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Westminster Hall

Volume 460: debated on Wednesday 9 May 2007

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 9 May 2007

[Mr. Mike Weir in the Chair]

UK Atomic Energy Authority

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Liz Blackman.]

I rise because other hon. Members and I requested this debate, and Mr. Speaker granted it as his personal choice. We have several different concerns relating to reports about the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, some of which have been in the newspapers and some of which concern the chairman, although I shall discuss the UKAEA’s handling of events at Dounreay and its aftermath.

Let me say at the outset that I have generally been a supporter of using atomic power to generate UK energy. I have generally been open to the idea that we should increase the amount of energy produced by nuclear means as part of our control and reduction of harmful greenhouse gases. Although I do not come here to make a major case in that respect, I should add one caveat. For some time, I have been dealing with the concerns of my long-term friend Geoffrey Minter and his family, whose deeply troubling involvement with the UKAEA regarding the pollution of their land in Caithness and of surrounding areas has lasted several years. In that time, I have often been forced seriously to question my previous acceptance of many, it not all, of the nuclear industry’s assurances about the safety of nuclear installations and its sense of responsibility towards them.

Although others may want to make particular comments about the UKAEA’s chairman, I shall not do so, because that is not my concern today. I simply note in passing that Lady Judge was asked in an interview in the Daily Mail the other day about her qualifications for the job. There are many qualifications that one needs to be a chairman, but—perhaps this should be a lesson to us all not necessarily to give interviews to newspapers—she said that when she was offered the job, she prepared for her unique role by studying her son’s physics books. After the Deputy Prime Minister resigns, he could presumably put in for the job of chief scientific adviser to the Government on the basis of such qualifications, although I am not sure that we would be too happy to see that come about.

I simply want to raise the case of Mr. Geoffrey Minter, which highlights the abuses that have taken place and the UKAEA’s terrible failure in terms of its duty of care towards the land around Dounreay and the people whose livelihoods depend on what goes on there. In May 1997, the first hot particle—for those who are not aware of it, hot refers to metallic contamination—was found on the 4 miles of coastline at Sandside beach. The pollution continues to this day, and its effects will continue long into the future. Since that find, 91 items of nuclear waste have been removed from Sandside. In 2006, 19 were removed. Already, in the past four months, 14 have been removed, including the most radioactive ever. The UKAEA has strict liability in law.

I shall return to 1997 later in the chronology of what has been going on, and colleagues will be shocked to learn what has and has not been happening. In 1977, a shaft containing a cocktail of nuclear detritus exploded, but that was kept secret until 1996. In 1983, metal particles were found on Dounreay’s foreshore, which were presumed to be of the MTR—material test reactor—type.

In 1984, the UKAEA said in the Caithness Courier that non-metallic radioactive material found on Sandside beach was comparable

“to that of a luminous dial of a clock”.

On or about 28 April, the Lyall team—the people responsible at Dounreay—found big radioactive metallic fragments of live nuclear fuel in the east bay using a Geiger counter, some of which were 18 in deep in the sand. The particles were between 10 and 100 times the magnitude of any found since 2005. No public announcement was made, and the find was kept secret until 2004. Such particles are simply not comparable to the luminous dial of a clock. The items that are being found are very dangerous and would kill somebody if ingested.

On 30 May 1984, the director of Dounreay stated in the Caithness Courier that some of the non-metallic matter at Sandside was

“radiologically insignificant and no more harmful than that”

emerging—

“in 3 seconds from a coal fired power station”.

I have to say that I was not aware that coal-fired power stations produced fission materials. Such statements are good indications of the terrible way in which those charged with responsibility set about, essentially, to lie to the public and to those who need them to act with the necessary care.

In 1990, my friend Mr. Minter contracted to buy Sandside. He carried out full diligence and even contacted Sir Gerard Vaughan—an MP at the time—who, having checked with the Ministry and carried out voluntary checks, told Mr. Minter that there was no record of particular problems. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) has been diligently working on this issue—he may want to say some words later—and he is fully aware that that was the case, as he has made clear on several occasions.

In May 1997, the first hot particle was finally found at Sandside beach, although, as I said, many others had already been discharged and were found but kept secret. In October, an emergency food exclusion zone was imposed 2 km around the sea outfall, but it did not extend into the bay, where metallic fragments are found to this day. In November, another fuel fragment was found, but the director of Dounreay told Mr. Minter that he should not worry, because a lobsterman stored shellfish in the centre of the bay. He added that the lobsterman would not do that if it was not safe, but I am not sure that we should judge the nuclear safety of areas on the basis of what lobstermen do. Even the fishing zone was not properly policed, and, as a result, people went in and out of it. In any case, I am not aware that fish read safety notices too well, and bottom-feeding fish tend to move out of exclusion zones, although that does not seem to have occurred to anybody at Dounreay.

Mr. Minter was advised to cease a number of activities and did so as a result. They included wild salmon fishing, cattle calving on dunes and using shell sand from the beach and harbour for farm fertiliser—for the lime equivalent that is extracted from them—or for roads, building purposes, cattle courts, grouse and so on. In other words, the whole area could no longer be part of a normal productive estate.

Mr. Minter also met the UKAEA’s then chairman—I hasten to add that it was not the present chairman—who, as witnessed at the time, told him:

“Anything I say I shall deny in a court of law”.

At the same time, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace called for Sandside beach to be closed.

It is interesting that as early as 1998, Donald Dewar, the then Secretary of State for Scotland, called for the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to ensure that

“any particle arriving at Sandside Bay be promptly detected and removed”.

Importantly, SEPA also called for Sandside

“to be restored to a clean and pristine condition as a matter of urgency”,

but that has never happened. As hon. Members will see in a second, Donald Dewar’s clear statement has never been properly followed through at all. The detection and checking never covered more than half the beach, and even then, the level of detection was very low, with many of the more radioactive particles deeper in the sand simply being ignored.

I shall rush through the next part of my speech a little, but I want to give hon. Members a flavour of the abuse that has taken place. It is no good saying that these things are all history, and I hope that the Minister will not do that. I must tell him and the Department of Trade and Industry that history is about what happens now as much as about what happened then. The effects of what happened, which are referred to as history, are destroying Mr. Minter’s estate, and the family has suffered enormously without receiving any serious reparation.

In 1999, from July to December, five more radioactive fragments were found, and in 2000 hundreds more fuel fragments were found on the sea bed. UKAEA monitoring was found, by key officials, including Dr. Day of Manchester university, who was also employed, I understand, by the UKAEA, to be less than 1 per cent. efficient in detecting and removing those particles. Six more MTR fragments were found in that year. In 2001 a peculiar statement was made by the UKAEA solicitor, D. J. West, who promulgated a very false choice. He wrote from Harwell to the local newspaper:

“Every additional pound spent on monitoring is a pound which will not be spent on decommissioning, nor on building schools, roads and hospitals. Public money must be spent properly.”

It is such statements that must leave the public with a very peculiar sense of the priorities. This is not a matter of a Labour or Conservative Government; this is about the responsibility to be discharged by all Governments and their officials. The very idea that there is a choice to be made between schools and hospitals and returning the environment to a usable state is a strange one.

The chairman resigned in 2001 and the chief executive officer then offered to buy the coast at valuation plus. Mr. Minter refused that, on the simple basis that he did not trust the authorities in question. The idea that once any of them were to take over an area they would become diligent and careful, and clean it up, is shown to be nonsense by the history of their involvement.

More particles were found in 2002. On 17 November 2002 Dounreay finally admitted that hundreds of thousands of hot particles—irradiated fragments—were now located on the sea bed in the bay. It took those responsible that long to admit, absolutely, what was happening. In 2003 Mr. Minter had to proceed to a court hearing, because he was getting nowhere with the UKAEA. Finally the UKAEA admitted to groundwater pollution from the shaft as well. On 8 August the judge in the case, Lady Paton, ruled in favour of Sandside—Mr. Minter—that the public were not being protected. She was highly critical of the UKAEA’s behaviour throughout, and its deceit. Dr. Day, of Manchester university, to whom I referred earlier, produced some raw data analysis showing that only half of Sandside beach was being monitored. Thus, in October, Mr. Minter simply withdrew access to the beach, because it was pointless and allowed the UKAEA to engage in a cosmetic process in which it told people that it was dealing with matters when it was not. There were 23 more hot particles found in that year.

In March 2004 Dounreay agreed to fit a filter on the discharge outlet, after pressure from a number of people, including Mr. Minter. It is worth reminding the House at this point that all other Scottish nuclear plants, which do not even discharge into the sea, have filters already fitted. Had a filter been fitted at Dounreay in the first place, particles would never have been discharged as they were into the bay. I remind hon. Members of the date that I gave at the outset: the problems had been going on for nearly 10 years, when it was finally decided to fit a filter on the discharge in question.

In 2005 the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, sadly, tried to suggest a lack of due diligence, in an inquiry and interview with the then chairman. Mr. Minter wrote to the Committee to correct that, and I am sad to say that the Committee never responded to his letters. I hope that one day it will. I understand that in that year the then Minister, the present Minister for Science and Innovation, wrote to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross that he wished for a new spirit of openness and co-operation and to learn from the mistakes of the past. He also wrote to me in 2006, saying much the same thing and hoping that he would put right all that had gone wrong in the past.

I shall return to what happened then, but I want to complete the litany that I have been engaged in. Despite all the assurances from the then Minister, and, after he moved on, the present Minister, Lord Truscott, it is fascinating that even at the beginning of the year, at the time of Mr. Minter’s meeting with the new Dounreay management—who are infinitely more positive and constructive than their predecessors—and even as some agreement is reached about the heads of terms under which a resolution can be reached, and as that decision is passed on to the UKAEA board and then, as I understand it, to the Ministry, Mr. Minter is informed of an issue that the Department of Trade and Industry is now raising. I shall return to that, because it is quite important in relation to the final discussions and what should have been happening.

In May 1997, Harwell sought consent to access to the 500 acres of land. That was subject to a formal agreement. I remind the House that rights of property have always been enshrined in common law, and are only ever overturned with real reason. Governments should hesitate to do anything of the sort, so it is right that any agreement to gain access to someone’s land should come with some financial arrangement and reparation. To this day the UKAEA has never stuck to the agreement or paid any such reparation.

In 2001, following the difficult mediation that the owner of Sandside, Mr. Minter, had agreed to, the UKAEA offered, peculiarly, to buy the demised land on surrender of all his legal rights. He does not want to sell, as I said earlier, because he has always been concerned that once it is sold the land will be shut up, no one will ever know more about it, and no pressure will be brought to bear to clean up the effects of the damage. Anyway, that damage will go on affecting him whether he sells the land or retains control of it, unless it is cleaned up.

The important thing about the monthly collecting at the beach is that on average removal is less than 10 per cent. efficient. The points made by Dr. Day are still relevant. Mr. Minter has always been allowed to deal directly only with the polluter—never with those who hold the purse strings or the decision-making capacity at the Ministry. It would be far better if the Ministry would engage directly with him to resolve the matter; it seems, at this stage, to be the sticking point for any further resolution.

Mr. Minter has always been the recipient of considerable public vilification, throughout the process that I have recounted. The part of it that really concerns me is that the UKAEA has too often tried to shoot the messenger—to try to deal with him, because he is a pain in the neck, will not go away, and cares about his land and the environment. He has been subjected to the force of the UKAEA publicity machine, which has been turned on him. I find it unbelievable that an organisation of that kind should have attempted to use its power to crush someone who was simply worried and making complaints, and who wanted a resolution of the situation, and reparation for damages resulting from its action.

The three ministerial letters that I referred to are relevant to what I want to say about the position today. They all seemed to me—and, I suggest, to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross—to refer to the positive resolution that would be in everyone’s interest. In fact, in correspondence of 6 and 26 March, Lord Truscott, the Minister for Energy, wrote of wanting to ensure a settlement that would be in everyone’s interest, and positive. The problem is that despite such public expressions of good will, I have been horrified in the past few weeks—this was the catalyst for my application for the debate—by the fact that something else seems to be going on at the DTI, which undermines those statements by the Minister.

At Dounreay, after all these years and all the problems and false starts, some sort of agreement to settle the matter, at least in the framework, appears to have been reached. However, behind the scenes at the DTI, where the matter now rests, notwithstanding the earlier statements of good will, someone is trying to figure out a way of not having to deal with Mr. Minter; in fact, they have decided on that. They believe that the Radioactive Contaminated Land (Scotland) Regulations 2007, which come into force in October, will allow them access to the land without any further discussion. There is an attempt to settle this problem and deal with this awkward individual by bypassing the whole concept of property rights and simply dispossessing him of his normal and acquired rights over his land purchase.

Mr. Minter has taken the matter up with the dean of the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh, who is, arguably, Scotland’s most senior QC. The dean makes it very clear to the DTI that it is barking up the wrong tree and that the delay is complete nonsense. We know what it is all about, but I will come back to that. The dean said, categorically, that under section 15 of the enabling Act, the Radioactive Contaminated Land (Scotland) Regulations 2007 do not apply to Sandside beach and never will. I shall not get into a legal debate with the Minister today, but if that is what the DTI is doing, the relevant Ministers are breaching expressed articles of good faith. Ministers should be ashamed if they have been saying those things while attempting to reach a back-door settlement by seizing the land. I have even heard, from a reliable source, that when this case was passed back to the DTI, an official said, when they were told of the dean’s advice, “Well, that section can be altered by the Government, so it doesn’t matter.” In other words, if the Government do not like a law, they simply change it so that they can abuse it and the individual concerned.

I hope that the Minister will understand why I consider this case to be an appalling breach of duty of care. The DTI has expressed a desire to settle, but at the 11th hour is looking for a cheap way around the problem. That raises questions about who is really running the show. We cannot have the Minister writing and making those sorts of statements while others attempt to trample over Mr. Minter’s land rights. I remind the Chamber that the concept of property rights was established by an Englishman, the Bishop of Chartres, in the 11th century. Those rights have always set English law pretty much above others; the same applies to Scotland and Scottish property laws.

After years of the UKAEA’s prevarication, deceit and deliberate delay, which have resulted in it being found guilty of four charges of breaching the Radioactive Substances Act 1993, this issue should have been settled, but still has not been. All that has led to concerns about the UKAEA, which, I suspect, it could have done without. Even after those years of deceit, prevarication and delay, it wants a settlement, but it is now up to the DTI to get on with things and agree a settlement. The current chairman, Lady Judge, wrote to Mr Minter on this matter. In her letter, she made an interesting statement that shows what has been the problem with the UKAEA’s mindset. She said:

“UKAEA has invested significant time, effort and expense in investigating and attempting to resolve the issues that you have raised over the years”.

That is a bland statement of fact, but I remind hon. Members that none of this is his fault. Why has the UKAEA had to expend so much energy, time and effort? Because it polluted the bay in the first place. Why has it all taken so long? Because the UKAEA lied about things and refused to accept responsibility.

That mindset seems to have percolated through to the DTI. It is time to settle this case, to accept what has happened and to deal with it, but one can almost see officials at the DTI wonder whether to drag it out a bit more. They might think that Mr. Minter is a private individual with limited means and that if they drag the case out and go to court and make him go through all that, at some point he will break himself, because he does not have very deep pockets. They might think, “He is just an ordinary individual: the Government are always going to win in the end,” so the UKAEA will also win in the end. That is a critical point because this case is about the abuse of power.

What was Mr Minter’s crime? It was simply to care about the land that he owns and loves. If he did not love and care about the land, he would surely have taken up one of the purchase offers and walked away from it, but he cares about what will happen. He cares about the next generation, to whom he wants to hand on his land, and about others in the area who will have to pick up the pieces of the appalling deceit.

I have three words to say to the Minister: “Shame on you.” Shame on the Government, shame on the UKAEA and shame on those people who have deceived, cheated, delayed, prevaricated and refused to settle. Shame on those who polluted the land and shame on those who have lied about it and attempted to hide things. I know that the Minister is not directly responsible—the responsible Minister is in the other place—but I ask him to reconsider the case. I ask him to imagine himself in this position and that someone had dumped radioactive material on his land, which was consequently being damaged. Would he be quite so blasé or circumspect in those circumstances? Would he care quite so little about the outcomes and pressures not only on the Minter family, but on other families whose livelihoods are at stake?

If the UKAEA cared about this case enough, it would drive it to a settlement and would apologise absolutely for everything that has gone on. It must ask real questions about the care, safety and environment of every site that it has controlled throughout the relevant period. I started by saying that I am generally a supporter of nuclear energy, and I remain so, but I have had that belief severely tested when dealing with this case. People who I believed and trusted have shown that they did not deserve that trust. I now say to the Government simply that if someone has dumped the garbage, it is time to pay to clear it up.

I intend to call the first winding-up speech at 10.30 am, so will Members bear that in mind when making contributions?

I begin by declaring an interest. I am not sure if I need to declare it, but it is worth doing so. I recently served on the steering group for the public consultation to find the best practicable environmental option for dealing with the particles that we are debating, which gave me access to a considerable amount of independent advice on the particles. The UKAEA is engaged in a widespread consultation, which is guided by the steering group’s work, into who it should see and how things should be done.

The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) is right to say that the particles could prove fatal if ingested. The information that I saw showed that risk is a measure of the severity of an incident multiplied by its probability, and I wish to reassure those who plan to spend happy times touring the north coast that the risk is relatively small. I say that not to take anything away from what has been said, but to put matters into context.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on the UKAEA’s legacy. He concentrated largely on the disturbing case of my constituent, Mr. Geoffrey Minter, on which I shall remark. However, I shall also discuss the UKAEA’s legacy generally, which is, in large part, beneficial and one to be proud of. It is no secret that I am in no way opposed to the nuclear industry, but I am sure that we will hear a different view from my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth). I believe that nuclear power may prove to be the least worst option in addressing climate change, and it is one that should certainly not be ruled out.

The legacy of the UKAEA’s work at Dounreay is some of the best scientific and engineering work that has taken place in the field. The UKAEA and the UK were top of the tree in fast-breeder technology in the 1960s and 1970s, although we have now given all that away. Many patents came out of that work, such as the one for the battery that is in most people’s mobile telephones—the lithium ion battery. That battery makes up part of the power for the Bowman 2 communications system and is made in the battery factory in Thurso. Those things are all part of the asset side of the legacy balance sheet, but there is also a liability side to it, and we cannot and should not shy away from that, because it must be dealt with. The right hon. Gentleman raised one particular liability: the particles arriving on Sandside beach.

I should make the quick general comment that it is important to put comments into the perspective of time. It is easy to look back on past events and judge them in the light of today, as happened recently on the question of the tissue samples. It is important to put that in the context of the time. When X-rays were first invented people did extraordinarily stupid things that we would not even countenance today, but that does not lead us to throw away X-rays. That brings me on to the fact that today is different; as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, there is a more open and positive culture, and the current management at Dounreay are to be congratulated on that.

I first became involved in the specific case of the particles on Sandside bay in 2000—before I was elected to this place—at the invitation of Mr. Minter, when I accompanied my predecessor, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, to what became known as mediation one. It involved a meeting in London attended by the then chief executive of the UKAEA, John McKeown, and some legal advisers, the outcome of which was that Mr. McKeown said that there was no liability, that they were completely covered, that they had insurance for anything that might come up and that, in any case, Mr. Minter must have known what he was getting into when he bought the land.

After my election, I spoke to Mr. McKeown, whom I met several times to discuss this issue, and I believe that I had reached the point of persuading him that a settlement was in order. He went off to talk to his board, but unfortunately he left his post shortly thereafter, so that process came to an end. I then spoke at considerable length to the new chief executive officer, Mr. Dipesh Shah, pointing out to him the damage that the repeated publications about this issue were having in the local community and the fact that it was imperative for my constituent to have a just settlement and for the community to have a resolution. Both Lord Maclennan and I worked hard to persuade Mr. Shah—who then agreed—and Mr. Minter that the best way to deal with this was through a mediation process.

That process became mediation two. As that has largely been covered, I shall not go into detail, suffice it to say that it ended with a unilateral offer that was not based on the discussions that had taken place. I am sorry that that happened, because during the process there were moments when I thought that both sides were close to dealing with this. The great frustration that I have had as the constituency MP seeking the best for my constituent and for my wider community is that we have so often been within a fingertip of sorting this matter and somehow we have slipped away from doing so.

Last September, I had a chance meeting with members of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority on another subject and I raised the fact that I thought that a settlement was possible and should be attempted. In the light of that, a non-executive director of the UKAEA was invited to meet Mr. Minter. That process began in October or November and culminated in a wish to recommend an offer. I understand that it was discussed at the Department of Trade and Industry in February and has remained there more or less since then. I have had a number of meetings with various people in the UKAEA, and their view is that they would like this matter resolved, because it is a big drag on them, it has a huge cost, and they would like it to be gone. I was therefore very disappointed to be told yesterday that the offer recommended by the UKAEA has been rejected by Ministers. I ask them to re-examine it, because I feel that there are grounds for a settlement and that it remains by far the best way forward.

I turn to the general issue of the UKAEA’s legacy, which, as I have said, contains many positive parts. I shall touch on one specific aspect of it: the socio-economic legacy. To date, one of the legacies in Caithness of the UKAEA’s involvement is a larger, more prosperous and better educated population than would have been the case without it. For 50 years, the Dounreay drive-to-work area has had the highest gross domestic product in the highlands, and that has resulted in infrastructure.

I remember my mother taking me as a four-year-old to watch the cranes digging the estate where the “atomics”, as the milk rounds people named them, were going to live. The point being that the local council at the time, of which my father was a prominent member, decided that it would welcome them with open arms and integrate them into our community. The result is that Thurso and Caithness is a cosmopolitan community that has high levels of education and skills.

Whether that legacy is a good one will depend on whether the work currently being done on the socio-economic legacy can be brought to fruition and on whether this challenge is the opportunity that it could and should be. I have been chairing the socio-economic strategy taskforce for the area. Let us try to understand the scale of the problem. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority now accepts that this is, in relative terms, the biggest socio-economic challenge that it has faced. If we consider the percentage of the community’s GDP and the percentage of the work force involved, it is, relatively, the single biggest challenge that it has.

We have worked to help ourselves. Our strategy group has produced an excellent strategy, the result of which is a partnership between Highland council, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the NDA, with a specific body set up—an action board—to deliver results, and new people and money to make things happen. A couple of months ago, we even had a visit from the enterprise Minister in Scotland. I hope that, whatever the shade of the new Administration, we may look forward to similar attention from the new enterprise Minister.

Last July, I spoke to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, inviting him to visit Dounreay. I did so because morale is fragile—we are losing people to Aberdeen—and we need to show that the Government are as committed to the socio-economic legacy of decommissioning as they were to the experimental stage that took place all those decades ago. I am sad to say that despite an agreement in principle to come, notwithstanding a multiplicity of invitations and reminders, since then no Minister has been able to find themselves in Caithness. The signal that that has sent to our community is not a good one, so I gently urge the Minister to take back to his Secretary of State the fact that we are having a conference in the week of 5 September—the exact date can be of his choosing—and if he would be good enough to attend that, I am sure that all would be rectified.

Our community is working hard to find solutions to our problems. We are doing our bit, but we now need the active and positive interest of the DTI to help us find them. The points have been made on the constituency case. It has been unfortunate that much of this has been fought out publicly in the press. Will the Minister put all those considerations aside and do what our community would like and what the UKAEA management would like—find a proper settlement of the case?

First, I declare an interest in that I have two nuclear power stations in my constituency. Were the UK to extend its nuclear capability, I would fight for a third. I have always supported nuclear power and my constituency might well have written the same sort of encomium about the effect of the Sizewell nuclear power stations A and B that the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) has just done about Dounreay. Secondly, I have known Lady Judge, chairman of the UKAEA, for some years, so I also declare that interest.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) promised that he did not intend to make personal comments, and repeating a statement from the Daily Mail was perhaps unfortunate. After all, he and the rest of us ask for public support because of our abilities without being able to show academic reasons for that. He sought the public’s vote to become Prime Minister, but found it rather difficult to suggest that he had the academic qualifications for that. What happens is that people are chosen because of their qualities.

I want to say absolutely clearly that Lady Judge’s qualities are remarkable. She is a good chairman of the UKAEA. She works much longer and harder than she is employed to do, and I am a little tired of people who do good public service being undermined because we follow the easy path, which has now become popular, of making anyone who puts their head over the parapet a subject of criticism. I want to put it on the record that Lady Judge is a fine public servant of remarkable ability who has led the UKAEA with considerable distinction.

My problem with the whole discussion is that it seems to be a perfectly understandable argument between two neighbours. No doubt, there have been all sorts of mistakes on both sides. I have read the details of the other side and I have heard the details from my right hon. Friend. I do not believe that this sort of discussion is suitable for a debate in the House of Commons, because an awful lot of such arguments happen between neighbours—in this case a neighbour who bought his land when he knew that the Dounreay building was next door. He might have thought that such discussions would arise.

In a moment.

I am no more in touch with the details, except that I have heard both sides of them. I merely wonder whether in this debate to discuss the future of the UKAEA we should use words such as “lies”, “deceits” and “cheating”, all of which I have found during my many years in the House do not help debate.

I hope that my right hon. Friend is not inferring that Mr. Minter was or should have been aware of any pollution before he purchased his property. The position was clearly established by checks at the Ministry and at the time. I hope that my right hon. Friend is not inferring that Mr. Minter disregarded that with some other intent.

No. I am not inferring that. I am merely stating the fact, which is clear, that Mr. Minter bought the land knowing that Dounreay was next door. That is all I am saying, and nothing more. I am also trying not to use any of the words about Mr. Minter which one might wish to use, having read the details, because I do not believe that any debate is advanced by using words such as “deceit”, “cheats” and “lies”. I do not believe that that is the way to debate.

The issue is that on a number of occasions, Mr. Minter has been offered ways in which the problem might be solved. It is clear that there is difficulty on both sides in coming to an agreement. I have had many constituency problems during the 30 years that I have been a Member of this House and often it is not a question of one side or the other. People get themselves into a mess, and begin to dislike each other because they both feel that the other person did not do what they said they would do, and by the time one gets to the present stage, it does not help to dig over the past. What matters is that an agreement is made, and that would have been the better way to proceed.

I do not have a very high opinion of the Department of Trade and Industry, and I think it is the most reactionary Department in the Government. It is the least environmental; it largely holds up any policies that would be good and finds good reasons why things should not be done. It is a dreadful Department, and the sooner we get rid of it and put trade into the Foreign Office and industry into a department for the environment, the better. I hope that the new Prime Minister will do that.

I do not believe that there should have been attacks on the individuals concerned. Quoting and referring to officials who cannot answer for themselves is unfair and unacceptable. There should be access for the UKAEA across the land to carry out the decommissioning properly. That is the first thing that is necessary. The second is that there should be a clean-up process that ensures that the land is returned to its pristine condition. Thirdly, it is necessary to ensure that we retain and protect the contribution that the UKAEA has given to the area over many years.

I support the words of the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. We do not help by exaggerating the concerns, or by pretending that there are no concerns. Hon. Members with such constituencies, who must deal with these issues day in, day out, must strike a careful balance. We must choose our language carefully.

Will the Minister hurry the matter up, because the long delay has not helped, and it is a great pity that we are still at the same stage? I want to hurry him up for two reasons: first, for the area itself and, secondly, for constituencies such as mine. I have come straight off an aeroplane to this debate because of my constituency. I want my constituents to feel that when such issues arise they are dealt with rapidly, cleanly and clearly, and that the UKAEA has greater power to make decisions. One matter about which I am concerned and with which my right hon. Friend struck a chord is the long time it takes the Ministry to do anything. I am surprised that it manages to find its way to the House of Commons without special guidance, because it takes so long. Why are we still waiting, month after month, since earlier this year for a decision on a perfectly simple matter?

Could we have a new spirit abroad in the Ministry? When it gets a letter, can it reply within a week, and when there is a problem, can it reply within a fortnight, but can it not leave it to fester? If the Minister could make that change, there would be a big difference, so I hope that he will tell all of us who represent constituencies with nuclear power stations that we can expect the DTI to move at the pace of private industry, to answer questions when they are asked, and to recognise that compensation paid in due time and changes made rapidly usually cost a great deal less than what must be paid after 10 years.

Mr. Weir, I assure you that I do not wish to talk about the subject of English legal supremacy over the property matters of Scotland; I shall leave that to my colleagues. I am sure that you will be relieved.

I do, however, wish to widen the debate to encompass the protection of the citizens of this country. We are talking not simply about factories that sit in constituencies, but about sites that affect all the citizens of the islands in which we live. We must recognise that the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and its board have a particular responsibility of diligence and protection. They must instil in the citizens of this country the confidence that the UKAEA can guarantee a degree of safety in those sites, which, from a citizen’s point of view, is not necessary in many other industrial sites in the country.

Of course, safety is directly related to a smaller or wider area depending on what happens on the site, but the question of nuclear waste is vital not only to the energy industry’s well-being and our nation’s future, but to the safety and well-being of the people whom we serve. I want to consider the UKAEA’s record, and I want to ask questions about whether the board is capable of doing the job that it should do to protect us all.

There has been a history of cover-up, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) outlined some of the details at one particular station. However, we know that concerns have arisen not only at that site. There is a history of concern, and it places even greater onus upon the UKAEA board to ensure that its responsibilities are carried out properly.

I am a chairman of a company, and I regard my board as being responsible in several areas, but most of all it is responsible to its customers to ensure that they are not only treated to the very best service possible, but protected in the very best way possible from any eventuality that might befall and concern them. I am not sure that the UKAEA board does so. My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) is smiling. I do not know the members of the board personally, and I am not interested in knowing who they are.

I am the constituency MP for the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, and I wonder whether my hon. Friend will help me. Although he does not know any members of the board, he appears to be making allegations that the current members are involved in a cover-up. Will he specify the board members and the cover-up to which he refers?

I shall proceed at the pace at which I wish to proceed and in the way in which I wish to proceed, and I shall come to the matters that I wish to come to in the way in which I wish to come to them. My hon. Friend knows that all too well from past discourse. Let me continue after his interruption.

The truth is that we seek responsibility from members of the board, and I need an assurance that the non-executive members are able to carry out their responsibility to protect my constituents in that highly dangerous but vital industry. I am not sure that they are qualified to do so, so I shall ask a fair and proper question and then sit down. I make it clear that I have no personal knowledge of the board; I simply want from the Minister reassurances that I can take back to my constituents about the role of protection that a board ought to assume in serious terms. From some of the appointments that the Department for Trade and Industry has made, I am not sure that either the expertise or the time needed to do the job are in place to carry out that function.

I go no further. I simply ask the Minister to assure me so that I can assure my constituents, because I can tell him and the rest of the people listening to the debate that there is deep concern about the way in which the DTI has dealt with the matter. There is a deep concern also about some of the appointments that have been made, and there is a real need for reassurance.

Mr. Weir, I am very well aware that I have only five minutes to ride in on my charger to defend the reputation of the chairman of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. That is one matter on which I shall touch during my brief remarks.

As I said when I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), the UKAEA is based in my constituency. I have the privilege of knowing the previous chief executive, Dipesh Shah, extremely well. He was a very effective chief executive, and I know the current chief executive, Norman Harrison, pretty well, too, and he is very good indeed.

Given the febrile climate that surrounds the position of Lady Judge, may I put on record my relationship with her? I have met her three times: accompanied by her chief executive, she came to the House to discuss constituency matters, and I bought her a cup of tea; I met her at a dinner at which the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) and other MPs with UKAEA establishments in their constituencies were present, and I had the privilege of sitting next to her; and I also met her in her apartment, because as is well known, her husband, Sir Paul Judge, is a great supporter of the Conservative party, and he was holding a reception on behalf of the party. It is interesting to note that Lady Judge’s husband is a supporter of the Conservatives but that, nevertheless, Lady Judge was appointed under this Government to do her job. It is a testament to her neutrality and to her ability to undertake the task.

I echo the comments that my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) made: nothing succeeds like success. I should think that anyone with even a smidgen of common sense would say that if somebody holds a number of directorships, it seems to imply that the organisations involved—many of which wish to be successful organisations in seeking the services of Lady Judge—are seeking the services of someone who is clearly competent at their job.

I do not have a physics degree, although I am studying for physics A-level, because there is so much physics in my constituency with the Diamond synchrotron. Lady Judge does not need a physics degree to do her job at the UKAEA. It is an incredibly important part of our economy and it is adapting to the post- and pre-nuclear age in which we exist. Under her chairmanship, it has strengthened its position as the leading nuclear decommissioner in Europe; it has achieved a reduction of £1.76 billion in the undiscounted estimate of liabilities on its sites; it has delivered a programme that was agreed with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority at the Dounreay, Harwell, Winfrith and Windscale sites, below the estimated costs and within its deadline; it has put forward a robust business plan; and it has provided space for important scientific establishments such as the Diamond synchrotron, which the Minister will refer to later.

My constituency interest in the UKAEA is the Harwell site, where I keep in close touch with the UKAEA in the hope that together, we can build a fantastic science business park, science centre and—building on the Diamond synchrotron—the Rutherford Appleton laboratory, which will be a beacon for my constituency and the whole of Oxfordshire.

My hon. Friend talks about the chairman of the board, and I made the point that I have no personal involvement whatever. However, the chairman is also the deputy chairman of the Financial Reporting Council. That body, which produces guidelines for boards, said that

“directors should not be involved in too many organisations with a normal ceiling of four directorships.”

That is my point.

My hon. Friend’s point—I would hesitate to say—is effectively made. I say no more except that as far as I and everyone I know at the UKAEA is concerned, Lady Judge is an effective chairman who gives more than twice the amount of time for which she is contracted.

I also echo a point that was made by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross and my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal about the past and the future. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, certain elements of the nuclear industry behaved in a cavalier fashion. I do not believe that such behaviour takes place at the moment.

Finally, the human tissue issue recently arose, and it came to light that certain autopsies may have been performed on people who worked at nuclear sites. The UKAEA has dealt with that issue in a completely transparent fashion, as have the Government. A helpline has been set up so that anyone with even the slightest concern can contact the UKAEA immediately. The organisation has also been utterly transparent in its dealings with me since the story broke. That is all that I have to say in the short period allotted to me.

Most of this debate has been about the case of Mr. Minter. I do not want to comment extensively on that case. However, I would say that it is perfectly proper of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) to bring the case to our attention, as one of the House’s traditional functions is to deal with individual grievances. I hope that the matter can be resolved amicably. If it cannot be resolved amicably, I hope that it can at least be resolved justly.

I shall certainly not respond to the points made about the interaction of Scots law, the Nuclear Installations Act 1965 and the legislation on contaminated land, especially as I had a small part to play in the drafting of the 1995 legislation. My memory is that my advice was ignored completely.

The one serious issue that the Minister should respond to, and which was mentioned by the right hon. Members for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and for Chingford and Woodford Green, is the part played by Ministers in the latest round of negotiations and whether there has been a ministerial intervention in the proposed settlement. The Minister should properly reply to that point.

The case raised illustrates two of the permanent problems of the nuclear industry: waste and secrecy, which are intimately connected. There are those, including the Prime Minister, who sometimes say that the problem of waste has been resolved, because of the report of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, which said that the deep depository of radioactive waste could be a solution. In fact, the report said that there cannot be any such solution until there is consent.

One of the reasons consent is so difficult to obtain is the nuclear industry’s record of secrecy and misdirection. Comments have been made about the industry’s attempts to become more open, and I acknowledge those attempts, but the nuclear industry cannot be open in the same way as other industries can. That is because of its intimate connection with a dangerous technology that has security consequences. The nuclear industry cannot be—and never will be—a normal industry.

That is one of the reasons I am not convinced in any way that the nuclear industry is part of the future energy system of this country. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), I do not think that nuclear power is necessary in the fight against climate change. The main problem is that the nuclear industry cannot be a normal industry. There never will be a purely private nuclear industry.

Turning to the UKAEA in general, I should like to hear the Minister’s comments on the future of the organisation. It strikes me that it is in decline. Historically, a number of its functions have been taken away. Most recently, it transferred a large number of its functions to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. It has also transferred functions to the Civil Nuclear Police Authority, and in the previous round of reductions it lost the Atomic Weapons Establishment, among other things. The UKAEA is now fundamentally a decommissioning contractor, working with other contractors. It has a lot of expertise, but it is not entirely clear whether it is viable for the UKAEA to continue doing that independently at its current size.

The UKAEA also has a research function. It is mainly involved in research into fusion, which takes up 48 per cent. of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s budget. I wonder whether that is the proper balance for a research council’s budget. For my entire life, fusion has been just around the corner—or to be more accurate, always one generation away. As the generations pass, fusion remains one generation away. There has been some progress, as the Select Committee on Trade and Industry reported. However, the question is one of balance, especially in the context of Research Councils UK losing £68 million of its funding, with a raid by the Department of Trade and Industry on its budget, £28 million of which came from EPSRC. I understand that one of the projects to be cut is the Diamond synchrotron, which raises interesting questions about the interaction of the various budgets.

EPSRC is still in a state of uncertainty. There is still a possibility of its losing £30 million from its budget this year unless it receives proper assurances about its end-of-year flexibility. Other energy research—not just on renewables, but on the grid and materials science—is urgently needed to improve transmission losses. It is not entirely clear to me that the UKAEA can claim the priority that it currently receives, over the research funding that our universities receive. To a large degree, the UKAEA is becoming a property company. The question is whether it has a future as one.

That is the context of the perhaps more newsworthy problems that have been mentioned in this debate. I do not want to go into those in any detail, as they have already been covered. They include the pollution problems, the £2 million fine for spilling 58 gallons of radioactive fluid, the £140,000 fine for releasing radioactive particles into the sea and the travails of Lady Judge—I do not want to comment on that, as I gather that there is to be an investigation by the National Audit Office. If there is not, however, I at least hope that the case will be dealt with fairly. People should not be tried in the media. On the other hand, if there are concerns, they should be raised publicly. People in public office cannot expect to be judged purely on a private basis.

Finally, there is the organ retention problem. I accept that that was the consequence of an older way of thinking about such matters, but it is an illustration of attitudes in the industry that are still there. It is not a normal industry, and I repeat that it will never be a purely private industry, acting in the way that the private sector normally acts, because of its connection with security.

I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s reply on the individual case raised, and especially on the role that Ministers have played in recent events. More than that, however, I should be interested in his views on the future of the UKAEA. It is an important organisation, but its role has changed, declining dramatically over the past 20 years.

We have certainly had a lively debate, but a serious and interesting one, too. There are some points that I have agreed with and some that I have not agreed with. The point that I agreed with least was the one that my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) made about how, departmentally, the DTI should be put under a department for the environment. There needs to be a Department and a Minister at the Cabinet table, arguing the case for wealth creation in this country. That Department can be the DTI or a department for economic affairs, but heaven help us—

Of course I declare an interest, with my aspirations to be a junior Minister in such a Department in a few months’ time.

Other serious issues have been raised. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) has written to the UKAEA with the concerns that he has expressed today and that he asked for a response before airing them in public. Equally, I am sure that my right hon. Friend has written to the UKAEA to try to broker a deal between his friend and the company before raising issues in the Chamber. Clearly the answers that my right hon. Friend received were not satisfactory.

I have also known Lady Judge for some years, and I also have the highest regard for her. The question of her qualifications needs to be seen in perspective. Peter Sutherland, the chairman of British Petroleum, has an astounding record. I do not believe that he is a geologist, but he does know how to chair one of the world’s leading companies. I do not believe that Lord Stevenson, chairman of HBOS plc, has a degree in finance, but he is an outstanding chairman because he brings other qualities to his role. Lady Judge is one of the most highly regarded business women in this country. She has worked for many other organisations—all of which, as far as I am aware, have been incredibly grateful for her input and contribution.

Under Lady Judge’s chairmanship, the UKAEA has addressed many of the issues that it needed to. It strengthened its position as the leader in nuclear decommissioning in Europe, and it delivered on time and below budget its work with the NDA at Dounreay, Harwell, Winfrith and Windscale. Critically, it has driven forward the work at Harwell, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey), as its constituency Member of Parliament, has referred. Harwell’s work makes it one of the most pioneering nuclear science establishments in the world.

If, as we have all been hoping, we are to see the breakthrough for fusion, it will happen at Harwell. We should all pay tribute to the contribution that this country can make through the expertise and incredible knowledge of people at Harwell. I also pay tribute to the organisation for how it has reacted to the issue of human tissue experimentation. It has been incredibly responsible and has been working fast to bring reassurance to the families involved. We should recognise that as well.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) raised some serious issues. My understanding is that the particles were generated from the milling of material test reactor fuel between 1958 and 1973, and that that resulted in active particles being discharged through the low active drain. The process continued for 15 years after the end of milling. A particle was first found in the Dounreay foreshore in 1983, and at Sandside beach in 1984. My understanding is that such particles are typically the size of a grain of sand, and that they can be categorised as significant, relevant or minor. I understand that the only significant ones have been found at Dounreay beach; at Sandside, 17 relevant ones and 77 minor ones have been found. I hope that the parties will be able to work together this summer to retrieve the particles from Sandside beach and finish the job.

I was slightly confused as I listened to my right hon. Friend’s comments. He said that people had not got on to the beach to carry out the work. He then said that the beach had been closed to the UKAEA for other reasons.

That is part of the dispute. Only half the beach was being cleared and only at a depth that did not pick up the most difficult particle finds. All the scientists say that that is the reason for the dispute and why they have occasionally been banned from the beach. It is doing the job properly that counts.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. However, the evidence that I have had from the UKAEA is that it wants to go on to the beach to complete the work. I believe that it is genuine and sincere in that aspiration, but obviously it cannot do that without access rights.

I hope that the Minister can answer some questions. For example, can he give us information on how the general level of radioactivity on Sandside beach compares with the general background level of radiation? There is greater radioactivity generally in the environment. How different is it at Sandside beach in comparison with elsewhere? What about restrictions on bathing? Has it been established whether Sandside beach is safe for bathers? Is it closed to them? More generally, does the Minister believe that a study should be undertaken to review the areas surrounding nuclear sites which need to be off limits? That ties in with the comment made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal about the wider implications of this debate.

Without doubt, the right approach is to get the parties involved back to mediation. I believe that both sides want a settlement, although I understand from the UKAEA—I have heard only one side of the debate in advance—that it is still looking to Mr. Minter to quantify what he is looking for. It does not yet understand exactly what he is seeking in order to take the matter forward. If that information has been given, I hope that it can be restated so that the parties can go forward. For mediation to work, both sides need to know where the other side is coming from.

In so many ways, the issues go back to the historic actions of the nuclear industry. Whether we are in favour of or against nuclear power, all in this House have concerns about the obsession with secrecy that has so often surrounded the actions of the industry—the initial desire to cover up when anything goes wrong and hope that people do not find out the facts. That has happened not only in the cases that we have discussed today, but time and again.

The industry has learned the lessons, including those from overseas. For example, Sweden and Finland have managed to get public support for their nuclear industries through openness and encouraging people to have a look at what they are doing. They have been as clear as they can be. Historically, the British industry acted in a way that today we find unthinkable; it was careless and there was often bad practice. However, we know that those practices have ended and now we should recognise that the British nuclear industry works to some of the highest safety standards and has some of the best practices of anywhere in the world.

Given that that is how the UKAEA and others wish to proceed, we should work with them. I hope that the Minister will be able to give satisfactory answers. I was greatly concerned to hear the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) say that he understood that a potential offer had been rejected by Ministers. I hope that the Minister can clarify that situation. The only way to resolve the matter is to get the parties together again.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal said, there is a huge issue of public confidence. We are expecting the energy White Paper next week, and there will then be a new opportunity for consultation on the whole nuclear power issue following the recent High Court judgment. If there is to be a new fleet of nuclear power stations and they are to play an important part in the future of electricity generation in this country—as the Minister knows, we are not enthusiastic about that, but accept that it might be necessary—there has to be confidence and trust in the industry. How the issue is discussed and debated will be integral to that process.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Weir. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on securing this debate.

I should explain that the subject of the debate is normally outside my ministerial brief and my usual areas of expertise. The Minister for Science and Innovation would usually speak for the Department of Trade and Industry on these matters, but unfortunately he cannot be here because of an unavoidable overseas engagement on behalf of the Government. He sends his apologies to the right hon. Gentleman and others.

I shall make every effort to answer the points raised in the debate, and my prepared text will cover many of them. However, when my non-familiarity with the subject or lack of time mean that I am unable to do so, I will arrange for Members to be sent a written response on their individual points as soon as possible.

It would be remiss of me in a debate on the UK Atomic Energy Authority not first to acknowledge the progress that the organisation has made recently. It continues to be a leader in nuclear decommissioning in Europe, having dismantled 15 reactors and more than 40 major radioactive facilities. By constant and stringent scrutiny of its plans and the identification of new and innovative ways of approaching the clean-up of its sites, the UKAEA has successfully reduced the undiscounted estimate of its liabilities—and thus the expected cost to the taxpayer—by £1.7 billion.

At the UKAEA site at Harwell in Oxfordshire, some 7 hectares of land were delicensed in October 2006, the largest single area of land to have been delicensed to date in the UK. That is allowing the site to be turned over to other uses, including for the Harwell science and innovation campus. The UKAEA is leading the proposed development of the campus, in partnership with our newly formed Science and Technology Facilities Council, to create a leading global centre for science and innovation and a future home to some of the world’s most prestigious research facilities, building on the anchor facilities such as Diamond.

The UKAEA is also key to the UK’s role as a leading player in the search for a commercial fusion solution to future energy needs. At its site at Culham in Oxfordshire, the UKAEA manages the Euratom/UKAEA fusion programme, which is internationally recognised for its quality and effectiveness. The Culham team is also undertaking pioneering work on a design of fusion machine using its MAST—mega amp spherical tokamak—facility.

The UKAEA has responded well to the challenges brought about by the advent of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. It has already established a working alliance with two major international partners in preparation for the competition for the management of its sites. The UKAEA board’s aim is to create a strong commercial business and the Government hope that it will flourish in the new competitive environment that the NDA has created. Given that impressive progress, it is hugely disappointing that one of the main people responsible—the chairman, Lady Barbara Thomas Judge—has been subjected to such unpleasant and unjustified personal attacks in the media. I want to use this opportunity to correct the inaccurate claims that have recently been made.

Few chairmen or board members devote themselves as fully to their organisations as Lady Judge. The claims that she has too many directorships to do her UKAEA job properly have been investigated and reinvestigated by the Department of Trade and Industry and have been found to be absolutely without foundation. Following a suggestion from the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green that her work load warranted investigation, the National Audit Office similarly concluded within the space of two days that there was no need for a special investigation. The NAO does not believe that the matter warrants any further work from it.

It is also worth remembering that as a non-departmental public body, the UKAEA routinely has its accounts audited by the NAO. Should that work identify issues of concern in any aspect of the UKAEA’s activities, the NAO would, of course, consider reporting in the normal way. The fact is that Lady Judge’s various non-UKAEA commitments take less than one and a half days of her time each week. She does a fair amount of that from her home and in the evenings or at weekends. Even her overseas-related commitments make a minimal impact on her time, with much of that work taking place over a telephone. We are therefore entirely satisfied that those non-executive and advisory positions, many of which relate to charities—although I did not realise until the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) mentioned it that she has a strong family connection with the Conservative party—allow more than enough time for her properly to fulfil her chairmanship responsibilities at the UKAEA, which she does most efficiently, effectively and with complete dedication.

What is more, given the challenges that the UKAEA faces as it necessarily restructures to facilitate the Government’s competition policy for the decommissioning of nuclear sites, Lady Judge is providing the necessary leadership to the board, executive team and employees during a challenging time for the organisation. Her remuneration from the UKAEA of £60,000 a year for two days a week represents good value to the DTI and the taxpayer. Indeed, we probably get twice as much of her time as we pay for.

I hope that the malicious and unwarranted campaign against Lady Judge will now stop. Although a level of scrutiny is entirely appropriate, excessive criticism will deter able people from working for the public sector when they can earn far more in the private sector without the unwelcome intrusion, which is the point that has been made by several right hon. and hon. Members.

Let me turn to the contamination of Sandside beach. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the DTI is fully aware of the situation and receives regular reports from the UKAEA on the progress in the discussions between its representatives and Mr. Minter. Right hon. and hon. Members might appreciate an explanation of the nature and scale of the contamination. The UKAEA monitors nine beaches used by the public around Dounreay. That work is regulated by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. As of 3 May 2007, 94 particles have been recovered from Sandside, which is the nearest public beach to Dounreay, and two from beaches at Dunnet bay. I understand that the particles are typically the size of a grain of sand, as the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) pointed out.

All the particles found on public beaches to date pose little risk to human health. That scientific advice contradicts the assertion of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green in his opening remarks. The probability of contact with a relevant particle at Sandside for a regular beach user has been estimated at one in 80 million. In the unfortunate event of contact, the Health Protection Agency has reported that particles of the type found on beaches used by the public would have to remain in stationary contact with precisely the same area of skin for at least seven hours to have any discernable effect. If a particle were ingested, it would need to remain stationary against the gut wall for six hours to cause ulceration. In either case, the effect would be temporary or healed by natural regeneration.

If the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I did not intervene on him despite some of the outrageous remarks that he made. If I have time at the end, I shall certainly give way, but he made some points that I have to rebut on the record. If he will allow me to finish, I should have time to take an intervention.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that Lord Truscott of St. James’s, the Minister for Energy, and his predecessor, the Minister for Science and Innovation, have taken a personal interest in the case. They had hoped that the authority and Mr. Minter could reach a fair, reasonable and documentable resolution. As the record shows, a deal has unfortunately eluded us despite every effort.

I understand that there was an unbridgeable gap between the parties on the numbers and that after careful consideration it was agreed last summer that the authority should bring last year’s mediation to a close by offering a full and final settlement. The Government believe that the offer subsequently made by the authority was fair and equitable. The right hon. Gentleman has argued that in years past Mr. Minter’s concerns may not have been accorded the concern or respect they deserved. Although that may have been the case in the early days, it is not our understanding of the situation now or since the mediation process that commenced in May 2005. It was probably not even the case even further back during the earlier mediation effort in 2001.

Furthermore, in January this year, Norman Harrison, the authority’s chief executive, expressed regret to Mr. Minter on behalf of the authority for past statements. The mediation attempts did not succeed in the end. Many people on both sides worked exceedingly diligently and in good faith as part of a genuine attempt to find a solution. Whatever Mr. Minter may believe, I am assured that everyone connected with this case at the UKAEA, as well as in the DTI and more recently in the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, has made every effort in good faith over the past two or three years to fashion a solution. That includes the authority’s chairman, Lady Judge, who has been personally active in trying to promote a solution.

It is acknowledged that Mr. Minter, his business and his family have suffered damage. The authority has apologised for the contamination and, on behalf of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which now has responsibility for the site, it is committed to remedying the situation and to reaching a solution that compensates Mr. Minter appropriately. It is not in any of the parties’ interests not to reach a fair, reasonable and documentable solution. Finding a way through the current impasse would be in the interests of not only Mr. Minter, but the authority and the nuclear industry in general, which was the point made by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). It would clearly also benefit the local community, as economic and social development are critical for its future. It cannot flourish when the continuing dispute gives the impression that the area is seriously and permanently contaminated, which it is not.

It would not be appropriate for me to get involved in the detailed negotiations, or to speak about the process or results of the mediation, which are rightly confidential. The Government, however, remain keen to ensure that the parties find a resolution. To that end the Government have been pleased to support further discussions between Mr. Minter and the authority aimed at trying better to understand why Mr. Minter rejected the offer made to him last year, and the scope for recasting the detail of a settlement to achieve a mutually agreed solution. The authority’s representative in the discussions, Mr. Wagner, acts with the full authority of not only the UKAEA but the DTI and, most importantly, the NDA, on whose behalf he is working.

The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said that the UKAEA was fined for four offences in February 2007. That is true, but those offences related to four breaches of the Radioactive Substances Act 1960 that took place between 1963 and 1984. He said that officials holding the purse strings at the DTI should be involved directly in talks. The authority is directly responsible for remedial action and for settlement of the dispute with Mr. Minter. The Government are not working in some dark way to undermine a deal. The accusations are fanciful.

In his effective speech, the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) raised an invitation to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I will ensure that that invitation is reinforced.

The UKAEA publishes details of all finds of particles on all the beaches that it monitors, including Sandside, irrespective of ownership. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal expressed his clear view on the DTI. Time will tell whether the new Prime Minister agrees with him. In the meantime, I can assure him that those of us working at the DTI—as Ministers or officials—will continue to do our best to serve the interests of the United Kingdom.

UK Bilateral Relations (Russia)

In my estimation we have never truly had close relations with Russia, certainly not during my lifetime, yet it is such an important country. It has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and a huge influence in the middle east and other parts of the world where we are seeking to solve long-standing problems. I have visited Russia on a number of occasions and been in awe of it, but it has huge cultural differences from us that we must learn to understand and appreciate. We must learn to respect the fact that Russians think differently from us and do things in a different way. We need to achieve greater mutual respect.

Russia faces many foreign problems including in the Kaliningrad enclave, which borders Lithuania and Poland. Russia has borders with 14 countries and there are various problems with some of those neighbours, ranging from diplomatic spats to outright confrontation. I wish to mention a couple of them.

Russia has a long-standing dispute with the Japanese over the Kuril islands, which were seized after the second world war, and that has led to a lack of Japanese investment in Russia. Recently we have read about the growing tensions between Russia and Estonia, because the Estonians have taken down a statue commemorating the tremendous sacrifices of Russian soldiers during the second world war in liberating that country. That has led to some serious intimidation of Estonian diplomats in Moscow and, as an ally of Estonia in NATO, Great Britain has shown serious concern about the treatment of Estonians over the matter.

Belarus is, in my estimation, the last dictatorship in Europe—a most appalling, dreadful regime in the heart of Europe with which Russia is having to grapple. President Lukashenko is commonly known to have instrumented some of the worst human rights abuses and is causing the Russians a great deal of problems by blackmailing them to pay for the transit of Russian oil to Europe through the pipelines in his country.

Of course Russia has relations with North Korea, which is near Vladivostok on its far eastern border. Both Russia and ourselves are extremely concerned about nuclear proliferation in North Korea, which has an unstable regime that is extremely cruel to its population but is pursuing an extremely expensive programme of nuclear weapons production.

Russia has many problems but I have time to mention only a few, of which the last is Chechnya. The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) has written an open letter to the Russian authorities, together with others including the Conservative former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), and the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy), outlining their concerns about the atrocities in Chechnya. It is an ongoing, terrible problem for Russia and there are appalling human rights abuses on both sides. That is happening in Europe, which is of great concern to us as well as to the Russians.

I wish to talk about the areas in which we need Russian support and why it is so important to have good relations with Russia. We need Russian support in the war on terrorism. Russia has a huge influence over Syria and Iran, and we know that there is an ongoing problem with border-crossing between Syria and Iraq. Insurgents and terrorists are coming from Syria and other countries across the Syrian border into Iraq, directly threatening the lives of serving British soldiers there because of the porous border. I know that Russia has long-standing trading and diplomatic relations with Syria.

On the other side of Iraq, Iran has allegedly been assisting insurgency in Basra and the rest of the south. Russia has huge influence over Iran and has been supplying it with a great deal of nuclear technology, ostensibly for a peaceful programme of nuclear power generation. We in Great Britain and others are concerned about the possibility that Iran may use that technology to produce nuclear weapons. Russia is at the forefront of supplying such countries with nuclear technology.

Just today we learn that Russia is allegedly selling attack helicopters and gunships to Sudan. An article from today’s The Daily Telegraph states that Russia has

“broken a United Nations arms embargo by supplying Sudan with attack helicopters, bombers and other weapons in the knowledge that they are being used against civilians in Darfur, Amnesty International said yesterday.”

It concerns me greatly that a country such as Russia, which has a permanent seat on the Security Council, is allegedly selling such appalling weapons to Sudan to enable the Sudanese Government to carry out some of the worst human rights atrocities imaginable. We should be putting a great deal more pressure on Russia and seeking explanations as to why it is breaking a UN embargo, which is totally unacceptable behaviour. I return to my point that we need a better relationship with the Russians in order to lobby them and put pressure on them. Many people in our own country feel strongly about what is happening in Darfur and look to us to stop the atrocities. We must use our influence as a major military and economic power in the world to lobby the Russians to try to prevent such exports.

What more needs to be done? I look forward to listening to the Minister, who will hopefully explain what he is doing to draw Russia ever closer to the European Union and into our camp to be our close allies. We must consider the Kaliningrad enclave, which is a remnant of the settlement of the second world war and is cut off from the rest of Russia, sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland. It has significant problems through being surrounded by European Union countries but not having the benefits of being in the EU. I am sure that we in the EU could do more to give special status to that part of Russia, which is almost encased within the EU, to assist with trade and better transport links. We want to encourage trade between the Baltic states, Poland and Russia. I would certainly urge the Minister to spend some time considering what could be done about that anomaly in Europe, and about whether Kaliningrad’s status could be modernised.

We need to engage more directly with Moscow. That is the key point that I want to get across in this debate. When I speak to my friends in the Russian Foreign Ministry, they tell me that they get hardly any visits by British Ministers. That may or may not be true, but they also tell me that French and German Ministers are pounding on their doors all the time. Russia gets a huge number of delegations led by French and German Foreign Ministers, and also cultural and trade visits. My friends say to me, “We look to Great Britain as potentially a key strategic ally, yet you seem to ignore us. There are far fewer visits by your Ministers than there are by French and German Ministers, who seem to take us more seriously.”

I would like more visits not just by Ministers from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but by Ministers from the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Trade and Industry, particularly the Minister for Trade. He should be leading far more delegations of British companies to Russia to look for business and start to make contacts with Russian companies.

One project that I am particularly interested in is the Sakhalin oil project off the far east coast of Russia. British Petroleum and Shell, among other British companies, are involved in one of the largest oil exploration programmes to date—there could be a huge oil find in Sakhalin—but I do not know how much help they are getting from Ministers. I would be interested to hear what the Government are doing to help BP fight its corner in Russia. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has had high-level meetings with BP. The Russians are tough negotiators, and I know that BP—

I know that BP has interests there, and Shell as well. More must be done for British oil companies. I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the levels of engagement of British Ministers in helping British oil companies in their tough negotiations with the Russian Government. The Russian Government recently put a lot of pressure on our oil companies over certain environmental issues at Sakhalin, which they used as a bargaining weapon for concessions, so I hope that our Government are helping companies with negotiations. Of course, there are huge new opportunities in mining, gas and minerals, as well as in the oil sector.

I remember the tremendous good will that this country received when our specialists went out to salvage the Kursk submarine. British companies were involved in trying to free the people who were trapped in that submarine, and in some of the operations after the disaster. Tremendous good will was expressed to us by the Russian authorities. I hope that we can continue to work with the Russians to show how interested we are in their country. We need to make far more ministerial visits than we are currently making, and bring Russia not into our sphere of influence but certainly into our camp, as the country will become increasingly important in the coming years, particularly given the changes of political influence in China, Japan and the far east. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what the Government are doing in respect of this very important relationship.

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this debate. I would like to emphasise, as he has already done, why it is important for the UK to work with Russia, and why we do so. We should not lose sight of the fact that Russia is an important player in enabling us to achieve our international objectives. I shall add to the examples that the hon. Gentleman rightly set out.

Russia remains a key player and an important partner in the United Nations Security Council. It is a major energy supplier to Europe. We need Russian assistance to tackle climate change—indeed, strong leadership from Russia will be required to do so—and Russia offers real potential as an important market for UK trade. Those are just a few of the reasons why we should engage with Russia to promote international security, stability, and prosperity.

We work with Russia in the UN to address challenges to international peace and security. We discuss issues such as Iran’s nuclear programme, Kosovo and the middle east peace process. We have worked with Russia through the G8 to address, among other things, the challenges of climate and energy security, international development and avian flu. We are working with allies through the NATO-Russia Council to discuss plans for a ballistic missile defence system in Europe, and we are working with our European Union partners towards a new framework for EU-Russia relations. Negotiating a successor to the current partnership and co-operation agreement will give us a mechanism for discussing and resolving any disagreements on issues of key interest to the UK, including trade, energy and human rights.

In working to achieve the Government’s international priorities, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office spends considerable time, effort and resources engaging with Russia. Russia’s chairmanship of the G8 resulted in a particularly high level of contact in 2006, with 15 ministerial visits to that country. I visited last autumn, and I hosted Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov for talks in London in March this year.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry visited Russia in February with a high-level business delegation, and Ministers with responsibility for international trade and for energy have visited in the past two years. Notwithstanding the hon. Gentleman’s assertions, the truth is that there has been high-level and high-quality engagement with Russia at ministerial level in recent times.

It is important to emphasise that engagement with Russia does not always mean agreement with Russia. Its status as a global player means that it must abide by international commitments and operate from the same international rulebook. We want Russia to be strongly committed to the rule of law, and to provide a just home for its citizens as well as a predictable partner for Governments and businesses to deal with. If we believe that Russia is falling short of the international standards to which it has subscribed, we will say so. Let me give some examples of that.

On energy security, which the hon. Gentleman referred to, the British Government were at the forefront of efforts in the G8 that led to the St. Petersburg principles on energy security that were agreed in July 2006 under Russia’s G8 presidency. The principles of transparency, predictability and stability of global energy markets and supply should underpin global energy markets.

On numerous occasions since the G8 summit in St. Petersburg, we have reminded Russia of the important principles to which it signed up. We have done so not least in the context of seeking protection of British investors’ interests in the oil and gas sectors in Russia. We have repeatedly underlined to the Russian Government the importance of ensuring an operating climate that encourages investors to invest for the long term in that country, which in itself will help Russia to meet global energy security needs. I conveyed that message to all the Russian interlocutors whom I met last autumn, and I continue to do so.

On the specific agreements and contracts affecting British companies, it is important that the companies themselves should make decisions as to the right way forward. They have received strong and consistent support from the British Government, but, ultimately, it is for them to make judgments as to the best way to secure their own arrangements with and in Russia.

Furthermore, as we have stated on many occasions, the Government welcome investment in the UK by companies and individuals from Russia or, indeed, anywhere else who are transparent in their business, and who are prepared to operate in markets governed by competitive, liberal market principles.

The Government believe that respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law promotes stability and economic development. That is as applicable to Russia as to any other country. As such, where we have concerns about Russia’s human rights record, we will raise them. We do that through formal consultation mechanisms, such as the European Union and the Council of Europe, as well as bilaterally. For example, EU-Russia human rights consultations raised such issues only last week and in the Council of Europe we continue to work with Russia and others to ensure that all member states, including Russia, uphold their commitment as signatories to the European convention on human rights.

The hon. Gentleman referred to Russia’s relations with its near neighbours and we believe that it is in our and Russia’s interests to have stable and prosperous countries on Russia’s borders. We regularly discuss the common neighbourhood with Russia and raise issues of concern, such as Russia’s embargo on Georgia and the economic restrictions placed on Georgians living in Russia. Equally, we believe that Russia must treat our EU partners fairly and with respect. I mention that in the context of recent difficulties in relation to Estonia.

Another issue on which we do not see eye to eye with Russia is its attitude to the asylum or refugee status of individuals in the UK, and their continued presence here. Despite our continuing efforts to explain the nature of judicial independence in this country, the Russian Administration have not fully accepted that such questions are matters of UK law, not of politics or diplomacy.

Nevertheless, having set out the areas of critical concern, we should not lose sight of the positive aspects of the relationship between the UK and Russia. On trade, during the first three quarters of 2006, the UK was the largest foreign investor in Russia and accounted for about 18 per cent. of Russia’s total foreign investment. Our trading relationship reached an all-time high in 2005 when annual exports were nearly £3 billion. In terms of people-to-people contact, the number of Russians visiting the UK has risen by 20 per cent. a year over recent years. The number of Russians who have visited the UK now exceeds 170,000.

The Government regard Russia as an important international partner and, as such, we expect Russia to meet its international commitments. As I have said, relations with Russia are underpinned by active, and, where necessary, critical engagement. When we disagree with Russia we say so, and where obstacles and disagreements exist, our aim will continue to be to seek to resolve them through a transparent, open and honest dialogue. It is a balanced approach that is aligned to British interests and I hope that the hon. Gentleman can support it.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

Committee of Ministers and Council of Europe

I would like to thank colleagues from all political parties who are here this afternoon. One of the key features of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe is that, although inevitably we have political differences—it is right and proper that those should be reflected in the delegation—there is a common sense of purpose. The Council of Europe makes sense and does valuable work. I am grateful, therefore, to those who have found the time to be here today.

Let us consider the role of the Council of Europe. In this country, although considered important, it is little known. Last year, it was of momentary interest to the media during the debate on forced rendition. At that point, it got some attention in the press. More recently, it was probably of slight media interest when Britain signed up to the convention on action against trafficking in human beings. However, beyond that, I expect that most members of the public are largely unaware of the activities of the Council of Europe as a whole, the Committee of Ministers, the European Court of Human Rights, or indeed the Assembly.

That is in almost absolute contrast to the way in which the Council of Europe is seen in other parts of Europe, where its role and importance are considered significant to developing political cultures, and where it can bring pressure to bear and push for improvements in acceptable standards of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. That is very important. One of the central points that I want to make is this: I believe honestly that the Council of Europe is very cheap, but very good for diplomacy. It is beneficial to the UK’s national interests. There is much to say on the matter and some of my colleagues will want to make different points.

I accept that there are matters of concern. For example, the relationship between the Council of Europe and the European Union has not yet been resolved properly. It has yet to be put to bed. As I think that the Minister knows, inevitably there is always a debate about whether the budget of the Council of Europe is adequate. However, I know of almost no one who would criticise its generic role. It is almost a commonplace for people to say that the Strasbourg Court is the jewel in the Council of Europe family. With the Court safely established, the rule of the judicial system at least operates from Vladivostok to Galway, and from the Arctic circle to the southern-most parts of the Mediterranean. That represents an important step.

I appreciate that this does not apply to the remit of the Court, but would the hon. Gentleman like to remind the House that the Council has a number of observer members, such as Canada, one of whose senators I met at the last part-session? The Council reaches not only as far as Vladivostok—its footprint nearly joins up across the Bering strait as well.

That is an important point, and one that I shall develop in a few minutes when I talk specifically about that matter. However, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.

The whole ethos and existence of the Council of Europe is aimed at generating a common culture and set of standards. I shall be quite frank: we are nowhere near that point. Some of our colleagues will be in Armenia this weekend for the elections. I do not mean to single out Armenia for insult, but we know that there are likely to be problems with large-scale electoral fraud. We have concerns about corruption and problems with the rule of law in that society.

The important point is that the Council of Europe and its institutions now provide a benchmark against which to judge countries—be they Armenia, Ireland or, indeed, our own country. It allows for reference to a common standard and an insistence on common respect for things that we take for granted, such as the rule of law and democratic standards.

May I add to my hon. Friend’s remarks about our association with countries not in the great European area? He will be aware of the work being done by the Council of Europe on environmental issues and of the sterling work done by our friends across the Atlantic, particularly in Mexico and Canada, who heeded the Council’s call to sign the Kyoto protocol and to put pressure on the United States of America. That was very helpful. Would he care to comment on that valuable work?

My hon. Friend draws me on to a matter that I shall touch on in a few moments. On his central point about the role of environmental politics and the changes that have taken place, we know that by definition the EU cannot cover the whole of Europe. Certainly, it can be influential. The Council, however, is the whole of Europe, with the exception of Belarus. It has a mandate and sway over certain issues such as the environment—environmental destruction does not recognise national boundaries. As such, the Council is in a very strong position to exert influence in Europe as well as elsewhere on a broader basis.

Does my hon. Friend recall that over the two or three years when people sought to get Russia to sign the Kyoto protocol, it was the Council of Europe that bridged the gap—so much so that when Russia eventually signed, its Government sent their Environment Minister to attend the debate in Strasbourg?

Again, that is an important point and central to what I want to establish today. We in this country will underestimate seriously the value of that institution if we do not recognise that for other countries, even those that still see themselves as relatively powerful global players, such as Russia, the Council is an organisation through which to pursue national interests by working in common with others. That is important. A central foreign policy concern of any British Government is how to deal with Russia and all its complexities. We should value institutions such as the Council of Europe. It can bring Russia together with people from our country and those in the rest of Europe. That makes a material difference to the way in which the Russians operate.

I was going to talk about the contribution made by our colleagues on matters that might not seem that important from the UK’s perspective. It is always worth reflecting on the fact that in my constituency in the centre of Manchester—this applies to many similar constituencies—there are permanently-based Kosovans who fled Kosovo at the time of the military action against Serbia. As everyone in the Room knows, the Serbs were attacking the civilian population of Kosovo. People fled their homes because of the level of instability. In this very small world of ours, we must recognise that instability anywhere, particularly in Europe, will have a material impact on our own country.

We have not just a passing intellectual interest, but a dramatic and real interest in ensuring that we do not take stability in western Europe for granted. We ought to encourage it at every level. Britain has a direct interest in encouraging and maintaining it throughout the whole of the European framework. For many countries, membership of the Council of Europe was seen as part of a process leading sometimes to NATO or EU membership. For other countries, membership of the Council of Europe was important in its own right, but at every level the very fact of those countries seeking some respectability and some measure of the progress that they claimed to have made from the totalitarian days of the communist era, for example, is symbolically important and important practically, because it begins the process of changing the culture. I would not claim that the Council of Europe is the only instrument, the only organisation, that is part of that culturisation process, because, frankly, that would be ridiculous, but it is important that the Council of Europe is one of the instruments through which we have managed to achieve that respect for the standards that we want to export and that help Britain by providing the stability that I have talked about.

We saw that first-hand only at the last part-session, when Montenegro applied to join in its own right, as it is now a new country. It is the 47th country to accede to the Council of Europe and it was not a case of it just walking in because it had been there before as part of another country. It had to be subject to proper observation and had to sign up to the principles of the Council of Europe before we would even consider it joining.

That is absolutely right. We know that Montenegro does not come fully formed and fully committed to all the standards that the Council of Europe maintains, but the situation means that we have benchmarks against which we can measure the position in Montenegro. There will now be a process for some years of monitoring Montenegro, which will allow us to check the degree of progress. Sometimes it is a case of regress as well, because there are certainly countries in the Council of Europe family that have not moved continuously in an acceptable direction. We know that, but it is important that Montenegro chose to make the effort to join because, in doing that, it had to sign up to the basic standards of free and fair elections, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Those are important underpinnings for the population of Montenegro, as they are for every other part of this European family.

I shall refer to a couple of former members of the UK delegation, partly to draw attention to the fact that the work of individual parliamentarians has a material impact on behaviour, or in any case on the level of dialogue that takes place between parliamentarians in this country and those from elsewhere.

I have always found that the absence of the death penalty in all the nations of the Council of Europe is one vital principle. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees.

If we want to consider one of the great unifying standards, it is remarkable. However, I must say to my hon. Friend that I do not believe that if referendums were to be held in every Council of Europe country on the death penalty, they would all have what we would regard as a successful outcome. In Russia, a debate is taking place almost as we speak about the role of the death penalty. Russia has not yet properly abolished the death penalty. Nevertheless, it has had a moratorium on the use of the death penalty for a considerable number of years, which is a significant achievement in its own right, at least for those of us who believe that the death penalty is a totally misguided form of punishment. That is a real achievement for the Council of Europe.

I want to refer to one of our former colleagues on the delegation, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), who is not from my party, so this is not a case of party polemics. He wrote a report about political prisoners in Azerbaijan, a country that is a long way away from here and that matters little to people in the Red Lion in my constituency, but the truth is that the issue of political prisoners should concern us, particularly, and ironically, in a country with which we have strong ties because of oil. We have a real interest in the stability of that country, for economic reasons, even if we do not wish to maintain, as we should, a proper and loftier standard of judgment.

Almost certainly, the right hon. Gentleman’s report on political prisoners led to the release of a significant number of people from the prisons of that country, so that shows what can be achieved through the action of one parliamentarian through the institution that we are discussing. I think that I am probably right in saying that he did not know where Azerbaijan was before he was involved with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, but of course we are all educated by the process and we all become part of that educational process, through which, we hope, we change and improve not only levels of debate, but standards of action.

The other member of our delegation to whom I wanted to refer was Lord Judd, who, as it happens, is a close personal friend of mine. Although I do not think that I could claim that Lord Judd’s achievements in highlighting the situation in Chechnya had the impact that we would have wanted in order to improve the situation on the ground there, they certainly engaged the Russians in an international dialogue in a way that simply would not have happened without the intervention of the Council of Europe. Probably little of that was reported in the media in this country, but in the Russian media Lord Judd was a name that people knew and, frankly, often criticised because of his trenchant criticisms of what took place in Chechnya. Again, it is important that parliamentarians from a country such as ours were able to have an impact that would be seen to be disproportionate by the standards that, I am afraid, our own media use. Lord Judd played an important role.

Perhaps my hon. Friend will also recall the contribution of the ex-Member of Parliament for Hull, North, Kevin McNamara, who, single-handedly really, ensured that there was a wide selection of judges for the European Court of Human Rights, played such a part in getting fairness into that choice programme and improved dramatically the standard of judges who went into the Court.

Again, in this political love-in, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point. The role of the different institutions of the Council of Europe in achieving that balance and insisting on acceptable standards for those who are the judges in that Court is very important. We should emphasise that, because the selection of either a bad judge or a good judge from any one of the other member states of the Council of Europe could have a material impact on our own citizens, in that our citizens may access the Court and come before judges whose competence and standards then become relevant to justice not only in those individual cases but, as they make law, as indeed they do, for the British judicial system. We therefore have an absolute and fundamental interest in the correct operation of the system and the proper and unbiased selection of judges.

One of the debates that has taken place recently concerns the role of gender balance in such courts and the insistence by a significant part of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that there must be proper acceptance of gender balance in the selection of those who come before the Parliamentary Assembly for appointment as judges.

In that particular case, what does my hon. Friend think is the solution to Malta’s representation in respect of the judges?

My hon. Friend might be surprised to learn that I supported the idea that there should be proper balance. The rules of the Assembly are such that at the moment there is an insistence that any panel of candidates must be balanced for gender, so where normally there is a panel of three, no more than two should be men or women, so that there is a proper choice before the Parliamentary Assembly making the choice of who should be appointed as judge. There was a debate about whether there should be an exception for smaller countries such as Malta, but the general feeling was that that was not the right way for us to proceed. I think that in the end that is the way the Council of Europe will go and I think that most people would welcome that.

Before the hon. Gentleman moves on from the judges, regardless of the gender of particular members of the judiciary in the Court, I am sure that he would want to join me in saying that one of the most impressive things is the courage that is frequently shown by members of the Court, who are often prepared to make controversial judgments relating to their own countries, sometimes in the face of quite considerable pressure.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to make that point. The situation can be quite invidious sometimes. We hear from time to time of the pressures that people seek to apply, but almost nobody argues that the decisions of the Court have been subverted by those pressures, which is a tribute to the Court and to the individuals who make up the Court. It is interesting that although the judicial systems of many of the countries that provide judges to the Strasbourg Court are neither perfect nor beyond corruption or influence, we have been able to create a culture in the European Court that transcends those national problems, so that we can genuinely claim to have an internationally high standard. That is the case with the Court, the Parliamentary Assembly and the Committee of Ministers, and it sends a clear message that although individual units may be venal, the collective can rise above that standard and aspire to the proper standards that we want at European level. That is an important example of how we can use these institutions for the betterment of the whole of Europe.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Court faces large problems, the biggest of which is probably its huge backlog of cases, which is largely due to budgetary restraints? Does he agree that extra funding for the Court must be found to tackle that problem?

My hon. Friend is right, and I shall come to that issue, but first let me establish the importance of the Court. There is probably no justice or foreign ministry in Europe that does not say kind things about the Court’s role, but it is less true to say that they all put in the effort to ensure that it works. As a former lawyer, my right hon. Friend the Minister knows better than I the concept that justice delayed is justice denied, but the Court’s backlog has a material impact because we are trying to drive a common standard through the European Court.

In countries such as Azerbaijan, many of the decisions being handed down in the national courts are extremely dubious, if I am being kind. The European Court could be part of an important and exciting process whereby every judge in Azerbaijan is aware that their decisions in Baku may eventually be judged against the standards of the Strasbourg Court, and will therefore know that their activities might be examined by a superior court. Such a process would be important in setting standards, but only if those judges knew that the Court’s judgments were likely to be proximate and to have an impact on them.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is essential, even though there are obvious budgetary problems, that the link between the Council of Europe and the Court should be maintained, and that we should not go down the route that some countries prefer of separating the two? Does he agree that the Court’s stability and the way in which it is universally accepted is partly due to its strength in being linked to the Council of Europe?

I agree absolutely. The concept that I have tried to get across today is that the Council of Europe is about changing cultures. It is fundamental that the Court, the Parliamentary Assembly, the Committee of Ministers and institutions such as the Venice Commission are all sewn together as part of one corporate body, because it does matter, in the end, that there is a common structure through which decisions are made and resources are channelled.

It is sensible for me to pick up the point about money. Indeed, the Minister would be surprised if I did not mention the Council of Europe’s budget, because it is one of the outstanding and most difficult problems that we face. The Court’s demands have grown and will continue to grow, and not only because of pressure from the relatively new entrants to the Council of Europe family; we use that system and still send a considerable number of cases to the Strasbourg Court. It is in all our interests that the Court operates effectively, and its effectiveness is at least partly determined by the timing of judgments, which should not be delayed for years and years, as some are at the moment. If we agree with those principles, we must agree to give the Court the necessary resources to deal with its present case load and to make significant inroads into its backlog.

Recently, there has been a temptation to divert resources from other parts of the Council of Europe family into the Court. It is hard to argue with that idea, because we are always paying lip service to the Court, but we must recognise that other parts of the Council of Europe family have important roles to play. I have tried to describe the culturisation role that comes with parliamentarians from the relatively new Parliaments mixing with parliamentarians from our Parliament and other more mature democratic societies. If that process has the effect that I believe it has of changing and cementing strong cultural underpinnings, we should not undervalue the roles of the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly.

We probably have one of the more Council of Europe-friendly Ministers with us today. I do not wish to be critical because I once would have been the relevant Minister for these matters, and the Minister is probably much more Council of Europe-friendly than I was then. That is a reasonable admission for me to make, and it allows me to trade on the Minister’s good will. We need to consider the strategic importance of institutions such as the Council of Europe, which bring people together, and we should try to determine the value of those institutions to this form of relatively low-cost diplomacy. I know that the Foreign Office’s budget is under pressure and that it is difficult to tell an ambassador somewhere that we are going to downscale their operation because our parliamentary colleagues have insisted that more should be done for the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, but we need to have that debate.

There must be a proper examination of what the Council of Europe can do. If anyone were to argue that we could do without some of the things that it does, I would agree, but that will almost always be the case with an institution of that longevity and complexity when there is a degree of compromise on what activities it takes on. However, there is a central recognition that its overall role, through its Parliamentary Assembly, is very positive. That positive role is not measured only by the paper output or the words that have poured out. Indeed, I have sat through some speeches that I could have done without and I have managed to avoid papers at no obvious cost.

The Council of Europe’s role has changed in some areas. In environmental policy, for example, its role was relatively insignificant and peripheral 15 years ago, whereas it now has a central role to play as a result of the changes in our views on the politics of the global environment. We should accept that the boundaries and what we expect from that institution have changed. I make a plea not for much greater funding, but for us to try to make sense of what the Council does well and what it can do well to influence materially the way in which we in this common European family relate and the way in which we gain advantages at a national level from our membership and use of that body.

I have spoken at reasonable length and I am conscious that others want to speak in the debate, but I note that there are several areas of activity in which the Council of Europe has been involved recently that I could have discussed in greater detail. One such subject is the situation in the Balkans, which is always of lively interest because of its recent past. Others include places such as Moldova and Georgia; the frozen conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia that still disfigures this common Europe of ours; and the situation in Belarus, which has not even made enough progress to enter the Council of Europe. Those are all important areas of activity and inevitably the Council of Europe is at its most sharply focused when dealing with current problems and such issues. The importance of these debates is measured not simply by the fact that they take place, but by the fact that they begin the process of changing people’s minds about how they relate.

I believe that my colleagues would agree that there has been a change in the attitude of the Serbian delegation. Not everyone changes their attitude and mind, but as members of the Serbian Parliament come into contact with those from other Parliaments they must begin to reflect on how Serbia is seen in the wider world. It helps the process of bringing Serbia into the mainstream of how we view democracy in our continent and makes a material difference to the way in which politics is done in that one country and in all the others.

Would my hon. Friend care to put on the record the appreciation of all the members of the British delegation for the work of the staff from this Parliament and, last but not least, for the work of the ambassador and his staff in Strasbourg? I believe that the ambassador is shortly to retire.

I hope that this comment is of value to the Minister in particular. What annoys me is the fact that many of us are absent when a considerable number of votes are taken, and when the lists of the votes and how many times one has voted are published, we do not come out well. My hon. Friend may wish to comment on that, but should he not wish to do so, perhaps the Minister will.

That is always a sore point with members of the delegation, who are bound to make that point. If we work elsewhere, we cannot perforce of circumstances be working here. It seems harsh that the media, on occasions, judges people by their seeming absence, when in fact they may be much more productively engaged in a direct national interest on Council of Europe work. I echo that heartfelt plea from my hon. Friend.

I want to raise one other issue with the Minister: the roles of, and the relationship between, the Council of Europe and the European Union. That has not yet been properly bottomed out or put on a firm footing. I do not ask him to give us specific answers today, because I am aware that the complex process of negotiations through the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers and the European Union’s Council of Ministers is protracted, but we need to begin to establish a relationship between those two institutions that will lead us into the future.

I am not one of those who argues that the Council of Europe is the superior body—that it is older and such like—and thus has greater rights, because to do so would be nonsense in the modern world. We know that the European Union, with its enormous resource base and political clout, will dominate in many areas of activity, but it would be a mistake on its part to want to smother the legitimate activities of the Council of Europe, which even now, by definition, contains twice as many countries, more or less, as the European Union family. It is not a question of one against the other; it is a question of trying to put the balance between the two institutions on a more rational basis, where their activities can complement one another.

I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion by echoing the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale). I should like to place on record the thanks of the whole of the British delegation to those who support us: our parliamentary colleagues who work in the overseas office, whose work to ensure that we are able to do the work that we do is quiet but important; people in the Foreign Office; our permanent representative in Strasbourg, Stephen Howarth, and his colleagues, who are particularly effective; and those here in London who help to ensure that our delegation is properly resourced. They are all part of a process that gives a cost-effective form of diplomacy through the Council of Europe family. I hope that, if nothing else, this debate will begin to make people think about how we place that into the context not simply of an immediate demand for more cash in hand, but of how we work together to use this set of institutions to enhance and to advance what we regard as our legitimate interest: the pursuit of democratic standards, the rule of law and human rights.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing this important debate. It is the first such debate that I have participated in since becoming a member of the Council of Europe. If we were to ask almost anybody outside this place, excluding those who have been on the Council of Europe, what the Council of Europe is, the vast majority would say, “Oh, that is the European Union.” They would immediately confuse the two institutions. That is what I find when I talk to people about what we do in the Council of Europe. People are totally ignorant of it until one mentions the work that it does, particularly its work on the European Court of Human Rights. They clearly understand the important role that the Council of Europe and its Assembly plays in that regard. Indeed, although I knew that the Assembly existed before I became a member, I did not realise that there is also a local government arm for councillors; they attend their own Council of Europe part two.

One of the important things is to bring politicians from the various 47 countries together so that we can talk about what is happening in all of our countries. I do not think that anyone can hold a superior hand by saying, “Because we are an older democracy, we ought to be listened to and we have nothing to learn from anybody else.” We have a lot to learn from some of the other countries.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, one of the other roles that we fulfil in the Council of Europe is election monitoring and observing. I remember going to Ukraine to watch its elections. It was amazing to watch the enthusiasm for democracy. So many people were involved up and down the country. I was in Dnieperpetrovsk, which is a Russian-looking part of Ukraine, and I saw the enthusiasm and the number of candidates; I cannot remember how many elections were held there on that day, but the number was quite a few and the ballot paper was 4 ft long. I must say to the Minister that I do not think that there were as many errors there, despite the number of elections in Ukraine on that day, as there were in Scotland last Thursday. I do not know who has what to learn from that, but the fact is that although the situation was rather complicated for this fledgling democracy, the people all wanted to be involved.

The Council of Europe acts as a forum. The Ukrainian Prime Minister came to speak to us at the previous part-session. That gave us an opportunity to ask him questions directly about what was happening in Ukraine—we had heard that the President had called an early election. We had a good debate on the Ukrainian situation shortly after the Prime Minister left. I do not know whether it had any direct impact on the Ukrainians, but I am sure that they were well aware of the debate that we had that day and the questioning of their Prime Minister. I was delighted to learn that the Prime Minister and the President have come together on an agreement about a future election. It will not be in May, but it will be shortly after and at least all of the sides have been brought together. I am unsure that another forum would have been able to do what the Council of Europe did in the previous part-session; we made real advances. Clearly, other Prime Ministers and Presidents come to speak at our sessions and open themselves up widely to questioning. I suspect that that happens more so in the Council of Europe chamber than in their own Parliaments back home. At least we were given that opportunity.

The Council of Europe deals with democracy as well as human rights. The hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Dr. Vis) mentioned the death penalty and its abolition in all our member states—in Russia, it is not being carried out at least—and that is important. I remember that in a debate not so long ago it was mentioned that the United States was an observer nation, despite my never having seen its delegation turn up. A motion was tabled to try to chuck the United States out even as observer, simply because people believe in the death penalty there. When it came to our group meeting, I said that I did not mind speaking on this, but that if I could be certain that someone was a terrorist involved in the innocent deaths in London, I would have no problem in saying that they should be executed. The Russian chairman of our group replied, “Mr. Evans, it is very interesting what you have just said, and you can be the spokesman of our group—as long as you say everything different from what you have just said.” It opens things up quite widely when a Russian says that such issues are important to the Council’s core beliefs.

The exiled Iranian Opposition leader came to speak to some of us about executions in Iran, and I have also been able to talk to Iranian politicians about how the death penalty is used. It brings the whole thing into stark contrast when one learns that youngsters—people under the age of 18—are executed for being gay in countries such as Iran. At least we as politicians have a voice in the Council and can speak up together on issues that we feel deeply about.

I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman says, and this enthusiasm for matters European is very refreshing, particularly given that the Council of Europe devised the famous European flag with the 12 yellow stars and the blue background—it was nothing to do with the European Union and was brought into being after Winston Churchill’s famous speech in Zurich. That aside, we will shortly all have a problem because Serbia will be the Council’s new chair in governmental terms. The new Speaker of the Serbian Parliament, who has just been elected, is from the Radical party—what we could call a fascist, ultranationalist, Milosevic-supporting party. That happened thanks to the disgraceful switching of votes by one of the other party leaders, Mr. Kostunica, who broke with the democratic, pro-European group in Serbia. I therefore invite the hon. Gentleman and hon. Friends to raise their voices back at the Council of Europe and to voice our protests at Serbia’s turn from the European democratic path and at its engagement with very ugly, unpleasant politics that are contrary to the Council’s values.

I am more than happy to do that. In fact, before I came here today, I saw the press release issued by René van der Linden, the Council’s President, in which he talks about his

“deep concern over the newly elected speaker of Serbia’s Parliament, Tomislav Nikolic”.

He says:

“I have learned with consternation of the election of Tomislav Nikolic, member of a political party run by an indicted war criminal, to the post of Speaker of the Serbian Parliament. ”

When one talks with Serbian politicians, one can see that they are enthusiastic to become a democratic country and to be accepted. My goodness, they want to be admitted to the European Union.

Indeed. They want to be admitted to the Council of Europe and to live up to the code by which we all hope to operate. Events such as those in Serbia fill us with deep consternation and must be condemned. If we believe in human rights and democracy, we cannot sit idly by and take such news on the chin.

It is, of course, necessary to condemn the Serbian Parliament for its decision; indeed, I know Mr. Nikolic, the new Speaker, and I am well aware of Mr. Seselj, the leader of his party, who is in The Hague awaiting trial for war crimes. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that it is also important that we are seen to hold out the hand of friendship to the good democrats in Serbia and that we embolden them by making it clear that we can distinguish between the bad Serbs and those who want to take the democratic path?

That is absolutely right. I agree wholeheartedly. There are Serbian politicians in each of the political groupings in the Council, and we get to know them fairly well. I am sure that many of them will express the same concerns at our next part session. It would be completely erroneous to turn our backs on an entire country because of the activities of a few. We must extend the hand of friendship and see what we can do to assist people in their plight.

I know that other hon. Members want to get in, so I shall briefly mention just a couple of other issues. The hon. Member for Manchester, Central has already mentioned the co-operation between the European Union and the Council. There were fears that the Fundamental Rights Agency was encroaching on the work of the Council and the European Court of Human Rights. It is right to say that the Court is strapped for cash, but this new organisation seems to be rolling in it. It would surely have been far more appropriate to give some of that money to the Court so that it could do its job better. Let us at least admit that the 27 countries of the European Union are all members of the Council and that it would have been better to give the Court more money.

It would also be far better if we had better coverage of what goes on in the Council. The only time I can remember reading anything in our papers about what goes on there was when Dick Marty did his special investigation into extraordinary rendition. The BBC turfed up and we had good coverage in all the media. The Council discusses important issues all the time, and I hope that we can at least get better coverage. I suspect that the coverage in some of the 47 countries is much better than it is in the UK. Those countries are taking things far more seriously, and I hope that our country’s journalists will do the same.

Apart from the Assembly, there are also a number of committees and sub-committees, which deal with a number of issues. The Council is not inward looking. A sub-committee of the Political Committee looks at the middle east. Using its observer status, the Committee on the Environment, Agriculture and Local and Regional Affairs carried out an extensive investigation into the clubbing of seals. Even though the Canadians were allowed to speak, they did not get everything their own way. We were able to speak up on behalf of our constituents and to voice their concerns about seal clubbing in Canada.

The Migration Committee, which I am not on, is important to all of us. It looks at enormous movements of people through not only Europe, but the world. Such movements have a massive impact on us, and we cannot just abdicate responsibility for what takes place on the other side of the world and think that it will have no impact on us if we just ignore it. The Council is not ignoring such issues, and one of its committees is looking in minute detail at why movements of peoples take place and what we can do back in our own Parliaments to influence our Governments to assist such peoples.

Two years ago, I would have shrugged my shoulders at anybody who mentioned the Council of Europe, but I am now a total convert. As I am sure that the Minister will know, I am not a great believer in the European Union and the way in which it operates, but I have seen what can happen when 47 countries co-operate. The European Union has a lot to learn from the Council of Europe—it is not just the other way round.

I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) because although nobody in the Chamber would ever regard me as a Eurosceptic, I certainly was a Council of Europe sceptic until I was approached some six months ago and went to see how it worked. I am now something of an enthusiast, for many of the reasons given by my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd), whom I congratulate on introducing the debate.

The only names that we might add to the list of personae whom the hon. Gentleman rightly praised, including our overseas office staff and diplomatic staff, are the members of the House staff who go over to staff the Council’s sessions. It is perhaps somewhat reassuring and even a little humbling for us to remember, given the Council’s origins in the wreckage of Europe after world war two, that the British Parliament and our French colleagues had a large input. Indeed, we are still responsible for a great deal of the day-to-day work, and familiar faces appear in the Table Office.

The Council appeals to me for three reasons. First, the exclusive subject matter with which it deals is dear to my heart. The commitment to the conduct of democracy, the holding of free and fair elections, the rule of law, free speech and the ongoing concern with human rights all form part of our distinctive business.

We are all familiar in this country with the work of the European Court of Human Rights. Since the repatriation of the convention into United Kingdom legislation, by means of the Human Rights Act 1998, there have been some interesting changes in the dynamic, and possibly, in certain cases, in the way in which it is viewed. I worry that too many Brits regard human rights as a matter for eccentric persons and often for objectionable persons such as terrorists. I am sure that some of our tabloid newspapers think that that is what they are about. Others think that they are about trivia—such as the constituent who recently wrote to me about the intrusion into her privacy, after a window was put into a house adjacent to her property. She thought that that was a breach of her human rights, and I politely responded to her. We should remember, if we ever become cynical about the Council of Europe, that many of the countries that have acceded to the Council in recent years have real human rights issues to deal with. It is a matter of life and death. We need only mention Srebrenica to be reminded of all the things that happened in our continent a very few years ago. To some extent we can modestly claim that the Council has played a part in reversing that trend and, as the hon. Gentleman said, that culture.

I have nothing against the Council of Europe; I have never been involved in it, but I certainly believe that it is a very good institution. However, I am worried—I hope that the hon. Gentleman shares my concern—about something that was raised earlier: the fact of the presidency of the committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe going to a Serbian with connections to a more extreme element. In view of Serbia’s refusal to do more to bring to justice the two major war criminals who were undoubtedly responsible for the atrocities that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, is it any wonder that there is now much controversy arising from the situation I have just described?

It is a fine diplomatic judgment, but my view is that states that accede to the Council of Europe should meet its standards, and its parliamentary representatives should meet those standards as well. We need to consider the situation firmly, robustly and briskly. We do not have to accept it just because a particular nomination has been made. On the other hand, of course, we do not start with the presumption that people are delinquent, without having the opportunity to discuss the matter with them. However, the hon. Gentleman is of course right to raise that point. I shall come to some practical aspects of intolerance shortly.

The second main virtue of the Council is its huge geographic spread. I mentioned in an intervention on the hon. Gentleman the fact that observer status takes us almost around the globe, but even membership itself enables us to project what we might loosely, and perhaps rather arrogantly, call western values as far, at least, as the Caucasus and beyond. That is a huge strength. Wherever the final boundary of the European Union is set, it is likely to be much nearer to us than that, and membership of the Council enables us to widen our influence to the east.

The third point to be made about the Council, which has not yet been made explicitly, is that while it is understandable that as politicians we concern ourselves with peace and war, politics, diplomacy and immediate security threats—those are proper and right concerns, as is the threat to individuals’ or groups’ life and limb—there are, particularly in the committee work, a great many opportunities for wider discussion. It was put to me by one of the ambassador’s officials that in their experience the Council of Europe operates as a high-grade think-tank in which issues that cannot be discussed in the House, where we are usually too busy with party politics, can be developed and thought about, experiences can be shared and a view can be distilled.

To give one example of what I mean about committee work, I am on the equal opportunities committee. I realise that there are people in this country for whom those words come with the automatic assumption that everything is deeply dripping with political correctness, and that no good can come from it. I had a slight feeling of that kind, if I am honest, when I first considered a report, with an Azerbaijani female rapporteur, on the feminisation of poverty. However, on reading the report I came across extremely interesting perspectives, on, for example, women’s position in relation to pensions, which is a matter that concerns many people here. I was able to pass that report on to colleagues here to think about.

Some hon. Members present today may be aware of the work that is being done in this Parliament on anti-Semitism. Coincident with that there is also a Council of Europe initiative on anti-Semitism, and I have taken some steps to see that the two initiatives are joined up, and that our work will feed into the concerns of the Council; the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), who attended the debate briefly, is also concerned about that.

The final point that I should like to emphasise is the personal aspect of the matter. We come here to talk to one another and share experiences, and to communicate feelings across the party divide. We are all familiar with that process, which is a good one. We extend that, in the Council of Europe, to a much wider constituency. We meet people whom we might not otherwise meet, and establish contacts that we might not otherwise be able to keep open. I have mentioned the presence in my own party grouping of the Party of the Regions, from Ukraine, and United Russia, from Russia itself. Those are valuable links that we should use, and they are in a sense also available for wider diplomatic purposes, if that is appropriate.

Where should we take matters next? We need to emphasise that the Council of Europe is distinct; it has a distinct role and needs to stick to that, without wandering into other territory, and to defend its competence in the areas that we have mentioned of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and the functioning of the Court. We are aware of the unfinished business on the European Convention and the interest of the European Union in the fundamental rights agency. We need to be a little firmer than we have been so far on that matter. We need also to remember that there are other important aspects of the work of the Council that are not coincident with the work of the EU, and which provide it with a distinctive character. I should put it this way, on behalf of the Council: “We are not the European Union and we are not a waiting room for the European Union either. There may be states that want to join us because they now sign up to the values, and will subsequently wish to join the European Union, but we have a distinctive role.” Coincident with that, we need to sharpen our own relevance to the issues that are proper for the Council to deal with, and be ready to put more, not less, pressure on non-compliant member states to monitor what they are doing, and put some holly under them.

Neither should we forget what I might call the cultural hinterland. Defining the role of the Council as democracy, human rights and the rule of law is fine, but we also meet as Europeans, or as near Europeans, in some cases. We should be able to extend our role and, as we do with the European museum of culture, adopt slightly wider interests. However, those are not the general political concerns that are normal in exchanges between states, and which make some dealings with the European Union frankly rather predictable and cynical, in my experience. We do, actually, perhaps rather better than that.

I feel quite strongly that we need to bring the work of the Council of Europe here, as the hon. Gentleman has done in initiating the debate, and ensure that hon. Members are aware of relevant debates. I was very glad when my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) came to see for himself what was happening at the Council. We should encourage our parliamentary colleagues to do that. An aspect of our position—hon. Members have been frank in the debate about the fact that we are not faultless or above scrutiny—is that we should expect more inward interest in United Kingdom activity. The Council of Europe is already examining aspects of our postal voting system. If we want someone entirely objective about the current political argument on the difficulties of the Scottish election—someone who is outside that argument—it would be an admirable possibility to invite the Council in, and say, “You look at it, and see how it went. You understand elections, so look at the difficulties and compare and contrast.”

There is, of course, a constant dialogue about pressures in the European Court of Human Rights. In my role in Public Bill Committees I enjoy teasing Ministers. If, as happened the other day, a Minister tells me that something does not come under article 3, I say, “But we may get you under article 2, if you are prepared to be that cynical.”

My next point is our non-ratification of treaties, and I am delighted that the Minister for Europe will respond to this debate because we have had a genteel correspondence about it. We all know that there are different practices and different attitudes to the importance of ratification. Some people will sign anything with the intention of doing nothing, but on the whole Britain has been more open and honest in saying that we will sign when we are ready and have looked at the difficulties, and that we will ratify when we have our dots in a row and not with our fingers crossed. That will apply, quite properly, to the convention on trafficking, and I am delighted that Her Majesty’s Government have now signed that and that we have acceded to it. We now need to move, as the Prime Minister said, to early ratification, but we cannot do that overnight.

In the course of my inquiries, I discovered that we have signed, but not ratified, more than 19 other such conventions. Some may have become inappropriate, impossible or out of date, and we should not ratify them. I have suggested to the Minister that he might like to produce an annual report, but I see his reluctance. However, I would like him to take away the need to manage the process and see if we can get our strike rate up and the number of bits of unfinished business down. That would be an important courtesy to the Council and an example to others.

I conclude simply by saying that if colleagues are ever tempted to be cynical about the Council, I would invite them to come and look at our European democratic group. On the first occasion I was there, I saw an Armenian sitting between two Turks, and I suddenly realised the significance of that. That says a great deal about the Council, its virtues and why it has a distinctive role.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing this debate. I want to say at the start that I agree entirely with what he said, particularly his closing comments and thanks to the staff who work for the delegation here in the House. It is an amazing tribute to their patience and forbearance that they tolerate us as they do.

I also echo the support for and good wishes to the retiring ambassador and the staff in Strasbourg, as well as previous ambassadors and, as hon. Members have rightly said, the staff of the House who do so much to facilitate the Assembly’s work. The Clerk alongside you today, Mr. Weir, is a formidable person to come across in Strasbourg when one is trying to get something past the Table Office. It is always a welcome sign to see the staff here.

The importance of this debate is to plead the case for the non-separation of the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe. They are fundamentally linked, and I know from talking to colleagues from other delegations that they are under pressure to see that separation take place. Funding of the ECHR is essential. If no more cases were submitted to it, there would be a 10-year backlog, so it has a formidable task.

The role of the Council of Europe over the 50-odd years of its existence has not diminished. There are new countries and fledgling democracies that we hope to see manifest themselves as proper democracies, not simply managed democracies, but democracies that are prepared to challenge each other from within, to allow a change of Government without major disputes or conflict arising, and to deal with human rights, the rule of law, and the role of democratic processes at all levels. The Council’s task is still as relevant today as it was 50-odd years ago. It is essential that we look sympathetically, understandingly and realistically at the Council’s role.

The funding issue is a great burden, and we are lucky that our Secretary-General, Terry Davis—a former colleague—who has the unenviable task of trying to keep all the Council’s balls in the air and to keep everyone happy, has done a very good job, but he is up against the zero budgeting situation year on year. The pressure on the Assembly and the Council’s Executive to cut back, cut back and cut back is an ongoing struggle and will not serve any good purpose to anyone in Europe. We need from the Council of Ministers and the 47 states in the Council a more realistic approach to the way in which it is funded. How easy it would have been for the EU to have diverted much of the money that it put aside in creating, to all intents and purposes, a rival to the Council if it had voted those resources to supporting the ECHR more fully.

The issue of the Serbian Speaker is a concern, but if we believe in democratic processes we cannot suddenly say that we do not like the results of elections, whether inside a Parliament or outside. We can criticise it, but we cannot draw a line in the sand and say that a country can no longer attend or should not take up a post when it is their turn under the system. I am sure that many of us have serious concerns about a number of Governments that are ruling member states, but as democrats we must accept that the people in those states have, albeit sometimes in not-too-free elections, arrived at a decision that we do not like. If we are genuinely trying to instil democratic processes, we must work with them and not ostracise them or kick them out.

That is why I opposed the removal of our Russian colleagues when everyone was up for removing their credentials. The position of the 36 Russians who represent the Duma and the Commonwealth of Independent States in the Council of Europe would have been seriously eroded, and I doubt whether they would have attempted to come back if we had gone through with that. We have had to learn the hard way some of the lessons about building democracies, and that must continue.

We must find a way, as hon. Members have said, to bring the Council of Europe into our Parliament here. A negative issue is that, as all hon. Members who have spoken have said, so few people in the UK know what the Council does. We should be able to find a mechanism to have a regular debate in parliamentary time on the Floor of the House about the issues of the Council. Former Members of the House—John Wilkinson and David Atkinson—tried in different ways to bring debates to the House, but were not successful in bringing the whole House behind them so that there was a common purpose to ensure that we had regular debates on the institution, which so many of our colleagues in Europe treat as the biggest and most serious player, and which is changing the way they govern themselves. We should be conscious of that and make more of it.

On the point about justifying Serbia’s involvement, would it be appropriate for someone from Mugabe’s regime to chair the appropriate human rights committee of the United Nations because it was its turn?

We allowed the Libyans to do that. We must bear in mind the conditions of the club that people have joined. I am not trying to justify Serbia or the appointment of its Speaker, but if countries are in an organisation that allows democracy to flourish, albeit sometimes slower than we would want, we must live with that until we can influence them enough for them not to want such people.

Not so long ago, the emergence of a right-wing group in the Austrian Parliament was going to have a detrimental effect on the Council of Europe. There was great concern about whether Haider’s representative would be a serious player in the Council and a similar situation arose in Holland when the Fortuyn group took such a strong position. We were rightly concerned about it, but we did not say that it was wrong for the Dutch people to have voted in that way. They had a choice and they exercised it. We may criticise them, but we should not say that they can no longer come. We must be realistic about what we are trying to achieve as an organisation.

I remind hon. Members that recent debates have been on issues as far ranging as the trafficking of children and the rising scourge of counterfeit narcotics and drugs being sold throughout Europe on the internet. The ongoing problems of the health of Europe are addressed regularly in committees, and many of us who serve on them have joined in the debate, as the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said, learning and sharing experiences.

It is important that such issues are raised and aired in Strasbourg, or wherever the committee meets, and delegations’ home Parliaments. Too often, the issues are issues for Strasbourg but no further. I want us to bring back issues regularly to Parliament, engage in them here and involve more of our colleagues in them. Some of our debates have been about key issues of concern to every family. People’s preparedness to end their own lives is an issue that we have avoided in Parliament.

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that some thought could be given to a short report to parliamentarians? It could be published with the Official Report or e-mailed to people, so that if they have no prior knowledge, they would receive a briefing about what we were up to.

That is an excellent point, and perhaps we in the delegation could decide how we dealt with the idea. It would be worthwhile. I am conscious of the time, and all Members are dying to hear what the Minister has to say about the budget.

The Council of Europe is alive and well, contrary to what people say, and it is as effective and much needed today as it was 55 years ago. I am delighted both that Parliament is so consistent in ensuring that UK delegations to the Council are made up to the correct number, and that so many delegations are determined to make the Council work and to make worthwhile contributions. The Council would be the first to admit that over the past 20 or 30 years, if not over its lifetime, the UK delegation has played a significant role in determining the future of the Council, manifestly to the benefit of the people of Europe.

However much Members are dying to hear the Minister, they will have to wait a few minutes longer.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing the debate. It goes some small way to fulfil the call that several Members have made to provide more information and make more reports to Parliament about the excellent work that goes on in the Council of Europe, particularly in the Assembly on which colleagues sit.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the present Minister as being Council of Europe-friendly. Unfortunately, I fear that we may lose him before too long, which he may regard as justice denied or at least justice delayed. I can reassure the hon. Member for Manchester, Central that the Opposition and I are also Council of Europe-friendly, and I am very pleased to pay tribute to the organisation and its excellent work.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the Council’s relatively low profile in the United Kingdom, which is regrettable but interesting when contrasted with the way in which the Council is perceived in other member states. On my recent visit, I was struck by how very seriously the Russian representatives took the Council. That is an important situation, and we ought to work with it and take full advantage of it.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the Council’s role in promoting human rights, justice and democracy, and he welcomed the fact that those standards are applied throughout all 47 member states. We, too, should welcome that fact, even when it is slightly embarrassing for ourselves, given the current investigation into postal voting. It is a timely reminder that we are not in a position always to lecture others, and that we must pay heed to maintaining high standards in our own democracy and in our own observation of the rule of law.

I mentioned earlier the role of the European Court of Human Rights, which is one of the most important parts of the Council, and the courage that a number of justices show, sometimes in the face of pressure, when dealing with cases that are highly controversial in their own countries. If people knew more about such work, they would regard it highly and they would be keen to know that it is being maintained and carried forward.

I pay tribute to the British members of the Assembly of the Council of Europe. When I visited, I had many conversations with members from other countries, staff and people involved in all aspects of Council work. It was clear that the contribution, activities and the amount of work put in by United Kingdom members are very highly regarded. That point applies to all parties, and all Members should be grateful and show their appreciation to those colleagues who serve with such distinction. They are a credit to our country and the House.

We have heard from a number of colleagues who sit on the Assembly. Some cannot be present: my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) wished to be present, but he is elsewhere in the House attending to parliamentary business with a strong constituency focus on airports; and my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) travelled to Athens this morning where he is chairing a meeting on migration.

However, we have had excellent contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who nodded as I said “excellent contributions” and modestly stopped when I referred to him. He noted the importance of the work on migration and he described the way in which the Council works so effectively without the political integration that in some ways intrudes on the operation of the European Union.

My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) spoke about the strong commitment to free and fair elections, the Council’s election monitoring work and the importance of its equal opportunities work. The hon. Member for Manchester, Central will agree that equal opportunities is not a matter of political correctness. Representing Manchester constituencies, we know about the Pankhursts’ excellent record in the city, that one of them stood as a Conservative candidate there, and that equal opportunities has always been important to all parts of the House.

I do not want to keep the Minister from colleagues for very much longer, but I reiterate the call that my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry made for more information, and for an update from the Minister on when the Government anticipate ratifying the convention against trafficking in human beings. The Government’s signing of the convention was welcome, but we would like them to ratify it in the near future. I hope that the Minister will enlighten us—perhaps while he is still in his current position.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Central also drew attention to the role of British parliamentarians from both Houses and all parties, and their important role in Azerbaijan, Chechnya and elsewhere in the past. Several colleagues referred to concerns that arise from time to time about the future role of the Council of Europe, and in particular the potential conflict with the role of the European Union. It has become a problem recently because of the development of the fundamental rights agency, the danger of duplication of effort, and indeed, the diversion of resources, which could be better spent on the Council of Europe.

The Council’s great strength is its extra geographical spread over countries such as Russia, which does not wish to be a part of the European Union, and Turkey, Ukraine and the Balkans, which do. That spread is of enormous importance to the United Kingdom and all our European colleagues. It provides us with extra reach and with further persuasive abilities to try to achieve improvements throughout the continent and throughout the Council’s 47 member states.

In conclusion, this debate has given us all an opportunity to focus a little more on the important work of the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. We must also recognise the difference between the Council of Europe and the European Union, and the Council’s vital ongoing role in spreading democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

I welcome this opportunity to discuss the work of the Council of Europe and the important part played by the Parliamentary Assembly. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing what has been a good debate, as well as all hon. Members who have contributed to it.

I was particularly pleased to hear Conservative Members of Parliament congratulating a European institution on its contribution to multilateral co-operation. It just shows what happens when they get out more, meet people from other countries and see the benefits of international multilateral co-operation. The only thing that I would warn Conservative Members about is the damage to their political careers that that is likely to cause under the current Conservative leadership. Nevertheless, I look forward to their extolling the benefits of co-operating in other European institutions. After all, the slippery slope that they are on might lead them to see the benefits of European co-operation in general, rather than just in the particularly important context of the Council of Europe.

The Assembly of the Council of Europe can be proud of its history. It was the first such European assembly and has played a unique role in shaping the modern continent of Europe, embracing and assisting the new democracies of central and eastern Europe. Today, the Council’s 315 delegates represent 46 member states, covering 800 million European citizens. As has been observed, that will increase further with the accession of the Republic of Montenegro to the Council of Europe on 11 May.

As one of the Council of Europe’s two statutory bodies, the Parliamentary Assembly is a crucial watchdog for the fundamental rights, freedoms and values of such a vast constituency, providing scrutiny, advice and guidance to the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers and its member states. The Parliamentary Assembly has many notable achievements, not least its contribution to the European convention on human rights and securing the abolition of the death penalty. I commend the work of my hon. Friend and all members of the UK delegation. I congratulate them on the active contribution that they make to the debates and the work of the Council of Europe, particularly in its committees, including my hon. Friend’s role as co-rapporteur on Azerbaijan.

However, the Parliamentary Assembly does not act alone. It is integral to the wider framework of the Council of Europe, an organisation to which the Government are as firmly committed now as when Britain helped found the Council in 1949. For us, the Council represents a key multilateral forum for promoting and protecting democracy, human rights and the rule of law, where we can raise concerns and encourage action. Furthermore, the Council is a practical forum, which backs up discussions with advice and expertise, particularly to central and eastern Europe, in carrying out and consolidating political, legislative and constitutional reform.

The Council is a forum based on a framework of pan-European agreements and standards on issues as diverse as minority rights, local democracy, education, sustainable development and health, all of which contribute to the improvement of member states’ legal and social practices and the development of common values. The European Court of Human Rights is the cornerstone of human rights protection within Europe. The Court guarantees the fundamental rights and freedoms of both states and peoples, and as such is a key legal instrument in promoting and enforcing an effective international system.

All those strengths make the Council of Europe central to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s work on European security. Nevertheless, we cannot afford to be complacent. Europeans need an efficient and modern Council of Europe that can deliver its core mission in the long term. We need to see greater prioritisation and reform, and closer co-operation with other multilateral institutions. Under the leadership of Terry Davis, the British secretary-general of the Council of Europe, the 2005 Warsaw summit set us on the right path. The summit firmly placed human rights, democracy and the rule of law as the fulcrum of the Council of Europe’s work. The Council’s core mission must, in turn, determine the programme of work. We must all concentrate our efforts to prioritise the strengths of the Council of Europe, rather than dilute its efforts.

Moreover, it is imperative that the Council of Europe should provide value for money. The working methods and financial planning of the Council need to be modernised, to ensure rigour in prioritisation and performance. The secretary-general has made an excellent start, outlining plans to restructure the secretariat and revealing his proposals for zero real growth in the 2008 budget.

Before my right hon. Friend the Minister touched on finance, he spoke about the important subjects of democracy, the rule of law, and the rest of it. Are the Government going to make any comment at all about what has happened with the presidency going to a Serbian—and moreover, one associated with a party of the extreme right in that country—or about the refusal of Serbia as a whole to take the necessary steps to bring to justice two major war criminals who are undoubtedly responsible for terrible atrocities?

The EU presidency has today issued a statement, which I support, about the election of Mr. Nikolic, acting leader of the ultranationalist Serb Radical party as Speaker of the Serbian Parliament. The statement notes the appointment with concern and calls on all reform-oriented parties in Belgrade to form a democratic majority-based Government who reaffirm the pro-European orientation of Serbian policy. It is important that we encourage the democratic parties in Serbia to form a Government and take the opportunity to lead their country in a European direction.

On that theme, does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that the value of the Parliamentary Assembly is that when the Serbian Foreign Minister appears in office before the Assembly, it will be possible for democratically elected politicians from Britain, France or wherever else to ask that Foreign Minister when Serbia intends to deliver Mr. Mladic and Mr. Karadzic to the tribunal in the Hague? That is the importance of the institution.

In my experience, one of the great values of the Council of Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly is that it is possible to have those kinds of conversations. With regard to what is happening in Serbia, I visited the country not long ago. It is vital that all democrats give support to the democratic parties in Serbia, encourage the formation of a Government and—I repeat—encourage the opportunity that the people of Serbia now have to move in a European direction. That is something that we should all be encouraging.

My right hon. Friend the Minister has spoken about the unfortunate happenings in Serbia, and I am encouraged by what my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central just said about when the Serbian presidency of the Council of Europe comes round. However, I would hope that the Government will make it clear that they do not consider it appropriate for the presidency to go to someone who, as I have already mentioned, is associated with the Serbian right.

I have made my observation about the election in Serbia. I hope that that assists my hon. Friend and sets out clearly the Government’s position.

The Parliamentary Assembly has a clear responsibility in relation to budgetary matters. The secretary-general proposes to reduce the 2008 budget by 2 per cent., which must be viewed in the context of the whole of the 2008 budget. All Council of Europe directorates have accepted the need for the reduction. I hope that the Parliamentary Assembly will shoulder its responsibility, too. I hope that the UK delegation will show leadership inside the Assembly and support the secretary-general’s request.

The need for reform extends to the Court, too. We must make fundamental reforms if we are to guarantee its future. In many ways, the Court has been a victim of its own success. As new members have joined the Council of Europe, more citizens have applied to the Court, and a backlog of 90,000 applications has developed. That represents a serious threat to accessibility and effectiveness, and in practice acts as a barrier to justice.

The Court’s needs are not simply financial, however. As ever, the UK has been at the forefront of efforts to address the problem of caseload. Lord Woolf produced a report in December 2005 to identify some short-term measures. He is also a member of the wise persons group, set up to look at more fundamental reform. The starting point for reform is the ratification of protocol 14, a mechanism designed to introduce simplified and more efficient procedures. Russia is the only member state yet to ratify the protocol. The situation is now urgent, so I should like to take this opportunity to urge the Duma to find a way to ratify it.

I should also like to emphasise that a modern and efficient Council of Europe needs close co-operation with the European Union, the United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, in order to avoid duplication and ensure that each organisation plays to its comparative advantages and uses its expertise appropriately.

Just to remind the Minister, I hope that he will tell us when the Government will ratify the convention on action against trafficking in human beings.

I shall deal with that in the brief time available. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary signed the convention on action against trafficking in human beings on 23 March, which coincided with the launch of the UK action plan on human trafficking. Having signed the convention, we are now committed to implementing changes in legislation to allow for its eventual ratification. However, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that that is a parliamentary process. In order to ensure that our law conforms with the obligations that we have entered into internationally, there will necessarily be a parliamentary process, which will—

Legal Aid Reform

Unusually for a Member securing a debate such as this, I am not a lawyer—I never have been, nor have I ever trained as one. My point of departure for bringing this debate to the Chamber is the issue of access to justice for my constituents, who are among the poorest people in society and make up a highly ethnically diverse community.

It is common now in smart circles to speak disparagingly about lawyers—“fat cat lawyer” is the phrase; the words run one into another. It is even common to be disparaging about the importance of the meticulous application of the rule of law. So it is important to remind colleagues that legal aid is one of the pillars of the welfare state of which we are so proud. The Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949 made reference to:

“assistance…and legal advice…so that no one will be financially unable to prosecute a just and reasonable claim or to defend a legal right”.

Legal aid needs defending just as all on my side of the Chamber would, I hope, defend free access to the health service at the point of use. Legal aid is one of the essential pillars of the welfare state.

It is to the credit of the Government that legal aid spending should have risen in recent years. However, that rise in expenditure and costs has been the basis for the Government’s legal aid reforms. It is true that in England and Wales we spend more per capita on legal aid than almost anywhere else in the world. Legal aid expenditure has gone from £1.5 billion in 1997 to nearly £2 billion today—extraordinary figures. We might say, “Gosh, all these fat cat lawyers in their limousines are carrying away bagfuls of money.” The Government are doing something about that—and only too right.

However, although the costs have risen and the Government are absolutely right to try to obtain value for money for the taxpayer, I draw people’s attention to the fact that the rise in legal aid costs is a complex subject. A recent study commissioned by the Law Society pointed out:

“It is correct that total legal aid costs have increased significantly over the past decade. However, it is…important to recognise that the increases do not apply to all areas of legal aid…In the past three years, 2002-06, costs in most areas of criminal and civil work have increased only slowly if at all, and on a per case basis have often decreased.”

Yet the Government are bringing in changes in the fee arrangements and reforms that are designed to apply across the piece, in spite of research that reveals that the inflation in costs has occurred only in certain areas—notably criminal defence in the Crown court, with the famous £1 million-a-year barristers. I hope that there are none in the Chamber today. Cost inflation has also occurred in litigation advice and child care proceedings. I ask Ministers why, if the cost inflation applies to very specific areas of legal aid practice, they are applying a remedy across the piece. That will have a detrimental effect, to which I shall come later.

In leaving the issues of costs, of the complexity of cost inflation and of the over-simple remedy that the Government are applying, I could do no better than quote a distinguished QC who spoke in a debate on criminal legal aid in October 2005. She spoke about costs and countered the argument that they were all down to fat cat defence lawyers, from whom we had to take money away. She said:

“The costs of the criminal justice system generally, leaving aside legal aid, have increased by 46 per cent. in the same period that we are talking about legal aid having increased. It is hardly surprising that defence costs have increased as well.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 26 October 2005; Vol. 438, c. 74WH.]

That logical point was well put by a distinguished QC, who also happens to be the Minister replying to this debate.

Everybody accepts that it is important that the Government should get value for money. However, given that the cost inflation is specific to certain areas of legal aid, one of the questions asked by the Law Society and other representative organisations is about why we are engaging in such an across-the-board remedy. There are many critiques of the Government’s legal aid reforms and many are valid. However, in the short time available, I want to focus on the issue of the reforms’ effect on black and minority ethnic lawyers. I want to do that not because it is the only problem, but because it has become increasingly clear that the legal aid reforms will bear particularly heavily on such lawyers. One might ask, “Why should that be? The Government are not putting forward legislation designed to be deliberately discriminatory.” The problem is that black and minority ethnic lawyers are more likely to be in legal aid and to have smaller, newer companies.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does she accept that one reason why there are solicitors’ firms and barristers’ chambers that are predominantly made up of ethnic minorities is that such minorities have difficulties in securing employment and tenancy in the mainstream chambers or solicitors’ firms? The legal aid reforms could well have the impact of making us lose those ethnic minority solicitors and barristers from the profession altogether.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that important point. It is sad that such people have been forced into setting up their own firms and sets because of—I shall not mince my words—institutional racism among some of the mainstream of the legal profession. It would appear that there is now a serious risk that many BME lawyers will be forced out of business. Many may end up leaving the legal profession altogether.

Why do the reforms impact more severely on black and minority ethnic firms? It is not because the Government deliberately want that to happen; I would not begin to suggest that. However, many aspects of the reforms are a problem for such firms. The minimum contract threshold will affect smaller firms and automatically put many BME firms out of the legal aid business. There is the issue of competitive tendering; in any competitive tendering situation, the bigger the organisation, the better the economies of scale. That mitigates against BME firms.

The boundary areas, which mean that only 20 per cent. of legal aid cases can be taken outside a firm’s local area, will be difficult for BME firms. There is the fact that high-cost cases will be dealt with only by a panel of approved firms, which will tend to be the larger and more established ones. Unless the Government stop and think, black and minority ethnic solicitors will be more likely to lose their jobs, more likely to leave or change companies and more likely to leave the legal profession altogether. By the bye, there will also be a smaller pool of black and minority ethnic lawyers from which to choose judges.

I should like to add to the hon. Lady’s pertinent list. The Government have not proved that there will be any financial benefit from what will be the disastrous consequences of their policies for black and ethnic minority firms. I should like to put on the record that the Conservative party is concerned at the situation. We see that the Government’s policy will destroy established lines of access to legal representation for no measurable gain to our legal system.

The point is well put. Obviously, the cost inflation is of concern, but the cost drivers of legal aid are complex. The Government have not proven that the reforms will bear down on costs without undue detrimental effects. I would go further and say that black and minority ethnic firms bring added value to our legal system; they are more able to gain the trust of black and minority ethnic clients and can therefore deal with their cases more easily and quickly. They are more likely to have employees who speak a relevant language.

Such firms represent an important point of communication and representation between black communities, which are more likely to be socially excluded, and the legal world. They play a vital role in community cohesion. The issue is not only about fairness, but community cohesion, and that makes me think it regrettable that the Government are going forward with the proposals in their current form.

For many in our black and minority ethnic communities—I can talk about this with some feeling—their black or minority ethnic solicitor or black and minority ethnic-led firm is where they turn in time of trouble. Many solicitors firms might have taken Doreen Lawrence’s case and fought it in the way in which Imran Khan did, but it was to Imran Khan that Doreen Lawrence turned. It was Imran Khan who stuck with Doreen Lawrence when she met terrible hostility under the Tory Government and when she did not have money to pay him, because he believed in the case not only because he was a good solicitor but because he came from a minority ethnic community and knew what she was going through. It is the Imran Khans and the Doreen Lawrences—maybe not involved in cases of that momentous nature, but that type of person—who will be detrimentally affected.

I do not think that my hon. Friend should take solace from the Conservative party, which is trying to put out of business my local law centre, which employs a number of black and minority ethnic solicitors. She says, rightly, that there is not deliberate prejudice on the part of the Government, and we would expect that, but, as she says, many BME firms are small firms. The changes appear to bear down on small firms, including through the inspection regime, and such firms are generally seen as a bad thing. The effect of inspecting and finding fault, often with small firms who have difficult overheads, may inadvertently drive BME solicitors firms out of business.

That is the point that I was trying to make. We are not looking at deliberate discrimination, but we may be looking at indirect discrimination. No less an authority than the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs, in its recent report on the implementation of the Carter review of legal aid, said in paragraph 229, its final conclusion:

“We are concerned that some of the reform proposals may contravene the prohibition of indirect racial discrimination under the Race Relations Act 1976 as subsequently amended. Some of the reform proposals, notably the introduction of minimum contract sizes, leave us in doubt as to whether they are a necessary and proportionate means to achieve the intended objective, which is the legal test.”

We are faced with a set of untested changes, no doubt brought forward with the best of intentions. Everyone who has examined the changes, including practitioners in the field, has said that they will bear down more heavily on black and minority ethnic lawyers and will have the detrimental effect on access to justice and community cohesion that I have mentioned.

The Government do not need to change the direction of travel, but it is not too late for them to pause and market test the changes in one region of the country to see the effects. We might speculate this afternoon, but it would be better at the least to test out the package of reforms in one small area of the country and to come back with what we have found. As matters stand, we run the risk of decimating many good legal aid firms, small solicitors and black and minority ethnic law firms. The Minister and the Lord Chancellor have said over and over again that they are in favour of increased diversity in the legal profession, and we would be acting against that.

The Minister spoke in June 2006 to the Black Solicitors Network. Her speech to an audience of black lawyers was widely regarded as excellent. In her closing remarks, she said that

“many of you here this evening have already been working to make this profession”—

the legal profession—

“one that represents Britain in the twenty-first century. I hope that…you can regard me as an ally in that quest.”

They still regard her as an ally in that quest, but they will regard her as more of an ally if even at this late stage she pauses, reflects and listens to what all the representative organisations, including housing advice and homeless advice organisations, have to say and to all the evidence and information that has been proffered to Ministers about the unintentional detrimental effect of the legislation.

She will be more of an ally to the cause of increased diversity in the legal profession if she pauses and reflects on how the plans can be taken forward without the consequences for black and minority ethnic solicitors and access for justice that I have outlined in my remarks. We welcome the funding that the Government have given legal aid up until now and we do not query the good faith of Ministers.

I have known, grown up with and worked with people who have struggled to get their law qualifications, coming from backgrounds a million miles away from that of the traditional lawyer. They have struggled in a mainstream firm, perhaps, and to set up their own firm. At last, they are stabilising and can achieve their potential as a lawyer and serve the wider community. Now, that generation of solicitors and lawyers is threatened with decimation because of an ill thought out Government proposal. If they understood more about what that feels like and what it will mean to those communities and those people, Ministers would even now stop and think about the proposals.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on obtaining this debate.

We debated the main thrust of our proposals for legal aid in this Chamber a short time ago and I shall not retread old ground. However, today is the first day of the new Ministry of Justice and it is important to reiterate our commitment to a legal aid system that serves 21st-century Britain in all its diversity. It is central to a properly functioning justice system in this country.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington said, we have the best funded legal aid system in the world. Running closely behind us—we pay about £100 a head while they pay about £30—are the continental systems that have an inquisitorial process. All the other adversarial systems are further behind again. Without doubt, we have a well-funded system. My hon. Friend is right to say that there is an odd mixture of pride that the cost of legal aid has gone up and of difficulty, and that the drivers are complex. I do not change a word of what I said in the debate that she quoted from, and I am grateful for her use of the word “distinguished” to refer to me.

The drivers are complex, of course, but it is necessary to manage costs in the ever-spiralling legal aid fund, and in particular to manage them as they relate to crime. My hon. Friend talks as though it were totally a cost issue, but it is not. At least part of the reform involves changing the way in which lawyers are paid so that we can guarantee that we get appropriate value for money for a quality service, moving from hourly rates, which are likely to support inefficiency rather than efficiency, to fixed fees. That is part of the structural changes, and such measures are necessary in areas where there is not a huge overspend. That means that when we move money across we are sure that we are getting value for money in the places where we locate the new funds. The changes have a number of purposes.

We are looking for a system that is fair to clients, defendants, practitioners and the taxpayer. Since this is day one of the Ministry for Justice, I stress again the Government’s commitment, and my own, to diversity in the legal profession. In the judiciary, at the Bar, or in the front-line offices of solicitors’ firms across the country, a diverse legal profession is essential for a quality legal service for all the clients who will and must be served by our justice system.

I am well aware of the kinds of concerns that my hon. Friend has raised. One of my earliest meetings when I got this aspect of my ministerial portfolio was to meet the Black Solicitors Network and the Society of Asian Lawyers with my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz). I told them then that the reforms will not be discriminatory; I say that again today.

When I delivered the third annual lecture to the Black Solicitors Network, I said that I was impressed that its members had come to see me straight away and that they do not mince words any more than I do. I emphasised that I was their ally in making the legal profession one that represents Britain in the 21st century, and I reiterate that today.

My hon. and learned Friend has said that she is certain that the reforms will not be discriminatory. Is she equally certain that they will not be indirectly discriminatory?

I said that it is everybody’s intention that they should not be, so let me consider that issue and see whether there is any danger. We listened at every opportunity to BME practitioners during the various consultations and we will carry on listening for as long as they want to talk to us. The Legal Services Commission has been careful to ensure that each step of the reform process has been accompanied by a regulatory impact assessment, which has included as much detail as possible to ensure that the impact on BME providers and clients was known. The LSC has a provider diversity reference group, which includes the BSN, the Society of Asian Lawyers and the Commission for Racial Equality. It has held BME-specific practitioner consultation events in London, Leicester and Birmingham, and I intend to ask the LSC to commit to a full retrospective regulatory impact assessment on the full reform programme in phase 1 so that we can see cumulatively the impact that it will have alongside the consultation on best value tendering.

Significantly for clients of BME solicitors, those solicitors are available. In total 16 per cent. of solicitors are BME, far more than the proportion of BME people in the general population. We are proud of that. There is no reason why the reforms should make any difference to the number of solicitors, nor has anybody pointed out any such reason. Some, but only some, BME-controlled firms are newer and smaller. Some are older, better-established and larger. Many BME solicitors also work in well established, major supplier firms, sometimes white-owned and controlled, sometimes mixed-owned and controlled. Those businesses offer strong opportunities for BME solicitors, as they do for others, and will continue to do so.

At the meeting that I referred to with the Black Solicitors Network, the Society of Asian Lawyers and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East, was a BME solicitor who asked whether, having merged into a firm that had—forgive me for forgetting—either six or eight partners, he needed to consider merging further to fulfil the needs of what was then the interim Carter report. The answer to that was probably no, but let us be clear that not all BME firms are small and not all BME solicitors are in BME-owned and controlled firms. There is not a uniform picture but a significant spread.

However, I do not hide from the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington has put her finger on the point that some aspects of our reforms may have an adverse impact on some BME firms as they are currently configured. I recognise that some BME solicitors want to work for themselves and that some BME clients come to such solicitors because of the cultural resemblance. That is inevitably the case. The core point is that proportionately more firms in some parts of the country are run by BME solicitors than by white solicitors.

Undoubtedly many young black firms run by black entrepreneurs of the kind whom we want to encourage are small, because they are new and have not had the time to grow and develop. They are concerned that the drive is in the direction of bigger firms and that they have not served the time to gain enough slots on duty rotas on a historic basis, so they will have a poorer chance of thriving under a fixed-fee scheme, which my hon. Friend hinted is likely to move towards bigger firms.

Neither the LSC nor I can give an open-ended guarantee that the security of every firm will remain exactly as it is when the change comes. For instance each firm will have to work out, like the BME practitioner to whom I referred, whether it wants to merge with similar practitioners or act with them in unofficial conglomerates that need not be as definite as a merger. However, we are considering ways to accommodate our BME justice partners who work in their own firms and want to stay there. We are looking for ways forward.

One issue to consider is how best to ensure that new firms under BME majority-owned control can access the market under best value tendering. One possibility—it is only one—is lower-value, smaller contracts for newer firms to enable them to establish themselves in the market. There could be not just great groups of contracts for big firms but perhaps another tier for smaller firms. Similarly, the LSC will consider closely how competition should be rolled out across the country, perhaps in a phased way, to ensure that firms are not locked out of their local markets for prolonged periods. As is true throughout the reform process and particularly in this sector, practitioner input will be important and welcome.

The LSC has made compulsory the provision of data by legal aid firms on the ethnicity of their staff, which will ensure that we get a better picture as we go along. The data are far better for London than outside. We are continuing efforts to ensure that all firms have robust diversity policies, because the underlying sub-text is that some black and minority ethnic solicitors feel that they cannot get through what they perceive as a glass ceiling in certain firms. That is a criticism not of the changes but of the legal world as it is. We must tackle that, and we are doing so.

Because we have the Constitutional Affairs Committee report to respond to, we are in mid-consultation on a number of the relevant matters and our conclusions must wait until we have had an opportunity to assess all the feedback. I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend that the issues raised have been known about from the start and continue to be well understood by the Government as we proceed with the reforms.

Our proposals for legal aid are part of a wider reform agenda across the entire justice system, which now, in our new Ministry, we are better equipped than ever to take forward holistically and thoroughly. We are equipped to bring improvements to the justice system, not only for the people whom it serves but for those who work in it. I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured and can join me in inviting black and minority ethnic firms and solicitors to take an active, not an oppositional role in helping us to pursue the ideas that I have indicated are in the ether. Those ideas can ensure that, as I undertook to the Black Solicitors Network at its third annual general meeting, the proposals will not proceed any further as discriminatory proposals, whether directly or indirectly. That is certainly not our intention. I hope that she is reassured and will join me in the belief that if we turn the proposals appropriately and drive them forward in their current framework while examining the issues closely as we progress, we can have a system in which practitioners from all backgrounds can prosper and make a positive difference to the communities that they serve.

Sitting suspended.

International Whaling

I am pleased that I was able to secure this debate. It is particularly timely, as the International Whaling Commission is meeting in Anchorage right now. The scientific committee meeting has already started, and meetings will continue until the end of the month, with decision making happening between the 28th and the 31st.

The issue of international whaling is of great concern to many people in this country. I am sure that I am not alone in having had dozens of constituents write to me on the issue, and that other Members will have had similar postbags. I would like to thank the Minister for his helpful responses to constituents who raised the issue with me.

During the debate, I would like to outline the history of the issue, give some background and explain the problem. I shall discuss the changes made last year by the IWC and explain why the issue is rapidly moving up the agenda of animal welfare organisations, then perhaps touch on the UK’s response so far and turn to the challenge of the meeting at the end of this month. Finally, I shall pose some questions for the Minister about the UK’s activities to secure the outcome that we all want at that meeting.

Whaling has occurred on a small scale throughout history. I believe that there is broad agreement among most nations of the world and even among animal welfare organisations that small-scale whaling by indigenous peoples can be supported and sustained, and that it involves sufficiently small numbers that it will not greatly affect world whale populations.

However, the advent of large-scale commercial whaling in the 20th century has resulted in literally hundreds of thousands of these beautiful, majestic creatures being killed. Some estimates of the number of whales killed in the past century are as high as 2 million. In fact, some species were hunted almost to extinction; for example, the blue whale is only now recovering and still has a very small population. It is estimated that there are as few as 1,700 in the southern hemisphere.

But there was a chink of light 25 years ago with the International Whaling Commission, and a reprieve for the whales when it agreed on a moratorium on commercial whaling. To some extent, whale populations have been allowed some respite and the ability to recover. I believe that many scientists agree that the moratorium helped to halt the rapid decline in whale stocks, although the IWC Scientific Committee is not without its internal politics: there is not always agreement on specific whale numbers and the size of whale stocks.

Why is it important to maintain the moratorium? There is a very strong argument in terms of the animal cruelty involved. There is no humane way to kill a whale. Whales are killed by methods that would not be allowed for any land-based mammal. Whaling fleets go out armed with all their technological equipment to find the whales, and harpoons are shot from cannons. A six-foot iron spear goes into the whale. Often, it will have a grenade with a timer on the end of it. The grenade explodes shortly after impact, blowing the animal’s insides apart, but, unfortunately, death is not immediate. Seldom is it possible to fire the spear into the animal’s brain, so the whale may then thrash around in agonising pain for up to 10 minutes until it finally dies. The horrors of that have been well documented by a variety of non-governmental organisations and charities.

Apart from the animal cruelty aspect, I would argue that there is just no economic sense to commercial whaling. Whales may be hunted for human consumption, but there are well-documented health hazards because of heavy metal content. Indeed, even the Japanese, who have undertaken so-called scientific whaling and who have used the meat for food, have huge stockpiles of meat that they cannot get rid of. Few people want to eat whale meat, and the Japanese are trying to sell it off for school dinners or, in some cases, even pet food.

So there is no economic case for commercial whaling. However, there is a great economic case for whale watching, which is a non-intrusive activity that allows people to see the beauty of the creatures in their natural environment. It has been estimated that last year nearly 8 million people took part in that activity, providing $800 million of revenue to those countries where they are able to do so.

Those are reasons for keeping the moratorium, but the problem is that Japan in particular has been actively lobbying to resume commercial whaling. Given that there is no economic case for it, the reasons why the Japanese are so determined to maintain it completely escape me. Perhaps whaling is some kind of cultural totem or tradition.

Japan has had some success in signing up members of the IWC, particularly small countries that have been tempted by promises of aid packages. There are well-documented cases of the amounts of money that have gone to different countries: more than £2.5 million to St. Kitts and Nevis, more than £8.5 million to Nicaragua and more than £4 million to Palau. It is estimated that over the past 12 years Japan has given $750 million of so-called fisheries aid to smaller countries which have then ended up voting on a pro-whaling basis on the IWC. Japan has now started having pre-meetings in Tokyo, to prepare for IWC meetings. It did so in 2006 and again this year, and paid for small countries to attend.

Last year, 66 countries were present at the IWC meeting. For the first time, as we all know, there was a pro-whaling majority on one motion in the St. Kitts and Nevis declaration, which included a statement that the

“International Whaling Commission is therefore about managing whaling to ensure whale stocks are not over-harvested rather than protecting all whales”.

That is a clear message that Japan is not keen on the role of protecting whales.

The declaration also includes the words:

“Further noting that the moratorium which was clearly intended as a temporary measure is no longer necessary”.

It does not have legal, binding status, but Japan hopes that it will give credibility to its case for resuming commercial whaling. The motion was passed on a knife edge of 33 to 32 votes.

Other votes last year did not command a simple majority but still give cause for concern. There was a vote to prevent discussion on steps to protect small cetaceans, or dolphins, which was narrowly defeated 32 to 30. There was a resolution to permit minke whale catch in the Okhotsk sea, which was defeated by 31 to 30. Perhaps most worrying was a proposal by Japan that votes of the IWC should be held in secret. It was defeated by just 31 to 30. Given the allegations of bribery—the votes of specific countries being bought by Japan—that is obviously of special concern.

What has been the UK’s response to the issue? First, I very much welcome the work of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the issue. I believe that the work of DEFRA Ministers and officials is very much praised by interested groups in the UK. The document “Protecting Whales—A Global Responsibility”, with a foreword by the Prime Minister and David Attenborough, has been sent to the countries on the IWC. It was certainly a very good initiative. Strong diplomatic means of showing our views on the issue, such as the summoning of the Icelandic ambassador last October, have helped to make the UK stance quite clear and to show a lead in Europe and globally.

However, I would like to press the Minister on some points and seek an assurance from him that all of the Government as well as his Department are doing everything that they can to secure a victory at the IWC at the end of this month for the anti-whaling countries.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the distinction between DEFRA and higher levels of Government. Does she share my concern about the slightly ambiguous answer I received from the Minister on 26 April, which mentioned that the highest diplomatic levels were being used and that Foreign and Commonwealth Office posts in the relevant capitals were being briefed? Would she welcome confirmation of whether his Department has asked the Prime Minister to make his views known to countries, such as Denmark and the smaller Commonwealth nations, and would she also welcome confirmation that the Prime Minister has done so?

My hon. Friend makes an important point and I would welcome some clarification from the Minister on that issue. Obviously, it is welcome that the Prime Minister has written the forward to the document, “Protecting Whales—A Global Responsibility”, but that is not enough on its own. The Prime Minister should be encouraged to write to all the nations concerned.

I urge the Minister to emphasise to the Prime Minister the importance of using occasions when he meets other world leaders to press the matter. We know that the Prime Minister met the Japanese Prime Minister on 9 January this year and a written parliamentary question on 30 January 2007, Official Report, column 151W, asked whether they discussed whaling. In the answer we are directed to the website, which states what was discussed at the meeting. However, there is no mention of whaling on the website. When the Prime Minister had the opportunity to press the Prime Minister of Japan on the issue it seems that he did not rise to the challenge and ask him about whaling.

Although the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs may press the issue, in terms of diplomacy within the wider world, surely the Foreign Secretary has a role to play. Yet in a written question on 27 February 2007, Official Report, column 1205W, the Foreign Secretary was asked what discussions she has had with Ministers and officials in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about whaling in the past 12 months. In answer she said:

“I have no current plans in this regard.”—[Official Report, 27 February 2007; Vol. 457, c. 1205W.]

It seems that she is passing the issue onto DEFRA. The Foreign Secretary should have plans in that regard. She should be involved in efforts to deal with the issue and it should be taken forward at Cabinet level.

Can we really take the Government’s anti-whaling credentials seriously if, despite the good work of DEFRA, the issue is not receiving the priority attention that it should at the highest level? I urge the Government to recognise that Japan never misses an opportunity to involve its highest profile Ministers from the Cabinet and the Prime Minister of Japan in the issue. That can be countered only by a similar level of effort from the UK Government.

On a similar point, I note that it will be the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs attending the IWC on behalf of the UK at the end of month. I know that the Minister has previously attended and has great experience in this area so I am curious to know why he is not attending this year. That may be a matter of concern in terms of sending a message that the highest levels of Government are involved in the issue.

We have the meeting at the end of the month and there are more than 70 members of the IWC. We hope that there will be a slim majority of anti-whaling countries, but the process moves quickly and countries have up to the last minute to join, so the situation could change. What steps are the Government taking to convince more of the current members to switch if they are anti-whaling or if they are wavering? What are the Government doing to encourage more countries to sign up? There has been some great success with Croatia, Slovenia and Cyprus, but is there likely to be any progress in getting Greece to sign up before the end of the month? From the documents I have read, I understand that secrets ballots are unlikely to be an issue at the meeting. However, I would welcome the Minister’s understanding of the situation and if we could at least have some reassurance about whether that will come to the table at the forthcoming meeting.

In some circles, there is a fear that the US, which, of course, is usually anti-whaling might be tempted to do a deal with Japan to ensure that there are enough votes to secure aboriginal hunting of bowhead whales off Alaska. That is of concern because the US is an influential country that could carry others with it. Has the Minister anticipated that happening? What is being done to use our influence, particularly with the smaller countries that we have strong historic ties with—for example through the Commonwealth, as my hon. Friend mentioned? What UK diplomatic efforts are being made to exert influence on those countries?

Denmark is particularly a matter of concern because, as the Minister will know, last year it voted in favour of whaling. That was against EU policy, although it is a member of the EU, and was against the wishes of its own people who are overwhelmingly anti-whaling. Will the UK use its influence to strongly point out to Denmark that its responsibility should lie with its people and the EU, and that it should not repeat its pro-whaling vote of last year?

One further concern is that of sustainable whaling, which may be mooted by Japan to muddy the waters by introducing a new category of coastal whaling. That would be the thin end of the wedge and should be strongly resisted by the Government.

In conclusion, there is much agreement about the issue and DEFRA has done some excellent work to preserve these majestic animals. I commend the good work that has been done, but am concerned about support for the issue at the highest levels of Government. I urge the Minister to do all that he can to gain high level support for the issue and to exert his influence over the next few weeks.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) on securing this debate. I know from my postbag that the issue concerns many hon. Members and their constituents. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her help in highlighting the plight of whales—animals that hon. Members from all parties would agree are in need of protection.

Not only whales, but the world’s oceans and the life that they support are under serious threat from pollution, over-exploitation, the damage and destruction of habitats, and climate change. Despite those pressures, three nations in the world continue to hunt whales on a large scale, which is why the UK places great importance on the protection of whales and all cetaceans. That is supported through my Department and our membership of international conventions, such as the IWC, as well as the convention on international trade and the convention on migratory species.

I agree with everything that the hon. Lady said about the substance of the issue and why the anti-whaling cause commands so much support from hon. Members. However, her attempt to drive wedges between parts of the Government was somewhat churlish. It is widely recognised, not just in the House, but internationally, by other Governments and among the main non-governmental organisations that are involved in the issue—such as WWF—that no country has done more than the UK in recent years to hold back the tide of pro-whaling nations, led by Japan.

I assure the hon. Lady that Government at all levels have engaged in the issue. The Foreign Secretary wrote joint letters with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to a number of important countries following the publication of “Protecting Whales—A Global Responsibility”. I was grateful that she praised that document, which we decided to publish after the worrying development last year of Japan managing to win one vote with a majority of one. I am satisfied that the joint letter has been important in helping with the recruitment of a number of new members.

I also assure the hon. Lady that the Prime Minister was ready and primed in the wings to engage if he and we felt that was necessary. I hope that she would also agree that one keeps one’s most powerful and secret weapon in reserve until it is absolutely necessary and that it should not be deployed unless that is the case. As things stand, we are quietly confident that we have been successful enough to regain a simple majority in Anchorage, but we will wait and see. We certainly have not ruled out the possibility of engagement at a higher level should that be necessary.

Last week, I spoke to my US counterpart who was visiting this country in relation to these issues and she gave me a strong reassurance that the US would be solid on the matter to which the hon. Lady referred and that no deals would be struck. After last year’s vote, I made the UK’s displeasure quite clear to the Danish Environment Minister, both on the telephone and in person. The hon. Lady is right to point out the oddness of the Danish position.

It is not just up to Governments and NGOs, however. I am always urging Members—as I think that I did in the letters that I sent to the hon. Lady—in any activity in which they take part, whether parliamentary visits abroad as part of Select Committees or parliamentary groups, to take with them a list of countries on the wrong side of the whaling issue. They should never lose an opportunity to make it clear that we think that this is an abhorrent activity that belongs to a bygone age and that it is not acceptable anymore. Often, such low-level, bottom-up parliamentary and political activity can have a significant effect.

Events in Iceland in recent months have been very interesting. Much to everybody’s horror, last year Iceland resumed commercial whaling, against the spirit and, we believe, the letter of the convention. Iceland faced quite a strong backlash from the international community. The UK led a diplomatic démarche against the Icelandic Government. A number of senior Icelandic business people and politicians spoke out against their country’s decision because they were worried about the impact that it was having on Iceland’s international image and on tourism and whale watching.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire is absolutely right to point out that even for whaling countries, whale watching is a far more significant economic earner than whale killing. She was right to say that countries that continue to kill whales do not find markets for their products and spend a great deal of taxpayers’ money desperately trying to do so. Excuse the pun, but I suspect that they are flogging a dead horse. The public in all of those countries, particularly the younger generation, are turning against whale consumption in a very big way.

We are in a difficult period in the history of the IWC. We had that setback last year, although it does not pose a threat to the moratorium because a three-quarters majority in the IWC would be needed to over turn the moratorium. However, as the hon. Lady said, it would allow Iceland and the pro-whaling countries to take control of the agenda and to influence important issues, such as the protection of small cetaceans, whale sanctuaries in the southern oceans and procedure in the IWC, which could include secret sessions and ballots, which we think would be disastrous and completely indefensible. How can any democratic country recommend that such issues be discussed behind closed doors and that their own public should not have any idea about their Government’s position and how they voted? It is completely unacceptable.

As I said earlier, and as the hon. Lady kindly acknowledged, we have had some success—more in the last year than in the last few during which I have been responsible for this policy area—in recruiting extra members. I would like to pay tribute to the EU Fisheries Commissioner. Last autumn, I raised this matter at an Environment Council. Joe Borge was very keen and picked up on it. In fact, he issued a statement in that Council condemning Iceland’s decision and urging all EU members to join the IWC. A significant number of those recruits are EU members. A couple of countries that did not pay their subscriptions last year have now been persuaded to do so. That is extremely welcome. We are still not quite sure about Greece. We were led to believe that it would be there, but there is still some uncertainty about it. We are trying to clarify such things all the time.

I pay tribute—perhaps unexpectedly—to the former Conservative party treasurer, Lord Ashcroft, who is a passionate defender of whales. He helped to fund a very powerful, short advert that would be shown more widely in a number of Caribbean countries were it not for disgraceful censorship by some of them. If reports that I have read are true, even television channels such as MTV have been intimidated into not showing it in some of those countries. That is a disgraceful example of self-censorship. We will write to MTV, asking for an explanation for why it has not shown the advert. Nevertheless, Lord Ashcroft has been very effective, particularly in central American countries, helping them to come on board on the right side of the issue.

We are perhaps more confident than we have been for a while that the tide is turning in the right direction again, but we will be very vigilant. One never really knows what will happen at the IWC. Its procedures are perhaps more ruritanian than those of any other institution or event in which I have ever been involved. I am very sorry not to be going this year. There is a simple reason: as I explained to the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), I have had a long-standing family commitment since before the date of the IWC was set. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who is responsible for biodiversity—and after all, whales are animals—will do a tremendous job with our very strong team. We send one of the biggest teams of any country in the world and we are one of three countries that religiously are represented at ministerial level, along with Australia and New Zealand.

I am very glad to say that—I would like to think, partly at my instigation—the Germans will also this year be sending representation at ministerial level, which they have not done for a number of years. Given that they have the EU presidency, that sends a very good signal. I am quite confident that the pro-whale nations will be strongly represented; we will do our best, as we always do, to make a strong case and to beat off the advance of the whale-killing nations.

I would like to say a little about what has been happening in the past year in relation to whale killing. It is particularly worrying that the Icelanders began to kill the endangered fin whales as well as minke whales. As I said, we led a démarche against the Icelandic Government. We heard some very interesting comments a week or so ago from the Icelandic Prime Minister—Iceland is in the middle of an election campaign, which may be relevant—who said that Iceland’s decision was not final and that they might revisit it. I hope very much that it does when its elections are out of the way, and I urge all hon. Members to use any influence that they have, either in London with the Icelandic embassy or through contacts that they may have, to keep up that pressure. It would send a clear signal. I do not think that public opinion in Iceland is in favour of the killing. It is being conducted by a single operator.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire speculated, which is something I often do, about why the whale-killing countries continue to do that when there is no economic benefit. She put her finger on one important reason: there is a feeling that it is part of their tradition; it is almost a cultural obstinacy. Dealing with that is quite difficult, because the harder the international community pushes, in many ways the more some people tend to dig in. The feeling is, “We don’t want the rest of the world telling us how to conduct our affairs.”

Another interesting fact is that the phenomenon is relatively recent in Japan. Large-scale commercial whaling in Japan really kicked off only after the second world war, because it was a source of readily available and cheap protein. Many countries, including the United Kingdom, which used to whale until relatively recently, have long since abandoned it. I hope that those other countries do so as well.

As Sir David Attenborough said in the foreword to our excellent brochure, which has been widely welcomed and acclaimed through the House:

“It’s not just the future of the whale that today lies in our hands: it’s the survival of the natural world in all parts of the living planet. We can now destroy or we can cherish. The choice is ours.”

The UK has made its choice already: we have chosen to cherish. It is now time for all countries to make theirs. Future generations will judge us harshly if we fail the whale.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Five o’clock.