruption.] I was unable to be here then, but I know enough about the subject matter—and I am on the Committee—to know that the issue is of great importance, which is why we are debating it.
When we are talking about things such as the channel tunnel and other things that are susceptible to terrorist attacks, it does not matter what the Government may wish to put forward by way of an argument that the issues should be dealt with at the European level. Those issues are essentially a matter of national security. As we say in our report, it is a fundamental necessity that we retain control over these matters. That is why we want them to be debated. There is no need for me to go into all the detail. I am sure that the civil servants and the members of the European Commission will look at that. The important and simple point is that the Government, as usual—
It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker put the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Standing Order No. 16(1).
Question agreed to.
That this House takes note of European Union Documents No. 16932/06, Commission Communication on a European Programme for Critical Infrastructure Protection, and No. 16933/06 and ADDs 1-2, Draft Council Directive on the identification and designation of European Critical Infrastructure and the assessment of the need to improve their protection; and supports the Government’s intention to secure adoption of these documents in Council, subject to a satisfactory resolution of outstanding concerns.
WELFARE REFORM BILL (PROGRAMME) (No. 4)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(7),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Welfare Reform Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 24th July 2006, in the last Session of Parliament, 12th October 2006 and 9th January 2007 (Welfare Reform Bill (Programme), Welfare Reform Bill (Programme) (No. 2) and Welfare Reform Bill (Programme) (No. 3)):
Consideration of Lords Amendments
1. Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after their commencement at this day’s sitting.
2. Any further message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
3. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—[Mr. Roy.]
Question agreed to.
Orders of the Day
Welfare Reform Bill
Lords amendments considered.
Lords amendment: No. 1.
I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 55.
I am pleased to report to the House that just as the Bill left this place in a good condition, with a strong consensus, that approach was maintained in the other place, where all of those with a keen interest in this important issue played an important part in helping to maintain that consensus. There has been continued engagement with stakeholders, disability organisations and others. It is fair to say at the outset that that has been assisted by the consensus approach across political parties in this and the other place. The one exception is the Scottish National party, which played no role whatsoever in our proceedings at any part of the process. Indeed, today SNP Members have not shown up to their work.
There are five areas of the Bill and its policy aims that are the subject of amendment. I would like to talk about each briefly in turn. First, I will talk about the issue of the annual report on the operation of the revised personal capability assessment. Amendment No. 1 concerns the operation of the new benefit, the employment and support allowance. The amendment introduces a requirement for the Secretary of State to lay an annual independent report before Parliament on the operation of the revised personal capability assessment.
As I previously confirmed, it has always been our intention that there should be ongoing monitoring of the effectiveness of the revised PCA. I gave an undertaking on Report that there would be ongoing independent monitoring by the technical working groups for the first two years following implementation of the revised assessment. My noble Friend Lord McKenzie of Luton gave a similar undertaking in the other place and made a further commitment that monitoring would continue for the first five years following implementation and report to Parliament. That is reflected by the duration of reporting required by the amendment.
Lords amendments Nos. 2, 13, 15, 16 and 55 relate to health care professionals other than doctors carrying out a medical examination to provide information used in making a decision on entitlement to benefits. From the outset, the Bill provided for the use of heath care professionals in assessments for ESA. However, shortly after the Bill left the Commons, it became clear that the current legislation did not include the power to make full use of health care professionals in the provision of medical services for customers claiming other benefits, such as disability living allowance, attendance allowance and industrial injuries benefits. Lords amendment No. 13 will enable us to take full advantage of the skills that health care professionals offer in the delivery of medical services for purposes involving social security benefits.
Lords amendment No. 2 will commit us to using only health care professionals who are members of regulated professions. It gives a consistent definition of a health care professional across the benefit system. All health care professionals will, of course, be given full training. They will need to be approved by the Secretary of State before they are able to carry out assessments. Lords amendment No. 55 will ensure that all health care professionals carrying out medical examinations will be bound by the same duties of confidentiality as departmental staff with respect to information about individual customers.
Lords amendments Nos. 3 to 7 relate to the contracting out of welfare to work services. They will ensure that the Secretary of State cannot authorise a contractor to undertake decision making that could lead to sanctions under the ESA conditionality regime. The Government made such amendments to the Bill in response to concerns expressed about the possible problems associated with the contracting out of sanctions decision making. While, of course, there are potential advantages in moving decision making closer to front-line services, we accept that there is more to be done before we will be aware of how that will work in practice. We will thus not take such a power in the Bill.
The fourth group of amendments covers sanctioning following an eviction for antisocial behaviour. Lords amendment No. 9 relates to the housing benefit sanction following an eviction for antisocial behaviour and a refusal to accept support. We believe that the sanction will be an important power for local authorities to use in tackling antisocial behaviour in our communities. The amendment provides for a limit to the piloting period. The Government will thus be allowed to press ahead with piloting the scheme, but if there is to be a scheme in place after 31 December 2010, further primary legislation will be required.
We have made a commitment that piloting will be a key element of our plans. If the measure works as we intend and the threat of sanctions encourages antisocial households and families to engage in support programmes, the end date of 31 December 2010 that is specified in the amendment will mean that we will have sufficient time to learn lessons that could inform national design and possible implementation.
The fifth group is, by necessity, made up of technical drafting amendments. The Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee reported on the Bill and we tabled appropriate amendments following those reports. Lords amendments Nos. 8, 22 and 23 will mean that the regulations that will be made under the identified powers relating to entitlement to components and the loss of benefit will be subject to the affirmative procedure. Lords amendments Nos. 10 and 11 make it explicit that the powers in clause 40 relating to the use of social security information are to be used solely to encourage people to claim the benefits to which they may be entitled.
Lords amendment No. 17 to schedule 3 will ensure that the Secretary of State will have an obligation to review the relevant ESA amounts in each tax year to determine whether they have retained their value. Lords amendments Nos. 21 to 54 will amend schedule 4 to provide a power to migrate those with an existing award of a benefit relating to incapacity or disability to ESA. The amendments do not affect the policy position that we have taken previously on the migration of existing customers.
I urge the House to agree to the Lords amendments to this important Bill. During the Bill’s passage, we have managed to maintain a remarkable degree of well-considered consensus between both sides of the House. Together we can be confident that the Bill will make a real and lasting change to the lives of many people who were written off for so long in the past.
I welcome the Minister’s remarks. The modern Conservative party supported the principles of the Bill, the details of which required non-partisan, thorough and vigilant scrutiny in Committee here and in another place. I believe that it has been given such scrutiny. It has been hugely assisted by the advice, wisdom and insight of many groups and bodies that work hard and tirelessly to help those who need the support of a modern welfare state. I pay tribute to them as the passage of the Bill draws to its close.
The key purpose of Lords amendment No. 1 is to ensure that the scrutiny of the Bill’s operation continues long after it has been passed. The requirement for annual reports will put Ministers to the test when they explain how the new ESA is benefiting—as we hope and trust that it will—many claimants who are able to work, but need support to get back into work. We know that many such people want to work. A welcome improvement was made to the Bill in the other place—Lord McKenzie was the Minister—through the insertion of a provision requiring the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament an annual independent report on the operation of the limited capability for work test and the limited capability for work-related activity assessment for the first five years after they came into effect.
I welcome the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform’s decision not to disagree with that proposition of the Lords. However, it is important that we underscore concerns that are being expressed by outside bodies about the new PCA. There is worry that the early stages of the design of the PCA have, albeit in a well-meaning way, been subject to dummy runs. It is clear we must get right something as important as a gateway to a new incapacity benefit—ESA—because it will affect millions of people. The Government have promised that the PCA will be rigorously evaluated. The Minister has explained that a two-part evaluation is being carried out to ensure that the revised PCA constitutes a fair, robust and evidence-based assessment of limited capability for work. However, we must be vigilant. We believe that the annual reporting requirement will deliver rigorous scrutiny.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Even at this stage, it is important to reassure him and others who consider our proceedings carefully. The revised PCA test seems to be working as expected. However, to clarify intentions, there has been a need to refine some of the wording of physical function descriptors and mental health function descriptors. Some of the scores also have to be refined, so it is clear that we are learning as we go on. In the spirit of co-operation that has existed throughout the passage of the Bill, I will be happy to continue to share such information with the hon. Gentleman, as will the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), the Minister for disabled people, who has played a remarkable role in the formulation of the policy over the past few months.
I thank the Minister for that. I associate myself with his charitable and generous comments about the work of the Under-Secretary. It was a delight to debate matters with her in Committee, and I think that our debates generated a lot of light. It is important to remind ourselves as proceedings on the Bill draw to a close of the critical importance of the PCA and the vital need to ensure that its operation is not just looked at over a long period of five years but is evaluated annually. The disability benefits consortium has made the point that genuine evaluation must include examination of whether the assessment of capability to work was accurate, as it does not believe that there is a check to achieve that objective under the current arrangements. It suggests that health or social care providers who know the claimant could be asked whether they believe the new score to be a fair assessment, and it asks whether that could be designed into the new PCA. It says that claimants themselves could be asked whether they agree with their new score, and that members of the PCA could be asked to convene technical groups to interview people who are disqualified by the new PCA, but who qualified under the old PCA, to gain a fuller sense of whether they should, or should not, be considered to have limited capability for work.
Ministers may find it difficult to accept those propositions, but they are an example of the way in which an iterative process must be used when officials and practitioners at the sharp end implement the new test. We must always have an eagle eye and constantly evaluate the impact of the measures on claimants. The Minister, and Ministers generally, do not regard the new PCA as a draconian measure to choke off the flow of future employment and support allowance claimants, and I congratulate the Government on the fact that they have not used the macho rhetoric of the stick. Ministers, no more than the rest of us, want claimants, past, present and future, to be intimidated by the language that the welfare state uses about their future. I do not doubt the Minister’s good intentions or those of future Ministers. The Minister might—who knows?—be moved onward and upward in the impending summer Government reshuffle in recognition of his great work on welfare reform. Whoever occupies his seat will want sensitive application and implementation of the new PCA, but annual, independent evaluation is required. A key reason is that problems may be discovered in the first year, new problems may be discovered in the second year, and yet more problems may be discovered in the third year, so in their lordships’ view—and in my view, too—it is essential that a rigorous, independent annual evaluation is conducted.
We accept that the Government have listened to those entreaties in another place, and that they are going to undertake qualitative evaluations. Research studies are undertaken anyway by the Department for Work and Pensions, the rollout of pathways to work is being evaluated, and academic research is accessed on top of that. We accept that all those things were going to be done anyway—Lord McKenzie made that point—but the amendment makes provision to pull everything together in a single annual report, and stops a piecemeal analysis with bits and pieces all over the shop. It ensures rigorous, regular scrutiny of that important test.
The Minister referred to Lords amendment No. 2, which clarifies the Bill’s wording to ensure that it includes a tighter, more specific definition of a health care professional. There were concerns that the original definition was too broad and that less than qualified people would fall into the category of health care professionals and be allowed to carry out medical examinations. It was thought that that would affect only a small minority of individuals. Nevertheless, the disability benefits consortium was surely right to welcome the amendment, which specifies the staff who may carry out a work-focused health-related assessment of a disabled person’s ability to engage in work-related activity and the kinds of adaptation and support they may need to enable them to undertake such activity. It went on to say that concern had been expressed by disabled people and those who represent them that unsuitably trained staff with relatively little experience of disability and health-related issues might be used. However, the amendment specifies the professionals qualified to undertake interviews, and that will provide important reassurance to disabled people who go through that gateway in future and who are assessed under the new process.
We support, too, Lords amendments Nos. 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 to clause 15. They remove from the Bill the ability to contract out decision making leading to sanctions. The category of excluded decisions includes all the decisions that can lead to sanctions, as well as decisions about the sanction itself. As a result of the amendments, decisions on sanctions will be made by Jobcentre Plus staff. The Secretary of State cannot, at this stage, authorise contracted-out providers either to deliver the sanction or to make decisions leading to sanctions. Again, it is important to reflect the non-ideological nature of the conversation that we have been having for several months. Contracting out is not an across-the-board, ideological fix. It depends on how it is used and what it is used for. It was the judgment of shadow Ministers that it was not appropriate for contracted-out providers to make those decisions. Conflict of interest could obviously arise, particularly when contracted-out providers are paid according to outcomes, and are given a fee for success, as it were. The implication is that they might be seen by claimants as having an interest in wielding the stick, applying sanctions so that people are more likely to work and the provider can earn more fees as a result.
I was never one for thinking that the private sector would be so crass as to go down that route. Most of the private sector contractors to whom I have spoken overthe past year have a genuine caring mission in taking people from welfare into work. Yes, there is a commercial advantage in their doing so, and they have to make a profit but, by and large, they do so with great skill, compassion and concern for the customer. I never thought that the possibility that Ministers would want to contract out sanctioning to the private sector would be a major problem, but insofar as it worried outside lobby and support groups that help disabled people and claimants, it was likely to worry claimants. We made it clear that we wanted the state, not a private outsourced contractor, to make those potentially sensitive decisions on sanctioning. It was interesting to read in the report, “Reducing dependency, increasing opportunity: options for the future of welfare to work”, which was published in March, David Freud’s recommendation that sanctions be administered though Jobcentre Plus.
The outside groups that expressed concern to me and to others—Mencap, the disability benefits consortium, Leonard Cheshire and many others—should be pleased with the outcome of their lobbying efforts and persuasion throughout the Bill, including on this point. They can say that Parliament and Ministers have been listening and have made the decision that they wanted. If Ministers want to give a power of sanction to the outsourced contractors, they will again have to argue the case in Parliament. We shall see whether that is necessary in future.
We had an interesting debate in Committee about sanctions attaching to housing benefit. Some of us thought that there were sufficient sanctions in the system already. For totally unacceptable behaviour by tenants, the sanction is eviction. The provisions in the Bill suggested that in addition, after evictions proceedings had gone through, there would be a further benefit sanction if the recalcitrant tenant causing misery for neighbours did not mend their ways.
We then moved on to the topic of piloting. In fairness, Ministers always envisaged that the new housing benefit sanction after evictions proceedings had kicked in needed to be tested. We were concerned that the piloting would be open ended. We argued for a two-year sunset clause, in effect enabling Parliament to monitor the pilots for up to two years. I am delighted that the amendment, which the Minister supports, means that if the Government want a scheme to run after December 2010, further primary legislation will be required, as the hon. Gentleman indicated.
I conclude by endorsing the Minister’s remarks about the generally bipartisan cross-party consensus on the principles of the Bill. That does not mean to say that the job is done. Pursuant to the Bill, detailed future regulations will be produced, and as we all know, the devil is always in the detail. Those regulations will not be subject to substantive amendment, but with the provisions that we have discussed today, particularly the annual report, I am confident that the Government of the day, whoever they are, will be put under scrutiny to make real the possibility of those on welfare getting a better deal in Britain in the 21st century, a better chance to get out of welfare and into work, out of dependency and living more fulfilling lives.
I am grateful to the Minister for listening to what was said in the other place on these important groups of amendments, and for contributing so well to our deliberations in this place. I hope, like him, that the Bill is at least a starting point in making Britain a better place for those who want to get out of dependency.
I am new to the deliberations on the Bill. I do not claim to know as much about the Bill or the arguments behind it as the Minister or his Conservative shadow, but my colleagues who do and who have been involved with it have asked me to convey their appreciation of the fact that a consensus approach has evolved and that many of their concerns have been dealt with. As is often the case, the other place has significantly improved the Bill.
There were several specific areas of controversy that concerned my colleagues, each of which has now reached a reasonable end point. The first is Lords amendment No. 1, which relates to the evaluation of the new personal capability assessments. As we all know from our constituency work, the process of assessment is stressful and difficult. We all have numerous cases of constituents often with complex and variable conditions who, on the basis of a perfunctory interview with medical staff from the Department for Work and Pensions, have lost their benefits and begun a long and difficult process of appeal. It is a stressful business.
Under the new system there will be two basic changes, one of which is the shift from incapability to capability, which is in one sense progressive, but in many respects is more difficult to test. Also, as we know from the statistics, the number of people involved in invalidity benefits of one kind or another is increasingly people suffering from mental conditions, rather than physical disabilities. Those, as we know, are often very difficult to capture, vary from time to time and are complex and difficult to measure. The processes that will have to evolve will therefore have to be more sophisticated and more robust than has been the case in the past.
I am aware that the Department has been evaluating the new PCAs and trying to get them right, both with its internal medical staff and with the external software consultants. I believe that disability groups have expressed some concern about the outcome. As the Minister said, the DWP is constantly trying to improve the assessments. The missing element was a genuinely independent and regular evaluation. My colleagues tabled amendments about that, and I am delighted to see that the Government have accepted the principle and we have achieved a good result.
The second issue was less fundamental, but my colleague Lord Oakeshott was among those who tried to achieve a more precise definition of “medical practitioner”. Again, the Government have produced their own amendment, which largely meets the case.
The third area of concern related to clause 15 and the potential that appeared to exist initially, because of ambiguity, for private contractors to make judgments on benefits and sanctions. We see no problem in principle with the private sector playing a role in the work of the Department, but it must clearly be circumscribed. This was not an appropriate area. We are glad that the role has been much more clearly defined. Again, that is a satisfactory outcome.
Finally, Lords amendment No. 9 to clause 30 relates to the linkage between housing benefit and antisocial behaviour. This is clearly a controversial subject on which people have very different views. It is right that that is proceeding through pilot studies. Our view from the outset was that the pilots should be time-limited and that a sunset clause was needed. Again, there seems to have a sensible compromise on the duration of the sunset clause. Overall, we are content with the way in which the other place has developed the Bill. I express my appreciation to all those concerned with that process.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 55 agreed to.
I beg to move, That this House do now adjourn.
I am pleased to have this opportunity today to debate the situation in Sri Lanka, and I am grateful to the right hon. and hon. Members present for their interest in this important issue. There has been mounting concern about the continuing violence and tragic displacement of people from their homes on that beautiful island. I want the House to know that this debate is the result of expressions of concern from right hon. and hon. Members. It is not, as some propagandists and partisan elements have claimed, a debate generated by any faction of Sri Lankan politics or by any lobbying organisations claiming to represent any part of the large Sri Lankan diaspora residing in Britain, pro or anti-LTTE.
I participated in a debate on Sri Lanka a year ago, when I expressed the hope that its Government and the LTTE—the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—would fulfil the commitments that they made at talks in Geneva in February 2006, which were the first talks for three years. The Government had pledged that no armed group or person other than Government security forces would carry arms or conduct operations. For its part, the LTTE had pledged to ensure that there would be no acts of violence against the security forces and the police.
Sadly, those commitments remain unfulfilled. We have over the past year seen worsening violence. Extra-judicial killings, disappearances, intimidation and violence by paramilitary groups are all too common. The violence has fuelled an atmosphere of extreme mistrust and polarisation, which has fuelled further antagonism and violence. Innocent civilians have borne the brunt. There are now more than 100,000 displaced persons in the eastern district of Batticaloa and hundreds more arrive every day. There have been more than 700 cases of missing persons in the Jaffna peninsular, and nearly 500 are still unresolved. There have been more than 50 abductions in Colombo in the past year, and nine media workers have lost their lives in recent months. In the past few weeks, bus bombings have killed dozens of people simply going about their daily business. These are despicable terrorist acts that are totally without justification.
The responsibility of the LTTE for violent acts over the years is well documented. It is a proscribed organisation under the Terrorism Act 2000. The EU listed the LTTE as a terrorist organisation in May 2006. We have repeatedly urged the LTTE to move away from the path of violence. In the absence of a full renunciation of terrorism in deed and word, there can be no question of reconsidering its proscribed status. LTTE involvement in killings, torture, detention of civilians and denial of freedom of speech is a reality. The LTTE does not tolerate any expression of opposition and its continuing recruitment of child soldiers is a matter of great concern.
The ability of the LTTE to raise funds overseas helps to sustain its ability to carry out violent acts and reduces the incentive to move way from the path of violence. LTTE fundraising activity in the United Kingdom encourages war, not peace. It will not be tolerated, and I have recently met our security authorities to discuss how we can counter the bullying, threats and acts of fraud that are used regularly to extract money from the Tamil population and others in the country.
The LTTE is not the only source of violence in Sri Lanka, however. Civilians in Government-controlled areas regularly fall victim to brutal attacks by paramilitary groups, often acting with apparent immunity. Reports of the Government’s links with the faction led by Karuna, a former LTTE commander, concern us a great deal. We believe Karuna and his faction to be responsible for extra-judicial killings, abductions, intimidation of displaced persons and child recruitment. Karuna’s record is appalling, and we will be watching very closely whether he acts on his commitment to the United Nations to address the child recruitment issue. We will want to see clear evidence that he has delivered against his welcome promises. Karuna needs to go further and cease all acts of violence and intimidation against civilians.
There must be no question of the Government of Sri Lanka allowing Karuna to perpetrate those crimes. If they are serious in their desire to find paths to an inclusive, peaceful Sri Lanka that embraces all its peoples and cultures, they must disassociate themselves completely from all acts of abuse, terrorism, intimidation or torture, no matter who commits them or what agency encourages them.
Is the Minister aware of the comment by the FBI assistant director in charge, who said
“Karuna hasn’t merely supported the LTTE cause, he has orchestrated support in the US”?
Before the Minister concludes his speech, will he answer two questions? First, what international co-ordination is there on intelligence to stop fundraising for the LTTE? Secondly, is there similar co-ordination to ensure that people such as Karuna, who have committed acts of terrorism, are brought to justice?
The hon. Gentleman is right: the list of crimes by this faction is long. We have been exchanging intelligence with a number of agencies in other countries. He will know that I cannot go into detail about that matter, although I can say that lately intelligence has indicated that there may be widespread fraud scams in the country. We are not certain about that, but they may be one of the sources of funding, at least part of which finds its way back to the LTTE and acts of terrorism.
Achieving peace is not going to be an easy task, and of course it is primarily for the Sri Lankan people to find a way forward. However, the international community can help. The Norwegians have had a central role in facilitating the 2002 ceasefire agreement, and the British Government applaud their efforts. It is obvious from recent events that the ceasefire is in trouble, if not shot to pieces. If it is adhered to and underpinned by the right conditions, however, it can still be a good base from which to launch a new peace initiative. The Norwegians have worked tirelessly and in difficult conditions to advance the cause of peace. As I said, they have our support. We value our regular consultations with them. The Norwegians tell us our commitment is valuable at this time. We support the work of the co-chairs—the US, the EU, Japan and Norway.
I cannot tell my hon. Friend whether that is true. I do not know; this is the first that I have heard of it, if it is the case. I will try to find out for him, and if I can find anything constructive, I shall write to him.
What is Britain doing to help with the search for peace? First and foremost, we are offering the benefit of our Northern Ireland experience. Sri Lanka is not Northern Ireland. It has a population of 20 million, which is more than 10 times that of Northern Ireland, and it is five times larger in area, but we think there are lessons from Northern Ireland that can be applied in a Sri Lankan context. For example, we learned the hard way that a focus on security can get us only so far. A lasting peace can come only if the underlying causes of conflict are addressed. In Sri Lanka, that means focusing on a credible framework for a negotiated settlement. An all-party conference will shortly present its findings on a constitutional way forward. I look forward to the publication of proposals for a framework for peace that satisfies the legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lankans, and to a constructive response to such proposals from the Sri Lankan Government.
Our Northern Ireland experience told us that peace will not happen until the parties to the conflict understand that nothing can be gained by continuing violence. A military victory for one side is very unlikely to produce a lasting political solution. Our experience tells us that an emphasis on the military inevitably means more war, rather than peace. A military victory is rarely winnable in the long run. Violence comes with too high a price. In Sri Lanka, we can see that such an approach brings suffering to the people, as human rights are eroded, the humanitarian situation deteriorates, a culture of impunity develops among the killers, extortionists and torturers, and mistrust between communities increases. That, in turn, damages Sri Lanka’s image in the eyes of the world. We are doing all we can to get that message across.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I apologise for arriving too late to hear the start of his speech. Unfortunately, the previous business ended rather suddenly and the debate began before I could get here.
My hon. Friend mentioned human rights. There is considerable concern in Sri Lanka and internationally about the human rights situation at the present time. Several international organisations have suggested that the only real solution is to set up a UN-sponsored human rights monitoring commission. How would the Government view such a body?
That suggestion is well worth considering. I will come to the question of a monitoring organisation in a minute. Of course, we already have one, and perhaps the best thing is to make that work rather than search for another one. However, it is certainly something that we could discuss.
High-level engagement is an essential part of our efforts to help with the search for peace in Sri Lanka. Last August, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister offered to share our experience of Northern Ireland with the Sri Lankan President, and he retains a close interest in events in Sri Lanka. I was particularly grateful that my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) visited Sri Lanka in November to convey his invaluable experience as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Accompanied by another expert in these matters from the Northern Ireland Office, Mr. Chris McCabe, he met the President, Ministers and members of civil society. He also met representatives of the LTTE; the lessons of peace can only work if conveyed to all parties to the conflict. We remain ready to talk to the LTTE if such contacts can help the cause of peace. The response in Sri Lanka to my right hon. Friend’s visit was very positive. I know that the President shares my wish that he and Mr. McCabe will pay a return visit to the island, and I understand that preparations are already under way for that.
I was pleased to visit Sri Lanka for a second time in February this year. In my meetings with the President, the Foreign Minister and the Defence Secretary, I underlined the British Government’s wish to help in the search for peace. I stressed that a military solution was not the way forward—a message that I repeated to an MP from the Tamil National Alliance. The President told me that he thought that our contact with the LTTE would be helpful. I visited Ampara in the east of the island and was pleased to meet representatives of local communities—not only Sinhalese and Tamil but Muslims. It will be important to take into account the views of the Muslim community in any final negotiated settlement. I heard from UNICEF about the reality of child abductions and the threats and intimidations suffered by other non-governmental organisations in the east of the island.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister in London in March. She reiterated Britain’s commitment to peace and our willingness to get involved in that whole process. She spoke of the terrible humanitarian impact of the conflict on the civilian population and the need for both sides to do more to protect that population. She repeated the message that there can be no military solution to conflict. The Minister assured her that a credible framework for negotiated settlement would issue very soon.
I, too, apologise for arriving late, having been caught out by the business moving so swiftly.
I thank my hon. Friend for his focus on these issues; whenever we have asked to meet to discuss them, he has been ready to do so. One of the bars to a proper solution to this problem is the ban that remains on the LTTE. Has he had any further discussions with the Home Secretary about whether the Government would be prepared to lift that ban, so ensuring that all parties could be part of a discussion to bring peace to the island?
My right hon. Friend, through no fault of his own, missed that part of my speech. If he will forgive me, I will not go back over it but simply say that, for reasons that I tried to explain a little earlier, I have not met my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to discuss this matter; if I thought that it was a good idea I would certainly do so. As I said, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen met LTTE representatives in the north of the island, and we are prepared to meet LTTE representatives in Sri Lanka if it is considered that that will help the peace process. I hope that that is clear enough.
We are all apologising for lateness, but I was not as late as the others.
As we learned from Northern Ireland, individual issues can build up to create a sense of grievance. That is the case with regard to the proscription and non-recognition of the LTTE. Although there can be informal dialogue, nothing can substitute for more formal dialogue and recognition. Removing the ban would undermine one of the elements of the sense of grievance that contributes towards the conflict.
I take my hon. Friend’s point, which is something that we have to consider. However, I have to tell him that, of all Members in this House, I am very much averse to recognising the legitimacy, if I could put it like that, of suicide bombers, murderers, torturers and rapists. I have been there twice and I have heard these stories myself many times, from NGOs and from Tamils themselves, as well as from Sinhalese and the Sinhalese Government. This has to be considered very carefully. As I tried to explain earlier, there is no silver bullet that will sort everything out. If we thought that that recognition would take matters forward, we would certainly be prepared to consider it very seriously—I give my hon. Friend that undertaking.
I must add my apologies for lateness.
The Minister clearly wants to ensure that there is a balanced discussion about this issue, and he is right because it is very serious. However, could not he lay out a review process and explain how he might talk to colleagues in this House and groups in this country, as well as to the people he and his colleagues have met on their visits to Sri Lanka, to determine the criteria? Some people in communities throughout this country and around this House feel that a one-sided approach is being taken and that a proper review process might ensure that a truly balanced approach is taken.
The hon. Gentleman is not to know this, but we have had quite a number of meetings with Tamil groups from around the country. As well as talking to the Sri Lankan Government, we have met all kinds of representatives. Let me assure him that this is a completely balanced approach. Securing this debate is part of that process, and I hope that he will contribute to it. Our approach seeks not to take sides either with the Sinhalese Government or with the LTTE but to try to use our good offices and our experience in Northern Ireland, among other places, to try to find ways in which it might be possible to help the Norwegians to make the ceasefire work, and then to take that peace process forward, put the issues on the table, and get everyone around the table to try to resolve the issue.
Some 60,000 people have died in this war so far, and perhaps 1 million people have been displaced. It is a very serious conflict by any standards in the world, and we are working very hard to try to resolve it, but, believe me, there is no easy way forward on this one—it will take a long time. This conflict has been going on for a very long time. Before you took your seat in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, Mr. Deputy Speaker was telling me that he remembers it kicking off when he was out there in 1983—in fact, it was the day after he left; I do not know whether he was to blame.
We complement our high-level engagement with more practical assistance through a joint Department for International Development, Ministry of Defence and Foreign and Commonwealth Office peace-building strategy for Sri Lanka. The focus includes people-to-people contacts between communities, mechanisms to provide early warning of potential for conflict, and development of civil society capacity to monitor conflict. We are involved in all those processes. We believe that quiet activity of that kind has an important role to play in these difficult times.
I know that many in the Sri Lankan diaspora have been pleased to see Britain’s active involvement in Sri Lanka. We believe the Sri Lankan diaspora in Britain to be perhaps as great as 200,000 strong. It is important that we take into account their views and insights as we try to formulate a balanced policy on Sri Lanka. Right hon. and hon. Members present will understand that there is a wide range of views within the community on a way forward for peace and the role of Britain in Sri Lanka. We try to listen to all perspectives within the community, and we value those opinions and insights.
I congratulate the Minister on his balanced approach to a sensitive and difficult subject. He has been subject to calls during the debate to recognise the LTTE. Is not it difficult to do that when, for example, the organisation assassinated the Foreign Minister, who was an ethnic Tamil, in 2005? As long as organisations practise such blatant violence and disruption of civil society, it is difficult to give them the recognition that they crave.
The hon. Gentleman made that point well—I could not have made it more vividly.
The Tamil community has been especially concerned about deteriorating human rights in Sri Lanka. Its concern is understandable—many of its members have first-hand accounts of the difficulties that their friends and family face daily. Earlier, I spoke about the abductions, disappearances, intimidation and extra-judicial killings that have regrettably become commonplace. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have made our position clear to the Government of Sri Lanka. There has to be an end to the culture of impunity. Those responsible for human rights violations should be brought to justice.
We have welcomed the establishment of a President’s commission and an eminent persons group to observe the commission’s work. The British Government are funding the participation of Sir Nigel Rodley, an internationally respected professor of law, in that group. We shall continue to raise our concerns with the Sri Lankan Government.
Considerable concern and criticism have been expressed about the Sri Lankan Government’s failure to support the commission in its essential work, with which the international community is involved through the eminent persons group. What action have the British Government taken to ensure that the Sri Lankan Government do everything that they can to help the commission in its work?
We have attempted, through all diplomatic channels, to clarify for the Sri Lankan Government our determination that the process should work. Sir Nigel Rodley is not somebody to mess around with. He is a serious person, who will not take part in the group if he believes that his investigations are being impeded in any way. We have great confidence in him and in the eminent persons group to see the matter through. We urge the Sri Lankan Government to make their rhetoric on the need for a proper investigative commission work on the ground. We shall continue to urge them to do that and facilitate that work wherever we can.
Britain is a great friend of Sri Lanka and the dire situation there is a matter of great concern to the Government. We are determined to work with the Government of Sri Lanka to bring peace. We are ready to talk to all parties to the conflict if that can help with the search for a solution. I have spoken of three things that need to happen to make peace possible. First, the parties to the conflict must accept that a military victory is neither possible nor a basis for a lasting solution. Secondly, there has to be a credible framework for a negotiated settlement—I hope that that can emerge from the work of the all-party conference. Thirdly, there must be respect for the human rights of all Sri Lankans and an end to the culture of impunity.
Britain stands ready to help the Sri Lankans find a peaceful solution to their conflict that will offer a bright future for all their citizens. I hope that the House will agree that the Government’s commitment to peace in Sri Lanka at this difficult time has been genuine and that it will be sustained.